Ranking the 7 Biggest Upgrades the Denver Broncos Made This Offseason
The Denver Broncos came up short in 2013. Losing the Super Bowl 43-8 was a tough pill to swallow for Broncos Country—the fans, the players, the coaches, etc.
Denver learned what they needed to upgrade this offseason, and they made several strides to improve the team through free agency and the 2014 NFL draft.
The roster looks quite a bit different this year—on both sides of the ball. With Peyton Manning at quarterback, the Broncos are always going to be in the mix for the Super Bowl.
As general manager John Elway said on Wednesday at the media barbecue, the team needed to upgrade around Manning to try to get over the top.
“The philosophy [of building the team this offseason] was to try to get the best football players with the right mentality. I think that we’ve got to get to be where we’re a complete football team.” Elway continued, “We can’t rely on 18 (QB Peyton Manning) to win it because he can’t win it by himself.”
Elway believes in having a dominant defense in addition to having the league’s most dangerous offense.
“So I think what we’ve done defensively, especially with [DE] DeMarcus Ware and the leadership ability there, and [CB] Aqib [Talib], as well as [S] T.J. [Ward] and the leadership that they’ve brought is the defense to have their identity. And they want to have their identity, take pride in what they do and not have to rely on that offense to bail us out.”
Here are the seven biggest upgrades the Broncos made this offseason.
7. Orlando Franklin Replaces Zane Beadles
The Broncos lost starting left guard Zane Beadles in free agency to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Beadles signed a five-year, $30 million contact with his new team and moved on. The Broncos had to do something after losing such an effective starter, so they moved right tackle Orlando Franklin to the inside.
Franklin is a road-grader as a run-blocker, and he can maul opponents out of his way. He struggled with pass-rushers on the outside at right tackle, but he won’t have to worry about those kind of quick-twitch athletes inside at guard.
Beadles is arguably better than Franklin as a pass-blocker. This is where Franklin will have to prove himself. His footwork has been suspect on the outside, but it needs to be better playing inside this season.
The Broncos want to emphasize the ground game and second-year running back Montee Ball a bit more in 2014. This is where having Franklin instead of Beadles will be the biggest upgrade. It’s close, but the Broncos should be better at left guard this season.
6. Emmanuel Sanders Replaces Eric Decker
The Broncos have the most dangerous passing game in the league. One key contributor over the last two years has been wide receiver Eric Decker. The Broncos made no effort to keep him around this offseason, and Decker signed a five-year, $36.25 million contract with the New York Jets.
To replace Decker, the Broncos added free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only did they replace Decker, but they have added a player who is an upgrade at the position.
Decker was a fan favorite and a solid pro. In the Broncos offense he was able to put up fantastic numbers that will be difficult to duplicate now that he’s catching passes from Geno Smith (or Michael Vick) instead of Peyton Manning. Decker ran crisp routes, but he struggled to get separation and couldn’t effectively attack a defense vertically.
Sanders can excel in both of these categories.
He’s as quick as he is fast, and Sanders has multiple moves to get a clean release off the line of scrimmage. His speed can stretch the field, and he brings a vertical element to the Broncos offense that they just didn’t have with Decker. Sanders was getting open cleanly during minicamp, and he is already showing great chemistry with Manning.
Yes, Decker is a better red-zone threat. He scored 11 touchdowns last year, while Sanders has scored 11 touchdowns in his four-year NFL career. The main difference is the offense—and the offensive coordinators.
Going from a Todd Haley offense to an Adam Gase system is the equivalent of going from a scooter with a bad spark plug to a Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14.
Sanders should punch the throttle and put up career-best numbers in 2014.
5. Aqib Talib Replaces Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
The secondary was hugely upgraded when the Broncos signed veteran cornerback Aqib Talib in free agency. He’ll be replacing last year’s starter Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, as he moved on in free agency to the New York Giants.
While Rodgers-Cromartie is a good cornerback, he’s not a true shutdown corner like Talib is. Rodgers-Cromartie lacked a physical element to his game. He could cover guys, but he struggled with tackling and winning at the point of the catch.
Talib’s game is all about being physical and intimidating an opponent.
He has the speed to keep up with any top target in the NFL. Last year against the New Orleans Saints, Talib held superstar tight end Jimmy Graham without a catch. This is just one example of how he can lock down the best in the game.
Talib stays with receivers on downfield routes, and when the pass is coming in he will fight for the ball. He has a nose for the ball, and Talib knows how to bait quarterbacks into making bad throws. He’ll make a target look like he’s open, then Talib will quickly burst in to make a play on the ball.
He’s known as a strong tackler and can be an enforcer near the line of scrimmage. This means Talib is a plus-player as a run-defender—something Rodgers-Cromartie was not.
The Broncos want to be more physical on defense, and that’s exactly what they get with a guy like Talib.
