May 312014
 

Quarterback

Peyton Manning had a season for the ages in 2013. He set the single season record for passing yards (5477) and touchdowns (55) and had the 5th highest single season quarterback rating (115.1) in NFL history. You can argue all you want about whether or not it was the greatest regular season a quarterback has ever had in NFL history (and I do here), but one thing is for sure. It was definitely the best regular season by a quarterback in the NFL last season and he deserved to be the near unanimous MVP he was, completing 68.3% of passes for an average of 8.31 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.

However, he’s unlikely to be that good again next season for 4 reasons. One, it’s really, really hard to be that good. There’s a reason they’re called records. Almost no one ever does that. As good of a career as Manning had had, he’s “only” posted a QB rating of 110+ twice in his career and “only” posted a QB rating of 100+ five times in his career. He’ll fall down to earth just by the law of averages next season. 9 other quarterbacks have posted QB ratings higher than 110 in their career. On average, they had a QB rating of 97.1 the following season (I used 2009 for Tom Brady’s 2007 season because he was hurt in 2008). That’s very good, but if Manning is in that 95-105 range in terms of QB rating, it’s going to have a noticeable difference for the Broncos’ offense.

The second reason is Manning’s age, as he goes into his age 38 season. No one ever had a QB rating as high as Manning’s in their age 37+ season like Manning did last season, so we’re going into fairly uncharted territory. Only 3 quarterbacks in NFL history have ever had a QB rating of even 100+ at age 37+, Steve Young, Brett Favre, and YA Tittle. In the following season, those 3 quarterbacks combined to have a QB rating of 61.7. I’m by no means suggesting that Manning is about to fall off of some sort of cliff in terms of his abilities, but his age is something to be mindful of. As we’ve seen from a number of different great quarterbacks in their late 30s, you never know they’re going to hit the wall.

The third reason is the loss of Eric Decker. This isn’t as big as the first two reasons as Manning largely made Decker into the receiver he is today and Manning can definitely make do with the likes of Emmanuel Sanders, Andre Caldwell, and Cody Latimer in that spot, but that is a big loss. The fourth reason is simply that the Broncos should face a tougher schedule this season. Manning’s 2013, as good as it was, came against a strength of schedule that ranked 31st, according to DVOA. Even all other things the same, trading out the NFC East and the AFC South for the AFC East and the NFC West could lead to an extra loss for the Broncos this season and a few points off of Manning’s QB rating.

I’m by no means suggesting that Manning is going to struggle this season or trying to pick him apart, but I’m trying to give an accurate representation of you can expect from him next season. Predicting he’s going to have another near record breaking season is short-sighted. He’ll be a little bit worse and that will have a noticeable effect on a Broncos offense that moved the chains at an 81.09% rate, about 3% better than the #2 team (San Diego at 78.26%).

In the last decade, 8 teams have scored 32+ points per game in a season, including last year’s Broncos. The previous 7 teams scored an average of 34.0 points per game and moved the chains at an 81.31% rate in that season and then scored “just” 29.2 points per game and moved the chains at a 78.08% rate the following season (again using 2009 for the 2007 Patriots because of Brady’s injury). It’s still a very good season, but it’s noticeably worse. If the Broncos are noticeably worse offensively, they’ll have to be noticeably better defensively to keep pace and win the AFC’s #1 seed again.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

One area the Broncos could actually be better on offense this season is the offensive line. That’s hard to do, considering they ranked 1st in the NFL in pass block efficiency, but a lot of that had to do with Peyton Manning’s fantastic pocket presence. Manning was sacked on just 11.0% of pressured snaps, best among 26 eligible quarterbacks, and took just 2.33 seconds from snap to throw, 3rd quickest in the NFL. He does a very good job of protecting his own blindside, but now the Broncos’ offensive line could be even more talented as Manning will get his blindside protector back in the person of Ryan Clady.

