Moving forward

Okay, so Denver’s in deep kimchi. I know it, you know it, and we all want to see this improve. The applicable question, simply, is, "How?" What follows are a few things that we may see enjoyable production from - there’s nothing more boring than an endless list of problems. We all know what those are - well, most of us do. They’ve been talked about, analyzed statistically and broken down via film, but how about some bright spots? They may not solve the team's problems - in fact they won’t, by themselves - but it’s worthwhile to consider that there are bright spots to find on the 2010 Broncos with players who have substantial careers still in front of them.

Taking this from member comments and from watching film, I’d have to say that TE Dan Gronkowski is developing nicely, and I’m glad to see it. Having done a Broncography on Gronk, I’m admittedly a bit prejudiced. I have also called him out when he whiffs on a block or drops an easy pass, but I’m overall with IAOFM reader Fan in Exile - Gronk is showing a lot of signs of becoming an excellent TE. This, despite having been Mr. Penultimate and the player we got back for Alphonso Smith. By the way, Antonio Gates? UDFA out of college. Sometimes, draft rank means less than nothing.

DE Kevin Vickerson may be the player in Denver that he never was in Tennessee - partly because the Titans are deep enough that many of their backups need more playing time to become the best play they can, and they aren’t going to get it in Nashville. Sometimes a change in scenery can work wonders. Vick has been a big improvement and he’s been missed of late.

That level of depth is present in Baltimore, too, and it accounts in great part for DE Justin Bannan’s interest in playing for Denver (which was predicted by none other than Trevor Pryce, who is still making a monkey of Mike Shanahan’s decision not to pay him). Bannan only started one year in Baltimore, but put up good numbers playing both NT and LDE. He’s been quietly solid on the left side - once LB Robert Ayers returns, that should be a strength for Denver. Ayers, too, was excoriated by both the local and national media last year, and all without any of them looking at 5 minutes of film, the mimic hounds picked up the cry. Actually, Ayers improved visibly throughout the season and was excellent this year until suffering the broken bone in his foot.

The same is true on the right side of the line - Ryan McBean needs to get ‘coached up’ or spend more time on technique:  he actually seemed to regress when he moved from LDE to RDE, and I have to wonder if it’s the right role for him. Vickerson’s return to the starting position there with LB Jason Hunter next to him, (another player who never found his niche until Denver), should help out a lot. Hunter did a solid job at LDE in a 40 front last year for Detroit, contributing 5 sacks and 34 tackles, but he’s a monster at ROLB.

Oddly, Green Bay sent Hunter to Detroit because they didn’t think that he could make the switch to OLB, and tried to force Aaron Kampman into the position instead, which Kampman hated and was vocally opposed to. Both are gone now, and both are highly productive at their ‘new’ slots with new teams. In retrospect, GB could and probably should have kept both and just moved them to the appropriate slots that each wanted - Kampman to a 3-4 DE and Hunter to OLB. Such are the advantages of hindsight. 

DL Marcus Thomas is starting to look more like a second-rounder than the fourth-rounder he was, to note some draft issues. He dropped from the first round (overrated, I thought) on his cannabis bust, and Mike Shanahan took a chance on him in the fourth. In fact, Shanny gave up a sixth-rounder and a seventh-rounder in that 2007 Draft and then a third-rounder in 2008 to take Thomas. Despite a lot of criticism, Thomas has moved all over, and eventually, that has turned into his strength. Having a quality backup with multiple position skills is one of the Holy Grails of the NFL.

To clarify this by analogy, you know how badly Denver needs a solid, talented backup who could play any position along the OL? Zane Beadles won my devoted affection - as did JD Walton - for publicly announcing that he was learning all 5 positions; if for nothing else, for him to be as versatile as Denver needs him to be, and to understand what each of his position mates are doing. I’d love to see him plugged in where I think he belongs as the left guard, but I admire his stance on the career approach. He’s still a rookie, and a rookie with problems moving laterally, especially to the right, which is what he’s had to do recently. That will change once former All-Pro Ryan Harris returns at RT and Beadles is another positive. His attitude and his effort are visible, even when he struggles to make the lateral move. I’d like to move him laterally to the LG position.

