Denver Broncos' Offseason State of the Union

Cecil Lammey@@cecillammeyContributor IJune 24, 2014

Denver Broncos' Offseason State of the Union

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    The Denver Broncos have the talent to win the Super Bowl in 2014. They need to harvest that talent properly and fully if they want to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year.

    Ever since losing Super Bowl XLVIII 43-8 to the Seattle Seahawks, the Broncos have been working behind the scenes to build a stronger team for the new season. It’s time to look at this team from a big-picture perspective to see what it all means before we hit training camp in a month.

    Wikipedia defines the state of the union address as follows:

    The State of the Union is the address presented by the President of the United States to a joint session of the United States Congress, typically delivered annually. The address not only reports on the condition of the nation but also allows presidents to outline their legislative agenda (for which they need the cooperation of Congress) and their national priorities.

    This State of the Union address for the Denver Broncos goes over the condition of the franchise heading into 2014. This article also outlines the agenda the Broncos have this season and gives priority to the top moves made this offseason.

    Without further ado, here’s the offseason State of the Union for the Denver Broncos.

Peyton Manning Is Still at the Top of His Game

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    There’s no question that Peyton Manning will be a first-ballot selection for the Hall of Fame. In his second season with the Broncos, he had the best statistical season of his career. He flourished under first-year offensive coordinator Adam Gase in 2013 and proved that he is still at the top of his game.

    Manning set single-season records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards passing in 2013. These numbers easily eclipsed his previous career highs of 49 touchdowns (2004) and 4,700 yards (2010). It’s a bit startling to consider, but Gase brought out the best in Manning at age 37.

    He was the definition of dominant in 2013. He passed for 250 or more yards in every regular-season game except for one (Week 12, 150 yards vs. New England Patriots). In his second year in the Gase offense, with new weapons in the passing game like Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer, expect Manning to continue to dominate in 2014.

    Not only should he be more comfortable in his second year under Gase, but according to superstar wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, his arm is stronger than ever.

    Manning responded to the feedback from his superstar receiver positively.

    “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.”

    Manning may not best the numbers he put up last season, but he could still throw for more than 5,000 yards and around 45 touchdowns in 2014.

The Team Believes in Montee Ball

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    In the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Broncos selected running back Montee Ball out of Wisconsin with the hopes that he would one day be the featured back for the team. He finished his college career as the all-time leading touchdown scorer in NCAA history with 83 touchdowns. His nose for the end zone and no-nonsense style were standout attributes that made him a quality pick in last year’s draft.

    He began his rookie season in a backup role behind 2013 starter Knowshon Moreno and split time as a reserve running back with Ronnie Hillman for the first half of the season. When Hillman’s fumbling problems became too much for the team, Ball took over as the primary backup—and flourished—with a larger role.

    Over the final six weeks of the regular season, Ball was one of the best running backs in the league. During that span, only Jamaal Charles (6.6) averaged more yards per carry than Ball (6.5, 52 carries for 337 yards). He also led the NFL in percentage of rushes for first downs (40.4 percent) and carries of 10 or more yards (21.2 percent) to wrap up the season.

    Ball talked about the way his experience from last year has helped him.

    “It took quite some time to adjust to the speed of the game, the intensity. I think it came at the right time. I would have loved for it to happen early on, but that’s the emphasis that I’m putting on this year, just to start fast, which I’m doing now during OTAs and I’ll do it during minicamp next week, and roll into training camp with the same mentality.

    “I think it’ll help me out preseason and the season.”

    He has bulked up this offseason in anticipation of a larger role in 2014. He weighs about 220 pounds right now but believes that he’ll play around 218 pounds when the season starts. He is a tough runner inside who wastes little motion when carrying the rock.

    He should be able to take advantage of defenses that are preoccupied with attempting to slow down the passing game and Peyton Manning. Last year, Moreno faced six or fewer defenders in the box on 79.7 percent of his carries. Ball is a better inside runner than Moreno, and he should be able to compile more rushing yards because of it.

    He has been working hard to improve as a receiver out of the backfield. Moreno had plenty of shortcomings as a runner, but he was outstanding in pass protection and a great receiving back. Ball may not catch 60 passes like Moreno did last year, but he will probably be targeted enough to catch 40 or more in 2014.

    The team made no offer to keep Moreno around in free agency. The Broncos also did not select a running back in the 2014 NFL draft. Clearly, they believe in Ball as their featured runner for 2014 and beyond.

Emmanuel Sanders Could Be a Big Part of the Offense

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    One of the key moves in free agency was to add wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos let Eric Decker move on in free agency to the New York Jets, and Sanders is going to be tasked with filling Decker’s old role.

    Sanders could prove to be an upgrade over Decker. First, he’s faster than Decker and can run vertical routes to stretch the defensive coverage. Second, he is quicker than Decker off the line of scrimmage. This quickness not only helps him at the snap but also when he makes his breaks at the stem of the route.

