What a season. What a game. What an offseason. In 2012, the Denver Broncos went from being considered by many (including us) to be the No. 1 regular season team, to a shocking divisional playoff defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. However, the lack of playoff success should not diminish what the Broncos achieved during the regular season. After all, this was a team that improved from 8-8 in 2011 to 13-3, and graded out as the top defense and third-best offense in our cumulative 2012 performance ratings. That being said, the Broncos have endured another wild offseason that could significantly impact their 2013 season. Will this season’s outcome be different? Let’s explore.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Peyton Manning
This time last year there were legitimate concerns as to whether Peyton Manning would be healthy enough to play at his amazing pre-injury levels. As if the injury wasn’t enough of a hurdle, he had to knock a year of rust off with a brand new organization. All Manning did in 2012 was finish as PFF’s top rated quarterback and seventh-rated player overall. In fact, in the five years we’ve been collecting data, only Aaron Rodgers has had a higher single-season PFF QB rating than Manning’s 99.18. Yes, he will be 37 this season, but, other former MVP quarterbacks such as Kurt Warner, Rich Gannon, and some guy named Elway, proved that greatness could be achieved even at that ripe old age. As long as Manning plays at the level he was at last season, the Broncos will be Super Bowl contenders.
2. Miller Time, Again
As phenomenal as Manning played last season, Von Miller’s performance was arguably better. In 2012, Miller led all 4-3 outside linebackers with a cumulative PFF rating of +84.4. To put that in perspective, the second rated 4-3 OLB was Jerod Mayo at +17.1. No position in the league had a greater disparity between the top ranked player and the second best. Miller is best known for his pass-rushing prowess — he led all defenders with 57 QB hurries — but he also had our highest combined Tackling Efficiency of all 4-3 outside linebackers. All of this from a player with only two NFL seasons under his belt. While a possible 4-game suspension could be cause for concern, there is no denying the impact that our fourth-rated player of 2012 has on the field.
3. The Passing Game
Manning clearly makes those around him better, as evidenced by the three Broncos wide receivers in the Top 13 of our receiver ratings (in 2011 there were zero). But, the future Hall of Famer isn’t the only reason Denver’s offense finished second in the league in cumulative passing grades. Demaryius Thomas graded at +25.6 last year, good for sixth in the league, and Eric Decker finished second in the league with 13 TD receptions. Not to be outdone, Jacob Tamme led all NFL tight ends with a 1.79 PFF Drop Rate, dropping only 1 ball in 56 catchable targets. When you add Wes Welker to this group, our 24th-ranked player in 2011, you have arguably the best collection of wide receivers and tight ends in the league. While the wide receiver trio still drops too many passes — none ranked higher than 24th in wide receiver Drop Rate last season — their overall production and potential is too great for it to be considered a concern.
The passing game is also aided by a talented offensive line. Led by Ryan Clady (+24.9 in pass protection), the Broncos finished with the best Pass Blocking Efficiency in the NFL, at 87.4. Though Manning’s quick release helps his lineman immensely, their ability to protect goes hand-in-hand with Peyton — when Manning had 2.6 seconds or more to throw the ball, he posted a 111.6 NFL QB rating, and no quarterback was within 10 points of his league-leading mark. The addition of free agent Louis Vasquez, who finished with the 10th-best pass-blocking grade for guards (+8.6), will be an upgrade over the older, less durable Chris Kuper.
Denver appeared to be set at cornerback with Champ Bailey, the vastly underrated (at least outside of PFF) Chris Harris Jr., and the talented Tony Carter. Aside from a poor playoff performance against the eventual champs, Bailey proved he was still a champ by leading all cornerbacks in regular season yards per coverage snap, with 0.82. On the other hand, Harris’s solid coverage in the playoff loss (where he graded +1.7) was simply a continuation of a fantastic season where he rated as our fifth-best cornerback, with a +18.7 overall grade. Carter proved his worth with a +6.5 grade in only 511 regular season snaps. It will be interesting to see how the depth chart plays out now that Denver has added free agent Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the mix. Though Rodgers-Cromartie has been an average overall player the past three seasons, he did produce the 15th-highest cornerback grade in our five years of grading (+19.1 in 2009), and is only 27 years old.
5. “Special” Teams
If it weren’t for a particular 70-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass by Joe Flacco (among other things), Trindon Holliday surely would have received more fanfare for his record-breaking playoff performance as a kick returner. Holliday’s league-tying four combined kick and punt returns for touchdowns (in 49 less returns than co-leader Jacoby Jones), contributed to a unit that finished second in our cumulative special teams grading. While Denver kickers surely benefit from the mile-high altitude, punter Britton Colquitt and kicker Matt Prater graded in the “red” (-1.0 or less) in only a combined two games all last season.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Von Solo?
