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For the Broncos, 2019 is now about 2020 and beyond

(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

The purpose of the 2019 season was determined on Thursday night. With the Broncos loss to the Chiefs, especially in which the embarrassing fashion in which it happened, the franchise was steered down a definitive path.

Finally, they’ll stop trying to navigate two different courses at the same time. Unable to decide which direction they needed to go during the offseason, Denver has been straddling lanes all year.

On one side, they were trying to win now. That would explain trading for Joe Flacco, giving Chris Harris Jr. a $3 million raise for nothing in return and hiring a head coach who was a defensive genius.

On the other, the Broncos were looking to rebuild. That’s why they traded back into the second round of this year’s draft to select Drew Lock, didn’t offer new deals to long-time veterans and hired a first-time offensive coordinator.

But now, the choice has been made for them. After getting blown out by Kansas City, Denver is clearly heading down the rebuilding road.

That means some tough decisions will be made between now and the NFL’s trade deadline on Oct. 29. Already, there are rumors that Emmanuel Sanders will be dealt; Adam Schefter reported that the Broncos were fielding calls about the wideout. Look for similar stories surrounding Harris, Derek Wolfe and perhaps even Von Miller.

If John Elway can get anything better than the compensatory picks his team will receive if Sanders, Harris and Wolfe leave via free agency during the offseason, he should jump on the offers. Those players were integral parts of the team’s win in Super Bowl 50, but their time in the Mile High City is coming to a close; let them chase wins in another town, while stockpiling draft picks in Denver.

But the rest of the season isn’t just about deciding whether or not to trade popular veterans. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Broncos remaining nine games are all about finding out what the team has for 2020 and beyond.

That starts at quarterback. Lock is currently on the injured reserve list, but he can return to the active roster the season. He’s slated to start practicing this week, which means he could play in Week 10. Since that’s the Broncos bye week, however, the rookie won’t be able to get any game action until Week 11.

It’s borderline inexcusable that Denver didn’t have him practice last week. Yes, he wouldn’t have gotten many good reps given that the team was preparing for a Thursday night game and essentially had glorified walkthroughs leading up to the Chiefs game. But at least that would’ve gotten the clock ticking.

Had Lock practiced last week, he could’ve returned in Week 9. That’s a home game against the Browns, which would’ve been a good place for him to make his debut. Now, Denver would have to put him on the field on the road at Minnesota or Buffalo, their Week 11 and 12 opponents, if they want to play him right away. So most likely, the rookie quarterback won’t see the field at all until Dec. 1, when the Broncos host the Chargers.

What a wasted opportunity. A bad decision is most likely going to delay Lock getting on the field by more than a month.

Back in 2016, the Rams used the last seven games of a lost season to get their rookie quarterback valuable experience. Jared Goff went 0-7 in his starts that year, but he had the opportunity to learn via live reps; he got to get inevitable mistakes out of his system.

The Broncos have to use a good chunk of the 2019 season to accomplish the same thing with Lock. At a minimum, he should start the team’s last five games. Yes, that means he’ll have to endure playing at places like Arrowhead Stadium, but so be it. If he’s going to be Denver’s quarterback of the future, he’ll have to face that hostile environment once per year. He might as well get used to it.

If Lock shows promise, he should be the starter heading into 2020. There shouldn’t be any competition in training camp next season. Meaningless exhibitions shouldn’t be used to determine who will be behind center when the regular season begins. It’s Lock’s job. Period.

If Lock looks inept, then the Broncos should accept that reality and draft a quarterback in the first round this year. They’ll have a top-10 pick, so they have a chance to select one of the best available QBs. They can’t afford to pass on a young signal caller again.

That’s the biggest missing piece to what looks like a promising young core. To a large extent, Denver isn’t starting from scratch in their rebuilding project. They already have some nice pieces in place.

Courtland Sutton is going to be a big-time playmaker at wide receiver. Noah Fant, once he stops dropping the ball, will be a weapon at tight end. Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay give the Broncos a pair of young, talented running backs. And Dalton Risner looks like he’ll be a Pro Bowl guard in the very near future.

On the other side of the ball, Bradley Chubb is going to be Denver’s next great pass rusher. Justin Simmons is a playmaking safety that needs to get a new contract in the offseason, if not sooner. And Alexander Johnson has shown flashes of being a very good middle linebacker in Fangio’s system.

That’s a decent start. It’s certainly something for the Broncos to build upon.

But it’s not enough. There are other holes to fill, some of which can still be done this season.

As soon as Ja’Wuan James returns from a knee injury that has sidelined him since Week 1, Elijah Wilkinson should move from right tackle to left tackle, where he’ll replace Garett Bolles. Based on the way Wilkinson played against the Chiefs, he’ll probably be just as bad as Bolles. But that’s beside the point.

This move isn’t about finding a left tackle for 2020 and beyond. The Broncos are going to have to do that in the draft or free agency. Instead, it’s about discovering a place where Bolles can succeed.

When Wilkinson moves to left tackle, Bolles won’t go to the bench. Instead, it should be Ron Leary who gets bumped out of the starting lineup. The right guard has been a major disappointment since signing a four-year, $36 million deal with the Broncos in 2017.

Clearly, Leary isn’t a part of the team’s future. There’s zero chance that Elway and Company will bring him back for the final year of his contract, not at $8.15 million; instead, they’ll eat the $875,000 in dead cap and part ways.

So why burn more time this year with Leary at right guard? Instead, see if Bolles can play that position.

It sounds crazy, but it’s happened before. In 2004, the Raiders selected Robert Gallery with the second-overall pick in the draft. The offensive lineman out of Iowa was supposed to be the left tackle for a decade in Oakland, but he struggled from day one. After three seasons, he was labeled a “bust,” unable to make the transition from college star to solid pro.

But instead of simply sending Gallery packing, the Raiders moved him to guard. There, he was much more effective and was able to play five more productive years. The Broncos need to find out if Bolles can follow a similar path. If so, he’d be another piece to a nice young core. He and Risner could be Denver’s guards for five to 10 years.

Now that the Broncos have been thrust onto the rebuilding path, they need to put time to good use. The next nine games need to be about finding answers. That’ll only happen by trading and benching veterans, so young players can get on the field.

Play the kids and experiment where it makes sense. Could it be ugly? For sure. But it’s better to have bad performances now, in an already lost season, than at the start of 2020.

The Broncos need to jumpstart their rebuilding project. Now that their path has been chosen for them, that starts immediately.