Moves the Denver Broncos Should Have Made This Offseason
The Denver Broncos killed it during the 2014 offseason, having brought in high-caliber players at multiple positions. But there are still some moves they should have made to really put the team over the top.
While the 2014 squad looks terrific—on paper, at least—no team is perfect. The Broncos could have done just a little more to round out this year's product, so there are still a few things that are going to make fans a bit antsy as we move through training camp and into the season.
It's worth noting that some of these moves were made for depth. Denver looks very, very good on the top end.
However, last year showed that losing the depth battle can often cost a team. Miller and Chris Harris didn't play in the Super Bowl. Ryan Clady missed most of the entire year. These are big names, players who have an impact week in and week out, and their absence hurt the club.
To address the team's weaknesses, Denver should have made these moves.
Signed Jon Beason
It looks more and more like the Broncos did address the middle linebacker position, though they might have done it by bringing in a safety.
The brilliant breakdown that Bronco Mike did for Mile High Report shows how free-agent signee T.J. Ward can be used all over the field. Ward can cover tight ends in the slot, stuff the run, and play the same “robber” role that Kam Chancellor used to dominate all of the Broncos but Thomas in the Super Bowl.
General manager John Elway and head coach John Fox probably want to use Ward the same way, and that gives them some flexible sets where Ward might be more of a linebacker than a safety, with Quinton Carter perhaps stepping into the traditional safety role behind him or with just one deep safety.
That being said, the Broncos have been shaky at middle linebacker as of late, and Jon Beason was available. It looked like this move might be on the table since Fox used to coach Beason in Carolina, but the Broncos didn't push hard to make it happen, despite Beason's appearance as a prototype middle linebacker who could have been an instant upgrade.
After all, he had 65 tackles and 28 assisted tackles in just 12 games for the New York Giants, the team to which he ultimately returned. Some people even said he was the only reason New York's defense got things going last year. That's the type of leader you want.
On top of that, he probably wouldn't have cost much at this stage in his career, and it's always nice to have a veteran to try to win a Super Bowl for.
If Denver uses Ward the way it looks like it will, and if Lamin Barrow and Nate Irving develop nicely into the smaller, more athletic linebackers who can excel in pass coverage, it's probably fine that it ignored Beason. If the position is yet again one of weakness, though, it was a huge mistake.
Added a Change-of-Pace Back
Montee Ball looks like he's ready to be the man in Denver.
Really, as excellent as Knowshon Moreno was last year, Ball, 23, put up good stats on limited carries, with 559 yards and four touchdowns on 120 attempts. He probably would have come close to the 27-year-old Moreno's numbers as a rookie if he'd been given as many chances as the older back; he just would have suffered more in pass protection since he was new to the system.
The problem is this: Ball is a downhill runner. He's not going to get the same receiving numbers that Moreno had, not by a long shot. Denver needed to add a change-of-pace back, someone with speed and agility, to come in and give the team a burst when it needs it.
Neither C.J. Anderson nor Ronnie Hillman have shown that they can be that player. The team did bring in a number of undrafted free agents like Brennan Clay, but there is no telling if they'll even make the final roster.
In a lot of ways, drafting De'Anthony Thomas might have been perfect. He's a bit of a risk with his small frame (5'8", 176 lbs), but he would have been a good pick in the fourth or fifth round. Unfortunately, Denver did not make a move to go up and get him, and Kansas City took him in the fourth.
That wasn't the only option, though. Denver could have looked at bringing in someone through free agency or perhaps making a trade for Darren Sproles before the Eagles did. All the Eagles had to give up was a fifth-round pick. That's a steal for a dynamic player like Sproles in my book.
Drafted Shayne Skov
It's insane that Shayne Skov went undrafted. I'm not saying he's going to be the next dominant linebacker at the pro level, not by any means, but he was a leader and a starter on a very good Stanford defense. He had over 100 tackles for the Cardinal in his senior season.
Wouldn't that have been worth a seventh-round pick? That's almost no risk at all.
The only justification I can see for it is that Denver had already taken Barrow, a player whom the brass felt it needed to take before the last round, and the team wanted him to play inside—though we'll have to wait and see if that's what happens in reality. In any case, by the time the Broncos got to that last pick, adding another inside linebacker was pointless, even if he seemed more like a powerful middle linebacker.
They then went with an outside linebacker, Corey Nelson, instead, despite the lack of a great need there.
And that could be fine. Barrow might turn out to be better than Skov. But why not take two players you want to play inside, where you really need the help, rather than picking up Nelson as a camp body or a backup? Then you can let them battle for the position and push each other.
Though, again, the middle linebacker position seems to be changing in modern defenses. Teams want faster, more athletic guys who can cover, and perhaps the Broncos did not feel that Skov fit that mold. He did have a knee injury in the past, and, despite the fact that he played like it was well behind him in 2013, maybe they were concerned that it would limit his mobility.
Cut Joel Dreessen
There was some excitement when Joel Dreessen was brought in originally, buzz that concerned the chemistry he would have with both Jacob Tamme and Manning. Now, though, he just feels redundant and outclassed.
If you want a receiving tight end, Julius Thomas is in an entirely different realm. There's been speculation concerning his getting a contract near the reported $40 million that Jimmy Graham just picked up from New Orleans—though he probably needs to prove it for a bit longer than one season to warrant that type of money.
Still, there's no denying that he was one of the best tight ends in the game in 2013, and it's exciting to see how he'll develop.
If you want a blocking tight end, Virgil Green (6'5", 255 lbs, 25 years old) is an inch taller, 10 pounds heavier and six years younger than Dreessen. He can certainly fill in on the handful of downs where Denver is trying to run the ball and not using the tight end position as a hybrid wide receiver.
Dreessen may still fall victim to his situation. Denver is going to need to clear off money that isn't being well spent to make room for both Demaryius and Julius Thomas' next contracts. While Dreessen wouldn't save that much—he only accounts for $3.1 million against the cap—it would be a start, and the team would be essentially the same on game day.
Dreessen only had seven catches last year, so that means his cap number is just under $443,000 per catch.
Signed Another Cornerback
Denver had three notable cornerbacks on the roster in 2014: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Harris and Champ Bailey. The only one left of that group is Harris, and he's coming off a partially torn ACL.
Now, this position certainly wasn't ignored. Aqib Talib was brought via free agency in to replace DRC, and all signs indicate that he'll be able to do the job, despite how brilliantly DRC played last year. The team also took Bradley Roby with its first pick, and word out of camp is that he's been impressive, both with his athleticism and his aggressiveness, per Tim Lynch of SB Nation.
In some ways, this puts Denver in a good position, but it ignores a few key things. Namely, this is not the 1960s NFL, and you really need three good corners to succeed. You have to be more stacked against the pass than the run, and that nickel corner has to be good enough to play just about every down if pressed.
You can't afford to have the nickel corner be a guy who was too slow to play on the outside, a second-stringer. Not anymore.
Denver may have a good set if Talib, Harris and Roby can all play. The issue is that Harris hasn't played a down since his knee injury, so he's an unknown. Talib has an injury history as well, so who knows if he'll hold up the whole season. Roby is a rookie, and rookie corners traditionally struggle. It'd be great to see him buck that trend, but you certainly can't count on it.
At the end of the day, the team could have used more depth. I still think it should have tried to bring in Talib and retain DRC. He was terrific. Even if Denver didn't like him for some reason that I'm missing—he was never going to retire, despite that story—there were other good free agents out there. Heck, Asante Samuel is on the market right now.
Denver's cornerback position looks tentatively good going forward, but it leaves no room for injuries and growing pains, and that could be a huge liability.