Aside from Miller (and possibly Harris), the Broncos do not have a game-changing impact player on the defensive side of the ball. Bailey is still very close to this category, but, even with a very good 2012, it’s a lot to ask a 35-year-old corner to play at an elite level — especially if that playoff game was any indication. The Broncos’ pass rush would really suffer if Miller missed any time due to injury or suspension. While Elvis Dumervil was our most overvalued edge rusher in 2012, he still performed better than Shaun Phillips, his primary (and older) edge rush replacement (-10.3 pass rush grade for Phillips versus +3.1 for Dumervil). The front office has tried to surround Miller with young pass rush talent by using their top selections in the past two NFL drafts on defensive lineman. However,as effective as he was versus the run, 2012 second-rounder Derek Wolfe finished 92nd among all 4-3 defensive ends in our Pass Rushing Productivity rankings. Can we expect much better overall play from highly touted 2013 first-round defensive tackle Sylvester Williamse in his rookie season?
2. Middle Linebacker
While the traditional role of the 4-3 middle linebacker appears to be falling out of favor due to increasing use of the nickel package, this position is still another cause of concern for the Broncos. The aging, ineffective Keith Brooking (-6.4 grade in 2012) and the one-dimensional Joe Mays appear to be replaced in the starting lineup by Nate Irving, at least on early downs and in obvious running situations. It will be interesting to see if Denver can get away with starting an unproven, ineffective third-year player at a position where the other Super Bowl contenders start inside linebackers such as Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Bobby Wagner, Brian Cushing, and Brandon Spikes.
3. Not so “special”
When you remove kickoffs from Matt Prater’s performance, you get a player who was well below average in 2012. Prater connected on only 55.6% of his field goal attempts between 40-49 yards, and finished 31st in the league with a +0.2 grade on all field goals and extra points. This uninspiring performance culminated in a poorly missed 50+ yarder (where Prater was 3 for 4 in the regular season) in the AFC Divisional Playoff loss that lead to a momentum-changing Ravens touchdown just before halftime. If Prater can’t regain his pre-contract extension form (+7.5 in 2011 on FG/EPs, tied for eighth in the league), then the Broncos may continue to have postseason disappointment.
4. Safeties Other Than, Yes, Rahim Moore
Followers of Pro Football Focus know what we think about Rahim Moore’s performance, but it bears repeating. As one of our Secret Superstars, Moore improved on his subpar rookie season (-6.9, tied for 68th in the league) to develop into one of the best young safeties in the league (+9.0 in the regular season, tied for tenth-best in the league). That said, Moore saved his worse performance of the year for the playoff game against Baltimore, grading at -1.9. Yet, the most concerning part is he was still the best returning safety on the field that day for the Broncos. The other starting safety, Mike Adams, is a strong tackler, but graded only +1.7 overall for the entire season (32nd in the league). Quentin Jammer was signed to replace Jim Leonhard and provide the defense with the matchup safety that could cover tight ends in the slot. However, not only did Jammer grade lower than Leonhard during the regular season, he finished 107th in the league among all cornerbacks, with a -10.0 grade. While Jammer probably won’t be covering wide receivers nearly as much, it’s not an encouraging sign for an aging player moving to a new position. Special teams standout David Bruton is also in the mix, but he’s had only four starts on defense during his four years in the league.
5. The Running Game
Though the Broncos have Manning, Head Coach John Fox proved last season that he will place an emphasis on the run even with a great passing attack. Unfortunately, the injury-prone Knowhson Moreno and talented but ineffective Ronnie Hillman have not provided evidence they can be impact players this season. After being inactive for several weeks, Moreno impressed during a four-game stretch near the end of the season when he graded over +1.0 in each game. However, Moreno (and teammate Lance Ball) finished tied for 80th in the league among all running backs in yards after contact per attempt. Hillman had only 258 snaps during his rookie season. However, that was partly because he played at an almost unhealthy weight for an NFL running back and, when he did get to play, graded at just -1.1 for the season, including playoffs. The Broncos’ offensive line didn’t help matters either, grading at -2.2 on the season in run blocking (20th in the league). Even the two new probable starting linemen, Vasquez and Manny Ramirez (not to mention Clady), graded much higher at pass blocking than run blocking.
All of that said, second-round draft pick Montee Ball appears to be a great fit for this Broncos offense. However, until we see him produce on NFL film, the running game will remain a concern.
What to Expect
After taking over a team that went 4-12 in 2010, Year 3 of the John Elway/John Fox era should see the Denver Broncos continue their upward trend. The offseason addition of Welker (and possibly Ball) could make the Broncos’ offense virtually unstoppable. However, the inability to surround Miller with more elite players, not to mention the current and pending suspensions, could offset that progress. Moreover, their primary rivals for a Super Bowl title — the Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers, and Seattle Seahawks — have all improved their rosters arguably as much as, if not more than, the Broncos have. Ultimately, the Broncos’ championship aspirations will ride on the shoulders of Manning who, in Year 2 of his new era, should be at least as great as he’s always been.
Follow Julian on Twitter.