The 5 Biggest Issues Facing the Denver Broncos with OTAs Wrapped Up
The Denver Broncos have started mandatory minicamp this week at Dove Valley. According to both defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase, the team has about 75 percent of the playbook already installed.
The Broncos are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl this season, and that’s why they made several big moves in free agency and in the draft. These key additions will help fill holes on the depth chart, and there should be many impact players from the new additions.
Even with an influx of talent, the Broncos still have a few spots that are unknown quantities. There’s still time to determine which players will rise to the top, but we may not have answers until some point in training camp.
Here’s a look at the five biggest issues facing the Broncos with voluntary offseason training activities wrapped up.
Finding a Starting Right Tackle
The Broncos moved last year’s starting right tackle Orlando Franklin inside to left guard this offseason after losing Zane Beadles (Jaguars) in free agency. While Franklin has been a staple at guard this offseason, the right tackle spot seems unsettled.
Right guard Louis Vasquez commented on rotating right tackles with the first-team offense.
“We’re rotating right now with [T] Chris Clark and [T] Winston Justice. They have a few years under their belts, so it’s not taking very long because they’ve been in the game and they know what offensive line play is about.”
Clark was the left tackle for most of the season in 2013. All-Pro Ryan Clady was lost for the season after a Week 2 Lisfranc injury he suffered against the New York Giants. Clark came in and was a quality starter for most of the year.
Like most of the team, Clark struggled to play effectively against the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. He is a good swing tackle, but his best spot as a starter is likely on the right side. Many expected him to just slide over and start at right tackle.
He could still win the starting job, but he’ll have to prove that he’s better than Justice.
The eight-year pro was originally a second-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2006 NFL draft. Justice has great size and a wingspan that allows him to reach opponents quickly. He does struggle with elite pass-rushers on the edge, and his footwork is not as good as Clark’s.
The Broncos believe in Justice as they signed him to a one-year, $1.175 million contract back in March. The deal included a $75,000 signing bonus and another $1 million available through incentives.
Justice is splitting reps with Clark at this time, and the team will give him an opportunity to win the right tackle job. Clark has to be considered the front-runner, but this competition may continue into training camp.
Establishing the Depth Chart Behind Montee Ball
We’ll see Montee Ball as the lead back this season. He could be in for a fine campaign after finishing his rookie season with strong statistics in the final six weeks of the year. He has added weight in anticipation of a larger role, and the team is ready to see what he can do as the main man.
Behind Ball, the competition at running back is wide open. The Broncos have several options, and the primary backup spot is up for grabs.
C.J. Anderson is going to face the toughest competition from Ronnie Hillman. Those two should be the favorites to win the second- and third-string jobs.
Anderson has the size to bang it between the tackles. His lower-body strength allows him to push the pile, and he’s arguably the only true power back on the roster. He has a good initial burst, and he can get to the second level of the defense faster than some think.
Hillman might still be the fastest player on the team. He can make plays as a change-of-pace back with his speed and agility in the open field. He has trouble holding onto the rock, and fumbling problems cost him the starting job last year.
If the Broncos want a backup behind Ball who could be a full-time starter, then Anderson is the best answer. If the team wants a backup who has a different skill set from Ball, then perhaps Hillman is the right call.
In addition to Anderson and Hillman, the Broncos have a trio of undrafted rookie backs who could make the final roster.
Kapri Bibbs is an efficient runner from Colorado State who has a nose for the end zone. He’s inexperienced as a receiver out of the backfield, but he came from a college offense that audibled frequently.
Brennan Clay is a speedy back from Oklahoma. He’s been a standout player as a runner in open space and a receiver out of the backfield in minicamp. He has the speed and agility to rack up big yards, and he’s a threat to score any time he touches the ball.
Juwan Thompson has a fine all-around skill set. He’s a big back who can be capable between the tackles. He is a great receiving option out of the backfield with soft hands and the concentration to be a reliable receiver. He is also fantastic as a pass-protector.
A dark-horse candidate to keep an eye on is Jerodis Williams. The second-year pro was an undrafted free agent for the Minnesota Vikings last year, and now he’s trying to make his way with the Broncos.
He has looked good when catching the ball at minicamp. His best asset might be his change-of-direction ability. He can make cuts at speed and doesn’t lose much momentum when making defenders miss.
Ball security and pass protection may be the two biggest keys for anyone who is looking to back up Ball in 2014.
Who Is the Starting Middle Linebacker?
A question mark that has run throughout the offseason is the starting middle linebacker for 2014. The Broncos attempted to move up in the draft to secure an elite middle linebacker, but they were unable to find the right price. Instead, it looks like they may be favoring veteran Nate Irving for the starting job.
