When the Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract, they likely completed the biggest free agency pick-up in the history of the NFL. If it's not Manning's career 65 percent completion percentage, 54,000 passing yards, 399 touchdowns, or his 11 playoff appearances that will take the Broncos to another Super Bowl, it will certainly be his incredibly high football IQ and leadership abilities that will ultimately prevail.
However, during the Colts' 11 playoff appearances with Manning running the show, they only advanced past their first playoff game four times, made it to the Super Bowl twice and won it all just once (2007).
Five years later, Manning finds himself in a different jersey, under a different coach and in the later part of his career. What will it take to get back to that February night under the lights at Dolphin Stadium you might ask? After taking a long look at the Broncos roster, it seems apparent that it will take more than just the will of Manning getting back to the player he once was. It will also take wisdom on the part of John Elway and company to surround him with a core of athletes, both young and old, who can get the job done.
Let's take a look at five areas of immediate need the Denver Broncos must address through the 2012 NFL Draft to give Manning the best chance to lead the Denver Broncos to the Superdome in February.
In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos selected Linebacker Von Miller out of Texas A&M as the number two overall pick. Von made a big splash in his rookie season, tallying up 11.5 sacks. Add that to teammate defensive end Elvis Dumervil's 9.5 sacks and you have one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the league.
Nonetheless, the Broncos need to add a run-stopper to their defensive line to go with their pass rushing aptitude. This is Denver's biggest need going into the 2012 NFL Draft, and although drafting a defensive tackle early in the draft has historically been a risky decision, Denver needs to take that risk and win big.
The Broncos have three prospects who would be first-round worthy. Dontari Poe out of Memphis is likely Denver's first choice, but with that said, he may be gone before Denver's 25th overall pick comes to the board. The other two potential prospects who could make an immediate impact on Denver's defensive line are Fletcher Cox out of Mississippi State and Michael Brockers out of LSU.
Any three of the above mentioned defensive tackles would fill an immediate hole in a depleted defensive line. Broncos fans will be watching the 2012 NFL Draft closely to see if the Denver Broncos go with one of these elite players in the first round.
Denver's rush offense was the best in the NFL last year, averaging a colossal 164.5 yards per game. Willis McGahee led that attack, averaging 80 yards per game and totaled 1,200 rushing yards over the course of the season.
While McGahee only missed one game during the 2011-2012 NFL season due to injury, everyone seemed to notice that he started slowing down in the later part of the season. His aging body will turn 31 in October, and everyone knows that is "getting up there" for an NFL running back. He still has a couple of good years in him, but Denver needs to be prepared in case he goes down late in the season due to injury.
Drafting a running back in the 2012 NFL Draft must be a high priority if the Denver Broncos want to contend for a Super Bowl. Two prospects that look promising are Lamar Miller out of Miami and David Wilson out of Virginia Tech. Both players have speed and quickness, making a good fit for the Broncos' offense. However, neither player is gifted at pass protection—something that will be vital in order to keep Manning safe and healthy.
The Broncos will need to assess the risk and reward that comes with drafting a young running back. Manning's health is the team's number one priority and I can assure you that coach Fox will not put an inexperienced running back with poor pass protection abilities covering Manning's blindside. There may be a learning curve for a young running back before they see very much playing time. Yet, this is a three to four year process and the Broncos need to draft a young, agile running back to secure their future in the backfield.
Linebacker D.J. Williams will likely miss the first six games for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. This will immediately impact the defense, and drafting a linebacker in the 2012 NFL Draft has moved up to a mid-level priority for the Denver Broncos.
While the Broncos drafted the top linebacker in the 2011 NFL Draft, they surely won't do the same in 2012. After one season in the NFL, Von Miller has grown into one of the best pass rushers in the league. But his primary weakness from day one has been his pass protection abilities. Denver needs to focus on drafting a linebacker in a mid-round who isn't afraid to be physical with tight ends and who can move swiftly from sideline to sideline.
Someone like Sean Spence out of Miami may be a great fit for Denver's linebacker core. Spence is not an enormous linebacker, but for what he gives away in size he makes up for in speed and physicality. He has great hands, excellent footwork and fluid hip movement that give him the ability to stay on the tight end's hip. He could be a perfect fit who would be able to match up against big tight ends, such as those on the New England Patriots.
Look for the Broncos to draft a linebacker in a middle round and solidify another hole in their defense.
The signing of former Cleveland Browns safety Mike Adams must have John Fox feeling a bit of confidence in his defensive backfield, but the uncertainty of pro-bowler Brian Dawkins returning for a 17th season may still have Fox on his toes. That's why Denver must look at drafting a safety in a middle round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Denver's only other safetys currently on the roster are David Bruton, Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter. Denver selected Moore in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, but his play last season was mediocre at best. Moore missed too many tackles and often looked confused as to what his assignment was during pass protection.
Even if aging Dawkin's returns for a 17th (and surely his last) season, the Denver Broncos need to seriously consider drafting another safety to compete with the safeties currently on the roster.
The Broncos could look at Markelle Martin out of Oklahoma State, Antonio Allen out of South Carolina or George Iloka out of Boise State. Throwing another safety in the mix would add more competition in training camp and hopefully would result in an every-game starter next to Mike Adams.
The last thing Denver fans want to see is Peyton Manning on the sideline in street clothes. But since this is the NFL, the Broncos need to be prepared in case the horrifying idea of Manning getting seriously injured becomes reality.
Denver went out and signed former Colorado State quarterback Caleb Hanie to be Manning's temporary backup. I followed Hanie throughout his college career, and though he is talented enough to make any NFL team's roster, he's certainly no Peyton Manning. The thought of Hanie leading the Broncos offense on a Sunday makes any Bronco fan cringe, and that is why drafting a quarterback makes the last slide for "Five Areas of Immediate Need for the Denver Broncos".
It seems most likely that Denver will select a quarterback with one of their two picks in either the fourth or fifth round. The quarterbacks who will most likely still be available are Ryan Lindley out of San Diego State, Nick Foles out of Arizona and Russell Wilson out of Wisconsin.
The most important thing is for Denver to make sure they select a quarterback who is coachable, and someone who doesn't mind sitting on the bench for three to four years while learning from one of the best NFL quarterbacks of all time. They also need someone who, in the event of a paralyzing injury to Manning, would have the guts and leadership abilities to sit in the driver's seat for as long as they'd need to.