Talk about your seismic shifts. In the span of barely a month, the Broncos went from champagne-soaked, confetti-covered Super Bowl champions to just another NFL team in desperate search of a quarterback.
Peyton Manning took his ball and his slew of NFL records and went home, and his would-be successor, Brock Osweiler, bolted for Houston via free agency. With Mark Sanchez, he of ESPN butt-fumble infamy, keeping the seat warm for No. 1 draft pick Paxton Lynch, the Broncos find themselves a team in transition. But that doesn’t mean they can’t return to the playoffs. Manning’s 55 touchdown passes in 2013? That’s ancient history in Denver. Armed with the league’s most dominant edge rushers and an all-world secondary, the Broncos will go old school in 2016, grinding out time and yardage in the running game and letting their defense steal the ball and control the game. According to no less an authority than Cam Newton, it’s a formula for success, even in today’s pass-giddy NFL.
GM John Elway tried to pry Colin Kaepernick away from the 49ers, but, in the end, he settled for Sanchez and drafted Lynch. The Broncos’ coaches love Lynch’s arm strength and his ability to extend plays outside the pocket, but he doesn’t figure to put either on display much, if at all, this season. That leaves Sanchez, whose job will be to keep his hands on the ball, which will definitely be under the microscope following the surgery he had in May after injuring the thumb on his left (non-throwing) hand reportedly while lifting weights. Amazing as it seems for a team with a defense for the ages, the Broncos of 2015 finished minus-4 in turnovers, thanks to Manning’s league-worst 17 interceptions. They won’t tempt such fate again. Instead, they’ll rely on their running game and intermediate gains through the air.
Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense figures to create big chunks of yardage on the ground. Question is, who’ll be carrying the rock? The Broncos matched Miami’s offer sheet to retain C.J. Anderson, but he has yet to cobble together an injury-free, big-number season. Anderson will be challenged by Devontae Booker, a fourth-round steal from Utah who could emerge as this year’s top fantasy dark horse. Kubiak loves his one-cut-and-go style.
The good news for both is that Elway has patched up an offensive line that was among the worst in the league last season. He dipped into free agency for tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson. If last year’s second-rounder, guard Ty Sambrailo, can bounce back from a season-ending injury, the line figures to be much more stable this time around.
Another huge plus for the offense: Former Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman, a third-rounder in 2015, is healthy. The coaches targeted Heuerman as a big factor in the passing game, only to see him blow out a knee on the first day of mini-camps. Look for him to emerge as a big-play receiver, taking some of the pressure off wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Thomas will look to bounce back from a season defined as much by drops as touchdowns, and Sanders, arguably the best free-agent signee of the Elway era, is in a contract year.
Assuming you didn’t spend Super Sunday at the mall on a pre-Valentine’s Day shopping spree, you already know how dominant the Broncos’ pass rush is. Outside linebacker Von Miller is the single most dangerous edge rusher in the business, and his partner, future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, is back for what could be his NFL swan song. But wait, there’s more. The Broncos have assembled nothing short of an embarrassment of riches on the corner. Backup outside linebackers Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett would start and star for virtually every other NFL team.
There are questions on the defensive line in the aftermath of Malik Jackson’s free-agent exodus, but the coaches, specifically line coach Bill Kollar, believe rookie Adam Gotsis can step in and make an immediate impact. The Broncos still are waiting for nose tackle Sylvester Williams to play up to his status as a former No. 1 pick, but he’s at least serviceable.
The linebacking corps took a hit when Danny Trevathan hit the free-agent trail, but the team’s best inside backer, Brandon Marshall, is back and should be around for a while after signing a four-year, $32 million contract extension in June.
Then there’s the secondary. It doesn’t seem fair, a team with the Broncos’ pass rush having arguably the best corner tandem in the league. Chris Harris and Aqib Talib can cover with the best of them, and they’re ball hawks always in search of tipped balls or errant passes. Talib suffered a gunshot wound to his right leg in early June in an incident at a Dallas nightclub. While the injury isn’t believed serious it remains to be seen what charges Talib could be facing and any subsequent punishment from the league as a result.
Fortunately for the Broncos their cornerback depth goes beyond Harris and Talib. Former first-rounder Bradley Roby would be a fixture on most other teams, but in Denver he’s simply the best nickel back in the game. All three corners bring serious intangibles, too. They have a nasty streak that plays well against the run, not that the Broncos’ safeties, T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart, need much help in that department. Given the constant pressure applied by the edge rush, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is comfortable taking Ward out of coverage and planting him in the box, making it virtually impossible to run against the Broncos.
Yes, the offense will rely on the defense to carry the load, but this group wouldn’t have it any other way.
When a team burns a draft pick on a punter, that’s not a good sign for the incumbent. That would be Britton Colquitt, once the highest-paid punter in the league who was forced to take a pay cut and, if he doesn’t perform in training camp, may be out of a job. The punting game figures to be a bigger factor for the Broncos this season than in recent years. With fewer big plays expected — or even attempted — in the passing game, the Broncos’ M.O. will be to control the ball with the running game, dominate and force turnovers on defense and win the field-position battle with the kicking game. Colquitt’s average kick in the past five seasons has dwindled from 47.4 yards to 43.6. If he doesn’t bounce back from another shaky season, the coaches won’t hesitate to give the gig to seventh-rounder Riley Dixon. Now for the good news: Kicker Brandon McManus is coming off an excellent season in which he converted 20 out of 20 inside the 40 and 5-of-7 from 50-plus.
Andre “Bubba” Caldwell signed with the Lions in free agency, leaving Sanders to handle return duties, at least for now. In a perfect world, a young player would emerge to return punts and relieve Sanders of some physical pounding.
Aging Hall of Fame quarterback rides into the sunset with a Super Bowl ring. It has happened twice in NFL history, both times in Denver. The last time around, Elway was succeeded by Brian Griese and the Broncos finished 6–10. So there’s no guarantee the Broncos of 2016 will remain among the league’s elite teams. Fact is, many factors broke their way last season. Their defense was healthy and dominant throughout the playoffs, enabling them to overcome a shaky offense. They can do it again this season, multiple free-agent defections and all, but Sanchez will have to embrace his inner game manager. Above all, their key defensive players will have to stay healthy and hungry. If so, there’s no reason to believe the Broncos can’t win the mediocre AFC West and take their chances in the playoffs.