Clady went down for the season week 2 after 146 snaps, tearing ligaments in his foot. Clady was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked offensive tackle in 2012. He won’t necessarily be that good again as he’s coming off of injury and that’s easily the best season of his career. The 2008 first round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked offensive tackle in 2008, 16th ranked in 2009, 9th ranked in 2010, but 63rd ranked in 2011. However, having him back on the blindside is an obvious positive for this team.

Clady will essentially replace Zane Beadles in the starting lineup, with Beadles taking a big contract in Jacksonville. Beadles has had some solid years, but was their only offensive line starter to grade out below average on Pro Football Focus last season so the Beadles for Clady swap on the offensive line should be beneficial, provided some players can adapt to their new positions. Those two players are Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin.

Chris Clark was a savior for the Broncos upfront last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle and making 14 starts at left tackle after Clady went down. Clark is still a one year wonder, as the 2008 undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi had played just 226 career snaps before last season, but he’ll be moving to the easier side of the offensive line, going to right tackle, and should continue to hold up as a solid starter. Just in case he doesn’t, the Broncos used a 3rd round pick on Michael Schofield to provide insurance on the right side.

Orlando Franklin will move to left guard from right tackle to replace Beadles. That’s the riskier move as Franklin was playing so well at right tackle over the past two seasons. The 2011 2nd round pick does have some left guard experience from college and left guard is generally an easier position to play, but Franklin was Pro Football Focus’ 18th and 17th ranked offensive tackle in 2012 and 2013 respectively and there’s no guarantee he’ll be as good inside. If Clark at right tackle and Franklin at left guard doesn’t work out, the Broncos could move Franklin back to right tackle and use Will Montgomery at left guard or use Will Montgomery at center and move Manny Ramirez to left guard.

Montgomery was a free agent acquisition and he is currently slated to backup Ramirez at center. However, he’s been a solid starter at center for the Redskins over the past few seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th, 5th, and 15th ranked center in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s going into his age 31 season, which is part of why the Redskins let him go (he was also a bad scheme fit for their new power blocking scheme), but the versatile veteran should be able to provide solid play if needed to step in at either left guard or center.

Ramirez, meanwhile, came out of nowhere to grade out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked center last season. Like Montgomery, he’s a veteran with versatility, as he’s going into his age 31 season with the versatility to also play guard. He had a better 2013 than Montgomery obviously, but he was a generally mediocre interior offensive lineman before last season and he didn’t play a snap in either 2010 or 2011. He was solid at guard for the Broncos in 2012, but struggled mightily at guard for the Lions in 2009.

Besides Clady, the only one really locked into his spot is Louis Vasquez, who had a solid 4-year stint in San Diego before taking his game to the next level after signing with the Broncos as a free agent last off-season. He graded out 27th, 26th, 30th, and 13th respectively from 2009-2012 before grading out 3rd last season. There’s no guarantee he’ll be quite that good again and he has some injury history, missing 11 games in 5 seasons and only once playing all 16 games, but it’s worth noting he had his best season in San Diego in his final year with the team and he’s only missed 1 game in the last 2 seasons. Going into his age 27 season, Vasquez appears to be in the prime of his career and one of the best guards in the game.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I mentioned earlier that Eric Decker left this off-season, but the two Thomases (Demaryius and Julius) still remain. Demaryius has broken out as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL statistically over the past 2 seasons, combining to catch 186 passes for 2864 yards and 26 touchdowns in those 2 years. Obviously, Peyton Manning’s arrival had something to do with that, but the 2010 1st round pick had 35 catches for 745 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 7 games, including playoffs, with Tim Tebow in 2011. That’s 80 catches for 1703 yards and 9 touchdowns extrapolated over 16 games. He was 3rd in the NFL in YAC per catch last season and graded out 6th and 10th in 2012 and 2013 respectively on Pro Football Focus’ wide receiver rankings in terms of pure pass catching grade and they generally do a very good job of grading receivers on their own merits. He’s also one of the better blocking wide receivers in the NFL.