If Denver can move him to his appropriate position and let him settle in there, I’d like to echo something that’s been said in this week’s media by several commentators: The healthy combination of Ryan Clady at LT, Beadles at LG, Walton at C, Chris Kuper at RG and a healthy Harris at RT is being considered by several of the better GMs around the league as quickly becoming one of the top OLs in the league. There’s some projection at work there - Beadles hasn’t played much LG, and none at this level. Both he and Walton will have to mature. Even so - the future there is brighter than most fans can handle considering right now. Consider it anyway. It’s worth your time.

Marcus Thomas has become that same kind of player for the defense, putting in solid performances at all three of the DL positions. I watched him over the past couple of games - Denver didn’t play well, but he generally did. Playing well is often contagious - as is playing badly. Studies have shown that it’s easier to be contagious from a negative experience, such as playing poorly, and Denver needs to have enough good, solid players to tip the balance onto the good side. Thomas has taken a lot of flak over the past 3+ years since he was drafted in 2007, but he’s grown into a consistent player who works hard, gives consistent effort and is continuing to improve. There’s no chance of him going to the Pro Bowl any time soon, but Denver needs solid consistency more than anything right now. Some star players would, are and will be great (and we have some in Champ, Doom, Dawk, Brandon Lloyd (finally), Clady, Harris (when healthy) and Eddie Royal), but the cast around them more often than not determines the outcome of the games.

Anything else? You bet. Never ignore the ST. Bringing in special-teams ace Joe Mays - who describes himself with great pride as a ST player who also plays some defense - was a great move. Last year’s top ST tackler Darcel McBath has been out with a broken arm, but he’s due back to help spark the squad. He’s also been excellent in his limited reps as a coverage safety in the mold of none other than Renaldo Hill. David Bruton (by the way, his son, Jaden, born on November 4, 2005 had a birthday this past week, so congratulations to him) has been a top ST performer, and he also did well in limited reps on game day. While no one will ever take over Brian Dawkins’ effect on the team, Bruton may well play as a top-notch strong or free safety. He’s strong, very fast, (he was timed between 4.32 and 4.52 in the 40, had an 11-foot broad jump and a 41.5-inch vertical leap, so his natural tools are very good. There was only one other safety to break 4.5 at Combine), he hits very hard and is learning the NFL game behind the best in the business. One more young, good safety will be a requirement soon in case of injury, but the base is there.

Are there others? Sure. CB Perrish Cox is one, and a big one. WR Demaryius Thomas is maturing, and you might notice that Georgia Tech is struggling without him in the passing attack that makes that triple option really go. Eric Decker hasn’t broken into the receiving corp yet, but he shows great promise. We all know about the veteran WRs and the kind of numbers the QB is putting up. DJ Williams has improved quite a bit this year at LB - he needed to, but it’s happening, and being at a single position for more than a year is a great help to him. He’s expensive, but I expect him to return at the same position. Spencer Larsen is fierce. Let’s not forget that Denver is also playing without the league’s leading sackmaster from 2009 in Elvis Dumervil, who is due back in 2011, if they play at all. So, rather than just look at the problems, which are neither few nor simple, I think that it’s worth taking a few minutes to look at the solid things that Denver has managed in the past 1.5 years.

1.5 years. That’s all it’s been, although it seems much longer. It’s not yet a tick of the cosmic clock, even if it’s considered a long time in football. People will cry out for winning NOW, but when you’re given a very large pile of manure, it may take a while to dig out the pony. In the meantime, there’s a lot of very good things that have been and are happening right in front of us. Most fans look at the score and the standings, and leave it at that. That’s fine, too.

But IAOFM is about more than glancing at the surface. A deeper examination shows that Denver, for all its faults, has come a long way toward rebuilding what was and will again be a top notch organization. And that excites me. In the end, it’s like I always say,

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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