Injuries, Brutal Early-Season Schedule Present Denver Broncos with Uphill Battle

James ParadisContributor IIApril 29, 2014

Injuries, Brutal Early-Season Schedule Present Denver Broncos with Uphill Battle

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The NFL recently released its 2014 regular-season schedule, and one thing is clear: There’s no time for a Super Bowl hangover in Denver.

    The Broncos will face six 2013 playoff teams in their first eight games. Of those eight opponents, four boasted top-10 offenses in 2013, per Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings. Five boasted top-12 defenses. Three competed for conference championships. One won the Super Bowl.

    While this stacked slate could provide a good test for a Denver team that enjoyed a relatively relaxed 2013 schedule, the Broncos’ ability to weather this early-season storm could hinge on a major factor not wholly under their control: the recoveries of injured starters.

    Beginning in the preseason and carrying on through the postseason, the 2013 Broncos saw one starter after another succumb to season-ending injuries. By the time Denver took the field for Super Bowl XLVIII, it was without the top member of its offensive line, front seven and secondary, in addition to several other notable players.

    Can the injured Broncos stars return to form for the start of the 2014 season? The answer to that question could make a real difference in the team’s record through eight games (and, as a result, its potential playoff seeding).

    With that impact in mind, let’s take a look at the current health status of five key Broncos starters and project their chances to return for Week 1.

Ryan Clady, Left Tackle (17 Games Missed in 2013-2014)

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Widely considered to be one of the premier left tackles in football, Ryan Clady signed a lucrative five-year, $52.5 million contract last offseason. Ironically, Clady received this massive deal, in part, for epitomizing durability.

    Drafted by Denver as a first-round pick in 2008, the 2013 team captain started all 85 games of his NFL career before suffering a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury in Week 2 of last year. According to DenverBroncos.com, Clady is one of four offensive linemen in NFL history to start every game and earn three Pro Bowl selections in his first five seasons. Earning a reputation as a consummate protector of Manning’s blind side, the Broncos were understandably blindsided themselves when their reliable All-Pro went down.

    Backup offensive tackle Chris Clark filled in admirably for Clady throughout the regular season. He managed to keep Manning upright more often than not, but his deficiencies were highlighted when matched up against elite edge-rushers. Case in point: Super Bowl XVLIII. Denver sorely missed Clady’s presence in the big game as the Seattle Seahawks were able to pressure Manning while rushing just four linemen for much of the game.

     

    When will he be back?

    Clady is “expected to be cleared to play when the regular season begins,” according to Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post. The 6’6”, 315-pound tackle recently expressed his confidence that he will return to form in 2014. “It’s not that bad of an injury. I feel like I can get back to who I was,” Clady told Renck.

    Having Clady back for Week 1 would be a major boon for the Broncos, considering 2013 sack leader Robert Mathis will be Clady’s opening-week test when the Indianapolis Colts head to Mile High. Mathis was a major factor when the Colts handed Denver its first loss of the 2013 regular season, totaling two sacks and one forced fumble in their Week 7 meeting in Indy.

    With a healthy Clady at left tackle, the results could be different in 2014.

Von Miller, Strong-Side Linebacker (10 Games Missed in 2013-2014)

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Miller followed up his unforgettable 2012 All-Pro season with a troubled year he would rather soon forget.

    After emerging as one of the league’s top defenders just a season earlier, the former first-round pick out of Texas A&M played a total of just nine games in 2013. Miller missed the first six games of the season serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and then saw his season abruptly end due to a Week 15 knee injury.

    Rated as the league’s top 4-3 outside linebacker according to Matt Miller’s NFL 1000 player rankings, the impact of Von Miller’s presence on Denver’s defense is almost immeasurable. In 2012, his 18.5 sacks, 14 run stuffs and six forced fumbles helped the Broncos rank among the best defenses in the league by nearly every metric.

    In contrast, the 2013 Broncos defense generally ranked among the middle of the NFL pack. If Miller can return to his 2012 dominance, it would undoubtedly help Denver restore some its defensive prowess from just a season earlier.

     

    When will he be back?

    Miller is already up and running, albeit lightly, and by all indications his recovery process is going well. “I’m ahead of schedule and I’m feeling good,” Miller commented in mid-April, per the Associated Press. He continued, “I want to play every game this year,” and told ESPN “I’m 100 percent positive I’ll be able to come back and not only be the same Von, [but] I got to be better.”

    Having Miller on the field to pressure opposing quarterbacks and thwart the run game could make a significant difference in the team’s overall record during its early-season scheduling gauntlet.

