2016 season preview: Denver Broncos

It's rare that a Super Bowl champion returns with so many sure things ... except the guy taking the snaps.

| 11 months ago
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

2016 season preview: Denver Broncos

The Broncos are coming off of a Super Bowl victory driven by a powerful defense and an offense that did just enough to win in spite of lacking quarterback capable of making a positive difference. This victory was the vindication of a roster building approach that values overall roster strength as the great equalizer in an age of your quarterback so often dictating the level of success you can achieve. With that in mind, and in spite of great uncertainty at the quarterback position the Broncos enter the 2016 season as genuine contenders to retain the Lombardi Trophy, led by what looks like the league’s top defense in spite of a couple of high profile departures.

[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]

Departures of Manning, Osweiler doesn’t solve QB questions

Quarterbacks: 29th in PFF’s season preview rankings

The Broncos rode subpar play from Peyton Manning to the Super Bowl and in spite of the stature of the trio competing to replace him paling in comparison to Manning’s achievements, the Broncos would struggle to take a step back in terms of on-field performance. Mark Sanchez is the known commodity, though the Broncos will likely be limited to subpar play at the position for a second year in a row. Paxton Lynch is the first-round pick, offering the raw talent and upside, while Trevor Siemian is the wildcard with a year’s experience of watching Manning and the departed Brock Osweiler operate the system. Regardless, of the winner the Broncos is unlikely to offer quality performances this season. That said, with the talent around them on both sides of the ball, the winner of this competition just needs to limit the mistakes and put those around them in positions to make plays for them.

It’s a three-headed RB monster, but not a versatile one

Running Backs: 15th

Though he failed to build upon his breakout 2014 campaign, C.J. Anderson showed in fits and starts the ability to carry this offense at times last season and the pressure will be on him to produce and perform on a more consistent basis in 2016. Anderson’s display against the Patriots in Week 12 was his best of the year, including a game-winning overtime score to clinch the victory in the snow. With Ronnie Hillman and Devontae Booker alongside him in the backfield the Broncos have a trio of talented runners in the backfield, but production in the passing game may be one area that is lacking. Booker forced 71 total missed tackles in his final season at Utah, making this a genuine three-headed backfield, but the threat they may be a little similar could leave the Broncos short of contributions in the passing game.

It’s a strong 1-2 WR punch that could use a third part

Receiving corps: 7th

Emmanuel Sanders emphasized last season that he has surpassed Demaryius Thomas as the leading threat in this offense, but even in a “down year” Thomas still joined Sanders with more than 1,000 receiving yards in spite of racking up double-digit drops for the fourth year in a row. The Broncos lack of proven production beyond these top two receivers is a concern. with Cody Latimer unable to make the third receiver position his own while the likes of Bennie Fowler and Andre Caldwell contributed more as receivers than blockers last season. A potential wildcard for the third receiving option in this offense this year is the Broncos’ second-round pick in 2015, tight end Jeff Heuerman. Underused in Ohio State’s passing game on their run to the 2015 National Championship, his best game as a receiver came against Indiana with five catches for 74 yards and a touchdown. But after Owen Daniels’ departure and with Virgil Green far from the most productive tight end in the league, the door is wide open for Heuerman to forge himself a role in this offense in 2016.

A lot of turnover on the line means an adjustment period is coming

Offensive line: 28th

The Broncos’ offensive line came together (Khalil Mack demolition aside) down the stretch last season and a similar challenge faces Denver in the trenches in 2016. Wholesale departures mean that only Matt Paradis at center returning as a projected starter from the quintet that started the Super Bowl. At left tackle, Russell Okung has struggled with injuries like the departed Ryan Clady but has played more in the last couple of seasons and should add value to the Broncos’ ground attack, particularly on the backside of zone runs. Around those two established players however, questions abound with Donald Stephenson, Max Garcia and Ty Sambrailo the projected starters at present. Stephenson joins from Kansas City where, after a solid start to the season against Houston and Denver, his form fell away badly at left tackle, finishing the season at right tackle, where he allowed 13 pressures in three games before the Chiefs decided not to retain him. There will be teething problems, to put it mildly in all likelihood, to start the season, and the Broncos will hope that a unit can gel and put the offense on a firmer footing as the season moves along.