    Sanders can gain separation in ways that Decker could not. This means he can get open easier than Decker did.

    Peyton Manning’s favorite receiver is the open guy. Sanders has the type of skill set that has made him a favorite of the coaching staff this offseason.

    Offensive coordinator Adam Gase could not contain his excitement when talking about Sanders.

    “I’ve been very impressed. He’s been exactly what we thought from watching him in Pittsburgh. His ability to get off versus the jam is very impressive. Just that quickness, top of the route, and that speed down the field is something that we were very interested in to start with, and he’s shown us that he’s still got that.”

    Per Broncos media policy for covering minicamps, I can’t report on how the Broncos are exactly using Sanders in the offense. However, I can say that Gase is being very creative with the veteran receiver.

    Sanders could be a big part of the offense in 2014. He may not haul in 11 touchdowns like Decker did last year, but he could put up more catches and receiving yards than the guy he’s replacing. He’s never had a 100-yard receiving game as a pro, but Sanders could top that mark multiple times with his new team this season.

    There’s a reason why he referred to Denver as “wide receiver heaven” after he was signed by the team. His numbers this year should be divine while catching passes from Manning.

We've Yet to See the Best from Julius Thomas

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    In 2013 tight end Julius Thomas immediately stood out as an impact player on the league’s most dangerous offense. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft, and some were surprised the Broncos took a chance that early on a player who was known only as a basketball star during his time in college at Portland State.

    He played one year of college football to match the one year he played in high school. Coming into the pros, he was a raw player with limited experience on the football field.

    He flashed immediately as a rookie in training camp, but an ankle injury early in his rookie season caused him to miss most of the next two seasons. Once healthy, he proved the Broncos were right for taking him in the draft.

    Thomas was one of the most productive tight ends in the league last year even though he missed two games with a minor knee injury. After one year of producing at a high level, there is now a new expectation for Thomas in 2014.

    When asked if there was pressure to outperform the numbers he posted last year, he was positive with his answer.

    “Absolutely. I hold myself to a very high standard. I’m spending a lot of time going back and looking at last year’s tape these last couple weeks and just seeing so many areas that I can improve in. By no standards was I my best in any aspect of the game and that’s what’s really exciting about these offseason OTAs for me is I really get a chance to work on things and improve.

    “Just trying to become more dynamic, just do more things to help out our offense. Allow our coaches to put me in more positions to make it tough on defenses.”

    Thomas played one year of high school football and one year of college football and has been healthy for most of one season of pro football. He essentially has three years of football experience under his belt. There is no doubt that the best is yet to come from this talented tight end.

They Wanted More Beef on the Offensive Line

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    With one free-agent departure (left guard Zane Beadles), the Broncos will have a different look on the offensive line this year in a couple of different spots. That look will include a new starter at left guard and right tackle. The look will also include a lot more beef up front.

    Last year’s starting right tackle Orlando Franklin has been moved inside to left guard. He’s a behemoth who can be a road-grader as a run-blocker. He has experience at left guard from his days in college at the University of Miami, and the transition inside has been seamless so far this offseason.

    At right tackle the team has a competition going on between Chris Clark and Winston Justice.

    Clark was the team’s starting left tackle for most of the 2013 season after Ryan Clady was lost for the season with a Lisfranc injury in Week 2 against the New York Giants. He struggles with elite edge-rushers in pass protection, but he’ll see fewer of those types of matchups on the right side.

    Justice was a second-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006. He bounced from Philadelphia to the Indianapolis Colts and now to the Broncos. He could be more dominant as a run-blocker than Clark, but he lacks Clark’s athleticism and upside in pass blocking.

    Clark should be considered the favorite to win the job, but there was no clear-cut winner of the competition in mandatory minicamp.

    The Broncos will have a larger offensive line this year and may want to have a little more balance on offense this year. They’re not going to take the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands, but they might want to grind down opponents a bit more late in games. We could also see the Broncos run more when they get close to paydirt.

    Starting center Manny Ramirez likes the idea of running the ball more in 2014. His eyes seemed to light up when talking about the team having more balance on offense this season.

    “I hope so. Just because the way we’re built. The front five, we like to run the ball. But, at the same time, we’re going to do what’s best for the team, whether it’s passing or running. So hopefully we are balanced, just because it will help out as far as what we can do.”

    Protecting Manning is the first (and biggest) priority for the offensive line. Having larger players up front will help the team do that. It will also help the Broncos be more physical—and respond better when facing physical defensive fronts like the ones they’ll take on against the likes of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.

The Pass Rush Will Be More Ferocious

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    Arguably the biggest move for the Broncos in free agency was adding future Hall of Fame defensive end DeMarcus Ware. It was a brilliant stroke by general manager John Elway because Ware will be teamed up opposite linebacker Von Miller, and they’ll be turned loose against opposing quarterbacks.

