Denver Broncos 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More
The Denver Broncos want to be the first team since the 1993 Buffalo Bills to return to the Super Bowl after losing it the previous year. The journey starts this week as the 2014 regular season is finally here.
The Broncos have worked diligently this offseason to find upgrades on both sides of the ball. They made tough calls in free agency, and those tough decisions continued as they trimmed their roster to the 53-man limit.
In this article, we’re going to look at the team’s depth chart, look for X-factors on both sides of the ball, check in with the rest of the AFC West and look at the biggest games the Broncos play this season.
Here’s a virtual program for the 2014 Denver Broncos.
Starter: Peyton Manning
Backup: Brock Osweiler
Peyton Manning is still the best quarterback in the game. Last year he set NFL single-season records with 55 passing touchdowns and 5,477 yards passing.
What does he do for an encore this year?
It will be difficult for Manning to duplicate those numbers, but he could get close. Manning has a stronger upper body this year, and the offense could have a stronger vertical element than people expect. A stronger arm seemed impossible only two years ago as Manning returned from missing the 2011 season after a serious neck injury that required multiple surgeries.
Manning has defied the odds, and he’s better with the Broncos than he ever was with the Indianapolis Colts.
The Broncos have upgraded the offensive line this offseason. This will help protect Manning even better in 2014. Manning will have the time he needs to find those vertical routes, and he can already slice apart a defense like a surgeon on shorter pass patterns.
The weapons around Manning have improved as well. Adding wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is going to be huge for the Bronco offense. Manning has not played with a receiver so quick and fast off the line of scrimmage since his days tossing passes to Marvin Harrison.
Brock Osweiler is seen as the quarterback of the future for the Broncos. He’s playing with a lot more confidence this year, and he’s "without question" ready to take over as the starter in case of an emergency.
Starter: Montee Ball
Backups: Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson, Juwan Thompson
Montee Ball takes over as the Broncos starter this year. He has a nose for the end zone and is a capable runner between the tackles. Ball appears to have improved his discipline in the pros, and he was a standout player over the final six weeks of the regular season last year.
During that time, Ball was second in the NFL in yards per carry (6.5). The game has slowed down for him, and he has shown improved patience while waiting for his blocks to develop. Ball will make his living between the tackles, but he does have enough speed to make it to the corner if necessary.
He’s not likely to catch 60 passes out of the backfield like last year’s starter Knowshon Moreno. However, Ball should be able to haul in around 40 passes this season as the primary back for the league’s most dangerous offense.
Behind Ball is change-of-pace back Ronnie Hillman. Hillman’s held onto the rock this preseason, and that helps keep him out of the doghouse with the coaching staff. Last year, he fumbled three times in the preseason (two returned for touchdowns) and lost the starting job. Hillman's still fast and thus can be used effectively in the open field as a runner or receiver.
The Broncos third-string back could be a starter elsewhere in the NFL. C.J. Anderson plays with a nice blend of power and quickness. He has arguably the fastest 10-yard split of any back on the team, and Anderson can pick up yards after contact. If anything happens to Ball this year, we could see Anderson’s role grow the most.
Juwan Thompson was undrafted out of Duke this year, but he showed enough in the preseason to make the final roster. He’s arguably the best pass-protector in the backfield. Thompson is a bit of a running back/fullback ‘tweener who loves to run people over. He can also work well as a receiver out of the backfield.
Backups: Andre Caldwell, Cody Latimer, Isaiah Burse
It’s easy to see why the Broncos have arguably the best group of wide receivers in the league.
Demaryius Thomas is a superstar, and his career has really taken off with the arrival of Peyton Manning. Thomas is the primary target in the league’s most dangerous passing game. He can catch short passes and turn them into long gains. He can track long passes deep and haul them in effortlessly. Thomas can also be relied on as a red-zone target because of his size, wingspan and leaping ability.
Emmanuel Sanders comes to “wide receiver heaven” after spending the first four years of his pro career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s never had a 100-yard receiving game as a pro, but that should quickly change now that he’s with the Broncos. Sanders has also never posted 1,000 yards receiving in a single season—another mark that should be exceeded this season. His speed and quickness should be an upgrade over Eric Decker who left via free agency.
