The Denver Broncos are tied for the best record in the NFL this season at 11-2. They sit atop the AFC West and control their road to the Super Bowl. The Broncos are also the top team in the conference, and if they win their final three games, they will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Their offense is producing at a record pace. Peyton Manning has thrown 45 touchdowns this season, and he could surpass the record for touchdown passes in a single season (50, Tom Brady, 2007) at any point in the next three games.
Manning is also on the verge of throwing for over 5,000 yards for the first time in his career. The 4,522 passing yards he has so far this season (in 13 games) represent the fourth-most passing yards he’s had in a single season during his illustrious career.
Knowshon Moreno is enjoying the best season of his career. He’s more mature and focused than he was earlier in his career, and the new mindset has paid off. His 920 rushing yards is the second-highest total he’s had in his career. Moreno could get over 1,000 rushing yards for the first time this season.
Manning’s success through the air equates to his receivers having great seasons as well.
They set a new NFL record with four players who have 10 or more touchdowns this season. They may raise that mark even further if Eric Decker (eight) can reach that total number of touchdowns.
Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker are arguably the best starting trio of wide receivers in the entire league. There’s a chance that all three will go over 1,000 yards receiving this year. Only Welker (778) is short of that mark right now.
Tight end Julius Thomas has been a breakout player this year. The third-year tight end from Portland State has transformed from a former basketball star into one of the best players at his position in the game today.
Defensively the Broncos are battling through injuries and trying to improve each week.
I recently interviewed starting cornerback Chris Harris on my ESPN Radio show Ridin’ Shotgun, and he talked about adversity the defense has overcome this year. “We still haven’t played a complete game defensively.” Harris continued, “Our job is to work hard and improve defensively so we can advance through the playoffs.”
This team is certainly in a Super Bowl window, and they are very well aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
Regardless of what happens this season, the Broncos will have to eventually look toward next year. That will be the time they can look to improve any perceived weakness on the roster.
Let’s take a look at some areas that could be in need of improvement this offseason.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Record/Statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Salary-cap/free-agency information found at OverTheCap.com
In the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Denver Broncos did something many fans felt they should have done. They picked a player with the hopes of strengthening the middle of their defensive line. Sylvester Williams fell to the end of the first round, and the Broncos quickly scooped him up.
Williams recently started the first game of his career when the Broncos battled the Tennessee Titans in Week 14. To this point, his rookie season has been mostly a disappointment.
This doesn’t mean Williams is a bust by any means. Instead, Broncos fans need to have patience with the young defensive tackle as he adapts to the pro game.
It takes time for a defensive tackle to get acclimated to the NFL. The last time the Broncos selected a defensive tackle in the first round, it was 1997, and they drafted Trevor Pryce out of Clemson.
Earlier this year on Twitter, I preached patience for Broncos fans wanting to see more from Williams.
@ivantalavera too early to say that, Trevor Pryce rookie season saw him make 16 tackles, 2 sacks— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) October 27, 2013
Trevor Pryce responded to my take with a couple of tweets of his own.
If they want to select another defensive tackle with a premium pick, the Broncos should have a few options available to them.
Ra'Shede Hageman, from Minnesota, may be there late in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. The redshirt senior has the size, wingspan and athleticism that draw J.J. Watt (Houston Texans) comparisons.
Hageman can push the pocket with brute strength. Despite his size, he doesn’t get too upright after the snap. Hageman will need to improve his motor and stamina in order to live up to his potential as a pro.
If the Broncos wait in the draft, there will be several mid-level talents to choose from.
One I have my eye on is Ken Bishop from Northern Illinois. He has good size to eat up space in the middle, but what makes him stand out is his later agility and nose for the ball.
Bishop can sniff out screen passes, and he’s a disruptive force on both pass and run plays. Most scouts I talk to feel he could be a late-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
With the season-ending injury to Kevin Vickerson, the Broncos need to consider the future of the interior defensive line. Drafting another defensive tackles makes a lot of sense.
You can never have too many quality cornerbacks on the roster. The Broncos will have to make a few decisions with their own free agents first.
Chris Harris is set to be a restricted free agent in 2014. I don’t see the Broncos letting him get away. Harris has been a tremendous find for the team as an undrafted free agent out of Kansas in 2011. He already has a career-high 53 tackles this season. The Broncos should make sure to keep him around.
Champ Bailey may get moved to free safety next year. He’ll likely have to restructure his cap number of $10 million to ensure he makes the final roster.
The Broncos selected Kayvon Webster in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft and have seen mixed results from the rookie corner this year. He’s a big hitter with the size to jam receivers and knock away passes. However, Webster struggles to make a clean transition and has been out of position on several big plays this year.
The Broncos need some help in the secondary, and this draft class may have the answer.
Justin Gilbert, from Oklahoma State, is a playmaker who can impact a game. The senior is considered one of the premiere cornerbacks (and return man) in this year’s draft class. Gilbert could be a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
He’s incredibly athletic, has a nose for the ball and can score when he gets his hands on the football. Gilbert is a quick-twitch athlete who can stay with shiftier wide receivers on underneath routes. He also has the speed to hang with receivers on deep passes.
