Showcasing Denver Broncos' Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs
The Denver Broncos were one pass defense away from eliminating the Baltimore Ravens from the playoffs, the eventual Super Bowl champions. Instead, Jacoby Jones got loose for a miracle touchdown and Peyton Manning's first season in Denver ended with a Divisional Round loss.
It's a play that probably still haunts Broncos fans, but it's important not to lose sight of the progress made throughout the season. Denver will head into next season as one of the top title contenders and still has time to bolster its roster.
The other good news for the Broncos is next season's schedule. It's by far the easiest slate any team will face next season based on 2012 records, according to ESPN, which should give Manning and Co. some margin for error in the final weeks.
All told, it sets up as another promising season in Denver. Let's examine the roster to analyze what areas are completely set and which ones are still in need of reinforcements. The Broncos have certainly shown a willingness to make moves when necessary.
Peyton Manning showed diminished arm strength in his first season back from a serious neck injury. It will be interesting to see if an entire offseason focused on football instead of injury rehab will allow him to regain some of his prior zip.
Either way, he was still one of the best quarterbacks in the league last season. He completed 69 percent of his throws for over 4,600 yards and 37 touchdowns. His quarterback rating was a shade under 106, the second-highest mark of his career.
Given the fact he's never missed a game outside of the 2011-12 season, the Broncos should feel comfortable with his health status. Brock Osweiler is still a work in progress, but can handle the backup duties and learn from an all-time great in the process.
The rushing attack is where the Broncos must make some decisions. Do they want to head into next season with the same group of running backs, led by Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, or bring in some fresh blood in the draft?
Denver had four backs receive at least 40 carries last season. They combined to rush for over 1,700 yards, but only McGahee averaged more than four yards per carry. While the offense could survive without changes, there's definitely room for improvement.
Should they decide to use a high draft pick on a rusher, Alabama star Eddie Lacy should be available at the end of the opening round. Johnathan Franklin, Giovani Bernard and Joseph Randle would be the top names to keep in mind outside of Round 1.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
The Broncos entered the offseason with one of the best receiving duos in the league. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker both finished with over 1,000 yards and combined for 23 touchdowns. That's enough to give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares.
Adding Wes Welker to the mix will simply make the team's passing game unstoppable at times. The slot receiver is going to force defenses to cover the middle of the field, which will leave more room to work for Thomas and Decker on the outside. The move also took Tom Brady's favorite target away.
As far as tight ends go, Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme will probably continue to split time. The arrival of Welker will lessen the impact they make, though. It illustrates that Manning will have no shortage of different weapons at his disposal. No further additions are needed.
Offensive line play is crucial to Denver's success. Manning is not the type of quarterback built to endure constant hits at this point in his career. He needs to operate with a pretty clean pocket, and that's exactly what the Broncos' line provided last season.
The front five ranked second in pass protection and 12th in run blocking, according to Football Outsiders. It was one of the most complete performances by any offensive line in the league. The team didn't stand pat, though.
Guard Louis Vasquez was brought in from the San Diego Chargers to further boost the line. The signing gives the Broncos an extremely strong starting group and also leaves them with even more depth. It shouldn't be an area of concern heading into the draft.
A contract snafu sent Elvis Dumervil to free agency and the Broncos still haven't been able to fill the hole. The veteran defensive end racked up 54 tackles and 11 sacks last season, providing a valuable secondary pass rush.
There are still a couple viable options on the free-agent market. Dwight Freeney, Peyton Manning's former teammate with the Indianapolis Colts, and John Abraham are the most prominent names available. Whether the Broncos are willing to meet their contract demands is yet to be seen.
If not, defensive end tops the list of draft needs for Denver. Damontre Moore, Alex Okafor and Datone Jones are three rushers that could be available when Denver picks in the first round. All three would fit the system.
Defensive tackle is less of an issue after the emergence of Derek Wolfe and the signing of Terrance Knighton. The only draft possibility would be a depth selection late, perhaps Kwame Geathers.
Linebacker is the one area on defense where the Broncos should feel content. It all starts with Von Miller, a tremendous talent on the edge. He's recorded 30 sacks in his first two seasons and is still in the process of getting better.
Wesley Woodyard is the perfect player to play on the opposite edge. He doesn't possess the same rushing ability as Miller, but he's a rock-solid run-stopper and is terrific in coverage. It allows Miller the freedom to rush the quarterback early and often.
Middle linebacker was initially a concern, but the spot should be filled by another free-agent addition, Stewart Bradley. Between him and Nate Irving, the inside should be covered. The Broncos should focus their draft resources on other areas.
The Broncos ranked third in pass defense last season. They were one of just three teams to allow less than 200 yards per game through the air. That speaks well for the secondary, even though the group ended on a low note by allowing the aforementioned Jones miracle touchdown in the playoffs.
There are still some question marks, however. The biggest one surrounds Champ Bailey, and if he's got enough left in the tank to spend another full season at cornerback. A lot of veteran corners end up shifting to safety later in their careers.
The other concerns are with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, another offseason pickup. The Broncos hope he's able to return to form. If Bailey excels, Rodgers-Cromartie finds top form and the safeties avoid major mistakes, like the playoff gaffe, the Denver secondary should rank highly again.
Don't be surprised if they use a couple of mid-round picks on depth, especially at corner, though. Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Brandon McGee are a couple potential targets.
Although Matt Prater connected on just 77 percent of his kicks last season, he only missed one from inside 40 yards. The Broncos hope he can improve his percentage from inside the 40 to 49-yard range next season, but his job shouldn't be in any type of jeopardy.
Restricted free agent Britton Colquitt ranked high in net average and had 27 punts land inside the opponent's 20. He should retain his position for at least another season, although the Broncos probably don't plan on punting too frequently with their dynamic offense.
Finally, the return game should be in good hands with Trindon Holliday. He had two return touchdowns during the regular season and then matched that number in the team's playoff loss. Teams will do whatever they can to keep the ball out of his hands next season.