The Denver Broncos got off to a 1-4 start before Tim Tebow replaced Kyle Orton in a move that kick-started the team. All of a sudden the defense improved, the run game became more of a threat and the Broncos won seven of eight, including six in a row at one point.

The team slumped again at the end of the season but still made the playoffs, knocking off Pittsburgh before falling to New England. So just how good are the Broncos? How responsible was Tebow for the team’s success? And can he and a vastly improved defense take this 8-8 division champion to the next level in 2012 and beyond? Ian Henson from shared his thoughts with Zoneblitz.

Zoneblitz: Tim Tebow was good at times, bad at times but amazingly polarizing. What is your assessment of his season and is he the quarterback of the future?

Henson: Tim Tebow provided a very exciting end to 2010, which made many fans assume that he was the starter going into 2011. John Fox felt otherwise and went with Kyle Orton, who kind of got a raw deal early in the season. My personal opinion is that had Willis McGahee, not Knowshon Moreno, started at running back in week one against the Oakland Raiders the Denver Broncos would have won that game. This likely would have postponed, if not canceled out, the entirety of Tebow time in 2011.

Orton beat the Cincinnati Bengals, but more of the same lull against the San Diego Chargers led to Tebow getting the call. If not for an uncalled pass interference in the end zone, where Matt Willis was pushed out of bounds, and the Broncos likely would have been a 9-7 team, instead of an 8-8 team.

But Denver was just as easily 5-11 this season as 11-5. It’s a very difficult year to break down. Tebow gets a lot of the credit; he’s incredibly exciting to watch. I watched him for a few weeks in bars in New York City and it was just absurd how him coming back would just unite an entire crowd of New Yorkers who are cheering for 30 other teams.

He has a lot to improve on, but what goes unmentioned constantly is the number of drops by the Broncos receivers. This is no excuse for Tebow, but we’re talking six, seven, eight drops per game. That can be the difference in a win or a loss. Denver was the number one rushing offense in 2011, a lot of that is to Tebow’s credit. Even if he is passing for two completions in a game, one of them happens to be a 50+ yard touchdown. He is not as terrible as some would want to make him.

I think Denver has their quarterback of the future, but in the meantime the front office and coaching staff will continue to push him to get better in whichever way possible. If Tebow can add three to four completions per quarter he’s easily a top ten, if not top five quarterback in the league as ridiculous as that sounds.

Zoneblitz: How good and how important was Von Miller to the Broncos’ success?

Henson: The guy was phenomenal early in the season, just a beast. He was playing at such a high level the only route he could go was down, which he did after his injury. He made rookie mistakes, but he made them falling forward. Von Miller was so good he made a guy like Robert Ayers look like Elvis Dumervil. I can’t imagine being a quarterback and having to deal with Dumervil and Miller closing in on me and Champ Bailey somewhere in the outfield.

All someone needs to do to assess Miller is look at what he did in the Pro Bowl. He had two sacks! Who has two sacks in the Pro Bowl? If Denver can figure out what to do in the middle of their defense Miller will make a mockery of the term career year.

Zoneblitz: The Broncos defense really stepped it up the second half of the season. What led to the mid-season turnaround and what can the unit do to take the next step next season?

Henson: I think the second half was a result of several things, such as people getting healthy: Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams mostly. But, also, Dennis Allen and John Fox got more time with their defense and got to see where the strengths and weaknesses were. The Brodrick Bunkley trade was one of the most overlooked factors. Bringing him in was one of the most overlooked aspects of why the defense improved.
Denver lost defensive tackle Ty Warren in training camp and most people forget that he is even on the roster, he is a starter and one of the most expensive signings the Broncos had in 2011 (Willis McGahee being the other) and fans have yet to see him play.

With the likely re-signing of Bunkley and a healthy Warren, Denver will have fewer areas to address in the offseason than it would appear. Undrafted rookie corner Chris Harris made the all-rookie team, playing well in place of Cassius Vaughn and Syd’Quan Thompson, who both spent all if not most of the season on injured reserve. If Denver finds a second corner early in the draft, a middle linebacker and a starting safety they will be one of the best defenses in the league next season.

Also keep in mind that Jack Del Rio has taken over for Allen as the defensive coordinator, the last time Del Rio and Fox teamed up they had the second-ranked defense in the league. That was a one year turnaround and Del Rio got the Jacksonville job off the strength of his one season as defensive coordinator in Carolina.

Zoneblitz: What is Brian Dawkins’ future with the Broncos?

Henson: I do not see him playing in Denver again. He says that he is fully recovered and he was in the Pro Bowl this season as an alternate, but he is an unrestricted free agent and 37. So I see his time in Denver ending much like his time in Philadelphia, with a huge uproar from the fans and he’ll go on to another team and probably have another two productive seasons at least.

The one thing I can see making Dawkins worth re-signing is his ability to coach and mentor. That to me is worth more than a veteran minimum contract and it’s not as if the Broncos have someone better than him to replace him right now.

Zoneblitz: Dennis Allen was hired by Oakland and Jack Del Rio is his replacement. What does that mean for the defense and the team?

