Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Denver Broncos check in at No. 11.
Now what? Sure, the Broncos will be the NFL’s most intriguing team in 2012, but will they be among the league’s best teams? For all his parallel-universe talents, Peyton Manning is 36 years old, coming off four surgical procedures on his neck, and hasn’t played in a game in more than a year-and-a-half. Not only that, but he’ll also have to adjust to a new city, a new coaching staff and new teammates. And you thought his successor in Indy, Andrew Luck, was in for a challenge.
Know this before the answers start arriving: The Broncos with Manning under center won’t simply be trying to win the AFC West again. And they’re not just trying to make a deep postseason run. Their goal is simple: Win a Super Bowl.
But before entertaining any such notions, there’s the little matter of re-inventing themselves. The Broncos of Tim Tebow ran an offense more suited for Saturday afternoons, not Sundays.
So what will happen? If Manning, as advertised, makes his teammates better, and if the Denver defense stays healthy and takes another step forward, the Broncos may not merely create a buzz. They may just live up to the hype.
Before ever stepping on the field, Manning provided some critical intangibles for his teammates. The team’s receiving corps had grown discouraged by the end of last season, with Tebow making no progress with his accuracy. Manning’s presence has created a new energy, a new confidence among the receivers, none of whom has more than 124 career catches — a good season for Marvin Harrison back in the day. If Demaryius Thomas ever is going to be the player his physical stature suggests, Manning will get it out of him.
Another major change in the Broncos’ M.O.: Manning, unlike Tebow, will attack the entire field. Slot receiver Eric Decker did a virtual disappearing act as 2011 wore on, what with Tebow refusing to risk an interception by throwing the ball over the middle. The Broncos signed tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme to remedy that issue. Yes, the same Jacob Tamme who caught 67 balls from Manning in 2010 in the absence of Dallas Clark. The Broncos also reunited with Manning with another former Colts' teammate of his, Brandon Stokely. The veteran had his best season in 2004, when he caught 68 passes from Manning for 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Broncos running backs were no factor in the passing game last season, but that, too, figures to change with Manning around. Willis McGahee had a Pro Bowl season, but he’ll be pushed by third-rounder Ronnie Hillman, who could be a force catching the ball in open space. And who knows? With Manning changing the dynamic of the offense, maybe there’s hope yet for 2009 first-round pick Knowshon Moreno.
The offensive line will benefit from Manning’s savvy presence in the pocket, but the coaching staff obviously wants a higher level of performance from that group. To wit: The Broncos were on the verge of drafting Stanford guard David DeCastro with the 25th pick, only to have the Steelers grab him one pick earlier. Incumbent left guard Zane Beadles will be pushed, as will center J.D. Walton. On the right side, guard Chris Kuper is looking to rebound from a horrific ankle injury, and second-year tackle Orlando Franklin will have to make great strides in his pass-blocking. Some of Franklin’s shortcomings were disguised by Tebow’s ability to escape the pocket. Manning, meanwhile, has made a career out of staying there.
Manning isn’t the only big-name player who sat out last season but looms large in the Broncos’ plans. Ty Warren, a free agent signee who was injured in training camp last August, could make a major impact at tackle. If Warren, at 31, can team with second-rounder Derek Wolfe to create a formidable inside tandem, it would open up pass-rushing opportunities from the corner, where Elvis Dumervil and 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller could combine for 25-plus sacks.
The Broncos played from behind much of last season, with Tebow pulling a handful of games out of the fire in the waning moments. Things figure to be different this season, just as they were during the Manning era in Indy, when the Colts usually jumped to big leads, then watched as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis attacked the quarterback. The front office’s decision to use a second-rounder on a quarterback project (Brock Osweiler) cost the defense some badly needed speed, what with Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David, among others, still on the board when Osweiler was selected.
The coaches had hoped to upgrade at middle linebacker, only to re-sign free agent Joe Mays when a better alternative wasn’t available. Another reason for concern at linebacker: D.J. Williams, who’s had a solid if not brilliant career since being selected in the first round in 2004, is facing a six-game suspension for allegedly using performance-enhancing drugs. The team also added veteran Keith Brooking after training camp started.
