A RUNNING ARGUMENT
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
Denver's championship aspirations, as has been the case in each of the past three seasons, boil down to one sentence: As goes Peyton Manning, so go the Broncos. Five months after the future Hall of Famer confirmed he'd return for an 18th season, Denver is hoping not only that its quarterback is healthy but also that he'll thrive in new coach Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking-based scheme. The goal will be to save Manning's arm and take some pressure off the 39-year-old, who labored through a torn right quadriceps late in 2014. In previous seasons Manning has been leery of embracing any kind of reduced role or allowing backup Brock Osweiler to take more than a handful of in-game snaps, but in '15 that will change, for better or for worse.
Offensively, while the Broncos were able to retain Pro Bowl receiver Demaryius Thomas, signing him to a long-term deal in July, they'll also be looking for new and young players to step up in a variety of roles. Kubiak & Co. will turn to second-year receiver Cody Latimer and veteran tight end Owen Daniels, among others, to fill the void created by the departures of Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. For Latimer, that will be less difficult—Welker was a nonfactor for much of last season, and the Broncos have faith in the young receiver out of Indiana, despite his two-catch season in 2014. The acquisition of Daniels, however, won't fully compensate for the free-agency loss of Julius Thomas, who at 6'5" was able to create mismatches nearly everywhere he lined up.
The Broncos' O-line is where most of the off-season attrition occurred: The team traded center Manny Ramirez to Detroit to move up in the draft and select Missouri defensive end Shane Ray, and it lost left guard Orlando Franklin in free agency. The most damaging exit from the line, however, was that of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, who suffered a torn left ACL during organized team activities in May and is out for the season. On Aug. 25, Denver made a move to shore up the shaky unit, signing two-time Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis, who had been released from the Eagles in a cost-cutting move. Still, come September, the team will count on young players, including second-round pick Ty Sambrailo (Colorado State), who is projected to start at left tackle, and Matt Paradis, a sixth-rounder from '14 who's played only 33 NFL snaps, at center.
Toward the end of 2014, when Manning was playing injured, former offensive coordinator Adam Gase implemented a more balanced offense, relying on C.J. Anderson to boost the running game. That expanded role for Anderson and the team's other backs will continue into '15, and the return of a healthy Montee Ball could figure big into the team's plans. "Late in my career, that was my best friend, the running game," says Broncos executive vice president John Elway. "I think that running game will be Peyton's best friend also. Obviously it's going to be a little bit of an adjustment. But [in Manning and Kubiak], you've got two smart, bright offensive football minds that are competitive and want to win. There was never, ever a thought in my mind that this was not going to work."
Defensively, the Broncos remained quiet in the off-season, which is no surprise, after swinging big in free agency a year ago and putting together a group that ranked third in the NFL. The team retains its nucleus of cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. Perhaps the most notable among that group is Miller: Last year, despite returning from an ACL injury just before training camp, Miller had 14 sacks, and he believes he can be even better this year alongside Ware and Shane Ray (Missouri), who could be the steal of the draft after sliding to the 23rd pick because of an April marijuana citation. In addition, the Broncos will get back injured linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, both of whom figured prominently in the past two years when healthy.
New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has switched Denver to a 3--4 system, and players have heralded its simplicity. The Broncos could easily finish with a top five defense again, barring injuries or a massive decline from the 33-year-old Ware. For once Denver's questions lie on offense, but the talent is there for one more division championship before the real questions about the future set in.
SI'S PREDICTION: 13--3
ANDY BENOIT ON THE BRONCOS' DANGEROUS D
For the first time Peyton Manning is quarterbacking a team that will count heavily on its defense. Fortunately, that D has the playmakers for the challenge, although there are questions up the middle. Third-year player Sylvester Williams has a lot to prove at nosetackle; inside linebacking depth is a concern behind Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan; and free safety is in flux. But assuming those weaknesses can be minimized, the Broncos, when they can put opponents into obvious passing situations, will be dangerous. New coordinator Wade Phillips has three high-quality man-to-man corners in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby. Harris and Roby both can play inside or outside, creating matchup flexibility. Tight man coverage means more freedom for the safeties, including thumper T.J. Ward (above). It also opens up more possibilities for pressure packages. Headlining these packages are a pair of proven pass rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, plus first-round rookie Shane Ray. The high-ceilinged Ray can be a third rusher in amoeba fronts or a rotational piece behind the 33-year-old Ware. These are the elements for creating sacks and forcing turnovers—which the Broncos must do to support a downgraded offense.