Offseason Breakdown: Denver Broncos
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
Whether you love Tim Tebow or hate him, you have to admit that the Denver Broncos became a whole lot more interesting last season when he nabbed the starting QB job from Kyle Orton. The Broncos were 1-4 when that switch was made, then won seven of their next eight to take control of the AFC West — so much so that even a three-game losing streak to end the season could not unseat them from the division lead.
Tebow and the Broncos then stunned the Steelers in the playoffs’ first round before the wild ride ended in New England.
Despite that run, however, the Broncos never really felt like a team that could go all the way. And the Denver brass must have felt the same way, because this offseason has brought major changes to the Mile High City.
Peyton Manning was the big-ticket addition, but he is far from the only new face that the Broncos will be counting on as they try to join the AFC’s elite.
2011 Record: 8-8 (first place, AFC West; lost to Patriots in AFC divisional round)
Key Additions: QB Peyton Manning, S Mike Adams, NT Justin Bannan, WR Andre Caldwell, CB Drayton Florence, CB Tracy Porter, TE Jacob Tamme, DT Derek Wolfe
Key Subtractions: DT Brodrick Bunkley, S Brian Dawkins, CB Andre Goodman, WR Eddie Royal, QB Tim Tebow, DT Marcus Thomas
Team Strengths: OT, QB, DE, LB
Team Weaknesses: G, WR, S
Three Things to Watch:
1. Something about a quarterback: Any analysis of the Broncos’ 2012 chances begins and ends with the arrival of free agent Caleb Hanie.
Wait … that doesn’t sound right …
Of course, we can’t talk about the Broncos without pondering the potential impact of one Peyton Manning. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, but after sitting out a year with a neck injury and suiting up for a team other than Indianapolis for the first time ever, can he still dominate on the football field?
The Broncos tossed a five-year, $96 million contract his way with the belief that Manning can keep them atop the AFC West and make them a legit Super Bowl contender. It’s a huge risk, without question, but we’ve also seen how good Manning can be.
How long it takes him to round into playing form and get comfortable with his new receiving targets will go a long way in determining where Denver winds up this year.
2. Will the revamped secondary hold its own?: From a statistical standpoint, Denver’s pass defense was decent last season — the Broncos allowed 231.5 yards per game through the air, 17th in the league. But with Pro Bowler Champ Bailey locking down one side of the field, the secondary really should have been better.
Enter cornerbacks Drayton Florence and Tracy Porter, as well as safety Mike Adams. Porter should get first crack at starting at CB opposite Bailey, with the ex-Bill Florence providing much-needed third cornerback help against pass-happy NFL offenses. Adams, meanwhile, gets the job of replacing Brian Dawkins at safety.
And it’s at safety where Denver had its most issues in 2011, as rookies Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore found the NFL learning curve to be steep. One of those two (likely Carter) will be in the starting lineup again this year. Assuming all these new faces gel, the Broncos could be much better against the pass.
3. How will the offensive line adjust?: The Broncos have a promising young front on offense, with Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin locking down the tackle spots and third-year man J.D. Walton improving as 2011 went along at center. Denver also hopes guard Chris Kuper will be ready to go by September after suffering a gruesome dislocated ankle and fractured tibia during Week 17.
Pro Football Focus actually graded out Denver’s offensive line as the worst in the league in the run game last year — an assessment that runs in stark contrast to the Broncos’ NFL-best rushing attack. Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno are back, and Denver used a draft pick on San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman.
Things will look much different for the front five, though, with Manning calling the shots instead of the mobile Tebow. That switch should make everyone better — Manning’s ability to read defenses and make quick decisions aids his offensive line more than Tebow’s scrambling ability. But it’s a drastic change to go from the run-first, read-option attack Tebow led to Manning’s heavy-shotgun aerial assault. Denver’s young line has to show it’s capable of making the switch.
Outlook: Win a division championship, win a playoff game, upgrade at QB from a major question mark to a future Hall of Famer.
What could possibly go wrong?
If all of Denver’s moves this offseason work out, from Manning to a new set of tight ends to the secondary additions, then not only will this team be the odds-on favorite in the AFC West, but it should be in the hunt for a deep playoff run.
And yet, it will be hard to recreate the lightning that the Broncos harnessed during Tebow’s time at the helm. One awkward hit on Manning could totally derail any progress this franchise has made, no offense to Hanie, the new backup QB in town.
There is a very high ceiling for this team … and a very low floor.