Top 5 Denver Broncos Players with Something to Prove This Season

David Guidera@@DavidGuideraFeatured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2014

Top 5 Denver Broncos Players with Something to Prove This Season

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    The Denver Broncos' 2014 campaign is all about redemption after a 43-8 drubbing in Super Bowl XLVIII. Everyone in the Broncos’ organization has something to prove after such embarrassment. Orlando Franklin and Von Miller highlight this list.

    The coaching staff and front office are not exempt from criticism for 2013’s end result. This is especially true for the obvious lack of preparation revealed on the botched opening snap.

    This rundown focuses on the roster, spotlighting the most influential names with the greatest opportunity to redeem past shortcomings.

    The five Broncos on this dubious docket must prove they will overcome injury, immaturity and/or big-game incompetence to help deliver Denver back to the promised land.

Honorable Mention

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    The players on the honorable mention roll still have plenty to prove but not to the extent of the top five.

    Marvin Austin’s surprising preseason rendered veteran defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson expendable. The former New York Giants’ second-rounder must prove he has overcome the injuries that landed him on his fourth team in four years.

    Montee Ball must prove he deserves the top running back spot after a preseason appendectomy kept him off the field in training camp. He has the privilege of running against the reduced defensive fronts that Knowshon Moreno flourished against last season. Moreno faced six or fewer in the box on 192 of his 241 carries.

    Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. must demonstrate he’s fully recovered from the torn ACL suffered in the postseason. Denver signed Aqib Talib and drafted Bradley Roby to compete with Harris in a contract year.

    Wes Welker earns mention because his third concussion in 10 months could keep him off the field indefinitely. He needs to prove he can still withstand the typical beating leveled on slot receivers. He also needs to prove is head is still in the game after the NFL nailed him with a four-game suspension for amphetamines, though he emailed The Denver Post (h/t USA Today) expressing his surprise at the news.

5. Rahim Moore

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    Safety Rahim “The Dream” Moore hangs like a nightmare in the collective consciousness of the Broncos faithful. Although he has long since moved on, many fans deny his achievements thanks to his single greatest mistake: undercutting Joe Flacco’s 70-yard, game-tying rainbow to Jacoby Jones in Denver’s devastating playoff loss to Baltimore.

    Maybe this is unkind, but I really feel like keying Rahim Moore's car.

    — Rick Reilly (@ReillyRick) January 13, 2013

    Riley’s reaction was tame compared to the Twitter trolls (scroll down to post No. 9, though there's some NSFW language).

    Moore merely kicks off this list because none of it is justified.

    He ranked 11th among safeties in ’12, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), right in between Ronde Barber and Troy Polamalu. He also made their All-Sophomore team that season. His grade dipped to 39th overall in ’13—23rd in pass coverage—before his season ended abruptly in Week 11.

    Already tempered by the mental and spiritual anguish of his playoff blunder, Moore defied a physical threat to his livelihood—and his life—by overcoming a bout of acute compartment syndrome in his left calf.

    “You are not cutting my leg off,” Moore told doctors, according to Joan Niesen of The MMQB. “That is not happening.”

    Doctors saved Moore’s leg, and he reclaimed his livelihood by cracking the starting lineup before Denver’s preseason Week 1 rematch against the Seattle Seahawks. He nearly picked off Russell Wilson in an overall impressive performance by the No. 1 defense.

    All that’s left is for Moore to prove he is worthy to roam center field—alongside freshly acquired thumper T.J. Ward—in the fourth and final year of his rookie contract.

4. Emmanuel Sanders

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    Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Eric Decker had little in common before the Broncos effectively swapped one for the other. Sanders will be compared to Decker—now with the New York Jets—at least through the ’14 season.

    If Sanders can win Manning’s approval, the fanbase will follow.

    Sanders got off to a running start with the following comments on 104.3 The Fan comparing Manning to Ben Roethlisberger. "I feel like Peyton is a far better leader in terms of staying after practice, catching balls, wanting guys to get on the same page with him. This is the first time I’ve had a quarterback that [stayed] every single day after practice."

    The comparison jilted Roethlisberger, and he stated as much to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette's Ed Bouchette (h/t Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith). Still, Sanders stuck to his statement on NFL Network (h/t Smith).

    The quad injury that sidelined Sanders in training camp loomed larger than his controversial quotes. But he and Manning eased doubts in a spectacular two-minute clinic against the Houston Texans in preseason Week 3.

    First, Manning hit Sanders in stride for a 67-yard strike between the hash marks. The tandem followed that thriller up with a 29-yard lob that landed right in Sanders’ outstretched hands as he launched across the goal line.

    The end of the first half did prove costly to the Broncos offense, however, losing Welker to his third concussion in less than a year.

    Sanders could assume Welker’s slot role as long as he’s out, with Demaryius Thomas, Andre Caldwell and rookie Cody Latimer flanked outside. At 5’9”, 180 pounds of pure speed, all Sanders has left to prove is he can remain a healthy and reliable weapon in Denver’s offensive arsenal. 

3. Orlando Franklin

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    Orlando Franklin picked the biggest stage to showcase his worst performance in three seasons at right tackle. His failure to impede Cliff Avril’s bull rush registered Malcolm Smith as one of the most obscure Super Bowl MVPs ever. His minus-4.7 grade from PFF was the second lowest single-game score of his career.

    We didn’t have to wait long to find out the consequences of such a collapse.

    Left guard, excited to learn and improve this offseason. I will give it my all

    — Orlando Franklin (@OFranklin74) April 21, 2014

    The move makes sense. It’s why Big O isn’t higher on this list.

    Left guard Zane Beadles left for the Jacksonville Jaguars and a five-year, $30 million score. All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady returned from season-ending Lisfranc surgery. That pushed Chris Clark—who replaced Clady admirably in ’13—to right tackle. Thus Franklin slid to left guard, a position he’s better suited for anyway.

