10 Things We Learned About the Denver Broncos During Preseason
The preseason does matter! It won't determine exactly how a team will do in the regular season, but it does allow us to gain insight.
The Denver Broncos have a "Super Bowl or bust" mantra that each player understands and adheres to. During the preseason we saw heated position battles, injuries, trades for depth, surprising young players and some disappointing veterans.
Let's take a look at what we learned about the Broncos from the 2013 preseason.
Pass Protection Is a Must
Peyton Manning is the most important player on the Broncos roster. The team guaranteed him $40 million over the next two years after he passed his physical earlier this year in March. Keeping the 37-year-old upright and protected is priority number one for the Broncos.
During the preseason we saw the Broncos make multiple additions to the offensive line. Dan Koppen was re-signed as a free agent but was soon lost for the year to a knee injury. Steve Vallos, Ryan Lilja and John Moffitt were all added with varying results. Vallos and Moffitt made the final roster while Lilja ended up getting released when the Broncos announced their 53-man roster.
This preseason we saw a heated battle for the starting running back position. Ronnie Hillman enters the regular season at the top of the depth chart even though he fumbled three times in the preseason. Perhaps the team felt they couldn't yet trust rookie Montee Ball in pass protection.
During the second preseason game against the Seahawks, a missed block by Ball caused Manning to get slammed to the ground by linebacker Bobby Wagner.
After that game I asked offensive coordinator Adam Gase which was more important, pass blocking or ball security? This was his answer:
"I’d say both are equally as important. For ball security, when the ball is in your hand it can’t be on the ground. What happened the other day? I’m telling you—unacceptable. It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen anymore. We’re not going to put the ball on the ground, or else they’re not going to carry it. In pass protection, their job is to make sure 18 [QB Peyton Manning] doesn’t get touched, and that’s what they’re going to do."
With Hillman winning the starting job it seems like pass protection is of more importance than ball security.
The Broncos are a Super Bowl contender with Peyton Manning under center. They may struggle to win the division if he misses a huge chunk of time. The Broncos know their fate is in the hands of Manning and they must protect him at all costs.
Fast Tempo Is the Name of the Game
The Broncos are going to put the pedal to the metal in 2013. The uptempo offense is all the rage in the NFL and we'll see a version of that in Denver.
Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase said in a post preseason game press conference that the team will use tempo as another weapon for the offense. Sometimes they'll speed things up, sometimes they'll slow things down:
"I think our ability to move in and out of any speed packages is good. We’ll slow it down some. I don’t want to say that it’s going to be this high tempo that everyone’s talking about. We’ve just got the tools to move in and out of speeds as we go during the season."
Essentially, the Broncos are going to look for defensive packages to exploit and then turn on the jets. They've been practicing at a higher pace this offseason and it shows up on the field. They were running plays so fast in practice that I could barely scribble notes down per play during training camp.
The Broncos have an already dangerous offense with Peyton Manning and their trio of star receivers. By using an uptempo offense they could take the league by storm in 2013.
Peyton Manning's Arm Looks Good
Last year many questioned whether or not Peyton Manning could make it through an entire season after undergoing four procedures on his neck in 2011. This year Manning came out firing in the offseason.
During May minicamps I noted that Manning's arm looked stronger than it did last year. He was getting passes to the sidelines quickly and was even overthrowing receivers on go routes.
"I think (the ball) coming to you quicker can be he reads and comfort level with the receivers, too," Decker said. "But I think some of those throws that he fits in the holes, you feel a little more zip on it and he is getting it to you quicker."
Fans need to understand that arm strength is different from velocity. Arm strength determines the distance a pass will travel. Velocity is how tightly the ball is spun and how the spiral comes off a quarterback's hand.
Manning doesn't have arm strength questions but velocity can still be an issue from time to time. Improper velocity can lead to passes that travel awkwardly and hang in the air.
The biggest question for the Broncos is how Manning will throw in cold weather games. We won't know that until later in the season.
Brock Osweiler Is the Quarterback of the Future
Entering his second year there were some who questioned whether or not Brock Osweiler was the quarterback of the future for the Denver Broncos. During this preseason Osweiler quieted the critics and showed that he has developed quite a bit from his rookie season.
Coming out of Arizona State Osweiler showed a strong arm and mobility to extend plays. However, he had the release point of a 6'1" quarterback even though he stands at 6'7". Osweiler also threw flat footed or off his back foot way too often.
Osweiler worked with Adam Gase last year to clean up both of those problems. A better release point leads to fewer batted passes near the line of scrimmage. Improved footwork will increase Osweiler's accuracy when throwing downfield.
I feel if Osweiler had stayed in college and come out in 2013 he could have been a top 15 pick in the NFL draft.
During the preseason he moved the offense and looked good when getting an opportunity to run the first team. Osweiler is not a finished product but so far he has made improvements to his game that make me believe he is the quarterback of the future for the Broncos.
The Broncos Will Platoon Their Running Backs
The Denver Broncos went through training camp trying to find a starting running back. They have two primary options in second-year running back Ronnie Hillman and 2013 second-round pick Montee Ball.
During the preseason we saw Hillman flash speed, quickness and improved pass protection skills. We also saw him cough up the ball three times, two of those fumbles were returned for touchdowns.
