After bringing in veteran quarterback Peyton Manning through free agency and improving the defensive line by drafting Derek Wolfe in the offseason, the Broncos came into the season improved on both sides of the ball. Denver's offseason acquisitions paid off as the Broncos offense ranked fifth in the league, while the defense came in second.
Averaging 30.1 points per game on offense and 3.25 sacks on defense on their way to a 13-3 regular season record, the Broncos dominated for much of the regular season. Much like the 1996 season, however, the Broncos lost in the first round of the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion to the Baltimore Ravens, 38-35 in double overtime, ending their season.
Moving forward, the blueprint for a successful season is in place. With another strong offseason, the Broncos can build on the 2012 season.
Thanks to a balanced combination of youth (e.g. Von Miller) and veteran experience (e.g. Brandon Stokley), the Broncos were a dominant team last season. To insure that the team retains a solid mixture of youthful exuberance and veteran leadership, the Broncos will have to lock up a few veterans this summer.
The Broncos' unrestricted free agents include left tackle Ryan Clady, defensive lineman Justin Bannan, center Dan Koppen, wide receiver Brandon Stokley and defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson, who all started for the team in 2012. According to ESPN.com's John Clayton, the Broncos have $18.5 million in cap room, enough to give Clady a one-year, approximately $9 million franchise tag and bring back the other four starters mentioned above.
The team will also have to make decisions about exclusive-rights free agents cornerback Tony Carter and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein. In 2012, both players performed well and they would both likely come back for a reasonable price; look for Denver to retain both.
Additionally, cornerback Tracy Porter, safety Jim Leonhard, wide receiver Matt Willis, middle linebacker Keith Brooking and safety David Bruton will be hitting the market. A handful of those players (including Porter and Brooking) are not expected to return, leaving Denver money to bring back other players.
Finally, running back Lance Ball, tackle Chris Clark, punter Britton Colquitt and fullback Chris Gronkowski will all also become restricted free agents. Colquitt is the only lock to return, as he has emerged as one fo the top punters in the game. As for the others, the team may consider them expendable.
To clear up more cap room, the team may look to restructure quarterback Peyton Manning's contract. According to Rotoworld, Manning is due about $20 million next season. If the team can work out a shorter, cheaper contract for the veteran QB, re-signing players like receiver Eric Decker in 2014, Demaryius Thomas and linebacker Von Miller in 2015 will become much easier.
In addition to bringing back key contributors, the Broncos will look to make smart signings in free agency. While an abundance of cap room are re-signings, the team cannot afford to make any big splashes, but they don't need to.
Last offseason, the Broncos brought in "middle-of-the-pack" players like tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreeseen and safety Mike Adams. They re-signed players including linebacker Wesley Woodyard and Bannan, who all started in 2012. In addition to the offseason pickups, the team also made solid acquisitions in-season, bringing in Koppen, Brooking, and specialist Trindon Holliday—as has been the theme, those players became starters.
This offseason, watch for the Broncos to make more smart transactions, bringing in starters that often are flying under the radar somewhere else in the league. Money matters, and John Elway and Co. will be putting their money on the players that can help the team reach the Super Bowl in 2014.
Building through the draft is one of the best ways to create a championship-caliber team, and the Broncos can improve both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball this April. The Broncos currently have six selections and are scheduled to select 28th overall in the first round.
Some of the popular names in Broncos mock drafts are Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks, Texas A&M wide receiver Ryan Swope, Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and LSU linebacker Kevin Minter. Any one of those six players could have an impact in Denver in 2013.
After the combine and workouts, we will begin to get a better idea of which players Denver is targeting. The team has had two good drafts under John Elway, the team's executive vice president of football operations, with Elway securing 23 of the 33 players that started for the Broncos in 2012.
More importantly, 15 of Denver's 16 draft selections under Elway are still with the team, as well as four players that have signed as college free agents. The Broncos front office has hit on draft day in recent years; to reach a Super Bowl in 2014, staying the course with offseason success is a key step.
Last season, the Denver Broncos went 6-0 in division play on their way to a second consecutive AFC West title under coach John Fox. In 2013, sweeping the division (or at least winning it) will be key to making another Super Bowl run.
On the road, the Broncos will face three 2012 playoff teams—the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots—and a pair of playoff teams at home, the Washington Redskins and a rematch with the Baltimore Ravens.
Denver's 2013 schedule is not particularly easy, so winning division games will be vital to the team's success.
Towards the second half of the 2012 season, the Broncos were blowing teams out and appeared to be en route to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. Once in the playoffs, however, Denver hurt themselves.
With little mistakes on both sides of the ball, Denver fell in the first round of the playoffs. The team only lost by a field goal in second overtime, and the team that defeated them, Baltimore, is representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.
"(We) can't really be mad at Baltimore. You know they came in and played a great game, and unfortunately, we got the short end of the stick that game. You know I'm happy for them. It's Ray Lewis's last year. I've got a lot of great friends that play for the Ravens, so I'm definitely happy for them. I look forward to checking them out on Sunday."
The Ravens are the only thing that got in the Broncos' way in 2012. If they meet again in the playoffs next January, the Broncos will be looking for revenge.
In 1996, Denver fell to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the playoffs after going 13-3 in the regular season. The following year, Denver thumped Jacksonville 42-17 in the playoffs on their way to a Super Bowl victory.
Maybe losing to the Ravens in heartbreaking fashion was just what the doctor ordered for a 2014 Super Bowl run. Motivated going into the offseason, these Broncos will come back ready to play in 2013. Another world championship is in their reach and the blueprint is in place; execution will get them there.