Henson: As I said earlier, the last time Del Rio and Fox coached together their defense was the second ranked defense in the NFL. I see the Broncos improving even more on where they finished in 2011, I’m interested to see what he does with the underachieving talent in Denver (the Broncos have two rookie safeties, three cornerbacks who have less than three years experience and a starting corner in Andre Goodman who constantly receives targets, being that he is on the opposite side of Champ Bailey).

I cannot imagine that Denver will get any worse with Del Rio than they were with Allen. What has been interesting is seeing Del Rio’s influence in places other than the defense. The Broncos have signed three of the Jaguars’ former trainers and former Jacksonville receiver Jason Hill. I don’t know exactly what is going on with that.

Zoneblitz: What is your assessment of John Fox’s first season in Denver?

Henson: John Fox’s ho-hum demeanor initially had me believing that it was only going to be more of the same losing in Denver. Watching him coach in preseason only served to reaffirm my beliefs, but when he pulled Orton for Tebow in week five against the San Diego Chargers I assumed the Broncos were just cashing in on their season.

Fox will call a punt inside his own forty-five yard line. Denver will run the ball on third and very long; they can be incredibly frustrating to watch as a fan, but somehow it worked out to their favor eight times in 2011. Broncos’ fans haven’t had a defensive-minded coach controlling the team in a very long time and conservation thus far has ended up working out for the team, so it is hard to argue.

Zoneblitz: Willis McGahee had a big comeback season. Can he keep it up and do the Broncos have enough depth at the running back position?

Henson: If you were to ask the average Broncos fan what offensive position was in most dire need of improvement they will tell you running back, some would even go as far as to say that Denver needs to draft a running back in the first round. I couldn’t disagree more, McGahee led the number one rushing offense in the league last season, but the guy didn’t even play in every game and had less than ten carries in four games.

The Broncos coaches were careful to monitor McGahee’s touches, though it was interesting that Tebow basically spelled McGahee. But Lance Ball averaged 4.2 yards per carry and Jeremiah Johnson came on very late in the year to average 5.5 yards per carry, but only on 14 carries. Johnson is an especially interesting option especially if Denver continues with the option read or chunk offense.

I don’t see a big name running back coming in via free agency as much as fans would love to have Peyton Hillis back. But if someone like Brandon Jacobs is allowed to walk I can see them ending up in Denver.

Zoneblitz: How is Eric Decker’s injury coming along and how would you assess the overall offensive unit heading into 2012?

Henson: I think Decker could have played again had the Broncos gone another round in the playoffs, if there was some silver lining to Decker’s injury it was Demaryius Thomas running wild on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As far as the offensive unit, if I am Broncos General Manager Brian Xanders I am going all in on one or two free agent wide receivers this offseason. There are so many talented receivers available, but I don’t know how interested they would be in playing in Denver, especially since Brandon Lloyd seems to be launching a public smear campaign against Tebow.

The Broncos offensive line is top-notch. The running game will only get better. They have two tight ends going into their second year and two good receivers in Thomas and Decker. A receiver to team-up with Thomas and sliding Decker to the slot will immediately improve Tebow’s completion percentage.

Fullback is also something that should go mentioned here, though I expect Denver to re-sign Spencer Larsen.

Zoneblitz: This team won a division at 8-8 and earned an upset win in the playoffs. How far is this team from making a deep run?

Henson: If the team can find a middle linebacker, a second option at corner, a bone crusher at safety and stud wide receiver there isn’t much stopping them. I am not as high on Tebow as some fans are, but I am definitely not as low as the experts. There is no reason to think that he can’t join the ranks of the top half of quarterbacks in the league.

That being said the Broncos have one of the toughest schedules, if not the toughest, next season featuring home against the Browns, Steelers, Texans, Saints and Buccaneers and away against the Ravens, Bengals, Patriots, Falcons, and Panthers. It doesn’t get much tougher than seven playoff teams on a schedule. Denver’s offense can be just as high powered as the Panthers were in 2011, but with a much better defense. They must figure out a way to beat the Patriots though.

Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Broncos do in free agency and the draft?

Henson: In free agency I’d love to see them pick-up a wide receiver, I’d go crazy and match whatever offer the Steelers put on Mike Wallace. A player like Reggie Wayne or even Laurent Robinson would be incredible. I don’t see any other block buster signings being made, if Denver made a play for Cortland Finnegan I’d be very encouraged. The only other players that I am really in love with in free agency for the Broncos would be Brandon Jacobs if he is cut or traded and Jason Jones from the Tennessee Titans interests me a lot.

In the draft, I’d love to see Lavonte David drafted in the first round him or a man who has been labeled a troublemaker, cornerback Janoris Jenkins. I don’t know if the Broncos would touch him though, then again I don’t know how he came off in his interview. Other players that interest me are middle linebacker Bobby Wagner out of Utah State and a man name that every fan wants on their team by now, defensive tackle Dontari Poe out of Memphis.

Basically, I’d fix the offense through free agency and the defense through the draft.

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