Examining Denver Broncos' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin OnslowContributor IIJune 11, 2013

Examining Denver Broncos' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    After a disappointing 2-3 start to the 2012 season, the Denver Broncos found their rhythm and completed the regular-season slate on an 11-0 tear, staring down a first-round bye and a divisional round playoff pairing with the Baltimore Ravens.

    What followed would be a heartbreaking reminder that in the NFL, nothing is guaranteed.

    As well as the Broncos played to finish the regular season, it would be a late defensive collapse and some uncharacteristically poor decision-making on the part of Peyton Manning that would end Denver’s playoff run prematurely, dropping a 38-35 double-overtime decision to the eventual Super Bowl champions.

    But for as devastating as the end result was for the Broncos, the loss was no reason to signal major changes in Denver. If not for one misplayed deep ball to Jacoby Jones in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, the Broncos could very well have found themselves facing the San Francisco 49ers for the Lombardi Trophy.   

    With the league’s No. 4 offense and No. 2 defense in place, Denver entered this offseason with very few areas of real concern. Apart from retaining franchise left tackle Ryan Clady and shoring up their secondary, the Broncos were in position to instead focus their efforts on building around Manning and sustaining a roster that is among the most talented in the NFL.

    Clady’s expiring contract was the most pressing matter to address, however.

    With the two-time All-Pro left tackle facing free agency this offseason, the Broncos opted to use their franchise tag to keep him under contract for the 2013 campaign—despite Clady’s disinterest in the one-year deal.

    As a result, the 26-year-old hasn’t signed the franchise tender, as noted by Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today, and will skip the team’s mandatory minicamp, which began on Tuesday.

    But according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, Clady and the Broncos have resumed talks to negotiate a new long-term contract, the last discussion taking place nearly a year ago:

    Today, for the first time since last July(!), #Broncos reached out to Ryan Clady's camp to talk contract. Previously, it was radio silence.

    — Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) June 10, 2013

    Clady is arguably the best blindside protector in the league, and Denver’s entire offensive unit would suffer as a result of a prolonged holdout. Hopefully for both parties’ sake, a new deal can be reached in the coming weeks.

    And considering the Broncos’ key acquisition this offseason, Clady is the only piece keeping Denver from total confidence in its offense going forward.

    With the New England Patriots unable (or unwilling) to reach a new deal with veteran wide receiver Wes Welker, John Elway saw it fit to extend a contract offer to the 32-year-old, effectively providing Manning with one of the best slot receivers in the business.

    Welker’s two-year, $12 million contract was a steal for the Broncos, who now enter the 2013 season with a bevy of talented wideouts at Manning’s disposal, including an ultra-productive pair in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

    Manning’s arrival last offseason took the Broncos' offense over the top, and with Welker in the fold, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Denver doesn’t finish with a top-five offense again this season.

    Elway wasn’t especially active on the free-agent market this offseason, but there wasn’t really much need. As it stands, Denver is already in excellent position to again dominate the AFC West in 2013.

    We’ll take a closer look at Denver’s offseason in the following slideshow and also highlight a few key positional battles to watch as the 2013 season draws near.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 28): DT Sylvester Williams, North Carolina

    Round 2 (Pick 58): RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin

    Round 3 (Pick 90): CB Kayvon Webster, South Florida

    Round 5 (Pick 146): DE Quanterus Smith, Western Kentucky

    Round 5 (Pick 161): WR Tavarres King, Georgia

    Round 5 (Pick 173): OT Vinston Painter, Virginia Tech

    Round 7 (Pick 234): QB Zac Dysert, Miami (Ohio)

     

    Grade: B+

     

    There wasn’t anything particularly exceptional about Denver’s draft class, but John Elway did a terrific job of finding players who could have an immediate impact in 2013—none more so than second-round pick Montee Ball.

    As quoted by Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today, Peyton Manning expects Ball to be a big part of the offense in 2013:

    We're just kind of going through plays, going through games, getting him comfortable hearing audibles at the line of scrimmage. Because we are going to count on him in a big way this year. He's a rookie, but coach (John) Fox isn't going to bring him along slowly.

    And considering Denver’s issues with running the football last season, that’s not especially surprising.

