Denver Broncos Preseason: Week 4 Stock Report
The Denver Broncos have worked hard evaluating the roster through three preseason games. The team has the goal of getting back to the Super Bowl in 2014. If they do that, the Broncos would be the first team since 1993 (Buffalo Bills) to return to the big game after losing it the previous year.
The scouting department put together a strong free-agent class with big-name signings like defensive end DeMarcus Ware, strong safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. These key veterans will contribute in a major way to the team’s championship effort.
The Broncos made splashes in the NFL draft too. First-round pick Bradley Roby could be asked to play a larger role in the secondary than originally thought. Second-round pick Cody Latimer has the ability to be a star at the pro level, and the team will find different ways to use him as a reserve receiver.
In addition to veteran free agents and a solid draft class, the scouting department also did a fine job of finding quality college free agents after the draft. The Broncos have a decade-long streak of finding undrafted free agents who make the final roster at the start of the regular season. Guys like Juwan Thompson, Isaiah Burse and Kapri Bibbs are hoping they can be the player to continue that streak.
The Broncos have already made some cuts to the roster. The final preseason game will help determine who else goes—and who stays in the Mile High City.
Here’s the stock report for Broncos who have been impressing and those who haven’t been as sharp.
Stock Up: Peyton Manning
It goes without saying, but Peyton Manning is still one of the best quarterbacks in the game today. He set the record for most passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55) in 2013.
So what does he do for an encore this season?
It will be difficult to duplicate those numbers, but in the Adam Gase offense he could get close. One thing that could be different this year is the vertical element to the passing game.
Manning has a stronger physique this year after working hard this offseason to improve his arm strength. He has a larger upper body, and the stronger arm is evident when he’s throwing deep passes. Manning showed off what he could do when throwing deep at the end of the second quarter in the game against the Houston Texans on Saturday night.
The addition of Emmanuel Sanders showed a change in philosophy for the passing game. Sanders has the quickness to beat press-man coverage off the line of scrimmage. Once into his route, Sanders can get on top of the defense in a hurry. This is a drastic difference when compared to the skill set of the guy he replaced—Eric Decker.
Against the Texans, Manning’s first touchdown throw went for 67 yards to Sanders. It was a beautifully-thrown pass that traveled approximately 55 yards in the air. Manning had complete control, and the ball fell perfectly to the spot where Sanders had beaten the defense.
His next touchdown pass was also to Sanders, but it only went for 29 yards. That was also a good throw from Manning, and he put it in front of Sanders where only he could get it. Manning completed both throws in about one minute on the game clock.
These throws, in addition to what we’ve seen in training camp—accentuate how the offense is going to be more vertical than ever before. Manning has come a long way since the missed season of 2011. He’s not only as good as he was before, somehow Manning has defied the odds and he’s better than ever.
Stock Down: Brock Osweiler
The Broncos have an intriguing developmental quarterback in third-year pro Brock Osweiler. He’s been impressive in training camp, and Osweiler has looked good in the preseason games against the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers.
However, Osweiler struggled to impress in the second half of the preseason game against the Houston Texans. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel sent a lot of blitzes in Osweiler’s direction, and the young quarterback failed to adjust properly.
As a result, Osweiler finished the game a paltry 4-of-11 passing for only 43 yards with zero touchdowns and one interception.
He’s still the quarterback of the future, and Osweiler has shown great strides so far this offseason. Osweiler needs to gain more experience against defenses that challenge him in order to learn and gain valuable experience.
His stock had been on the rise, but this week it takes a step back after his performance against Houston.
Stock Up: Montee Ball
The Broncos surprised some by activating starting running back Montee Ball for the game against the Houston Texans. The surprises continued as Ball was fed the rock on the first five plays of the game! On the night, Ball touched the ball eight times for 34 yards (four carries, 13 yards, four receptions 21 yards).
The yardage total is unimpressive, but the reason his stock is on the rise is because he’s made a quicker recovery than initially thought.
After the appendectomy, initial reports had Ball out for about a month. He could have just been shut down until the beginning of the regular season.
Instead, Ball worked diligently to get back in shape. After the game, I talked to Ball and asked him about the weight loss he had after surgery. “I lost about five pounds, but now I’m playing at around 218 pounds, and I feel comfortable there.”
Having Ball on the field is a great asset for the offense. He’s a better runner than last year’s starter Knowshon Moreno, and the team has spent a lot of time talking this offseason about having a more balanced offense.
They’re not going to take the ball away from Peyton Manning, but they should give Ball a sizable workload as the featured back in 2014.
Stock Down: Ronnie Hillman
Without Montee Ball available for the first two preseason games, the Broncos turned to third-year pro Ronnie Hillman as the lead back. Hillman did the most important thing the Broncos wanted to see—he held on to the rock.
However, Hillman was largely unimpressive as a runner with this expanded role in the preseason. Over the course of three games, Hillman has ran the ball 17 times for 58 yards with one rushing touchdown. That’s good for an average of 3.4 yards per carry.
As the team’s change-of-pace back behind Ball, Hillman needs to show off more explosive playmaking ability. In the event something happens to Ball during the regular season, the team needs to know they can rely on Hillman to produce. That just didn’t happen in the preseason.
