5 Unheralded Denver Broncos to Keep an Eye on This Offseason
Last year, Julius Thomas was an unknown. Now, he is a star.
Thomas, drafted in the fourth round in 2011 as a developmental project, came out of nowhere. But now, he's a star tight end. Denver has other players with the potential to develop into stars, and they could change the team's fortunes.
Who are those players?
I've always been a believer in C.J. Anderson, and I think he will be the starter at the beginning of the 2014 season.
I expected big things from him in 2013, but he ended up doing little. However, with a whole offseason, he could continue to turn heads.
He graded positively in his first and only preseason game, and his regular-season grade was plus-1.7 in 24 snaps. He ran for 38 yards on seven carries, looking strong as a runner. However, he fumbled against the New England Patriots and it cost him.
Still, if he doesn't get hampered by injuries (which nearly cost him a roster spot last year), he should show the coaches what he can do over a long period of time.
Anderson runs hard and can pick up tough yardage. He is 225 pounds at just 5'8", so he is a very compact runner. He ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash, showing he can burst through holes despite his hefty frame.
His measurables are perfect for a running back, and his numbers were great as well. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry in college, and he should continue to put up good numbers. Because of Ronnie Hillman's fumbling issues and Knowshon Moreno's likely departure, he should enter training camp as the team's second-string runner.
And if he keeps running and working hard, he should end up starting by the beginning of the season.
Just like Anderson, Lerentee McCray suffered an unfortunate injury in the preseason.
During the fourth preseason game, McCray suffered a severe ankle sprain. He was placed on injured reserve, thus ending his season but also assuring the Broncos could retain his rights. McCray can now show his potential this offseason.
He did well in the preseason, and he had an impressive collegiate career at Florida. However, injuries have always hurt him.
If McCray can stay healthy, he can showcase his insane athleticism. According to nfldraftscout.com, McCray ran a 4.74 40-yard dash. For a 250-pound linebacker, this is impressive.
Look for McCray to make the roster and back up Von Miller and Danny Trevathan as a 4-3 outside linebacker. He only made 25 tackles in his senior season, but he was in on two sacks in the preseason. If all goes well with injuries this offseason, McCray will likely be on the team and receive opportunities to showcase his skills.
And if he is, he could certainly exceed expectations.
Many considered Quanterus Smith a late-round gem, and many Broncos fans were jubilant when the team took a late-round flier on the Western Kentucky product.
And while the pick didn't pay off last year, it could make an impact in 2014.
Smith impressed with 12.5 sacks in 2012, and he had three against Alabama, which had an offensive line consisting of many current professionals. Smith has proven himself, but an ACL injury hurt him last offseason. Like McCray, he landed on injured reserve.
But when the season starts, it will have been nearly two years since Smith's ACL tear. He should be just as good as he was before the surgery, which is great news for the Broncos.
Consistency has been a problem with Smith in the sack department, but his total of 38 tackles in nine games (in 2012) was stellar. His five-sack game against Florida International was as well.
The Broncos have their consistent rushers in DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, but Smith could add another element to the pass rush. In 2012, he only had sacks in four of his nine games, but the dominance he has shown at times (even if he is inconsistent) could be exactly what the Broncos defense needs.
The Broncos have signed many unknowns to meaningless futures contracts this offseason. Most won't end up affecting the team, but there's one who could.
L.J. Fort was signed by the Broncos, and he could be a legitimate competitor for the starting middle linebacker job. He played a mere 98 snaps in 2012 (his most recent season), and he accumulated 20 tackles (or one for every 4.9 plays).
Fort has playmaking ability that could allow him to make the team.
He displayed his prowess in limited action in 2012, and he could do more in the preseason with the Broncos. He will certainly receive his fair share of opportunities. Denver hasn't signed a big-name middle linebacker, and it has already used up almost all of its cap space.
In other words, Fort, Nate Irving, Steven Johnson and a draft pick will likely enter camp competing for the starting job. Irving appears to be the favorite (unless the Broncos draft star middle linebacker C.J. Mosley), but Fort has a chance.
If Fort can switch from Cleveland's 3-4 scheme to Denver's 4-3, he should be fine. He has already proven himself to be a capable player, but he hasn't received the opportunity he needs to be great. If he does well, he could end up stabilizing the defense as the middle linebacker.
And at the very least, he could provide capable depth.
In both 2012 and 2013, Gerell Robinson stood out in camp. Both years, he didn't make the team.
Robinson put up great numbers and displayed great chemistry with Broncos backup Brock Osweiler, but due to the versatility of tight end Jacob Tamme and kick returner Trindon Holliday, the Broncos decided not to carry a fifth receiver. However, Robinson stayed with the practice squad.
He is now a tight end, and that could change his fortunes. The Broncos don't have much money to spend on a quality tight end, and they will likely cut ties with Joel Dreessen, Tamme or both. This would create an opening (or two) at the position.
Robinson could seize one of those spots. He has great speed for a tight end, as, according to House of Sparky, he has a 4.62 40-yard dash. Robinson is undersized for a tight end at 220 pounds, but he could also play receiver.
This versatility would greatly help the Broncos, and it would allow them to add another player at a different position by keeping just four receivers.
He did well in the 2013 preseason, and he caught five passes for 99 yards and a touchdown in the preseason finale. He has the size to box out smaller corners, and is faster than most linebackers. This blend could allow the Broncos to keep Robinson as a tight end.
Robinson has impressed the Broncos before, and he should again this offseason. However, this time the Broncos finally have room for him. Look for Robinson to stand out again and finally receive a reward.
All advanced numbers courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).