Manning’s arrival obviously helped, but it’s very possible that he’s just a supremely talented wide receiver who finally adjusted to the NFL in the middle of the 2011 season, once he had some time in the league and put his injuries behind him (11 games missed in 2010-2011). With Manning throwing to him, he’s even more dangerous and Manning has a 124.4 QB rating when throwing to him over the past 2 seasons. Argue how good he’d be without Manning all you want, but there’s no denying he’s one of 10 or 15 true #1 receivers in the NFL at the very least. Going into only his age 26 season and a contract year, there’s no reason to believe he’ll stop producing.

Julius Thomas’ production might be more the product of Peyton Manning. Thomas is a widely athletic former college basketball player who was drafted in the 4th round in 2011 and had caught 1 pass on 50 snaps in the 2 seasons prior to last year. Last season, he caught 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s a solid pass catcher, but he’s a one year wonder and he benefits a lot from having Peyton Manning under center. He’s also an awful blocker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end in run blocking grade.

Wes Welker is also still around. He “only” played 503 pass snaps last season in 13 games (38.7 pass snaps per game) as opposed to 697 pass snaps for Thomas in 16 games (43.6 pass snaps per game) and 675 pass snaps for Decker in 16 games (42.2 pass snaps per game). He’ll play a bigger role with Decker gone, as he’ll become the #2 wide receiver. However, he’s an aging player going into his age 33 season. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Welker is “only” 47th in all-time receiving yards.

He definitely showed some of this deterioration last season, missing 3 games with injury and averaging 1.64 yards per route run, pretty middle of the pack, especially considering he had the best quarterback in the NFL throwing passes to him. For comparison, he averaged 2.19 yards per route run in 2012 with the Patriots. Meanwhile, his replacement in New England, Julian Edelman, averaged 1.78 yards per route run despite having an inferior quarterback throwing passes to him.

Edelman did get more targets as he was a bigger part of New England’s offense, but he also caught a significantly higher percentage of his targets (71.9% to 67.0%) even though he commanded more of the defense’s attention. As a result, Edelman was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade, while Welker came in at 37th. The Patriots offense wasn’t as good last season without Welker, but that was largely a result of the absence of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They shouldn’t have paid Danny Amendola all that money, but they made the right decision letting Welker go. He’ll be a contributor this year in Denver, but he’s on the decline.

Emmanuel Sanders, Cody Latimer, and Andre Caldwell will try to fill Decker’s void as the #3 wide receiver and #2 outside receiver (with Welker moving to the #2 wide receiver role). Sanders is the heavy favorite for that role, by virtue of the 3-year, 15 million dollar deal he signed this off-season. He’s caught 111 passes for 1366 yards and 7 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons as a significant contributor in Pittsburgh, including a starting role in 2013. Sanders graded out very middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, grading out 57th and 60th respectively in 2012 and 2013 among wide receivers, while averaging 1.48 and 1.34 yards per route run. He should be more productive in Denver with Manning, but he’s pretty much “just a guy” at wide receiver.

Cody Latimer, 2nd round pick rookie, could push him later in the season. Caldwell will probably just provide depth, as he has for the duration of his career. He caught 16 passes for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns on 143 pass snaps last season. Lastly, Virgil Green is their primary blocking tight end. He played 323 snaps, including 258 blocking snaps (209 run blocking, 49 pass blocking). He’s decent at what he does. Overall, it’s an inferior receiving corps compared to last year, with Decker gone and Welker aging, but there’s a lot of talent here still obviously.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Broncos lost 3 starters on offense this off-season. I already mentioned Zane Beadles and Eric Decker, but they also lost starting running back Knowshon Moreno. This loss won’t be as big of a loss as Eric Decker. Like Beadles, it should be a pretty irrelevant loss. Knowshon Moreno had over 1500 yards from scrimmage last season (1038 rushing and 548 receiving), but as much production as Moreno had last year, much of it was the product of Peyton Manning.

