Ranking the 10 Most Important Players for Denver in the Super Bowl

William Brabrook@@WillBrabrookFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2016

Ranking the 10 Most Important Players for Denver in the Super Bowl

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    When the Denver Broncos take the field next Sunday, Feb. 7, for Super Bowl 50, it could be the final game for both quarterback Peyton Manning and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. In order for these two NFL legends to leave the game as Super Bowl champions, Denver will need a complete-team effort.

    Both Manning and Ware are obvious candidates for the top spot of this list. But Von Miller, Aqib Talib and Derek Wolfe are in the running as well, as are less heralded players like Evan Mathis and C.J. Anderson. After all, this list consists of the most important Broncos players for the Super Bowl, not the most talented ones. 

    In this list, "importance" is defined as the ability a given Denver player has to thwart the Carolina Panthers' game plan on both sides of the ball, while simultaneously imposing the Broncos' game plan on the Panthers. Consider this list a guide on which players will make or break Denver's Super Bowl hopes.

Honorable Mention

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    These players barely missed the cut, although they will still have a substantial impact on the outcome of Super Bowl 50:

    Honorable Mention

    WR Demaryius Thomas

    CB Bradley Roby

    FS Darian Stewart

    DT Malik Jackson

    RG Louis Vasquez

No. 10: SS T.J. Ward

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    T.J. Ward is the first of a handful of Broncos defensive backs you'll see on this list. His versatility gives him the edge over fellow safety Darian Stewart.

    Ward is known to be a physical safety with a penchant for both getting after the quarterback and stuffing the run. Against Carolina, both are desperately needed to set the tone of the game.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Ward's two sacks and eight quarterback pressures in the regular season ranked fifth among eligible NFL safeties. 

    Ward's biggest obstacle will be his health. He missed four games in the regular season due to an ankle injury and re-aggravated the injury during last week's AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots.

    Per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, a source said Ward he will be "good to go" for Super Bowl 50, which is certainly beneficial to the Broncos. Even so, Ward will have to be at the top of his game to deal with the speedy Carolina wide receivers.

No. 9: WR Emmanuel Sanders

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    If you can't understand why Sanders is on this list, I have one simple question for you: Who will cover him?

    Assuming Panthers All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman matches up with Demaryius Thomas, an unproven Carolina defensive back will cover Sanders.

    Two of the Panthers' regular-season starting cornerbacks—Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman—are on season-ending injured reserve. That leaves two midseason acquisitions to potentially cover Sanders: Cortland Finnegan (signed on Nov. 30) and Robert McClain (signed on Dec. 15).

    Both Finnegan and McClain were once respected NFL corners, but both appear to be on the downside of their careers. Sanders will have to beat them regularly to give Manning a reliable passing target. If Sanders can keep making timely plays like this one, it sure looks like he's poised for a big game. 

No. 8: CB Chris Harris Jr.

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    For someone who can barely brush his teeth, Chris Harris Jr. sure did a great job of covering one of the NFL's best route-runners in last Sunday's AFC Championship Game. 

    Harris' shoulder issues were a major concern heading into the game, but he overcame them to help limit Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman to a meager 53 receiving yards.

    Harris will be asked to do a little bit of everything in the Super Bowl, from shadowing speedy Carolina wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown to lining up against Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who is Cam Newton's go-to target.

    In order to effectively play such a major role, his shoulder needs to make some significant healing progress before next Sunday. 

No. 7: LG Evan Mathis

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    Evan Mathis gets the nod at this spot over Sanders and Harris Jr. for one reason: Denver's run game is the most pivotal focus for the offense, and he is the most likely candidate to open up the run game.

    Mathis has always been highly regarded as an elite run-blocker, and that notion stayed true this season. He finished as second runner-up (third place) for Pro Football Focus's 2015 John Hannah Award, which is given to the NFL's best run-blocker.  

    Ideally, Denver's passing game would be able to open up and take some pressure off the run game. But in order for that to happen, Carolina's defense needs to focus on the run game enough to give Manning more favorable coverages on his receivers.

    Going up against a stout Panthers defensive line that includes Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short, Mathis simply must free up running lanes for C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman.

No. 6: OLB DeMarcus Ware

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    If this is, in fact, DeMarcus Ware's final NFL game, he'll need to make his last game one of his best ones. 

    For the record, I don't think the 33-year-old Pro Bowler will retire after the Super Bowl, regardless of the outcome—although I do think a win would make him more likely to retire. 

