Last year the Mile High City was buzzing with the prospect of Peyton Manning taking over the quarterbacking duties for a team that had been 8-8 in 2011. He didn’t disappoint as he led the Broncos to a second straight AFC West crown. This time with a 13-3 record accompanied with a first round bye. However a 38-35 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens brought an abrupt end to a dream season.
The window for the Broncos to crash the Super Bowl with a 37 year old quarterback is a short one. This off-season they picked up ace slot receiver Wes Welker and made some key draft selections that should have the Broncos in the thick of things in the AFC West. Was it enough to allow Denver to maintain their status as the division’s best??
Quarterback: Now we did mention that Manning will be 37 years of age right? That is 259 in dog years and is an age that could prove difficult to make it through a complete NFL season. When you flash back to last year’s playoff loss to Baltimore, there were a few times his passes seemed to get away from him. Some sailed and some floated and the question had to be asked: Was Manning tired or was he struggling in the cold??
Although he was learning new receivers in 2012, it could be argued Manning had his best season. He completed 400 of 583 passes (68.3%) for 4,659 yards, 37 TDs with just 11 interceptions. During the early part of the season he would have to find his stride during the first quarter of games. Then his production would pick up for the latter 3 quarters. Keep in mind during their season ending 11 game winning streak, only 3 of the defenses faced finished in the top half of the league statistically.
Now the element of surprise is gone as teams have a complete season worth of film to study the Broncos offense. Last year the penchant for throwing only in the middle of the field was noticed by many teams. The saving grace is he has big receivers that are good space eaters. However as the season progresses he will wind up with a “sore” arm and defenses will crowd the intermediate pass routes under 20 yards. He won’t have as good a year statistically as it happened to Brett Favre in his second year with the Vikings & Joe Montana in his second year with the Chiefs. He will still be playoff caliber at quarterback in what should be his last season.
Offensive Backfield: Yes it’s true Willis McGahee (731 yds / 4.4 avg) was on pace for 1,000 yard season before he fell to an injury, but that’s just it. At 32 years of age a running back is at the point of breaking down and needs to be replaced or spot duty at best. Enter draftee Montee Ball out of Wisconsin. The NCAA all time touchdown scorer (83) will have every chance to win the job outright. He’s played against tough Big Ten defenses and can take the pounding. Ball runs between the tackles and has decent speed.
The same can’t be said of Knowshon Moreno (525 yds / 3.8 avg) or Ronnie Hillman (327 yds /3.9 avg). Neither have shown the tackle breaking power consistent enough to sustain a starting assignment. In fact it was Moreno’s inability to sell his wares to the coaching staff that made Broncos’ brass sign McGahee in the first place in 2011. Moreno has missed 17 games in the last two years to injury and entering the final year of his contract. He will be cut this summer.
The Broncos need the drafting of Ball to pay off. If he comes in and either starts or splits time with McGahee this can be a playoff caliber backfield. However they will only run enough as a team to make them an average backfield.
Receivers: The equivalent of hitting the lottery happened to Demaryius Thomas (94 rec.1,434 yds 10 TDs) and Eric Decker (85 rec. 1,064 yds 13TDs) in 2012. They had career years with a quality passer in Manning with Thomas improving his receptions by 62 and Decker 41. Now they have perennial 100 reception season slot ace Wes Welker to add to the fold. All three will see their reception totals go down as there aren’t enough passes thrown to sustain those numbers.
Now they also add Georgia wideout Tavarres King with a 5th round pick. This team is really stacked before we get to TE Jacob Tamme. Who benefits from being a part of a talented receiving corps more than just his excellent physical gifts.
However defensive coordinators have to ask themselves; Which receiver do you gear your defense to stop first?? Thomas and Decker with their size can go up and get the football over smaller corners. It’s de ja vu’ as they look like a bigger version of Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, yet like the aforementioned Bronco pair neither are burners. They can get deep in situational scenarios but both of them are big targets in intermediate routes and will continue to produce. This is a playoff caliber group and Thomas should have made the Pro Bowl in 2012.
Offensive Line: To underscore the difference between a Hall of Fame quarterback and a couple of substitute teachers… Do you realize in 2012 the Denver Broncos attempted 159 more passes than in 2011 yet had their sack totals drop from 42 to 21?? As we alluded to last year, this offensive line was better than their sack totals showed. Now that they have a pro quarterback in Manning to get rid of the football whether completing the pass or throwing it away, this groups was second in sacks allowed (21) while allowing the fewest hits on the quarterback in the NFL with 46.
Again LT Ryan Clady from Boise St didn’t disappoint, as he garnered 1st team All Pro status and made his 3rd Pro Bowl in a brief 5 year career. He hasn’t missed a game in his career up to this point. One place where the line could use some improvement is in the running game. They had 46 negative rushing plays and on obvious power situations (3rd /4th & 2 or goal) they were only able to power for a first down 69% of the time up the middle, and 62% to the strong side. If they were to run the football more effectively they can rest Manning’s arm during the season’s stretch run. Until we see more out of the running game we have to give them a playoff caliber grade.