Wes Welker is still a fine slot receiver who can get open with ease. He suffered his third concussion in the last eight months in the team’s third preseason game against the Houston Texans. This has put his availability for the start of the regular season in question. The Broncos are likely to take a “less is more” approach with Welker in 2014.
Andre “Bubba” Caldwell might be the fastest player on the team. He’s a savvy veteran who can line up all over the field. Cody Latimer is a talented rookie receiver who can develop into an eventual star in the NFL. Isaiah Burse is an undrafted rookie who makes the team primarily because of his ability as a return man on special teams.
Starter: Julius Thomas
Backups: Virgil Green, Jacob Tamme
Julius Thomas had a breakout season in 2013, but he could be even better this year. He creates mismatches every time he’s on the field because he’s too fast for linebackers to cover too big for safeties. Thomas uses his basketball skill set to box out smaller defenders, and he’s a great target for Peyton Manning in the red zone.
Virgil Green came into the league as a move tight end only. Entering his fourth season, Green is now a fine all-purpose tight end. He’ll mostly serve as a blocker for the Broncos, but Green can still be relied on as a receiver—plus he’ll line up in the backfield from time to time.
Jacob Tamme has the strongest chemistry with Manning, dating back to their playing days together with the Indianapolis Colts. He can play slot receiver, in-line tight end and move tight end. Moreover, Tamme is a great special teams player.
Starters: Ryan Clady (LT), Orlando Franklin (LG), Manny Ramirez (C), Louis Vasquez (RG), Chris Clark (RT)
Backups: Paul Cornick, Ben Garland, Will Montgomery, Michael Schofield
The Broncos made several adjustments to their offensive line this offseason. Ryan Clady is back after missing most of last year with a Lisfranc injury. He’s still one of the best left tackles in the NFL, and he’ll be a great blindside protector for Peyton Manning.
The interior of the line features plenty of beef. This year, Orlando Franklin moves inside to left guard, where his strength and tenacity should work well. Center Manny Ramirez is difficult to move when he gets his feet set. Right guard Louis Vasquez might be the best player on the entire offensive line.
Right tackle is now manned by Chris Clark. He took over at left tackle last year in Week 3 after Clady was lost for the season. Clark struggled at time with elite-level pass-rushers, but he should have much more favorable matchups on the right side.
Backup Paul Cornick has worked hard to make the final roster, and he’s a mean player who plays with a chip on his shoulder. Ben Garland has moved from the defensive line to the offensive line, and he plays with a great understanding of strength and leverage. Will Montgomery struggled at times during the preseason, but the veteran has plenty of experience at both center and left guard in the pros. Rookie Michael Schofield is technically sound, but the team will work with him to add more weight and strength to his frame.
Starters: Terrance Knighton (DT), Sylvester Williams (DT), DeMarcus Ware (DE), Derek Wolfe (DE)
Backups: Malik Jackson (DE), Quanterus Smith (DE), Marvin Austin (DT), Mitch Unrein (DT)
What was once a weakness is now a strength for the Broncos. With only a few moves, the Broncos have the most talented group of defensive linemen they’ve had in years.
The beef in the middle can stuff the run and get interior pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Terrance Knighton was benched for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012, but he came to Denver in 2013 and his career was rejuvenated under former Jaguars head coach (and current Broncos defensive coordinator) Jack Del Rio. Knighton is now a fan-favorite and a dominant player in the middle of the line who regularly takes on double teams.
In the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Broncos selected defensive tackle Sylvester Williams out of the University of North Carolina. Williams took some time to get going as a rookie, but when he stepped into the starting lineup he played well. Entering his second year, Williams has grown and developed even further. He’ll ride the momentum he built in the second half of last season into an even more productive 2014.
DeMarcus Ware was arguably the biggest free-agent move for the Broncos—or any team across the NFL. The future Hall of Fame pass-rusher should be in for a bounce-back season after a disappointing 2013, when he played out of position, was hurt and compiled only six sacks. Ware also gives the Broncos a mentor for linebacker Von Miller. That’s something they’ve missed since losing Elvis Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens during the 2013 offseason.
