The NFL returns this week as we will see the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos kick things off Thursday night from Sports Authority Field at Mile High. No doubt Denver will be looking to reverse their 38-35 overtime loss to the Ravens back in January in the divisional round of the playoffs. But what guys do the Broncos need to gel in order to repeat last year's regular-season success?
The Running Backs
One of Denver's main concerns following Willis McGahee's departure has been who will step up at the running back position.
Ronnie Hillman, a second-year running back out of San Diego State, has been named the starter over Knowshon Moreno and rookie Montee Ball. However, you can expect to see the three RBs get their fair share of carries.
No one back has an extensive résumé, leaving questions surrounding all three. Hillman, who according to the Broncos official depth chart will get the start Thursday night, had 85 carries for 330 yards and one touchdown in 14 games played last season.
Moreno, in his fifth year out of Georgia, has 604 carries for only 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns through four seasons. And it remains to be seen how rookie Montee Ball will handle the speed and size of the NFL.
Hillman showed some flashes during the preseason, but he also had his share of struggles. Hillman only averaged 2.6 yards per carry and had two fumbles in the second week of the preseason against Seattle. Despite the struggles, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that Denver still has confidence in their starter.
On Ronnie Hillman: He never fumbled in camp practices, only games. Broncos added ball security drills for all RBs. Remain confident in him— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 3, 2013
Other than Edgerrin James, quarterback Peyton Manning never really had an explosive running back during his tenure in Indianapolis. So if the Broncos struggle in the run game, fans shouldn't panic. But having an emphasized running game is becoming more and more of an importance to the passing game in the NFL.
Derek Wolfe, Defensive End
With the "accidental" release of Elvis Dumervil—who, coincidentally, is now a Baltimore Raven—and the suspension of Von Miller, the Denver defense now has a hole in the pass rush. Someone is going to have to step up and provide pressure.
Enter Derek Wolfe, the second-year man out of Cincinnati. The 6'5", 285-pound defensive end had 26 tackles last season with 6.0 sacks. Wolfe will be heavily leaned on this season, especially during Miller's absence, to provide this pressure.
Shawn Drotar, sports-talk radio host at 104.3 the Fan in Denver, provided this about Wolfe:
Hearing Derek Wolfe say he'll be ready next week is terrific; without Von Miller, he might be the most irreplaceable player on the defense.— Shawn Drotar (@sdrotar) August 30, 2013
Wolfe's production, for at least the first six games, will be vital to the Broncos' success.
Wes Welker, Wide Receiver
The 10th-year receiver is now adjusting to catching passes from Peyton Manning as opposed to his former quarterback Tom Brady. Welker had this to say in an interview with NFL.com's Marc Sessler, on Manning:
"It's everything you thought," Welker said of Manning. "The balls are just so accurate and you come out of your break and the ball is just there. It's almost like a long handoff sometimes. He definitely makes it easy on you."
Let's be honest, as long as Peyton Manning is taking snaps, the Denver Broncos will be a threat in the AFC. Manning, now in his second year in Denver, won't have the hypothetical "rust" to shake off as he did last season.
And now, with the acquisition of longtime rival Wes Welker added to Manning's arsenal, despite questions on defense and at the running back position, it's hard to not view Denver as the AFC favorite.