Defensive Line: Whatever you do, don’t bring up former DE Elvis Dumervil when it comes to the defensive line. The Broncos spent their first round draft pick this year on DT Sylvester Williams who should be in the rotation from day one. Then they drafted DE Quanterus Smith in the 5th round who is going to be given every chance to show that he’s recovered from a knee ligament injury last season. They have signed a DT free agent in Terrence Knightson along with re-signing DT Kevin Vickerson. Keep in mind this is a team that finished #2 in defense overall and #3 against the run.
Vickerson turned in a solid 2012 with 40 total tackles and 2 sacks. He and Justin Bannan (42 tackles /2 passes defensed) were there to keep offensive linemen off the middle linebacker. Adding Williams in the first round will add some explosion to disrupting opposing running games. Second year DE Derek Wolfe quietly contributed 6 sacks last year opposite Dumervil. Have they adequately replaced him?? No… not yet but this team is sitting at Super Bowl quality against the run without him. Especially if Williams and Smith can come through as rookies.
Linebackers: The conversation on who is the best Outside Linebacker in the AFC begins and ends with Von Miller. In 2012 his stat-line was NFL Defensive Player of the Year worthy with 68 tackles, 18 1/2 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and an interception. He’s only 24 years of age and has a lot of productive years left. With Dumervil gone look for teams to slide their protection to him until someone emerges on the other side. He did disappear in last year’s playoff loss to Baltimore and had to live with that all offseason. He will come into 2013 motivated to show he can play without Dumervil on the other side, but his production will go down.
One glaring hole is at Inside Linebacker where Joe Mays stands to inherit Keith Brooking’s spot. On many occasions he misdiagnosed plays and couldn’t disengage from blocks. Play from the line up front masked most of this. If he can’t unseat a 38 year old linebacker in Brooking, the Broncos have to look elsewhere.
Another season like last year and Wesley Woodyard could be on his way to the Pro Bowl as his speedy play from the weakside made up for the lack of production from Inside Linebacker. He led the Broncos with 114 tackles and had 5 1/2 sacks along with 3 interceptions. With this much production we’re not necessarily sure where free agent pickup Shawn Phillips fits in here. This is a playoff caliber group until they can improve more on the inside.
Secondary: This is the Achille’s Heel of this defense. No we’re not just talking about S Rahim Moore, who let Jacoby Jones get behind him with 1 minute left in last year’s playoff loss. With such a strong pass rush (52 sacks) they should have had more interceptions (12) as a secondary. Also exposed in last year’s playoff loss was grey beard Champ Bailey who could not stay with the Ravens Torrey Smith. Twitter and Facebook blew up with fans saying he needs to be moved to safety next year. To which Elway and Broncos brass assured that wouldn’t happen.
Time to face some facts, by the time we get to the latter stages of the 2013 season, Bailey will be a liability and need safety help. He will be 35 and the season will take it’s toll. The problem is this safety group is anemic against the pass. How does Rahim Moore and Mike Adams only snatch one interception between them on a 13-3 team that always played with a lead?? Behind one of the league’s best pass rushes that had 52 sacks? That’s pathetic. Now the rush may not be as strong without Dumervil and if they have to blitz to make up for it….uh oh.
The Broncos brought in Dominique Rogers -Cromartie to help solidify the corner and drafted Kayvon Webster in the 3rd round. Many draft pundits considered Webster a reach which underscores how desperate they are to get their secondary together. Rogers-Cromartie’s play has been mixed in the last two seasons. This is a good tackling secondary but bad in coverage. This is a below average secondary.
Overall: Last year the Broncos feasted on patsies while running away with the division. At one point last year, they’re division brethren were mired in a 17 game losing streak late in the year. Fellow AFC West teams have geared themselves toward facing the Broncos offense with Peyton Manning. Expect other teams to be better prepared this year. In all actuality the Broncos let one get away and now will have to face a newcomer in Kansas City and Andy Reid within the division.
This year they finish the regular season with 3 of 5 on the road facing the Chiefs and Texans. That December 1st game with Kansas City will have AFC West title ramifications. Denver also lost to Houston at home last year and many feel the Texans are geared to make it to their first Super Bowl. That will also be a big game. Don’t forget they start by hosting the defending champion Ravens then travel to New York to face the former champion Giants. This is no easy schedule.
What about Peyton Manning going back to play the resurrected Colts with Andrew Luck in week 7 on Sunday night?? Remember they were a playoff team last year and the Broncos were 1-3 against playoff teams in 2012. The murderous stretch run in December is the reason they will finish 10-6 this year. A possible wildcard could be looming…at least that is where The Chancellor of Football’s crystal ball tells us for 2013.
Next up: Kansas City Chiefs
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