It was a weird year in Denver. Things started slowly with Kyle Orton unable to spark the offense, before the unorthodox style of Tim Tebow and a strong defense pushed the Broncos to the playoffs where they produced one of the bigger upsets of recent years and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That success wasn’t enough to convince Denver they were heading in the right direction. Tebow was shipped out and in came the man many think to be the greatest quarterback to ever play the game; Peyton Manning. It’s a huge statement of intent as the Broncos look to make themselves the dominant force in the AFC West.
Can they accomplish this? Or will some significant personnel changes be their undoing? Let’s examine.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Manning Up
For all hype of Tebowmania, there were some inescapable facts regarding his passing. He completed the lowest percentage of passes in the league, held onto the ball longer than any other quarterback and didn’t inspire confidence in his receivers. Swap that performance out and replace it with a player who in 2010 completed 66.2% of passes (third highest in the league), was sacked just 16 times–with his ability to get rid of the ball pivotal in that–and always managed to get the best out of his receivers. You could quote 1,000 other numbers, but the simple fact is Peyton Manning is a more talented quarterback than Tim Tebow and does a better job of getting the most out of the players around him.
2) Miller Time
The last time a linebacker came out of college as highly touted as Von Miller he ended up being Aaron Curry. Needless to say Miller’s first year was a little better. Playing as the strongside linebacker in base packages and then moving to rush from the left side in nickel, Miller took the league by storm before a late season injury slowed him down. He finished second among all NFL players in QB knockdowns (behind only Jared Allen) and generated pressure on 15.17% of his pass rushes (12th highest in the league). He didn’t always look completely comfortable in coverage, but his ability to get off blocks was stunning. A star was born and it’s scary to think he could get better.
3) Still a Champ
While Darrelle Revis has supplanted him as the league’s top corner, few would argue that Champ Bailey hasn’t remained one of the best in the NFL. One of the few corners who can go toe-to-toe with any receiver, Bailey won’t always have the best coverage grade, but then he’s playing by a different set of rules to a lot of cornerbacks by working in man coverage against the league’s best wideouts. The interception numbers may not be great, but Bailey shows that the game is about more that with his play.
4) The Renaissance of Willis McGahee
With Ray Rice carrying the load for Baltimore and Willis McGahee turning 30, his best days were meant to be behind him right? Wrong. When Knowshon Moreno struggled to stay on the field or perform to the level expected of him, McGahee was thrust into a starring role and responded with 1,203 yards (eighth in the league). To some he was the benefactor of the Broncos niche offense, but his +10.8 rushing grade (also the eighth-highest mark) in our system shows that he wasn’t just running in empty space. He forced 31 missed tackles and picked up 2.8 yards after contact per carry, so he more than did his bit. The offense may change, but the Broncos will be hoping McGahee can carry on his productive ways.
5) Making the Most of Their Receivers
The buzz this offseason is that with Peyton Manning taking over we might get a chance to see what the Denver receivers are able to do. Since being drafted in the first round, Demaryius Thomas has had to cope with injuries and an unconventional quarterback system that saw him targeted only 65 times in the regular season (62 receivers were targeted more, including such names as Devin Aromashodu and Lavelle Hawkins). He has flashed talent, made plays as a rookie and as a sophomore, and, as games against Minnesota in Week 13 and the Divisional Playoff win against Pittsburgh show, can be a true difference maker. The draft class of 2010 has produced some talented receivers, and Thomas could be ready to match their production.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Protecting Their Investment
There are always mitigating circumstances when Tebow is involved, but that doesn’t excuse the way the Broncos offensive line played last season. In fact, to a large degree the unique skill set of their former QB created enough confusion in their opponents that it made you ignore their problems run blocking. Our grading paid attention to it, though, and the unit ranked as the league’s worst run blocking group, and graded out 22nd in pass protection (overall 30th). The Broncos have just spent a lot of money on Manning and, while he’s excellent at hiding the flaws in his offensive line, his durability has never been questioned as much as this season as he comes off multiple neck surgeries. If his offensive line lets him take a pounding while not opening up the lanes that allow them to lean on the run, who knows what could happen.
The unquestioned star of the Broncos defensive line (if you ask me anyway) in 2011 was Brodrick Bunkley. The wrecking ball of a defensive tackle has moved onto the Saints had our highest run defense grade of the year for any defensive tackle (+28.4) and he did it while being limited to base packages. With Bunkley now gone the lineup is going to consist of Ty Warren, Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe, none of whom can do what Bunkley was able to do.
Take Warren, he’s a talented player but hasn’t played a snap since the 2009 season. Justin Bannan is a solid rotational player coming off a good year, but nowhere near as destructive as Bunkley. And, even if rookie Wolfe takes the league by storm he’s a different type of tackle, so it’s hard to see how Denver will replace that production. Considering it’s an area they need to improve, letting Bunkley go could prove costly.
3) Unable to Play it Safe?
He wasn’t the force he once was, but Brian Dawkins was still a handy safety with the kind of leadership skills and intangibles you can’t begin to quantify. He’s now retired and the Broncos are left choosing between Mike Adams, Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter. In 2011 Adams had a useful year that shows he can be a starter in the league, but it’s going to need a big improvement from sophomore’s Moore and Carter for them to not be liabilities in the defensive backfield. Here’s hoping a full offseason allows Moore to work on his tackling (he missed 11 and only made 29) and Carter can improve on the -13.5 grade he earned.
4) What Does Manning Have Left?
It’s a big question, because reports out of training camp suggest Manning isn’t 100% and will have to adjust his game to cope. There won’t be the same zip on the ball or the same ability to stretch a defense, and he’s going to be playing in a new system, outdoors and with different receivers. Sure, he’ll be an upgrade on what they had, but for the Broncos to be successful and dominate the AFC West they need something like the old Manning. They paid him to be that guy and if he’s not then can the Broncos return to the playoffs?
5) Out of Excuses?
Ryan Clady gave up so much pressure because of him. Demaryius Thomas only caught so many balls because of him. The offense was far from consistent because of him. As polarizing as Tim Tebow is, he was a convenient scapegoat for Broncos players and fans alike when things weren’t going well. He held onto the ball too long and he didn’t throw accurately enough and as a result everyone’s performance suffered. Now, there’s no doubt that Tebow contributed to this, but the way he plays isn’t a one stop excuse for the failings of others. In 2012 a number of guys will run out of excuses and need to perform. Can they?
What to expect
That Denver got to the playoffs last year was something of a surprise. It was meant to be a year where young players developed and got better, and instead it became one that raised expectations and put them in a position to acquire Peyton Manning. That acquisition will define how this season turns out for Denver. You can’t expect the same Peyton Manning, but if he’s close to resembling that player and can adapt his game to cope with his poorer physical state, then it’s worth remembering he won a lot of games with a roster far weaker in Indianapolis. If Manning is the Manning we know then they’ll be challenging in the playoffs, and if not, they’ll be remembering the glory Tebow days.