Happy Tuesday, friends. I decided to write some season preview content over the next few days, since I spent most of the month of August buried with fiscal year-end work, and since I’ll spend half of September traveling. When the time to write presents itself, I’ll write.
Today, I want to write about the Broncos. This article will cover offense, and another one discussing the defense will follow tomorrow. I’ll also get into projecting the rest of the AFC and the NFC.
That’ll take us right to kickoff of the Packers-Seahawks season opener, and from there, we’ll see what we’ll see.
So, given that, let’s start with the home team. This has been a most unusual preseason for the Broncos, because I don’t feel like I really learned very much that I didn’t know before. A few players near the bottom of the roster, like Juwan Thompson and Brandon Marshall, distinguished themselves, and showed more than I thought they had, but they’re probably not going to play major roles throughout the 19-game season.
The Broncos are just too good, and too deep for fringe guys to emerge at meaningful levels. The fact that this happened last year with a guy like Duke Ihenacho, and the related fact that he just got waived shows the difference between the depth of the 2014 Broncos vs. that of the 2013 Broncos.
I thought I’d share some thoughts, position-by-position, and then tie it all up with a little orange and blue bow. Or something.
Obviously, the chances of the 2014 Broncos ride heavily on the health and productivity of Peyton Manning. In the preseason, he threw the ball very well, and seemed to be in good health. A reality of 2013 that will be little-remembered is that Manning played a significant portion of the season with an injured ankle.
I’ve seen it said a couple of times that Manning can’t possibly match last season’s success, and regression to the mean, and blah blah blah. Don’t buy any of it – if Manning and his key offensive teammates stay healthy, the Broncos can improve on their success of 2013.
As for Brock Osweiler, I think this team would probably still win the AFC West if Manning got hurt and nobody else did. Osweiler’s talent is apparent when he has played, and he showed a lot of improvement over last preseason. I really don’t expect him to be the “QB of the future” (that stupid reporter concept) for the Broncos, because I think Manning can and will play for several more seasons. Osweiler is talented enough to play well in the NFL, though.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Broncos draft another young guy next year, and reset the developmental program, similar to what the Patriots just did with Jimmy Garoppolo and Ryan Mallett. I can only hope the Broncos get more than a conditional seventh-rounder for Osweiler, though, lest his detractors drop dead from an acute case of the vapors.
Zac Dysert has enough talent to be a quality long-term backup. I’m glad to see him back on the practice squad.
I was a little skeptical of the Broncos’ decision to let Knowshon Moreno walk this offseason, because he was the unsung hero of the team in 2013. I wasn’t sure about Montee Ball’s ability to play in the Broncos’ passing game, but I feel better based on what I saw in his only preseason action. He caught the ball well, and did okay blocking, in a small sample. There’s no doubt that Ball is more dynamic with the ball than Moreno is, though.
Ronnie Hillman is listed second on the depth chart right now, but it will probably only take one or two fumbles before he loses that status. He still seems to be what he’s always been – a fast, but not particularly shifty guy who goes down like he’s made of paper.
C.J. Anderson is a pretty interesting guy, and I like the way he runs behind his pads. He’s a little bit similar to Ball, in that his natural run skills have been more evident than his abilities in the passing game.
I think that it may not be long before Juwan Thompson is playing on a lot of third downs for the Broncos. He doesn’t have the look and feel of the traditional “scatback” third-down guy, and he’s a rookie, but he came from a sophisticated passing offense at Duke, and I like the way he’s looked as a blocker in the preseason. No, Peter Kings of the world, a third-down back doesn't necessarily need to be small.
Kapri Bibbs scored a few touchdowns against third stringers in the preseason, and he will have a chance to develop his skills on the practice squad. I saw some people calling him a touchdown machine on Twitter Thursday night, though, and that’s pretty premature.
Demaryius Thomas has grown up to be one of the five or so best receivers in the NFL. He’s always been big, fast, and strong, but what put him in the highest tier of receivers has been his continual improvement as a route runner. He’s set himself way apart from the majority of the linear size-speed guys with the fluidity of his breaks. He’s also the only Broncos receiver who didn’t play like he was scared in the Super Bowl, and he gets love from me for that.
Emmanuel Sanders really impressed me with his work in the preseason. I always viewed him as an average second or third receiver when he was in Pittsburgh, but he seems to have really taken to more of a precision/timing centered offense (small sample alert). I think he'll definitely be tougher than Eric Decker, who is a good player whom I think most of us got tired of by the end of his run.
