The Broncos were on an 11-game winning streak last season going into the playoffs, but saw it come to a screeching halt with a home playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. What happened? You can blame Rahim Moore for one of the most boneheaded defensive plays of the season, but the Broncos also had two special teams touchdowns to help them. From a pure offense vs. defense standpoint, they were outplayed in that game, even if Moore had stayed in his position, and deserved to lose.
In hindsight, that loss should not have been so unpredictable. Teams on a 9+ game winning streak off a bye in the playoffs are just 4-5 since 1989 and not one of them has covered the spread. It clearly hurts a team to have to take a week off in the post-season in the middle of a long winning streak. On top of that, the Broncos’ winning streak was compiled against largely subpar teams, as they played just 2 teams that finished 8-8 or better over that winning streak. They might have just gotten complacent and it’s very possible they weren’t as good as their record would have suggested. Sure a 34-17 victory in Baltimore over those same Ravens in Baltimore 4 weeks prior suggested the Broncos were capable of beating playoff caliber teams and convincingly, but in hindsight, that loss isn’t that shocking.
This season, the Broncos add Wes Welker to the mix offensively and they are seen as the AFC favorite going into the season. That makes some sense. The reigning AFC #1 seed adds their biggest competition’s tough wide receiver. However, I don’t think that Peyton Manning will necessarily play better than he did last season. Manning completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 8.0 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions last season. In his career, he completes “just” 65.1% of his passes for 7.6 YPA, and roughly just over 2 touchdowns for every interception. His 2012 completion percentage was the 2nd best of his career, his 2012 YPA the 3rd best of his career, and his 2012 TD:INT ratio also the 3rd best of his career. His 105.8 QB rating was 10 points higher than his career QB rating and the 2nd highest of his career.
Sure, it’s possible that the addition of Welker can lead to be even further improved Manning, but I don’t find it that likely that Manning will surpass the arguably 2nd best season of his career in what is his age 37 season. It’s more likely that regression to the mean and normal diminishing physical skills for a 37-year-old who has recently had a serious injury lead to an inferior 2013 as compared to 2012 for Manning. Sure, Manning’s mean is still one of the best in the game, but I don’t buy that the Broncos will be an improved offensive team (30.1 points per game in 2012, 2nd in the NFL) just because of Wes Welker’s presence on the slot.
Defensively, the Broncos have lost starting defensive end Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens, a talented pass rusher opposite Von Miller. Miller himself has his status in doubt for the first 4 games of the season in violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. They’re still not a great team up the middle with a hole at middle linebacker and some questions at safety and defensive tackle. Meanwhile, top cornerback Champ Bailey is another year older and fresh off being exposed in the playoff loss to Baltimore. They ranked 4th in the NFL allowing 18.1 points per game last season. That might not continue to be the case in 2013.
Like Manning, the team as a whole could see a little bit of regression to the mean. It’s a parity league, to the point where the average 13 win team wins, on average, 9.5 games the following season. The average team also sees their win total change by an average of 3 wins per season, in either direction. Going with that, teams that have a big win improvement, like the Broncos did in 2012 (going from 8 to 13) tend to regress about half of that the next season. I don’t think the Broncos are going to miss the playoffs or anything, but if I had to put money on them improving their win total/staying at 13 wins or going down to 12 wins or lower, I’d take the latter easily. I’m not convinced this is the team to beat in the AFC.
All that being said about Peyton Manning, he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. His career averages of 65.1% completion, 7.6 YPA, 2.09:1 TD:INT ratio, and a QB rating of 95.7 would make for a good season any year and I don’t see why he can’t be around those numbers in 2013. He’s got a good receiving corps and offensive line and the ability to make both look better than they are. The Broncos will once again be among the highest scoring teams in the NFL, largely because of him. I just don’t think he’ll improve upon 2012 this season.