In a recent interview with Mike Klis of The Denver Post, general manager John Elway praised Irving’s ability at middle linebacker: "Nate's doing fine, but middle linebacker — you've got to get the pads on. I still expect Nate to do a good job there. He's smart and understands the defense."
Elway is right. It’s difficult to assess how a middle linebacker is doing in minicamp when the pads are off and there’s no tackling.
Irving can be a thumper as a tackler, and he’ll arrive at the ball with natural violence. He does need to do a better job when diagnosing a play. There are times when he will seem hesitant to attack a play and won’t rely on his instincts to get him to the ball.
There are also questions about Irving in coverage. He did answer some of those questions in the Super Bowl, and he did a good job of covering receivers as a strong-side linebacker. Hopefully, he can carry some of that experience over to this year (and his new position).
Other options at middle linebacker include Steven Johnson and rookie Lamin Barrow.
Johnson is a hard-nosed defender who finds the ball quickly. He’s been a standout player as a special teamer and might be second behind Irving in the competition at middle linebacker.
Barrow has no problems in coverage. His athleticism and natural length allow him to stay with receivers and tight ends in the open field. Barrow needs to learn how to defend the run better, but in today’s NFL, his coverage ability might get him on the field sooner than in years past.
Irving has had an opportunity to be the starting middle linebacker before, but he’s failed to win the job. We’ll see if that changes this year in training camp.
Finding Additional Pass-Rushers
The Broncos can never have too many pass-rushers. The defense needs to be more ferocious in 2014, and having multiple players who can get after the quarterback would help improve their attitude.
DeMarcus Ware was added in free agency, and he should give the team an incredible boost. However, the players behind him need to elevate their game to be effective part-time options.
Second-year player Quanterus Smith needs to stay healthy and play up to his potential this year. He was put on injured reserve last year after he failed to fully come back from the 2012 knee injury that cut his final season short at Western Kentucky.
At the time of his injury, he was leading the NCAA in sacks. He was best known for a three-sack performance against college powerhouse Alabama that year. Smith could be just the spark the Broncos need from reserve defenders.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had some thoughts about Smith after the team’s recent minicamp.
“Certainly he’ll get every opportunity. On tape coming out, we liked his athleticism, his length, his ability to bend and his ability to rush the quarterback. So those are things we’re looking forward to seeing from him.”
Del Rio continued, “I know he’s healthy. I see him moving around very well right now so we’re looking forward to getting him some of that experience, some of the reps, and let him earn his way.”
Smith is practicing without a knee brace for the first time as a pro. If he can regain his speed and burst, he could be exactly what the team needs.
The urgency for pass-rushing help is even greater due to the injury to linebacker Von Miller. After suffering a torn ACL in Week 16 against the Texans, he is currently recovering from knee surgery. He may be ahead in the recovery process, but his status for the start of the regular season is unknown at this time.
How Soon Can Bradley Roby Start?
In the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, the Broncos selected cornerback Bradley Roby from Ohio State. He has the upside to be a shutdown corner in the NFL, but the rookie has to quickly get up to speed with his new team.
Roby has incredible speed. This helps him stay with receivers on downfield routes, as there are few (if any) players who can outrun him on a vertical route.
His speed also helps him get to the ball quickly when the play breaks down in front of him. He does a good job of breaking on the ball, and his burst helps him break up passes as they come in.
He’s a physical corner who is not afraid to mix it up as a run defender. This means he can play close to the line of scrimmage and press receivers at the snap.
Roby is a complete player who could start from Day 1 if he’s ready. So far, head coach John Fox has been impressed by the team’s top pick. “He’s got great, great skills for the position. He’s been a real pleasant kid both in the ways he’s conducted himself, not just on the field but all throughout our building.”
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio constantly compliments Roby’s intelligence. “He’s very bright. He’s a good communicator in the meetings and all that and then coming out on the field. And he’s gifted physically. He’s got a lot of work to do, as most rookies do. But he’s got a lot of great tools.”
With veteran cornerback Chris Harris Jr. coming back from the partially torn ACL injury he suffered against the Chargers in the playoffs, the Broncos could benefit from Roby starting as soon as possible.
Free-agent addition Aqib Talib is going to start on the outside, and Roby could be counted on to start opposite of him from Day 1. This would allow Harris to move back inside to his more natural position of slot corner.
In today’s NFL, a nickel corner is essentially a starter. The Broncos have a fine trio of cornerbacks if Roby proves that he’s a quick study in training camp.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.