Predicting Broncos' Starting Lineup After the First Wave of Free-Agent Signings
The Denver Broncos were among the most active teams during the first week of free agency in the NFL. They were already Super Bowl contenders for 2014, but with big moves in free agency, they have strengthened that position.
The defensive side of the ball was the focus early in free agency.
The first piece of the puzzle was added when the Broncos signed strong safety T.J. Ward. The former Browns standout is known for playing with a fierce attitude. He’ll immediately make the Broncos defense more intimidating.
Next, the Broncos went to the open market for a cornerback. They signed arguably the best available corner at the time when Aqib Talib decided to come aboard. Like Ward, Talib is known as a physical player who can shut down an opponent.
The biggest splash they made in free agency was when they added defensive end Demarcus Ware. He’s likely a future Hall of Fame player who can get after the quarterback. Ware only had six sacks last year, but he played through most of the season with an elbow injury that slowed him down.
If healthy, Ware could be the perfect pass-rushing complement opposite of Von Miller. Ware will also be the mentor to Miller that the team missed when Elvis Dumervil moved on in free agency last year.
Finally, the Broncos went after another weapon on offense when they added Emmanuel Sanders. His speed will be a great asset for their high-powered offense. Sanders is taking over for the departed Eric Decker (Jets), and he should put up career-best numbers in 2014.
The lineup has been shuffled, but the goal remains the same.
Here’s how the depth chart is shaping up now that the first wave of free agents have been signed.
Starter: Peyton Manning
Backups: Brock Osweiler, Zac Dysert
Peyton Manning is the man. The future Hall of Fame quarterback enters his third season with the Denver Broncos in 2014.
What does he do for an encore after shattering single-season passing records last year?
That’s the biggest question for the Broncos. They may strive for more balance offensively, and it would be incredible if Manning outperformed his 2013 season this year.
Manning could still throw for 45 plus touchdowns in offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s system. He may also be able to push for over 5,000 yards passing again, especially with a new big-play weapon in Emmanuel Sanders.
Brock Osweiler is the quarterback of the future, and he patiently waits for his time to shine. Zac Dysert is a second-year pro who struggled to impress last year. A favorite of John Elway, Dysert may be pushed for a roster spot by a rookie in training camp.
Starter: Montee Ball
Backups: C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman, Jerodis Williams
The Broncos seem anxious to get Montee Ball into the starting lineup. Ball was a second-round pick for the Broncos in 2013, and without Knowshon Moreno, he will be the top back for Denver.
The team is unlikely to hand Ball the starting job, so expect a competition in training camp. Ball has to be considered the favorite because of his draft status and because he improved as the season went on last year.
Ball struggled early as a rookie with pass protection and ball security. He seemed to cure his fumbling woes, and Ball did a better job of protecting Peyton Manning late in the year.
He also stopped wasting motion as a runner. Ball was the number one running back in the NFL in first downs per rush percentage (29.2).
Behind Ball, we’ll see a competition for the primary backup spot.
C.J. Anderson has to be considered the favorite for that job right now. Anderson is very powerful, and he has the lower body strength to push the pile. His skill set is most similar to Ball, and he might even have better initial burst.
Behind Anderson there is Ronnie Hillman. He was the number one back for the Broncos last year for most of the offseason. Three fumbles in the preseason, followed by fumbling problems in the regular season, led to him being inactive for about half of the season.
Hillman is different than the other backs because of his speed. That speed alone does not guarantee him a roster spot in 2014.
The Broncos added Jerodis Williams with a reserve-future contract in January.
Expect the Broncos to add a rookie running back to the mix.
Backups: Andre Caldwell, Jordan Norwood, Nathan Palmer, Greg Wilson
When Eric Decker (Jets) moved on in free agency, the Broncos had to make a move to take his spot. They got their man when Emmanuel Sanders was added in free agency.
Sanders brings speed to the team that Decker didn’t possess. He’ll work as a deep threat for the Broncos, primarily from the “Z” position on the right side of the field. However, Sanders can also play in the slot if need be.
Demaryius Thomas continues to prove why he’s one of the best receivers in the game today. He’s going to resume his role as Peyton Manning’s favorite target in 2014. Thomas can get open deep, and he’s a threat to score on short routes because of his run-after-the-catch ability.
Wes Welker will once again man the slot for the Broncos. He can still break ankles on jerk routes, and Welker is a reliable target who can help move the chains. Welker missed three games last year due to concussion problems, and the Broncos will monitor him closely to make sure that’s not an issue this season.
The Broncos decided to keep one of their own free agents this offseason. That player was Andre “Bubba” Caldwell. He will return as the Broncos fourth receiver, and his role should largely stay the same. Caldwell can play outside or in the slot, so he is an insurance policy in case Welker or Sanders miss playing time.
Norwood has bounced around since coming into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2009, but he's a capable slot receiver when healthy. Palmer and Wilson will compete for a spot on the practice squad.
The 2014 NFL draft class is rich with wide receiver talent. Expect the Broncos to add a wide receiver at some point in this draft.