    His Ourlads’ predraft scouting report supports the move.

    Good punch. Explosive in his play. Leaks through and seals linebackers on the second level. A knee bender with a solid lower body that is flexible and hard to knock off his feet. Good body control. Possesses the size, strength, balance, and base to anchor against power.

    Franklin is an improvement over Beadles—they scored 14.5 and minus-4.1 respectively, according to PFF (subscription required). With Manny Ramirez at center and Louis Vasquez at right guard, it may be the best front five Peyton Manning has played behind outside of the Pro Bowl.

    Plus, a top-25 guard averages a thrifty $5.6 million per year, compared to $8.1 million for top-25 tackles, according to Spotrac. The shift could be a windfall for a front office facing pricey negotiations with Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Chris Harris and others.

    Franklin improved steadily through his first three preseason contests at left guard, which is a good sign for the league’s most powerful offense.

2. Nate Irving

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    Nate Irving joins Moore and Franklin as a fellow class of ’11 draftee who is hoping to earn that lucrative second contract. But Irving tabs the longest odds since this year’s audition will be his first as a full-time starter.

    Irving moved inside this offseason from his reserve role as an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s amoebic 4-3 scheme. He replaces veteran Wesley Woodyard, who left for the Tennessee Titans via free agency.

    Traditionally, the middle linebacker is expected to be the quarterback of the defense, sporting the green dot signifying his helmet is equipped with the radio receiver for the coach’s signals. But the weak-side linebacker makes those calls in Del Rio’s defense because he isn’t subbed in passing situations.

    Irving wasn’t the Broncos' first choice to anchor the middle this offseason. General manager John Elway worked out free agent D’Qwell Jackson according to the Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot. The Denver Post claimed the team was considering John Beason back in March, and Clifton Brown of CSN Baltimore noted they were potential suitors for Daryl Smith. 

    Mike Klis of The Denver Post even noted it may have taken Elway three picks to move up and draft C.J. Mosley, an opportunity the team turned down.

    Irving sat and watched as Woodyard, Joe Mays, Keith Brooking and Paris Lenon all got the starting nod over the past three seasons.

    Brooking—who signed in ’12 at age 37—and Lenon—who signed in ’13 at age 36—should serve as warnings to Irving. Even though he’s won the camp battle, the Broncos are willing to sort through the unemployment line. Erin Henderson (28), Nick Barnett (33), Stewart Bradley (30) and London Fletcher (39) are among the realistic options currently out on the street.

    Irving did not look as crisp against the San Francisco 49ers in preseason Week 2, notching just one assisted tackle, according to PFF. Danny Trevathan’s absence due to a fractured knee probably was a contributing factor. He repeated the lackluster performance against the Houston Texans in preseason Week 3. He managed one tackle and one QB hurry, according to PFF.

    But the high third-rounder in ’11 out of North Carolina State remains confident, telling Troy Renck of The Denver Post: "I want them to know that I am the guy for the job. And I can only do that by practicing and playing well, improving my technique and continuing to show up in the games."

    The coaching staff probably wants Irving to know that Steven Johnson outplayed him, albeit against lesser talent. Irving left enough doubt after three starts that Johnson, rookie Lamin Barrow or a free agent could get the call instead.

1. Von Miller

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    Von Miller rounds out the list of top ’11 Broncos draft picks who all find themselves on some kind of bubble entering ’14. The only difference is Denver picked up Miller’s first-round rookie option, keeping him under contract through ’15.

    Broncos have formally picked up 5th-year option on Von Miller's contract. Would pay him $9.754 million in 2015.

    — Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) May 1, 2014

    The concerns surrounding Miller aren’t performance-related; he was drafted to sack quarterbacks and has done so 35 times in 40 career games. Denver’s misgivings also aren’t injury-related, even though Miller tore his ACL late last season.

    He tops this list because he is capable of carrying the Broncos defense and etching his name onto any number of postseason awards. But his immaturity could cost the team his services for at least an entire calendar year.

    Miller’s six-game suspension to start the ’13 season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy stemmed from a diluted and switched sample. The dual violations are particularly costly because Miller descended to the most draconian level of the NFL’s drug policy.

    Reality I've confirmed for #Broncos star Von Miller: He is now in Stage 3 of @NFL's drug policy. Next violation is minimum 1-year suspension

    — Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 21, 2013

    Stage 3 is as rigid as a Bill Belichick presser as Miller’s teammate Matt Prater found out over the weekend. Presumably, Miller wouldn’t fail a test based on alcohol consumption because his was not an alcohol-based violation like Prater’s. But Miller reportedly tested positive for marijuana and amphetamines in the past, per Mike Klis of The Denver Post (h/t Mile High Report's Ian Henson). Marijuana is legal in Colorado, and both substances are plentiful.

    Local sheriffs arrested Miller for failure to appear in court on a traffic violation in the midst of his appeal. Then he was cited for speeding and driving with a suspended license during his suspension. Despite the prevalence of alcohol, marijuana and “Molly” in the club scene, Miller attempted to enter a precarious situation after the Super Bowl. 

    Clearly, he hadn’t accepted the consequences of his actions.

    But a new year brings new hope for the Broncos and the highest draft pick in franchise history. Head coach John Fox told The Denver Post:

    Sometimes it takes a minute for young people to see the light. It's a tribute to him and his character that I've seen a real big change maturity-wise. Not that he was a little kid. I'm talking about being a pro. In meetings, taking notes. It's all the little things that help you in your preparation.

    The theme for Denver’s 2014 season is change. Only a change in personnel, perception and performance can deliver a different outcome in Super Bowl XLIX.