If the Broncos want to wait on selecting a cornerback, they will have many options.
I feel they could take a late-round flier on Shaquille Richardson from Arizona (transfer from UCLA). Richardson has the size and wingspan that is all the rage for cornerbacks in the NFL.
He’s inconsistent, technically unsound as a tackler and can regularly be picked on by an opposing quarterback. However, his size/speed combination doesn’t come around every day. If they want a developmental prospect, then taking a chance on Richardson could be a plan.
Like cornerbacks, you can never have too many quality pass-rushers on the roster. The Broncos feature Von Miller on defense, one of the best in the game today. However, they need to get him some help—especially if they choose to let Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers go in free agency.
The free-agent class has a couple of intriguing names for the Broncos to consider.
Brian Orakpo (Washington Redskins) is a free agent next year. He was selected one pick after Knowshon Moreno in the 2009 NFL draft. Orakpo may want out of Washington as the team may be searching for a new staff in the offseason.
Denver is an attractive option, and because of Peyton Manning, everyone knows it's in a Super Bowl window. Orakpo’s price tag may be lower than some think. He’s been held back by injuries during his short pro career, and that may keep his new contract somewhat low.
The Panthers selected Hardy in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL draft. This was the last draft John Fox had anything to do with the Panthers.
Hardy has become an impact player for the Panthers and will be looking for a big payday. The Broncos aren’t afraid to pay a premium if the talent is there.
Hardy has 20 sacks (and counting) over the last two years and a history with Fox. This could be a move the Broncos consider to bolster their pass rush in 2014.
This is the position most Broncos fans want fixed. The team couldn’t find an answer at middle linebacker earlier this year, so they moved Wesley Woodyard to that spot.
Woodyard began the season on a hot streak, and he really looked good in his new position. Then Woodyard was hurt with a neck stinger in the game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Many feel he hasn’t quite been the same since then. In fact, Woodyard did not start the game against the Titans in Week 14. Instead, veteran Paris Lenon played with the first team.
Woodyard is a free agent after this season, and his versatility will be highly coveted by teams around the league. He can play any linebacker position in a 4-3 defense but is at his best when playing on the weak side.
Fox talked about Woodyard’s reduced role against the Titans on Monday. “Wesley Woodyard is a great player for us, and he’s done a tremendous job. Wesley Woodyard’s fine. He’s going to play a lot of football for us moving forward. It really doesn’t have much to do with that. It's that the other guys have earned opportunities, and the more guys that you can call on, the better it is for your football team.”
Quality middle linebackers are difficult to find. This year’s draft class has some different options if the team chooses to go in that direction.
Shayne Skov, from Stanford, is considered by some in the scouting community to be the top inside linebacker this year. He’s likely going to be a second-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
Skov is hyper-aggressive and loves to make the big hit. He can diagnose the play quickly as it unfolds in front of him, and he gets to the ball in a hurry.
He showed better explosiveness this year after a torn ACL ended his 2011 season. A player like Skov may be exactly what this team needs in the middle of the defense.
If the Broncos wait at the position, then drafting a player like DeDe Lattimore, from South Florida, makes sense.
Lattimore has been a tackling machine in college. He’s not afraid of contact, in fact he welcomes it. Lattimore can also make plays in coverage as he has high football intelligence and is not out of position that often.
He’s likely to be a mid- to late-round pick in this draft.
The Broncos have to work hard to locate their next “Smoke Dog” Al Wilson. They haven’t been the same on defense since Wilson was forced to retire after a neck injury he sustained in 2006.
Yes, Montee Ball has been playing good football over the last few weeks. Yes, the team may choose to keep Knowshon Moreno around for one more season. That doesn’t mean they won’t look to add another running back to the mix.
The future for Ronnie Hillman is up in the air right now. The second-year back has been inactive for half of the season after fumbling near the goal line in the Week 7 game against the Indianapolis Colts.
C.J. Anderson should be getting some touches. He has an intriguing size/burst combination. At this time, I feel Anderson is the best power back the team has on the roster.
Patience is needed with a guy like Anderson, and he knows it.
@CjAndersonRB9 I know u can ball, just like I knew Julius could ball when I saw him at 2011 Shrine Gm keep grinding man ur talent will rise!— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) December 5, 2013
If the Broncos add a running back in the draft, I feel they need to go for someone with size. Power backs aren’t as plentiful as they used to be, but this draft class has two of my favorites.
James Wilder Jr. from Florida State has the ability to be an impact player at the NFL level. He runs with little regard for his body and will absolutely smash a defender.
Wilder is a true power back who could be a workhorse if called upon. He’s played in a running-back-by-committee during his time at Florida State so the mileage on his body is somewhat low.
Tyler Gaffney from Stanford has a nice blend of power and all-around ability. Through 13 games this year, Gaffney has nine 100-yard rushing performances. Although not used much as a receiver, he can be counted on as a receiver when asked.
Gaffney missed last year so he could pursue a minor league baseball career. Like Wilder, the mileage is low, and the talent level is high.
The Broncos have selected a running back in back-to-back drafts. They could make it three in a row by taking Wilder or Gaffney in the middle rounds of the 2014 NFL draft.