There’s no doubting that the Broncos have been successful because of the addition of Peyton Manning. An elite quarterback changes the course of an entire franchise and the Broncos are now the favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Manning will get a lot of the credit for turning an 8-8 team a year ago into a 13-3 team (assuming the Broncos beat the Browns and Chiefs). The credit will be heaped on John Elway, John Fox, Jack Del Rio, Mike McCoy and Von Miller. It’s true, all of them have been instrumental in making Manning and the Broncos a success in 2012.
There’s a group that won’t be given much recognition and few people will talk about them, but they have also been key to this run. They are the free agents—other than Manning—that the Broncos signed to shore up holes on the roster.
I'm talking about guys like Mike Adams, Justin Bannan, Keith Brooking, Jacob Tamme, Brandon Stokley, Joel Dreessen and Dan Koppen. Trindon Holliday could be added to that list because he was picked up in Week 6 when the Broncos were 2-3.
It’s odd to have nine free agents contributing as much as these players have, and each one has helped the Broncos in very different ways.
Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley
You might as well call Tamme and Stokley Manning’s entourage. Both players were brought in to ease Manning’s transition and help the other players get a handle on the way Manning likes things done.
Early in the season Tamme and Stokley were often Manning’s go-to receivers in the passing game. Tamme and Stokley are now reaping the rewards of increased attention on Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside.
It’s all very similar to the Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Stokley years Manning had in Indianapolis. There’s no doubt that Stokley and Tamme have also been instrumental in the position meetings by helping their teammates understand the new offense and what Manning expects.
It would seem odd that the Broncos added Tamme and Dreessen, but they are different types of tight ends. Dreessen is a better blocker and has played a lot more than Tamme because of this ability.
Dreessen’s contribution as a receiver, run blocker and pass blocker makes him one of the rare tight ends that does everything well. Dreessen has caught five touchdowns and his contributions as a blocker can’t be understated.
If flashy stats are your thing Dreessen isn’t going to be your favorite guy, but he’s one heck of a football player that helps the entire offense. Outside of Manning, Dreesen has been one of the best free-agent additions.
Mike Adams beat out Quinton Carter for the starting strong safety job in training camp and has been a steady and stable force in the secondary. The veteran safety has 73 total tackles, a sack, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a safety. Adams has also defended eight passes on the seasons.
Brian Dawkins, Carter and Rahim Moore shared the safety position last season—only Dawkins was particularly effective. Moore has become the consistent starter and Adams has secured the other safety position.
The veteran safety is a big part of the reason why Denver’s pass defense has improved from 18th to eighth and run defense has improved from 22nd to second.
Adams has responsibilities in both areas and has also been effective when blitzing.
A run defense that goes from 22nd to second is an amazing feat and one that cannot be credited entirely to Manning. Denver has allowed opponents to rush for just 3.6 yards per carry in 2012 compared to 4.1 yards per carry in 2011.
Hypothetically, Denver’s defense would have ranked 13th in the league last year allowing 3.6 yards per carry. Basically, Denver’s run defense has drastically improved independently of Manning.
Bannan took the place of Brodrick Bunkley in the heart of Denver’s defense. Bunkley—himself a good run defender—had many wondering how the Broncos would do against opposing running attacks. The results have been positive as only three opposing running backs have gone over the 100-yard mark: Jamaal Charles had 107 yards, Arian Foster 105 yards and Stevan Ridley had 151 yards.
It should be noted that the Broncos lost two of the games in which they allowed a 100-yard rusher and in both games the opposing running back was well on his way to 100 yards by halftime. Stopping the run means more long third downs for Miller to get after the quarterback and more time on the clock for Manning.
Brooking was pushing for the job at middle linebacker earlier in the season and finally got it when Joe Mays went down with an injury. Brooking has been much better against the pass than Mays was—even if he’s not quite the thumper in the run game.
The veteran linebacker was brought in due to the suspension of D.J. Williams and has ended up being more valuable as a middle linebacker for the Broncos. Booking could lose snaps with Williams back in the fold and Danny Trevathan getting more time, but he’s been great depth player.
Brooking was an underrated signing that gave the Broncos flexibility at linebacker that was needed. The best teams have good depth and Brooking is proof because he was signed only as a backup.
Losing your starting center to injury can be very damaging to an offensive line. The center makes the protection calls (even if Manning helps) and makes sure all the offensive linemen are on the same page. When J.D. Walton lasted only four games into the season, the Broncos could have been reeling to find a replacement.
Elway had smartly grabbed the veteran Koppen, who had started every game at center for the Patriots in 2010, but missed 15 games in 2011 with a fractured ankle. Koppen was released in the final round of cuts by the Patriots.
Denver’s offensive line hasn’t skipped a beat with the veteran Koppen starting at center and he’s allowed only one sack and five pressures of Manning since becoming the starter, according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required).
Prior to claiming Holliday off waivers from the Houston Texans, Denver's return game was virtually nonexistent. With two return touchdowns (one punt and one kick), Holliday has completely changed the return game for the Broncos.
Holliday has seven kick returns longer than 20 yards and three longer than 40 yards. He also has six punt returns longer than 20 yards and two longer than 40 yards. He's averaging 35.2 yards per kick return and 11.4 yards per punt return.
Holliday has ball security issues—he has fumbled four times. If Holliday can hold onto the ball more consistently, then he'll be an even more dangerous weapon for the Broncos.
The Milky Way
Elway deserves executive of the year for not only winning the Manning sweepstakes, but for bringing in valuable depth and players to help the offense transition. If Manning is the star acquisition of the offseason, then these other guys are the planets that orbit him.
As the Broncos stampede into the playoffs, don’t forget these free agents who have been a big part of Denver’s success.