The passing game is clearly going to work fine for the Broncos this season. The question is the running game. With Willis McGahee gone, the Broncos have 3 backs competing for playing time, Montee Ball, Knowshon Moreno, and Ronnie Hillman. Ball was the 2nd round pick this year and is the most talented of the trio, but John Fox notoriously hates playing rookies, especially at the running back position. Peyton Manning also requires his backs to pass protect and he could very well have a say in who plays running back this season. Ball played his college ball at Wisconsin, which was not a pass heavy team, even when they had Russell Wilson in 2011, so he’s understandably raw in pass protection.
Ronnie Hillman isn’t a rookie anymore, but the 2012 3rd round pick still is a young back and at sub-200 pounds, he doesn’t have the frame to carry the load or to hold up in pass protection. He was down as low as 175 pounds as a rookie. He’s best suited as a change of pace back, though he was working as the starter in Training Camp because, again, John Fox hates rookies.
Knowshon Moreno is the 3rd back and the most veteran of the bunch. However, the Josh McDaniels era bust is just not very talented averaging 4.0 yards per carry for his carry, 3.8 yards per carry last season as the starter after McGahee went down. He’s also very injury prone. He could start the season as the primary inside runner, with Hillman as the change of pace back, but by October, expect Ball and Hillman to be splitting the carries. Moreno could be injured by then anyway. It’s a position with question marks.
While their running backs will be helped by the defense focusing on Peyton Manning and the passing game, their offensive line isn’t going to help them out that much, as they ranked 22nd on ProFootballFocus among run blocking offensive lines last season. They did much better in pass protection, or at least they appeared to. They ranked 1st in the NFL in both pass block efficiency and pass block grade on ProFootballFocus, but the year before they were 23rd in pass block grade and 31st in pass block efficiency.
The switch from Tim Tebow, who holds the ball a very long time, to Peyton Manning, who has one of the quickest releases in the NFL, likely had something to do with that. In 2011, Tim Tebow led the NFL in seconds to throw at 3.65 seconds and it wasn’t even close. Michael Vick and Cam Newton were the only other two quarterbacks above 3 seconds and Vick, the 2nd slowest to throw, was at 3.17 seconds.
Contrast that with Manning, who threw the ball on average 2.46 seconds after receiving it. I know ProFootballFocus takes that kind of thing into account with their grade, but I find it hard to believe that the Broncos’ offensive line legitimately in a vacuum went from the 23rd best in 2011 to the 1st best in 2012 and that the quarterback switch didn’t have anything to do with it. The fact that they’re actually a below average offensive line on the ground is also evidence that they’re not as good as Manning makes them seem.
In reality, they’re probably in between, though they might be close to 1st than 23rd. It’s very likely that the Broncos’ offensive line played better in 2012, just not that significantly better. The first reason for that is a return to form for left tackle Ryan Clady. Clady improved drastically on ProFootballFocus from 2011 to 2012, ranking 63rd out of 76 eligible in 2011 before grading out 4th at his position in 2012. His pass protection did improve significantly, but so did his run blocking so I truly believe he did play significantly better last season than in 2011, even if Manning’s blindside is exponentially easier to protect than Tim Tebow’s. Besides, he’s done this in the past, ranking 16th in 2009 and 9th in 2010 with that down year in between. I believe he’s truly a top-10 offensive tackle in the NFL and one of the best blindside protectors in the game.
Also improving significantly in 2012 was right tackle Orlando Franklin, going from average in 2011 to 18th among tackles in 2012. Unlike Clady, his run blocking didn’t significantly improve and he actually committed 4 more penalties, so his improvement was pretty much entirely as a pass protector. The Tebow to Manning switch probably did have more to do with that than ProFootballFocus might have compensated for in their grading, but I do believe that the 2011 2nd round pick improved significantly in his 2nd year in the league and is actually an above average right tackle.
The player whose turnaround I most believe was quarterback related was the improvement of left guard Zane Beadles. Beadles was awful in 2011, grading out 6th worst at his position, but he graded out 16th at his position in 2012. The 2010 2nd round pick had never done anything like that in the past though and he was a reach in the 2nd round by the bizarre-drafting Josh McDaniels. I believe he’s maybe an average guard at best and someone that Manning makes look so much better than he actually is. He’s the weak point on their offensive line.