Hillman also chipped in three catches during the preseason so far, good for a total of 16 yards. Again, his speed and explosiveness need to produce more than a little over five yards per catch.
On the current depth chart, Hillman sits as the second-string back. If Ball goes down, then the team would be better off elevating third-string running back C.J. Anderson to the starter’s role. Hillman’s touches could increase a bit, but he’s not the type of back to bang it for 20 carries per game.
This expanded role in the preseason has proved that his current role should be his role no matter what.
Stock Up: Emmanuel Sanders
Peyton Manning has a new weapon on offense. Earlier this year, the Broncos made a(nother) splash in free agency by adding veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders to the roster. Sanders had played four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but injuries and the design of the offense kept him from playing up to his potential as a pro.
That’s all likely to change with the Broncos, and that’s the reason why Sanders referred to Denver as “wide receiver heaven” after he signed with the team.
Sanders had not caught a pass from Peyton Manning all season long. A lingering (and minor) quad injury limited him in the preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks, and it kept him out of the game against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Broncos made sure to feed him the rock on Saturday night against the Houston Texans.
Sanders finished the game on a hot streak at the end of the second quarter. Two touchdown grabs within the final minute of the half helped propel Sanders’ production on the night. Sanders finished the game with five catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
Broncos fans were going crazy both times Sanders entered the end zone. This is only a small sample size of the way Sanders can—and will—be used by offensive coordinator Adam Gase this year.
The Broncos went out and made several splashes in free agency. Adding Sanders might turn out to be the best move. The vertical element he adds to the passing game could help out when the Broncos face physical defenses like the Seahawks or the 49ers in the regular season.
Stock Down: Wes Welker
Broncos fans held their collective breath after Wes Welker was hit in the head by Texans strong safety D.J. Swearinger. After the game, it was revealed that Welker had suffered a concussion on that hit—his third one in the last two years.
Welker is one of the best slot receivers in the game today, but his small size means that he’s taking a lot of punishment when catching passes over the middle of the field. The Swearinger hit was flagged, and we’re likely to see a fine resulting from the play. Now, the Broncos have to put Welker through the NFL’s protocol for dealing with concussions.
This means Welker will get evaluated and re-evaluated on a daily basis. The team knows that his personal safety is priority No. 1, and they will not rush him back before he’s ready.
Broncos fans received some positive news about Welker’s situation on Monday from Mike Klis of the Denver Post.
We’ll see if Welker is able to go by the time Week 1 rolls around. Until then, his stock is down.
Stock Up: Von Miller
In the game against the Texans we saw the return of linebacker Von Miller. He has been steadily recovering from an ACL injury he suffered last year in Week 16 against the Texans. Miller has been ahead of schedule in his rehab, so the Broncos decided to get him into the game on Saturday night.
Miller has a renewed sense of focus this year, and he’s energized by the arrival of defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Growing up in Texas, Ware was an idol for Miller, and now the two are teammates with lofty goals for 2014.
They won’t reveal exactly what the number is, but as a duo Miller and Ware want to compile as many sacks as an entire team does. That puts the number roughly around 30 sacks between two players. With the elite-level talent that both have, it’s honestly not an outlandish number.
Miller did get into the box score against the Texans even though his playing time was limited. He batted down a pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick and gets credited with a pass defensed. Miller looked good in coverage, and he was moving laterally without slowing down.
All systems are go for Miller at the start of the regular season. He’s looking for a bounce-back year after a disappointing five-sack season in 2013. At full strength, Miller should have no problem besting his career-low numbers from last year. Opposite Ware, Miller gives the Broncos one of the most dangerous pass-rushing combinations in the league.
Stock Down: Duke Ihenacho
The Broncos are going to have a numbers crunch at the safety position. The crunch could force a player like Duke Ihenacho off the final roster.
Ihenacho began last year as the starting strong safety. He quickly became a fan favorite because of his style of play, but he was hurt early in the season. Ihenacho never really regained his form in 2013 as he tried to play through a variety of injuries.
Earlier this offseason, the Broncos made an immediate move in free agency. The first transaction they made was to add strong safety T.J. Ward to the roster. Ward is taking Ihenacho’s spot in the starting lineup. The language of the NFL is money, and the contract paid to Ward shows the Broncos wanted an upgrade at the position.
Ihenacho is now battling for a reserve spot in the secondary.
His primary competition for a roster spot is Quinton Carter. After missing most of the last two seasons due to a knee injury that required microfracture surgery, Carter is healthy and making big plays for the Broncos in practice and the preseason.
Carter is incredibly talented, and he can start at either strong or free safety. His versatility and better skill set make him the best fit for the team behind both Ward and Rahim Moore. Throw in special teams ace David Bruton, and the Broncos have a quality group of four safeties.
There just might not be enough room for Ihenacho to make the final roster. The game against the Texans didn’t do him any favors either. Ihenacho was out of position in coverage more than once, and he finished the game with only two tackles.
Broncos fans will not be happy if Ihenacho doesn’t make the team, but the cold reality is that Denver has better options above him on the depth chart. Ihenacho will have one more chance to prove his worth in the final preseason game on Thursday.
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.