The Broncos enter 2012 with many question marks.
Many expect this team to contend for the AFC West division title after winning it in 2011. But for as many expect this team to clinch their second consecutive playoff berth, many people also believe this team will fall flat on their faces.
With a new quarterback under center in Peyton Manning, the Broncos franchise takes on a new look as it enters 2012. With the second-toughest schedule in the league, Denver does not face an easy road in defending it's AFC West division title.
With the looming suspension of defensive leader DJ Williams, the departure of DT Brodrick Bunkley and the loss of key players such as Eddie Royal and Brian Dawkins, the Broncos will need a few players to step up to fill those roles.
I'm not just referring to key pieces in the franchise cog such as Manning, Von Miller and Champ Bailey, but also lesser-known guys who as of June, may be on the outside looking in. In other words, these are guys that may not even make the roster by September.
The NFL recycles players rather quickly, and the Broncos need to find players that can fill these voids whether they're well-known players or whether they're just guys battling just to make it onto the roster.
Here are five players who may unexpectedly make an impact for the Broncos during the 2012 season.
When you look at the Broncos' roster, you see 12 wide receivers currently on the roster.
When you look at all of the names on this list, it's safe to assume Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will be Denver's starting receivers come opening kickoff vs. the Steelers.
Of the other names on the list, three guys pop up immediately as to who should be able to take over Eddie Royals' departed slot receiver slot. Those three guys are Andre Caldwell, Matthew Willis and Brandon Stokley.
Stokley was one of Manning's favorite targets in Indianapolis, playing four seasons with the Colts before leaving in 2007 to play with the Broncos for three productive seasons.
While in Indy, Stokley helped Manning break passing records in 2004, and along with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, became one of only two trios to each eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. So unstoppable were Manning and Stokley that season, that Stokley even caught 10 touchdowns that season—five more than he has in any other single season in his career.
Although Caldwell is the favorite to fill in the spot left by Royal, don't count out the 36-year-old veteran Stokley from the race.
Taking a page out of the previous slide, when you look at Denver's roster, you see six tight ends.
By the season opener, you'll likely only see three.
Although anything is possible, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen will likely make the roster. The third tight end spot is up for grabs, considering that holdovers such as Virgil Green and Julius Thomas were rather unproductive for the Broncos in 2011.
Of the guys battling for that last tight end spot on the depth chart, Thomas has the most potential.
At just 23 years of age, Thomas is entering his second season with Denver. He made the roster last season after having just played one full season of football in high school and college.
The Broncos, taking a page out of the Antonio Gates handbook, drafted this project tight end in the fourth round with the hopes that he'd develop into a semblance of what Gates has done throughout his career with the Chargers.
Thomas had just one reception for five yards as he was buried on the depth chart behind Green and Dante Rosario.
With a new quarterback who can spread the field with passes like no other, Thomas finds himself in an endearing situation.
At 6-5 and 255 pounds with a four-time NFL MVP at quarterback, there are no excuses as to why Thomas shouldn't find a role in the Broncos' offense in 2012.
Before missing the past two full seasons with various injuries, Warren was a solid cog of the Patriots' defense.
Always overshadowed by the more dominant Vince Wilfork, Warren was a part of two Super Bowl championship teams, starting on one of them. Of his seven seasons in New England, five times the Patriots ranked in the top 10 in total defense.
Denver has six defensive tackles on the current roster. Of the six defensive tackles, it looks likely that recent returnee, Justin Bannan, will be one of the starters in the fold.
Of the others, only Kevin Vickerson has true experience, and Derek Wolfe is a rookie.
With Warren agreeing to restructure his contract in order to return to the Broncos, Warren could play a vital role on a defense that is in desperate need of a true defensive tackle.
If Warren can regain the form that made him a seven-year mainstay on the Patriots' defense, it would go a long way towards curing one of Denver's woes entering 2012.
Ryan Harris was one of Denver's most consistent offensive lineman during his tenure from 2007-2010.
Harris was named an All-Pro in 2008 and was a part of an offensive line that set a single-season franchise record for least amount of sacks allowed in a single season with just 12. He allowed just 2.5 sacks the entire season at right tackle.
With Ryan Clady cemented at the left tackle position, blocking for Manning's blind side, Harris could make an impact in 2012 at right tackle.
The Broncos didn't just bring back Harris after a one-year departure for the sake of having veteran depth. They brought him back with the intention of pushing second-year player Orlando Franklin. If Franklin proves to be behind Harris come training camp, the Broncos will not hesitate to start Harris just because Franklin was a high draft pick in 2011.
If Harris recaptures the play of his first stint with the Broncos, Manning may not have to worry too much about being on the ground.
An unheralded safety who has spent a good portion of his nine-year career starting for San Francisco and Cleveland, Adams can temporarily fill the role of starting safety just in case David Bruton, Rahim Moore or Quinton Carter prove to be unready.
With the retirement of Brian Dawkins, the Broncos have a couple of voids at safety.
Last season after Dawkins went down to injury, Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore gained valuable experience, but at the same time, experienced many growing pains.
With an experienced starting safety handling the last line of defense, Adams could help in speeding up the development of Denver's young defensive backs.
If Adams proves to be an adequate temporary starter, it could help a guy like Moore in his progression as an NFL safety.