Denver Broncos' Offseason State of the Union
The Denver Broncos have worked hard this offseason to put together the best possible team they possibly can. They need to harvest that talent properly if they want to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year.
Since losing to the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs last year, an incredible effort has been put in behind the scenes to build a stronger team for the new season. It’s time to look at this team from a big-picture perspective to see what it all means before training camp in July.
Wikipedia defines the State of the Union address as follows:
The State of the Union is the address presented by the President of the United States to a joint session of the United States Congress, typically delivered annually. The address not only reports on the condition of the nation but also allows presidents to outline their legislative agenda (for which they need the cooperation of Congress) and their national priorities.
This State of the Union address for the Denver Broncos goes over the condition of the franchise heading into the 2015 season. This article also outlines the agenda the Broncos have this season and gives priority to the top moves made this offseason.
Without further ado, here’s the offseason State of the Union for the Denver Broncos.
Coaching Changes on Both Sides of the Ball
The coaching staff underwent a complete overhaul this offseason. After getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs for the second time in three years, general manager John Elway felt motivated to shake things up.
Most notably gone on the offensive side of the ball are head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Fox ended up signing to be the new head coach of the Chicago Bears, and Gase soon followed Fox out of the exit and is once again his offensive coordinator.
On the defensive side of the ball, Jack Del Rio is gone. Denver's defensive coordinator for three seasons, Del Rio is still within the division—just as the new head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
The Broncos hired blasts from the past in hopes of going further in the postseason.
Gary Kubiak takes over the head coach role that seems like he was destined to have. A backup quarterback behind Elway, Kubiak later helped the Broncos win two Super Bowls as the team’s offensive coordinator. Kubiak went to the Houston Texans and was their head coach for several years. After getting fired by the Texans in 2013, Kubiak was hired by the Baltimore Ravens to be their offensive coordinator for the 2014 season.
Like Gase following Fox, Rick Dennison has followed Kubiak from Denver to Houston to Baltimore and back to Denver. Dennison will craft a balanced offense for the Broncos as their offensive coordinator in 2015. The zone-blocking system and a strong rushing attack—plus the play-action passing game—should be hallmarks of Dennison’s system.
On the defensive side, former Broncos head coach Wade Phillips returns to the Mile High City as the defensive coordinator. He’ll bring with him some of the most aggressive defensive schemes in the NFL. The Broncos' new 3-4 defense should blitz much more than Del Rio’s conservative 4-3 unit did last season.
With Phillips comes defensive-line coach Bill Kollar. One of the most well-respected position coaches in the league, Kollar is credited for developing J.J. Watt in Houston, including by Watt himself (h/t Tania Ganguli of ESPN). He’ll bring an attitude to the defense that has been missing for some time.
A new identity is being forged at Dove Valley. This team is going to play aggressive defense, run the ball and use efficient passing to win in 2015—all thanks to this new set of coaches.
If Healthy, Peyton Manning Is Still Sharp
Plenty of Broncos fans are concerned about quarterback Peyton Manning after he struggled toward the end of the 2014 season. A quad injury late in the year made Manning look mortal over the last few games and in the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
If healthy, Manning is still sharp.
Throughout OTAs and minicamp, Manning has been impressive on the practice field. He’s completely healthy and moving without restriction.
Manning is getting used to working from under center in the Kubiak system, and he’s making improvements with every passing day. His footwork looks good when dropping back, and Manning still has one of the best play fakes in the NFL. He should be able to toy with defenders when passing from the pocket.
Even on bootlegs and rollouts, Manning has looked more spry than some would think possible. He can throw on the run on short and intermediate routes.
Manning’s arm strength should not be a question, either.
He doesn’t have a rocket arm, but Manning can still throw 45-55 yards accurately. His passes rise and fall naturally, as he’s spinning the ball with proper velocity on almost every throw this offseason. Manning throws with great touch, and he does a good job of leading his receivers properly to help maximize run-after-the-catch yardage.
Manning has been receiving a bit of time off during minicamp with the hope that he’ll be fresh and ready all throughout training camp. If Manning can stay healthy, the Broncos might have a better shot of making the Super Bowl than they did last season.
C.J. Anderson Has Confidence of His Coaches
Starting running back C.J. Anderson has done a fantastic job of impressing Gary Kubiak this offseason. Anderson knows he doesn’t want to be a one-season wonder—six-game wonder, to be precise—and he’s not resting on his laurels based on his production last season as the team’s starter.
This system can make incredibly productive running backs, and Anderson is the perfect fit for a runner in a zone-blocking scheme.
Kubiak knows running back talent, and he likes what he sees in Anderson.
“I just go back to the same thing: I think in this league as coaches, you look for guys that can be three-down players. He has a knack for protection; he’s very bright in protection.” Kubiak exclaimed, “So he’s a guy that’s not going to leave the field—as [long] as he can stand. And that’s what the great ones do, so that gives him an excellent chance.”
