2014 Preview: Denver Broncos
The time-old phrase “it’s about the journey, not the destination” does not apply to the 2013 Broncos. Despite showcasing one of the best offenses of all-time en route to an AFC title, Denver’s whole season was spoiled by a crushing loss to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
Determined not to come up short again, and to make the most of their window with one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, the Broncos aggressively added even more talent this offseason to make another run at a championship. Will it be enough to get them over the hump? Let’s investigate where Denver stands on the cusp of the 2014 season.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Peyton Manning
There’s no greater advantage than having one of the best quarterbacks to ever step foot on a field. In his six seasons that we’ve graded him, Manning has finished at the top of our QB charts four times. Last season was an especially good one even by his lofty standards, as he shattered passing records en route to his fifth MVP award. He did so with a combination of timely screens, deadly deep balls, lightning-fast releases and flawless decision-making.
Even at an age where his arm strength is diminishing, he still led the league in yards on Deep Passes thanks to pinpoint accuracy. The standard Manning has set means that he’ll always shoulder more blame than he should for his team’s failings, but the fact is that he makes every teammate around him better. If he plays even remotely close to the level he did last season, the Broncos have to be favorites to reach the Super Bowl again.
2. Offensive Line
No unit was exposed more in the Super Bowl loss than the Broncos’ offensive line, which had by far its worst performance of the season. While Manning faced pressure on 21.7% of his 2013 drop-backs heading into that game, the Seahawks got to him 39.2% of the time. As Seattle’s aggressive coverage disrupted the timing of the Broncos’ receivers and forced Manning to hold the ball longer, the Denver line crumbled. None of the Broncos starting linemen earned a positive pass block grade for the game.
Nevertheless, one night should not overshadow a season’s worth of work that had us name the Denver offensive line the third-best in the NFL in 2013. Despite taking the fourth-most pass plays, Denver’s line had the best Pass Blocking Efficiency of any unit. Yes, some of that success is thanks to Manning’s quick release (his 2.36 seconds to throw in the regular season was the shortest of any starting QB). But the line is still full of players who stand out in their own right. Manny Ramirez earned the fifth-highest grade of any center last season, while right guard Louis Vasquez earned All-Pro honors from us. Left tackle Ryan Clady is returning from injury after posting the fourth-best grade at his position in 2012. Chris Clark, who filled in well for Clady last year, will move to right tackle. And Orlando Franklin, our fourth-highest right tackle last season, will replace Zane Beadles (the only Broncos lineman with a negative grade last season) at left guard. Despite their finish, this is a top-flight unit that could be even better this year.
3. Defensive Line
John Fox wants to establish his defense with a strong front line, and he may have his best one since his Panthers days. On the inside, Terrance Knighton is coming off a spectacular postseason where he made “Pot Roast” a household name. After earning a Top 10 defensive tackle grade in the regular season, he earned a +8.0 mark in the Broncos three playoff games. Fellow tackle Malik Jackson flew under the radar but was just as valuable in a more versatile role, lining up all over the Broncos front. Joining them is DeMarcus Ware, who looks far from over the hill. Even after missing time last season with injury, he posted a Top 10 grade among 4-3 defensive ends. And though he’s listed as a linebacker, Von Miller is often a de facto lineman coming off the edge. He earned a whopping +42.8 grade last season in just nine games, and his return will give the Broncos one of the most disruptive players in the league.
When the Broncos line up their starting secondary against the Colts on Sunday night, it will be an entirely different group from the one who started the Super Bowl. Chris Harris Jr. missed the last two playoff games with a torn ACL, but is cleared for action and hopefully will continue his development as one of the league’s best young cornerbacks. We selected him Second-Team All-Pro last season thanks to his great work in the slot. Free safety Rahim Moore is also returning from an injury that robbed him of most of last season. His infamous gaffe against the Ravens in the 2012 playoffs didn’t stop us from naming him a Secret Superstar after an otherwise promising breakout season.
Free agent signee Aqib Talib dealt with his own second-half injury last season, as he posted a -8.6 grade in his last nine games after a +8.3 in his first six. Nevertheless, if he’s healthy he can likely match the stellar 2013 season of the departed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Finally, strong safety T.J. Ward gives the Broncos a truly physical force in their secondary, as he’s developed into the NFL’s best run-stopping defensive back; only six defensive tackles bested Ward’s 29 run stops last season. Even first-round draft pick Bradley Roby looked good in a preseason where he allowed a 63.6 passer rating in coverage. In a league where secondaries are becoming even more important, this group has the talent to be the AFC’s best.
