Denver Broncos: Grading Denver's Positional Units at the First Quarter Mark
The Denver Broncos reach the first-quarter mark of the NFL season as arguably the best team in the NFL. So far, Peyton Manning and company have looked nearly unstoppable on offense. The Broncos defense is playing well despite missing Champ Bailey due to an injury and Von Miller due to a suspension.
Through four games the team is undefeated, and they’re setting offensive records each week. Manning has 16 touchdown passes this year with zero interceptions, and the Broncos have scored more points in four games than all but one team in NFL history.
Broncos head coach John Fox doesn’t pay attention to the stats.
Really the only stat that’s important to me and anybody in that locker room is those W’s and whatever it takes. Each week is a new test, what you did last week has no bearing. We just have to get into the Dallas Cowboys now.
With this high-powered offense, a defense that plays well with the lead and a special teams unit that is among the best in the league, the Broncos sit atop the AFC West with many considering them the favorite to win the AFC.
Let’s take a look at each position on the roster and hand out grades for their performance so far.
This is the easiest grade to hand out on the roster. Peyton Manning has 16 touchdowns in the first four games of the year, a new NFL record for most passing touchdowns in four weeks. He’s just two short of the record for most touchdown passes in the first five games of the year (18, Daunte Cullpepper, 2004 Vikings).
Manning has yet to throw an interception this season, and he’s making it look easy out there every week. He’s on a streak of 27 consecutive games with a touchdown pass thrown, and that streak may continue for quite some time.
Backup quarterback Brock Osweiler has seen some playing time late in blowout victories. We should see him get some more experience as Denver continues to roll through their schedule.
Position Grade: A+
The Broncos rank in the middle of the pack when it comes to rushing the football. Currently they rank 15th in the NFL with an average of 119.3 rushing yards per game. They’re getting those yards by using a three-headed running back by committee.
The lead back in the committee is veteran Knowshon Moreno. He’s the most trusted back on the roster as he’s the best in pass protection. Moreno lacks big play ability, but he won’t have too many plays with negative yards. He’s also a quality receiver out of the backfield.
Ronnie Hillman is the second-year running back with dazzling quickness and speed. He can get to the second level in the blink of an eye, and he has the foot frequency to change direction without losing much speed. Hillman has improved his pass protection, and he’s a good receiver in open space. However, he’s never going to be a pile pusher and struggles to run between the tackles.
Montee Ball was selected in the second-round of the 2013 NFL draft. He’s been a disappointment so far this year and brings up the rear in this committee. The team would like to involve him more, but ball security has been an issue for the rookie. Ball has good balance as an interior runner and a nose for the end zone. He could be mixed in more as the season goes on.
Position Grade: C+
The Broncos have an embarrassment of riches at this position. Their wide receiver corps is chock full of superstar talent, and their top three are playing at an extremely high level in 2013.
Demaryius Thomas has an elite level skill set and is playing up to his potential. He’s arguably one of the top five receivers in the game today, and he has a unique blend of size, speed and athleticism. Thomas is difficult to stop because he can do damage on short routes with his elite run after the catch ability. He can also be used effectively as a deep target.
Wes Welker was the team’s prized free agent addition earlier this year. He has established a strong chemistry with Peyton Manning, and the veteran receiver can get open with ease. Welker has caught a touchdown pass in every game this season.
Eric Decker is taking advantage of single coverage each week. He runs crisp routes and does a good job of coming back to the football. Decker has had a problem with drops this year, but that hasn’t shaken Manning’s confidence in him.
Andre “Bubba” Caldwell is good for about one deep catch per game. He’s a reserve player, but one Manning will target on downfield routes.
Position Grade: A
Julius Thomas has been a standout player this year. The third-year tight end is finally healthy after an ankle injury cost him most of his first two years in the league. The former college basketball star is difficult to match up with. He’s too big for safeties to cover, and he’s too fast for linebackers to cover.
With defenses so preoccupied with the wide receivers, Thomas has been making the most of his opportunities. He’s quickly earned the trust of Peyton Manning, and he will continue to be a big part of the passing game going forward.
Virgil Green has become a good all-purpose tight end, and he makes his biggest impact on the field as a run blocker. Joel Dreessen has returned to the field after two preseason procedures on his knee knocked him out for training camp and the start of the regular season. Jacob Tamme gives the team valuable veteran depth at the position and has been making an impact as a special teams player in 2013.
Position Grade: B
The unit suffered a blow when Ryan Clady was lost for the season after a Week 2 Lisfranc injury. Backup swing tackle Chris Clark has stepped into the starting lineup and has played extremely well. The Broncos haven’t had to give him much help against edge-rushers, and Clark is doing a good job of handling opponents one-on-one.
The interior of the offensive line is strong. Left guard Zane Beadles has been working well as a run-blocker, and he’s improved his game as a pass protector.
Beadles will regularly help center Manny Ramirez handle dominant defensive tackles in the middle of the field. Ramirez has done a good job of holding up against stronger opponents, and he’s only allowed one sack this season.
Right guard Louis Vasquez was a key free agent addition this year. He’s been as good as advertised, especially as a run-blocker.
Right tackle Orlando Franklin is a mauler when opening up holes for the ground game. However, he deserves praise for his play in pass protection. He’s done a good job of stonewalling edge-rushers on the right side.
Position Grade: B+
We’ve seen Robert Ayers take his game to another level in 2013. He wasn’t known for being much of a pass-rusher during his first four seasons in the league.
