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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2024 Opponent Preview: Denver Broncos, Week 3

The Broncos will likely be starting a rookie at quarterback this season, and they will be relying on a handful of free agent veteran defenders to get back on track on that side of the ball


As the football activity winds down and the temperatures continue to climb in Tampa, we are taking a closer look at each of the opponents the Buccaneers will face during the 2024 regular season. From how those teams fared last year, to what they've done with the roster since, to some as-yet-unanswered questions – we want to get a better feel for what the Buccaneers will be up against this fall. Today's focus is on Tampa Bay's first AFC opponent of the season, a Denver Broncos squad that has made a huge change at the game's most critical position.

2023 Results

Early in 2023, the Broncos traded first and second-round draft picks to the Saints to get the rights to Head Coach Sean Payton (plus a third-round pick) after their previous hire, Nathaniel Hackett, failed to last through a single season at the helm. The end result a year later was a three-win improvement for the Broncos, who went from 5-12 in 2022 to 8-9 in 2023. However, they didn't take a very conventional path to that almost .500 record.

The 2022 Broncos had traded a raft of draft picks to the Seahawks for quarterback Russell Wilson, and then had handed Wilson an enormous four-year contract extension. The results weren't good that season, but the Broncos gave a Payton-Wilson marriage a shot in 2023 with hopes of a rebound for the quarterback.

Denver promptly lost five of their first six games. They were defeated at home by the Raiders and Commanders in the first two weeks, but those two decisions came by a total margin of three points and Wilson threw five touchdowns against one interception in the losses. Week Three brought a trip to Miami, however, where the Broncos were throttled by the speedy Dolphins, 70-20. After a three-point win in Chicago in Week Four, Denver lost two more to the Jets and Chiefs.

At 1-5, the Broncos promptly ripped off a five-game winning streak, and not against inferior opponents. They nipped the Packers by two points and then stunned the Chiefs, 24-9, for their first win in that head-to-head series since 2015.After a bye week, the Broncos stayed hot with a two-point win over the Bills, a one-point nipping of the Vikings and a convincing win over the Browns. Of those five opponents, only Minnesota did not go on to make the playoffs.

Unfortunately for the Broncos, they couldn't maintain that momentum and dropped four of their last six, including a lopsided loss at Detroit and a disappointing home defeat at the hands of the scuffling Patriots.

The Wilson situation came to a head in late January, when the veteran passer was benched for the final two games in favor of Jarrett Stidham. The Broncos then bit the bullet in March and released Wilson with two more years left on his deal (using a post-June 1 designation) and incurred $85 million in dead cap charges over the next two years.

Wilson finished the season with fully respectable numbers, including a 26-9 TD-INT ratio and a passer rating of 98.0. In his two starts, Stidham threw for 496 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, with a passer rating of 87.7. Top receivers Courtland Sutton (59 catches for 772 yards) and Jerry Jeudy (54-758) had nearly identical numbers, though Sutton hauled in 10 touchdown passes to two for Jeudy. Third-year back Javonte Williams led the way on the ground with 774 yards but averaged just 3.6 per tote and scored only three times. Former Bengal Samaje Perine was a pass-catching complement out of the backfield, logging just 53 carries while catching 50 passes.

Denver's defense declined in 2023, finishing 29th in yards allowed and 27th in points allowed. Linebacker Alex Singleton finished third in the NFL with 175 tackles but the Broncos were 30th against the run, allowing 137.1 yards per game. Edge rusher Jonathan Cooper, a former seventh-round pick, led the team with 8.5 sacks and 2022 second-rounder Nik Bonitto added 8.0 but Denver was just 20th in sacks recorded per pass play. Former Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons had a team-leading three interceptions.

2024 Arrivals

The Broncos used the 12th overall pick in the 2024 draft to nab Oregon's Bo Nix, making him the sixth quarterback off the board. They further reshaped the quarterback room a few days before that by acquiring former Jets first-rounder Zach Wilson in a late-round pick swap. After the draft, the team released backup quarterback Ben DiNucci; Stidham remains as a third option under center.

The Broncos actually swung two trades with the Jets within a week, also sending a 2026 sixth-rounder to New Yor for edge rusher John Franklin-Myers, who figures to slot into the starting lineup in Denver. Franklin-Myers recorded 3.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits in 2023, and has 19.5 sacks and 61 QB hits over five NFL seasons.

The Broncos also sought to build their receiver room back up, signing former Lion Josh Reynolds as an unrestricted free agent and using a fourth-round pick on Nix's speedy teammate with the Ducks, Troy Franklin. Denver also used a fifth-round pick to nab Notre Dame running back Audric Estime to pair with Williams in the backfield.

In addition to the trade for Franklin-Myers, the Broncos sought help at all three levels of the defense in free agency and the draft. Cornerback Levi Wallace, signed with Denver after one year in Pittsburgh and should join young star Pat Surtain II in the starting lineup. The Broncos also got some depth at that spot with fifth-round pick Kris Abrams-Draine out of Missouri. Safety Brandon Jones comes over from Miami as an unrestricted free agent and will probably fill a starting spot in the secondary, as well.

At linebacker, the Broncos made up for the departure of Josey Jewell by signing Cody Barton away from the Commanders. Barton had 121 tackles for Washington last year. Up front, the team used a third-round pick on Utah edge rusher Jonah Ellis and beefed up the interior line by signing former Saint Malcolm Roach.

