Another free agency period dwindles away, and the draft is finally in the books. Most of us are about to fall over, myself among them. Doug, Ted, and TJ did an incredible job - again. Now I wanted to consider the team as it stands.
The question always comes up after free agency and the draft have given the Broncos a wealth of new talent. How will these players be used? Are some of them just practice squad/training camp bodies? Are the Broncos a stronger team today than they were in January?
My sense is that it would be hard to say no to the latter. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say that so and so will be cut, has no chance, is the waste of a roster slot. Then so and so turns into a star, and everyone forgets last season’s comments.
That said, a lot of what Denver did makes a whole lot of sense. They’re faster, deeper, and stronger. Over the next four months, they’ll have to get from 90 players down to 53, plus eight more on the practice squad.
There were and are always holes. John Elway hit the nail on the head on Saturday when he said that the team wasn’t building to win now, as people say. It’s building to keep on winning - Peyton Manning or not. That attitude is the one I resonate most with. It’s the essence of maintaining a winning franchise. Good drafting and best use of free agency go a long way to reaching the final goal, so let’s look at where the Broncos are.
Denver grabbed the attacking DE DeMarcus Ware to complement Von Miller, who should return to the field and the fold. Hopefully, Von’s gotten a taste of what happens when you go wrong, and is more mature for the experience.
Ware is a 6’4”, 258 lb, quarterback-seeking missile.
Quanterus Smith, a fifth-round ‘redshirt’ pick from 2013, is a relatively unknown player who’s 6’5” and 255 lb. He had 24 sacks and 41 tackles for loss in college. Denver has to wonder how he will do in the NFL.
Both will be playing at various times across from Miller, who should be in his regular OLB/DE role. Ware is likely to be the main DE opposite Derek Wolfe, who I’m very glad to see has seen no lingering effects of his disorder. Opponents will have to choose their poison - who do you double team? Who do you think you can stop, one on one?
Aqib Talib came in to replace Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie. He and Chris Harris will join Bradley Roby, giving them one of the stronger cornerback crews in the league. All three, particularly Harris and Roby, can play inside or out.
The tough T.J. Ward has the strong safety slot nailed down. Hopefully, Rahim Moore’s leg injury will heal by camp. They’d make a fine pair at the back end. Quinton Carter remains a question mark, but played well back in his rookie season of 2011. If he’s recovered, he’s also a good option.
Emmanuel Sanders is a fine fill-in player. What I mean by that is that he can go into the slot or play on the edge. He joins Andre Caldwell, Wes Welker, and Demaryius Thomas, with TE Orange Julius Thomas. Now, Cody Latimer can come in and develop. Teams will still suffer just as much trying to stop Peyton Manning and his receiving corps.
Putting the last concern first, the team not drafting a running back shows two things. One, it feels good about their current crew. Two, they also knew that there would be tons of RBs left undrafted. Brennan Clay, Kapri Bibbs, and Juwan Thompson are all getting their shot.
Montee Ball is still the expected bell cow of the group, and should dominate the position. Ronnie Hillman was very young coming into the league. If he can mature enough to hold onto the ball, he could be a good change of pace back.
Jerodis Williams is the fourth back, but he’ll have to work hard or they’ll take a couple of the UDFAs over him. Clay and Bibbs are already getting vocal advocates based on watching their games.
There’s been a near-constant concern of fans with the linebacker corps. Denver was playing mind games when Elway said that they’re comfortable with their linebackers. The Broncos took two and I wouldn’t let the lower picks fool you. Both have led their teams in tackles. Corey Nelson did until he partially tore his pectoral muscle and had to have it surgically repaired. Lamin Barrow did it all year long in 2013. He was second on the team in tackles in 2012.
One issue is size. Effort and technique are essential, but Nelson is 6’1” and 221 lb. That’s light even for a nickel, but it’s fine for special teams. That means he’ll have to beat some people out to make the squad. It’s his first real hurdle. Barrow is 16 lb heavier, giving him a serious shot at nickel/Mike. Irving will have some competition for the early downs.
Nelson says that he feels fine and is anxious to get to work. It’s usually a six-month healing cycle for that injury/surgery, and he’s at 3.5 months. He’s either a fast healer or very optimistic - but he’ll be fine for OTAs. That’s his first chance to learn special teams.