Derek Wolfe suffered scary seizure-like symptoms last year after complications from a spinal injury he suffered in the preseason. Wolfe is now healthy and back to 295 pounds. He’s a good edge-setter as a run-defender, and he’s tenacious when rushing the passer.
The Broncos group of backups could be starters elsewhere in the league.
Malik Jackson only keeps getting better with time. He’s got the length and strength to easily move opponents out of his way en route to the quarterback. Jackson can play outside at defensive end, but he can also be moved inside to defensive tackle in certain packages.
Quanterus Smith returns to the field after missing his rookie year in 2013 due to a knee injury he suffered in two years ago at Western Kentucky. He has shown good speed, lateral agility and explosion this year in camp. He’ll be a wild card as a pass-rusher, and Smith could push for five or more sacks in 2014.
Mitch Unrein is a blue-collar guy who can do whatever is asked of him. He’ll work well as a rotational defensive tackle, can rush the passer and can even play fullback on offense if called upon.
Marvin Austin is finally healthy and ready to play up to his enormous potential as a pro. The 2011 second-round pick by New York Giants has bounced among four different teams during his short pro career. Problems staying healthy and motivated have plagued him during that time. He’s getting a fresh (and final?) shot with the Broncos, and Austin has responded well to this career near-death experience.
Starters: Von Miller (SLB), Nate Irving (MLB), Danny Trevathan (WLB)
Backups: Lerentee McCray, Brandon Marshall, Steven Johnson, Lamin Barrow, Corey Nelson
Injuries have ravaged this group, but when healthy the Broncos have a strong starting trio of linebackers. Bronco fans may have to wait a month or so to see the full group of starters on the field, but their patience should be rewarded with quality play.
Von Miller suffered an ACL injury last year in Week 16 against the Houston Texans. He’s worked hard to get back on the field, and Miller was returned to action—ironically—against the Texans in the third preseason game. Miller has lost weight, and he looks more explosive than he did last season. He should be able to get at least double-digit sacks for the Broncos this year if he stays healthy.
Nate Irving has finally won the starting middle linebacker job for Denver. He’s been given the chance more than once with the team, but he needed to learn how to be a better player in coverage before winning the job. Irving is still a hard-hitting run defender, and he gives them another intimidator in the middle of the field.
Danny Trevathan is a fine weak-side linebacker, but he’ll miss at least the first month of the season as he recovers from a broken leg suffered in training camp. Trevathan makes plays in coverage where he can bait opposing quarterbacks into bad throws. He can stay with receivers and tight ends and is a sound tackler in the open field.
The backup linebackers are a solid group as well. Lerentee McCray takes over as the reserve strong-side linebacker this year, and he plays with a nice blend of strength and athleticism. Brandon Marshall will be taking over for Trevathan while he’s out. Marshall is fast and mean on the playing field. Steven Johnson returns as a standout special teams player for the Broncos.
Rookies Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson round out this group for the Broncos. Barrow is fantastic in coverage, and he can play in the middle or on the weak side if needed. Nelson has the burst to get into the backfield quickly, and this explosiveness also helps him in the open field.
Starters: Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr.
Backups: Kayvon Webster, Bradley Roby, Tony Carter, Omar Bolden
The Broncos made a couple of moves to upgrade their cornerbacks this offseason. The decision was made to not bring back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and that opened up the spot for Denver to add Aqib Talib in free agency.
Talib is big, physical and plays with an aggressive mindset. This mentality gets him out of position from time to time, but it also helps him make big plays. He’s an impact player with true shutdown ability. If needed, Talib can cover elite tight ends like Jimmy Graham (New Orleans Saints) or Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots).
Opposite Talib will be Chris Harris Jr. Undrafted out of the University of Kansas in 2011, Harris is reunited with Talib—his former college teammate. Harris is currently recovering from a partially torn ACL he suffered in the playoff victory over the San Diego Chargers last year. Harris is ahead in the recovery process, and he should be ready to begin the regular season in the starting lineup.
Behind the starting duo is second-year pro Kayvon Webster. He’s big, physical and aggressive (just like Talib), but Webster needs to get better at diagnosing plays. Too often, Webster is looking for the big hit or impact play and he’ll get himself out of position. The problem is he lacks the speed to recover when fooled or caught out of position. Webster gained valuable playing time last year, and that experience should help him play better in 2014.
