Under Pressure: 3 Current Broncos Who Must Step Up in 2011

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Under Pressure: 3 Current Broncos Who Must Step Up in 2011
Mario Haggan demonstrates why he's become a leader on the Broncos defense

With the 2011 NFL Draft just hours away, many fans are salivating over the nearly limitless possibilities the annual rookie selection process holds.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding certain players and some of the more dedicated fans have compiled extensive draft boards of players they want their respective teams to select. However, amidst all the uncertainty of the draft and an unknown free agency start date, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that most 2011 rosters will display many of the same names as their 2010 counterparts.

In that spirit, let’s take a look at three Broncos who management would surely like to see progress and take a larger role in 2011.

 

1. Knowshon Moreno, HB

Perhaps no player needs a redeeming season more than halfback Knowshon Moreno. Two years ago, Moreno was touted coming out of Georgia as a complete back capable of immediately stepping on the field and making an impact for whatever team drafted him.

Now entering his third season, Moreno has done little to warrant his high draft status (12th overall in 2009). Playing a position that typically has more immediate impact than most hasn’t helped Moreno earn fans’ patience—who would have thought Moreno would still be seeking his first 1000 yard season in his third year?

Moreno takes a handoff from QB Kyle Orton and looks for some open field

We’ve learned a few things about Moreno over the past couple seasons. He doesn’t quite have that second-gear ability to gain separation in the open field—his longest rush in 2010 was a 35 yard scamper against San Diego—and he’s not the greatest decision-maker at this point in his career, whether it’s hitting the right hole in the run game or picking up the appropriate blitzer in pass protection.

However, for the most part, the talent is still there. Moreno will never be a home-run hitter, but he can be a very valuable back for a young QB to lean on, whether it’s Tim Tebow or otherwise.

In 2011, Moreno needs to be quicker to the hole and do a better job running after contact. Last year, he showed some elusiveness by forcing 26 missed tackles, but he only averaged 2.5 yards after contact per rush. At times, like week 13 against Kansas City, Moreno demonstrated his ability to fight through defenders near the line of scrimmage for a hefty gain, but he didn’t seem to possess the same vigor in other games.

Continuity in the offensive line—outside of the expected departure of RT Ryan Harris—and a healthy lead blocker should help Moreno in 2011, but the rest is up to him. Moreno can be an above average tailback in the NFL with the versatility to pound the rock up the middle, shake defenders off the edge with superb cuts, and catch a few passes a game—it’s now simply a matter of desire and staying healthy, which Moreno also has yet to prove he can do.

 

David Bruton extends to block Donnie Jones' punt

2. Mario Haggan, MLB

Haggan is another player who’s seen a huge change in his value in two years, although in a much more positive context than Moreno. After 5 unremarkable seasons in Buffalo, Haggan came to Denver and saw extremely limited action, playing less than 100 snaps in total in 2008. In 2009, Haggan started all 16 games and impressed with his high motor style of play and penchant for snuffing out running plays despite playing mostly OLB.

In 2010, Haggan became the Broncos most versatile linebacker, moving inside and back to OLB frequently throughout the season. In 2011, though, Haggan has an opportunity to become even more important to the Denver defense, as he figures to play MLB in the Broncos new (old?) 4-3 scheme. Haggan endeared himself to Broncos fans last season with his aggressive play, notably nearly laying a shot on Sam Bradford on a fake spike in which every other offensive and defensive player stood upright, out of the play.

However, he wasn’t at all suited to the role he was forced into. Haggan had only 23 total quarterback pressures despite rushing the passer 306 times, and 11 of those pressures came in two games against Kansas City. Haggan’s clearly not destined to be a Demarcus Ware, but he can be a solid MIKE linebacker and should improve the whole defensive unit by playing the 2011 season at MLB instead of rush linebacker.

 

3. Darcel McBath/David Bruton, S

Okay, I lied. My intention was to list three players, but McBatch and Bruton are interchangeable. Brian Dawkins will be 38 in October and “Weapon X” doesn’t quite strike the same fear into opponents he once did. The man can still hit and has great energy on the field for younger players to feed off of, but his limitations are ever expanding.

Dawkins struggled heavily with in-the-box coverage last season, getting beat by running backs, tight ends, and slot receivers alike. By season’s end, he had been targeted 29 times, allowed 20 catches, and given up as many touchdowns as passes defensed with 3. At 38, the Broncos simply can’t expect Dawkins to backpedal into coverage comfortably against speedy backs and athletic tight ends.

Ideally, Dawkins should split time with McBath or Bruton in the box while Renaldo Hill mans the free safety spot. Dawkins can handle obvious running downs, but the Broncos would surely love to be able to throw McBath or Bruton out there on third downs and other passing situations. McBath probably has more upside, but injuries and ineffectiveness when he’s actually on the field have tempered my expectations. Bruton, despite being the far less heralded of the two safeties, has impressed me more with the way he flies around the field and gets to the backfield in a hurry.

Both safeties have a lot of work to do in coverage to get to the point at which the coaching staff can comfortably sit Dawkins in passing situations, but a breakout year from either safety would be huge—Dawkins can be fresh all season and play at his best when he’s on the field, while McBath/Bruton solves the Broncos issues with covering tight ends.

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