Starter: Julius Thomas
Backups: Virgil Green, Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen, Gerell Robinson, Cameron Morrah, Jameson Konz
Julius Thomas burst onto the NFL scene last year. In Week 1 he had a two-touchdown performance against the Baltimore Ravens, and he didn’t slow down much after that. Thomas has a size/speed combination that makes him a mismatch on every snap.
The Broncos used him to attack the seam vertically where linebackers can’t keep up with him. They also used him underneath where safeties are too small to stop him. Thomas even split out wide as a receiver on occasion.
He’s a rising star in the NFL, and Thomas should continue to be a threat opponents have to worry about. Thomas missed two games because of a knee injury last year, so staying healthy all season will help him greatly in a contract year.
Behind Thomas, Virgil Green will be the primary backup. In two tight end sets, the Broncos will use Green. He came into the NFL known mostly as a receiving tight end (and favorite target of Colin Kaepernick), but Green has developed his blocking and is now a fine all-around player.
The Broncos have made a few moves to clear up more cap space. They released Champ Bailey, and Chris Kuper retired. However, moves they haven’t done yet include dealing with their tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme.
Dreessen may be released because of his $3.1 million cap number. His release would clear up around $2.5 million in space. If he stays with the team, Dreessen might be asked to restructure.
Tamme may also be asked to restructure. His $3.5 million cap number may be too much for a player reserved to playing a backup role and on special teams.
Gerell Robinson has switched positions from wide receiver to tight end. A favorite target of Brock Osweiler in college at Arizona State, Robinson is an interesting developmental prospect.
Morrah and Konz will compete for a spot on the roster, but both must be considered long shots to make it.
Starters: Ryan Clady (left tackle), Orlando Franklin (left guard), Manny Ramirez (center), Louis Vasquez (right guard), Chris Clark (right tackle)
Backups: Vinston Painter, Ben Garland, Mike Farrell, Ryan Miller, Paul Cornick, Ramon Harewood
We’ll see a different offensive line in 2014. Left guard Zane Beadles moved on in free agency to the Jacksonville Jaguars. This creates a large hole the team may intend to fill by shuffling players already on the roster.
First, left tackle will once again be manned by Ryan Clady. His 2013 season was cut short after a Week 2 Lisfranc injury knocked him out. He’ll be healthy and ready to go by the time training camp rolls around this year. Getting him back is huge for the blind-side protection of Peyton Manning.
Left guard could be filled by Orlando Franklin. He’s struggled to impress as a right tackle, and he may be a better fit inside next to Clady. The Broncos have tried this before in practice, but the results weren’t satisfactory. Perhaps this offseason Franklin will find himself with a new spot on the line.
Center Manny Ramirez did a fine job last year for the Broncos. He started last offseason as a guard and third-string center. Injuries to guys like Dan Koppen and J.D. Walton led Ramirez to begin the year as the starting center. He has improved his play from 2012 and is a decent option to man the middle.
Right guard Louis Vasquez is one of the best players at his position in the entire league. Adding him from the Chargers last year in free agency, Vasquez has been worth every penny of his $23.5 million price tag.
With Franklin moving inside, the right tackle position could be held down by Chris Clark. After Clady was lost for the season, Clark stepped in at left tackle and did a fine job starting for most of the season. He’s too valuable as a reserve player, so the Broncos could get the most bang for their buck by starting him.
Vinston Painter is a developmental prospect the team hopes can develop into a quality swing tackle. The other linemen on the roster will compete for reserve spots in 2014.
Starters: Demarcus Ware (defensive end), Terrance Knighton (defensive tackle), Sylvester Williams (defensive tackle), Derek Wolfe (defensive end)
Backups: Kevin Vickerson, Mitch Unrein, Malik Jackson, Quanterus Smith, John Youboty, Sione Fua
The Broncos made arguably the biggest splash in free agency when they added Demarcus Ware. The veteran sack master will prove to be a valuable asset in 2014. He’ll be inserted into the starting lineup with hopes of at least double-digit sacks this season.
In the middle of the line we’ll see “Potroast” Terrance Knighton. He was an outstanding addition last year in free agency. Knighton will help clog up the middle and force run plays to the outside.
Next to him there will be a competition between Sylvester Williams and Kevin Vickerson. Either one would be a fine starting option for the Broncos. Williams gets the nod here, as the 2013 first-round pick steadily improved as his rookie season went on. Vickerson gives the team great veteran depth for a good price.
Many Broncos defenders will be coming back from injury in 2014. Derek Wolfe is one of those players. He’ll set the edge as a run defender, but Wolfe should also put quarterbacks under duress because of his heart, hustle and high motor.
There are two reserve players to really keep an eye on here.
Malik Jackson has the potential to be a star for the Broncos. His length and strength help him get to the quarterback quickly. Jackson doesn’t use precise moves to get to the passer. Instead, he uses brute force to disrupt an opponent’s plan.
