Happy Sunday, friends. Since we’re approaching training camp, it seems like a good time to start prospectively discussing some 2013 Denver Broncos football. What do you think about that?
It’s really been since draft season since we had much substantive football material to talk about, and I’ve decided to reconvene the conversation at IAOFM by writing what is hopefully a thought-provoking article.
The case has been made by some people that the Broncos have the best overall 1-53 talent in the NFL. I agree with those people, and I don’t see an area of the team that is below-average. You have to line up on Sunday and do it, but this team is capable of winning the Super Bowl in 2013. There are (and can be) no expectation management efforts going on for this edition of the Broncos.
When I look at this roster, it’s kind of amazing how quickly and how well the talent that comprises it came together, and was developed. Just two years ago, the Broncos were picking second in the NFL Draft; as much as people blame the coaching of the departed Josh McDaniels for the 2010 debacle, the reality is that he was in the middle of a complete teardown of what had been organizationally deemed an unworkable model at the time.
I was thinking about which position grouping represents the Broncos’ biggest strength, since there are really no weaknesses. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days, and I can make a case for several groupings. I’m going to do so, and then I want you to vote in the poll and/or make your own case in the comment section.
Let’s get our in-season football brains working, shall we? The following are the position groupings that I think have a case to be made as the best on the Broncos’ roster for 2013.
Obviously, Peyton Manning is the main reason that the Broncos are such overdogs in 2013. He joined a team with a lot of good, young talent last season, and that talent coalesced around him as the season progressed. Once everybody started getting on the same page offensively, the Broncos went on an 11-game winning streak.
Manning is reportedly throwing the ball better than he did last season, but the fact is, he threw the ball just fine coming off the four neck surgeries. With his anticipation and accuracy, you don’t need a “laser rocket arm,” and of course, Manning never had one to begin with. Manning’s movement skills looked terrific last season, and he shows no real signs of being as old as he is.
The backup, Brock Osweiler, is as talented as any backup in the NFL, but he’s obviously not experienced. Osweiler would have most probably been the consensus top QB prospect in the 2013 Draft, and the Broncos pretty clearly bought low on him the year before. I tend to think that his throwing and athletic talent would make him passable right away, if Manning got hurt and had to miss a couple of games.
Zac Dysert and Ryan Katz are developmental guys. I think Dysert has some ability, and could potentially push Osweiler once he figures out what he’s doing.
The Broncos have three wideouts who have legitimate Pro Bowl talent in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker. Thomas and Decker have been to Hawaii, and Decker was second in the NFL in receiving TDs in 2012, with 13.
Thomas is big, physical, and elusive; he’s probably the best WR in the NFL at running with the ball after the catch, and he also showed some newfound proficiency at gaining vertical separation in 2012. Decker is also big, and he runs pretty well for his size. He really improved his route-running and hands-catching in 2012, and it got to be pretty clear that he has a great mental feel for what he is being asked to do.
Those two are good enough to be debated against Roddy White and Julio Jones as the best pair in the NFL, and when you add Welker, it’s a nightmare for defenses. Welker can’t be covered one-on-one by anybody, so defenses are forced to either play zone, double him, or live with him catching a bunch of balls.
All three Broncos starters are good blockers, and that does matter in real football. The backups will likely come from a group including Andre Caldwell, rookie Tavarres King, Greg Orton, Gerrell Robinson, and Lamaar Thomas. Caldwell has been a productive NFL player, and King has solid potential.
Between LT Ryan Clady, LG Zane Beadles, C J.D. Walton (Dan Koppen for a while, though) , RG Louis Vasquez, and RT Orlando Franklin, the Broncos feature a young and excellent group. They’re sound in pass protection, and they don’t commit a lot of penalties. They’re all capable of using both angle-blocking and zone-blocking techniques, and the Broncos mix their calls up among both tactics. (In general, I think they are better with the angle stuff.)
Clady is a blue-chipper on the left side; you don’t often find guys with that combination of size, arm length, lower-body strength, balance, and foot quickness.
Beadles has improved a lot since his rookie season, and has really started to excel as a puller. The Broncos’ best running success in 2012 came on the Power O with Beadles pulling from left to right, and kicking out the guy in the hole. He also held up well in pass protection.
There’s little doubt in my mind that Walton is better than Koppen, but you could do a lot worse for a backup center than the longtime Patriot. He’s the weak link of the group, but he isn’t that weak.
Vasquez has one penalty in his whole four-year career, and he’s about as solid as RGs come in both the running game, and in pass protection. He’s no superstar, but he does his job every snap.
Franklin is a big-time talent, and he showed tackle feet in his second season, while really showing improvement against the speed rush. He can absolutely mash dudes in the running game, and really, I think that Power-O to the right will be open for business in 2013 with Vasquez replacing (usually) Manny Ramirez.
Speaking of Ramirez, he’s a solid backup guard-to-center type who you hope doesn’t have to play 852 snaps, like he did in 2012. Chris Clark is a decent backup swing tackle who doesn’t play all that much.
Interior Defensive Line
I don’t feel like I have to live with the traditional terms “Defensive Lineman” and “Linebacker,” and I think it’s more accurate - particularly given the Broncos’ scheme - to separate them into Interior guys, edge defenders, and traditional linebackers.
I happen to be a very big fan of DE/DT Derek Wolfe, and I’ve been singing his praises since before Jeff Legwold had ever heard of him. Wolfe had a terrific rookie season, playing 1,007 snaps, and making 34 tackles and six sacks. It’s not at all common for rookie defensive linemen to have so much early success.
I tend not to view Wolfe as being all that similar to J.J. Watt, but I think his ceiling is Justin Smith at his best, and I think that Wolfe is going to start showing dramatic movement toward that ceiling in his second year. Wolfe is smart, relentless, durable, strong, and slippery as a pass-rusher, just like Smith.
Rookie first-rounder Sylvester Williams also has blue-chip talent, and the only reason he wasn’t a top-15 pick in April was that there was a run on offensive linemen that helped the Broncos out. It’s nice when you pick late in the round, and you see lesser players like Justin Pugh and Kyle Long going ahead of a potential star at an area of your own need.
Whereas Wolfe has the versatility to easily shift between five-technique and three-technique, Williams is a classic three-technique, with excellent first-step quickness, and the strength to beat reach-blocking consistently. If Williams takes well to coaching, and can show a better ability to find the ball quickly, he could be a big rookie contributor, just like Wolfe was.
Terrance Knighton and Kevin Vickerson are both starting-caliber DTs, with Knighton as a classic nose tackle, and Vickerson as more of a swing-man. Both can anchor in the running game, and can hold up against double teams. The jobs they do are mostly unsung, but this entire interior line group is the biggest reason that the Broncos can stop the run so well with only seven men in the box.
Malik Jackson is the best of the backups, and he primarily spells Wolfe as a closed-side defensive end. I could see Jackson getting in the mix for more pass-rush snaps in 2013, if he improves as expected from his rookie year. Mitch Unrein is the primary backup DT. I don’t think we’ll have any surprises, and Wolfe, Knighton, Vickerson, Williams, Jackson, and Unrein will be the primary six interior DL guys, roughly in order of expected snaps played.
Von Miller is a transcendent player, truly a once-a-decade talent. It would be cool if all he were was a great pass rusher, but he’s absolutely dominant in the run game too. Miller’s not even too bad in coverage, for not doing it very often. I don’t think that Miller has reached his peak (or anywhere near it) yet, and he’s already the best all-around edge defender that I’ve seen since Lawrence Taylor.
Miller’s numbers are going to explode even more as Wolfe continues to improve. Just wait until you see the stunts that the Broncos will be able to run with those two.
On the open side, Elvis Dumervil will be missed, but I have every confidence that Robert Ayers can do just fine there on base downs. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ayers finally emerges this year as a good pass rusher. Remember, he’s playing for a contract, and he did do well in limited snaps last season.
I loved the signing of Shaun Phillips to back up both positions. He’s always been a good pass rusher, and he can play the run as well. The Chargers wanted to hand things over to Melvin Ingram, so they let Phillips walk (and then Ingram promptly got hurt). As a 400-snap guy, Phillips offers a lot of value to the Broncos.
I’m also excited about Quanterus Smith as a pass-rush specialist, and possibly as a future starting open-side DE when Ayers likely goes elsewhere in 2014. Smith absolutely showed out against Alabama in 2012, repeatedly beating LT Cyrus Kouandijo and RT D.J. Fluker. Fluker was the 11th pick in the 2013 Draft, to the Chargers, and Kouandijo is likely to be a first-rounder next year, too. Smith made them look both average.
Among the guys competing for a fifth edge defender spot, keep an eye on undrafted free agent Lerentee McCray. He’s got some talent, and he was just sometimes overshadowed at Florida by the sheer volume of good defensive players they had.
This is another area with potentially three blue-chip guys, which is practically unheard-of in the modern NFL. It starts with Champ Bailey, who can still shut down the best receiver on the opposing team, and can still be equally effective in press-man, off-man, and zone calls. He had his worst game in years against the Ravens, which amounted to failing to get a jam on Torrey Smith twice, and getting beaten deep on both plays. We won’t follow the recency bias herd here; Champ is still outstanding, until he consistently shows that he isn’t.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has big-time coverage talent as an outside CB, and he really had a pretty solid 2012 season for Philadelphia, as very few of his teammates joined him in doing so. He took a few more penalties than you’d like to see, and his technique does occasionally get sloppy, but he has elite ability to cover, owing to his height, length, ball skills, and speed. If he’s as solid as usual, that’d be good; if he plays up to his potential, teams aren’t going to be able to complete many passes outside the numbers on either side.
Slot corner Chris Harris is tremendous against inside receivers, and he’s the rare CB who seems to do best at playing with even leverage, and defending against a two-way go. Whereas Bailey had seven penalties in 2012, and Rodgers-Cromartie had 11 (with five declined), Harris only was called for one all year. As good as Harris is in coverage, he also brings lot of value as a run-defender and blitzer off the slot. He’s one of those unique guys, like Antoine Winfield and Charles Woodson, who you can almost consider to be half a linebacker. That’s very useful, with as much 12 personnel as offenses like to run nowadays.
Tony Carter is pretty damn good for a fourth CB, and he held up very well in 2012, playing 558 snaps. He was quietly complicit in the Rahim Moore breakdown, as he failed to get any bit of a jam on Jacoby Jones, and like Moore, he has a chance to redeem himself.
Young players Omar Bolden and Kayvon Webster round out the likely CBs on the 53-man roster. Bolden played very well on special teams as a rookie, and Webster has intriguing talent, which seemed to have been misused at South Florida. Webster has the skill set of a man-coverage guy, which suits him well for the Broncos, but he was used in mostly zone schemes in college.
So which is it?
Obviously, we skipped some other solid groups, and only took the six best. The Broncos’ TE, RB, LB, Safety, and specialist groups all portend to be pretty solid in 2013, as well. Which group do you think is the best, and represents the biggest edge for the Broncos over its competition in 2013?