    The Broncos finished 16th in the league in rushing offense in 2012 (114.5 yards per game), but considering Willis McGahee’s age and injury history and the general ineffectiveness of Knowshon Moreno (3.8 YPC last season), it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ball handle a heavy workload in his rookie campaign—even if 2012 third-round pick Ronnie Hillman sees an increase in touches this season as well.

    While Ball was perhaps the flashiest of Denver’s seven selections, he may not have been the most impressive.

    With his first selection of the draft, Elway took advantage of tremendous value in selecting North Carolina defensive tackle Sylvester Williams—a player many considered a top-20 candidate entering the draft. Given his ideal blend of size, quickness and first-step explosiveness, Williams will be a perfect fit in Jack Del Rio’s attacking one-gap scheme.

    Williams adds youth, talent and depth to a defensive tackle rotation that, although relatively nameless on a macro level, performed well against both the run and the pass in 2012.

    Neither early-round pick strayed far from expectations, but Elway wasn’t so conventional with his third-round selection.

    With the 90th pick in the draft, the Broncos' personnel man made a surprising pick in acquiring South Florida cornerback Kayvon Webster. Although the secondary was a concern entering the offseason, few expected Webster to garner Day 2 consideration, especially with a bevy of more highly rated players still on the board.

    But as is often the case in the NFL, the Broncos targeted the player they wanted and pulled the trigger. It’s hard to say where Webster may have ultimately been drafted were the Broncos not to draft him in the third round, but it’s reasonable to believe he wouldn’t have been available by No. 146.

    Of Denver’s three fifth-round picks, Quanterus Smith is the most likely to have a noticeable impact in 2013. With Elvis Dumervil now in Baltimore, Denver needs to replace his production at the defensive end position, and with limited options, Smith is in line to earn a big role.

    In all, it was an above-average draft class for Elway and the Broncos, who found a way to infuse both value and needs-based drafting to acquire a handful of players who can contribute in their formative years with the team.

No Secondary Issue

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    Denver entered the 2013 offseason facing a mixed bag in the defensive secondary. There’s certainly a good deal of talent at the cornerback and safety positions, but the Broncos also have some questions to answer.

    Despite Champ Bailey’s mild decline in recent years, he’s still a tremendously talented corner who should have the No. 1 spot locked down to start the season. Until the Broncos acquire a younger top-tier pass defender, Bailey is still the go-to guy.   

    And while they didn’t add an elite talent at the position, the Broncos did acquire former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in free agency. Rodgers-Cromartie had a disappointing stint in Philadelphia, but he’s still a quality pass defender who won’t have a hard time finding a big role in 2013.

    DRC will have some competition, though, in the form of 23-year-old Chris Harris.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Harris graded out as the No. 5 cornerback in the league last season, surpassing Bailey’s mark (No. 10) and locking down the No. 2 spot beautifully for much of the season. Given Harris’ impressive 2012 campaign and his intriguing upside, Rodgers-Cromartie shouldn’t expect to walk into camp as a starter in Denver’s secondary.

    However, Harris saw plenty of time both on the outside and in the slot last season, and in the modern NFL, it takes more than two good corners to combat opposing passing attacks. Given Harris’ versatility and DRC’s experience, the two won’t have a problem co-existing as the No. 2 and No. 3 corners on the roster.

    Behind the Broncos’ top three corners, however, the depth chart gets a little more blurry. Omar Bolden, Tony Carter, Quentin Jammer and Kayvon Webster will all be in the mix for the No. 4 spot as the offseason progresses.

    Say what you will about Denver’s suspect secondary in the playoffs, but it certainly won’t be lacking either depth or talent heading into 2013.

    To revisit the Baltimore game, third-year safety Rahim Moore took a lot of heat for his misplay of Joe Flacco’s game-tying 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones in that contest, but those are the types of mistakes young safeties are prone to in their formative years. As a whole, Moore’s 2012 campaign was extremely promising, and while fans won’t soon forget that play, they should at least give the 23-year-old a chance to redeem himself in 2013.

    With Moore not in much danger of losing his starting job, the only other question mark in Denver’s secondary is who lines up next to him.

