Let the games begin.
You couldn’t blame the Broncos for being eager to start the 2013 season. They are heavy division favorites, strong conference contenders and legitimate Super Bowl challengers, and they have one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
Hey, it’s good to be the Broncos, even with the news of a potential four-game suspension for Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller surfacing earlier this week.
The Broncos would be weakened without Miller, but they would still be dangerous. After all, they have Manning, still sharp at 37 years old.
But it won’t always be like this for the Broncos and their quarterback.
So forgive the Broncos if they feel a little urgency as they try to better last season’s disappointing one-and-done postseason experience.
Manning added to his already vast legacy with his remarkable comeback season of 2012. In his first year in Denver – with mostly new skill-position players around him, no less – Manning threw for 4,659 yards with 37 TDs and just 11 picks. Moreover, he set a career-high in completion percentage (68.6).
Now, the focus to turns to what Manning and the offense are capable of in Year Two.
The addition of slot receiver Wes Welker further strengthens an already potent passing game. He caught more than two-thirds of the passes thrown his way in each of his six seasons in New England. Opposing secondaries also have the difficult task of matching up with wideout Demaryius Thomas, who hauled in 94 receptions for 1,434 yards and 10 scores in 2012. The Broncos’ other outside receiver, Eric Decker, is quite skilled, too. He comes off an 85-catch, 13-TD campaign.
Manning, a master at dealing with the pass rush and defensive-pressure looks over the years, operates behind a solid Denver line. Left tackle Ryan Clady is one of the game’s best at his position. New right guard Louis Vasquez (ex-San Diego) bolsters the interior.
Indeed, this is an outstanding offense.
And Denver’s defense pulls its weight, too.
Should the Broncos sputter in a key spot, their defense is capable of keeping them in the game. Such flexibility can take a team a long way. The Broncos excelled vs. the run and the pass in 2012 and allowed fewer yards per play than any other team.
Miller, who recorded 18.5 sacks last year, is the standout of this stout defense – already one of the game’s top pass rushers. If Miller is suspended, the Broncos will likely turn to ex-Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, still a capable rusher in his own right (team-high 9.5 sacks for San Diego in 2012). The April signing of Phillips could prove a very valuable investment for Denver whether Miller misses any time or not; the more pass rushers a club has, the better.
The same can be said for cornerbacks, and the Broncos have four capable ones in Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris and Tony Carter.
To review, the Broncos have a Hall of Fame quarterback, a top-caliber passing game, a blue-chip pass rusher and deep, skilled cornerback corps.
There are worse ways to enter a season.
The Broncos’ tailback position could prove a strength if rookie Montee Ball or second-year pro Ronnie Hillman emerges as a dependable and playmaking featured runner. However, until that happens, this is an area of concern. Denver was just 25th in yards per rush last season.
Center, where Dan Koppen again gets the call with J.D. Walton out with a persistent ankle injury, is another position to monitor. So is linebacker, where the overall depth has been thinned after the release of veteran middle linebacker Joe Mays.
The Broncos’ defensive end play also needs to be watched. While left end Derek Wolfe showed promise as a rookie, notching a half-dozen sacks, new right end Robert Ayers has never had more than three sacks in an NFL season.
All things considered, though, the Broncos have considerably less to worry about than any other club in the AFC West.
In 2012, the Broncos got 16 games apiece and 29.5 combined sacks from Miller and Dumervil. Now, Miller could miss a quarter of the Broncos’ regular-season games, and Dumervil is in Baltimore after “Faxgate.” Make no mistake: the Broncos’ pass rush is still to be respected, especially when Miller is in the lineup. But if Miller misses any games and the rush suffers, it could have a trickle-down effect on the defense, with the pass defense suffering most.
And if the Broncos don’t muster the pass rush they did in 2012, when Dumervil and Miller combined for more than half of the club’s sacks, the inability to keep Dumervil will look all the worse.
The Dumervil episode aside, however, the Broncos had a very good offseason from a roster-building standpoint. Adding Welker was a coup, and Rodgers-Cromartie has the ability to prove a home-run signing, too, especially on a one-year deal. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (ex-Jacksonville) was a nice under-the-radar pickup.
In addition to bringing in Phillips, Denver did well to bring in ex-Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer late in the offseason. Jammer will be tried at safety, a position where the Broncos perhaps needed another option.
Other than Dumervil and Mays, notable Denver departures included tailback Willis McGahee, linebacker D.J. Williams and cornerback Tracy Porter. McGahee’s release signaled the Broncos would be going young at running back.
Finally, the club begins training camp short-handed in the front office – not an ideal situation, given all the roster movement late in the summer — after the suspensions of director of player personnel Matt Russell and director of pro personnel Tom Heckert due to offseason DUI arrests. Heckert’s suspension is a month, while Russell’s suspension is indefinite.
Hillman and Ball would each figure to have roles in the Broncos’ backfield, with fifth-year pro Knowshon Moreno also in the mix. A second-round pick in April, Ball’s draft status would suggest the Broncos believe he can play right off the bat. That said, Hillman has a year in the offense to his credit, which cannot hurt his cause. No matter who wins the job, the Broncos need some stability to develop at this position for the stretch run, when passing can become trickier in the elements.
Other positions where there could be competition are defensive tackle, where Knighton, first-round pick Sylvester Williams and veteran Kevin Vickerson are the top options; and safety, where Mike Adams (strong) and Rahim Moore (free) are the incumbents.
The Broncos face five 2012 playoff teams (Baltimore, Indianapolis, Washington, New England, Houston) in a schedule not without its potential challenges. For instance, five of Denver’s final eight games are on the road. Moreover, any stretch without Miller would add to the degree of difficulty.
However, let’s be clear: This is one of the NFL’s most talented teams. They should win the West and host at least one playoff game.
The goals are bigger for Denver, of course, and they are within reach. If it were Denver’s year to win a third Super Bowl title, it would hardly be a surprise.
It would also be the sort of thing celebrated by anyone who’s ever faced a tough deadline with a lot at stake and gotten the job done. That’s what the Broncos are staring at entering 2013. They have the pieces to win, but they aren’t all going to be assembled this way for all that long.