Their improvement at the center position from league worst JD Walton in 2011 is for real because they had a completely different player there, adding Dan Koppen before the season. Koppen played pretty well, despite his somewhat advanced age, but he tore his ACL in Training Camp in the past week and will miss the entirety of the 2013 season. JD Walton is out for at least the first 6-8 weeks of the season as well and, let’s face it, no one wants to see him try to start again, so the Broncos convinced Ryan Lilja to come out of retirement.
Lilja is a former teammate of Manning’s from Indianapolis, though he played guard there alongside Jeff Saturday. He’s been a guard for most of his career, playing very well there, but did surprisingly well at center last year for the Chiefs, grading out 14th among centers on ProFootballFocus. He had a few minor issues with snaps and some times where you could tell he was a natural guard, but he played well and he’s only going into his age 32 season.
He didn’t retire out of lack of interest for his services. It seems like he just didn’t want to play football anymore (playing for a 2-14 team can do that to you). As long as he stayed in close to top shape during his “retirement” this off-season and as long as he’s mentally in this season 100%, he should be a nice pickup for the Broncos. It helps to have Manning as your pitchman.
Lilja is one of two new starters for the Broncos upfront on the offensive line, as they made a great move stealing right guard Louis Vasquez from division rival San Diego. Vasquez was a diamond in the rough on San Diego’s otherwise horrible offensive line, grading out well above average in all 4 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2009 and he was a starter from the word go. He had his best season last year, when he graded out 13th at his position and he’s clearly an above average guard.
He was well worth the 23.5 million over 4 years they paid him this off-season and he’ll upgrade what otherwise would have been a very questionable right guard position. Aside from Beadles, it’s actually a very strong offensive line. They might not be the best in the NFL, but they’re at least a top-10 line and Manning makes them look even better with his quick release.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Wes Welker was obviously the big addition in Denver this off-season. Brady made Welker look much better than he actually was in New England, but it’s not like Peyton Manning can’t continue to do the same thing. Hell, Brandon Stokley caught 48 passes for 571 yards and 6 touchdowns last season on just 63 targets and 405 pass snaps as the slot receiver last year and he was pretty much retired the year before. And at 12 million over 2 years, Welker is reasonably priced as well. He won’t see 100 catches again because the Broncos have plenty of receivers to spread the ball around to. In fact, even Welker himself admits that if he’s catching as many passes as he was in New England, it won’t be a good thing for the offense. He’s also going into his age 32 season. However, he’ll obviously be an asset for the Broncos.
Like Manning will make Welker look better than he is, he will continue to make Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker look better than they are. Both had great seasons last year in breakout 3rd seasons in the league, but if they had any other quarterback, they wouldn’t have looked anywhere near as good. They also dropped 23 passes between them. Decker was clearly the inferior of the two and he’ll see a decrease in production this season with Welker coming in to give them another possession receiver option.
After largely being a non-factor in his first 2 years in the league, the 2010 3rd round pick Decker caught 85 passes for 1064 yards and 13 touchdowns last season on 120 targets. Manning only had 3 interceptions when throwing to Decker last season, giving Manning a QB rating of 123.7 when throwing to Decker, 8th in the NFL among wide receivers. However, Decker still graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 36th ranked wide receiver, thanks largely to his drops and his weak 3.4 yards after the catch per catch.
Thomas did much better after the catch, averaging 5.9 yards after catch per catch, and also showed great chemistry with Manning, catching 94 passes for 1430 yards and 10 touchdowns on 138 targets. Manning didn’t throw a single interception when targeting Thomas and as a result, Thomas ranked 5th in the NFL in QB rating when thrown to. Unlike Decker, Welker won’t eat much into his production because they’re completely different types of receivers. He’ll remain their primary deep threat. He was 3rd in the NFL with 16 catches on passes that travelled 20+ yards or more in the air.
Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme remain their primary two tight ends, but they should both see less action in 2013 with Welker coming in and the team expected to see even more 3-wide receiver sets. Tamme will be especially hurt because he was the #2 tight end, serving as a move tight end, with Dreessen as an inline player. He’ll also cut directly into his targets because they operate in very similar areas. Tamme caught 52 passes for 555 yards and 2 touchdowns on 80 targets last season and graded out as ProFootballFocus 6th ranked pass catching tight end, though he can’t block at all.
Dreessen is the better all-around tight end, playing 877 snaps last season, 19th at his position. He run blocked well and he also contributed as a pass catcher, catching 41 passes for 356 yards and 5 touchdowns on 57 targets last season. It’s hard to see him doing much more than that this season. Overall, it’s a very talented receiving corps, but I don’t know if it can work at much of a higher efficiency than it was last season. Both Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme were very efficient as pass catchers in the slot last season, catching 69.9% of their targets, because of Manning. I don’t know how much better than that Welker can be. It’s part of the reason why I think it’s more likely Manning has a worse season in 2013 than in 2012.
As I mentioned, the Broncos lost Elvis Dumervil this off-season and could be without Von Miller for the first 4 games of the season with a suspension. For that reason, holdover Robert Ayers and free agent acquisition Shaun Phillips will see bigger roles. Ayers will start at defensive end in Dumervil’s old spot. He played well on 333 snaps last season, but he has struggled whenever he’s been counted to start in the past and the 2009 1st round pick looks like another Josh McDaniels era bust. He’s a better run stuffer than pass rusher and ideally he’d split snaps with pass rush specialist Shaun Phillips, but Phillips is probably going to play in Miller’s old role for the first 4 games of the season, playing linebacker on in base packages and moving to the defensive line on passing downs.
Phillips is pretty washed up though. He’s going into his age 32 season this season and was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd lowest ranked 3-4 rush linebacker last season, which is why he had to settle for a non-lucrative one year deal this off-season. He was awful against the run, ranked dead last at his position against the run and it wasn’t even really close. He did have 9 sacks, but only 6 hits and 23 hurries on 428 pass rush snaps, an 8.8% pass rush rate. He was 20th at his position out of 32 eligible in pass rush productivity and 28th out of 34 eligible in pass rush grade.
Miller was the only other player besides JJ Watt to get a defensive player of the year vote last season and he deserved it, as good as Watt was. He was by far ProFootballFocus’ 1st ranked 4-3 outside linebacker and he was their 3rd ranked overall defensive player behind JJ Watt and Geno Atkins. He was an incredibly productive pass rusher, with 19 sacks, 15 hits, and 52 hurries on 470 pass rush snaps, an absurd 18.3% pass rush rate. He also excelled against the run. He ranked 1st at his position in 2011 as well, when he won Defensive Rookie of the Year, so last season wasn’t a fluke. He’s one of the most valuable non-quarterbacks in the NFL and the Broncos’ 2nd most irreplaceable player.
Miller plays defensive end on passing downs when he’s in the lineup and will probably play opposite Shaun Phillips. However, while Miller is out, Phillips will be an every down player and play on the defensive line opposite Robert Ayers on passing downs. It’s a downgrade and it also hurts that Dumervil is gone. Regardless of Miller’s situation, Derek Wolfe and Robert Ayers will be the base ends. I’ve already mentioned Ayers, Wolfe is going into his 2nd year after going in the 2nd round in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Wolfe will continue to play an every down role as a defensive end in base packages as a defensive tackle in sub packages. He played the run well as a rookie, especially at defensive end, but he didn’t get any pass rush, with 6 sacks, 7 hits, and 12 hurries on 530 pass rush snaps, a 4.7% pass rush rate. He was ProFootballFocus’ 54th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible, ranking dead last as a pass rusher, but 9th as a run stuffer. He could be better in his 2nd year though.
As I mentioned, on passing downs, he plays at defensive tackle. Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan were good run stuffers who couldn’t get to the quarterback last season. Bannan is gone, but Vickerson returns as a starter, next to Terrance Knighton, who comes over from Jacksonville, reuniting with Jack Del Rio, the former Jacksonville Head Coach who is Denver’s defensive coordinator. Knighton is a similar player, a big run stuffer at 6-3 317 who doesn’t get to the quarterback. The Broncos will once again be counting on Derek Wolfe for interior pass rush, along with 1st round pick rookie Sylvester Williams, who will probably see only a situational role as a rookie.