When looking at all the Broncos have added this offseason, it also reveals what they lacked in their Super Bowl loss. Without Clady’s reliable pass protection, Clark allowed six QB pressures, including a strip sack, from Manning’s blind side. Without the pass rush from a Miller or Ware, the Broncos pressured Russell Wilson on just four of his 23 drop-backs. Without Harris, replacement Champ Bailey earned a -2.3 grade in coverage. Without the sure-tackling of a Moore or Ward, the Broncos missed 13 tackles. If the Broncos do make it back to the Super Bowl, there’s great reason to believe that they’ll have shored up many of last year’s most glaring weaknesses.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Running Game
The most noticeable transition on the Broncos’ offense comes in the backfield, where Denver willingly let Knowshon Moreno depart in free agency to hand the lead RB reins to Montee Ball. There are some indicators that Ball will be able to fill those shoes. He was the more elusive runner last season, forcing just eight fewer missed tackles on 176 fewer touches than Moreno. Ball also matched Moreno’s Breakaway Percentage, and was just slightly below him in Pass Blocking Efficiency.
The biggest advantage Moreno brought the Broncos though was in the receiving game. His 1.60 Yards Per Route Run was far above the rate of Ball, who also struggled with dropped passes. Additionally, Ball’s appendectomy this August allowed him just 10 preseason snaps with the Denver offense, adding some extra doubt to his development. Ball may very well slide into Moreno’s role without skipping a beat, but there’s enough uncertainty here for some concern.
2. WR Depth
After having arguably the NFL’s best arsenal of weapons last season, Manning finds himself a bit short on wide receivers heading into Week 1. The Broncos weren’t willing to break the bank to keep Eric Decker, despite how productive he was for them last season. He was a versatile route-runner in Denver, and only four receivers exceeded his 509 yards on Deep Passes. Wes Welker’s four-game suspension will leave the Broncos with a big gap to fill in the slot. Even as his raw production declined, he still had the second-most slot receiving yards in the NFL last season. Decker himself was also very effective from the slot, and together the duo accounted for 85% of the slot routes of Broncos wide receivers in 2013.
Manning can still lean heavily on Demaryius Thomas, who posted the most yards after catch and fifth-highest PFF grade of any receiver last season. But there are question marks about the receivers after him. Emmanuel Sanders has good hands, and his 15 missed tackles on receptions last season (tied for fourth-most among wideouts) indicates he could thrive in Denver’s screen game. But he had just 740 receiving yards in his best season in Pittsburgh, and his career-high 212 yards on Deep Passes is far below Decker’s 2013 production. There are high hopes for Cody Latimer, but Manning doesn’t have a strong track record of relying on rookies. The future Hall of Famer always finds a way to move the ball downfield, but he may have to work a bit harder with this cast than he did with last season’s.
3. Without Trevathan
When Danny Trevathan broke his leg in a practice two weeks ago, the Broncos lost a young linebacker who has only gotten better with experience. In his first season as a starter, Trevathan’s +7.2 grade was 11th-best of any 4-3 outside linebacker. His 10.2 Run Stop Percentage in 2013 was second only to Lavonte David. As a three-down linebacker who played 86% of the team’s defensive snaps last season, he also collected 16 QB pressures and three interceptions. He improved even more down the stretch, finishing with eight straight positive grades and a +5.6 mark in the playoffs. Brandon Marshall is in line to take over while Trevathan is sidelined, and the third-year pro posted solid run defense grades this preseason, but he only has 15 career snaps to his name, and it’s a tall order for him to match Trevathan’s production.
4. Manning Injury
An injury to a starting QB is a concern for any team, but it’s more of one for the Broncos because of how reliant their offense is on Manning. We’ve already addressed how he masks deficiencies in his offensive line, but the same can’t be expected of backup Brock Osweiler. The third-year pro posted a solid grade this preseason and showed good touch on his Deep Passes. But his 54.5% Accuracy Under Pressure was below average, and his average 2.44 seconds to pass attempt was noticeably longer than Manning’s. And there is always the reminder of how quickly the 2011 Colts fell apart without Manning. Is this concern a bit nitpicky? Absolutely. But with a depth chart as stacked as the Broncos is, it’s tough to find much else to worry about.
5. Tough Schedule
Denver coasted to a 13-3 record and home field advantage last season against a manageable schedule, but the task is more daunting this year. Nine of the Broncos’ games are against teams that made the playoffs last season, and just four are against opponents that had a losing record. The combined 2013 record of their first eight opponents is 86-42, and that stretch includes trips to Seattle and New England. With Manning in a relatively weak conference, the Broncos still should lock up a playoff bye. They may just have a tougher road of it than they did in 2013.
Follow Pete at @PFF_Pete