Denver Broncos 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

The Broncos won 8 games with Tebow last year and he can’t throw. Now that they have Peyton Manning, they’ll definitely win 12 or more games. That seems to be the common opinion out there, but it’s flawed. Yes, they did win 8 games last year, but they did it on the strength of a ridiculous record in games decided by a touchdown or less, going 7-4 in those games. Whether you want to call it luck or some sort of divine Tebow magic, that can’t be expected to continue this year.

Their -81 points differential was by far worst among playoff teams last year and one of the worst points differentials of a playoff team ever in the NFL. Their Pythagorean Expectation said they should have won 5.8 games, the 25th highest expectation in the NFL. Meanwhile, they ranked 24th in the league in DVOA. The year before, in 2010, this team won just 4 games, had a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.2 wins, and ranked 26th in DVOA. Even though they improved 4 games from 2010 to 2011, this team didn’t really play that much better last season than they did in 2010. Teams that exceed their Pythagorean Expectation by between 2 and 2.5 games, on average, win 2.4 fewer games the following season.

They still have weaknesses on the offensive line, at running back, in the receiving corps, and in both the run and pass defense. I’ll get into all of those areas in more detail later, but the point is that their supporting cast is really not that much better than it was in 2010. It just seems like it, unless you want to argue that somehow Tim Tebow is significantly inferior to Kyle Orton (which even the biggest Tebow haters might not do).

Peyton Manning represents a fairly significant upgrade at quarterback over Tim Tebow. Even the biggest Tebow lover would have to admit that. But it needs to be understood that whatever addition Manning represents in terms of wins to this team should be added to a win total of 5 or 6 wins, rather than 8, unless they can somehow have the same kind of play in close games that they had last season. Logic, and Peyton Manning’s 51-37 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, both work against you if you decide to argue that.

The Colts exceeded their Pythagorean Expectation every year from 2002-2010, but only by an average of 1.4 wins per season. The Colts were a very good team in that stretch, winning 10+ games every season and 12+ in 7 of 9 seasons. However, good teams almost always exceed their Pythagorean Expectation. That 1.4 wins per season mark is pretty average for teams who average 12 wins per season.

This team doesn’t have the supporting cast that Manning had in Indianapolis and Manning might not be the same either. I don’t think they’ll win 12+ games so I don’t think we can predict them to exceed their Pythagorean Expectation this year any more than any other team. If the Broncos score 81 more points (their points differential last year) this season (5.0 more points per game) than they did last season, they can be expected to win 8 games. And that’s a completely reasonable estimation, albeit on the low end.

For the record, my opinion on Tebow is this. He’s not the 2nd coming of Christ. He’s not the worst quarterback in the NFL. He’s a quarterback incomparable to any quarterback in the league. He’s a good runner, a subpar, but improving passer, an exceptional leader, a clutch player, a genuinely good person, and most importantly, an incredibly fun and interesting story.

Instead of arguing about Tebow, we should just accept him for what he is and enjoy watching him play. His 6 game winning streak last season was one of the most fun, interesting, and unbelievable stretches of football I’ve ever watched, a guy who had won on every level and went in the 1st round, yet who had so many doubters for legitimate reasons, somehow pulling 6 straight wins out of his ass.

That win over the Bears was one of the most entertaining, unbelievable, memorable games I’ve ever watched and his win over the Steelers comes in at a close 2nd. I’ll remember the 2011 NFL season for 3 things. Tom Brady losing to Eli Manning in the Super Bowl again (damnit). Absolutely no one playing any defense whatsoever. And Tim Tebow.

And I feel we wasted that amazing stretch of entertainment by arguing, trying to put him and his unique abilities into a box, and listening to anything Skip Bayless had to say. I am as neutral on Tebow as you can be, agreeing and disagreeing with his greatest fans and his biggest detractors equally, and yet I’m verging onto paragraph 5 about Tebow and he’s not even on the team anymore.

He deserves to be starting somewhere in the NFL, but the Broncos absolutely made the right move signing Manning and trading Tebow. If a Peyton Manning becomes available on the open market and you don’t have a legitimate top-12 franchise quarterback, you go after him and the Broncos did not have a legitimate top-12 franchise quarterback. Not even the biggest Tebow fan could argue that.