Moreno rarely faced stacked boxes and, much more often than not, was running against boxes of 6 or fewer defenders. In spite of that, he actually just rushed for 4.31 yards per carry, which isn’t a spectacular average. He was just Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked running back in terms of running grade. He’s a talented pass catcher and pass protector, but he’s an average runner at best. He’s also a one year wonder essentially, missing 20 games from 2010-2012 and had just 426 touches over those 3 seasons.

Montee Ball should be able to replace him pretty easily. The 2013 2nd round pick rushed for 559 yards and 4 touchdowns on 120 carries and caught 20 passes for 145 yards. He’s probably a more talented runner than Moreno, but the one thing that could derail him is fumbles. He fumbled three times last season on those 140 touches. If he needs to be benched for fumble problems, they don’t have many other options. Ronnie Hillman is one option, an undersized 2012 3rd round pick with 162 career touches. CJ Anderson is the other option. He has more size at 5-8 223 and can carry more of a load, but he has just 7 touches and was undrafted in 2013. The organization is high on him though.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Broncos’ offense should be inferior in 2014 as compared to 2013, their defense should be improved, which is what they’ll need if they’re going to get their 3rd straight #1 seed in the AFC. They had a solid pass rush last season, with 41 sacks (13th in the NFL) and ranking 13th in the NFL in team pass rush grade on Pro Football Focus. However, they should be even better this season in that aspect.

One reason for that is the addition of DeMarcus Ware, who they signed to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal this off-season. That deal was an overpay, especially since the first two seasons are completely guaranteed, as he’s a declining player going into his age 32 season. However, he should still be an upgrade over Shaun Phillips, who wasn’t as good as his 11 sacks would have suggested last season (just 4 hits and 32 hurries on 478 pass rush snaps).

While Ware is declining, that’s only because he was a top-4 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2008-2011. He “only” graded out 8th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012 and 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. Those days of being an elite player are probably gone, as he goes into his age 32 season and after missing the first 3 games of his career last year, but he should still be a well above average starter and an asset for this team, especially on passing downs. He had 6 sacks, 8 hits, and 34 hurries on 372 pass rush snaps (a 12.9% pass rush rate). He’ll probably play primarily on passing downs because of how much depth the Broncos have (more on that later), though they’re paying Ware way too much for him to primarily be a nickel rusher.

The other reason the Broncos’ pass rush should be better this season is the return of Von Miller from injury. Miller tore his ACL week 16 last season so there’s no guarantee he’ll be healthy for the start of the season or that he’ll be 100% all year. Remember, his suffered his injury even later than Rob Gronkowski did last season and everyone is worried about his availability for the start of the season. However, he doesn’t have the injury history Gronk does and there’s a very good chance the Broncos get Miller for more games than they did last year (9 games, including 0 playoff games). Miller missed the first 6 games of last season with suspension.

Plus, even if Miller isn’t at 100%, he’ll still be a huge asset for this team. At his best, Miller is one of the best defensive players in the entire NFL. The 2nd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Miller won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker by a wide margin. That margin was even wider in 2012, when he was Pro Football Focus’ #3 ranked defensive player regardless of any position and got a Defensive Player of the Year vote (the only other player to get a vote besides JJ Watt).

He only played 9 games and 552 snaps in 2013, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker by a wide margin and their #4 ranked defensive player regardless of position. He had 6 sacks, 8 hits, and 27 hurries on 256 pass rush snaps (16.0% rate) and also excelled as a run defender and held up in coverage on the 75 snaps when he was asked to drop. He plays strong side outside linebacker in base packages and moves down to the defensive line and rushes the passer in sub packages. He might not be 100% until 2015 and he needs to stay out of off-the-field trouble, but he should still be a big time asset for them this season. At the very least, having him around for the playoffs when they didn’t last season is going to be valuable for them.