Anderson is entering training camp as the starter for the Broncos, but he will face competition for that position from Montee Ball.
Last year, Ball began the season as the starter but wasn't quite himself after a preseason appendectomy sapped him of his agility. In Week 5, against the Arizona Cardinals, Ball went down with a groin injury and was pretty much done for the year.
Ball is now back at full strength and ready to win his job back. However, Anderson looked to be the better fit at OTAs and minicamp this offseason. If Anderson continues to impress in training camp, then he should win the starting job and be the bell-cow back the Broncos need to push for the Super Bowl in 2015.
Emmanuel Sanders' Production to Decline
This offense is going to be more balanced in 2015, and Emmanuel Sanders knows that his production is likely to shrink this year. Last season, Sanders posted career-best numbers by hauling in 101 catches for 1,404 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
Sanders indicated he may not be able to put up the same numbers in 2015 that he did in 2014 because of the offense his new head coach is bringing to the team.
“It's definitely different,” Sanders said. “You talk about going from a no-huddle offense to an offense that's huddling up, to an offense that is predicated off running a football and then throwing it. It's different.”
Sanders said his goal is to achieve 1,000 receiving yards in 2015, which seems attainable. Over the history of Kubiak’s offense, the second receiver isn’t showcased as much as he is on other offenses. Sanders is different to guys such as Torrey Smith, Kevin Walter or Jacoby Jones and arguably the best secondary wide receiver Kubiak has ever had under his tutelage.
It’s not out of the question to project Sanders for about 70 catches this season. He’ll work on the outside when the team has two wide receivers on the field. When the Broncos go to three-wide receiver sets, Sanders will move inside to his more natural slot position while second-year pro Cody Latimer lines up outside opposite Demaryius Thomas.
The Broncos are going to run the ball more this season, and they’ll be featuring the tight end quite a bit—in addition to targeting running backs out of the backfield.
Sanders' numbers are likely to dip, but he’s still incredibly vital to what the Broncos want to do offensively.
The Team Believes in Virgil Green
The Broncos let Julius Thomas go in free agency, but they found a way to keep Virgil Green around for the foreseeable future. Earlier this offseason, Green signed a three-year, $8.4 million contract with the Broncos. The deal included $3.2 million guaranteed and an average annual salary of $2.8 million.
That’s a nice payday for a tight end who has only recorded 23 receptions during his four-year pro career.
Green hasn’t been used as a receiver much during his time in the NFL because he’s developed into the best blocking tight end the team has on the roster. He is an incredibly athletic player with the strength to control his man at the point of attack. Green plays with a nasty steak as a blocker and takes a lot of pride in blasting open holes for the running backs behind him.
A favorite target of Colin Kaepernick in college at Nevada, Green is an underrated receiver at the pro level. Just because he hasn’t been used as a pass-catcher much doesn’t mean he’d struggle with a larger role in the passing game.
It’s not saying a lot, given his lack of production, but we could see Green post career-best numbers as a receiver this season. However, Broncos fans should not go overboard about Green’s potential production in 2015.
Denver's offensive line is one big question mark with four of the five positions up for grabs in training camp. Having an asset such as Green up front to help out the blocking—both in pass protection and run blocking—is a must for a team with such a questionable set of blockers.
Green’s blocking is so good it has held him back as a receiver during his pro career. Even though he should get more receptions this year—around 30 sounds right), Green will still mostly be used as a blocker to best help out the team.
Zone Blocking Should Help the Offensive Line
The new offense will feature a new blocking scheme up front. Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison are crafting on offense that is built on zone-blocking concepts.
The zone-blocking system has the linemen work in tandem rather than have a predetermined single man to block. It requires linemen to be laterally agile after the snap. Linemen must also be able to combo block and get to the second level of the defense when required.
This system relies on the linemen and often a tight end to double-team the defenders lined up on the line of scrimmage. The two blockers must then know which player is best suited to go after the incoming linebacker. They are two minds, but they need to work in unison for this system to perform effectively.
It requires great communication to know when to pass off a man or give alerts for stunting defenders. The key against a stunt is to stop the defensive end at the line of scrimmage. Stopping his penetration makes it easier to track and block the stunting defender.
Right tackle Chris Clark struggled as the starter last year and was pulled from the lineup as the team seemed to constantly shuffle most of their offensive line in 2014. This season, Clark should be able to work much better in a zone-blocking system. Clark is a finesse player with the athleticism to work well in this new scheme.
Left tackle Ty Sambrailo is an untested rookie, but he mostly played left tackle throughout his college career in a zone-blocking system at Colorado State. He understands the concepts and, most importantly, knows the footwork required to be a solid blindside protector for his quarterback.
