It wasn’t just a bad day at the office. For the Broncos, Super Bowl XLVIII was a painful reality check, one that convinced them that all the offense in the world doesn’t necessarily translate to being the best team on the planet. Seattle was better that day, and San Francisco, the other big bully from the NFC, probably would have been, too. So, general manager John Elway and his lieutenants spent the offseason overhauling their defense, signing three big-ticket free agents — Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware — before using their No. 1 draft pick on Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby.
For all the changes the Broncos have made, their bottom line remains the same: Vince Lombardi Trophy or bust. There may be a tomorrow with Peyton Manning under center; even if the Broncos win Super Bowl XLIX, Manning could return for an encore season. But Elway, who knows a little about playing quarterback on the back side of 30, isn’t counting on it. He wants to win, and right now.
It’s official. Manning called the right career audible when he decided to join the Broncos after being jettisoned by the Colts. Two years after sitting out the entire 2011 season, Manning threw a record 55 touchdown passes and won his fifth MVP award as the Broncos became the first-ever NFL team to eclipse the 600-point mark.
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Manning will have several new weapons this year, including Montee Ball, who’ll replace Knowshon Moreno as the starting tailback, and wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer. Moreno had more than his share of moments in a Denver uniform, including a 224-yard game vs. the Patriots, but Ball gives them a more durable back and a better bet to score near the goal line, where the short field can create issues in the passing game. Not that Ball is only a threat between the tackles. He’s flying under the radar after being a backup as a rookie, but he has big-play potential that could land him in multiple Pro Bowls. Ball underwent an emergency appendectomy in early August, but was back at practice two weeks later and is expected to be ready for Week 1.
Sanders, a free-agent signee from Pittsburgh, replaces Eric Decker, who signed with the Jets. The big news in the passing game, though, came on Day 2 of the draft, when the Broncos traded up in the second round to grab Latimer. With Sanders already on board with emerging superstar Demaryius Thomas, the addition of Latimer sends a clear message that Wes Welker’s days in Denver are numbered. Welker was his usual productive self in 2013, but concussions are becoming more of an issue, such as the one he sustained in the third preseason game. At this point, Welker is probably too high a risk to be counted on week in and week out.
With or without Welker, the Broncos possess a devastating crew of receivers who can move the chains and stretch the field. The rest of the crew includes tight end Julius Thomas, a college basketball player who has become arguably Elway’s best-ever draft pick.
Almost lost in the shuffle of the Broncos’ season: They did it with left tackle Ryan Clady sidelined for most of the year. Clady’s return this season has created a domino effect on the offensive line. Chris Clark, who replaced Clady, will move to right tackle, while incumbent Orlando Franklin will move to left guard in place of Zane Beadles, who left via free agency. Franklin isn’t happy about the move, what with tackles much more appreciated on payday than guards, but it makes all the sense in the world. Clark is the better pass-blocker, and Franklin’s forte is run-blocking — all the more reason to project big numbers for Ball in his second season.
The Broncos hoped to energize their pass rush, but they were shocked to find Ware available. With Ware on the edge, the Broncos may be able to match the kind of pressure the Seahawks and 49ers put on opposing quarterbacks. Ware had 19.5 sacks as recently as 2011, and at 32, he seemingly has a lot left in his tank.
But Ware’s production figures to be linked to the other main pass-rusher, Von Miller. Three years into his career, Miller already is at the crossroads. Will he return to being one of the most feared pass-rushers in the league, or will injuries and off-field issues overshadow his enormous talents? One more drug-related issue, and Miller will be suspended long-term. Not only that, but he’ll also be trying to bounce back from a knee reconstruction. So, in the end, the Broncos won’t know how formidable their pass rush will be until they see how healthy Miller is. Ware and a healthy Miller coming off the corner would be a devastating tandem.
Linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips departed via free agency, but Denver was in good shape with Danny Trevathan, the team’s leading tackler last season, ready to take over. That was until Trevathan fractured his knee during training camp, sidelining him until the middle of October, at minimum. Nate Irving is expected to start in the middle with Brandon Marshall (not the former Bronco wide receiver who's now in Chicago) and fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow among the candidates to fill in for Trevathan.
The defensive line has some depth issues, what with 2012 second-rounder Derek Wolfe experiencing career-threatening health issues last season, but tackles Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams, last year’s first-rounder, could be a terrific tandem in the middle. Williams started slowly, but after an offseason in the weight room, he could take a giant career leap.
The Broncos had hoped to re-sign cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but when he asked for serious money, they shifted gears and came away from free agency with Talib. The Broncos were also looking for a physical presence at safety and they got it with Ward, a Pro Bowler with the Browns in 2013. With Talib pounding on receivers in bump coverage, and with Ward providing a linebacker-like presence in the middle of the field, the Broncos figure to be much more physical than they were last season.
With Trindon Holliday gone via free agency, the coaches will use training camp to figure out how to divvy up the kickoff and punt return duties. Veteran Andre Caldwell figures to return kickoffs, and Sanders, Welker and Roby will get a look as punt returners, though Welker’s concussion issues make him a long shot.
The kicking game is in great shape with Matt Prater and Britton Colquitt. Altitude or no altitude, Prater is as good as they come, having made 14-of-15 attempts from 40 yards and beyond last season, including 6-of-7 from 50-plus. Translation: All Manning has to do is rack up two or three first downs on a typical drive and the Broncos are all but a lock to score. Colquitt? His steady production usually tilts the field-position battle the Broncos’ way. Not that he’s as busy as he once was: Colquitt punted 65 times in 2013 compared to 101 in 2011, the year before Manning’s arrival.
Prater will have to sit out the first four games of the season for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse program. Rookie Mitch Ewald was in training camp, but the Broncos also traded a conditional seventh-round draft choice next year to the Giants for fellow rookie Brandon McManus. The waiver wire is another option if the team decides to sign a veteran kicker to fill in during Prater's absence.
The Broncos are in a unique position among NFL teams. They aren’t trying to keep pace with the rest of the league. As long as Manning is under center, their competition will come from only a handful of teams, most notably the Seahawks, 49ers and Patriots. While Denver’s offense is in a class by itself, the Broncos haven’t been as physical as the elite teams in the NFC. They could be this season, but, in the end, they’re relying on Miller to regain his status as one of the league’s best players. If he does, they could be throwing a parade in downtown Denver. If not, they may still have enough to get back to the Super Bowl. The question remains: Can they win it?