6 Bold (and Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos are one of the best teams in the NFL today. They have arguably the league’s most dangerous offense, and the team is capable of scoring points in bunches almost every week. Defensively, the Broncos have made changes to the roster with hopes of improving their performance on that side of the ball in 2014.
In order to make a Super Bowl run again this year, the Broncos are going to need to fire on all cylinders. The offense is striving for more balance this year, and that could mean more from the ground game in 2014. They have new additions to the passing game, which should keep them as dangerous through the air as they were last season.
The offensive line has undergone changes this offseason. These moves have given the team massive size up front, and that could lead to better success when facing more physical defenses like those that reside in the NFC West.
The Broncos are looking for a better pass rush this year, and if they get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks it will help their overall performance. The team wants to be as dangerous on defense as they are on offense.
Having a well-rounded team means holding up against the pass and the run. Teams who try to play keep away from Peyton Manning and the offense may try to run more against Denver. The defense needs to be ready to stuff the run and intimidate opponents who try to wear them down.
Many teams will fall behind to the Broncos and switch into a pass-happy mode much earlier than they do against other (less dangerous) opponents. This means the defense has to be ready for a lot of passes thrown against them as opponents try to get back in the game. Having an improved secondary—one that can create turnovers—will also greatly help the team play up to expectations in 2014.
Here are six bold (and slightly less bold) predictions for the Broncos this season.
LESS BOLD: Peyton Manning Goes over 5,000 Yards Passing
Peyton Manning is coming off career-best numbers in 2013. He threw for nearly 5,500 yards last year, and he coupled that with 55 touchdown passes on the season. Both are new single-season records in the NFL, and Manning is showing no signs of slowing down.
Manning had never thrown for 5,000 yards in a season before last year, and he could now reach that mark for two years in a row. Under offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Manning is playing the best football of his life. That is astounding to consider when reflecting on Manning’s certain Hall of Fame credentials.
His arm strength looks great at the team’s minicamp. Demaryius Thomas has commented on how Manning’s passes are coming in hotter than they were last year. Manning talked about the feedback from Thomas after Tuesday’s practice.
“I like having that feedback. I can learn a lot off of that. I do the same thing for receivers. I tell receivers, ‘Wow, you’re really coming out of the stance, I’m having to throw the ball a lot sooner to keep you from outrunning.’ So anytime you get feedback, from both players, telling [DE] DeMarcus Ware, ‘Wow, you look quick off the ball’—anytime a player gives you feedback, I take that seriously and hopefully that means making some progress.”
The Broncos let Eric Decker move on in free agency, but they replaced him with a player who could put up better numbers in Emmanuel Sanders. The offensive line has been improved, and that should lead to better protection for Manning.
With the momentum coming off last year, the new weapons in the passing game and the improved offensive line, we could see Manning throw for over 5,000 yards once again this year.
BOLD: Montee Ball Rushes for over 1,500 Yards
The Broncos have a new starting running back in second-year pro Montee Ball. Last year’s starter, Knowshon Moreno, was allowed to move on in free agency to the Miami Dolphins. It is Ball’s time in 2014 to show what he can do.
Moreno ran for a little over 1,000 yards last year, but he failed to have the impact on the ground that Ball could. In 2013, Moreno ran against defensive fronts with six or fewer defenders in the box on a whopping 79.7 percent of his carries. When Moreno did meet resistance, he did not do a good job of running through it. He was only credited with 21 broken tackles on 241 carries last year.
Ball finished the regular season on a high note. His yards per carry (6.5) over the final six games of the regular season were second only to Jamaal Charles (6.6). Ball also finished as the number one running back in percentage of carries (40.4) that went for a first down.
In addition to moving the chains, Ball racked up some longer runs. Over that time period, he was No. 1 in the NFL in terms of percentage of carries (21.2) that went over 10 yards.
He has bulked up to 220 pounds this year in anticipation of a larger role with the team in 2014. Ball can be a banger between the tackles, and his determined style will wear down an opponent.
Ball may not be the receiver that Moreno was (60 catches last year), but offensive coordinator Adam Gase is confident in the second-year pro’s receiving ability.
“Montee has proven to me, over last year and so far this year, that his hands have gotten much better than what they were—at least [from] what we thought coming out of college.”
The Broncos have spent a lot of time this offseason talking about establishing more balance on offense. This does not mean they are going to be a run-heavy offense, but instead it means the team will use the ground game more than they did last year.
It is not out of the question to project Ball for 270 carries in 2014. In order to rush for over 1,500 yards, Ball would need to average 5.5 yards per carry. Based on what he did last season, it is not outlandish to predict Ball could do that in 2014.
Having a back go over 1,500 yards would make this offense more well-rounded in 2014. A productive Ball can make defenses pay for selling out to stop Peyton Manning and the passing game. A dominant ground game would be a huge asset for the Broncos this season.
