The Denver Broncos enter the season with high expectations.
LVH Superbook lists the Broncos—along with the Patriots and Niners—as the favorites to win the Super Bowl in 2014, with 5-1 odds.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that the Broncos finished the 2012 regular season with a 13-3 record—tied for the best record in the league—and possess the league's best quarterback, who finished as a runner-up in MVP voting.
A lot of it also has to do with Denver's newcomers through free agency and the draft.
Although the Broncos were one of the most complete teams in the NFL—they finished in the top five in offensive and defensive points per game—they weren't satisfied after losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in heartbreaking fashion in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Broncos picked up such veterans as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Louis Vasquez and the biggest free agent of all of the Broncos' signings, slot man Wes Welker.
Through the draft, Denver filled some key voids by drafting Sylvester Williams in the first round and drafting defensive Quanterus Smith with a late-round pick to help fill the pass-rushing void left by Elvis Dumervil.
But the selection that got the most attention—especially now with a strong performance during OTAs and minicamp—is running back Montee Ball.
The Broncos return most of the same nucleus that landed them the best record in the league, except with a few new faces. Of the veterans and rookies that are new to Denver's camp in 2013, Welker and Ball have received the most attention.
With Willis McGahee's release last week, Ball is now in the driver's seat to be Denver's starting running back 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.
As for Welker, he's a proven veteran in the NFL. Clearly the league's best slot receiver for the last half-decade, Welker averaged 112 catches while playing with Tom Brady from 2007 to 2012 in New England's high-octane offense.
Via Lindsay Jones of USA Today:
This is just the beginning stages of (Welker) getting comfortable in this offense, and he and I getting on the same page. We put a lot of time in together as individuals, but just versus air. We spent a lot of time talking as well. Now that we're going against the defense, we'll continue to learn, and there will be some things we have to work through, but that's what OTAs and training camp are for.
We know Manning and the coaching staff figure to use both players in prominent roles this season. The question is—who figures to be more critical to the team's success in 2013?
The Argument for Ball
McGahee's release last week opened up the running back competition.
Although the Broncos currently have seven running backs on the roster after the veteran's release, there are only three guys that figure to have a legitimate chance at being Denver's starting running back during the 2013 season—Ball, Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno.
Hillman likely won't be the starting running back, as his frame and skill set dictate that he should be a change-of-pace back in the NFL. At just 5'9" and 195 pounds, Hillman does have great speed, but he would be best served as a complement to a team's starting running back.
Moreno has starting experience through his first four seasons in the NFL with the Broncos, but coming off yet another serious knee injury suffered in the playoffs, combined with his lackluster running skills—he averaged just 3.8 yards a carry in 2012—the Broncos may prefer to start Ball.
When discussing the running back competition between Hillman and Ball, coach John Fox had this to say to Mike Klis of the Denver Post: "They'll determine the reps they get. They're getting good instruction out here right now, but we're still out here in our underwear."
The Argument for Welker
Unlike Ball, who enters his first season in the NFL this year, Welker is a proven commodity.
A nine-year NFL veteran who led the NFL in receptions in three different seasons, Welker has the slot receiver position locked up after the Broncos allowed Brandon Stokley to walk in free agency.
The Broncos ranked second in the league in points per game in 2012—behind none other than the Welker and Tom Brady-led New England Patriots—ranking third in the league in passing touchdowns and fifth in the league in passing yards.
Denver utilized a three-wide look for 64 percent of its snaps, by far its most-used personnel grouping.
Outside of Denver's heavy dependence upon the three-wide personnel, Manning has a history of utilizing numerous receivers in the passing game, including a heavy dependence upon the slot receiver.
In 2004 with the Colts, Manning completed 86 passes to Marvin Harrison, 77 passes to Reggie Wayne and 68 passes to slot receiver Brandon Stokley.
So even with two proven pass-catchers on the outside—Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker—Welker will be a huge part of Denver's offensive game plan in 2013.
We know Welker will be Denver's slot receiver, barring injury, in 2013.
We don't know if Ball will be the starting running back in 2013, as he'll have to compete with Moreno, Hillman and several other backs in order to claim that job.
But let's assume Ball does the expected and wins the starting running back job. The situation becomes pretty simple then.
Welker, as a slot receiver, will have a huge impact on Denver's success through the air. Ball will have a huge impact in the ground game because he is the starting running back.
The question can now be asked, "Who will be more critical to the team's success?".
You have to now take into account the Broncos' offensive balance. And let's just say they're pretty damn well-balanced.
Despite all of the praise that has been heaped Manning's way, the Broncos threw the ball 588 times last season—10th-most in the league—while running the ball 481 times—ninth-most in the league. So contrary to popular belief, it wasn't just Manning that carries the Broncos' offense; he had a little bit of help too.
Here's where the stats show a little more disparity in favor of the passing game—the Broncos finished third in the league in passing touchdowns with 37. Denver finished 13th in rushing touchdowns with 12.
To further illustrate the Broncos' efficiency when passing the football in comparison to their efficiency when running the football, let's take into consideration yards per attempt. The Broncos finished first in the league in net yards per attempt while finishing 25th in the league in rushing yards per attempt.
Needless to say—as has been the case for many of Manning's offenses over the years—the Broncos rely more on the success and efficiency of the passing game in comparison to the running game.
Who Will Be More Critical to the Team's Success?
Denver's offense will go as Peyton Manning goes.
Manning runs the show, makes his entire supporting cast better, and as evidenced by the Colts' 2011 showing without Manning—2-14 record—his teams succeed based upon his success.
Ball will obviously be affected by Manning's presence in a positive way, although as a running back, the key to Ball's success will mostly hinge on the offensive line.
But the Broncos' offensive identity is pretty clear—they like to pass the ball, and they utilize three wide receivers while doing it.
Denver succeeded in 2012 with a below-average running game and a top-tier passing game. With a four-time NFL MVP taking snaps under center, if the Broncos are to succeed again in 2013, it will be due to the passing game and not the running game.
Which means that Welker will be more critical to his team's success this upcoming season when compared to Ball.