In the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, the Broncos selected cornerback Bradley Roby out of Ohio State. Speed is the name of his game, and the rookie has a ton of confidence. He’ll be working as a sub-package player to start his pro career, but he has the upside to be a quality starter someday.
Behind Roby, veterans Omar Bolden and Tony Carter round out the cornerback position for the Broncos. Bolden is versatile, able to line up at either cornerback or safety—plus he can be used as a return man. Carter loves to take chances on the field, and he never backs down from an opponent no matter how physically outmatched he might be.
Starters: T.J. Ward, Rahim Moore
Backups: David Bruton, Quinton Carter
The first move in free agency was to add hard-hitting strong safety T.J. Ward. His aggressiveness was immediately noticed on the practice field, and he carried that mentality over to the preseason. Simply put, Ward is the “boss”, and he gives the team a swagger on defense it lacked last year.
Rahim Moore is back and healthy after the lower-leg injury that cut his season short in 2013. He was playing with more confidence last season, and he should be able to pick up where he left off this season. Moore has a ball-hawking mentality, and the upgraded pass rush should help him get more chances at getting interceptions this year.
David Bruton is a special teams star and he can be relied on as a spot starter if needed. Quinton Carter is back, finally healthy after two years out of action. He can start at either free safety or strong safety and gives Denver terrific depth at the position.
Kicker: Matt Prater (suspended), Brandon McManus
Punter: Britton Colquitt
Long Snapper: Aaron Brewer
The suspension of Matt Prater caused the Broncos to make a trade with the New York Giants for Brandon McManus. We’ll see Prater miss the first four games of the season, but he should return as the starter after his suspension is over.
Britton Colquitt is one of the best punters in the game. He’s got a strong leg, and Colquitt can help the team with the battle of field position.
Aaron Brewer goes largely unnoticed each week, but that’s a good sign for a long snapper.
X-Factor on Offense: Cody Latimer
The Broncos have a stacked group of wide receivers. They are incredibly deep and talented at the position, but there’s a rookie who is currently fifth on the depth chart that could produce more than people expect.
Cody Latimer was added in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft. Coming out of the University of Indiana, Latimer could have easily been a first-round pick this year. The Broncos could have gotten the steal of the draft when they moved up in the second round to secure Latimer’s services.
He’s big (6’2”) and strong at 215 pounds. Latimer has a large wingspan and can play “above the rim” in the NFL. He will regularly catch passes with arms extended away from his body to keep defenders away from the point of the catch.
Latimer has strong hands and will regularly rip passes away from defenders. This helps him as a red-zone target, as he can use this skill set to his advantage.
He may be somewhat raw as a route-runner, having only played organized football for five seasons. However, Latimer can run the entire route tree. He can be used on deep routes but has the ability to run slant routes near the line of scrimmage to get open quickly.
Latimer is fearless as a receiver over the middle of the field. Even at his size, he can work well as a slot receiver. Smaller defenders will bounce off of him, and he can rack up yards quickly after the catch.
He’s an X-factor for the Broncos because Latimer is simply too talented to keep off the field. Even though he’s currently fifth on the depth chart, we could see offensive packages in 2014 that feature the rookie.
If anyone above him on the depth chart is injured, we could see a larger role for Latimer. He can be moved around the formation, and former Indiana Hoosier was arguably the best run-blocking wide receiver in this draft class.
Latimer is likely to start on the outside next year, and he’s almost assuredly a breakout player in 2015. We could see glimpses of why this season.
X-Factor on Defense: Quinton Carter
For two years, Quinton Carter has not played for the Broncos as he recovered from a knee injury that required microfracture surgery.
Originally a fourth-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Carter worked his way into the starting lineup for the Broncos that year—at free safety ahead of fellow rookie Rahim Moore. Carter played well as a rookie, and he had two interceptions during the Broncos improbable playoff run with Tim Tebow at quarterback.
Then disaster struck.
Carter was injured covering Eric Decker inside a practice bubble near the team’s facility. The injury was later revealed as one that would require the dreaded microfracture surgery to repair. Carter was lost for the next two years, and the Broncos secondary wasn’t quite the same without him.
