The Denver Broncos are going to have a different look in 2014. Their 2013 season came up short, but the team is hoping to make the right moves, promote the right players and get back to the Super Bowl.
They have approximately a two-year window with Peyton Manning at quarterback.
The team must be in a win-now mode. They'll be trying to do something in 2014 that hasn't been done in the NFL since 1993. The Buffalo Bills were the last team to make it back to the Super Bowl the year after losing it.
Denver has some tough decisions to make in free agency. They could look for some bargain-bin free agents, or they could make bold moves to add top-tier talent.
After that, they will look to fill additional holes on the roster through the 2014 NFL draft. The decisions they make in free agency will impact the selections they make in the draft.
In order to make it back to the Super Bowl, the Broncos will need to have breakout players in 2014.
Let's take a look at who some of those players could be.
The Broncos could let Knowshon Moreno walk in free agency. This would leave a huge gap at the running back position in 2014. The player most likely to fill that gap would be Montee Ball.
He was a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft with the idea that he would one day be the team’s featured runner. Ball did not win the starting job in training camp, and he suffered through an up-and-down rookie season.
Ball finished the year with 120 carries for 561 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. He was also targeted 27 times as a receiver, catching 20 passes for 145 yards.
His most impressive stat might be the 239 yards after contact he had in 2013. Ball led all rookie running backs with an average of 1.99 yards after contact per rush.
Equally impressive is Ball’s first-down per-rush percentage. He ranked third in the NFL (and was the top running back) with 29.2 percent of his carries moving the sticks.
As his rookie season went on, Ball improved as a runner. He became more decisive and got used to the speed of the pro game. Ball also improved his pass protection as the season continued. This skill will help him get on the field early and often in the upcoming season.
At the Broncos' end-of-the-season press conference, Vice President of Football Operations John Elway commented on Ball being ready for a larger role moving forward.
Well, I think he gained experience each week. [We] still have high hopes for Montee, think that he’s going to be a very good back. He was young and he grew up a lot this year. There is no question, we have high expectations out of Montee.” Elway continued, “We’ll see how things flush out with [RB] Knowshon [Moreno]. We have some young backs—Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. We’ll see how that all flushes out. It’s a position that we have a lot of very good competition. We’ve got good football players at that position.
In 2014 we could really see Ball start playing up to his full potential.
We’ve seen other star running backs have struggles making an impact as rookies. Jamaal Charles (Kansas City Chiefs) only ran for 357 yards during his 2008 rookie season. Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens), also a rookie in 2008, only had 454 yards rushing. The next season, both backs had over 1,000 yards rushing. Ball could take a similar step.
Getting quality production out of a young defensive tackle just takes time in the NFL. The Broncos have learned that lesson before with 1997 first-round pick Trevor Pryce. They’re going through that transition again with 2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams.
The rookie from North Carolina started off slowly in 2013. He was active for only 13 games this year, but he seemed to steadily improve as the year went on. He played in 287 snaps this season, earning more playing time after the season-ending injury to Kevin Vickerson in Week 12.
Williams finished his rookie year with 19 tackles, two sacks and two dropbacks disrupted. This is nearly identical to the 16 tackles, two-sack season Pryce had as a rookie. Over the next three seasons, Pryce compiled 33.5 sacks. The Broncos want Williams to make a similar transition.
On film, Williams was a standout player in college. He was known as a high-motor player who has great functional strength.
In training camp, Williams immediately stood out to me as a potential impact player. There was one day in camp where Williams flung offensive guard Zane Beadles out of his way like a rag doll. On other plays, Williams would put his opponent on skates to push them back into the pocket.
During the early points of the year, I thought Williams was often guessing which shoulder to attack after the snap. When he was wrong (and he often was), Williams would then try to run around the play in an attempt to get to the ball-carrier. That may have worked in college, but it was not working in the pros.
Later in the year, Williams did a much better job of correctly diagnosing which shoulder of an opponent to attack. This made him appear quicker off the line of scrimmage, and he was more productive.
Williams has the work ethic and desire to be great. We could start seeing some of that potential greatness in 2014.
Malik Jackson is one of my favorite players on the Broncos defense. He’s brash, outspoken and plays with an intensity that inspires his teammates.
Jackson began to break out, playing 559 snaps this season, but I feel his production in 2013 is only the tip of the iceberg.
He finished the year with 42 tackles, six sacks, four batted passes and 10 disrupted dropbacks. Out of 117 second-year defenders in the NFL, Jackson was the third-ranked defensive end with a 1.5 percent disrupted dropback percentage.
Jackson gets off the line quickly, and he can use his hands to disengage from blockers. This allows him to get into the backfield with great regularity. Jackson is relentless in his pursuit of the ball-carrier, and he has the wingspan and closing burst to close any gap in a hurry.
The Broncos need to improve the defensive side of the ball in 2014. A guy like Jackson could help lead the way.
Denver’s defense could use a shot in the arm when it comes to its pass rush. Part of that medication could come from 2013 fourth-round pick Quanterus Smith.
Smith suffered a knee injury during his final season at Western Kentucky, and that injury held him back during camp with the Broncos. He didn’t have his trademark burst and speed to the quarterback. The Broncos are hoping that a year of recovery will help Smith look like his old self.
Denver decided to put Smith on injured reserve in late August when trimming down to a 53-man roster. He played 52 snaps in the team’s fourth preseason game, but it wasn’t enough to earn a spot on the active roster at the beginning of the season.
Smith is known for getting sacks in bunches, but in 2012, he had seven games without a sack. However, Smith did produce in a game against Alabama, collecting three sacks against one of the nation's best offensive lines.
The 2012 Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year was leading the NCAA in sacks in 2012 (12.5) before missing the final two games of the year with a knee injury.
After he was selected, I suggested the Broncos needed to have patience with his pick. I still believe that, and Broncos fans should be excited to see what Smith can do closer to full strength.
Like Quanterus Smith, McCray missed his rookie season. He was placed on season-ending injured reserve after he suffered a thumb injury in the team’s final preseason game. Up to that point, McCray had been consistently turning heads in practice, and he was likely going to make the 53-man roster.
The Broncos added McCray as an undrafted free agent in 2013. He was highly touted coming out of Florida, and the Broncos were able to outbid several other teams for his services. He received a bonus of $17,000 when he signed with the Broncos, a total almost $5,000 more than the next undrafted free agent (C.J. Anderson, $12,500).
Denver was happy to get McCray, and it didn’t take long for him to show his worth on the practice field. McCray is versatile enough to rush the passer from either side of the line. He has excellent burst off the snap, and his length allows him to eat up gaps quickly.
McCray missed nearly two seasons due to various injuries in college. His pro career started with yet another missed season. McCray will need to stay healthy in order to prove that he belongs in the pros.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.