    Quinton Carter could be the answer, but the aforementioned Jammer is expected to move to safety this offseason after spending 11 seasons at corner for the San Diego Chargers. Along with incumbent Mike Adams, Denver will be trying out a trio of candidates that should yield at least one good option for the position going forward.

    As it stands, Adams has to be considered the returning starter until facts prove otherwise, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect Jammer or Carter to usurp him by the start of the season.

Ball of Confusion

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    Until John Fox announces his intentions for the running back position, Denver’s starting rusher will remain very much up for grabs.

    It seems unlikely Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno (as well as Ronnie Hillman) will be uprooted by a rookie rusher, but the Broncos didn’t select Montee Ball in the second round to have him stand on the sidelines in 2013. If Denver’s incumbent trio doesn’t prove itself worthy in the offseason, Ball could be in for a big workload this season.

    But for all the talk of McGahee’s early exit last season and the ineffectiveness of Moreno in his young NFL career, the tandem could be much improved provided McGahee makes a full recovery from his torn MCL and fractured right leg and Moreno builds off a few quality performances in McGahee’s relief.

    As it stands, consider it a good problem to have.

    With Hillman showing flashes of tremendous potential last season and Ball now in the fold, the Broncos won’t be lacking young talent at the position. The only question is which player emerges as the starter behind Peyton Manning.

    Again, there’s no guarantee Ball earns the starting role entering the season, but with Fox taking no time to get the Wisconsin product in the mix this offseason, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise. At the very least, Denver will enter the 2013 campaign with a few very capable options and a lot of upside in the backfield.

    Look for McGahee’s role to diminish this season as a result of wear and tear while Moreno once again fills a complementary role in the offense. By the end of the 2013 season, Ball and Hillman could be the new faces of Denver’s running game and a crucial component to a more balanced offensive attack.

Peyton's Posse

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    Like its running back corps, Denver’s complement of receiving threats is extremely deep. With Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme all returning this season, Peyton Manning won’t be without options.

    But the arrival of Wes Welker adds a new element to the equation. With Welker in the mix, Decker will spend much of his time on the outside in 2013, away from the slot where he saw a sizable portion of his offensive snaps in 2012.

    With Welker moving to the slot, Tamme is likely to see a decrease in usage this season after flexing out from the tight end position regularly in 2012. Denver tends to favor Dreessen as its in-line tight end given his superior blocking abilities, and Tamme could be in for a lesser role going forward.

    Again, that’s not a bad thing.

    As productive as Tamme has been in Denver, the addition of Welker gives Denver plenty of depth to work with. As a unit, the Broncos’ top five targets will be extremely hard to cover this season.

    But questions remain as to who adds depth behind the starters.

    After Thomas, Decker and Welker, there isn’t much experience to speak of at the receiver position. Andre Caldwell had some productive years in Cincinnati, but he’s far from a proven option who can make an impact in relief of an injured starter. Greg Orton and Gerell Robinson will also garner some consideration for the No. 4 and No. 5 receiver spots, as well as 2013 first-round pick Tavarres King.

    In an offense controlled by one of the best passers in NFL history, lack of experience beyond Denver’s top three receivers shouldn’t be a big issue, but it’s worth keeping an eye on as the offseason progresses, especially if injuries start to pile up.

Pass-Rushing Production

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    Elvis Dumervil was a huge piece of Denver’s pass-rushing puzzle in the last six seasons, and with the disruptive defensive end now a member of the Ravens, the Broncos have to find a way to augment his production with a player not named Von Miller.

    As long as Miller remains healthy, the Broncos will have half of the equation in place. The linebacker has been as good as expected in his first two years with the team, notching 27 sacks and eight forced fumbles in that span.

    But with Dumervil’s departure, Miller won’t be faced with an easy task this season. As good as the Texas A&M product has been, there’s no denying Dumervil’s impact in opening up opportunities for Miller.

    Former San Diego Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips will go a long way toward replacing some of Dumervil’s pass-rushing production, but he won’t be a full-time starter and will likely play a similar role to that of Miller in Denver’s base packages. Phillips should see plenty of time as a pass-rushing specialist in sub packages, however, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him thrive on passing downs with offenses keying in on Miller.

