10 Biggest Issues Facing the Denver Broncos This Offseason

Max Garland@@MaxGarlandNFLContributor IIIJune 5, 2014

10 Biggest Issues Facing the Denver Broncos This Offseason

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos have plenty of issues to address this offseason, despite their record-setting offense and Super Bowl appearance last season.

    The most obvious issue Peyton Manning’s health and diminishing arm strength, but Montee Ball’s ability as a starter and Aqib Talib’s mega-contract are also top question marks.

    These issues are primarily ranked by three factors, No. 1 being the most critical:
    1. How it affects Denver’s biggest strength: Manning and the explosive passing game
    2. How it affects the long-term construction of the team
    3. How it affects the morale of the Broncos locker room

    Without further ado, here is what the win-now Broncos must confront if they want to end their season with the Lombardi Trophy in tow.

Honorable Mentions

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    Ryan Clady’s health

    The 27-year-old left tackle suffered a season-ending Linsfrac injury just two weeks into his 2013 campaign. A three-time All-Pro, Clady would give the league’s top passing offense even more time to throw the football. If injuries continue to plague Clady, the Broncos would have to soldier on without their most talented lineman.

    However, Manning and Co. did manage to break the scoreboard despite his absence.


    Is Nate Irving the guy at middle linebacker?

    Pro Football Focus’ Neil Hornsby writes that “average” is a generous way of describing Irving’s play. Irving is now in position to be the Broncos’ starting middle linebacker, with Wesley Woodyard leaving for Tennessee. Denver’s faith in Irving has been shaky. According to the Denver Post’s Mike Klis, the Broncos tried and failed to trade up for Alabama’s C.J. Mosely in the draft.

    A midseason shuffle at the position wouldn’t be surprising.


    Depth at running back

    Opinions on projected starter Montee Ball vary, but one thing that can’t be debated is the shakiness of the runners behind him. Ronnie Hillman has the name but is slight of build and inconsistent. The others vying for carries include C.J. Anderson, Kapri Bibbs and Brennan Clay, glorified camp bodies. The Broncos will have to lean on the passing game even more this season.

Can Champ Bailey's Leadership Be Replaced?

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    Bailey, Denver’s longtime shutdown cornerback, has steeply declined over the last couple of years, and that led to the team cutting him in March. He signed with the New Orleans Saints a month later.

    Bailey was the team’s most senior member, a mentor for the young up-and-comers in the secondary as well as up front. Strictly from an on-the-field perspective, the move was logical and necessary. In the locker room, however, someone will need to take his place. Mike Klis of The Denver Post predicts that DeMarcus Ware will eventually take that job.

    The Broncos need leaders on their defense after the departures of Champ Bailey and Wesley Woodyard…As veterans, Bailey and Woodyard earned respect through their performance and work ethic. The Broncos have players capable of filling the void, but the most obvious choice [DeMarcus Ware] needs time.

    Time is an issue for the league’s most “win now”-centric team, especially in the secondary. In that unit are two up-and-down types in Aqib Talib and Rahim Moore, along with youngsters Kayvon Webster and rookie Bradley Roby. A steady presence to help them through rough patches is sorely needed.

    Leadership cannot be measured by statistics, however, so it won’t be easy to tell if the Broncos are missing Bailey’s calming demeanor or not. Through the first stages of the offseason it might, but No. 9 is the more pressing issue in the long-term.

Demaryius Thomas' Future in Denver

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    Thomas is one of the NFL’s most gifted players, and ever since Manning signed with Denver, he’s been a lethal No. 1 receiver, too.

    But this is Thomas’ last year under his rookie contract. Plus, the Broncos haven’t even discussed an extension with him, according to Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post. They can franchise tag him in 2015, although the two-time Pro Bowl selection will likely want to break the bank, and deservedly so. Getting a deal done before the chaos of the regular season, and subsequently the franchise-tag deadline, would be a huge boon for the Broncos.

    Life after Manning will be difficult for Denver. If Thomas bolts, too, then John Elway will need to build a new offense from scratch. Signing Thomas for the rest of his prime would get rid of the elephant in the room and the sweat off the brow of the front office.