    Miller grew up in Dallas and idolized Ware as a young football player. He loves having Ware as a teammate.

    “For me it’s more about just watching him. Just being able to watch greatness every single day. Because I’ve felt like I’ve had some good practices, but to see another guy have—especially now, when I’m not able to work and stuff, it’s great just to watch him and just to see what he does on this play, on a run blocker.

    “It isn’t always about passing plays and all that, to see ways he drops into coverage and recognizes plays and all kinds of stuff. It’s great having him here.”

    Ware has a lot to prove after coming off a disappointing 2013 season with the Dallas Cowboys. He battled through an elbow injury all season long and finished with only six sacks. He has not declared himself 100 percent healthy this offseason, but he should be at full strength by the start of the regular season.

    Miller also has a lot to prove after a cataclysmic 2013 season. He missed the first six games of last season due to a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He returned, but with an extra 15 pounds of muscle, he didn’t look quite as explosive. He then tore his ACL in Week 16 against the Houston Texans.

    He may be ahead in the recovery process right now, but Miller’s availability for the start of training camp is up in the air. The team could ease him into the lineup at the start of the regular season, and Miller is looking to show why he’s still one of the best pass-rushers in the game today.

    Playing next to his childhood idol, Miller could thrive in 2014. Ware could lead the team in sacks, and this duo could push for 30 sacks combined.

    So long as both Ware and Miller are healthy, the Broncos will have a more ferocious pass rush in 2014.

There's More Than One Option at Middle Linebacker

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    The Broncos failed to address the middle linebacker position in the offseason through free agency. They also ignored the position in the early rounds of the draft, although they did try to move up for C.J. Mosley in the first round.

    According to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, Nate Irving is going to enter training camp as the starting middle linebacker. He was selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft with the hope that he could be a cornerstone for the team inside. He’s failed to stand out as a “Mike” linebacker during his pro career, but he did get plenty of experience as a reserve strong-side linebacker in 2013.

    Irving’s time to shine in the middle is now. He’ll have to beat out special teams linebacker Steven Johnson and rookie Lamin Barrow for the starting job.

    Middle linebackers need to cover in today’s pass-happy NFL, and Irving has struggled with coverage at times in the past. He could come off the field when the team is in the nickel package.

    Barrow could get in during passing downs because of his strength and athleticism. However, a middle linebacker in the nickel package could actually be strong safety T.J. Ward.

    Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio talked about being creative with the defense in 2014. He was specifically asked how using Ward at middle linebacker helps the team.

    “We’ve got plenty of creativity. What it really comes down to is getting on the same page, selecting from the packages the things that we can do the best and play fast with that. We’ve got a large library of thoughts and ideas and different schemes and things we can do. At the end of the day, we want to be able to stop people from running the ball at us and harass the quarterback and get off the field on third down.”

    Del Rio continued, “I think not allowing explosive plays will be a big emphasis for us. We had far too many last year, and that’ll be something that will be at the forefront of everything we’re doing.”

    He wrapped up his thorough insight by saying, “But having good players helps. And we’ve got some good players. And so we’re going to utilize those guys, put them in position. And [S] T.J. [Ward] can play in the box or in the back end, so that’s his versatility.”

    The Broncos were in the nickel package almost 65 percent of the time last year. They’re likely to play a similar percentage of snaps in the sub-package this season. Regardless of the game situation, they clearly have a few options to man the middle in 2014.

The Secondary Will Be Tougher

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    There are two moves that emphasize the offseason mantra of the team more than others. The additions of strong safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib show how the Broncos are going to emphasize more toughness from their secondary in 2014.

    Ward is known as a tough enforcer who can intimidate opponents early and often. He can play close to the line of scrimmage to stuff the run. He has the athleticism to turn and cover receivers downfield if need be. This versatility makes him a great asset for the revamped defense.

    Talib is a true shutdown corner. He can take away an opponent's best weapon each week with his smothering coverage. He is huge, physical, fast, quick and nasty. He’ll win at the point of the catch regularly, and then he’ll tell a receiver all about it.

    The Broncos defense is going to have more swagger because of these two additions.

    At the conclusion of mandatory minicamp, head coach John Fox praised 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.”

    Fox concluded, “We’re very, very pleased with him at this point.”

    Winning the Super Bowl is the ultimate goal for the Broncos, and Talib knows that defense wins championships.

    “As you see, the defense has to carry their weight if you plan on winning it all, if you plan on accomplishing your goals. Both sides have to hold their weight.”

    Talib continued, “That’s how it goes. It’s offense and defense.”

    Denver wants a tougher secondary, and that’s why it made the moves to add Ward and Talib. The team also selected a physical corner in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft when it added Bradley Roby.

    All of these moves point toward Denver having a more physical presence at the third level of the defense in 2014.

     

    All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.

    Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.