    The biggest question is whether Derek Wolfe and Robert Ayers can elevate their play at defensive end in 2013.

    Ayers has never quite lived up to expectations, but Wolfe had a terrific 2012 campaign and should see ample action at left defensive end in the Broncos’ base packages this year, especially with the additions of Sylvester Williams and free-agent signee Terrance Knighton at the defensive tackle positions.

    Jack Del Rio will have a lot of options for his blitz packages this season, but it remains to be seen how well the pass-rushing unit will cohere and adapt to the loss of Dumervil and his 10.6 sacks per season with the team.

    Look for Phillips to provide an added pass-rushing element to the linebacking corps this year with Wolfe making additional strides to replace some of Dumervil’s production at defensive end. Ayers may again have a shaky season in 2013, but the Broncos aren’t without defensive line depth to ease the sting and make their biggest offseason loss a little less troubling. 

2013 Schedule

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    2013 Denver Broncos Schedule
    Week Date Opponent Time (ET)
    TV
    1 Sept. 5
    vs. Baltimore Ravens 
    8:30 p.m.
    NBC
    2 Sept. 15
    at New York Giants 4:25 p.m.
    CBS
    3 Sept. 23
    vs. Oakland Raiders 8:40 p.m. ESPN
    4 Sept. 29 vs. Philadelphia Eagles 4:25 p.m. FOX
    5 Oct. 6 at Dallas Cowboys 
    4:25 p.m. CBS
    6 Oct. 13 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars 1 p.m. 
    CBS
    7 Oct. 20 at Indianapolis Colts 8:30 p.m.
    NBC
    8 Oct. 27 vs. Washington Redskins 4:25 p.m.
    FOX
    9 Nov. 3 BYE WEEK
    10 Nov. 10 at San Diego Chargers 4:25 p.m.
    CBS
    11 Nov. 17 vs. Kansas City Chiefs 4:05 p.m.
    CBS
    12 Nov. 24 at New England Patriots 8:30 p.m.
    NBC
    13 Dec. 1 at Kansas City Chiefs 1 p.m. CBS
    14 Dec. 8 vs. Tennessee Titans 4:05 p.m.
    CBS
    15 Dec. 12 vs. San Diego Chargers 8:25 p.m.
    NFL Network
    16 Dec. 22
    at Houston Texans 1 p.m. CBS
    17 Dec. 29
    at Oakland Raiders 4:25 p.m. CBS

     

    *For a complete look at Denver's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    Save for the loss of Dumervil and addition of Welker, the Broncos didn’t have a flashy offseason. What they did, however, was create additional sustainability for a roster already oozing with tremendous talent.

    With Manning at the helm, there really isn’t a ceiling to what Denver can do in the AFC this season. With a full season (and additional offseason) to work with the team, the All-Pro signal-caller could look even more impressive at the helm of the Broncos offense in 2013.

    The biggest factor for Denver’s potential success this season will be its schedule, though.

    Although the AFC West got noticeably better this offseason (namely in Kansas City), Denver is head and shoulders above the rest of the division. The Broncos don’t face a divisional opponent they should lose a game to in 2013.

    With non-divisional matchups against the Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, Denver also faces a few very favorable matchups that should yield some comfortable victories. There are, of course, some difficult games on the slate this season, but there isn’t a team on the schedule Denver can’t beat.

    Given the Broncos’ solid offseason, there’s no reason to believe they can’t come close to matching their 2012 regular-season success with a similar 2013 campaign.

     

    Prediction: 13-3, First in AFC West

    Matchups with the New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots will provide some interesting challenges for the Broncos. Denver is certainly capable of beating all four teams, but it’s more likely Manning’s squad escapes that group of games with at least one loss.

    On Sundays in the NFL, no team is guaranteed a victory. Even with a tremendously talented roster, there’s no certainty the Broncos win every game in which they’re favored.

    Look for Denver to traverse most of the schedule unscathed with only a few blemishes in the loss column and another first-round bye entering the playoffs this year. At the very least, the Broncos should tally 12 wins and an AFC West title.