I mentioned the Broncos’ defensive line depth earlier. Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson are base defensive ends who can move inside to defensive tackle on passing downs. Jackson is the better of the two. The 2012 5th round pick had a breakout year in 2013, after 120 nondescript snaps as a rookie. He played 601 snaps and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 4-3 defensive tackle in 2013.

He’s still a one year wonder, but he’s an obvious asset with the versatility to rush the passer from the inside on passing downs and also provide enough depth at defensive end that Ware can keep his snap count down somewhat and focus more on being a sub rusher. Jackson played a fair amount of defensive end in college. The reason he’ll need to play more defensive end than last season is that the Broncos lost Robert Ayers to the Giants. Ayers was solid on 516 snaps last season and his immediate replacement is Quanterus Smith, a 2013 5th round pick coming off of a torn ACL.

While Jackson is the better player, Derek Wolfe will be the other starter opposite Ware, allowing Jackson to focus primarily on defensive tackle. Wolfe graded out poorly on Pro Football Focus last season, grading out as their 46th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible. However, he was a fairly productive pass rusher with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 28 hurries on 370 pass rush snaps (11.4%), lining up both inside and outside. The 2012 2nd round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 54th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible in 2012. Unfortunately, he missed from week 12 in 2013 on with seizure-like symptoms, but he’s supposed to be ready to go for training camp.

Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams will be the starters at defensive tackle, but they have so much depth on the defensive line that both with rotate heavily. Knighton will probably play more snaps than Williams because he’s the better player, but even he only played 604 snaps last season. Knighton broke out in his first year in Denver, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked defensive tackle. He was one of 5 defensive tackles (Ndamukong Suh, Randy Starks, Marcell Dareus, Brandon Mebane) to grade out top-15 in pass rushing and run stuffing among defensive tackles.

A 6-3 320 pounder with rare movement skills for his size, Knighton followed up his dominant regular season with an even stronger post-season, including a dominant, disruptive performance in the AFC Championship game against New England. He’s still a one year wonder, as he was pretty much just an average starter in the first 4 years of his career in Jacksonville, but he’s still relatively young (going into his age 28 season) so the notion that last year’s breakout season could become the new normal for him is hardly farfetched. He’s an excellent scheme fit in defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s system. Del Rio was the head coach who drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2009 NFL Draft with Jacksonville.

Meanwhile, Sylvester Williams was a 2013 1st round pick who played 300 nondescript snaps as a rookie. He’ll have a bigger role this season and could easily be very ready for it. I mentioned that Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson will rotate inside on passing downs. They also have more depth inside in the form of veterans Mitch Unrein and Kevin Vickerson. Unrein played 357 snaps in 16 games last season and provided decent depth. He should consider himself lucky if he plays the same role this season, barring injuries. Vickerson, meanwhile, played 402 snaps in 11 games last season before going down with an injury. Going into his age 31 season with an unspectacular history and talent ahead of him on the depth chart, he should have a smaller role this season, again, barring injury.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

I mentioned that Miller plays strong side outside linebacker in base packages. That’s obviously the less important part of his role, but it’s one he excels in anyway. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in run stopping grade by a wide margin in each of the last 3 seasons, doing so last year despite missing roughly half the season. If he misses games this season, the Broncos have a number of guys who can fill in. Obviously none of them will be nearly as good in that role as Miller, but it’s not a particularly important role, the two-down linebacker role, so it’s not a huge issue.

Middle linebacker is the bigger issue. They lost Wesley Woodyard to free agency, but, after some solid years earlier in his career, he struggled in his contract year, even losing snaps down the stretch to the archaic Paris Lenon. Lenon is still a free agent, but he’s going into his age 37 season and hasn’t been good for close to 5 years so he’s not an option at the position. Jamar Chaney is currently penciled in as the starter at the position. The former Eagle has struggled mightily whenever he’s been counted on his career, including a starting job in 2011 when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked middle linebacker out of 51 eligible. He’s a special teamer at best and wasn’t in the league at all last season.

