DENVER -- The lack of respect remains jarring. Nationally, the Broncos are not viewed as a team capable of pulling a U-turn. They linger behind the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets, in the AFC alone, as teams poised to rebound. Four consecutive absences from the playoffs and three straight losing seasons create healthy skepticism.
However, the Broncos deserve to be in the postseason conversation after going 7-5 over their last 12 games and winning four of their last five. They made noise without a functional offense. The entire offseason became a series of upgrades through free agency and the draft. Of course, it’s fair to doubt the Broncos given their recent history. Yes, the schedule remains daunting. And there will be times they are scaling a mountain in Crocs.
But this is a playoff roster. Why?
My Denver7 list of players who will be better in 2020, shoving the Broncos into the postseason for the first time since Peyton Manning retired:
1) Right tackle Ja’Wuan James
The Broncos made James the second highest-paid right tackle in NFL history, and he became a ghost in uniform. James logged 63 snaps because of a sprained MCL in his left knee that he injured twice, leaving him unable to clear mental hurdles as the season progressed. James avoided offseason surgery, and has a history of bouncing back after injuries. When James played, the line improved. He needs to regain the trust of coach Vic Fangio and his teammates. This is not easy, but can be accomplished with good health and a fresh start. When the Broncos declined to take either Ezra Cleveland or Josh Jones in the second round, it spoke volumes about their confidence in James. The risk is real, especially given the inconsistencies of starting left tackle Garett Bolles and his competition Elijah Wilkinson, who recently had foot surgery and hopes to be ready for training camp in late July. With fingers crossed, I believe James will return motivated and ready to earn his contract.
2) CB Bryce Callahan
Callahan will be more of a factor because frankly it will be impossible for him to contribute less than he did last season. He never played. As in ever. Injuries stink, and Broncos coach Vic Fangio gambled that the cornerbacks's surgically-repaired foot would heal. The screw didn’t take, leaving him absent the entire season. A second surgery and a new screw have brought encouraging progress in rehab. The Broncos need him to start 12-to-13 games, excelling in the slot or outside. It buys time for rookie Michael Ojemudia to develop behind the likes of Devontae Harris, De’Vante Bausby and Duke Dawson. Every team needs three good corners. Callahan is a proven slot defender when healthy. He reworked his contract to help secure a roster spot. But this represents his last chance to make good on his Broncos experience. I think he will.
3) OLB Bradley Chubb
In training camp last summer, Chubb showed signs of becoming a Khalil Mack-type player in Fangio’s scheme. The sacks remained absent early, but Chubb was the Broncos’ best defensive player in terms of pressure, while improving against the run. He posted five quarterback hits and five tackles for a loss. The sacks were on the way given his disruptive play before he tore the ACL in his left knee in the fourth game. Chubb, humble and a hard worker, will return and post double-digit sacks, which will help produce much-needed takeaways because of rushed throws.
4) SS Kareem Jackson
In the Broncos’ two biggest wins last season, Jackson represented the team’s best players, writing a diary of havoc at the Chargers and Texans. He grew into the safety role after signing as a hybrid corner/safety type. Jackson brings edge, attitude and production. He let teammates down when he missed the final two games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, his ban stemming from DUI arrest in September. He learned from it. Jackson should become a no-doubt Pro Bowl selection, while tying his career-high with four interceptions.
5) RG Graham Glasgow
Ron Leary was supposed to anchor the offensive line before his body betrayed him. Glasgow, his replacement, brings a reputation for consistency and reliability. Pairing him with Dalton Risner provides power and brute in the middle of the line, while also protecting rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry. Quarterback Drew Lock embraces high expectations, but it won’t matter if the Broncos can’t protect him. Glasgow will help ease some concerns.
6) WR Jerry Jeudy
He technically doesn't fit in this category. Hard to be better when he hasn't played an NFL down. It's my list, and he's on it given the impact I expect him to have as a rookie. It’s no secret that I believe Jeudy was the best receiver in the draft. He is a tireless worker and his routes have more polish than Pledge. He should be good for six touchdowns, while also becoming a respected threat who frees up Courtland Sutton to enter the All-Pro conversation.
7) DT Jurrell Casey
The Broncos lost cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive end Derek Wolfe, which stings. However, the addition of Casey and the return of Shelby Harris should make the Broncos defensive line a force. Casey is a five-time Pro Bowler, a rare player who can dominate a game as a run stuffer and inside pass rusher. He never expected to be traded. I see Casey taking that slight as motivation, not unlike DeMarcus Ware did years ago. Casey will be a leader on the field and in the locker room, making the Broncos better and lifting them from 7-9 to 9-7 this season.