Entering this season Ayers had six career sacks, and he was known mostly as an edge setter on the outside of the line. So far this season Ayers has 3.5 sacks and recorded the first multiple sack game of his career in Week 3 against the Raiders.
Derek Wolfe hasn’t had the impact some expected so far during his second season. He’s done a good job against the run, but is not making many plays as a pass-rusher.
Malik Jackson is a nasty player on the edge. He plays with a lot of heart and hustle. His moves aren’t pretty, but he creates pressure from the edge with his high motor and determination.
Position Grade: C+
Kevin Vickerson is a disruptive player in the middle of the line. He can regularly take on double teams, allowing the linebackers behind him to make a clean tackle. Vickerson is a high motor player with violent striking hands.
Terrance Knighton has been the most pleasant surprise at this position. He was benched last year during his time with the Jaguars, but in 2013 he has experienced a revival to his career. Most of the time Knighton is immovable in the middle, and he creates problems for opponents who want to pound the rock between the tackles.
Mitch Unrein is a quality reserve player who gets by on incredible effort.
Sylvester Williams was the team’s first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. He’s failed to make much of an impact this year, and was a healthy scratch for the game against the Eagles in Week 4. Williams was known as a hard worker in college, but has been seen taking some plays off as a reserve player in the pros. We’ll see if he can turn it around as the season goes on.
Position Grade: C+
Wesley Woodyard is one of the best players on either side of the ball. The team asked him to move to middle linebacker in training camp, and he has responded with excellent effort and production from his new position.
Woodyard can diagnose plays quickly and understands where an offense is trying to go with the football. He has the speed to get to plays quickly and can wrap up opponents quickly. Woodyard also excels in coverage where he can keep up with athletic tight ends downfield.
Danny Trevathan has been a standout player as a weak-side linebacker. He has really stood out in pass defense. His athleticism and speed come in handy while covering opponents on the edge. So far in 2013 he has four passes defensed and one interception.
Nate Irving was moved from middle linebacker to strong-side linebacker in training camp. He plays in the Broncos base defense and is essentially a part-time player. Irving is a violent tackler who can crush a ball carrier to the ground. Even with limited snaps he’s made plays in run defense, and he’s getting some edge pressure on the quarterback.
Shaun Phillips has helped fill the void left by a suspended Von Miller. His work as a pass-rusher is well known, and Phillips regularly makes quarterbacks uncomfortable. Phillips also needs praise for his vocal leadership. The team has really responded to the veteran’s style, and as a whole they are playing with more fire in 2013.
Paris Lenon and Steven Johnson give the team valuable depth at the linebacker position.
Position Grade: A
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has revitalized his pro career. The Broncos added him in free agency to start opposite Champ Bailey. However, with Bailey’s foot injury costing him every game so far this year it has been Rodgers-Cromartie as the lead cornerback.
Rodgers-Cromartie has his swagger back and is playing with a high level of confidence in 2013. Each week he’s facing the best receivers an opponent has to offer and he’s doing a good job covering his man. Outside of a couple of broken plays, Rodgers-Cromartie has been effectively shutting down opponents.
Chris Harris is one of the best nickel cornerbacks in the game today. With the Bailey injury he’s been asked to do more as a starter opposite Rodgers-Cromartie. Harris has responded by smothering opponents in coverage.
Harris can run with smaller, quicker receivers on downfield routes. He is also a quality run defender who can play close to the line of scrimmage.
Tony Carter is, and always will be, a gambler. He can get burned at times as he loves to take chances in the defensive backfield. However, he can also make impact plays because of his playing style. Carter has done a good job as the nickel corner in 2013.
Kayvon Webster was the Broncos third-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Some felt he may have been picked too high, but Webster is proving those doubters wrong. The rookie is making plays in coverage, but his biggest plays have come as a hitter. He is incredibly physical and becoming an intimidating presence in the defensive backfield.
Position Grade: B+
Rahim Moore is the leader at the safety position. His confidence is at an all-time high and it shows in the way he’s playing in 2013.
Moore is doing a good job of diagnosing plays quickly as they unfold in front of him. He is making plays in coverage as the last line of defense. Moore is also capable of wrapping up running backs who get to the second level.
Duke Ihenacho is a budding star for the Denver Broncos. He’s an intimidator in the defensive backfield who makes opponents pay coming over the middle of the field. Ihenacho is a big hitter, but he’s very adept at knocking away passes in coverage.
He loves to lower the boom on an opponent, but his fundamentals as a tackler do not suffer. Ihenacho is a sound open field tackler who can quickly bring an opponent to the ground.
His vocal style has been a welcome addition to the defense. He makes big plays, and he loves to talk about it on the field.
Mike Adams gives the team veteran depth at the position and is now a reserve player with the emergence of Ihenacho.
David Bruton also gives the team veteran depth, but is incredibly impactful as a special teams player.
Position Grade: B
Trindon Holliday is one of the most dangerous returners in the league today. He is capable of making big plays and energizing the team at any moment.
Holliday had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in Week 2 against the Giants. He also took a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown against the Eagles in Week 4.
Matt Prater is one of the best kickers in the league. He’s 100 percent accurate on both field goals and extra points this year.
Britton Colquitt is an underrated weapon for the Broncos. His strong leg can regularly pin an opponent deep in their own territory.
Position Grade: A+
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand.