On defense there was confusion everywhere for both teams. In Denver, Bob Slowik is gone, replaced by Mike Nolan who will bring the 3-4 and hybrid defense to our cow town. The change to a 3-4 and 3-4 hybrid will require new players and new coaching, but McD feels that they are up to the challenge.
For the Chargers, Ted Cottrell was tossed during the season, and was replaced by Ron Rivera. Rivera started the off-season by hiring friends, in defensive-line coach Don Johnson and the secondary coach Steve Wilks. Both Johnson and Wilks worked with Rivera in Chicago when he was the Bears’ defensive coordinator. Johnson had spent the past two seasons with the Raiders and Wilks was let go from Chicago. They will stay with the same scheme. Rivera is noted for a more aggressive, blitzing D than Ted Cottrell preferred.
For both teams, the D-Line is a problem. The Broncos’ Mike Nolan was brought in for a change to the 3-4 plus some hybrid play, according to McD, and they will require a NT, new approaches at DE that include the tough, young Marcus Thomas and a proposed change to OLB for Elvis Dumervil and Jarvis Moss. The Broncos may ask Kenny Petersen back at a new contract rate since he played well at 3-4 DE early in the season. The Broncos got Wayne Nunnely as D-Line coach when the Chargers let him go, so they have the 3-4 line coaching in place. SD DE Igor Olshansky is a FA this offseason but Nunnely isn’t said to be high on him: the Chargers don't want him either. Darrell Reid has been brought in by the Broncos but may be best on special teams.
The Bolts lost a respected coach in Nunnely, and Johnson has his hands full with these players. What was considered a great strength for the Bolts in ’07 turned to ashes for most of the ’08 season.
12-year player Jamal Williams is 33 and had several injuries – his knees may be going and he had an overall poor year. He had both knee and shoulder surgeries last month. He will be 35 when his contract is up and they need a NT nearly as badly as do the Broncos.
Igor Olshansky was often benched late in the season, and the Chargers played better using Williams and Castillo or adding 5th-year Nebraska player Ryon Bingham. Olshansky is gone, replaced by Bingham who is also the backup NT. Young 295 lb. Jacques Cesaire just had a shoulder surgery - he backs up at DE.
At LB, there are issues on both squads. The Broncos are looking to revamp their corps. DJ Williams proved once again that he’s a team guy by restructuring his bonus money to give the Broncos more flexibility and the Broncos hope that also indicates a new level of resolve and a return to excellence in play from him. Where he might play is yet to be established. Spencer Larsen may stay as a LB and could be a serviceable ILB since the 3-4 plays to his strengths; Woodyard and Bailey are likely to stay on as well. Doom and Moss will be trying out the transition to OLB. While Bailey is a good fit there when healthy, that hasn’t been for long in my memory.
Looking at that group leads you to consider that the Broncos will go for LBs in FA and/or the draft. The additions of Doom and/or Moss at OLB give us new options IF they work out, but we will still need depth and possibly an infusion or upgrade of talent. As of this writing, the Broncos are looking at ILB Andra Davis.
The Revolving Door: For the Lightning Lads, you’d have to start the 2008 discussion with the missing impact of the injured Shawne Merriman, whose contract is up in 2009. He should be back next season to bolster the squad, but beyond that, if his knee heals properly he may find a bigger paycheck elsewhere. The Bolts hope not. Purdue’s Shaun Phillips played well, but he clearly missed the presence of Merriman a lot. Young Jyles Tucker, who transitioned from DE at Wake Forest to OLB for SD, spent time hurt but he shows considerable promise.
The best surprise was Antwan Applewhite, who was called up from the practice squad and really produced. Applewhite showed that he is a decent player and has a nose for the ball. The Chargers could try to lock up Applewhite to a team-friendly deal this off-season. 3rd-year player Tim Dobbins is a solid ST player and is currently listed as the first LILB in front of Matt Wilhelm, who just had shoulder surgery. Brandon Siler is their third option.
Stephen Cooper was suspended for 4 games until October, but by November his play was outstanding. Matt Wilhelm lost his starting job in October but improved late; Dobbins was a pleasant surprise, but neither of them made anyone forget what Donnie Edwards used to be (SDU-T). Wilhelm has another season to show reasons why he should stay; he needs to find consistency to do so. Dobbins will probably return. Brandon Siler, with a good off-season, could get playing time. 2nd-year Clemson player Anthony Waters, who played outside this season, apparently could return to the inside but it isn't certain any of them will be the starter next to Cooper. Derek Smith is in the mix.
Linebackers coach John Pagano should be congratulated on doing a Bobby Turner-like job with his corps in 2008. It was a tough year for SD LBs.
The Broncos are undergoing some major changes at cornerback. Dre’ Bly has gone from being poorly-used to being cut to get out from his unwieldy contract. Josh Bell rose from the practice squad with a consistent attitude that led to some good play. Champ Bailey is still one of the best, but his contract is drawing fire from the fan-base, although right now it looks as if the Broncos will be happy to keep him. Jack Williams may get better – he’s very tough, but needs to improve his coverage skills. The Broncos will bring in or draft another corner or two by OTAs, and as of this writing are said to be negotiating with Dolpins FA CB Andre Goodman, who led the Fish last year with 5 interceptions.
At corner, the Chargers were surprisingly as weak as Denver. The Bolts probably wished that they had kept Josh Bell; he would have filled an empty slot. 2006 1st-round pick Antonio Cromartie said he had a chronic hip injury and mostly just disappeared. Quentin Jammer was a total stud who didn’t let up. Rookie RCB Antoine Cason played well, but as is usual with a rookie was spotty at times. Cromartie may lose his job if Cason matures. They still need a third CB, so they placed a 2nd-round tender on young CB Cletis Gordon. Jammer remains a shining beacon for them.
The Chargers may bring back former Bolt CB Drayton Florence. He went to Jacksonville as a free agent last season but he was recently cut. Florence has already visited Buffalo, and would be a role player if he returns to San Diego.
The safety position was another tough area for both teams. In SoCal, SS Clinton Hart has a 5-year deal but lost his starting job late in the season to CB/S Steve Gregory. FS Eric Weddle was often excellent but at times inconsistent. Paul Oliver played behind him and showed some skill, while Gregory really didn’t. They will need help here. Weddle will improve, but Gregory may be nothing more than a band-aid even though his versatility might keep his slot. They will be looking for help.
On the Denver side of the Divide, Josh Barrett clearly has potential but needs to continue to develop and not over-think his plays. The Broncos felt that the answer was to bring in a legend in Brian Dawkins and a serviceable starter in Renaldo Hill. If all goes well, Dawkins will impart some of his incredible knowledge and expertise until Barrett is ready to start full time.
Let's face it - a secondary of Champ Bailey, Brian Dawkins, Renaldo Hill and possibly Andre Goodman beats the heck out of anything the Broncos have fielded in a long time.
It’s tough when your bright spot is ST, but ask the Denver fans what it’s like to not have them working. The Broncos haven’t solved this piece of the puzzle yet, but brought in veteran and well-respected ST coach Mike Priefer from division rival Kansas City to begin the process when Scottie O’Brien’s legendary X’s and O’s didn’t pan out. They do have some players such as Larsen and Woodyard who have shown skill and passion on ST. Eddie Royal is a major talent and Arrington may start in returns as well. Reid and Larsen together hold three of the best ST hits on film.
Prater may or may not be back, and if he is there should be competition. Kern did a very good job, and he’ll have a chance to keep his job in training camp. Right now, the surprise of free agency was the Broncos bringing in veteran long snapper Lonie Paxton - longtime Broncos favorite Mike Leach is said to have asked for his release.