    Denver's pass-rushing quartet of Ware, Von Miller, Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe combined for 29 of the team's league-best 52 regular-season sacks. Ware himself racked up 7.5 sacks—second on the team behind Miller's 11 sacks.

    Ware will primarily face Carolina left tackle Michael Oher, who is having a very good year. However, if he can get consistent pressure on Newton—or at least draw some holding penalties on Oher—Denver's pass rush may be able to take over the game, like they did against the Patriots.

No. 5: CB Aqib Talib

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    While Denver's pass rush includes some of the team's most prolific playmakers, the secondary needs to blanket the Carolina receivers long enough to give the rushers time to make plays. No Broncos defensive back gives them more of an opportunity to do so than Aqib Talib.

    There is a solid argument that Chris Harris Jr. is the best Denver defensive back, but even so, he is only deserving of the title when healthy. For Super Bowl 50, give me the (relatively) healthy Talib over the ailing Harris.

    One of the toughest things about having to scheme for a team like the Panthers is that they have no true go-to target outside of Greg Olsen. Much like Harris, Talib will likely cover both Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown at various points in the game.

    Pro Football Focus noted Talib has the fifth-best quarterback rating (QBR) allowed when targeted, at a mere 59.7 QBR. A similar performance could force Newton to target other receivers more often than he would like to.

No. 4: DE Derek Wolfe

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    Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson have anchored Denver's defensive line and given edge-rushers like Ware and Miller better pass-rushing opportunities. Between Wolfe and Jackson, however, Wolfe will have the bigger impact on the Super Bowl.

    After receiving a well-deserved four-year, $36.7 million contract extension back on Jan. 15, Wolfe has kept up his stellar performance in the playoffs. In the Broncos' two playoff games, he has notched a sack in each game, in addition to seven total tackles. 

    Wolfe's biggest tasks will be snuffing out the Panthers' run game and preventing Newton from getting outside the pocket. If he can effectively do those two things, then he won't need to notch any more sacks this postseason.

No. 3: RB C.J. Anderson

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    Yes, Denver has many defensive stars with invaluable importance to the Broncos' Super Bowl chances. But if C.J. Anderson can't get going on the ground, then the Broncos defense might as well be nonexistent.

    The fact Denver's run game encompasses such a large part of their offense is why Anderson is ranked ahead of defensive Pro Bowlers like Ware, Talib, and Harris. 

    Even more importantly, Anderson has been a more efficient running back throughout the postseason than Ronnie Hillman. Though Anderson's 31 playoff carries is only slightly ahead of Hillman's 27, his 4.6 yards per carry average is more than twice as much as Hillman's 2.0 yards per carry. 

    The bottom line is this: Hillman can eat up some of Anderson's carries if need be, but in order to pick up first downs on the ground against the Panthers, the more effective Anderson will need to continue his strong postseason performance.

No. 2: QB Peyton Manning

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    C.J. Anderson is the most crucial piece in Denver's run game. But no one is more important to Denver's overall offense than Peyton Manning.

    Manning has to be tired of the negativity that he has received this year. From his dismal regular-season numbers, to the HGH allegations, to the "game manager" comments, there is no shortage of insults being hurled at Manning.

    Yet here he stands—one win away from his second Lombardi Trophy.

    Manning's throwing abilities have greatly regressed since the prime of his career. But his football IQ—including his superior knowledge of Denver's playbook and ability to read defensive coverages perfectly—has not. 

    Denver's offensive philosophy for the Super Bowl should be the same as every other game this season: open up the run game, don't turn the ball over and make the safe throws Carolina's defense allows.

    If Manning can contribute his part to that game plan, you have to feel good about Denver's Super Bowl chances. 

No. 1: OLB Von Miller

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    Aqib Talib leads the defensive backs, C.J. Anderson leads the Denver run game and Peyton Manning leads Denver's offense.

    But Von Miller leads the team, and in turn is the Broncos' most important player in Super Bowl 50.

    If you don't understand why Miller holds the top spot on this list, please take a look at what he has accomplished this season, particularly in the postseason. Look at what he did to Tom Brady—one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, if not the best—in the AFC Championship Game.

    The first team All-Pro member notched 2.5 sacks and an interception off Brady, backing up his brash comments before the game. A similar performance in the Super Bowl should all but guarantee the soon-to-be free agent the ludicrous contract he is apparently asking for.

    Even more importantly, such a performance could very well land the Broncos their long-awaited third Lombardi Trophy.