By Ryan Mayer

(CBS4)- The 2020 NFL season will be unlike any that we’ve ever seen before. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most teams, Broncos included, to reconsider whether fans should be allowed to attend. It has also led to opt outs among players who are concerned for the health and safety of themselves and their families. While the Broncos were among the teams with the fewest players to opt out, one of those was a key piece the team was depending on this season: presumed starting right tackle Ja’Wuan James.

While James missed much of last season due to injury after signing with the team in free agency, he was healthy and set to slot in to the starting right tackle spot as expected. Now that he’s opted out, the plans shift and the offensive line in front of young quarterback Drew Lock is more unsettled.

“They have been able to play without Ja’Wuan James before but they went into the season and the offseason and the draft thinking that they had solidified their offensive line with the selections of Lloyd Cushenberry III at center and Graham Glasgow. Now they lose a guy like Ja’Wuan James a guy who you thought was going to be a starter on that offensive line and that’s going to be detrimental, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said CBS4 sports anchor Michael Spencer in an interview with CBS Local’s Katie Johnston. “Especially when you consider that they’re trying to protect a young quarterback in Drew Lock and trying to build these offensive weapons that Lock has around him so, it’s going to be a big loss for this Broncos offensive line moving forward because the offensive line has been the bugaboo for this team for the last several years. You felt like they were on the verge of getting it figured out and then they lose the guy they thought was going to be their starting right tackle.”

The changes to the offensive line are compounded by the virtual nature of the offseason due to COVID. Every team has had to skip OTAs and hold offseason meetings over Zoom, but it would stand to reason that teams with continuity and veteran players would be more capable of handling that than others. The Broncos have plenty of new, exciting pieces around Lock. The team added running back Melvin Gordon, rookie receivers Henry Ruggs III and KJ Hamler, and rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. But, all of those pieces, working with a new offensive coordinator in Pat Shurmur, makes for a big learning curve on the field in camp with no preseason games to test out things and learn from them.

Spencer notes that things are likely to be a little bit ugly in the first couple of regular season games as teams across the league find their rhythm.

“You’re looking at young guys and new guys who could use those preseason games to really kind of develop a little bit and maybe get some chemistry going. I think what you’re going to see around the league is it’s going to be ugly for the first couple of regular season games, especially for the Broncos offense,” said Spencer. “I look at this Broncos offense and I think that 2021 is going to be the year they take the big leap because they have missed out on OTAs, they have missed out on a good bulk of training camp. They’re going to miss out on all of the preseason so it’s going to be difficult for this team to come in and click right away.”

Also of note on the offensive side of the ball is the running back position. Gordon was brought in as a free agent, a former first round pick of the Los Angeles Chargers. The incumbent, of course, is fan favorite and hometown hero Phillip Lindsay. How do the backs split carries? Who gets the “lead” back title? That’s a story line Spencer is watching in camp.

The other big one comes on the defensive side of the ball where it’s Year 2 under Vic Fangio’s scheme. Spencer says the Broncos from the top of the organization down, are expecting a big improvement on that side of the ball.

“What we have continued to hear from guys on the defensive side of the ball, from John Elway and from Vic Fangio himself is in Year 2 under Fangio calling the plays, his defense, they’re supposed to be a lot better and the Broncos are counting on that. That’s going to be something that is hard to see in training camp because we’re going to be watching to see how they develop and whether or not that development can translate into the regular season games when they start.”

The biggest story line of course, is quarterback Drew Lock. In five games last season, Lock led the team to a 4-1 record, completed 64.1% of his passes and threw for over 1,000 yards with seven touchdowns. It was an impressive performance and gave hope to the fan base that the team had found its signal caller of the future. The key for Lock in his first full year as a starter will be how he adjusts to the new offense.

“You also wonder how he can connect with this offense and how quickly he can really pick that up. It’s one thing to have Zoom meetings, it’s one thing to draw it on the board. It’s another to put it in to play against a defense. I think that’s going to be really interesting,” said Spencer.

The Broncos have clearly handed Lock the keys to the car and his performance will determine just how far that car goes. For Spencer, based on the upgrades made in the offseason and the expected improvement on the defensive side of the ball, anything less than the playoffs will be disappointing.

“Now that there is an opportunity for them to sneak into the playoffs, I really think that if they don’t make the playoffs it will be a disappointment,” said Spencer. “The way that things have shaped up here the last couple of years. The way things are trending on the offensive side of the ball and that defense being in the second year. I think that if they don’t make the playoffs, it’s going to be a huge disappointment, moreso than it has been the last few years.”

Ryan Mayer

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