Nate Irving is another option, but the 2011 3rd round pick has never developed into the starter he was supposed to be and is now already going into his 4th year in the league. He’s played 322 nondescript snaps in 3 seasons, 280 of which came last season as a two-down base linebacker when Miller was hurt. He’s alright in run support, but unproven and possibly incapable in coverage. He’s also unproven at middle linebacker and it’s very telling that when Woodyard struggled down the stretch last season, they turned to Lenon instead of Irving.

5th round rookie Lamin Barrow is another option, but if they have to count on him for big snaps as a rookie, they’re in trouble. Whoever doesn’t start at middle linebacker will probably play early season snaps in the two-down outside role if needed. They could also rotate snaps at middle linebacker if none of these options prove anything, which could be very likely. I don’t know why they didn’t address this position in the draft until the 5th round when it was their one hole in the starting lineup.

With Miller’s injury and their incompetence at middle linebacker, the only spot in the linebacking corps that isn’t in doubt is the weakside spot, where Danny Trevathan is the starter. The 2012 6th round pick played 243 nondescript snaps as a rookie, but moved into an every down role in 2013, playing 962 snaps and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. He’s still just a one year wonder, but it wouldn’t shock me at all if he had another strong season on the outside as he goes into only his age 24 season. The 6-0 237 pounder is best in coverage, but has developed into a pretty solid player against the run as well.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Broncos’ big off-season acquisition in the secondary was Aqib Talib, who they gave a 6-year, 57 million dollar contract. However, they lost Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had a fantastic season last season. There’s obvious debate about DRC’s consistency and whether or not he would have been as good as that again this season, but it’s unlikely that Talib will be as good as DRC was last season. Last season, DRC was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked cornerback, 4th in pure coverage grade, and his 44.1% completion percentage allowed was 2nd best at his position.

I don’t get the appeal of giving Talib that kind of money. He’s never made it through a full 16 game season, missing 23 games in 6 seasons since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008. He also has a variety of off-the-field problems in his past. He’s definitely flashed from time-to-time, for instance when he allowed 13 of 33 completion through 6 games last year with the Patriots, picking off 4 passes in the process, but then he suffered another injury, missed 3 games, and wasn’t the same upon return, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked cornerback by regular season’s end. And then, he got hurt in the AFC Championship game again, the 2nd time he had done that in as many years.

He’s never graded out higher than 16th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and, after a rough contract year in 2012, in which he missed 6 games with injury and suspension and got traded for a mid-round pick to New England, he was forced to settle for a one-year, 5 million dollar deal in free agency. He was Pro Football Focus’ 69th ranked cornerback in 2012 in composite grade (combining his grades in New England and Tampa Bay). He was better in 2013, but why is he suddenly worth 57 million over 6 years? Who is to say he doesn’t just coast and/or get in trouble again?

Opposite Talib, the Broncos are hoping to be able to play Chris Harris. However, Harris tore his ACL back in January, which is going to make it tough for him to return for the start of the season. Even when he returns, he might not be 100% all season. At his best, he’s a great cornerback though. As a pure slot cornerback in part-time work as an undrafted rookie in 2011, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback on just 465 snaps. Over the past two seasons as a full-time starter, he’s graded out 5th and 11th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Only Jason McCourty and Richard Sherman also graded out top-11 among cornerbacks in each of the last 2 seasons. His specialty is the slot as he’s ranked 2nd and 5th in 2012 and 2013 respectively in QB rating allowed on the slot. That’s where he’ll be missed the most, but he’s also an outside cornerback in base packages.

