ENGLEWOOD — The conversation starts with the playoffs. It is where Broncos' seasons are supposed to end, like parking in their favorite cul de sac where they recognize the neighbors. No longer. The Broncos sit at a stop sign down the block, their thirsty stares a reminder of missed goals.
Truthfully, the postseason represented a longshot for this team this season. I predicted an 8-8 record, and their point-differential suggests they are close to a .500 team, their seven losses a reflection of four agonizing walk-off losses. At 3-7 with road games remaining at Buffalo, Houston and Kansas City -- all teams in the playoff picture -- the Broncos will be hard pressed to eclipse last year's six victories. It doesn't mean they are not improved -- they are. Vic Fangio has forged a defense that ranks in the top 10 in nearly every meaningful category, and the team has improved its discipline and fundamentals.
There is no question Broncos general manager John Elway believes he has found the right fit in Fangio. I agree. Fangio is a defensive whiz, and will only get better as a head coach.
Yet, issues remain. The offense is not good enough. By any standard. And the special teams rank among the league's worst – save for kicker Brandon McManus and punt returner Diontae Spencer – and are particularly bad on coverage units.
So here it goes, my Denver7 Things to address over the final six weeks:
Clarity at QB
Brandon Allen has impressed teammates with his preparedness, composure and athleticism. Playing quarterback for the Broncos is not too big for him after his car was set on fire and egged at the University of Arkansas after bad games. Allen is 1-1 in two starts, throwing three touchdowns with one interception.
However, he has completed 49.2 percent of his passes. Marcus Mariota represents the worst quarterback with enough qualifying attempts, completing 59.1 percent. He was benched a month ago. Allen looks like a capable backup. Drew Lock was drafted to be the future. He might not be the backup this week. If the Broncos lose, they are unofficially eliminated from the playoffs. As such, the Broncos require a clear plan to get Lock starts in December, even if it's the final two games at home against the Lions and Raiders. Coach Vic Fangio disagrees with me. His simple answer if Lock will start: maybe.
"So I think a young guy in limited reps it can be good; you can get a false positive, you can get a false negative," Fangio said. "You need a whole body of work – and that includes offseason, training camp build up. I am not putting any limits on Lock if he does get in there. But I would reluctant to make final conclusions."
In talking to players, they admit Lock remains rusty after missing two months of practice because of a thumb injury. He requires reps. Listen, Fangio has been in pro football for nearly four decades, it's his team. But I believe it would be a mistake not to see Lock log significant snaps in the final few weeks. If Fangio believes it would not provide a complete picture, that's fine. It would, however, provide more data, which is not a bad thing if the team is out of the postseason.
Regardless if Lock plays or not, the Broncos will likely need to decide if they should draft another first round quarterback with a potential top 10 pick. Or will they follow the path of the last two offseasons, and pursue free agent veteran Teddy Bridgewater with Chicago and Carolina also expected to court him as well.
Sign Justin Simmons
The Broncos and Justin Simmons' reps talked months ago, broaching the idea of a contract extension. It was tabled. Frankly, Simmons had no reason to rush as he continued to play well and pushed toward his first Pro Bowl berth. But I'd like to see the sides circle back around Week 15 or so, and see if Simmons is intrigued by a market value offer. He does everything right on the field, in the locker room and in the community. He's the type of player you want to build around, and his cerebral nature fits this defense perfectly.
Tackle the tackle issue
The Broncos need to decide if Garett Bolles is the future at left tackle. Evidence favors the Broncos moving on after his third season because of the lack of improvement and penalties. If the Broncos determine Lock is the solution or even Bridgewater, they could push their chips to the table to draft Georgia tackle Andrew Thomas in the first round or a tackle in the first three rounds. Again, finding a permanent solution on the left side is important. I also wonder if trying Dalton Risner at left tackle would be considered depending on how the draft falls. On the right side, Ja'Wuan James has experienced a lost season, logging 32 snaps because of a torn-then-re-injured MCL in his left knee.. He is the second highest paid right tackle in the NFL. It's not his fault he got hurt. But Denver needs him on the field to stabilize a line that could also could make changes at center and right guard in the offseason.
Find No. 2 receiver
Is Tim Patrick the answer? Teammates love him because he plays with passion and competes ferociously. At season's end the Broncos need to be honest about his situation. Is Patrick the No. 2 to pair with Courtland Sutton or should Denver draft a complement in what is considered arguably the most talented crop in 15 years?
Keep pushing Fant to the Front
Tight end Noah Fant's rookie season requires Dramamine. He is on pace for 43 catches for 576 yards and three touchdowns. Not bad given his rocky start and forgettable night against the Chiefs. He's shown mental toughness in rebounding from tough games. The Broncos need him to keep improving, and should continue targeting him. Fant also must improve his fundamentals as he has drawn seven penalties this season.
It's hard to find Broncos fans who don't want Chris Harris Jr. and Derek Wolfe back. Harris has fit perfectly in Fangio's defense, his ability to cover the opponent's top receiver freeing the coach to use his full complement of defensive calls. Harris wanted $15 million per season last spring. If that remains the price, he might be gone – and Kansas City, Philadelphia, Houston and Indianapolis are teams that could bid for him. Wolfe is on pace for a career-high in sacks. Like Harris, he would like to play his entire career in Denver. Is that realistic? Hard to tell. If Shelby Harris prices himself out of the budget, it could make keeping Wolfe more realistic.
With Harris' situation uncertain, the development of Duke Dawson, Davontae Harris, who was benched last week, and Isaac Yiadom remains important. Two of those three could be needed to complement Bryce Callahan, health willing, next season. You can never have enough good cornerbacks. Devontae Harris has shown potential before last week's tough game. Dawson and Yiadom have battled technique and confidence issues.