Quanterus Smith missed his rookie season in 2013 as he continued to recover from the knee injury that cut his final season at Western Kentucky short. He’ll be as close to 100 percent healthy as possible when camp opens up. If he can regain his form, the Broncos have another pass-rushing weapon who has multiple moves to get to the passer.
Starters: Von Miller (strong-side), Nate Irving (middle), Danny Trevathan (weak-side)
Backups: Steven Johnson, Jamar Chaney, L.J. Fort, Jerrell Harris, Brandon Marshall, Lerentee McCray
At this time, the Broncos have yet to cement their linebacker corps. Their outside linebackers are taken care of, but there still remains a large question mark in the middle.
According to Mike Klis, from The Denver Post, the Broncos will have Nate Irving and Steven Johnson compete in camp for the starting middle linebacker job.
They approached several free-agent middle linebackers, but none were signed.
It’s quite possible (probable?) that the Broncos will attempt to find a starting middle linebacker in the 2014 NFL draft. A player like C.J. Mosley (Alabama) would be a fantastic addition, but he’s going to be long gone by the time the Broncos select at 31st overall.
If they could find a trade partner, then Denver could be looking to trade up for Mosley if he’s the player that stands out more than others. Perhaps adding Chris Borland (Wisconsin) in the second or Shayne Skov (Stanford) in the third round makes more sense.
Strong-side linebacker will once again belong to Von Miller. After a disappointing 2013 season cut short by a six-game suspension and a knee injury, Miller will be looking to show he’s still got what it takes to be elite. Miller is in a contract year, but his status for the start of training camp is unclear at this time as he recovers from the ACL injury he suffered in Week 16.
Weak-side linebacker is now Danny Trevathan’s spot. He’s incredibly athletic and showed well as both a run and pass defender. Trevathan proved that he could get his hands on the rock, and he loves to bait quarterbacks into throwing his direction.
Some reserve linebackers to watch include Lerentee McCray and Brandon Marshall.
McCray’s rookie season was cut short by an ankle injury suffered in the team’s final preseason game. Before that time, McCray looked like he was going to make the final roster as an undrafted free agent out of Florida.
Injuries have held him back as a collegian and a pro. However, if McCray is healthy he can be an impact player as a tackler and pass-rusher.
Marshall is a tackling machine who has the ability to cover from sideline-to-sideline. He’s a developmental prospect worth monitoring.
Starters: Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr.
Backups: Kayvon Webster, Tony Carter, Charles Mitchell, Jerome Murphy
We’ll see the Broncos use Aqib Talib to shut down half the field. He is a tough player who can eliminate an opponent’s top target.
Talib takes the place of last year’s top corner, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He is a better tackler than Rodgers-Cromartie, and Talib is also better in coverage because of his recovery speed.
Opposite Talib we’ll see Chris Harris Jr. start on the outside. He originally starred as a nickel corner for the Broncos, but the foot injury to Champ Bailey forced Harris to the outside. He was an outstanding player there, and he’s only getting better with more experience.
Harris suffered a partially-torn ACL in the team’s playoff game against the Chargers. He should be able to come back in time for the start of the regular season. His status for the beginning of training camp is in question at this time.
The team’s new nickel corner will be second-year pro Kayvon Webster. He was a third-round pick in 2013, and Webster was forced into extensive playing time last year due to injuries.
Predictably, Webster struggled as a rookie. He has good size and Webster is also known as a big-hitter. We’ll see if he can learn from his experience and play better in 2014.
Tony Carter sticks around as an exclusive rights free agent. His confidence was shaken last year after a few gaffes. We’ll see if he can get his swagger back to provide the team with a decent sub-package player.
Starters: T.J. Ward (strong), Rahim Moore (free)
Backups: Duke Ihenacho, Omar Bolden, David Bruton, Quinton Carter, Eric Hagg, John Boyett
With more strength at the safety position, the Broncos could be more intimidating on defense.
Their biggest intimidator on defense could be new addition T.J. Ward. He loves to make the big play, and Ward has the ability to play close to the line of scrimmage to sniff out run plays.
He is not a liability in coverage. Ward can turn and run with receivers in his zone. If they catch the ball, then Ward is looking to deliver a big blow.
Rahim Moore’s 2013 season was cut short by a leg injury. Before the injury, Moore had regained his swagger and was playing well.
Moore can still roam the field and provide the Broncos with quality play as a pass or run defender. When healthy, Moore should be able to build on the progress he established last year.
With the addition of Ward, Ihenacho moves to the bench. It’s the best spot for him at this time. Ihenacho always looks for the big hit, but he will find himself out of position too often. He can sit and learn from Ward how to be an effective headhunter.
David Bruton is a special teams ace who gives the team veteran depth at the position.
Converted corner Omar Bolden will compete for a roster spot. Quinton Carter may finally be healthy after struggling to recover from microfracture knee surgery in 2013. Still only 25 years old, Carter can be a quality reserve player if healthy.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. All contract information for individual players is from Spotrac.com. Draft grades courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.