2024 Departures

As noted above, the most significant move of the Broncos' offseason was their expected parting of ways with Wilson, who failed to recreate in Denver the magic of the earlier part of his career. Wilson went on to sign a one-year deal with the Steelers, for whom he will probably open the season as the starter. The Broncos also traded wideout Jerry Jeudy to the Browns.

In March, the Broncos released safety Justin Simmons, who made two Pro Bowls in his eight-year tenure in Denver and recorded 30 interceptions in 118 games. Simmons was also a second-team AP All-Pro choice in four different seasons. Simmons has yet to sign with another team.

Among those who found new NFL homes in free agency were Jewell, as noted above. Jewell was second on the team with 108 tackles and also had 3.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in 2023. He signed with the Panthers Defensive tackle Jonathan Harris left for the Dolphins, while tight end Chris Manhertz latched on with the Giants. Center Lloyd Cushenberry, a third-round pick in 2020 who started 57 games over four seasons in Denver, left to help the Titans rebuild their offensive line.

Other Noteworthy Developments

With all of the turnover in their receiver room, the Broncos will be happy to get veteran pass-catcher Tim Patrick back after two seasons lost to major injuries. Patrick had 104 catches over the 2020-21 seasons combined but suffered a torn ACL during the team's 2022 training camp and a torn Achilles tendon last summer. Tight end Greg Dulcich after missing all but two games last season due to hamstring issues; he had 33 receptions as a rookie in 2022 after being drafted in the third round.

The Broncos did re-sign some of their potential free agents, including kicker Wil Lutz, tight end Adam Trautman and FB Michael Burton. Lutz, who kicked for Payton for five seasons in New Orleans, made 30 of his 34 field goal attempts in 2023, including three of five from beyond 50 yards.

In addition to Simmons, there are a couple other Broncos who saw significant playing time on defense last year but are currently unsigned free agents. That includes cornerback Fabian Moreau, who has had a journeyman career but did start 11 games in 2023. Nose tackle Mike Purcell, who started 37 games over five seasons with the Broncos, is also unsigned.

Payton made a couple of key additions to his coaching staff for the 2024 season, most notably reuniting with Pete Carmichael, who was with him for 16 seasons in New Orleans, the last 13 as the team's offensive coordinator. Carmichael took on the title of senior offensive assistant in Denver. Also new to the staff is Jim Leonhard, who left the college coaching ranks to become Payton's defensive backs coach/pass game coordinator.

The Broncos unveiled a new set of uniforms shortly before the draft. The set includes orange, white and blue jerseys and three different helmets – primary blue, alternate white and a throwback with a "D" logo on it. The uniforms include the number "5280" – a nod to the team playing its home games at a mile-high altitude – on the front of the helmet and along the side of the pants.

Pressing Questions

Is there any chance Bo Nix is NOT starting by the time the Broncos come to Tampa in Week Three?

Sean Payton has hitched his future to a rookie quarterback for the first time, and there's little doubt that Nix will be under center at some point in 2024. But will that begin on opening day, and therefore be the case when the Broncos come to Tampa in Week Three?

Prevailing opinion out of Denver is that Nix is a near lock to open the season as the Broncos' starter, and indeed quarterbacks taken in the top half of the first round – Patrick Mahomes notwithstanding – generally do get on the field very quickly. But the last time the Broncos took a quarterback in the first round, albeit at pick number 26 instead of 12, it was Paxton Lynch in 2016 and he made four starts in his career. No one is comparing Nix directly to Lynch, but that previous experience does represent one of the possibilities in a wide range of potential outcomes.

The competition for Nix is not overwhelming. The Broncos didn't give up much to land Zach Wilson, who was the second-overall pick in the draft by the Jets just three years ago. Wilson's tenure in New York was essentially disastrous; the Jets went all in on Aaron Rodgers to replace him in 2023, and when Rodgers got hurt immediately Wilson was unable to seize a second opportunity. Still, Payton and the Broncos clearly saw something in the former top prospect and if he shines in training camp the team might choose to give Nix a little more time to develop.

The other option currently on the depth chart is Jarrett Stidham, who started the last two games of last season. It's unlikely that Stidham is considered a part of the team's long-term future at quarterback, but he too could emerge as a short-term option if he performs well in August and Nix struggles.

With new starters added at all three levels via free agency and trades, will Denver's defense be able to bounce back after a rough 2023 campaign?

The Broncos ranked eighth in the NFL in yards allowed in 2021 and seventh in that same category in 2022. Those numbers cratered last season as Denver dropped to 29th in yards allowed, while allowing the sixth most points in the league. All of that was a bit skewed by the 70 points and 726 yards Miami dropped on the Broncos in Week Three, but there were some other rough defensive outings along the way.

Denver was active in adding pieces to their defense in the offseason, both through free agency/trades and in the draft, as noted above. The Broncos could have as many as four new veteran starts on defense – DL John Franklin-Myers, LB Cody Barton, CB Levi Wallace and S Brandon Jones – and they also added some depth pieces in the draft in edge rusher Jonah Elliss and cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine.

Given the fact that Denver will likely be starting a rookie at quarterback for most of the season, and the uncertainty about the team's reworked receiving corps, the Broncos may need a stiff defense to remain competitive. How well second-year defensive coordinator Vance Joseph pulls his new-look squad together could be critical to the team's overall fortune in 2024.

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