The interior of the offensive line only needs more experience working together. Right guard Louis Vasquez is a stud, but center Gino Gradkowski and left guard Ben Garland need more experience.
Training camp is going to be incredibly important, as this group will come together to gel before the start of the regular season. The zone-blocking system takes some time to learn because the players need to have no doubts about the tendencies of their teammates.
The play of the offensive line will pave the way for how far the Broncos can go in 2015.
There's More Than 1 Option at Nose Tackle
The nose tackle is the fulcrum of the 3-4 defense, and the Broncos have more than one option to start at the position. They have been active in the draft and free agency when looking for talent on the defensive line. Training camp will determine which player—or combination of players—is best at defensive tackle.
Sylvester Williams can be penciled in as the starter at this time. A first-round pick for the Broncos in 2013, Williams has generally disappointed during his pro career. Last year was especially disappointing for Williams, as he started every game yet failed to generate a single sack. This year, Williams will have to hold off competition in training camp if he wants to stay the starter.
Marvin Austin is likely to be his toughest competition. A free-agent addition last offseason, Austin looked good in a part-time role with the Broncos. He’s big, agile and plays with a nasty streak. Austin’s biggest setbacks as a pro have come via multiple injuries and inconsistencies. Austin could be an effective starter, but perhaps a rotational role is best to keep him fresh and motivated.
Rookie Darius Kilgo is going to get a chance to prove himself in training camp. The Broncos selected Kilgo in the sixth round out of Maryland. He’s a mountain of a man, measuring in at 6’3” and 320 pounds. Kilgo may not get much pressure on the quarterback, but he’s almost immovable as a two-down run-stuffer.
Even free-agent defensive end Vance Walker could get moved inside on passing downs. Walker has the versatility to play across the defensive line, and his quick first-step penetration could make him a fine option when needing to get after the passer.
Williams should be the starter to begin the regular season, but if he continues to struggle, the Broncos have the options behind him to make a switch.
The Pass Rush Will Be More Aggressive
Perhaps the biggest difference Broncos fans will see this year is the aggression from the pass-rushers on defense. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will once again start at outside linebacker, and they will bring the most heat. Rookie Shane Ray will come in to spell either on certain downs, and he’ll pursue the quarterback with a motor that doesn’t quit.
It’s not just the players who will be more aggressive in 2015—the entire structure of the defense will have a better edge.
Last year, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio only sent extra rushers on for 21.4 percent of opponents dropbacks, while the league average was 30.7 percent. That number ranked 29th-lowest in the NFL, courtesy of the ESPN employees-only database.
It’s not just blitzing more under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. It’s knowing when to blitz and bringing pressure from different parts of the field.
The Broncos compiled a respectable 41 sacks last season, a number tied for 9th-highest in the NFL. However, the pass rush fell apart as the season went on. For example, Ware had 10.5 sacks in his first season with the Broncos, but only two of those came in the final eight games of the regular season. Part of that was wearing down, but it was also down to a basic scheme opponents ended up stunting late in the year.
Expect Phillips to make the Broncos exceptionally dangerous on defense this year—largely because of a more aggressive pass rush.
Rookies Will Play Large Roles
The Broncos will have a couple of rookies play large roles for the team this year. One of them is likely to be a starter from Week 1, while the other is going to be an important rotational player. These rookies need to perform to expectations in order for the Broncos to excel in 2015.
Ty Sambrailo is the team’s starting left tackle. The team selected him in the second round of the 2015 NFL draft with the idea that he could possibly start at right tackle as a rookie. All that was thrown out of the window when All-Pro Ryan Clady went down with a knee injury in minicamp earlier this year.
The Broncos now need Sambrailo to protect Peyton Manning’s blindside. Sambrailo has the athleticism to mirror rushers on the edge. He sets up quickly and cleanly with a properly spaced base. He regularly waits to use his initial punch until just the right time. Sambrailo is an aggressive player who will attack until the echo of the whistle.
Shane Ray was the team’s first-round pick this season, and he’ll be a key defender even though he’s only going to be a part-time player as a rookie.
The Broncos moved up in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft to secure Ray’s services. He’s an alpha male with a chip on his shoulder, and he plays like he hates quarterbacks.
Ray can get off the line of scrimmage quickly, and he does a good job of anticipating when the snap is coming. Team that with his quick first step, and Ray can get around tackles before the opposition even gets a chance to set up on the outside.
With the quarterback in sight, Ray is like a guided missile. He finds the ball quickly and rarely takes false steps on his way to the play. If the play goes away from him, Ray will chase the ball-carrier with all he’s got. Ray has the hustle to excel in the NFL, and he’s got the natural ability to one day develop into the best pass-rusher in the game.
This season, both of these rookies will play large roles for the Broncos. If both play up to their potential, it will greatly help out the Broncos' cause in 2015.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos' media department unless otherwise noted.