We’re finally at that time. Super Bowl 48 is about to officially become a thing of the past. Training camp and preseason has come and gone, the 53-man roster has been released, and we’re at the home stretch. The 2014-15 regular season for your Denver Broncos is about to begin.
When we were in this very position a year ago heading into the regular season, everyone believed the Broncos to be the best team in the NFL. Despite coming off a devastating overtime loss to the Ravens in the year prior, the team had addressed their off-season needs readying for a Super Bowl run. They were primed for that very goal. Peyton Manning had his best season as a professional, and the Broncos yielded an offense that broke nearly every record in the book which did a damn good job of hiding the issues of the defense in the shadows.
Even though the charade looked pretty convincing through the postseason headed to MetLife stadium for Super Bowl 48, the ride was going to end. With the injuries to Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Chris Harris, and Rahim Moore which made for a pretty-darn depleted defense for the biggest game, the offense was going to have to play an even larger role to make up for the issues up and down the defense. We all know that didn’t happen. Through the embarrassment that was experienced at the hands of the Seahawks, the Broncos brass learned the hard way.
They weren’t good enough. Even though the offense broke a multitude of records and the fans bought in to what was being sold on the field, the fact of the matter was that they were ill-prepared to what hit them like a buzzsaw in the only game that mattered. And they knew it. They knew that things had to change in order to accomplish the one goal they had in mind when they acquired the biggest free agent in NFL history. Peyton came here to win a Super Bowl, and they received the much-needed rude awakening that they weren’t as close as they had imagined. You could argue that losing the Super Bowl in the fashion that they did gave them that eye opening they so desperately needed. If that’s the case, then we should be prepared for the best season in franchise history that this city has ever seen. Their offseason agenda proved that we might be in store for that very season.
Addressing their issues on defense, John Elway and the Broncos brass went out and not only targeted by hit the nail on the head with each and every free agent they went out and acquired. The secondary was in dire need of improvements, and improvements were made. Starting at cornerback, it was time to let go of Champ Bailey. His inability to move to safety made him a ticking time bomb at corner that was going to be a hole in the defense had he remained. Rodgers Cromartie proved to be too expensive. Yes, he was the team’s best corner a year ago, but his swagger and confidence were deemed replaceable. Quentin Jammer was a wiley veteran, but struggled when given too many duties on the field.
The addition of Aqib Talib will fill the swagger and attitude role that was previously filled by Cromartie, and the physical nature and speed role will be filled by Kavyon Webster. After his rookie season where he struggled a bit and got burned often, Webster showed up in training camp and looked to be much improved. Tony Carter started and filled in decently for the then-injured Chris Harris who should be at playing-capacity by the start of the regular season. Carter gets burned from time to time, but his athletic ability and his decreased playing time will do him good. Then there’s Bradley Roby. Most corners in the league will get burned by the likes of Demaryius Thomas, and Roby had the luxury of looking like a rookie each and every day of training camp with DT making him out to be a fool for the majority of camp. However Roby improved mightily from day one. The third and fourth games of the preseason were highlight reels for Roby and being a second stringer will do him good to learn behind Talib, Harris, and Webster.
Anchoring behind the corners, the two starting safeties from Super Bowl 48 are now no longer on this squad, Mike Adams (Indianapolis) and Duke Ihenacho (Washington). Consider this one of the most improved positions for the Broncos with the additions of then-injured Rahim Moore who would’ve started ahead of Adams had it not been for his rare lower-leg injury, as well as one of the best strong safeties in the game in T.J. Ward.
While not a popular opinion, I would give Ward the edge over Jairus Byrd who many Broncos fans wanted the team to target. His price tag was too steep, and Ward is the better safety. Even though the Broncos lost Ihenacho who made big plays with his itch for physical toughness out on the field and showed his improvement as last year progressed, Ihenacho played through training camp as if the job was his no matter what. When cuts came around, that wasn’t going to be the case. The Broncos favored Quinton Carter and even David Bruton through camp, and Duke was going to be that fifth safety, which eventually became the odd man out.
What will make life easier for the Broncos secondary? The much improved look from the front seven we’ll be seeing this season. Even without any offseason free-agent acquisitions, this group was primed for improvement. Starting with the linebackers, Danny Trevathan’s play calling and athletic ability to fly all over the field will be missed for the first few weeks, but Brandon Marshall should fill in just fine. It seems like the Broncos are comfortable with Nate Irving as their middle linebacker after he had to focus on playing strong side in place of then-injured Von Miller a year ago. Irving struggles when dropping into coverage, but the personnel around him should help to make up for that. The one key cog of that very linebacking personnel that should ease things for the rest of that defense will be Von Miller.
