By John Bena, Mile High Report
We all know how the 2009 season went down for the Broncos. Beginning with the firing of Mike Shanahan, the hiring of Josh McDaniels, the Jay Cutler-fiasco and Brandon Marshall trade-request, the Broncos looked to be a train-wreck as the prepared for the 2009 season. Little did anyone know, the team was using the circus to rally together.
The Broncos raced to a 6-0 record and expectations went through the roof. Reality, along with some injuries, brought the Broncos back down to earth and a 2-8 finish saw the team finish 8-8, missing the playoffs for the 4th straight season. That has Broncos fans even more impatient, and the pressure on Josh McDaniels and the team at an all-time high - though much of it is unfair.
The seed for the Broncos current state of mediocrity were planted years ago, and McDaniels and Co. are still trying to dig out from the avalanche of bad contracts and over-priced, under-talented veterans that Mike Shanahan tried to patch together into a team. The process is going to take time, but the heat is on and the clock is ticking.
Significant Offseason Additions/Subtractions
Obviously the Broncos are going to feel the loss of WR Brandon Marshall. With over 300 catches the past 3 seasons, Marshall has become one of the most productive offensive weapons in the League. In the locker room and off the field, however, it is another story. Sometimes circumstances dictate that a change of scenery is best for all parties, and Marshall needed out of Denver, for a variety of reasons.
The Broncos also parted ways with TE Tony Scheffler, a talented, yet oft-injured weapon. Scheffler's loss in the passing game will be the Broncos gain on the ground as run-blocking was not one of Scheffler's strong suits.
While those are two offensive players the Broncos will need to replace, the Broncos needed to address their defense, specifically a defensive-line that seemed to wear down as the season went along in 2009. The Broncos did just that, bringing in 3 guys from winning programs and extensive knowledge of the 3-4 defense the Broncos are hoping to master. Justin Bannan (Baltimore), Jamal Williams (San Diego) and Jarvis Green (New England) are an immediate upgrade for the Broncos up front. While all three are over 30, all three provide the Broncos experience up-front. Better yet, two of the starters from last season - Ronald Fields at NT and Ryan McBean at DE - are back, providing the Broncos with experienced backups.
Of course, much has been made of the selection of QB Tim Tebow in the draft, and it appears likely that Tebow will see action in some capacity this season. It's unlikely, however, that Tebow will be the reason for/against Broncos success this season.
The team also made a quiet addition, signing CB Nate Jones in free agency. Jones provides the Broncos an experienced nickel corner, an area the team struggled with last season.
The offense is going to hinge on one thing - the health and effectiveness of the offensive line. The Broncos come in to 2010 with the prospects of starting two rookies along the offensive line - J.D. Walton at C and Zane Beadles at G - while their two bookend-tackles - Ryan Clady at LT and Ryan Harris at RT - are trying to come back from injury. Clady's absence hurts the most, and it is really unknown if/when he will return in 2010.
The only regular starter the Broncos can fell 100% confident in heading into the season is RG Chris Kuper, who signed a long-term contract with the Broncos during the off-season. If the line can't protect, or create spaces for the running game, the rest of the offense won't matter much. If they can, the Broncos still have weapons on offense, starting at quarterback.
Yes, I consider Kyle Orton a weapon. He's smart, confident and can make all the throws. What has side-tracked Orton, both in Chicago and last season in Denver, is the inability to remain healthy. It shouldn't be underestimated what the injury Orton suffered against Washington did to both Orton's season and the Broncos success.
The Broncos will be looking for 2nd year RB Knowshon Moreno to have a breakout season after showing flashes of brilliance during his rookie season. The Broncos really didn't want Moreno to be shouldered with the entire load of the offense last season, yet it is exactly what happened when Orton got hut and fellow running-back Correll Buckhalter couldn't stay healthy. Both are already injured in camp, and their health will go a long way towards determining the success of the offense, and how quickly a young offensive line comes together.
While there is no Brandon Marshall, the Broncos are deep at receiver, at least on paper. The team picked WR Demaryius Thomas with their first pick of the Draft, and he has looked dominant in Training Camp - until he got hurt on Saturday. The injury isn't considered serious, but it is to the same foot he broke during the off-season so it is definitely a cause for concern.