The Broncos’ secondary will be in for a major reshaping, with future Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins having retired and the coaches having grown weary of right corner Andre Goodman getting burned as quarterbacks avoided Champ Bailey. Goodman was cut, leaving free agent signee Tracy Porter, he of the pick-six vs. Manning in Super Bowl XLIV, to face that pressure. The safeties loom as major question marks. Mike Adams was signed away from the Browns to be a stopgap, but he may have to be the answer at free safety given 2011 second-rounder Rahim Moore’s struggles. Former Jet Jim Leonhard, who has ended each of the last two seasons on injured reserve, was signed after Quinton Carter went down with a knee injury early in training camp.
Head coach John Fox was able to hire Jack Del Rio as his defensive coordinator after Dennis Allen left to join the Raiders. Del Rio had his pick of jobs but chose the Broncos because of his longstanding relationship with Fox. Del Rio was Fox’s first coordinator with the Panthers in 2002 before becoming head coach of the Jaguars.
The altitude provides extra opportunities for long-range bombing, and kicker Matt Prater knows the drill. He has hit 12-of-16 field goals of 50-plus yards, including a 59-yarder with three seconds left that sent last year’s Chicago game into overtime, whereupon he won it with a 51-yarder. Punter Britton Colquitt’s numbers speak for themselves: 47.4 yards per kick, with one-third landing inside the 20. Decker, the primary punt returner, struggled with injuries in college and early in his NFL career, but he appears to be good to go in 2012. He had a 90-yard return for a touchdown against the Raiders in 2011. Former practice squader Matt Willis has the requisite burst to make the kickoff return team dangerous.
Final Analysis: 1st in the AFC West
While all eyes will be on Manning, the Broncos are quietly excited about the prospect of Dumervil and Miller being in attack mode off the corner. Both battled through injuries in 2011 but were still productive. If they stay healthy, the Broncos could recreate the formula that made the Colts so successful during the Manning era. It’s all on Manning to turn the Broncos’ no-name receivers into stars.
Related: 2012 Denver Broncos Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Home, Sweet Home
Peyton Manning knew the question was coming: Where are you living now that you’ve packed up your bags, your legacy and your four MVP trophies and relocated to Colorado? Said Manning in the weeks following his signing with the Broncos: “I live here.” As in the Broncos’ suburban Denver headquarters. Manning spent roughly 12 hours a day at the facility for weeks on end working out, reviewing tape and consulting with coaches.
Mike Shanahan is long gone from the Broncos, but he still has a soft spot in his heart for his old team. To wit: Manning, before he found a home, spent a considerable amount of time living in Shanahan’s 38,000 square-foot mansion in Cherry Hills, where John Elway has lived for more than 20 years. Shanahan entertained Manning at his home during Manning’s recruiting trip to Denver. As the two talked about Manning possibly becoming a Redskin, Shanahan received a text from Elway asking him to put in a good word for the Broncos.
Third Is The Word
Elway, back in the day: “This league is all about third down.” The Broncos’ inability to make plays in the passing game on third down may have been the biggest factor of all in Elway’s decision to jettison Tim Tebow. Denver in 2011 ranked 30th in the league, converting only 30.8 percent. Manning, meanwhile, may be the greatest third down passer ever. The Colts with him under center led the league in third down conversions every year from 2005-09.
Prime-time, Here They Come
The first thing Champ Bailey noticed after glancing at the Broncos’ schedule? The night games. The Men of Manning have five prime-time games on their schedule. The Broncos open at home with a Sunday nighter vs. Pittsburgh followed by a Monday night roadie against the Falcons. Add the Texans to the mix in Week 3, and Manning and his new teammates will be challenged from the season’s earliest moments.
Yep, that was Manning spotted in the stands at Coors Field last spring. Manning is a huge Rockies fan and has spent countless nights at Todd Helton’s ranch on the outskirts of metro Denver. Helton preceded Manning at quarterback at the University of Tennessee. Manning has taken batting practice with the Rox and spent time rehabbing his neck at Coors Field during the NFL lockout of 2011.
Rookie running back Ronnie Hillman played youth football in Long Beach, Calif. His coach during those days? Rapper Snoop Dogg.
Hold Off On Those Parade Plans
Not to, you know, rain on the Broncos’ parade, but this notion that they’re the stuff of a Super Bowl contender now that Peyton Manning is among them? Manning, for all his greatness, is 9–10 in the playoffs.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13:New Orleans Saints
No. 12:Dallas Cowboys
No. 11:Denver Broncos
No. 11: Mon., August 19, 2012
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Related: 2012 Denver Broncos Schedule Analysis