DENVER -- It was afternoon Wednesday and splashed with light. Shelby Harris logged in for a Zoom interview. Outside, it was one of those Colorado days where the sky beckons and sunsets appear as if ordered for postcards. The orange hue above is not a coincidence, Broncos Country insists with a smile.
But after four years of disappointment, of no playoffs, why will this season be different? Harris, who produced a career-high six sacks a year ago, offered hope.
“We have that veteran leadership, and we are gelling with the coaching staff. My saying is that we are going 16-0 until you prove me wrong. I think Broncos Country should be really excited because we added some pieces on offense that we really needed,” Harris told Denver7 in an exclusive interview. “I think on defense we have the addition of Jurrell Casey with a bunch of players we already had. I think we are going to shock the league.”
Truthfully, a playoff berth taking shape would delight fans after watching three straight losing seasons for the first time since the drought of 1963-1972. There are reasons, of course, for the Broncos’ believing the worst is behind them. They finished 7-5 over their final 12 games, and yet the defense never reached its potential.
The 40 sacks, tied for 17th, and 17 takeaways, tied for 25th, represent only a slice of what this group can produce with more familiarity in coach Vic Fangio’s scheme.
“The nuances of a defense -- you don’t really understand those until the second season,” Harris said. “I feel like the second year is going to be an even better situation. That’s why I am so excited about it. Year two is always known for being better.”
It starts up front. The Broncos' defensive line widens eyes after a strong offseason, despite the loss of productive fan favorite Derek Wolfe. Denver not only retained Harris on a one-year deal, a surprised but welcomed development facilitated by a talk with Fangio, but acquired five-time Pro Bowler Casey and signed veteran Christian Covington. They join run stuffer Mike Purcell, promising second-year pro Dre’Mont Jones -- “It’s great to have an OG like Shelby back,” he said – Arkansas rookie McTelvin Agim and former second-round pick DeMarcus Walker.
“I think we can be a dominant force up front with everyone we have and the people we have in the back end. I definitely think it’s going to be a special group,” Harris said. “People are going to sleep on us, and not believe in what we can do. As long as we believe in each other, anything is possible.”
Harris remains confident he can improve after delivering six sacks and nine deflections last season, tops among NFL defensive lineman. His edge reflects that of this team. There is renewed optimism, and much of it centers on second-year quarterback Drew Lock and The Keys – his new collection of receivers.
“With Drew, I think it’s his confidence in himself. He has that confidence that he knows he’s going to go out there and ball. Honestly, when someone expects that out of themselves, you expect that out of him too,” Harris said. “And one thing I feel like we lacked were the downfield shots and the speed plays. Everybody always copies the winner of the Super Bowl. Look at the Rams. Look at the Chiefs. Everybody wants to be like the winners. I feel like we are taking steps to upgrade our offense, putting speed out there for everyone to watch. It’s going to be fun to see.”
The ability of the Broncos to move forward hinges on navigating an unusual offseason of virtual OTAs. It presents challenges, especially for young players who miss out on reps, but affords some advantages as well.
“The Zoom meetings are good. I like them. I would definitely be for keeping these online meetings (during OTAs). (Defensive line coach) Bill Kollar, for us, is doing a good job of integrating the rookies, and teaching the new guys the defense,” Harris said. “It’s good because it takes it only as fast as you need to go. We are not on a timeline where need to be at this part of the playbook.”
But does it prevent engagement? Do guys nod off?
“Bill Kollar would kill somebody if they are sleeping in our meeting,” Harris said with a laugh. “Nobody is sleeping. Our mute buttons are on because we are paying attention.”
As sports begin to slowly resume, Harris thinks about what football will look like this summer and fall. He remains hopeful, but makes it clear health is paramount.
“I just want to be safe. I want everyone to be safe. You want to start and not have to stop again. You want everything to be done the right way. I feel like the players’ safety should be No. 1,” Harris said. “I get it. Everybody is bored at home. There is nothing to watch. No sports on TV. But the players’ lives are important. And we need to make sure we are taking care of the players who are putting that product out there for the fans.”
Major League Baseball recently proposed a 67-page protocol for resuming. It was applauded, but not viewed as realistic. All team sports face uncertainty in how they will deal the ramifications of a positive test.
“(As athletes) we don’t want to take any tests away from the public. And my thing is like this, if you are in the public and you get around someone who has COVID-19, you and anyone who has been around that person is supposed to be quarantined for two weeks,” Harris said. “So, if you are on a team and one person has it, and one person is usually around the whole team, how is that going to work? Are you going to give us a different, separate rules to go by? And a lot of us have families, so I am not trying to bring anything home to my family and kids. It’s a difficult situation, so I just hope that everyone takes the right steps.”