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In depth 2013: Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos got off to a slow start in 2012 as Peyton Manning shook off the rust associated with a year away from the game. But when he got back on track with his new teammates in the Rocky Mountain region, he took off on one of his all-time best seasons.

Denver went 13-3, securing home field advantage in the playoffs before succumbing in overtime to an emotionally-charged Baltimore Ravens team.

The offseason has included the high profile defection of linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who took off for Baltimore after a confusing contract snafu left him a free agent. But Ian Henson, a writer with the Mile High Report, says the additions of Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ensure that this team will continue being a force to be reckoned with in 2013.

Zoneblitz: The 2012 regular season led to Denver being the top seed overall in the AFC but the season ended early with a comeback loss to Baltimore. How would you assess the season as a whole?

Henson: I think that fans came in expecting more or less an 11-5 season, expecting losses to the teams the Broncos lost to (the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots) and losses to the Baltimore Ravens, a divisional opponent and someone like the New Orleans Saints. I don’t know that many thought that Denver would lose to the Houston Texans, given Peyton Manning’s history against them. Of course the record on the season ended up being 13-4, after starting 2-3 and winning 11 straight to get home field advantage in the playoffs.

The team’s defense was spectacular. The John Fox/Jack Del Rio method is tried and tested and the last time the two teamed up together they had the second-ranked overall defense with the Carolina Panthers (their Super Bowl year). Fans were chomping at the bit waiting to see what Del Rio could produce with guys like Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, D.J. Williams and Champ Bailey, and they were not disappointed. Where Del Rio’s defense prowess really shined was with guys like Chris Harris, Jr. (undrafted rookie from 2011), Tony Carter (another undrafted rookie from 2009), Wesley Woodyard and rookie Derek Wolfe.

Icarus could only fly so high and you can only win based off of statistics and percentages for so long until you meet an X-factor and that was Baltimore in the playoffs (against whom Denver will open the 2013 campaign), with a shoot-from-the-hip coach who plays from the gut and bases decisions off of instincts.

Zoneblitz: What’s your sense for how much Peyton Manning has left in the tank and how is the team set behind him on the depth chart?

Henson: Peyton Manning got better over the course of the season, which was evident by the team going 11-1 over the final 12 weeks. There were growing pains in the beginning of the season, but by the end, by playoff time, I felt as if there wasn’t a team in the NFL that the Broncos couldn’t have beaten. A two year guarantee of $40 million was activated when Denver renewed Manning’s contract this offseason and I would expect him to have just that — two more years.

Behind Manning is a mess. Brock Osweiler was drafted last season as a junior. He was a one year starter at Arizona State in 2011 and the hive thinking in Denver is that Osweiler would have been a first round draft pick in 2013 — so they grabbed him where he was available in the second round in 2012 (ignoring Russell Wilson). Now, I haven’t seen it, I mean there are first rounders like RGIII and there are first rounders like Blaine Gabbert, but a quarterback named Adam Weber (who is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) had, in my opinion, clearly beaten Osweiler out in camp and preseason, but was let go.

Osweiler went on to suit up every game as the only backup quarterback. Caleb Hanie was on the roster, but the Broncos did not activate him for games in order to not unlock a million dollar bonus that activated if Hanie was on the game day roster. The team will have to pick up at least one quarterback and/or a camp arm that can ride along on the practice squad. If Manning were to be hurt, the Broncos status as a perennial playoff team may be difficult to maintain with Osweiler as a quarterback in his second season. Then again, Denver made it to the playoffs with Tim Tebow as the quarterback just two seasons ago.

Zoneblitz: What are your thoughts on the loss of Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator and the promotion of Adam Gase as his replacement?

Henson: Last offseason Denver lost their defensive coordinator (Dennis Allen, who went to Oakland) and hired Jack Del Rio to replace him. The defense actually got better. This offseason the Broncos lost their offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and hired their quarterback coach, Adam Gase, to replace him. McCoy was a tough one to judge, he walked like a head coach and talked like a head coach, and after the Tim Tebow season he looked like a genius.

However, McCoy (and Tebow) came in under a certified offensive genius in Josh McDaniels. McDaniels was fired, and John Fox kept McCoy on as offensive coordinator (the two had worked together previously in Carolina). It’s hard to say how much of the Tebow season was McCoy’s and how much of it was McDaniels. Of course, after the Tebow season is the Manning season and as much as Denver tried to say that it wouldn’t be, it was the Manning offense.

Of all the offensive coordinator options this offseason, I would have ranked Adam Gase somewhere outside of the top five. The relationship between Manning and Gase was young and there were rumors of Gase being considered lazy by Manning. So the Gase signing could be seen as just a pushover signing to allow Manning to do his thing with little resistance or it could be seen as a placeholder title in hopes that Gary Kubiak eventually gets fired from the Houston Texans and can be reunited with John Elway.

