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Broncos face steep climb in AFC West

The Denver Broncos were long the gold standard in the AFC West. From 2011-15, the team won five straight division titles and reached the Super Bowl twice, finally winning it all for the third time in franchise history in 2015.

However, things began to take a downward turn last year. The Broncos started out hot at 7-2 but stumbled to a 9-7 finish, missing the playoffs for the first time since John Elway took over as general manager.Instead, it was the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders who both went 12-4 reaching the postseason, with Kansas City taking the crown.

In the offseason, Denver added guard Ronald Leary and first-round pick Garret Bolles to an offensive line in desperate need to more talent, but did little else of note to buttress some other questionable areas. The biggest change was on the sideline, with the retirement of Gary Kubiak and parting of ways with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. In steps Vance Joseph, coming in as a first-time head coach who served as the Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator last season.

Denver has considerable work to do if it plans on challenging the Raiders and Chiefs. The Broncos have fallen behind both largely in part because their quarterback situation is significantly worse, and because the drafts have been poor in recent seasons. Since 2013, Kansas City has drafted three All-Pros. The players selected over the past four years have also produced six Pro Bowl berths. In that same span, the Raiders have seen a pair of First-Team All-Pro selections and earned seven Pro Bowl selections from their crop of young players. Denver has not had a single First-Team All-Pro or Pro Bowler from its last four classes.

This summer, the focus will be one of those picks in Paxton Lynch. Nobody believed that Lynch would be ready to start as a raw rookie coming out of Memphis, but he should be ready to win the job in training camp this year. Lynch’s main competition is Trevor Siemian, the former seventh-round pick out of Northwestern. While Siemian did an admirable job last year, he’s more likely a quality backup than legitimate starter. If Lynch ends up having to settle for second-best again, there are real concerns about his future.

Joseph has his work cut out for him. The offense is largely based on a receiving duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. That’s fine and well, unless the quarterback can’t utilize them properly. The defense remains the strength of the team with Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, Brandon Marshall, Von Miller and others starring, but that only goes so far without support on the other side.

Denver will be competitive with good quarterback play and an improved offensive line, but unless the quarterback situation is figured out, the Broncos are third-best — maybe — in the West.

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