The Denver Broncos are hoping to make another run at the Super Bowl in 2014. They have made arguably the biggest moves in free agency this offseason as they prepare their roster for the upcoming season.
Additions to the defense like strong safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware are upgrades from the players they had in those spots last year. Ward gives the defense a toughness and swagger it'll need to compete with any team that comes out of the NFC. Ware gives it another pass-rushing threat opposite Von Miller. He also helps them in the locker room, as he’s a seasoned veteran who commands respect.
Offensively, the team’s addition of Emmanuel Sanders gives it speed at the wide receiver position Eric Decker didn’t have. Sanders could post career-best numbers know that he’s gone from a boring (and predictable) Todd Haley offense to an exciting (and high-powered) Adam Gase system.
NFL fans certainly believe the Broncos have won free agency.
In order to get to the Super Bowl, the Broncos will have to fight their way through the AFC. Last year, the Broncos' own division sent three teams to the postseason. That may be a difficult task to repeat in 2014. However, there are two other teams outside the division that stand above the rest: Indianapolis and New England.
The road to the Super Bowl could very well end up going through Denver once again in 2014. The Broncos have earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC each of the last two seasons. It’s not out of the question to think they’ll finish in a similar spot this season.
Denver: Peyton Manning
Indianapolis: Andrew Luck
New England: Tom Brady
Peyton Manning makes the Broncos contenders so long as he’s healthy. His 2013 season was one for the ages. A record-setting performance may not happen again this year, but Manning’s numbers could be close to what they were in 2013.
Manning proved he was still at the top of his game last year, throwing for 55 touchdowns and nearly 5,500 yards passing. Both set new single-season records in the NFL.
After losing in the Super Bowl, Manning is hungrier than ever to get a championship.
“Yeah. Absolutely. That’s what I want to do. That’s what the Denver Broncos want to do. I’m glad to be a part of a team where that’s what they want to do. I want to try to do my best to do my part.” Manning added, “Keep myself in good shape and get on the same page with my receivers. I feel that I have a responsibility to the team to be on top of my game and that’s what I think about every day when I go over there to work and lift weights and throw with my receivers—doing my job to help the Denver Broncos. That’s what I’ve tried to do since I’ve been here and that’s what I’ll keep doing until I stop playing.”
He’s got three years left on his deal, and at this time one could reasonably assume he’ll fulfill that contract.
Andrew Luck is the next great NFL quarterback. The Colts added his college offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to run the offense last year. Luck can do it all. He’s accurate, smart, tough and is a threat to scramble when he has to.
Luck has thrown 23 touchdowns in each of the last two seasons, and that number could climb into the 30s this season. With his scrambling ability, Luck is also a near-lock to rush for about five touchdowns on the ground this year.
His best years are in front of him, and if Luck stays healthy he has the ability to rewrite the record books in the NFL.
Like Manning, Tom Brady is in the final few years of his pro career. The Patriots passing game isn’t quite what it used to be, but Brady is still sharp. His touchdowns dipped below 30 last year, but with better weapons and a healthy Rob Gronkowski he should eclipse that mark in 2014.
The Patriots could add more weapons in the 2014 NFL draft. A tight end like Jace Amaro (Texas Tech) may be near the top of their draft board. The loss of Aaron Hernandez was certainly felt last year as the team could not find anyone to duplicate his production.
Even though they added two wide receivers last year in the draft (Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce) and one as a priority free agent (Kenbrell Thompkins), the Patriots could go back to the well in the 2014 NFL draft. A player like Brandin Cooks (Oregon State) could interest them at the end of the first round.
More weapons (better weapons) around Brady could mean a more productive 2014 for the future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Denver: Montee Ball
Indianapolis: Trent Richardson
New England: Stevan Ridley
It’s Montee Ball’s time to shine in 2014. As a rookie, Ball improved as the season went on. He cured his fumbling problem, improved in pass protection and became one of the best runners to move the chains in the NFL.