The Gase hire still doesn’t make sense. Fox hires head coaches to be coordinators. McCoy, Allen and Del Rio are all currently or have been a head coach. You have Ken Whisenhunt, Norv Turner and Tom Moore (former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator) all interested in taking over as offensive coordinator and you choose Adam Gase? One thing that can be written in stone is that the offense won’t change, Gase (two years younger than Manning by the way) will look better than he actually is as a coordinator and will probably get a head coaching offer by the time Manning’s contract is up.

Zoneblitz: The Wes Welker signing leaves Denver with a ridiculous assortment of offensive weapons. Is there anything that can slow the Broncos offense in 2013?

Henson: This is something that has been brought up inside the Denver media consistently since the signing of Wes Welker. People see Welker, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas and then throw in Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme as, at minimum, apt tight ends and, at best, above average and how do you cover that? Regardless of whether the running back is Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman or some unknown rookie, there just aren’t many defenses that can defend that. If you’re the defensive coordinator and you need to double someone, whom do you choose to double?

The Achilles heel is and will continue to be the conservative nature of John Fox in certain situations (see the playoff game against the Ravens in 2012). If teams are able to limit Denver to 4th and three situations, it is going to be a punt, nine times out of 10 if it is outside of Matt Prater’s field goal range. Compare that to the Pro Bowl in Peyton’s first series, where he waved off the field goal team and darted a pass to A.J. Green. It isn’t that Manning isn’t capable of converting. It is that when there is something on the line Fox does his best impression of Robert De Niro in Deer Hunter when he doesn’t pull the trigger and lets the elk get away.

Zoneblitz: The team let go of defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker D.J. Williams. Any concerns about those losses and how will the Broncos replace their contributions?

Henson: Williams was suspended for nine games last season and really didn’t come back as much of a contributor after he was allowed to resume playing. He was a great tackler and could play anywhere as a linebacker, he just fell victim to being replaced by Wesley Woodyard, who basically just stepped in and made sure no one really noticed that Williams was gone.

Dumervil stings and that whole situation was very, very interesting. I know that at this point that nearly everyone is aware of what happened, but when Dumervil signed with Baltimore, the Broncos had offered him more overall to stay. He chose the Ravens either out of spite or because he felt he had a better chance of winning the Super Bowl.

Being that the Broncos had both Dwight Freeney and John Abraham in while Dumervil was making his decision and still haven’t signed either Freeney or Abraham, leads me to believe that Del Rio and Fox think that Robert Ayers may be able to aptly pick up where Dumervil left off. Dumervil only (only?) had 11 sacks last season, but to stoke the fire a little bit, I would venture to point out that he has Von Miller on the other side of him. Anyone you put on the other side of Miller is going to clean up by proxy. Even Ayers in the 2011 playoffs had two sacks against the Pittsburgh Steelers playing opposite Miller.

Breaking down what else is on the roster at defensive end, the name Derek Wolfe comes up (six sacks as a rookie last season), but he plays on Miller’s side (Miller is a Sam linebacker, not a defensive end). Ayers is in the final year of his rookie contract, but Denver does have some really good young depth behind Ayers and Wolfe in Jeremy Beal and especially in Malik Jackson. So, without a surprise signing of a veteran there will be a defensive end drafted, but probably not as early as the first or second round as the draftniks are suggesting. I feel like the experts making that prediction are just looking at the loss of Dumervil and pointing at an assumed need. They aren’t actually aware of Denver’s roster. If Dumervil was that essential to the roster, the Broncos would have knocked him out with an offer.

Zoneblitz: What are the biggest holes the team needs to fill before the season starts?

Henson: Delving back into the defensive end issue, and I think that the Denver media (especially the Broncos unofficial public relations firm, the Denver Post) has a lot to do with this, running back and safety seem to be the popular suggestion. The defensive backs seem to be set with veteran talent in Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and the extremely talented Chris Harris Jr., and then with up-and-coming Tony Carter and Omar Bolden. Safety seems to be an easy call-out as everyone saw Rahim Moore come up short on the Jacoby Jones pass that sent the playoff game into overtime for Baltimore, but the Broncos aren’t looking to replace Moore. Mike Adams wasn’t the greatest safety in the NFL last season, but Quinton Carter was on injured reserve the entire season and he was playing lights out at the end of the 2011 season. Unfortunately, Carter is currently awaiting trial over a craps incident in Las Vegas.

Offensively, especially on paper, the team seems set. The offensive line currently has Chris Kuper as a backup guard. If Kuper could stay healthy, he’s a Pro Bowl guard. There isn’t a starter on the offensive line older than 26. At receiver, actually, is where things could get interesting. Welker’s contract is only two years, Decker is on the final year of his contract and the Broncos are one injury away from having Greg Orton or Gerell Robinson starting at wide receiver.

The age of Willis McGahee, the durability of Knowshon Moreno and the inexperience of Ronnie Hillman are the reasons why the Broncos were sniffing around Ahmad Bradshaw and most fans are calling for Denver to draft a running back early.

If I gave you $100 right now you’d be pressed to name one defensive tackle on the team’s roster and for that reason I would put the need list in this order: defensive tackle, safety, wide receiver, center, and running back.

Zoneblitz: The rest of the AFC West seems to be in a bit of a rebuilding mode so the Broncos would seem to have at least a path to another deep playoff run. What would make 2013 a success in your mind?