Ball got a bigger opportunity after Hillman's fumble problems arose but didn't really show incredible ability. He was good near the goal line and looked good as a receiver out of the backfield. However, Ball was poor in pass protection and got Peyton Manning crushed by Bobby Wagner when he missed a pass block.
Hillman is listed at the top of the depth chart to start the regular season. The term starter is more of a ceremonial term as offensive coordinator Adam Gase keeps insisting the team will use a committee approach at running back:
“I would say that the group as a whole is about as good a group as you want and I know [Head] Coach Fox just talked about those guys being 1, 1A however you want to look at it those guys are battling. We don’t have a guy that’s going be a 30-carry guy and we pretty much said, ‘Hey this is going to be by committee type backfield.’ We’ve never shied away from that and right now those three guys (RBs Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno) have done a good job of handling the workload whatever they’re asked to do. If it’s an eight play drive they’re trying to stay in there for all eight plays.”
As Andrew Mason from DenverBroncos.com pointed out earlier this year the team could platoon their backs per series. This will allow the team to keep running their hurry-up offense since they won't need to substitute.
Wes Welker Is Going to Have a Huge Role on Offense
During his time in New England he was among the most heavily targeted receivers in the game. Even though the Broncos have a trio of star wide receivers there are going to be plenty of targets for the new guy.
Welker may not catch 120 passes for the Broncos in 2013 but catching 85-plus is not out of the question. He can help the Broncos out as an underneath receiver who can get open with ease. This will help keep the chains moving for the Broncos and their uptempo offense.
During short yardage situations Welker can run a jerk route and break free from coverage nearly 100 percent of the time.
Out at training camp Welker's moves were so quick that it made my ankles hurt just watching him. He is quick in and out of his breaks and has good speed when running after the catch.
The Broncos didn't show us every way they're going to use Welker in the preseason but we got enough of an idea to know his role will be huge in 2013.
Julius Thomas Is the Real Deal
Julius Thomas had incredible upside when the Broncos selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft. The former basketball star from Portland State has a nice blend of size and speed.
Thomas missed most of his first two years in the league due to an ankle injury suffered during his rookie season. Due to the lockout in 2011 Thomas didn't have an offseason regiment with the Broncos. Due to his ankle surgery Thomas missed all of the offseason workouts in 2012. Even though he's a third-year player this is his first offseason where he's been able to practice fully with the team.
Thomas knows how to use his large frame to box out defenders and keep him away from the ball. He can also high point passes like he used to rebound the basketball at Portland State. Thomas is not a freakish athlete like Jimmy Graham, but he does create mismatches every time he's on the field.
With opposing defenses so focused on stopping Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker we should see juicy matchups for Thomas. Peyton Manning has peppered Thomas with passes this offseason and they seem to have established a strong chemistry during the preseason.
That chemistry should carry over to the regular season. Thomas will provide Manning with a quality and reliable target to look to in 2013.
Pass-Rushers Are Thin
The Denver Broncos were already thin at the pass-rusher position after losing Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens in free agency. That position took an even bigger hit when it was announced that Von Miller would miss the first six games of the regular season due to a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
This offseason the Broncos added veteran Shaun Phillips in free agency. He originally was going to work nicely as a part-time pass-rusher. Now he'll see a bigger role than initially expected. It will be interesting to see how Phillips responds to this expanded role. The team needs him to get around 10 sacks this season.
Second-year defensive end Derek Wolfe will be counted on as more of a pass-rusher this year too. Wolfe suffered a scary neck injury in the preseason but is back at practice and ready to go for the season opener. He flashed as a rookie in 2012 and the team is hoping he can continue to grow and develop as a defender.
Behind Wolfe the team is looking to get Malik Jackson in the mix as a part time pass-rusher. He lacks refined moves as a pass-rusher but gets by on a nasty attitude and hustle. The team needs Jackson to provide them some extra pressure when he gets onto the field.
Wesley Woodyard Can Play Any Linebacker Position
Earlier in the offseason the Broncos coaching staff insisted the middle linebacker position would come down to either Nate Irving or Steven Johnson. That plan was scrapped after a couple of weeks of camp as neither Irving nor Johnson impressed in the middle.
In steps veteran weak-side linebacker Wesley Woodyard. The team has now moved him to the middle of the defense and he's shown outstanding ability there.
Woodyard has the athleticism to keep up with opponents in coverage and a nose for the football. He's known as a sound tackler and understands how to scrape and flow to get to the play.
We'll see as the season goes on if Woodyard can stand up to the punishment a middle linebacker takes throughout the year.
Duke Ihenacho Is a Force at Strong Safety
The Denver Broncos have a bright young star in second-year strong safety Duke Ihenacho. He was the star of training camp and worked his way up the depth chart like a rocket during the month of August.
Ihenacho is a big hitter and he loves to punish opponents. He can separate the ball from the ball carrier and is known as an intimidating force on the football field.
Not only does Ihenacho make big plays, but he also talks about his game non-stop. He talks a big game but he backs it up, too.
The Broncos needed answers at the safety position and the emergence of Ihenacho gives them more punch than they had last year.