Can Peyton Manning win another Super Bowl?
That is the question people ask when they talk about these Denver Broncos. John Elway, John Fox and the rest of the decision makers in Denver answer that question with an emphatic yes, and they’ve made it clear that they’re putting all their chips on the table and trying to win a championship now: Not only have the Broncos given Manning a good corps of receivers, but the Broncos also invested heavily in veteran free agents on defense this offseason, most notably DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. The plan in Denver is try to win another title while Manning is still on top, and worry about the potential consequences of having a lot of expensive aging veterans on the roster later.
That’s a strategy that makes a lot of sense, but it’s also a strategy that has the potential to blow up in the Broncos’ faces, if Manning and some of the other veterans on the roster begin to show their age more quickly than the Broncos are expecting. Still, the Broncos enter this season looking like the best team in the AFC.
Obviously, it begins with Peyton Manning, the reigning MVP of the NFL, who’s coming off perhaps the greatest season any NFL player has ever had. As long as Manning is healthy, the Broncos will have a great passing offense.
But it goes beyond Manning. If left tackle Ryan Clady is back to form and healthy for 16 games, the offensive line should be better than it was last year, when Clady was lost for the season in Week Two. And the receiving corps, featuring Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker along with new arrivals Emmanuel Sanders and second-round draft pick Cody Latimer, could be better too. And don’t forget that tight end Julius Thomas, who burst onto the scene last year, is still relatively inexperienced and may keep getting better this year.
The Broncos’ run defense was solid last year (stopping Seattle’s running backs was about the only thing the Broncos did well in the Super Bowl), and it could be better this year as well. The Broncos liked the way 2013 first-round draft pick Sylvester Williams played late last year at defensive tackle, and this year there’s every reason to expect a strong second season.
Last year the Broncos’ most significant weakness was their pass defense, which is why the pass defense was the top priority in free agency. Can DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward turn that pass defense into a strength? If so, the 2014 Broncos may be even better than the 2013 Broncos. If not, they’re going to need the offense to win a lot of shootouts. The wild card is the return of Von Miller, who was suspended for the first six games of last season and then missed the playoffs with a torn ACL. If Miller is healthy for 16 games and as good a pass rusher as he was in 2012, then maybe we’ll need to list the Broncos’ pass defense under “strengths.”
Middle linebacker Nate Irving could turn out to be a weakness in the Broncos’ defense if he can’t prove he’s ready to handle the starting job on a full-time basis. Wesley Woodyard departed in free agency, and Denver needs Irving to be ready to handle the responsibilities that Woodyard handled last year.
Special teams may turn out to be a weakness for the Broncos as well. Last year they struggled covering kicks (although that was partially masked by the fact that it’s easy to boot the ball into the end zone for a touchback in Denver), and the Broncos still have no idea who will return punts and kickoffs for them.
Champ Bailey has meant a lot to this franchise for the last 10 seasons, and it will look a little strange to watch the Broncos’ defense and not see Bailey. But adding both veteran Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby should change the cornerback position for the better.
Eric Decker is also a significant loss at wide receiver, but that may again be a position where the net result of the changes is an improvement. Emmanuel Sanders is an accomplished veteran, and Cody Latimer is a talented rookie. Denver’s front office did a good job of compensating for the departure of Decker.
The No. 1 cornerback is Aqib Talib, but after that there’s plenty of competition at the cornerback position. First-round draft pick Bradley Roby has a good shot at being the No. 2 cornerback, but if Chris Harris is completely healthy (he said in June that he’s 85 percent recovered from a torn ACL), then Harris may beat out Roby to start opposite Talib. Kayvon Webster, a 2013 third-round pick, is also in the mix and will compete to be the Broncos’ nickel corner.
Another interesting competition will take place at right tackle, where Chris Clark currently looks like the favorite. Clark stepped in for injured left tackle Ryan Clady last year and performed well enough that it would seem likely that Clark will remain a starter now that Clady is back on the left side. However, veteran Winston Justice will get a shot at beating out Clark in training camp, and so will rookie third-round pick Michael Schofield.
The backup running back position behind starter Montee Ball appears to be Ronnie Hillman’s to lose, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Hillman does, in fact, lose that battle. C.J. Anderson looked good in limited work last year, and the Broncos really like a couple of undrafted rookies, Juwan Thompson and Brennan Clay. Ultimately, the second-string running back in Denver will probably the running back who proves himself the best pass protector in training camp and the preseason, as protecting Peyton Manning is the most important priority in Denver’s offense.
The most interesting camp competition of all may be for the return job, where the departure of Trindon Holliday in free agency leaves things wide open. On punt returns, Wes Welker is the most experienced man for the job, but given Welker’s age and concerns about whether he’ll stay healthy for 16 games, it seems unlikely that Welker will be the regular punt returner this season. Instead, the Broncos will likely give a number of young and athletic players a shot at earning a roster spot by returning punts. Isaiah Burse, an undrafted free agent receiver, was a good return man at Fresno State and may be the best bet to end up winning the punt return job. Burse can also return kickoffs, and he’ll likely compete with veterans Andre Caldwell and Omar Bolden for that job.
The bottom line for the Broncos? First of all, they still look like the best team in the AFC. And secondly, no one in Denver will be satisfied with just being the best team in the AFC.
It’s a “Super Bowl or bust” year for the Broncos, and that means winning the Super Bowl, not just getting there. If the offense is as good as last year and the defense is better, the Broncos have a real chance of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But with the Super Bowl debacle fresh in our minds, it’s hard to argue that the Broncos are the best team in the NFL.