Denver Broncos: The Biggest Question Marks Heading into 2012
With the Denver Broncos having their best offseason in years, it's both an exciting and an anxious time to be a Broncos fan.
The Broncos signed possibly the biggest free agent in NFL history when they were able to acquire Peyton Manning after starting off as distant afterthoughts in the "Manning race." In the process of signing Manning, they were also able to sign Super Bowl XLIV hero Tracy Porter to replace incumbent starting cornerback Andre Goodman.
Tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen were also signed after the Manning sweepstakes came to a close, addressing much needed holes in that area. Both Tamme and Dreessen are capable receiving threats at the tight end position, with Tamme posting his best season to date in 2010 with Manning throwing him the football.
By most accounts, the Broncos upgraded their roster. However, it does remain to be seen if these new acquisitions will pay off. It also remains to be seen whether Denver's holdovers from their 2011 AFC West champion season will be able to contribute enough for the Broncos to be true contenders in the AFC in 2012.
Here are the biggest question marks heading into 2012 for the Denver Broncos.
How Will Peyton Manning Look?
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The biggest, and most obvious question mark on Broncos fans' minds is the health of four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning.
When the Broncos signed Manning to a five-year contract worth $96 million on March 20th, the news was greeted with mostly positive anticipation by Broncos fans. How many times has it happened where a team not only has the chance to, but actually signs a former four-time NFL MVP? Before Manning, it had never happened before.
Although it saddens a lot of Broncos fans to see Tebow leave after leading Denver to the miraculous season that they had in 2011, most Broncos fans have shifted their attention towards the future with Manning under center.
The question is, what does that future look like with Manning?
With OTAs beginning recently, Manning reportedly looked good, according to ESPN.com. His arm looked as strong as ever, despite undergoing several neck surgeries over the past couple of years.
There is little doubt that Manning still has the talent that made him one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
We'll find out the answer to that question rather quickly when the Broncos face the Steelers on Sunday Night Football in the season opener.
Whether the Broncos end up as contenders or pretenders will be largely dictated by the health of Peyton Manning.
Will the Running Game Be Consistent Enough to Help out Manning?
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Ranking as the best team at rushing the football with their option offense spearheaded by Tim Tebow, the Broncos rode a wave of momentum after starting out the season 1-4 with Kyle Orton as the starting quarterback. They clinched their first playoff berth, division title and playoff victory since 2005.
With Manning now under center, it's safe to assume the Broncos won't be the best rushing team in the NFL, nor will we see the option offense in place in 2012.
Having said that, with a premier passer now calling the signals in the huddle, the Broncos still may need a little balance to make Peyton's job a little bit easier in returning after a long layoff.
The four backs with the best chance at making the roster are Willis McGahee, Lance Ball, Knowshon Moreno and rookie draft pick Ronnie Hillman.
McGahee will likely return as the starting running back in the season opener, with Hillman making the roster as a backup, and Ball and Moreno likely battling it out for the other reserve role in the backfield.
According to NFL.com, Moreno is reportedly fighting for a roster spot.
If this is the case and Moreno is released before the season starts, leaving the Broncos with a backfield of McGahee, Hillman and Ball, the Broncos' offense would probably have to use running backs much in the vein of how Indianapolis used them in Manning's last years there.
After Edgerrin James left for the Cardinals in 2006, the Colts never had a true running game. They consistently ranked near the bottom of the league with Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes leading the attack.
Having said that, Addai and Rhodes were excellent pass-blockers who made up for their deficiencies in being dominant runners by contributing in pass-blocking and occasionally excelling in the passing game.
With the Broncos having a bruising short-yardage runner in McGahee, a versatile reserve in Lance Ball and likewise versatile rookie reserve in Hillman, the Broncos could replicate, if not easily exceed Manning's former supporting cast in the backfield.
If they are able to do so, along with a healthy Peyton, a 10-win season and a division title are not out of the question.
Who Will Step Up as the Go-to Guy for Peyton?
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The Broncos have a plethora of receiving options, but none of them have yet to prove that they are elite receivers.
The most popular selection out of this group is Demaryius Thomas. Thomas broke out during the last half of the season, displaying why the Broncos made him the first wide receiver chosen in the 2010 NFL draft, ahead of even the Cowboys' Dez Bryant.
With his physical attributes and athleticism, it wouldn't shock anybody if the Manning-Thomas connection became as good as any of Manning's previous partnerships with receivers, such as Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and even current Bronco Brandon Stokley.
Another option is Eric Decker. Decker emerged as the only consistent receiving threat for the Broncos during the first half of the season when he became Kyle Orton's and Tim Tebow's most dependable receiver. He is a big receiver, but he lacks the athleticism of teammate Thomas.
What he does provide, however, are dependable hands and an ability to find open seams in the defensive backfield. Decker may never emerge as a true go-to guy in an elite passing game, but he can certainly become one of the better No. 2 receivers in the league with his skill set.
Other options include the recently signed Dreessen and Tamme.
If Peyton finds his go-to guy on the current Broncos roster, it's hard to envision the Broncos not being a true threat in the AFC in 2012.
Will the Run Defense Be Adequate Enough?
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It cannot be stated enough how much of an impact the Brodrick Bunkley signing will have on not only the defense as a whole, but especially the run defense.
When you look at the run defensive ranks as a whole, the Broncos were never an impressive bunch in 2011. They ranked 22nd in yards given up, a respectable 15th in rushing touchdowns allowed and 13th in yards per attempt.
However, when you compare it to the 2010 defense, you realize the strides that the defense made, especially in the run defense department.
In 2010, the Broncos ranked 31st in yards, 32nd in touchdowns and 29th in yards per attempt in the run game. They were absolutely terrible.
With Bunkley departing through free agency, and longtime stalwart D.J. Williams being suspended for the first six games of the season, how the run defense will hold up is perhaps the biggest question on the defensive side of the ball for the Broncos heading into 2012.
The Broncos brought back defensive tackle Justin Bannan—who started on that 2010 defense by the way—and drafted Derek Wolfe with their first overall selection.
In order for the Broncos to be true contenders in 2012, the run defense will need to be adequate enough to allow that to be a possibility.
Will the Offensive Line Give Peyton a Chance?
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The offensive line excelled in 2011 in the run-game department. They executed the option offensive scheme to perfection.
Having said that, they had lots of room to improve in the pass-blocking department.
Even with Tim Tebow—perhaps the best running threat at quarterback in the NFL—the Broncos allowed 33 sacks in only 11 games started by Tebow. What that resulted in was Tebow being sacked 10.9 percent of the time when attempting to pass—the worst percentage in the league.
Some of it had to do with Tebow's indecisiveness when it pertained to passing the football, but a lot of it also had to do with the offensive line just being plain inadequate when it came to protecting the quarterback. They had problems doing this when Kyle Orton was starting at quarterback.
How effectively this group can come together and protect Manning will likely determine whether Manning returns as the quarterback that we've grown to witness.
It will also likely determine whether the Broncos emerge as contenders or pretenders in 2012.