Winners and Losers of Denver Broncos Offseason So Far
The Denver Broncos have been working hard building the offense, defense and special teams this offseason. Most of the schemes are installed on both sides of the ball as the team will wrap up minicamp later this week. They’ll take a break afterward and then come back to Dove Valley for training camp in late July.
The team spent big money in free agency, adding the best talent that it possibly could. The Broncos let several of their own free agents move on this offseason and had to make some tough decisions.
They weren’t content with resting on their laurels even though they made the Super Bowl last year. John Fox and company want to make another run at a championship in 2014.
That’s why the Broncos moved around in the 2014 NFL draft to find impact players. The first two picks in their 2014 draft class could both play big roles this season.
Given the additions in free agency and the draft, some players have increased value to the team, while others may struggle to make an impact in 2014.
Here’s a look at the winners and losers of the Broncos offseason so far.
Winner: Montee Ball
The Denver Broncos are going to have a new-look ground game this year. They let last year’s starting running back Knowshon Moreno move on in free agency to the Miami Dolphins. That is a clear sign of their faith in second-year pro Montee Ball.
The team is looking for more balance from the offense this year, and that could mean Ball is in line to receive more carries than Moreno did last year (241). Ball is a better runner inside the tackles than Moreno is, and he should be able to gain more yards as a runner than last year’s starter.
Moreno ran against six or fewer defenders in the box last year on 79.7 percent of his carries. Ball should be able to take advantage of defenses that are more worried about slowing down Peyton Manning and the passing game.
The revamped offensive line should get more of a push between the tackles as well. Starting center Manny Ramirez was ecstatic when asked if he likes what Ball (and more emphasis on the ground game) can do for the Broncos this year.
“Definitely. Just what he showed us last year, he showed a lot. He’s improved a lot. He seems a lot more mature, and we’re just excited to see what we’re going to be able to do with him.”
Ball is not the flashiest runner in the NFL. He’s not the fastest back in the league or the biggest. However, he could finish the year as one of the most productive backs in the NFL because of his skill set, this offense and the opportunity in front of him this year.
Loser: Ronnie Hillman
One year ago, Ronnie Hillman sat atop the team’s depth chart. He spent last offseason as the No. 1 back and received about 75 percent of the work with the first team. Fumbling problems in the preseason cost him the starting job, and ongoing fumbling problems saw him inactive for most games in the second half of the regular season.
With last year’s starter Knowshon Moreno no longer with the team, the Broncos are going with Montee Ball as their lead back. No official depth chart will be released until later this year, but Hillman is treating this offseason as if he’s still competing for the No. 1 job.
“You’ve just got to come to work with a chip on your shoulder. It’s easy to say you’re going to practice hard and work hard, but you’ve just got to show it. Right now is the time. These next couple of months are crucial. The job’s open, and I’m going after it. I’m not working to be No. 2.”
Hillman has the correct mindset, but the reality of the situation is much different. He may not win the No. 2 job behind Ball, and with so much talent added via college free agency, there’s a small chance he won't make the final roster.
C.J. Anderson is the team’s only true power back. He has worked well in minicamp as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. He is more capable than Hillman as a potential starter, and at this time he seems to be the favorite to win the primary backup role behind Ball.
Kapri Bibbs has been turning heads at minicamp and is performing better as a receiver than some expected. Brennan Clay is a fine talent and can provide the team with the change-of-pace skill set that Hillman has. Juwan Thompson is a great all-purpose back who is arguably the best pass-blocking back on the roster.
The competition for spots on the depth chart is going to be fierce. The running back position may be especially cramped if the team chooses to carry more tight ends or cornerbacks than it did last year. If the team only carries three backs this season, that could bump Hillman off the final roster.
Winner: Emmanuel Sanders
Emmanuel Sanders was a prized free-agent addition this offseason. Once signed, he referred to Denver as “wide receiver heaven” because of Peyton Manning and the league’s most high-powered passing offense. He’s not too far off the mark, and Sanders should be able to post career-best numbers in his first season with the Broncos.
