John Elway the front office suit is much like John Elway the quarterback. The man is always in a hurry, always looking for a competitive edge, always trying to pull off the next big play. And so it was that, in the aftermath of the Broncos’ shocking 2012 playoff exit, Elway wasted exactly zero time wallowing in the disappointment. Instead, he did something. Sign the top-rated guard in free agency. Check. Provide a parachute for Wes Welker when his relationship with the Patriots’ front office was in freefall. Check. Use a second-rounder on a Heisman Trophy finalist running back to keep the pressure off Peyton Manning. Check.
Having taken a proactive path to improve what already loomed as the most talented roster in the AFC, Elway, like everyone else out there, can sum up the Broncos’ 2013 season in a hurry: Super Bowl or bust.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 1st
Manning called the right audible when he decided to join the Broncos after being shown the door in Indianapolis. He would have been the MVP of the league if not for Adrian Peterson’s incredible comeback from knee surgery. And now Manning has even more weapons: The Broncos signed two of the most attractive names in free agency, Welker and former Chargers guard Louis Vasquez, who figures to amp up a running game featuring rookie tailback Montee Ball.
Manning doesn’t just make his teammates better; he creates instant stars. Case in point: Receiver Demaryius Thomas, whose career before 2012 had been defined by injuries and unfulfilled potential. Having caught 94 balls for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns, Thomas looms as one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league. And when Manning wants to move the chains with short stuff, he can turn to Welker (118 catches with the Pats) or Eric Decker, whose 13 touchdown catches led the team. It’s a foursome unmatched on any other roster in the league.
If Welker makes an already potent receiving corps even more dangerous, Ball could do the same for the running game. He has a lot of wear and tear on his body (663 carries in his final two seasons at Wisconsin), but Elway and Co. believe he’ll provide an upgrade for the running game. If so, the Broncos can virtually name that score.
And no, the upgrades don’t end with the ball-handlers. Vasquez, a 335-pound masher at right guard, was the team’s No. 1 target in free agency. His presence gives the Broncos one of the league’s premier offensive lines, one that could be better than ever if young right tackle Orlando Franklin continues to make strides as a pass-blocker. Vasquez' addition is even more important considering what has already happened to the Broncos at center. Starting center Dan Koppen tore his ACL in late July while backup J.D. Walton will miss at least the first six games after being put on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list as he continues his recovery from multiple offseason ankle surgeries. Manny Ramirez, who started 11 games at right guard last season, is penciled in as the starting center with vetean Steve Vallos behind him on the depth chart.
There was a time not so long ago when the Broncos were undersized on the defensive line. No more. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio wants big bodies who can clog the middle and create push, opening opportunities for players on the perimeter to make plays.
Derek Wolfe saw playing time in the middle last year as a rookie, but at 300 pounds, he doesn’t fit the profile of a Del Rio tackle. Enter free agent Terrance Knighton, a player Del Rio drafted at Jacksonville, and No. 1 draft pick Sylvester Williams. Knighton goes 330, give or take a Big Mac or two, and Williams 313. With so much size in the middle, Wolfe should be a bigger factor in the pass rush at defensive end. Then there’s strong-side linebacker Von Miller, arguably the most feared pass-rusher in the league. Miller is a once-in-a-lifetime player who could make a run at the all-time sack record after racking up 18.5 last season. Unfortunately, Miller will miss the first six games of the season after being suspended by the NFL for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Denver signed veteran Paris Lenon to help fill the void, but everyone in the linebacking corps will need to step up while Miller is out.
After losing defensive end Elvis Dumervil in free agency, the Broncos considered Dwight Freeney and John Abraham but signed ex-Chargers defensive end Shaun Phillips, he of the 9.5 sacks in 2012.
The Broncos are solid in the secondary after the signing of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who’s hungry to re-establish himself after signing a one-year deal, but they need someone to step up and anchor the middle at linebacker, a gaping hole since the days of Al Wilson. Nate Irving, a third-rounder in 2011, will be given every opportunity to win the job. If he struggles, the defense could be hard-pressed to stage an encore from 2012, when the Broncos were one of the stingiest run defenses in the league.
The bottom line? The Broncos lack depth at some positions but have a handful of premier defensive players and a talented coordinator who figures to be a hot commodity on the head-coaching market after the season.
If you’re the rest of the AFC West, this is just wrong. The Broncos, that is, having not only Manning and a handful of other stars, but also the most electrifying return man in the league. At least Trindon Holliday can stake a claim to the title after his performance in the Broncos’ playoff loss to Baltimore when he became the first player in NFL history to record kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns in the same playoff game. His signing with the Broncos during the 2012 season was the move that gave Denver arguably the best special teams in the league.
Kicker Matt Prater is the most accurate kicker in league history from 50 yards-plus. Not bad for a guy who was cut by Detroit, Miami and Atlanta and failed tryouts with Green Bay and Minnesota before finding a home in Colorado. Then there’s punter Britton Colquitt, whose net averages for the past three seasons read like this: 36.6, 40.2 and 42.1. Yes, Colquitt, like Prater, benefits from Denver’s mile-high air, but he’s the real deal.
Final Analysis: 1st in AFC West
With the clock ticking on the 37-year-old Manning, the Broncos’ window for winning a Super Bowl is closing. But frankly, there’s no reason to believe they can’t win two with No. 18 under center. Remember all that talk about those surgical procedures on Manning’s neck? No, you probably don’t because any concerns about his physical condition died early last season. And by the time he threw his 37th touchdown pass, any notion of Manning not being his old self was ancient history. If anything, he’ll be more comfortable in his skin this season. Not only that, but he also has Welker around to provide a security blanket on third down.
Add in a defense that includes Miller (less the six games he will sit out) and future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, and the Broncos are loaded for another Super Bowl run. They should dominate the weak AFC West, putting them in position to have home-field advantage in the playoffs. If it comes down that way, don’t count on them botching the opportunity this time around. The Broncos were embarrassed by how last season ended, and had to watch as the Ravens, a team that needed an 11th hour miracle to beat them in the playoffs, went on to win the Super Bowl.
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