The Denver Broncos snapped a five-year playoff drought with Tim Tebow at quarterback, but club brass was never on board with the “college” offense coordinator Mike McCoy was forced to implement, in order to cater to Tebow’s limited skill set. The Broncos tied for the league lead in rushing attempts, playing read-option ball. Broncos V.P. of Football Operations John Elway and head coach John Fox severed ties with Tebow in the offseason, trading him to the Jets for middle-round draft picks.
Peyton Manning, the ultimate “pro-style” passer, has taken over McCoy’s offense while the Broncos will look to hone their young defensive talent under new coordinator Jack Del Rio. Denver will morph from the NFL’s run-heaviest team into one of its most pass happy. On defense, Del Rio will attempt to build on the flashes of dominance shown by Denver’s front seven down the 2011 stretch.
Although Manning is 36 years old and underwent four neck surgeries in an 18-month span, the Broncos now consider their passing game a strength. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker represent the most physical receiver duo with which Manning has played in his career. 24-year-old Thomas will look to supplant Chicago’s Brandon Marshall as the league’s premier run-after-catch wideout after a furious finish to last season. Decker, 25, spent the summer training with Larry Fitzgerald, and may quickly emerge as Manning’s favorite target as a superb and versatile route runner.
Denver’s defensive strength is up front. 2011 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller starts at strong-side linebacker and slides to end in the nickel. Miller recorded 60 tackles, 11.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles in his first pro season, and Del Rio has likened him to a young Peter Boulware. Right defensive end Elvis Dumervil’s off-field issues are a concern, but he is a dominant pass rusher on the football field with 26.5 sacks in his last 29 regular-season games.
Champ Bailey remains a shutdown corner at age 34, and the Broncos believe they upgraded across from him by signing Tracy Porter away from New Orleans. Porter will replace longtime liability Andre’ Goodman at right cornerback.
The Broncos can get after the passer up front, but they haven’t effectively stopped the run in several years. Denver ranked 22nd against the run in 2011. They’ll hope the return of defensive tackle Ty Warren and addition of second-round pick Derek Wolfe rejuvenate the run defense.
Willis McGahee has some juice left in his legs, but is entering his age-31 season. Third-round tailback Ronnie Hillman needs to learn how to pass protect to earn playing time as a rookie. The Broncos’ 2011 rushing numbers are irrelevant for 2012. The backfield isn’t necessarily a weakness, but there are plenty of reasons to believe it won’t be a strength, either.
Denver’s offensive line is also a concern. Annually overrated left tackle Ryan Clady needs to up his play, and last year’s interior line was a weakness. Manning had a knack for making his pass protection appear better than it actually was throughout his tenure in Indianapolis. Will he be able to do the same in Denver?
Aside from Bailey, the Broncos’ defensive pass coverage has been leaky to say the least in recent seasons. Major question marks remain at safety and nickel back.
Piggybacking off the final “weakness” listed, the Broncos did aggressively address their secondary this offseason, signing Porter and projected nickel back Drayton Florence. Mike Adams comes over from Cleveland to shore up free safety. The Broncos re-signed top nickel linebacker Wesley Woodyard, although he may have to play on base running downs early in the season while weak-side starter D.J. Williams serves a six-game suspension.
Manning, obviously, was the Broncos’ biggest spring addition. Following him to Denver are old Indy pals Jacob Tamme, a pass-catching tight end, and Brandon Stokley, a 36-year-old slot receiver. Joel Dreessen will be Denver’s new in-line tight end, replacing outgoing Daniel Fells. Former Bengal Andre Caldwell will battle Stokley for third receiver duties.
The Broncos bring back all five offensive line starters, although it’s questionable whether that’s a good thing. Football Outsiders ranked Denver 29th in pass protection last season, and Pro Football Focus had them tied for 24th.
The Broncos will hold surprisingly few camp battles for a roster in such heavy transition. 2011 second-round pick Rahim Moore figures to put some heat on incumbent Quinton Carter at strong safety, although Carter is the clear favorite. Florence will attempt to hold off promising 2011 undrafted free agent Chris Harris at nickel back. Nate Irving, a third-rounder a year ago, will work to unseat Joe Mays at middle linebacker.
On offense, Hillman should make a case for snaps behind McGahee. Former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno is fighting for a roster spot. The Broncos must find a back capable of riding sidesaddle with Manning in the shotgun, and picking up oncoming blitzers. That specialist role is crucial in any Manning-led offense.
The Broncos qualified for the top ten in PFT’s Preseason Power Rankings because we believe Manning has something left in the tank. Reports were mixed about his velocity and downfield arm power during OTAs and minicamps, however. There’s simply no way around it: Denver is taking a leap of faith on Manning considering his age and injury history. It’s worth noting that SI’s Don Banks reported before Manning’s March 7 release that the Colts’ organization believed it “nearly inevitable” that Peyton would at some point require a fifth neck surgery.
He’s not a sure thing.
All that said, we feel more comfortable betting on Manning than against him. And the Broncos have a quality enough supporting cast to run away with the AFC West division and make a legitimate Super Bowl run.