He is going to be the replacement for Eric Decker, who moved on in free agency to the New York Jets as the Broncos never offered him a contract to stay. Clearly the team was ready to move in a different direction with a player who could be considered an upgrade to Decker.
The fifth-year pro has never had a 100-yard receiving game during his time with the Steelers. He should be able to get over the century mark early and often catching passes from Manning. Learning a new offense can take time, but Manning has been impressed by Sanders' ability both on the field and in the classroom.
“It’s hard to unlearn that offense and so I know what Emmanuel is going through and it just takes time. 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.” Manning said.
Sanders is faster than Decker and can get on top of the defense in a hurry. He is also quicker than Decker, so he’ll be able to get into his routes cleanly off the line of scrimmage (unlike Decker). He’s not the route-runner that Decker was, and he may not post as many touchdowns in 2014 as Decker did last year.
Catching around 80 passes for 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns is a good line to project for Sanders. He’s going to be a big part of the offense, so those numbers might actually be more of a “floor” than a “ceiling.”
Loser: Andre Caldwell
The team added a lot of wide receiver talent this offseason. While some may have thought losing Eric Decker in free agency would mean more of an opportunity for Andre Caldwell, the team looks content to keep him as a reserve player only.
When the Broncos moved up in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft to select Cody Latimer, it showed what they thought of the Indiana Hoosiers star receiver. He has the look of a future star, and he could get into the mix as a red-zone target for the Broncos this season. He’s been such a standout player at minicamp that penciling him in as the fourth receiver is not out of the question.
He isn’t the only player who could push Caldwell down the depth chart. The Broncos added a couple of intriguing talents as college free agents after the 2014 NFL draft.
Isaiah Burse caught 100 passes for Fresno State last year, and he’s been making standout plays during minicamp as a slot receiver. He can not only contribute as a receiver but could make the team because of his ability as a return man.
Bennie Fowler has also been standing out like Burse in minicamp. He has a good size/speed combination and has been showing solid ball-tracking ability and concentration as a receiver. He has to be considered a long shot to make the final roster, but he could put up more of a fight for a roster spot than some think.
Caldwell did a great job last year filling in for an injured Wes Welker last season. He knows that game was a big reason why the Broncos offered him a contract this year in free agency.
“That was really important. That was like a showcase for me to prove to the Broncos and the organization and also my teammates that I was a valuable player on the team and that I could help them whenever my number is called,” Caldwell said. “I tried to prove that point and hopefully I did that.”
He gives the team fantastic veteran depth at the wide receiver position. A larger opportunity for playing time just doesn’t seem to be in the cards for the veteran wideout.
Winner: Gerell Robinson
The Broncos have a deep and talented group of tight ends. The team may have a sleeper at the position in third-year pro Gerell Robinson.
The Broncos moved him from a wide receiver to a tight end when they signed him to a futures contract earlier this year. Making the team as a wideout is going to be tough, but the path to the 53-man roster may be easier as a tight end.
His skill set is similar to that of starting tight end Julius Thomas. He’s a former basketball player (like Thomas) who knows how to use his frame to box out smaller defenders. He can create mismatches every time he lines up, as he is too big for safeties and too athletic for linebackers.
According to Broncos head coach John Fox, Robinson is a player on the rise.
“I’ve seen growth physically and mentally and he got every single rep here at camp. He was Clancy Barone, our tight end coach’s only guy, so hopefully he got better.”
Robinson could make the 53-man roster as an emergency replacement for Thomas. If he makes the team, that could push veteran Joel Dreessen off the final roster.
Loser: Kayvon Webster
With the addition of Aqib Talib in free agency and Bradley Roby in the first round of the draft, we’ve seen Kayvon Webster move down the depth chart for the Broncos.
They selected Webster in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft with the idea that perhaps he could be a quality starter on the outside someday in the near future. He looked good playing in sub-packages early in his rookie season, but he was exposed when he received more playing time due to injuries later in the year.
