No team has changed their style more in the past two seasons than the Denver Broncos. First, let’s look at their 2012 draft picks:
257Brock OsweilerQBArizona State
367Ronnie HillmanRBSan Diego State
4101Omar BoldenCBArizona State
The team had a horrible run under Josh McDaniels, who gutted the team of their best talent, namely QB Jay Cutler and WR Brandon Marshall, because of his own ego problems. Mercifully, the organization fired him, put John Elway as President, and hired ex-Panthers coach John Fox.
I’ve always felt Fox was one of the better NFL coaches. He’s very good at being flexible and playing to his team’s strengths. He also has former Jaguars Head Coach Jack del Rio as his Defensive Coordinator. Del Rio’s teams always played very solid defense, so he’s a great asset to have.
As a result, the 2011 Broncos resembled almost a Wishbone-style college offense. Tim Tebow was a fullback playing QB and at 245 pounds with arms like a linebacker’s, the style worked. Tebow couldn’t complete half his passes so Fox ran, ran, and ran some more. Along with arguably the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL, 2011 DROY Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, the Bronco defense punished enemy QBs relentlessly.
However, they still had holes to fill and played in the weakest division in the NFL last season. They won the division with an 8-8 record and amazingly defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime in their first playoff game. That solidified Tebow’s mystery-quarterback status – a runner who can throw the ball a little bit but manages to win games. It sort of reminded me of Jim Plunkett – he played UGLY UGLY, but all he did was win games. Their styles were quite different, but the end results are similar.
Tebow’s now a New York Jet and all we DO know about him is that he’s on the punt-protection team there. Yeah, that’s what I’d use a former first-round QB pick on. *yawn*
That takes us to Peyton Manning. The biggest unrestricted free agent in NFL history (and most publicized) picked the Broncos over 5 or 6 other suitors. Manning and Elway connected on a level no other organization could match since Elway is a Hall of Fame Super Bowl-winning quarterback himself. There’s little question that Peyton will wind up in Canton as well, but his presence will dramatically change the offensive outlook for 2012.
Gone are the days of 60+ rush attempts and student body left, student body right runs. Peyton has a vast array of talents, but running is definitely not one of them. He won’t be pushing Cam Newton’s rushing records. Ever.
What he WILL do is deliver patented pinpoint passes to a group of so far pedestrian WRs that do show some talent but were handcuffed by Tebow’s lack of ability last season.
As for off-season moves, they signed WR Brandon Stokley, who happens to be one of Peyton’s best friends and an ex-teammate, to a one-year contract. He’ll likely work the slot and be a reserve but their history means Stokley should be on the same page as Manning in pretty much any situation.
They also signed TE Jacob Tamme from Indianapolis. Tamme was a backup but played outstanding football when Manning’s favorite target, TE Dallas Clark, went down with an injury. That’s TWO new weapons that have a history with Peyton. Tamme could either start or be the 2nd TE in double-TE sets. They also signed Bengals reserve WR Andre Caldwell to put into the mix.
Manning’s main WR targets are Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. Thomas has been hampered by injuries in his first two seasons but shows a lot of ability when he’s on the field. Oftentimes, it’s the third NFL season when players break out if they’re going to, and having Peyton throwing him passes will certainly help.
Eric Decker should be the most dangerous WR on the team. In 2011, even with Tim Tebow throwing passes, he had over 600 yards receiving…and 8 TDs. He has a nose for the endzone and could really blossom.
The Bronco running game only has to be good enough to make defenses play more “honestly,” but they’ll know the biggest threat is Peyton’s arm. The Broncos have punishing RB Willis McGahee and underachieving former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno. Moreno’s production has fallen in each of his first three seasons and really needs to step up his play this year. The running game looks good enough with McGahee to give the team a lot of things for defenses to worry about.
In 2011, the Denver pass defense was excellent. Veteran shutdown corner Champ Bailey still has gas in the tank, although his skills are beginning to diminish with age. Their two pass-rushers I mentioned earlier are as good a duo as you’ll find, but they were rather soft up the middle against the run.
2007 All-Pro DT Ty Warren missed the entire 2011 campaign due to injury, and it showed with their difficulties in stopping the run. He should be healthy in 2012, giving the defense an instant boost. For good measure, the Broncos got a great value pick in round two with DT Derek Wolfe. If Warren plays to his old form and Wolfe can step in and be solid while he’s learning the NFL game, this defense WILL be a force to be reckoned with.
As such, the Broncos ranked 20th in overall yds/game defense in 2011 and came on strong in the second half of the season. That’s John Fox’s influence showing as a “defensive guru” showing. He loves the 4-3, and those two DT additions should really shore up a defensive line that was last season’s weakness. It should become a strength now with Brodrick Bunkley providing depth or starting depending on the development of rookie Derek Wolfe in the preseason.
At linebacker, things won’t change much other than players moving up/down the depth chart. They should once again field LBs D.J. Williams, Joe Mays, and Von Miller.
The secondary is probably the biggest concern. Both starting CBs are at least 30 yrs old (Bailey and Andre Goodman) and longtime veteran safety Brian Dawkins retired at age 38. Look for the Broncos to hit the secondary hard post-2012 season and in the 2013 draft. It was Von Miller’s development and the defense gelling in the second half that improved their overall pass defense.
So, where does that put the team? They were 8-8 last season, a division champion, and won a playoff game so the bar is set rather high. As for the draft, it appears they sprinkled in rookie help at most positions, not concentrating on any single one. They even picked up Arizona State QB Brock Osweiler as they know Manning only has 2 to 3 years left in his incredible career, so they are looking to the future as well.
With that in mind, the addition of Peyton Manning means the team took….
…the maximum 3 steps forward. They should be an offensive dynamo with a lot of depth at WR if someone can step up to the plate. Manning’s coach-on-the-field style will help the youngsters learning curve, and the addition of TE Tamme provides some measure of security. Manning himself is worth 2 stars and the forecast is for the rush defense to improve nicely. Every team has holes, but their pass rush roughly negates the “average” secondary – but Champ Bailey is still an anchor.
If Manning can return to 90% of his old self, look for the 2012 incarnation of the Denver Broncos to win 12 games in a weak division and push the Patriots, Steelers, and Ravens for a Super Bowl berth.
Next up….the Detroit Lions.