For the Chargers, right now their STs are a very nice thing. Mike Scifres is golden but had surgery on his knees in the off-season. Nate Kaeding can stay despite his lowest average (84.4) in years: that’s still very good. Sproles is very, very dangerous on both punt and kick returns. We all know how smart it is to keep him. Cromartie backs up Sproles on both return games. The Chargers will probably stand pat.
Despite very different predictions to start the 2008 season, these two teams showed multiple problems and weaknesses that are very similar. Both dealt with clawing adversity, long injury lists and both need to retool substantially to become serious playoff candidates.
Last year, no one counted on the Broncos – they proved people right with a disappointing D and a huge fade down the stretch. The Chargers were anointed the preseason Super Bowl favorite. They proved everyone wrong, and kept talking about having turned things around during their last year, forgetting why they call that the past. They fell into the playoffs only on the Broncos’ collapse but showed Indy that they belonged there, which the Broncos probably wouldn’t have done. But both teams finished 8-8.
Both have a stellar QB, but the similarities end there. The Broncos only need depth on their staunch O-Line while SD needs everything but a Pro Bowl guard. Each has an aging center, although Casey Wiegmann has been an utter wall while Nick Hardwick struggled this year.
Both teams have one solid running back – Hillis and Sproles each have a lot of questions behind them. The Broncos are hoping for production (and a lot of receptions) from their new arrivals and must find or develop a fullback, hopefully other than Larsen. The Chargers must resolve the issues with LDT and find a back for the future. SD's Hester looks to be the future at fullback right now.
The differences are nowhere as stark at WR. Both do have a good, 1,000-yard off-field problem child, but Marshall has cleaned up his act and the Broncos have two excellent WRs behind him in Eddie Royal and Brandon Stokley. They have to decide on a fourth WR and have a condidate in Gaffney. Apparently they will bring in another for competition, possibly David Anderson.
SD’s best receiver has a second DUI, the inconsistent Chambers behind him, the middling Floyd alongside and SD has a first-rounder who has to prove that his name, Buster, isn’t prophetic. They need better options.
Both need a NT and help on the D-Line. Both have some strength at LB but there is mutual debate as to how much. Both need help in the secondary – the Broncos brought in safety help and are looking for their new corner, but it's safe to say that they have upgraded. Each team has a great veteran at CB. Right now, SD has a young vet who suddenly faded in Cromartie, and for the Broncos, add Josh Berl and Jack Williams to that mix. Both need more. The Bolts have one great player in Jammer. Denver brought in an aging legend to see if he's still powerful and the steady and the productive Renaldo Hill while the potential of Josh Barrett matures. The Bolts have a smart player in Eric Weddle but need a bigger, tougher safety next to him, and they are very thin at safety.
Both are retooling their staffs: Denver more so than SD, but both are making substantial changes.
Moving forward, you might look for some gamesmanship in the draft – Do we use that 1st-round pick to prevent SD from getting a top-notch RB as Styg once suggested, or do we deal with our own bigger issues? Where does either team get a NT, D-line help, another LB and some strength in the secondary?
The main conclusion that writing this brought was that there really is a difference. The Broncos are a team swiftly on the rise. AJ Smith should be concerned - If you take the nucleus on offense that Mike Shanahan left behind and add to that a better scheme, better use of the running and passing games, and a greatly improved defensive secondary, and you realize that it's only the 1st weekend of free agency, you see a stark contrast between the two clubs. A month ago they were similar teams and San Diego was a little stronger. That is quickly being erased.
The Chargers have a lot of good pieces. They may have become stuck in the mode of protecting what they thought they had, instead of planning on how it would get better the following season. The willingness of Bowlen to cross a line and remove his friend and legendary coach and install a new coach, management, system and players should tell you something. Because of past success, Smith may have seen a transient level of excellence as a foundation of bedrock instead of a single moment in an endless river of change.
However it shakes out, this is going to be a seriously fun retooling season for the MHR faithful. The Broncos are a fast changing team, and the 2009 Denver/Chargers story is yet to be written. Watch the Mile High Report for more.
Originally posted at MHR