    Speaking of pressuring quarterbacks, there’s another recovering edge-rusher new to Denver whom Miller admits he has “modeled [his] game after,” per the ESPN report. The Broncos defense could become quite the force in 2014 with a healthy return from the one and only…

DeMarcus Ware, Defensive End (Three Games Missed in 2013)

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    Ed Andrieski/Associated Press

    The Broncos signed possibly the biggest name in free agency in Ware, the former Cowboys star edge-rusher. Following his surprising release from Dallas, the major question on everyone’s mind was whether or not Ware could return to full health and compete at his usual elite level.

    Now 31, the perennial Pro Bowler missed games in 2013 for the first time in his nine-year career. Battling issues with both elbows, a herniated disk in his back and a torn quad, Ware fought through the pain to play in 13 regular-season games. In mid-February, he underwent surgery to repair an ongoing nerve issue in his right elbow.

    If Ware’s injuries turn out to simply be a one-year ordeal, the rest of the league could be in for a nightmarish Denver pass rush. When healthy, Miller and Ware are arguably two of the top five most talented edge-rushers in the NFL. The duo combined for an absurd 61 sacks in 2011 and 2012, a stat that only begins to illustrate how dynamic these two could be together.

     

    When will he be back?

    He’s back. Ware is on a road to recovery from his surgery and other ailments, but he should not miss any of the normal offseason program, as reported by Todd Archer with ESPNDallas.com. When asked recently about how far he’s come in his rehabilitation, Ware remarked that he’s 94 percent healthy. A curiously specific and positive projection, this figure is the same number as his jersey and is Ware’s go-to media response when questioned about his health.

    It’s possible that age will continue to wear Ware’s body down. We all know Father Time is undefeated. But tell that to Ware’s teammate, 38-year-old Peyton Manning, who just came off the best year of his career. The Broncos and Ware both hope that he, too, still has plenty of good years ahead.

Chris Harris, Cornerback (Two Games Missed in 2013-2014)

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Easily the most underrated starter on Denver’s defense, Harris steadily developed into one of the premier slot corners in the game during his first three years in the league. Just ask his former teammate and future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey, who offered his praise last season for the undrafted defensive back. Via ESPN’s Jeff Legwold:

    Chris has that ability to play on the outside and be one of the best in the league. He’s smart, he studies, he’s tough and competes on every play. But in the slot, at the nickel, he’s the best in there. He can match up with anybody.

    Champ may have a solid case. Per Sports Illustrated, Harris did not allow a single touchdown in 2013. Quarterbacks throwing his way totaled a 65.6 passer rating, a mark lower than the season average for any starting quarterback in the NFL in 2013.

    In January, Harris went down with a knee injury during the Broncos’ divisional-round playoff game against the San Diego Chargers, dealing a significant blow to the team’s secondary. A restricted free agent this offseason, the team offered Harris a second-round tender, which he signed, keeping him in Denver for at least another season.

     

    When will he be back?

    Broncos general manager John Elway stated in March on a local Denver radio program that Harris’ recovery is ahead of schedule. Just one week following surgery to repair his torn ACL, Harris was off crutches and beginning his rehab.

    Recovery from ACL surgery can sometimes take up to a full year. Recently, NFL players including Adrian Peterson in 2012 and Darrelle Revis in 2013 set the bar for speedy ACL recoveries, and Denver hopes Harris can follow suit.

    A Week 1 return is certainly possible. However, it’s too soon to know for sure when Harris will resume his starting role.

Derek Wolfe, Defensive End (Eight Games Missed in 2013-2014)

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Wolfe’s rookie season in 2012 showed tremendous promise for the second-round pick out of Cincinnati. He played every game that year and quickly established himself as a reliable defensive end worthy of starting reps.

    Then, in the following preseason, Wolfe suffered a spinal cord injury that saw him carted off the field. The scary scene left the team and fans concerned about his NFL future. To the surprise of many, Wolfe returned to the field and played in Denver’s first 11 games of the year.

    In late November, Wolfe collapsed on the team bus while experiencing seizure-like symptoms, an apparent complication from his preseason injury. The following week, Wolfe again attempted to return to the field. This time, he knew something was wrong. In a postseason interview with Denver reporters, Wolfe explained, “I came back to practice, and…everything was screwed up. It was really, really weird. A really weird and scary feeling.”

    Wolfe did not play another snap in 2013. He sat out the remainder of the regular season and was eventually placed on injured reserve during the postseason.

     

    When will he be back?

    John Elway recently expressed optimism in Wolfe’s healthy return for the start of the season. “Derek has gone through some tough times, but he seems to be doing great. I don’t anticipate any problems with Derek.”

    Wolfe confirmed Elway’s sentiments, as reported by Mike Klis with The Denver Post. “Honest to God, I feel better than I’ve ever felt,” Wolfe said recently. He continued, “In my whole life I’ve never felt this good. ... No doubt in my mind that I’m going to be better than I ever was.”

    Wolfe’s healthy return would only further enhance Denver’s potentially ferocious front seven with Ware and Miller in the mix.