Over the final six weeks of 2013, only Jamaal Charles (6.6) averaged more yards per carry than Ball (6.5, 52-337). Ball also led the NFL in percentage of rushes for first downs (40.4 percent) and carries of 10 or more yards (21.2 percent) during final six weeks of 2013.
The Broncos could add another running back in the draft for depth, but Ball is seen as the lead back. Not only does the team believe in him, but Manning also recently praised Ball when talking to the media.
“I thought Montee had a great year. I thought he learned a lot in his first year. In my past, I’ve seen a lot of development in guys from their first year to their second year.” Manning continued, “I think he has the work ethic, I think he has the mental capabilities to handle the workload and I look forward to having a full offseason with him. He didn’t have a full one last year because of being a rookie so I look forward to getting even closer with him as far as being on the same page.”
It’s not out of the question to think Ball could do more in 2014 as a runner than Knowshon Moreno did last year.
Trent Richardson was added by the Colts last year in a trade that sent Cleveland a 2014 first-round pick. He certainly failed to play up to his potential with his new team. After rushing for nearly 1,000 yards as a rookie in 2012, Richardson could only muster 563 yards on the ground in 2013.
He caught 51 passes with the Browns as a rookie, but only hauled in 35 catches during his second year. Richardson was outplayed by Donald Brown last year during the final half of the season. With Brown gone to the San Diego Chargers in free agency, the backfield looks to be Richardson’s.
He should be the lead back while veteran Ahmad Bradshaw works as a complementary back. If he can build more confidence, then Richardson could outperform somewhat low expectations in 2014.
With LeGarrette Blount (Steelers) moving on in free agency, the starting job in New England should belong to Stevan Ridley. If healthy, Ridley will work as the primary back but Shane Vereen will also contribute as a change-of-pace runner.
There’s even speculation the Patriots could add a running back in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
For now, Ridley is penciled in as the starter. This could change before the start of the regular season for multiple reasons. Vereen gives them enough punch as an explosive runner and dangerous receiver to bump this grade slightly.
Indianapolis: Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks
New England: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell
The Broncos have arguably the strongest starting trio of any team in the NFL. Demaryius Thomas gives them size in the red zone and speed on short catches he can turn into long gains. He’s worked hard to become Manning’s favorite target, and the veteran quarterback should lean on him once again this year.
Sanders gives them speed to stretch the defense and the ability to gain separation on crossing routes over the middle. He only has 11 career receiving touchdowns, but catching passes from Manning in 2014 could get him 10-plus in one year.
Wes Welker is the king of the “jerk” route and he’ll help move the chains as the primary weapon underneath. He battled through concussions last year, but when healthy Welker was a pass-catching machine with a nose for the end zone.
Reggie Wayne should return from his 2013 ACL injury, and he’ll continue being a favorite target for Luck. He’s reportedly ahead of schedule in his rehab according to ESPN.
T.Y. Hilton’s game is all about speed, but the Colts moved him around the formation last year because he made great improvements as a route-runner. The experience he gained while Wayne was out was invaluable, and it will make him better in 2014.
Hakeem Nicks is the new addition who wants to prove he’s still got “it” after suffering through injury-marred seasons over the last two years. If healthy, Nicks will be a strong player who can contribute underneath and as a red-zone threat.
Grade: B+ (if Wayne/Nicks are healthy)
The Patriots don’t have a strong group of wide receivers. That group is led by Julian Edelman—the team’s answer for losing Welker in free agency last year. Edelman is limited athletically, but he gets the most out of his skill set with guile, strong hands and precise routes.
Danny Amendola was supposed to be the Welker replacement, but he struggled to stay healthy. That’s been a problem for Amendola as a pro and one he’ll need to clean up if he’s going to standout in New England.
