Setting Realistic Expectations for Each Denver Broncos Signing
In Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seahawks exposed the weaknesses throughout the Broncos' roster during a 43-8 beatdown on the game's biggest stage.
Anybody who watched that game knew the Broncos would need to make changes in order to have a chance at winning the Lombardi Trophy next season.
No one could have imagined a better start to the free-agency period than what actually has transpired.
A week has passed since the free-agency period began, and the Broncos have made perhaps the biggest impact of any team in the NFL so far.
The team has not only made changes to its roster, it has done so with four major impact signings—defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders have all signed with the Broncos within the first week of free agency.
These big-money contracts offered to veteran players, have some comparisons to the 1994 San Francisco 49ers team that made several big-name acquisitions through free agency on its way to a Lombardi Trophy that very season.
The Broncos are hoping the end result to the 2014 season is what the Niners experienced following the end of the 1994 season.
Here's what to expect out of the Broncos' major signings through free agency so far.
WR Andre Caldwell
The most unheralded of the Broncos' five signings so far has been the re-signing of wide receiver Andre Caldwell.
Believe it or not, Caldwell will be entering his third season with the Broncos in 2014.
Caldwell signed with the Broncos before the 2012 season with the expectation that he'd be the team's slot receiver with the arrival of Peyton Manning. Needless to say, Caldwell did not meet expectations as Brandon Stokley won the slot receiver job, and Caldwell caught just one pass in eight games played in 2012.
In 2013, the Broncos receiver started to show a little bit more of the ability that led the team to sign him to a two-year deal. The six-year receiver caught 16 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
The first signing of the Broncos' offseason was Caldwell. Less than a week later, the Broncos signed fellow receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Before Sanders was signed, it was expected that Caldwell would see a larger role within the offense with the departure of Eric Decker as the No. 2 receiver. With Sanders now in the fold, there's a question of exactly what role Caldwell will serve with the Broncos in 2014.
With the type of vertical offense the Broncos operate with Peyton Manning at quarterback, expect Caldwell to serve as the No. 4 receiver the way Jabar Gaffney served the same role with the 2007 New England Patriots.
Gaffney caught 36 passes for 449 yards and five touchdowns while serving a pivotal role on one of the NFL's greatest offenses in history.
Expect the 2014 Denver Broncos to continue to be explosive on offense. With Julius Thomas a key part of the passing game, however, don't expect Caldwell's to exactly replicate Gaffney's.
Expectation for Caldwell: No. 4 receiver
Projected Stats: 25 receptions, 300 yards, four touchdowns
WR Emmanuel Sanders
As mentioned in the previous slide, the Broncos signed Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
With the signing, Sanders is expected to replace the departed Eric Decker. The question is, does Sanders line up as the No. 2 receiver or in the slot?
With both Sanders and Wes Welker possessing the ability to play the slot position, the Broncos will likely play Sanders both in the slot and on the outside. The Broncos already have so many wrinkles to their offensive formations, that adding Sanders will just bring another dimension to the offense.
The former Steelers receiver started on-and-off for the team the past two seasons, catching 67 passes for 740 yards and six touchdowns.
The concern here is size—Sanders is just 5'11" and 180 pounds.
Welker is 5'9" and Andre Caldwell is 6'0". Decker stands at 6'3" and along with the 6'3" Demaryius Thomas, posed matchup problems for opposing defensive backs.
The question becomes, can Denver's offense be as lethal next season with three of their four top wide receivers being undersized?
Expectation for Sanders: No. 2/Slot Receiver
Projected Stats: 60 Passes, 700 Yards, five touchdowns
SS T.J. Ward
Safety T.J. Ward was the Broncos' second signing of the free agency period.
The signing of Ward can be considered a bargain deal considering he's being paid $23 million over four years. Ward was named a Second-Team NFL All-Pro in 2013.
Ward graded out as the third-best safety in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Ward plays the strong safety position, and it would come as no shock if he replaces incumbent starter Duke Ihenacho in the starting lineup.
The strong safety's biggest asset is his physicality. In Super Bowl XLVIII, Seahawks safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas were physical with Denver's receivers.
Eric Decker had one catch for six yards, while Julius Thomas had four catches for 27 yards.
The Broncos hope Ward can bring that same type of physicality and intimidation if the Broncos are to return to the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 2014 season.
Expectation for Ward: Starting Strong Safety
Projected Stats: 95 tackles, two interceptions
CB Aqib Talib
The Broncos signed former New England Patriots CB Aqib Talib to the largest guaranteed money contract for a corner in NFL history. Talib is guaranteed a total sum of $26 million.
The amount of money and the length of the contract seems a bit much considering Talib's injury history. Over the course of six NFL seasons, Talib has never played all 16 games in a single season.
Due to the Broncos failing in its attempt to re-sign Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Broncos offered a contract to Talib to take over as the Broncos' No. 1 cornerback.
According to Pro Football Focus, Talib ranked 21st of all players at his position in opposition catch rate and opposition quarterback rating.
As mentioned in the PFF article, Talib ranks highly in all of the major categories used to measure cornerbacks. The question is, will his presence make much of a difference in Denver's defensive backfield?
In 2013, the Broncos had both Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris Jr. play at a high level. The Broncos still ranked just 27th in pass defense and allowed 43 points in the Super Bowl versus the Seahawks.
With the release of Champ Bailey and Harris Jr. still a free agent, the Broncos still need to find a quality No. 2 cornerback. Harris was tendered at the second-round level by the Broncos, so one would expect him to return to the team next season. However, he is coming off of a serious ACL injury.
Due to the uncertainty concerning Talib's supporting cast, it's hard to predict his impact without knowing who will be starting alongside him at cornerback in 2014.
Expectation for Talib: No. 1 Cornerback
Projected Stats: 13 games played, 50 tackles, three interceptions
DE DeMarcus Ware
The Broncos' marquee signing in free agency has been defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
The lynchpin of the Dallas Cowboys defense for the past nine years, Ware racked up 117 sacks in his career in Dallas.
Though Ware has played mostly as a 3-4 outside linebacker in his career, he played as a 4-3 defensive end last season for the Cowboys. When the Broncos signed Shaun Phillips last season, Phillips had served the same role with the San Diego Chargers through the first nine seasons of his career. Phillips would end up leading the Broncos in sacks with 10 sacks in 2013.
Ware has never played past the divisional round of the playoffs in his NFL career. By playing on the defending AFC Champions' team, Ware should be more motivated than ever. At the age of 31, his career is dwindling down.
Though Ware had just six sacks in 13 games played in 2013, the nine-year sack artist isn't slowing down. He had 11.5 sacks in 2012 when he was healthy.
Ware will be the Broncos' true impact signing of free agency. Expect him to have a huge season and allow other players on the Broncos' defense, such as Von Miller, to play at an even higher level.
Expectation for Ware: Starting Right Defensive End
Projected Stats: 15 sacks