There’s a good chance that if Carter had stayed healthy, the Broncos would never have had to sign T.J. Ward in free agency. Now that Ward is in Denver, Carter is a backup at strong safety.
Even though he’s technically a backup, Carter could see the field for about 60 percent of the defensive snaps in 2014.
When the team is in the nickel package, Ward can move up to play middle linebacker. This move puts Carter in the lineup at strong safety where he can help Ward roam the field looking to make big plays. Carter’s speed has returned, and he arrives at the ball-carrier with a natural violence. This speed also helps him make plays in coverage.
Missing Carter has hurt this defense. Getting Carter back is huge for the Broncos. His position versatility, aggressiveness and playmaking ability will help the Broncos defense look better than it did in 2013.
The Denver Broncos have a tough schedule this year as they play against the NFC West. Their games against the Seattle Seahawks (Week 3) and San Francisco 49ers (Week 7) will be their greatest challenges of 2014.
Both teams are similarly structured on both sides of the ball.
The Broncos beat both teams in the preseason, but those games don’t count—and they shouldn’t be looked at as reasons why the team could have regular-season success against these two high-quality opponents.
Both games are vital for the Broncos, but the Seattle game can set the tone for the rest of the season.
Going up against the Seahawks in Seattle will be an incredibly difficult game to win. First, the Broncos defense is going to have to slow down Marshawn Lynch and the ground game of the Seahawks. Next, they’ll have to get pressure on quarterback Russell Wilson, so he doesn’t pick them apart like he did in the Super Bowl. Finding a way to shut down wide receiver Percy Harvin presents a great challenge as well.
The Broncos offense is then going to have to make plays against one of the most physical defenses in the league. Will Peyton Manning have time to throw downfield? Can Montee Ball have success running the ball against a defense that plays aggressive and close to the line of scrimmage? Will players like Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders stand up to physical coverage? All of these questions will get answers during that game.
Denver will have to contend with all these obstacles while playing in front of the 12th man (no, not Texas A&M) at CenturyLink Field. The crowd noise affected the Broncos in the Super Bowl, and it will be even louder playing in front of a rabid Seattle fanbase.
If the Broncos could find a way to beat Seattle on the road, it’s a sign they’re ready to take on one of these teams (or another less-physical NFC opponent) in the Super Bowl.
The AFC West saw three teams make the playoffs in 2013. That’s going to be a difficult task to repeat in 2014.
The Oakland Raiders are still pretty much irrelevant when it comes to the conversation of who can push for the division’s title. They went out in free agency this year and added older veterans like Matt Schaub, James Jones and LaMarr Woodley. The Raiders have plenty of problems on both sides of the ball, and they are years away from even sniffing the postseason.
The Kansas City Chiefs made an improbable run to the playoffs in 2013. That shouldn’t happen this year. Quarterback Alex Smith just signed a new contract, but the Chiefs offense is devoid of high-quality weapons outside of running back Jamaal Charles.
In a wide receiver rich draft class, Kansas City decided to go with pass-rusher Dee Ford in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. This means Dwayne Bowe (if he cares) and a bunch of slappies make up their wide receiver corps. There’s no way this team could contend in a shootout with the Broncos—simply put, Kansas City lacks the horsepower to hang with Denver.
The true thorn in the side of the Broncos is Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers.
They match up well with Denver on both sides of the ball. Rivers can go toe-to-toe with Manning, and he can win. The Chargers have an emerging star in second-year wide receiver Keenan Allen. Young tight end Ladarius Green can also create mismatch problems for any defense—including Denver’s. Running backs Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead can also be used effectively to move the ball in different ways.
The Chargers defense has undergone some changes this offseason, but they know how to slow down the Broncos offense. They’ll work diligently to keep Manning and the offense out of sync by using a variety of blitz schemes to keep Denver off balance. They will also play “defense” against Denver by using a ground-and-pound offense that keeps Manning on the sidelines.
Chargers versus Broncos is almost always a battle of epic proportions. This season will be no different.
While the Raiders are irrelevant, Kansas City will be revealed as a fraud, it is San Diego that is the biggest threat for the division title 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.