Henson: If Denver invests a total of $40 million in Peyton Manning and they don’t at least participate in the Super Bowl this season, I can see the fans getting really upset. The San Diego Chargers just blew up their team and hired the Broncos former offensive coordinator to lead their team, the Oakland Raiders have literally done the same type of destruction and currently employ former Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen as a head coach and the Kansas City Chiefs, well … who knows? Alex Smith and Andy Reid may be exactly what the Chiefs have been missing since 1970. Their offense has what some coaches may consider a dream roster, but those circumstances only served to get Reid fired the last time that he had a similar opportunity.

Now, finally after years of having one of the most difficult schedules in the NFL (due to being a mediocre to bad team), the Broncos finally have one of the easiest strength of schedules  –  with the AFC West drawing the NFC East and the AFC South.

Denver will have plenty of time in prime time with Manning returning to Indianapolis and playing in New York against the Giants. Mike Shanahan will coach in Denver for the first time since he was fired in 2008, Baltimore will return to Denver and the Jacksonville Jaguars will play against Jack Del Rio for the first time since he was fired. And the team plays away games at Houston and New England (Wes Welker). So NFL fans will probably be sick of Peyton and Co. by the time the playoffs come.

The only teams that seem to be able to at least handle the Broncos strengths on paper all happen to be in the NFC.

Zoneblitz: Last year you expressed some frustration with John Fox’s conservative nature as head coach. Did your opinion change during the 2012 season?

Henson: See Baltimore Ravens playoff game tape. I’ve heard Ravens fans making fun of Broncos fans for the Jacoby Jones touchdown in overtime, but there were at least five decisions that led to Baltimore even having that opportunity.

Denver’s 13-3 regular season record looks great on paper and sure the four games the Broncos lost (including the playoff game) were all by three points, but the conservative nature of Fox’s play calling only works on defense. Denver’s defense can lull an offense until that team eventually swallows its own tail, but it will be rare to ever see Peyton throw four touchdowns in a game ever again and that is a major issue.

Short of an explosive running back who can run for four yards on third and three, instead of two, it is hard to see Fox’s conservative nature changing. The team will have to succeed offensively despite its head coach.

Zoneblitz: Who on the roster could you see having a breakout season in 2013?

Henson: This is a great question and I laugh when I look back at 2012 and said Tim Tebow, especially because of what the NFL became with RGIII, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. No one outside of Denver’s front office could have predicted that Peyton Manning would be wearing a Broncos’ jersey in 2012.

Breakout stars – and this isn’t fair to Broncos’ fans, because they already know – but cornerback Chris Harris is a name that NFL fans will know soon. What I’ve seen from middle linebacker Nate Irving in training camp, preseason and his limited regular season appearances leads me to believe that he can be a star. I can only imagine kick returner/punt returner Trindon Holliday getting better and given the opportunity that defense end Robert Ayers has in Dumervil’s exit, coupled with the fact that it is a contract year for him, he has to break out.

Derek Wolfe, whose numbers are eerily similar to J.J. Watt’s rookie numbers, also is primed for a big second year and 2012 classman running back Ronnie Hillman literally just needs to stay healthy and he’ll have a great year simply by proxy of being uncovered out of the backfield every time the Broncos pass the ball. Decker, who wouldn’t quite be a breakout, is in a contract year and he will be lining up next to Wes Welker in the slot.

Zoneblitz: What do you think of the Broncos free agency moves thus far and how would you like to see the team approach the draft and the remainder of free agency?

Henson: The only real miss for Denver in free agency was the obvious one with Elvis, but Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would be a great haul for any team, let alone a team that was already 13-3. The signing of Stewart Bradley is a little odd, but last season the team picked up Keith Brooking for no apparent reason and he ended up saving their defense.

In the draft, there really is nothing that the team needs outside of a quarterback to sit behind Manning and Osweiler and defensive tackles, so that is a really unique situation to be in. I hate when people say best player available, because I think it’s general manager speak for getting the question of who the team is interested in out of the way, but the Broncos really can just sit back and take the best player available. There is no one in the draft who I think the team just has to have and anyone they do end up with can have plenty of time to adjust to the NFL game and get fresh after the non-stop atmosphere that is the pre-draft.

With free agency, I have been a fan of Ahmad Bradshaw for at least three years and he is the only real player that I would love to see on the roster who currently isn’t. I think that you will see a big name veteran signed by the Broncos around the draft though, a name like Charles Woodson or Dwight Freeney … Hopefully it is Bradshaw.

Zoneblitz: Is there anything you would like to add?

Henson: Do people really not want a longer season? I get why players wouldn’t want it, but as a fan, I wish there were four preseason games and at least 18 regular season games. I hate the offseason as much as I love it. Sure some records would just be decimated by a longer season, but that is the nature of records and it would make some records even more incredible.

Follow Ian Henson on Twitter at: @TheOrangePage
Follow Mile High Report on Twitter at: @MileHighReport
Follow Zoneblitz.com on Twitter at: @ZoneblitzCom

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