    In the worst-case scenario, Thomas lights it up for one more season and then signs with a hated rival (Kansas City, anyone?). That’s much better than No. 8’s worst-case scenario, in which the Broncos secondary gets feasted on, thwarting their Super Bowl return.

Will Bradley Roby Be Able to Handle Immediate Playing Time?

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    The Broncos’ first-round pick in May, Roby is a talented cornerback that had a slow start in his last season with Ohio State.

    Bleacher Report’s Ian Wharton wrote that Roby can develop into a big-play cornerback after he learns and develops his skills.

    Roby won’t be an immediate stud like Desmond Trufant was last year. Usually that’s fine, as more often than not it takes time for raw prospects to develop into polished pros. But that’s not the plan in Denver; Roby could be thrown into the fire early if Chris Harris isn’t healthy, according to Bleacher Report’s Christopher Hansen.

    Pro Football Focus projects Roby as the starter at outside corner opposite Aqib Talib, and assuming Talib lives up to his massive contract (foreshadowing!), Roby will be tested. Frequently. That is a perfect recipe for eviscerating a rookie’s confidence.

    If Roby can’t step up during the regular season, that means longer drives the defense has to endure and fewer opportunities for the offense to score touchdowns. Huge responsibility rests on his shoulders. The load will be lightened, however, if No. 7 becomes a non-issue.

Von Miller's Recovery

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Denver’s Super Bowl loss would have been much less embarrassing with Von Miller on the field.
    Miller missed the playoffs with a torn ACL, and the two-time All-Pro outside linebacker is now working his way back to full strength after knee surgery.

    Miller is the most valuable asset on the Broncos defense. If Denver can go 9-1 without his presence on the edge, imagine how well they can do with a full season of his production.

    But imagination can only take a team so far. If Miller’s recovery takes longer than expected, or he gets injured or suspended, the Broncos linebacker corps becomes even thinner. Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard already left in free agency. A setback to Miller would lead to more snaps for healthy scratch-types like Brandon M. Marshall and Jamar Chaney.

    Luckily, it’s so far, so good for Miller’s recovery.

    If Miller continues to progress, that eases the weight on the rest of the team’s shoulders. He’s the Manning of Denver’s defense. And speaking of Manning, No. 6 is something The Sheriff must stop doing.

Will the Broncos Stop Fumbling?

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    Denver led the NFL last season with 16 fumbles lost, and Manning had ten fumbles overall, per Sporting Charts.

    For the NFL’s top offense, that’s impressive and frustrating at the same time.

    On one hand, the Broncos ripped apart defenses every week despite losing 16 potential scoring drives, and fumble statistics tend to vary year to year, according to Team Rankings.

    On the other hand, Manning’s ball security could become a serious issue if the offensive line doesn’t give him enough time to throw. Promising drives turn into dangerous situations for a defense with several new (and unproven) pieces.

    The Broncos are looking to cure their fumbleitis to make sure that doesn’t happen, according to Mike Klis of The Denver Post. Heightened awareness is one thing, but personnel will be the biggest factor in determining ball security. Moreno’s departure will hurt, as he didn’t lose a single fumble as Denver’s lead back last season. However, turnover-prone returner Trindon Holliday is now with the New York Giants, so the two losses should balance themselves out.

    Manning remains the key here. The Broncos obviously won’t reduce his playing time, so limiting the number of hits he takes is paramount.

Will Aqib Talib Live Up to His Massive Contract?

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    Denver broke the bank for Talib, signing him to a six-year, $57 million deal in March. For a cornerback who has struggled with injuries and off-the-field issues throughout his career, this is a major gamble.

    Talib needs to be what Bailey used to be—a shutdown corner who doesn’t need safety help. If not, that’s more pressure on Bradley Roby, T.J. Ward and the rest of Denver’s young secondary.

    However, when Talib has been on the field in recent years, he’s been fantastic. His height and length make him a difficult matchup even for Jimmy Graham. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie thrived as a press corner in Denver’s defense last season, and Talib is the same type of player, with added physicality.