There is also concern for the other rookie receiver, Eric Decker from Minnesota. He was shaken up on Saturday night as well, injuring the same leg he had surgery on during his Sr. season with the Gophers. The injury was a big reason Decker slipped to the 4th round, and there is concern Decker may have re-aggravated the injury some way. There is veteran leadership as well - Jabar Gaffney is simply underrated, and Brandon Stokley and Brandon Lloyd are still effective. A name to keep your eyes on is Matthew Willis who is having the best camp of all the receivers so far.
The Broncos were extremely excited about the defense heading into camp, and early on it appeared the unit could have a big season. Then the injury epidemic started and the unit is filled with questions. OLB Elvis Dumervil is the biggest loss. Dumervil, who lead the NFL with 17 sacks a season ago had just signed a huge extension with the Broncos and looked primed to have another Pro Bowl season. Instead he will miss most, if not all, of 2010 with a torn pectoral muscle. Dumervil will undergo surgery today(August 10) and the prognosis is that the injury will take at least 4 months to heal. That puts the Dumervils return sometime in December, so the Broncos have a decision to make.
Dumervil's backup, OLB Jarvis Moss - a former first-round pick out of Florida - was have a great off-season and looked ready to step in until he was lost with a broken bone in his hand. Moss will miss a couple weeks before being fit with a cast on the hand.
The newly acquired defensive line has remained healthy so far, knock on wood, and should provide the Broncos the beef necessary to stop the run. How they will get to the quarterback, however, with the loss of Dumervil, is the big question and it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Broncos could go back to a 4-3 to cope with the razor-thin depth at linebacker. The team will likely be keeping an eye on the waiver-wire as the season approaches for guys that can step in.
Luckily the Broncos are deep at defensive-back, albeit a bit long in the tooth. All four starters in back are over 30, and one has to wonder just how many years Champ Bailey, Brian Dawkins, Andre Goodman and Renaldo Hill have left. That said, I'm not going to bet against any of those guys, especially the two future Hall of Famers.
The biggest change on the defense might be at coordinator. Mike Nolan left the Broncos to take over the Dolphins at the team's 2nd half collapse last season. Many thought the Broncos would go outside the team to replace him, yet Josh McDaniels chose Don ‘Wink' Martindale, the team's linebackers coach in 2009, for the task. It will be Martindale's first shot at a DC job and all eyes are on him. The players respect and respond to Wink, however, and his personality is much like Jets' Head Coach Rex Ryan's. Now we'll find out if his defenses can play like Ryan's as well.
Perhaps the Broncos most stable position, the team is set at K, with Matt Prater quickly becoming one of the League's best. Prater made several big kicks in 2009, and in reality should have been a Pro Bowler. He has yet to miss a 4th quarter field goal and is ultra-effective in the kick-off game as well. The Broncos have also kept just one punter this Camp, essentially handing the job to Britton Colquitt. Colquitt was in Camp last season but lost out to Brett Kern. Kern couldn't hang on to the job, however, and was replaced last season by veteran Mitch Berger. Berger is likely on stand-by should Colquitt struggle but he will be given first crack at the job.
As for the return game, Eddie Royal is a great returner, though the Broncos would like to save him for his receiving duties. Matthew Willis has been returning kicks, and the Broncos hope rookie DB Perrish Cox can step in as a returner as well. LB/FB Spencer Larsen is the star of the coverage units.
Josh McDaniels has surrounded himself with the type of players he wants, while ridding the team of the me-first, team-last attitudes that had polluted the locker room for years. Will it translate to on-field success? That remains to be seen. The offense will make strides, if the O-Line can come together. McDaniels knows what he is doing, if if some outside the organization think otherwise. The players respect him, and he will be a winner.
Conclusion/Prediction for 2010
So much has already happened for the Broncos on the field, that any predictions are fluid. The Elvis Dumervil injury is a huge blow, and how well the Broncos offensive line can come together will determine how quickly the Broncos come together offensively. While they haven't played a pre-season game yet, the Broncos can hardly afford another injury, and players that weren't originally going to be counted on now have to step up and perform at a high level.
I thought before the season that the Broncos would win 10 games. The loss of Dumervil, however, has to cost the Broncos something, and to me it is 2 games. That, and a young offensive line, will keep the Broncos at .500 another season and keep the pressure on Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders. The team is headed in the right direction, however, even if fans and experts have a hard time believing it. Lookout for the Broncos in 2011!