4. DeMarcus Ware Replaces Shaun Phillips
You can never have too many pass-rushers in the NFL. The Broncos went out and got one of the best pass-rushers in the history of the game when they signed DeMarcus Ware earlier this year in free agency.
Ware was a superstar during his time with the Dallas Cowboys, but he was a player they could no longer afford. An elbow injury slowed him down for most of 2013, and Ware had a disappointing six-sack season. The Broncos picked him up to upgrade the spot vacated by free agent Shaun Phillips.
During his lone season with the Broncos, Phillips did what he was asked to do—rush the passer. He racked up 10 sacks for the Broncos, and Phillips helped the team greatly as Von Miller was suspended, then later injured in 2013. Phillips is a good player, but Ware is a great player.
Ware showed that he still has plenty left in the tank during minicamp and OTAs. His burst and speed around the edge were evident on most every play. Ware looked great burning guys like Chris Clark or Winston Justice on the right side.
With Ware lining up opposite Miller, the Broncos will have one of the best combination of pass-rushers in the entire league. Phillips got double-digit sacks last year for the Broncos, but that’s the floor for a guy like Ware. He could end up getting 12-15 sacks for his new team in 2014.
Teams hate going against Peyton Manning and the elite-level passing game of the Broncos. They’ll also hate lining up against Ware and Miller this season.
3. Montee Ball an Upgrade over Knowshon Moreno
In 2013, Knowshon Moreno was the starter and he did something no other Broncos back had done in history. He was the first back for the Broncos to rush for over 1,000 yards and compile 500 receiving yards in the same season. That’s quite the accomplishment, and it may be difficult to duplicate in the future.
However, Montee Ball is an upgrade over Moreno.
Ball came on at the end of his rookie season as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. He’s more determined than Moreno as a runner, and Ball can grind out tough yards between the tackles. His intent and ability to break arm tackles means that he’ll be able to take advantage of defenses concerned mostly with slowing down Peyton Manning.
In 2013, 79.7 percent of Moreno’s carries came against six or fewer defenders in the box. This is a great situation for most backs, but Moreno wasn’t able to fully take advantage of those defensive looks. As a rookie, Ball had as many 100-yard games as Moreno did in 2013.
Sure, Moreno is arguably a better receiving back and Ball might not catch 60 passes this year. However, Ball has been working hard this offseason to improve his pass-protection and pass-catching ability.
Ball is better in the way that matters most—running the ball. He’ll be able to grind down opponents both early and late in games this season. When physical defenses like the Seattle Seahawks try to rough up the passing game, Ball will be able to punish them up the gut. That’s something Moreno just couldn’t do.
2. T.J. Ward an Upgrade over Duke Ihenacho
The language of the NFL is money. It’s interesting to remember that when considering the fact that Denver’s first player they signed in free agency was strong safety T.J. Ward. The Broncos want to get tougher on defense, and it’s no surprise they would go hard after an aggressive player like Ward.
His nickname is “Boss” because he runs the show. Ward is a leader in the secondary who knows how to put teammates in the right places to make a play. He’s tough, hard-nosed and loves to make a big hit—not unlike the player he’s replacing.
Duke Ihenacho became a fan favorite because of his playing style. Like Ward, Ihenacho loves to hit and can play close to the line of scrimmage.
The biggest difference is their ability in coverage. Ward can turn to cover while Ihenacho struggles when asked to make plays downfield.
Ward has the ability to play in the box, but he’ll also make plays deep like a cornerback. He can turn to run smoothly, and Ward rarely takes false steps when watching plays unfold in front of him.
Adding a player like Ward can make a huge difference for the defense. Opponents have to abandon a balanced attack when they fall behind to Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense. Thus, the Broncos defense faces an aggressive passing attack much earlier than other defenses.
Hitting hard and being an enforcer is important, but it’s more critical to make plays in coverage in addition to being a strong tackler. This is why Ward is a huge upgrade over Ihenacho.
1. Ryan Clady Replaces Chris Clark
Ranking this as the No. 1 upgrade for the Broncos is an easy call. Protecting Peyton Manning is the most important task the Broncos must do.
Ryan Clady was lost for the season last year after suffering a Lisfranc injury in Week 2 against the New York Giants. The Broncos then had to turn to Chris Clark to protect Manning’s blind side.
Clark did a respectable job of protecting Manning most weeks. There were a couple of regular-season games where he was exposed, and he certainly struggled in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks. All in all, Clark did a good job in what was an impossible situation.
Clady is simply one of the best left tackles in the game today—if not the best. His footwork, strength and understanding of leverage are all elite. Having Clady back is a huge upgrade for the Broncos offensive line.
Clark is a fine swing tackle, but he has yet to win the starting right tackle job over Winston Justice this offseason. He’ll have a chance to prove that he should be the starter there as the team competes in training camp. Clark is decent—Clady is elite.
That’s a huge difference that should be immediately evident to fans when watching the Broncos this year.
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