The Broncos were coming off a 4-12 season and little was expected of them last season. Those meager expectations were confirmed as the Broncos started the year 1-4, and appeared destined for another last place finish. Things began to change after their week 6 bye as Denver went 7-1 to rise atop the Division standings. The Broncos lost their final three games, but backed their way into the playoffs due to the weakness of the division. The Broncos won at home the Wildcard round of the playoffs against the Steelers, before succumbing to the eventual AFC Champion, New England Patriots in the Divisional round.
The Broncos turn around and postseason berth can be attributed to three primary factors; an improving defense, a strong rushing attack, and Tim Tebow. Tebow became a hot button issue around the league as all he did was win (or so it seemed), but put up some spectacularly awful passing numbers. While people credit him for his amazing 4th quarter success, they ignore how bad he was for three quarters that put the Broncos in a position to need a comeback. In the end Tebow got the job, but his greatest asset was helping the Broncos become a dominant rushing unit. With Tebow’s passing struggles and skill set, the move to a more option offense, really opened things up for rushing attack to lead the league in both yards and attempts. On the other side of the ball, an up-and-coming defense began to emerge. While they didn’t finish high in either points (24th) or yards allowed (20th), the Broncos defense kept them in a lot of games. Led by star rookie Von Miller the Broncos defense held opposing teams to 15 points or less in five of their seven wins during the middle of the season.
NFL Draft: 2nd- DT Derek Wolfe, 2nd- QB Brock Osweiler, 3rd- RB Ronnie HIllman, 4th- CB Omar Bolden, 4th- C Phillip Blake 5th-DE Malik Jackson, 6th LB Danny Trevathan
Key Losses: DT Brodrick Bunkley, DT Ryan McBean, QB Tim Tebow, S Brian Dawkins, WR Eddie Royal, TE Dante Rosario, LB Mario Haggan
Key Additions: QB Peyton Manning, TE Joel Dressen, TE Jacob Tamme, CB Tracy Porter, CB Drayton Florence, S Mike Adams, WR Brandon Stokley, WR Andre Caldwell
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The Broncos are completely reshaping their offense, from a run first option team, to a passing attack that will see them utilize a number of shotgun formations. It should be a good move for Denver as it will give them a chance for somewhat of a balanced offense. Last year Denver finished 25th in the league in scoring a number that should rise with a new new system, and of course a new on the field general to lead it.
Though there are real concerns about Peyton Manning’s health, the Broncos potential skyrocketed when he was signed. Even if Peyton Manning is just 80%, he’s better than over half the quarterbacks in the league. He is the ultimate leader and hard worker, and is the type of guy who makes Denver a quality contender as long as he’s under center. Manning will benefit the Broncos’ offensive line, which is better suited to pass block, particularly LT Ryan Clady. Not only will a greater number of passing snaps help, but Manning’s quick release and ability to feel pressure will be a vast improvement. Last year Tim Tebow was sacked 10.9% of his drop backs, but those sacks were hardly the line’s fault. Manning is one of the best at getting rid of the ball and not taking negative yardage.
Another area where Manning will have an impact is among the pass catchers. Not only will there be a far greater number of attempts, but they will be far better thrown. Tebow was not by any standard an accurate quarterback, which resulted in his receivers having limited ability to turn intermediate routes into big gains. Denver returns a pair of young talented receivers in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. In addition the Broncos added four pass catchers this offseason in Dressen, Caldwell, and former Manning teammates Stokley and Tamme. Denver figures to utilize more 2-TE sets this year, to try to create mismatches for Manning to exploit. It might not be an elite unit of pass catchers, but it is a good solid unit.
Now one would think that the presence of Manning and the elimination of the option offense would all but eliminate the importance of Denver’s rushing game, but I wouldn’t be too quick to proclaim them useless. Willis McGahee, Lance Ball, and rookie Ronnie Hillman, gives Denver quite a bit of talent and potential at the position. There is no doubt their carries will fall, but that doesn’t mean the running backs can’t still be highly effective on a per attempt basis. Having a balanced offense could be a great benefit to Manning as well. Manning should also impact the rushing game as teams will look to keep their safeties back.
Offensive player to watch: WR Eric Decker
-Decker has been a steal for the Broncos since they drafted him two years ago, and now should be poised to have a breakout year. He’s got good size and speed, but the key for him will be improving his hands which have been problematic. I think Manning will quickly establish a connection with Decker and he’ll be Manning’s favorite target.
The Denver defense has added a lot of talent these past two years (mainly through the draft), so the potential for this unit to become a strength is definitely there. This year will be about becoming more consistent and forcing more turnovers. I think the pass defense, in particular the pass rush will be the strength of this team.
In addition to rookie sensation Von Miller the Broncos have top pass rusher Elvis Dumervil coming from the opposite side. Those two are enough to make any quarterback cringe, but the Broncos should expect a push from other areas as well. Robert Ayers was once thought to be a failed first round pick, but he is starting to become a real solid contributor. Second round rookie Derek Wolfe also figures to help generate a pass rush for the defense. At linebacker, D.J. Williams is always a good threat to blitz and the Broncos could decide to be more aggressive with him this year.
The run defense took a hit when Brodrick Bunkley left via free agency. He was a force in the middle of that line, and it is unlikely that Derek Wolfe can make up for him on his own. Denver will need to rely more on their linebackers this year to limit the run. Williams struggled some last year, but has the ability to be an asset in this area. Miller is just an all-around stud, who thrives against the run as well due to his superior instincts. MLB Joe Mays was re-signed and should continue to provide quality run stopping ability.
The Denver secondary has undergone a bit of an overall these last two years, and could look to be a strength of this year. At cornerback the Broncos added Porter, Florence and promising rookie Omar Bolden to go along with Champ Bailey and surprising rookie Chris Harris Jr.. Bailey maybe wasn’t “elite” last year, but he’s still a top 10 CB in this league, and should have another good year. Adding Porter opposite him is huge and gives Denver the corners to cover team’s top two WR’s. The safety position loses Brian Dawkins, but Mike Adams is a capable replacement. Adams will join 2nd year guys Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter in a three-way battle for two safety spots.Moore and Carter bring solid potential, while Adams brings more certainty to the position.
-Moore had a bit of a rough rookie year, but he could follow it up with a big sophomore campaign. His potential is very high, and he could reach it this year with the Broncos. I see him becoming a ball-hawking safety, who might not be at Pro Bowl level but should be just a notch below.
The AFC West has a number of resurgent teams this year, plus a tough out of conference schedule. Denver has perhaps the toughest road, and it could cost them that extra win they need. The Broncos will remain a threat due to Manning and their improving defense, but I don’t know if the team will be a playoff team. It will probably take them a little bit of time to figure it all out.