LESS BOLD: Emmanuel Sanders Catches 80 Passes in 2014
The team lost Eric Decker in free agency to the New York Jets, and they replaced him with former Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. When he was introduced as the newest Bronco at Dove Valley, Sanders referred to Denver as “wide receiver heaven” because of Peyton Manning and the passing game.
He could certainly put up career-best numbers in his first season with the Broncos.
Manning is excited about what he has seen from Sanders so far. “He’s kept himself in great shape. He stays out there for every play and it’s a credit to him and we are making progress and it’s important to put the time in and it paid off with Wes last year and I know it will pay off this year with Emmanuel as well.”
Amazingly, Sanders has never had a 100-yard receiving game during his four year career. He should be able to reach that mark more than a few times in this offense. Going from Todd Haley’s offense in Pittsburgh to Adam Gase’s offense in Denver is the equivalent of going from a bicycle to a Bugatti.
Sanders is faster and quicker than Decker. Unlike Decker, Sanders can get off press coverage at the line of scrimmage quickly. This helps maintain the timing that is key when catching passes from Manning.
He has the speed to take the top off the defense. Sanders can be used to stretch the field, and he has looked good tracking deep passes over his shoulder during minicamp with the Broncos.
Sanders’ speed can also be seen after the catch. Once the pass is secured, Sanders is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. His speed and his quickness should make him a favorite target for Manning in 2014.
Last year, Decker caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sanders may not be the red-zone threat that Decker is, but he could put up more catches and receiving yards in 2014.
BOLD: DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller Combine for 30 Sacks
The Broncos really boosted their pass rush when they added future Hall of Fame defensive end DeMarcus Ware in free agency. The plan is for Ware and linebacker Von Miller to create a ton of pressure from the edge.
Miller grew up in Texas looking up to Ware, and now the two are playing together at the highest level of football. According to Ware, they never stop talking about football.
“I talk to Von all the time, and we go back and forth on pass-rush moves. If he’s out there and he’s doing just little stuff on the sideline right now, I’ll tell him, ‘Hey, you need to make sure you correct this, just make sure you work on this.’ He says, ‘Hey, man, I’m doing it at home.’ Even when I’m out here, I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m going to go work on this move that we’ve been working on all week.’”
Ware concluded, “That’s good to have a guy that looks up to you, but also can teach you a couple of things that you don’t even know about. We sort of learn off each other and get better.”
According to Ware, there has been a goal set by the duo this year. Ware would not get into specifics about the number of sacks that was their goal, but he did give us clues about the idea behind the goal.
“We talk—me and Von talk all the time about, ‘How many sacks do you want to get this year?’ He threw a number out there, and I said, ‘At the end of the day, a number’s only a result that people can judge.’ I said, ‘But why not be the tandem out there that at the end of the day we can say the tandem that was best in the league ever.’ That’s the name—me and Von—that’s what you want.”
Ware emphasized, “You want something bigger than that, that lasts forever.”
When pressed on what that number was, Ware only replied that it was as much as whole teams get. That would put a number of about 30 sacks between the two in 2014.
Last season, there were eight teams who had fewer than 35 sacks as a team. By compiling more than 15 each, Miller and Ware could reach that number. It would certainly be a fantastic accomplishment and one that would be remembered for a long time.
In 2013, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson (Carolina Panthers) combined for 26.5 sacks. Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (New Orleans Saints) combined for 24.5 sacks last year. Reaching the 30 sack mark is within the reach of the new Broncos duo.
Ware has had 15 or more sacks three times in his nine year pro career. The last time he surpassed that number was 2011 when he had 19.5 sacks for the Cowboys.
Miller has had 15 or more sacks once in his three year pro career. His 18.5 sacks in 2012 led the team, and he combined with defensive end Elvis Dumervil for 29.5 sacks that year.
Both Ware and Miller are looking to bounce back in 2014 after disappointing seasons in 2013. Ware battled an elbow injury that bothered him all year, and he finished the season with only six sacks. Miller was suspended the first six weeks of the season, and only had five sacks before tearing his ACL in the Week 16 game against the Texans.
Getting 30 or more sacks is not out of the question for a duo this talented.
LESS BOLD: Nate Irving Wins the Starting Middle Linebacker Job
The search for a middle linebacker continues this year for the Broncos. The team has not had a quality and reliable starter at the position since Al Wilson was forced to retire in 2006. It has been a long time and an exhaustive search for the Broncos.
The position has changed in recent years with such an emphasis on the passing game in the NFL. Effective starting middle linebackers are no longer two-down thumpers. Instead, they have the ability to cover talented move tight ends on routes down the seam.
This change has created an emphasis on linebackers who can be three-down players. Guys like Patrick Willis (San Francisco 49ers) and Luke Kuechly (Carolina Panthers) do not come around every day, so many teams are left to rotate middle linebackers based on down and distance. This rotation can be a problem when opponents go into a hurry-up offense.