    The issue is making sure that his contract won’t come back and bite Denver in the future. Talib on the books will make extensions for Demaryius Thomas, Von Miller and Julius Thomas even more difficult.
    This could clearly impact the long-term construction of the Broncos.

    In regards to 2014, though, No. 4 makes or breaks the team’s quarterback and MVP more than any contract could.

The Continuity of the Offensive Line

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The return of Ryan Clady is a relief. It’s also a slight setback. Now Denver has to search for the best offensive line combination and make sure the unit gels before the regular season.

    Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post reported on the offensive line’s game of musical chairs:

    The line shuffle began with a healthy Ryan Clady's return to the left tackle, shifting Clark to the right side and Orlando Franklin into the left guard position. Moving bodies in June comes with a twofold goal: begin finding the best unit, while also providing important reps.

    Center Manny Ramirez and right guard Louis Vasquez are firmly entrenched in their respective positions. Clady is too, if he stays healthy. Left guard, along with right tackle, remains completely fluid.

    Of the issues seen so far, the continuity of the offensive line has the clearest and most direct impact on Manning and the success of Denver’s passing game. Manning has next to no mobility, so if the offensive line confuses assignments and leaves him vulnerable, it’s an automatic sack, fumble or even worse.

Will the Super Bowl Dud Hurt Denver's Psyche?

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    Losing a Super Bowl is difficult.

    Losing a Super Bowl by 35 points and trying to return the next season is even harder.

    That’s what the Broncos are attempting to do. They would be the first team since the Buffalo Bills in 1994 to return to the Big Game after losing the year before.

    The Seattle Seahawks 43-8 shellacking of the Broncos proved just how far Denver is from challenging the league’s top team.

    Luckily, this Broncos team could be healthier than last year’s squad, getting both Ryan Clady and Von Miller back from injury. Additionally, DeMarcus Ware is a big upgrade over Shaun Phillips, and T.J. Ward will give Denver an enforcer in the secondary.

    None of those additions will matter if the Broncos can’t get over their championship defeat. A Super Bowl rematch at Seattle in Week 3 will likely be the main focus throughout their offseason. If that focus becomes overwhelming, however, then Denver could be easy pickings for Indianapolis and Kansas City in Weeks 1 and 2. The NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint to Super Bowl 50.

Montee Ball's Performance as the Lead Running Back

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    After a slow start, Ball became an excellent change-of-pace runner behind Knowshon Moreno. In Denver’s final six games, he ran for 337 yards on 52 carries (6.48 YPC) along with 15 receptions, according to RotoWorld.

    The main question is whether Ball can handle the complexities of Manning’s offense for a full season. The key to the RB's solid second half was anticipating Manning’s audibles, per Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post.

    With the added responsibility of being the lead back, Ball will have to be at the top of his game mentally to keep defenses in check.

    Ball certainly has the talent to do so. But if he becomes overwhelmed, Denver’s offense gets much less potent.

    As we touched upon earlier, the Broncos don’t have a reliable veteran to take over if something were to happen to Ball. The running game wouldn’t be able to take pressure off of Manning and the passing game, and crucial blitz pickups that lead to big plays become whiffs and sacks instead.

    Ball’s performance will be an important topic going forward. More responsibility hinges on the second-year pro than any player before him on this list.

Peyton Manning's Health

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    The previous issues are irrelevant if Manning ends the season on injured reserve.

    The 38-year-old quarterback is coming off of the best year of his career. However, his arm strength isn’t anywhere near where it was prior to neck surgery, confirmed by Manning during an appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

    Manning’s arm and neck looked fine throughout the 2013 regular season, albeit with the occasional duck pass. A sharp decline in play this year would be surprising, but the clock is ticking.

    Denver has to ensure that their most valuable asset is at his physical best. The Broncos have built their team with the intent to win championships before Manning retires, with little thought for the long-term. A Manning decline—or worse, an injury – would put the team in No Man’s Land.

    The league’s most cerebral quarterback will do everything necessary to extend his playing career. Whether the fearsome pass rushers Manning will face, looking to bank off of Seattle’s success against him, will cooperate remains to be seen.

    Manning is Denver and the NFL’s best player. His health is by far the most important issue the Broncos need to monitor this offseason.