Even with some key losses, this D-line unit is elite

Front-seven: 1st

In spite of the losses of Danny Trevathan and Malik Jackson, the Broncos are still well placed at every spot in the front seven to bring the pain to opposing offenses. A quartet of edge rushers led by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller returns to terrorize offensive lines on the fringes while Derek Wolfe’s terrific season after he returned from suspension ensures that teams cannot leave the middle open to try and contain those edge rushers. Sylvester Williams’ stout play anchors the Broncos’ run defense in base packages and the underrated Vance Walker only serves to shore up Denver’s run defense as they look to replace Malik Jackson. In spite of the loss of Trevathan, the Broncos still possess the well-rounded skill set of Brandon Marshall at linebacker, equally adept stepping up to makes stops against the run as well as dropping back to clog passing lanes for opposing quarterbacks. The Broncos’ front seven may have lost two key contributors but they are well placed to remain among the league’s elite.

The league’s best secondary returns intact

Secondary: 1st

The only risk to the “No Fly Zone” this off-season has been Aqib Talib’s shooting incident in Dallas back at the start of June. Barring any repercussions of a disciplinary nature stemming from that incident, the Broncos will return with the league’s best secondary intact from last year’s Super Bowl run. At corner their three-deep run of Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby is the league’s best from 1 to 3, with Roby’s marked improvement in his second season masked to some extent by the fact that he has little chance of unseating Talib and Harris as starters. Feasting on passing attacks that are harassed by the likes of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos are equally adept at making plays on the ball as they are completely locking down opposing passing attacks as they did ruthlessly against the Packers in Week 8 last season. Though their safeties may not be at quite the same level as their corners, Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward is still one of the better safety pairings in the league with Stewart’s play last season a revelation. With intriguing rookies like Justin Simmons and Will Parks to potentially add to the mix, the Broncos are well placed to retain their crown as the league’s best secondary in 2016.

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • T. Kothe

    The only part of the article that I’d take issue with is the assertion of the RB group lacking versatility. The most recent reports are indicating that Booker’s talent for receiving already has him looking like the 3rd down back and is pushing Hillman onto the roster bubble

    • Thomas Bell

      I noticed that, too….though I don’t know how many balls he caught at Utah, everything I’ve ever read about Booker has mentioned his pass catching ability and hands. Other than that, a great read: I love the way these article are arranged, with the rankings.

      • Phil

        He caught 37 balls last year at Utah (Tied for 3rd in last years draft class) forcing 14 missed tackles on receptions in the process (also 3rd).

      • Joseph Mahoney

        Booker caught 79 passes for 329 yards and two TDs during his two seasons at Utah. 24 of those catches resulted in a first down. I know he was the focal point of the Utes offense, but those numbers tell me that he was an efffective receiver. The real question will be how quickly he becomes adept at blitz pick-up.

    • anon76returns

      Hard to argue with 1st place rankings in the front 7 and 1st in the secondary as well!

  • crosseyedlemon

    The Broncos QB problem comes a couple of years too late to help the Bears. We would have been happy to return Cutler but now we are stuck with him. The AFC West is probably the league’s toughest division so Denver will need to avoid losing key defensive players to injury in order to repeat.

    • anon76returns

      I would have gladly traded back Cutler if the Bears had agreed to take on McDaniels back in 2008, but that ship has long since sailed. Cutler was on a nice developmental curve for us in his first 3 seasons, but we were trying to get rid of a lot of bad habits he had picked up at Vanderbilt. When he was shipped off to Chicago not only did the development stop, but he actually backslid considerably to where he was coming out of college, believing he had to do everything to win games and trusting in his arm strength to rescue him from some really bone-headed throws. Too bad- he could have been up there with the Matt Ryans and Philip Rivers of the league.

      • crosseyedlemon

        Good observation about Cutler putting his faith in his own abilities rather than trusting that the coaches could mold him into a more effective player….a lot of players coming out of college make that same mistake and swallow the media hype surrounding them.

    • scooobob

      As a Broncos fan, let me say: Thanks…really…but, no thanks.

      • crosseyedlemon

        lol….didn’t think so, but it was worth a try.

      • creative_dude

        We will take him if you offer us two first rounders. For three first rounders we will even let him carry a clipboard.

  • Leonidasz007

    Jeff Heuerman was a third-round pick not second. Other than that good article and hope Heuerman will prove he worth that pick.

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  • Leanne Harrington

    With a week or so of TC now in the books, WR 3-6 look like they will be very good…Fowler, Latimer, Taylor and Norwood, and being pushed by Raymond and Addison. Could be the deepest spot on the team.

    If anything the offensive groups are looking better than their rankings while the D is still at the same high level. Ray and Barrett look like a starting combo for more than half the league, Crick and Gotsis figure in the Dline mix, and Davis and/or Nelson will fill the ILB spot well. Webster’s getting a lot of work with Talib out, as are Doss and Nixon. Doss is making a strong case to be CB5. Could be the best 5 in the league.