Without Wolfe in the equation either in Super Bowl 48, the Broncos lacked that pass rushing demon that Von has become since he entered the league. You heard it here first, be ready for a huge season from Von. He looked pretty good in his preseason action, and he’s gotten past his phase of more weight. 18.5 sacks a year Von Miller of 2012 will be back to his old self and better than ever, despite coming off a torn ACL.
Lining up in front of those linebackers this season, might be the most talented group of defensive tackle that we’ve seen on this team since 2005. When Kevin Vickerson was lost for the season last year with the hip injury that cost him his job this season, Sylvester Williams got his chance alongside Terrance Knighton, and that job will remain his this season. Williams has a high-powered motor like no other and showed great improvement from a year ago in the preseason. We know that Knighton anchors that run defense and was put to the test against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, but he’ll be ready to line up in the middle all season long.
The best part about this defensive tackle unit is the depth behind the starters. Marvin Austin and Mitch Unrein might be the best 1-2 punch of back-up defensive tackles in the league. While we still need to see Austin keep off injury reports and show he can remain on the field, he showed well in preseason enough for the coaches to give him a shot. Unrein’s versatility will show to be unmatched as the season progresses, making it reason no. 1 why he was kept around instead of Vickerson. Big Vick’s hip injury obviously played a huge factor into that decision as well as the contract, but I believe Unrein was the better option anyways.
As if things didn’t sound good enough for this defense, this 1-2 defensive end punch for the Broncos might give some opposition nightmares during weekly preparations. Derek Wolfe, who is more than capable to slide on inside as well, was greatly missed like Von Miller when both were absent. His eye for the quarterback can be better than most, and having his seizure issues a thing of the past will bode well for this team when he’s on his game. And lining up on the opposite end, quite possibly one of the most talked free-agent acquisitions of the off-season and highly touted defensive players in NFL history, the Broncos went out and got DeMarcus Ware.
Even though Ware’s numbers have gradually gone down since 2011 where he totaled 19.5 sacks and 20 sacks in 2008, Ware is still one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Ware may not be the dominant force he once was, but he’s nowhere near the point where we could call him a shadow of himself. Even though he statistically had his worst year as a pro in 2013, his injuries made it a lost year anyways. Now seemingly in better health and shape than he’s ever been, I fully expect Ware to easily get right back into double-digit sacks and get back to 2011 DeMarcus Ware.
And just like with the defensive tackle unit, the back-ups at defensive end are just as solid. Malik Jackson could be a hidden gem in this defense that’s ready to pop out of nowhere to sack opposing quarterbacks. Like Marvin Austin, Quanterus Smith is also trying to display that injuries won’t be the topic of discussion when his career is talked about, and he’ll have 2014-15 as the back-up to try and put that discussion to rest.
With the additions through free agency, but more importantly through injury of those who didn’t play in Super Bowl 48, it’s hard to look somewhere on this defense and find a guy who’s not out to prove something. If that doesn’t make this defense scary for the opposition, maybe the fact that the talent on this unit is lightyears ahead of the unit we saw lining up against the Seahawks back in February will do the trick. Be prepared for a completely different looking defense in 2014-15 that will easily put last season’s defense to shame. Even though my storyline of Super Bowl 48 was that the Broncos defense was the real culprit of mediocrity through last season, it was indeed the record-breaking offense that only managed to put up 8 points against the Legion of Boom and the rest of that Seahawks defense back in February. Well I’m here to tell you.. Things are set to change.
Starting with the most important unit on this offense, the offensive line has the most obvious job. Keep No. 18 upright. They’re primed to fulfill that very task. With the best left tackle in Ryan Clady returning from his season-ending lisfranc injury, the unit gets a much needed major boost. Clady not only makes the line better as a whole, but his addition places the rest of the line where they should be. Orlando Franklin makes the much needed move inside to left guard, Chris Clark takes the spot at right guard, and the rest of the offensive line fits in perfectly. Manny Ramirez at center, and Louis Vasquez at right guard.
If this offensive line stays healthy, they will be one the best, if not the best, offensive lines in football. If guys struggle to stay healthy, there’s some pretty decent back-ups ready to step up. Ben Garland is a name I expect to see on the field at some point this season. A great story this season. In the Air Force for two years, practice squad on the defensive line for another two, and now he finally finds his way onto this roster as offensive line depth.
He knows the system, and is waiting in the wings. Also waiting their turn are 9-year veteran Will Montgomery and 2014 3rd-round pick Michael Schofield, as well as left-tackle back-up Paul Cornick. Having that solid offensive line means that this offense is poised for another near-record breaking performance in 2014-15. It’s tough to imagine that Peyton could lead this offense to the results they reached last season, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Especially when it’s coming back just as good as last year, if not better.