Along with Von Miller playing in base packages at linebacker, the Broncos also have Wesley Woodyard and Nate Irving, who will probably both play every down. Woodyard definitely will, as he played that role last season. He struggled against the run at 6-0 227, but he was excellent in coverage and graded out above average overall. Last year was his first year as a starter and he struggled as a situational player in the past so I’ll have to see it from the 2008 undrafted free agent again.
Nate Irving, meanwhile, could only play two-down as a run stuffer, with either Danny Trevathan or Steven Johnson playing a situational coverage role. Whoever plays there, they probably won’t get good play from the middle linebacker spot. Irving, a 2011 3rd round pick as played just 42 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and Johnson and Trevathan are equally inexperienced. Johnson played 6 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season, while Trevathan struggled on 243 snaps as a 6th round rookie.
The Broncos’ secondary got lit up by the Ravens in the playoffs and Champ Bailey and Rahim Moore got most of the blame. However, both played well last season before that game and it’s important not to judge either too much on one game. Bailey graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked cornerback last season, allowing 40 catches on 74 attempts for 479 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 6 penalties. He’s been a top-10 cornerback in 4 of the last 5 seasons, with his worst season since 2008 coming in 2011, when he ranked 18th at his position. He allowed 5 catches for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns on 7 attempts in that playoff loss and he’s going into his age 37 season so maybe that was the beginning of the end. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he declined this season.
While fans know Bailey as a future Hall of Famer, most casual football fans know Rahim Moore for one thing, his role in the Mile High Miracle in Denver’s eventual playoff loss to the Ravens in last year’s AFC divisional round. For those of you who need a refresher, the heavily underdogged Ravens trailed by 7 with the ball on their own 30 with under 40 seconds left in the 4th quarter. The Broncos came out in prevent defense, as is always the case in that type of situation, and the #1 rule of the prevent defense is don’t let anything get completed behind you. Play deep and don’t jump any routes. If you only allow completions in front of you, eventually the clock will run out and you’ll win. It’s very fundamental football stuff and it’s especially imperative for a safety. They’re called safeties for a reason; they are the last line of the defense.
Rahim Moore, starting free safety for the Broncos, decided instead to try to be a hero and the rest was history. Moore jumped a route on a deep ball thrown from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones, going for the interception and the ultimate icer. Not only did he break one of the biggest rules of prevent defense, he missed by a good 5 yards and didn’t even come close to getting the interception, falling in his attempt to pick off the ball. This allowed Jones to get behind him easily and reel in what ended up being a 70 yard touchdown to send the game to overtime, where the Ravens eventually won, sending home the heavily favored #1 seed Broncos home early and spurring an eventual Super Bowl Championship for the Ravens.
That play was an absolute disaster for Moore and he’s undoubtedly spent the entire off-season trying to move past that. However, you cannot judge a player on one play. While that is the worst single snap I’ve seen a safety play in years, Moore played 1160 other snaps last season, including playoffs and was overall a very solid football player. He should be judged more on those instead and have his entire body of work taken into account. He finished the regular season as ProFootballFocus’ 10th rated safety, grading out above average in both run defense and pass defense and only committing 2 penalties. He allowed just 19 completions all regular season and even in that playoff game he was otherwise solid, not missing a tackle and allowing just one other completion for 5 yards.
Going into his 3rd year in the league, I expect the 2011 2nd round pick out of UCLA to put the Mile High Miracle behind him and have his best season as a pro yet. I expect another top-10 season on ProFootballFocus from him and he’ll have a shot at a Pro-Bowl if he picks off enough passes. Sadly that’s how all defensive backs are judged by the common football fan and Moore only has 2 in his 2 seasons in the league, but he picked off 10 as a sophomore at UCLA in 2009, so he has that kind of ability (which just shows why a player shouldn’t be judged by only his interception total, it’s so inconsistent on a year to year basis; it’s like judging a quarterback on how many completions of 40+ yards he has). For his sake, I hope that happens because it’s unfair for him to be judged by one play and one play only.