The Broncos have experimented with all sorts of combinations at middle linebacker in recent years. They have added aging veterans like Paris Lenon or Keith Brooking to start. They have moved guys from other positions, like they did with Wesley Woodyard last season.
These moves have had varying degrees of success, and they have only been temporary moves for the Broncos.
Nate Irving could be the answer at middle linebacker this year. The 2011 third-round pick was selected with the idea that one day he could be a quality starter for the team in the middle of the defense. Instead, Irving has failed to win the job and he’s looked better as a reserve strong-side linebacker.
This year, the job is Irving’s to lose. He is going to have to beat out 2012 undrafted free agent Steven Johnson and 2014 fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow for the job.
Johnson is a standout special teams player. He can find the ball quickly, and he arrives at the play with natural violence. Johnson is a two-down thumper, but there are questions about his ability in coverage.
Barrow is a coverage linebacker. He has the length and speed to make up ground quickly. While he can cover down the seam, Barrow does have struggles when defending the run.
Irving seems to be the best all-around option at this time. He has improved his ability in coverage, and Irving is already a known asset as a run-defender.
He should be the starter when Week 1 rolls around. However, the Broncos could choose to move Irving off the field and put strong safety T.J. Ward in at linebacker in obvious passing situations.
BOLD: Bradley Roby Will Lead the Team in Interceptions
The Broncos added a talented cornerback in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft when they selected Bradley Roby out of Ohio State. Today’s NFL is all about stopping offenses geared towards passing the ball early and often. Defenses need to have quality starters—and quality depth—at the cornerback position.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio recently commented on this new mindset.
“I don’t consider the nickel the base, just because of the semantics of it. Base is base. Sub is sub. It is the norm. It is the most frequently played defensive unit. I think last year, 66 percent of our snaps were in the sub package. You’re playing more and more 3-wide receiver sets, or even 2-tight end sets where the second tight end is really almost like a wide receiver.” Del Rio concluded, “So you’re playing a lot of sub downs so we’ve adjusted accordingly.”
The long-time coach also believes depth is critical at the cornerback position in today’s NFL.
“I’d say the fourth corner becomes a little more important because you can never have enough. And the reason people say that is because if somebody gets nicked, is tired, whatever, or something happens with the helmet, you have another guy that can go in. That’s a good position to be in. You don’t want to be forced not to be able to get to that third corner.” Del Rio continued, “So three is a necessity, I think, nowadays. I think having a fourth guy that is very capable is also very important.”
Roby has the speed to keep up with wide receivers on downfield routes. He has the size and arm length to be disruptive when the pass comes in. Roby has an aggressive mindset, and he does not back down from a challenge.
His speed is also evident when breaking on routes that unfold in front of him. Roby can quickly transition from backpedal to sprint to get to the play. Scouts call this “click and close” ability, and Roby’s is among the best in this draft class.
With his natural skill set, Roby has the upside to be a shutdown corner in the league someday.
However, this year he is a rookie and that should immediately put a target on his back. Roby is likely to start on the outside opposite All-Pro Aqib Talib. Quarterbacks may be shy when throwing at Talib, so Roby may automatically see more targets.
These targets he could turn into interceptions with his nose for the ball. Over the final two years of his college career, Roby had 30 pass breakups and five interceptions. He could use those same instincts to bait opposing quarterbacks into bad throws in 2014.
Chris Harris Jr. is coming back from the partially-torn ACL injury he suffered in the playoff victory over the San Diego Chargers. His status for the start of training camp is up in the air right now, and he is currently doing work on the side with trainers during minicamp.
This injury is giving Roby a larger opportunity to show what he can do. Going up against Demaryius Thomas in practice, Roby has held his own so far in camp. It is still early, but this is a fantastic sign for the young corner.
Roby knows that playing against Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders in practice will only make him better.
“That’s great for me. When I first got drafted, that’s something I thought about, ‘I’m going to be going against D.T., [QB] Peyton Manning and Emmanuel Sanders every day. [WR] Wes Welker every day. Just preparing with them guys, I know that there’s nobody out there I’m going to see that’s too much better than them, if any.” Roby continued, “I’m delighted about that, I love to compete. So I just want to do that every day.”
He is picking Talib’s brain in an effort to be the best pro he can be this season.
“I learned a lot [talking to Talib]. For corners, it’s about the small things and he’s just been teaching me all the small things. He’s out taking me under his wing and helping me. He remembers when he was a rookie and he said Ronde Barber was kind of his mentor and I look to him as that for me, so he’s a great guy to learn from. He’s a very smart player and a very great player, so I’m excited about that as well.”
Roby has the speed and talent to start from day one. Opposing quarterbacks may try to pick on him during his rookie season, but Roby has the skill set to make them pay. He should get more targets thrown his way than Talib and Harris. That could lead to him leading the team in interceptions in 2014.
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.