He received plenty of experience last year, but those struggles have carried over to this year in minicamp. Webster has struggled in coverage, and he’s been targeted regularly by Peyton Manning in practice.
Talib is going to start on the outside, as he’s one of the league’s best shutdown corners. The starter on the other side could be Roby. The rookie has been making standout plays almost every day in practice this offseason. He has shutdown upside as well and he get plenty of opportunity to learn on the job in 2014.
The nickel corner could be manned by Roby or by Chris Harris Jr. this season. Harris is currently rehabbing from the partially torn ACL injury that he suffered last year in the playoff win over the San Diego Chargers. If Roby struggles, then Harris could line up outside opposite Talib.
Any way the depth chart unfolds in training camp, we’ll see Webster as the fourth corner at best if everyone is healthy.
Winner: T.J. Ward
The first move the Broncos made in free agency might have been their most important one. As soon as veteran free agency opened up, they announced they had reached an agreement with veteran strong safety T.J. Ward.
The defense is looking to be more aggressive this year, and aggression is the name of the game for Ward. He could be the defensive leader that the team has been looking for. He is an intimidator, and his hard-hitting style will get in the head of opponents.
Ward is going to be a big part of the defense and may not come off the field very often. Before the draft, general manager John Elway suggested that he could move from strong safety to middle linebacker when the team is in the nickel package.
Semantics aside, nickel defense is essentially the base defense in today’s NFL. The Broncos lined up in their nickel package over 60 percent of the time last year. They could have a similar (or greater) number of snaps in nickel this year.
Ward can make plays close to the line of scrimmage as he flies to the ball. He arrives at the ball-carrier with natural violence and does a good job of wrapping up.
The veteran safety is also athletic enough to make plenty of plays in coverage. He has the ability to cover the deep seam, and he has high football intelligence. He rarely takes false steps or bites on play and pump fakes.
The early results have been positive. Head coach John Fox is impressed with what he’s seen from Ward so far.
“He brings an attitude. He’s got a little edge about him, which we like. And he understands the game very well; he’s easy to coach. And he’s picked up our terminology in our defensive system pretty quickly, so he’s got good football character that way as far as learning and adjusting, so we’re very, very pleased with him at this point.”
Ward was a stud with the Cleveland Browns. He’ll be given the chance to be a superstar with the Broncos in 2014.
Loser: Duke Ihenacho
Free agent addition T.J. Ward is the team’s starting strong safety this year. He’s one of the best in the game at his position, and he will give the team more toughness and aggression on defense.
In addition to adding Ward, the Broncos should get Quinton Carter back from microfracture knee surgery that cost him almost all of the last two seasons. He is a versatile player who can stand out as a strong or free safety. The Broncos showed faith in him by keeping him around even though his road to recovery was long and winding.
That support meant a lot to Carter. “It means the world, especially in this business. They pretty much believed in me, and that gave me the confidence to just take my time and get healthy. Now I’m ready to make a difference.”
Carter has been lining up at strong safety when Ward is lined up at middle linebacker in the nickel package at minicamp. He’s also gotten an opportunity to line up at strong safety, while Ward has been nursing a minor hamstring injury this week.
Ward and Carter are both ahead of Duke Ihenacho on the depth chart.
He was an undrafted free agent the Broncos picked up in 2012 out of San Jose State. He bounced from the practice squad to the active roster multiple times as a rookie, but his playing style made him an instant favorite of the fans.
He began the 2013 season as a starter for the Broncos at strong safety. He recorded 11 solo tackles and one assist in the Week 1 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. It was his best game of the season, and he was slowed down by an ankle injury he suffered in the Week 2 win over the New York Giants.
Ihenacho is a big hitter, but he too often was out of position in coverage. This made him a favorite target of opposing quarterbacks as the season went on.
He seemed to lose some confidence last year, and it’s clear the Broncos wanted an upgrade at the position. Ihenacho was a starter last year, but there’s a good chance he won’t see the field much 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.
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