Wes Welker probably should retire, but it doesn’t appear that he’s going to. I never really felt like the Broncos used him as heavily as the Patriots did, to where a lot of plays were set up to primarily get him the ball. He did well for the Broncos, though, in a support role, and it’s reasonable to expect him to do so again if he can keep his head safe.
I thought that Cody Latimer looked raw in the preseason, but you could see his evident talent at times too. You never like to see a guy get a concussion on the field, but the block that Latimer threw on Antoine Bethea was pretty serious. I expect a developmental year from Latimer, and I think that he’ll be a star on special teams right away.
Andre Caldwell is a reliable pro who has value in knowing the offense. Isaiah Burse looks like just a guy to me; I hope he can help as a punt returner, but really, I wouldn’t be surprised if Welker ends up with that job.
In keeping with the rest of this article, this looks like it will be a good group. Of course, it starts with Julius Thomas, who of course, emerged from the fringes of the roster last year, in a more real and lasting way than Ihenacho did. Thomas finally stayed healthy and learned how to play as a down-the-seam receiver. His growth area is as a blocker, where he usually loses.
Jacob Tamme has a lot of familiarity with Manning, and he’s a proficient flex/slot kind of TE. Tamme isn’t athletically dynamic, but he is a reliable chain-mover. He’s also a good special teams player, after not playing much in the kicking game in his earlier years.
Virgil Green is more of a two-way TE than either Thomas or Tamme. My pal Jeff Legwold has been making himself hard over thoughts of a “three yards and a cloud of dust” Broncos team playing 13 personnel, and I find that unlikely. I do see Green playing a good deal in 12 personnel though, and the fact that he can play fullback is also useful. He’s actually a better receiver than people think, too.
After watching the Super Bowl, one of my lasting impressions was that the bill had finally come due on Ryan Clady’s injury. Clady is one of the best left tackles in the NFL, and I had gotten used to the idea that the Broncos had overcome his loss. Against the best pass rushers, though, Chris Clark was overmatched. Clady has outstanding feet, and he looked better each game in the preseason, over limited snaps.
The Broncos moved Orlando Franklin to left guard this year, and he should be an upgrade over the departed Zane Beadles. Franklin won’t be as quick in the pulling/trapping game as Beadles, but he’ll be more stout with his anchor in pass protection. His lack of lateral quickness will be hidden by the fact that he has other blockers along both sides of him; he got beaten a lot to the edge by the elite left-side pass rushers over the last three years.
Manny Ramirez did a good job at center last season after moving over from guard. He struggled in the Super Bowl, but Pro Football Focus had him fourth in the NFL in 2013. I expect him to continue to improve, and to do a quality job inside.
Louis Vazquez came in from San Diego as a fairly high-dollar free agent signing, and he delivered excellent value on that contract. PFF had him as the NFL’s third best guard, and best right guard. Vazquez is a bit unusual in the fact that he doesn’t use his hands very much or very well, but he’s quite effective with what he does do. His three penalties in 2013 were two more than he’d had in his entire career to date.
Clark moves in at right tackle, and I think that he’ll be an upgrade there over Franklin, particularly as he gets more accustomed to having his hands and feet be backward from what used to be. As I said about three years ago, the NFL has evolved to the point where teams try to have quality speed rushers on both sides. That leaves teams in the position of needing right tackles with left tackle feet and skills. That’s what I expect to see from Clark.
As good as the starters are for the Broncos, which is maybe the best in the NFL, the backups aren’t so great. Paul Cornick seems to have won the job as the swing tackle, because he looked a lot more ready to play than rookie Michael Schofield. I saw Schofield get dominated a lot of the time, and I think he's going to be a gameday inactive most of the time.
Center Will Montgomery was signed to compete with Ramirez, and he seemed to lose the battle decisively. Still, though, he’s played a lot of football, and he’s the only backup lineman I have much faith in.
Finally, there’s Ben Garland, who’s had a lot of digital ink spilled about him lately. He looked like he’s starting to get some skills as an offensive lineman this preseason, and maybe there’s something there in addition to his gritty, lunch-pail, blue-collarness that captivates football writers so.
That’s what I have for now, friends. Check me out tomorrow for some discussion about the defense.