Brandon LaFell comes over from the Panthers in free agency. The career underachiever will compete with Dobson, Boyce and Thompkins to be the team’s third receiver. LaFell is a good run-blocker, but he lacks a “wow” factor as a receiver.
Denver: Julius Thomas
Indianapolis: Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener
New England: Rob Gronkowski
Denver found a diamond in the rough when it selected Julius Thomas in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft. After his first two seasons were lost due to an ankle injury, Thomas stayed healthy and immediately made his presence felt in 2013. Statistically speaking, Thomas had the best season of any tight end in Broncos history.
Thomas creates mismatches every time he’s on the field. He knows how to use his frame to box out smaller defenders, and Thomas consistently wins at the point of the catch. He should be able to duplicate his numbers from last year in 2014.
The Colts have two tight ends they will use frequently in their offense. Dwayne Allen is a weapon who uses strength to rip away contested passes from smaller defenders. After the catch, Allen has the speed to pull away from linebackers or safeties. His speed also helps him attack the deep middle seam of the defense.
Coby Fleener will also be used down the seam, but he’s not as dangerous after the catch as Allen. He was a favorite target of Luck in college at Stanford, and that favoritism has transferred to the NFL. Fleener uses subtle moves to get open regularly.
If healthy, Rob Gronkowski is one of the best in the league. He can truly dominate an opponent, and the Patriots are quite creative with the way they use Gronkowski. Injuries are the only things that have slowed down Gronk during his pro career.
Last season Gronkowski’s year was cut short by a Week 14 ACL injury. The team put him on Injured Reserve, and Gronkowski had surgery to repair his knee early in 2014. According to Albert Breer, from NFL.com, Gronkowski is on schedule with his rehab and could resume jogging soon.
The Patriots should look for additional tight end help in the 2014 NFL draft. They are likely to spend a pick on the position within the first three rounds.
Grade: A (if Gronkowski is fully healthy, otherwise it will go down as an “Incomplete”)
Denver: LT Ryan Clady, LG Manny Ramirez, C Will Montgomery, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Orlando Franklin
Indianapolis: LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Donald Thomas, C Khaled Holmes, RG Hugh Thornton, RT Gosder Cherilus
New England: LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, RG Dan Connolly, RT Sebastian Vollmer
The starting lineup for the Broncos is projected here. They have a new look after letting left guard Zane Beadles (Jaguars) move on in free agency. The starting center could be free-agent addition Will Montgomery. This would move last year’s starting center, Manny Ramirez, over to left guard. With Ryan Clady back after the Week 2 Lisfranc injury that knocked him out last year, the line is strong.
The Colts have learned how to better protect Luck. He was sacked 44 times as a rookie in 2012. Last year, the Colts only allowed Luck to be sacked 36 times. The line is still in flux, with several players battling for key spots. Donald Thomas should start at left guard, but he’s returning from a torn ACL. Lance Louis and Hugh Thornton will battle for the other guard position. At center we’ll see Khaled Holmes try to beat out free-agent addition Phil Costa for the starting role.
When healthy, the Patriots have one of the best combinations of offensive tackles in the league. Nate Solder is huge and has the ability to shadow rushers on Tom Brady’s blind side. Sebastian Vollmer has a nice blend of size, strength and athleticism on the right side. The team may be looking for help in the middle. They recently worked out Colorado State center Weston Richburg according to Mike Klis from the Denver Post.
Weighing all the offensive positions, the Denver Broncos come out on top. They have more firepower than either Indianapolis or New England. Their quarterback is better, their running back is better and their wide receivers get the top mark as well. Tight ends and the offensive line are fairly equal for these teams.
Nobody in the AFC is going to beat the Broncos in a shootout. When it comes to offensive football, the Broncos are the champs. Their strength on this side of the ball should come through early and often in 2014.
The Broncos won this side of the argument, but there’s still another very important side left to examine—the defense.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this series where we look at the defenses for these three conference powerhouses.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com. Contract information provided by Spotrac.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.