When Harris is healthy, either Bradley Roby, Tony Carter, or Kayvon Webster will be the #3 cornerback and play outside in sub packages, with Harris moving inside. Roby is the heavy favorite for that role, even though cornerbacks tend to take a year to get adjusted to the NFL, because of his status as a 1st round pick (31st overall). Carter and Webster will provide competition though. Carter randomly had a strong 2012 season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked cornerback on just 511 snaps and allowing 49.2% completion. However, he struggled mightily on just 270 snaps in 2013. That’s probably more representative of the type of player he is. The 2009 undrafted free agent played a combined 68 snaps from 2009-2011. Webster, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and struggled some on 489 snaps as a rookie. He could be better in 2014, but there’s no guarantee. If Harris misses time at the start of the season, either Webster or Carter will play a bigger role.

At safety, the Broncos will be getting Rahim Moore back from injury. Moore suffered a rare, non-contact leg injury week 12 last season and missed the remainder of the year. It recently came out that Moore could have lost his leg or even died had he waited 12-24 extra hours to consult a doctor and go in for surgery. However, he’s reportedly as strong as ever now and ready for training camp and week 1. His re-addition at full strength will be a welcome one. While he’s best known for screwing up royally on the Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones Hail Mary in the Broncos’ eventual playoff loss to the Ravens in 2012, Moore is a solid player. You can’t judge him based solely on that one snap. He was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked safety in 2012 and he graded out about average in 2013 before the injury.

Opposite him, the Broncos will start free agent addition TJ Ward. Ward is one of the best safeties in the NFL. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd and 6th ranked safety in 2012 and 2013 respectively, the only safety in the NFL to finish top-6 both seasons. He was also 13th in 2011, despite missing 8 games with injury. That was really his only injury plagued season as he missed 2 games in his other 3 seasons combined, playing 54 games in 4 seasons, starting each of them and grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. Kam Chancellor and Eric Berry give him some competition for the title, but, in my opinion, Ward is the best strong safety in the NFL. His strength is obviously the run, but he holds up in coverage as well.

The Broncos got a steal by signing him to a 4-year, 23 million dollar deal this off-season. He undoubtedly gave them a discount because they were a contender, after he spent the first 4 years of his career on a losing team in Cleveland. He’ll be a significant upgrade over Duke Ihenacho, who was the starter last season. Ihenacho, a 2012 undrafted free agent, struggled in his first year as a starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 74th ranked safety out of 86 eligible, after not playing a single snap as a rookie. Ihenacho will now slot in as the 3rd safety in a pure depth role, which suits his skill set better.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

As I mentioned already, I expect the Broncos’ offense to be inferior to last year’s version. Manning is aging. Eric Decker is gone. Most importantly, they’re going to fall back down to earth just by the law of averages. They’ll still be one of the top offenses in the NFL, if not the top, but they’ll be noticeably worse and need to play better defensively. I think they will. The loss of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie hurts, but they add TJ Ward and DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib can be at least a solid replacement. They should also have Von Miller around for longer this season.

The Broncos have won 13 games in each of the last 2 seasons and gotten a first round bye. I think they certainly have the talent to do that again. They didn’t have an unsustainably good turnover margin last season and they didn’t have unsustainably good injury luck. In fact, they ranked 24th in adjusted games lost and actually had a fumble recovery rate of 37.74%, which was 2nd worst in the NFL. Given how good of a quarterback they have, it’s surprising they didn’t have at least a solid turnover margin last season, even as unpredictable as turnovers are.

If they have average injury luck, a solid turnover margin, and their defense performs as well as they can, they could be an even better team than they were last season, even if their offense declines noticeably. Remember, this team ranked 1st in rate of moving the chains differential last season by a whole percent over the 2nd place team (9.23% to New Orleans’ 8.13%). I’m going to do an official wins prediction at the end of all my team previews, but I expect them to finish with a large amount of wins. One thing that could derail their bid for a 3rd straight #1 seed in the AFC is a tougher schedule.

Season Prediction: 12-4 1st in AFC West

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