As we move into the AFC West we continue our look at Help Wanted pages of the NFL with the Denver Broncos. Denver was a playoff team last year, and yet strangely in a league where success is determined by the strength of one’s quarterback, they may not have a viable one for the long-term. Tim Tebow was able to get just enough done on the back of the Denver option offense to get them to the playoffs (with a very strong assist from the defense). They ultimately flamed out against a disciplined defense in the form of the Patriots.
So what else could the Broncos do with as we run headlong towards free agency and then the draft? Below are three suggestions.
Primary Need: Quarterback
Rarely does one team actually provide the league with a blueprint to defeat another team, but the New England Patriots this season did exactly that in their two meetings with the Broncos. The Tebow-led option attack can succeed against poorly disciplined (Oakland), or extremely aggressive teams like Chicago or the Steelers in the playoffs. They were shut down by a focused defense prepared to stay in their lanes and play assignment football. Essentially, the Tebow offense can’t succeed long-term unless Tebow himself improves his passing ability dramatically. Since I’m not convinced that can happen, the Broncos sorely need to add competition to cover themselves.
The Broncos aren’t going to bring in anybody to be handed the starting role, but they might allow somebody to beat out Tebow in an open competition. David Garrard (+10.3 in 2010), having missed a season due to a back injury after being released by the Jaguars, has exactly that kind of ability. He also has the skills to succeed in the same offense, and make things happen with his legs in the face of pressure. As I explained in my article during PFF’s offensive line week, survival skills are a must behind a unit like what the Broncos fielded in 2011. Other alternatives along a similar line would be Vince Young (-8.2), Josh Johnson (-0.5) and Jason Campbell (+3.7), all of whom have the passing skills Tebow doesn’t, and the athleticism to make things happen on the run. Johnson provides perhaps the most intriguing of those players, in that he is the least proven, yet maybe the most athletic, but he has a very slight frame and may not hold up in an option offense.
Secondary Need: Center
There’s no way around this, J.D. Walton is the worst center in football. Bad as a rookie (-16.3), Walton was literally twice as bad in his sophomore season (-32.9), casting him adrift at the bottom of our center rankings by a distance. Walton surrendered four sacks on the year and his 23 total pressures allowed tied him for the second-worst mark in the league for centers–a particularly bad note for a player in the middle of the line that often gets help. One of the reasons the Broncos found everything an uphill battle on offense was the play of the interior, which was at its worst in the very middle in the shape of Walton. They need a major upgrade regardless of who is at center.
Samson Satele (+3.0) presents an interesting option for the run-first Broncos as he is first and foremost a run-blocking center. He would likely thrive being asked to do that as often as Denver will going forward. He also has the added benefit of only being 27 years old by the time the season rolls around and signing him would weaken a divisional rival, which is always icing on the cake. If the Broncos want to aim higher, they could always take a run at free agent Packers center, Scott Wells (+16.0). Although three years older than Satele, Wells does embody a distinct level of quality above the Raider.
Tertiary Need: Defensive Tackle
There’s a good argument to be made that the Broncos need a middle linebacker as well, with Joe Mays (+3.3) set to hit the open market. They are also looking at losing Brodrick Bunkley (+26.8), which opens up a yawning chasm in the middle of their defense. Bunkley was a monster against the run all season, and in truth the Broncos would be best served getting him back. Simply put the Broncos did not have a single other interior lineman that finished with a positive grade for 2011. Starting defensive ends Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil were the only other defensive linemen that did not collect a negative grade. Were it not for Bunkley last season, the Broncos defense would not have been half as impressive as it was. The games where they fell apart tended to be ones where teams were able to keep him on the sideline and force Denver into playing nickel defense all game long.
This is a good year to be in need of defensive help on the interior, and if they don’t bring back Bunkley, they could directly replace that performance against the run by somebody like Sione Pouha (+30.0). Pouha may be 33 years old, but he does not have much mileage on the tires, entering the league late and barely playing a full-time number of snaps as a run-defensive specialist for the Jets. If the Broncos are looking for an every down force in the middle, they could do worse than take a look at Jason Jones (-9.3) from the Titans. Jones was badly miscast as a 4-3 defensive end in 2011 and is respectably slotted in our interior defensive lineman rankings. He was a force in the middle at defensive tackle in 2010, rushing the passer well and playing the run. He would stop Denver needing to send their best linemen to the bench when they go to nickel defense.