For a team that normally kept its head down relative to many other headline-stealing NFL franchises, the Denver Broncos stole this NFL offseason with the Josh McDaniels-Jay Cutler shenanigans that lasted for way longer than anyone other than lazy media types wanted them to.
Now that all that big stuff is out of the way, the sports media world can go back to reporting on how, yet again, T.O. is going to show up late for camp. Snore. Ooh, I know, let's have another highly irrelevant Michael Vick prison update!
Grumblings aside, I am going to indulge myself (and my newly discovered Broncos comrades here at B/R) with a couple of major reasons why we can be optimistic about the upcoming season.
Four months still feels like way too long to have to wait for football season, so I will take this briefest of moments to plug your local semi-pro team, who is more likely than not in the middle of their season.
Now then, without further ado...
1. The defense can only get better
As someone that watched the Broncos when John Elway had no defense behind him, on through the Super Bowl teams whose defenses made the difference, I have seen this unit fluctuate.
Last year's was just about the worst that I can remember. It was almost as bad as the time no one tagged Marvin Harrison down, and he got back up and ran for a touchdown with three Broncos players right next to him.
Their 374.6 yards-allowed-per-game ranked them 29th among the 32 NFL franchises. Tragically, this was in just 990 plays from scrimmage, meaning that the Broncos allowed 6.1 yards per play on defense, a tie for 30th in the NFL with the Rams.
The secondary only snagged six interceptions all season (31st in the league, ahead of only the Lions) and allowed 228.5 yards passing per game, ranking them 26th. The most egregious offender was the consistently ineffective defensive line, where Denver finished 26th in the league in sacks and 27th in total run defense.
While all the numbers are bad, its fair to extrapolate that the pass defense numbers might've been better if opposing quarterbacks hadn't had 10 seconds on every pass play to find an open target.
The good news begins with the healthy return of Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams, who were lost to injuries for a combined 14 games last season. Superstars count on defense—just ask the Chargers about missing Shawne Merriman.
Brian Dawkins, like John Lynch a few years ago, brings some hard-hitting credibility back to the safety position after the revolving door of second-rate talent that got the starts last year.
It wouldn't matter if Dawkins was 50, you don't want to be the slot guy going across the middle when Dawkins is on the prowl. Free agent acquisitions Andra Davis (LB) and Renaldo Hill (S) should be considered at least minimal upgrades over their 2008 predecessors.
The largest question, and most important answer, though, will be how McDaniels addresses the situation at defensive line. No player stood out more to me than Elvis Dumervil, who tied for first on the team with five sacks despite being more of a situational DE than an every down player.
With the team's switch to the 3-4, which calls for larger D-linemen, the smallish 5'11" Dumervil will likely become an OLB, and he actually has the speed to compete at this new role.
Ebenezer Ekuban, the team's other sack leader, is gone, so Denver will undoubtedly take a good look at the defensive line talent in the early rounds of the 2009 Draft. One or two impact picks on defense and healthier seasons for the remaining starters should move Denver's defensive numbers back towards the middle of the NFL pack.
2. Peyton Hillis and Ryan Clady
I'm not ashamed to admit that I have a totally hetero man-crush on Peyton Hillis. He is everything that I think an NFL running back should be.
After being under-utilized at Arkansas during his entire career, playing third fiddle to Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, he showed in glimpses last season that he can do it all. Hillis averaged five yards per carry last season as a rookie and led all Bronco rushers with five TDs.
With outstanding speed for his size (6'1", 250 lbs), he is a near unstoppable short-yardage back that also displayed good hands and playmaking ability after the initial catch.
Tack on the fact that he joined the team as a fullback (read: blocker) and still had the skills to fill in at tailback up until his season-ending injury, and you have a multi-faceted threat that coach Josh McDaniels would be a fool not to utilize next year. Sign this guy to a long-term deal because I see him becoming the next Mike Alstott.
I'm almost equally as jubilant about the early success of Boise State product Ryan Clady. Despite the questions about his size or level of competition in college, Clady silenced the critics with an outstanding rookie outing.
The Broncos have had a tradition of quality offensive linemen (or at least a great blocking scheme) since their Super Bowl runs in the late 1990s, and Clady should be a mainstay in Denver for years to come.
I still wouldn't mind seeing the Broncos pick up at least one or two linemen in the draft for the sake of depth, and McDaniels may look at centers as well if veteran Casey Weigmann decides to take the route of Tom Nalen and hang 'em up after a fine career.
3. A young, talented receiving unit
Brandon Marshall's 104 receptions speak for themselves, but rookie Eddie Royal did a better-than-expected job working as the No. 2 man and return specialist.
His 91 receptions and 980 yards are a great season by NFL standards, and with Marshall garnering more attention than ever, Royal should easily surpass 1,000 yards receiving this upcoming season in McDaniel's system.
Tight end Tony Scheffler has yet to reach his full potential, and that's saying something considering he caught 40 passes for 645 yards and three scores last year. A big target at 6'5", and with plenty of speed for the position, I expect him to continue to post good numbers while the ever-reliable Daniel Graham specializes in blocking.
Aside from the youthful trio of Marshall, Royal, and Scheffler, the Broncos also return one of the best slot receivers in recent years, Brandon Stokley.
While he isn't getting any younger at 32 years of age, McDaniels' three and four wide receiver sets should still give him plenty of opportunities to catch underneath routes and work the ball up the field.
One exciting possibility is that the Broncos draft another big WR (6'3"+) in the mold of Brandon Marshall to put opposite of him, with Royal and Stokley in slot positions working the underneath.
While critics have harshly attacked Kyle Orton as not being nearly as good as Jay Cutler, it's hard to imagine even an average quarterback not having success with so many good targets all over the field.
Reasons for worry...?
Aside from the obvious fact that no one is going to mistake Kyle Orton or Chris Simms for Jay Cutler, a better defensive showing and a healthier backfield are the only major obstacles to a successful 2009.
Elway made the QB position a glamorous one in Denver, and everyone up to (and possibly even including) Cutler has fallen short of the mark. Denver fans should realize that Orton or Simms, whomever the 2009 starter may be, will not be asked to do things outside of their ability in McDaniels' scheme.
It's tough to digest that we might not have a true gunslinger taking the snaps, but you'll be thanking the decisions when one of these guys doesn't force a fourth quarter red zone interception that costs the Broncos a game.
Mentioned earlier is the fact that defensive line will be the Broncos' greatest draft need, but with the 12th and 18th picks in the first round, one would think that Denver will still have their choice among a number of great defensive prospects that could play and contribute immediately.
As for the running game, a number of hyped but somewhat unproven options populate the backfield.
It is inconceivable to think that Denver will experience a repeat of last year, with almost the entire backfield ending up on the injured reserve, so one or two of these guys should emerge, and combined should challenge Denver's cumulative total of 1,862 yards rushing last year.
While the loss of Cutler undoubtedly hurts passing production, even a moderately upgraded defense, better run production, and the advantage of playing the Raiders and Chiefs twice a year should mean that Denver has a great chance at 8-8, if not much better.