Barrow’s got a smallish frame, although he can still add muscle weight. He badly needs to learn how to shed and use his hands. His good side is that he’s fast, quick and skilled in both zone and man coverage. Consider, though, the importance of the nickel and dime packages. The nickel LB is more likely to handle pass protection than run stopping. In that environment, either player might learn to contribute soon. Barrow will bite on play action and fakes at times.
I believe that special teams will welcome Barrow and Nelson. Their speed and effectiveness in coverage, along with their tackling skill is what ST coaches are looking for. These are the kind of players who can develop for the nickelback position, which has become essential. Lamin Barrow’s got an edge via his speed and size. His 40-yard dash ranked third among all linebackers at the combine. He was listed as the second best ILB by several scouting sources. I’ve watching him play several times and think that he can play that well.
The Broncos still have a lot of faith in Nate Irving. His numbers from last year bear that out. He scored a +3.2 in passing coverage and a 3.0 in run stopping, ending with a cumulative 5.0 from PFF. I don’t see a problem in moving him into the middle on early downs. He’s learned to handle nearly everything to attack him, since he was a fill-in for Von Miller. His run stopping and pass coverage are about equal. He can handle a couple of early snaps in the middle.
Denver took a smallish, very tough center in Matt Paradis, and a right tackle in Michael Schofield. Michigan tried Schofield for 10 games at left guard, and found that he’s a natural right tackle. He will struggle with speed rushers until Dave Magazu spends time teaching him how to move his feet and how to use his hands. Orlando Franklin needed to learn the same things when he arrived.
Schofield plays best when he understands his assignment, and Manning will demand that he does. He seemed lost at times when opposing defenses got creative. He’s got the frame to add considerable muscle weight, and he’ll need it. He and Luke Richesson’s crew will become fast friends next year.
Paradis has a singular ability to lock up with his assignment, getting his hands into him and controlling him. Schofield is a ‘pusher’, a lineman who uses his punch to knock the defender back. That’s fine for passing situations, and he has a good punch.
But I saw too many defensive players on film back out, leave him, then get back into the play. It was usually on a run, but sometimes when the QB has left the pocket. That’s also a technique issue - and the Broncos have the right coaches to straighten that out. Paradis has unusually good technique for a player coming out of college. That minimizes his smaller size. Like Schofield, he’s got the frame to add muscle weight. His ability to lock into his defenders makes up for a lot. He has very strong hands.
No defensive tackles were taken, but Denver doesn’t have a problem there. The DTs are already in place, and they did a good job last year, even after Kevin Vickerson went down. Terrance Knighton was an absolute monster last year.
Sylvester Williams showed good progress that should blossom in 2014. Getting Vickerson’s strength and leadership back should be a positive. Next year, I’d love to see a couple of linemen come in - Denver currently has seven draft slots, and may add as many as four comp picks, so they can move around and buy some quality.
In a way, the decision of not taking a defensive tackle this year says a lot that’s good about the Broncos' DTs. Mitch Unrein should see it as a vote of confidence. He’s low man on that totem pole, but I never cringe to see him come in. Neither does Denver.
A lot of what we’ll see this year is much like last year. Cody Latimer is an excellent blocker and a physical wide receiver - that’s a combination you don’t see enough. Physicality was the watchword in this offseason.
T.J. Ward has it, Aqib Talib has it, and Chris Harris has always had it.
Light as he is, Corey Nelson loves to hit. DeMarcus Ware has it in spades, as do Knighton and Co. The defensive line is stronger than ever, and the linebacking corps is deeper. Since nickel is the new base, it’s good to see how much attention it got this offseason. This year's LBs were chosen for their speed, tackling, and coverage skills. That’s what a nickelbacker needs. Danny Trevathan can’t do it all by himself.
The offensive line has added two physical players. They may need some development, but that’s normal with new linemen. College and the NFL are different environments. The classes now are up to you. They’re measured by how much time you spend in the film room and the training room. The grades are judged by your performance on the field. Preparation is everything.
The coaches that teach you are elite - they've worked on that position for many years. There’s a nutritionist on staff, and carefully chosen food choices in the cafeteria for all meals. Luke Richesson and his people are among the best in the league at physical training and rehab. Above all, what we see now began with the vision that John Elway expressed on the third day of the draft. Denver is trying to win from now on.
So far, it’s gotten the team to winning the Wild Card round, hosting the Divisional Round, and winning the AFC Championship. That's good for three seasons. There’s only one goal left now. Everyone in the organization focuses on achieving it. The group of returning players and new additions will help to make that happen.
It’s the year of the Super Bowl.