Broncos' youth has been served; now comes the hard part

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio doesn't always arrive at the bottom line when it comes to answering a question.

But when he has been asked about how to handle his roster, one of the youngest in the league, Fangio has been clear.

"Coach. Teach. Get better, that's it," he said. "That's what it is, that's our job as coaches."

How the Broncos, who have missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, handle the developmental part of the equation with such a young roster will determine if better days are ahead. Earlier this season, president of football operations John Elway repeated his belief that "we don't draft All-Pros, we have to develop them."

The Broncos moved through December with the third-youngest active roster in the NFL, behind only Cleveland and Jacksonville. The Broncos -- with an average age of 25 years, 304 days in mid-December -- were even slightly younger, on average, than the Miami Dolphins, who went into the season with the intention of being as young as possible.

"The reality of it is, we're young," offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. "We've got rookies everywhere, including the quarterback -- it's just what we are. The cool thing about it is that we've got a great foundation. They're going to get better."

And that is the challenge for the Broncos moving forward. Linebacker Von Miller is the only player on the current roster who was a Broncos draft pick and has been selected to a Pro Bowl (and eight times, at that). That means in the prime real estate of the draft -- Rounds 1-3, including last April's -- the Broncos have selected 31 players during Elway's tenure and Miller is still the only one who has been selected to the Pro Bowl. Sixteen of those players (51.6%) are no longer on the roster.

Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and running back Phillip Lindsay have each been named to the Pro Bowl, but both players arrived in Denver seven years apart as undrafted rookies. The feeling among many personnel executives in the league is that the Pro Bowl drought among Broncos draft picks not named Miller is poised to be broken by the likes of Bradley Chubb (a second alternate in 2018 as a rookie), Justin Simmons, Courtland Sutton and Dalton Risner.

Besides, it's not all on draft misses. It's also been a developmental issue: Not enough Broncos have gotten better after they arrived, whether that's teaching, on-field work or fitting players to the jobs that suit them best. But Lindsay, for one, sees potential.

"The future is bright, it really is," Lindsay said. "You have to go through growing pains like we have been going through in order to be a great football team. You've got to go through the fire. You've got to know how it feels to lose and know how it feels to be in that certain situation, so that you can pull yourself out of it."

With injuries to guard Ron Leary (concussion) and tackle Ja'Wuan James (knee), the Broncos' offense is particularly young. In Sunday's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver essentially started five rookies (guard Austin Schlottmann's only experience was a stint on the Broncos' practice squad in 2018), two second-year players and two third-year players on offense.

Tight end Jeff Heuerman, at 27 years old in his fifth season, was the most experienced player in the offensive formation when the Broncos opened Sunday's game.

"You've got a bunch of young men trying to build a franchise up," Lindsay said. "That's what we're doing, it's about us getting better as players, putting in the work, about the coaches, about adding more pieces, all of it, that's just how it is."

On offense, that means players such as Lindsay, Sutton, Risner, quarterback Drew Lock and tight end Noah Fant continue on the developmental curve. Defensively, Chubb, when he returns next season from his torn ACL, figures to see plenty more youthful faces around him and Miller.

And the Broncos will make re-signing homegrown safety Simmons one of the team's priorities in free agency.

"I just hope ... it works out on both ends because, obviously, I'd love to stay, and I've built so many great relationships," Simmons said. "I really do believe there is a lot of young talent. This is a first-year system on both sides of the ball, a lot of learning to it, so when you get everyone healthy and talking about the coming years, I think it's going be something special here."