Even though the Broncos had a pretty good pass defense before the Baltimore game, they still felt upgrading their secondary was a big need this off-season. In order to fill this need, they signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He was the 16thoverall pick in 2008 and made the Pro-Bowl in 2009, a year in which he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 4thrated cornerback. However, he doesn’t always play up to his talent and he has inconsistent effort.
He was a throw in to Philadelphia in the Kevin Kolb trade after graded out as ProFootballFocus’ worst cornerback in 2010 and he wasn’t much better in 2 years in Philadelphia, grading out 98th out of 113 eligible cornerbacks in 2012. Perhaps only being able to get a one-year prove it deal on the open market will wake him up. It might also help him that he’ll be on a competitive team for the first time since 2009, when his Cardinals won the NFC West.
However, DRC will move into the starting lineup and push out Chris Harris and Tony Carter. Harris and Carter ranked 5th and 28th among eligible cornerbacks in 2012. Harris allowed 44 catches on 75 attempts for 450 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 1 penalty. He also was great against the run, grading out 2nd at his position in that aspect. Last year was no fluke because he was 22nd at his position as an undrafted rookie in 2011, despite being just a part-time player. Carter, meanwhile, allowed 32 catches on 65 attempts for 436 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 2 penalties.
Harris will move to the slot with DRC coming in, which might actually be a better fit for his skill set, even if it’s only a part time role. He had the 6th best QB rating among cornerbacks on the slot last season. However, Carter will be the 4th cornerback though, so he won’t see a lot of action, unless there are injuries, despite how well he played last season. If I were a cornerback needy team, I’d give up a mid to late round pick for him easily. I don’t think the DRC addition is really much of an addition and it might even make their secondary worse, especially if he continues to struggle.
The other off-season addition was Quentin Jammer, who comes over from San Diego and will convert from cornerback to safety in the tail end of his career. However, he’s awful. He was ProFootballFocus’ 107th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible last season and now he’s heading into his age 34 season. He could be better at safety, but he might not even make the roster. He was brought in to compete with veteran journeyman Mike Adams. He played alright last season, grading out just above average, but he can’t be trusted heading into his age 32 season. Quinton Carter, an inexperienced 2011 4th round pick, is also in the mix, but he was awful in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 81st ranked safety out of 87 eligible, before playing just 15 snaps last season. It’s a position of weakness opposite Rahim Moore.
John Fox has been in the NFL a long time, coaching 11 seasons, including 9 with the Panthers 2 with the Broncos. He has a career 94-82 regular season record and 6-5 postseason record, including a trip to the Super Bowl. He’s not one of the best coaches in the NFL and he’s had some awful years (2-14 with the Panthers in 2010), but he’s had some good ones too (11+ wins in 2003, 2005, and 2008, and 2012) and he’s managed to stay around a long time.
As I said earlier, I think the Broncos are a little overrated. I don’t think they’re clearly the best team in the AFC like the consensus seems to be. That being said, they should still win a bunch of games. They’re the best team in the division and they should be able to win at least 4 games, maybe 5. Kansas City will be better, but Oakland and San Diego are both very easy opponents so that should be 4 relatively easy wins.
Outside of the division, they host Baltimore, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Washington, and Tennessee. Philadelphia, Jacksonville, and Tennessee should be easy wins and they should at least split the other team. I think they’ll beat Washington, but Baltimore is being a little overlooked and they could take that slight, as well as the slight of having to start their season on the road, into Denver and win where they won last season. Defending Super Bowl champs usually win week 1.
They also go to the Giants, Dallas, Indianapolis, New England, and Houston, all 5 of whom are quality teams. They should lose 2 or 3 of those games, which puts them at 11 or 12 wins, not an improvement over last season, but still a very strong season. They’ll probably win a 1st round bye in the AFC and head into the post-season as one of the leading contenders for the Super Bowl. I have them at 11-5.
Projection: 11-5 1st in AFC West