Offseason Report Card: Denver Broncos
With the flurry of NFL offseason action nearly in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take stock of every team’s offseason. Find all our Offseason Report Cards here.
The Denver Broncos were not quite good enough last season. Such was the mantra the front office took into free agency and the draft, after a humiliating 43-8 Super Bowl loss to Seattle.
A record-setting offense that hung 606 points on the scoreboard during the regular season was rendered impotent when it mattered most. The defense, without Peyton Manning's aerial attack relieving any of the pressure, also failed to answer the bell.
So this offseason was one with an unusual amount of turnover for a team that came so close to the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Denver made adjustments to its starting lineup at running back, receiver, linebacker, cornerback, safety and along both lines, all in the name of winning one more playoff game in 2014 than it did in 2013.
The strategy was a dicey one. Sure, trotting DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and rookie CB Bradley Roby out onto the field shows well in theory. Yet, anytime there are significant changes made to a team's depth chart -- especially a successful team's depth chart -- the risk of upsetting the apple cart looms overhead. Save for perhaps the guard position, where it remains to be seen if Orlando Franklin can handle a move inside as Zane Beadles' replacement, the Broncos at least broke even at the revamped positions.
The Manning championship window is small, limited to another couple of seasons, perhaps fewer. The Broncos opened up their checkbook as a result, spending big in the short-term and possibly sacrificing a little long-term success.
When the dust began to settle, they again stood as the team to beat in the AFC. Will all the pieces fit?
Best acquisition: DeMarcus Ware, DE.
The Broncos cobbled together a surprisingly effective pass rush last season, despite the too-infrequent availability of Von Miller. They also saw firsthand in their Super Bowl beatdown by Seattle what a truly dominant front can do to a seemingly unstoppable offense.
Ware is their counter-punch. The seven-time Pro Bowl defender signed a three-year, $30 million deal to help replace Denver's 2013 team leader in sacks, Shaun Phillips, who left for Tennessee. With Ware and Miller paired on the edge -- the former at DE, the latter at his familiar OLB spot -- Denver is hoping it can disrupt opposing attacks before they even get started.
"We feel if we get him back to where he was, he can still be the destructive force that he's been for nine years," Broncos executive V.P. John Elway told Denver's 9news.com.
Therein lies the rub. Ware, 31, is coming off a six-sack season, the least productive performance of his career. He also missed three games in 2013, marking his first time out of action in nine NFL years. Offseason elbow surgery followed that troublesome showing.
The Broncos believe Ware has plenty left to give (or they severely overpaid for his services). Elway probably did not mind aggressively pursuing Ware, even with some inherent risk, after his previous summer's plans up front were thrown into disarray by Von Miller's suspension and the loss of Elvis Dumervil via The Fax Heard Round The World. Thanks to Phillips' unexpected 10-sack production, Denver managed to sidestep those landmines.
Elway wants his team to take that final step this year, though. When he's right, Ware represents a more dangerous threat than Phillips.
Biggest loss: Eric Decker, WR.
Decker benefited from having Peyton Manning as his quarterback. Who wouldn't?
Arguing that the Broncos will not feel Decker's absence in 2014, however, is disingenuous to what the 6-foot-3 receiver accomplished in his time with the club. Over his two seasons with Manning, Decker averaged 86 catches, 12 touchdowns and 1,176 yards. Even when Tim Tebow was running the offensive show in 2011, Decker produced, leading the Broncos with 44 catches.
Denver wasted little time attempting to fill Decker's shoes, signing Emmanuel Sanders away from Pittsburgh and drafting intriguing Indiana wideout Cody Latimer. Together, they may match or even surpass Decker's output. But before that, they must go through the entire process of familiarizing themselves with the Broncos' offense and earning Manning's trust -- neither an easy chore.
The Decker-in-Denver era ended with a thud: Seattle held him to one catch for six yards in the Super Bowl.
"The Super Bowl does not influence our decision one way or another on any different player," Elway said at the 2014 combine when asked about Decker's future. "Eric had a slow start, but really came on and obviously was very productive last year."
Manning can elevate the talent around him and has a bevy of talented receivers left in Decker's stead. He still needs one of them to step up and assume the No. 2 WR role Decker filled so well.
[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/153704166" params="color=0066cc&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]
Underrated draft pick: Lamin Barrow, LB.
The Broncos used a sixth-round draft pick in 2012 on Danny Trevathan, an undersized linebacker with a college résumé that exceeded his measureables. By the time the 2013 season concluded, Trevathan had developed into one of the leaders of Denver's defense, a locked-in starter whose presence helped allow the Broncos to let Wesley Woodyard walk as a free agent.
They went back to the well this past draft with Barrow, who stands 6-1 and around 230 pounds, looking less bulked up than the typical NFL linebacker. Barrow may not be able to ascend the depth chart as rapidly as Trevathan did, but he has a chance to work his way up the ladder eventually.
Woodyard's departure is among the main reasons. While Denver no doubt will employ a two-LB nickel defense frequently, its currently without a solidified answer for the middle linebacker spot. Nate Irving and Jamar Chaney will get the first crack as training camp and the preseason begin; Barrow, with his knack for chasing down the football, could shoehorn his way into the plans soon enough.
Looming question for training camp: Who will emerge behind Montee Ball?
As with the WR situation surrounding Decker, the Broncos on paper appear to have what they need to offset Knowshon Moreno's loss in the backfield. Montee Ball, a 2013 second-round selection, will take over the starting job after rushing for 559 yards and catching 20 passes as Moreno's backup last season. Behind him are several contenders for playing time: Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson and Kapri Bibbs, plus a few camp hopefuls.
All of those options are nice to have. Is there a standout among them?
Moreno racked up 301 touches out of the backfield last season, hammering home his worth as a three-down back capable of handling carries, catching passes and -- perhaps most importantly -- protecting Manning. Ball will be asked to do all that, maybe more, in 2014. But NFL teams require at least two, usually three, capable backs to traverse a grueling 16-game schedule (plus, if all goes well for Denver, three playoff contests).
Hillman was in the hole last season, the third man up. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry on 55 rushing attempts, yet continued having issues holding onto the football. The so-so season opened the door for Anderson to leapfrog Hillman before 2014 kicks off, and he may just do that. That is, unless a sleeper candidate like Bibbs or Brennan Clay beats him to the punch. So long as Ball remains healthy, the Broncos' season likely will not hinge on its No. 2 running back. Having said that, an injury or ineffectiveness from the new go-to back would leave the AFC favorites desperate for production alongside Manning. Over the next three months, they will attempt to figure out which other back might get the call in such a circumstance.