Looking at running back, the story will clearly be Montee Ball. The Broncos went ahead and let Knowshon Moreno go, trusting that Ball was ready to take the majority of carries in hopes that the second-year back is prepared to anchor the back-field. Letting the proven Moreno go in lieu of Ball is a risky move, yet a move that the Broncos are clearly confident in. The confidence in Ball was clear with letting Moreno go, and also when they decided not to sign a veteran free-agent to give depth. I personally wasn’t fond of this move, as they could’ve gone out and signed a veteran that would give the offense insurance if Ball were to go down during the regular season.
Instead, they’ll go with a group of back-up backs that only total 6 years of experience between the three of them. Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson, and Juwan Thompson. That’s how the depth chart looks behind Montee Ball as of today, and I guarantee that depth chart will look much different near the end of the regular season. I fully expect the undrafted rookie Thompson to leap two spots ahead of Hillman and Anderson to become Ball’s back-up sooner rather than later. Thompson is not only the biggest back on this team, but his explosiveness and versatility that allows him to line up as a fullback gives the team the best option for pass protection, not to mention a beefy runner who can fight for those tough yards.
Hillman did look good in the preseason, but I think it’ll just be a matter of Thompson looking better as the season progresses that’ll drop Hillman on the depth chart. And Anderson in my mind will likely fall to fourth on the depth chart by default of the other guys just performing better. If any of the backs behind Ball falter, Kapri Bibbs will be waiting his turn on the practice squad after he shined in the final preseason game against Dallas. I personally would’ve preferred Bibbs over Anderson, but it looks like Bibbs will have to wait around until next season where I guarantee he’ll either be making the Broncos or another NFL roster.
Moving on to tight end, the Broncos have a solid group led by Julius Thomas, however I’m just hoping that three tight ends will be enough. Gerell Robinson will be waiting in the wings on the practice squad, but I think playing it safe with four tight ends should’ve been the option here. Julius Thomas had some issues staying on the field last year, Virgil Green is currently injured as is, which leaves Jacob Tamme as the consistent option at the position, and he might get more action as a slot receiver this season if Welker is unable to move on from his concussion. That leaves holes on the tight end sets that Peyton likes to run often. Also interesting to note, Green is listed ahead of Tamme on the depth chart. Whether or not this is a mistake which I doubt, it would seem as if they’ll favor Green over Tamme when he returns from injury, which could also spell the fact that Tamme will indeed find most of his action in the slot in place of Welker versus lining up as a tight end.
Speaking of Welker and the wide receivers, this group won’t see much of a drop off from a year ago. No Decker, no problem. Even though Decker was fan-favorite and a favorite of Peyton’s, the fans and even Peyton will be saying “Eric, who?” once you learn to keep your eyes on Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders brings versatility that Decker lacked. Sanders will line up to go deep while Welker is slowly but surely worked out of the offense (mark my words), and is more than capable to line up in the slot, where he’ll eventually be once next year rolls around.
There’s obviously one of the best in the game in Demaryius Thomas, as well as Andre Caldwell who won at his position because Cody Latimer isn’t quite ready to work with Peyton’s offense. However as the season progresses and if any of the wide-outs go down, look for Latimer to join the big boys on the field come Sundays. The physical nature and Indiana smarts that Latimer brings to the field will become useful sooner or later. While Sanders is filling the void left by Decker on the first-team offense, Latimer will eventually prove to be the real replacement for Decker. When push comes to shove, I’m tempted to make the bold prediction that Peyton’s offense will either repeat their 2013-14 performance, or top it.
But that’ll be tough. Peyton should near 50 touchdowns this season and get the yardage we saw last season, but topping last year’s stats will be tough. Hell, it’ll be tough for any NFL team in the near future to top last year’s record breaking performance. That is, until running the ball is completely absent from the game in lieu of passing the ball every single play. It’s coming I’m sure.
Anyways.. What kind of Broncos Season Preview would this be without game-by-game predictions? It would suck. Hence why I’ll oblige and do it!
Week 1 vs Colts: 34-17
Week 2 vs Chiefs: 37-17
Week 3 at Seahawks: 21-27
Week 4: BYE
Week 5 vs Cardinals: 27-24
Week 6 at Jets: 31-21
Week 7 vs 49ers: 27-23
Week 8 vs Chargers: 28-27
Week 9 at Patriots: 24-31
Week 10 at Raiders: 38-17
Week 11 at Rams: 24-17
Week 12 vs Dolphins: 27-20
Week 13 at Chiefs: 31-24
Week 14 vs Bills: 41-17
Week 15 at Chargers: 23-27
Week 16 at Bengals: 27-24
Week 17 vs Raiders: 44-20
2014-15 Record: 13-3.
At 13-3, that should win the Broncos the AFC West, with the Chargers close behind, getting them a Wild-Card spot. Be prepared to watch one hell of a season for the Orange and Blue. One that should indeed, end with bringing home the third Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. Broncos over the Packers.