The Broncos replaced their coaching staff with the hope of keeping Peyton Manning's championship window open longer, but who will protect the future Hall of Famer in 2015?
The past four seasons saw the Broncos win 46 games, qualify for the playoffs each year and capture an AFC championship, all under the guidance of head coach John Fox.
The franchise's third Super Bowl, however, failed to arrive, and the Broncos actually appeared to be trending the wrong direction at times in 2014, which culminated in a 24–13 loss to the Colts in the wild-card round.
So Fox and the Broncos came to a “mutual agreement” that change was needed. Fox left to take the Bears' open head coaching job; Denver hired Ravens offensive coordinator and one-time Texans head coach Gary Kubiak to replace him. Kubiak brought along some familiar faces to round out his staff: offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, both of whom had been with him in Houston.
Also arriving with Kubiak is a very specific offensive system, predicated on a zone-blocking scheme. It's yet to be seen how Manning adjusts—or how Kubiak tinkers with his sets—but he will have to do so without guard Orlando Franklin, who signed with the Chargers, and tackle Ryan Clady, who was lost for the year with a torn ACL in late May.
The offensive line could include newcomers Shelley Smith (signed in free agency), who's in a battle with Ben Garland at guard, and center Gino Gradkowski (acquired via trade with Baltimore). Rookie Ty Sambrailo also may have to take over a tackle job in Clady's stead.
The Broncos also made a swap at tight end, letting Julius Thomas walk and replacing him with Owen Daniels. While that seems like a downgrade on paper, Daniels averaged 11.0 yards on his 48 catches last season under Kubiak's watch and arrives in Denver well-versed in the offense.
Safety Darian Stewart could be the jewel of Denver's free agency haul on defense. Stewart finally managed to stay healthy for an entire season in 2014, picking up 14 starts for the Ravens, and the early returns from the summer have him starting alongside T.J. Ward. Vance Walker and Antonio Smith were brought in as reinforcements along the defensive line, though Smith is under investigation for child abuse.
The defending AFC West champs made their most drastic changes at the top. If the effects trickle down the way Denver hopes, this is a Super Bowl contender. Still, it's hard to say this team looks better than it did a year ago.
Best acquisition: Shane Ray, OLB
The Broncos are crossing their fingers that this proves to be the case. Strictly on talent and athletic ability, the first-round pick out of Missouri laps most of Denver's other off-season additions. But does he help improve the title chances of a team fighting to keep Peyton Manning's championship window open?
In order for Ray to answer in the affirmative, he first has to make it all the way back from a foot injury suffered last January. Denver held Ray out of its initial OTAs before doctors cleared him for action earlier this month.
“[The training staff] didn’t want to rush me back and cause more injury,” Ray said upon his return to the field, via the Broncos' website. “They wanted to make sure that when I started getting work that my foot was feeling good and it wasn’t going to have any setbacks. We’ve got plenty of time so today what I was able to do was just pretty much they kind of let me go a little bit, let me get some work in because they felt like I was progressing well and throughout the week I’ll be doing more work.”
The Broncos have the luxury of easing Ray into the mix thanks to the presence of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. The veteran tandem combined for 24.0 sacks last season and will handle the bulk of Denver's pass-rushing duties again in 2015, leaving Ray as a No. 3 option to spell Miller/Ware in an ideal world.
On the other hand, Broncos general manager John Elway traded up to stop Ray's marijuana arrest-induced free fall in the first round of the draft. And this very well may be Manning's final season, so the pressure to win now is unavoidable. Those factors point toward Elway expecting Ray to give the Broncos a boost right away, with the option that Ray takes over for Ware next season when the 32-year-old's contract becomes very expendable.
"We thought it was too good to be true that he was still there," Elway said after selecting Ray with the No. 23 pick.
Did Elway steal one? Or was the rest of the league right to approach Ray with caution?
Biggest loss: Orlando Franklin, G
If they haven't already, the Broncos may try to justify letting Franklin walk by pointing to a) the possibility that he would have been miscast in Kubiak's zone-blocking system and b) the $36.5 million and $20 million guaranteed that Franklin landed from the Chargers.
That's fine, except Franklin was Denver's steadiest and nastiest blocker last season—Pro Football Focus graded him out at a 12.0 mark; the next best Denver lineman, Will Montgomery, came in at 4.2. For a coach who puts as much of an emphasis on establishing the run as Kubiak does, Franklin's departure will be felt.
The ripples in the water only grew when Clady tore his left ACL. San Diego has Franklin slotted in at guard, but he played tackle extensively for the Broncos prior to the 2014 season. Denver's now looking at starting journeyman Ryan Harris or Sambrailo on Manning's blind side.
Underrated draft pick: Lorenzo Doss, CB (round 5, pick No. 164)
Doss was a game-changer for Tulane, picking off 15 passes over three seasons. There was some good and bad mixed in there—Doss takes a ton of chances, sometimes at the expense of more necessary duties during the course of a play.
As a round 5 selection, though, he definitely qualifies as a steal. We had him graded as a late-round 3 prospect, about in the range you would expect teams to start eyeballing nickel cornerbacks. Doss projects inside mainly because of his size (5'11", 175 pounds), and his mistakes should be minimized there.
There is the question of whether or not he can secure a spot on the roster. Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, Tony Carter and Kayvon Webster make for a nice set of cornerbacks, and that's without mentioning 2014 draft pick Bradley Roby, who could move to safety but is without question in the plans somewhere.
Looming question for training camp: Is there enough depth at inside linebacker?
As the Kubiak-Manning partnership works out any kinks, the Broncos have issues elsewhere on the roster, namely at the inside linebacker spots on defense. Ray added critical depth off the edge, but the Broncos failed to add anyone of note up the middle.
If Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan man those spots for 16 games, the Broncos will be just fine anyway. Neither is in great shape at the moment—Marshall needed off-season foot surgery and Trevathan's still coming back from the dislocated kneecap that knocked out his 2014 season.
“Well, he flashed with his time playing last year,” said Kubiak of Davis, per The Denver Post. “Our guys inside right now have played really well, and it's because they kind of got forced into a tough situation with two injuries, with Danny and Marshall. ... That may be as competitive a spot as we'll have probably going into camp.”