I don’t care if he’s 36 and coming off 4 neck surgeries, you still go after him, though you try as hard as you can to keep it a secret (Denver somehow did that for a few days). And if you get him, you trade away the incumbent starter because he still has value and because all he does is serve as an unnecessarily expensive backup and a distraction. There is not a single thing about the Tebow/Manning situation that I would have handled differently than Denver did. If there were a grade better than an A+, I’d give them it. At the same time, I think the Jets got a steal by getting Tebow for just a 4th rounder.

Quarterback

But enough about Tebow and onto the guy who is actually the Broncos’ quarterback: Peyton Manning. We know, barring another neck injury, that Peyton Manning represents some sort of upgrade over Tim Tebow as a quarterback. The question is, how much, and what version of Peyton Manning they’ll be getting. I believe they’ll be getting an inferior version of Peyton Manning than his prime and I have several reasons for that, some obvious, some not.

I’ll start with some of the more obvious and work my way down to the less obvious. He’s 36 years old. His neck has been operated on 4 times in the last 2 years. He hasn’t played organized NFL football in almost 2 years. He is going to be forced to adjust to a new city, a new team, new teammates, and a completely new playbook for the first time in his career.

He no longer will be able to play half of his games in a dome, but rather he’ll have to play half of his games at high elevations. In 2008, when he missed Training Camp and the Preseason, he completed just 62.2% of his passes, averaged 6.8 YPA, and threw 12 touchdowns to 9 interceptions in his first 8 games, as his team went 4-4.

He was also beginning to noticeably decline in 2010, with his lowest QB rating since 2002 (91.9), his lowest completion percentage since 2007 (66.3%), for his YPA since his rookie year in 1998 (6.9), his worst TD:INT ratio since 2002 (33:17), and his worst win-loss record since 2001 (10-6). He displayed weaker arm strength, both noticeably, and as evidenced by his 6.9 YPA and his 36.8% accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) on balls that go 20+ yards through the air, 26th out of 37 eligible quarterbacks. For reference, that statistic stood at 42.4% in 2009 and 43.6% in 2010. And that was 4 neck surgeries and 2 years ago with a much more familiar supporting cast.

Not only did he have a much more familiar supporting cast back then. He’ll also, as I’ve mentioned, have to work with one of the worst supporting casts of his career in 2012. It’s not like he’s throwing to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, and Dallas Clark in their primes, with Edgerrin James in his prime the backfield. He’s throwing to Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and his running back, Willis McGahee, is almost as old as Edgerrin James was when he retired after the 2009 season.

Offensive Line

Another weakness for the Broncos is their offensive line. They rated as the worst run blocking offensive line on ProFootballFocus last year and ranked 2nd to last in pass blocking efficiency. No quarterback was pressured more often than Tim Tebow, who was pressured on 43.4% of his drop backs. Some of that can be blamed on Tebow’s tendency to hold the ball for a long time, but, in 2010, they ranked 17th in pass blocking efficiency so they do have some problems of their own. They do return the same starting 5 as they had in 2011, but, for them, that’s probably more of a bad thing that a good thing.

In a way this is a big deal and in a way this isn’t. It’s a big deal because, if you have a quarterback with a 4 times operated on neck, you probably want to protect him well, which the Broncos’ offensive line isn’t talented enough to do. However, Peyton Manning has such good pocket presence and feel for the pass rush and makes decisions and gets rid of the ball so quickly that he essentially protects himself. He always makes the offensive line look much better than they are.

From 2008-2010, including the postseason, he took 46 sacks on 533 pressured drop backs, good for a ridiculously low rate of 8.6%, easily the best in the NFL over that time period. It’s not like he really had that great of an offensive line in Indianapolis either. They ranked just 18th in pass blocking efficiency in 2011, 15th in 2010, 11th in 2009, and 24th in 2008. Like he did in Indianapolis, he should be able to protect himself again in Denver and he probably won’t take too many more than 20 sacks, and possibly much less. However, the bad news is that any one of those sacks could potentially reinjure his neck and that might force him to retire.

Protecting his blindside is left tackle Ryan Clady, one of the most overrated players in the league. In 4 years in his career, the 2008 12th overall pick has allowed a combined 20 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, and 120 quarterback pressures. Last year was his worst year, as he rated 61st out of 73 offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, allowing 6 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 34 quarterback pressures, while allowing 12 penalties and playing terribly as a run blocker, ranking 72nd on ProFootballFocus in that regard, 2nd to last.

The fact that he was not only was offered a 5 year, 50 million dollar extension this offseason, but also rejected said offer is ridiculous. He wants a deal similar to Joe Thomas’ 7 year, 84 million dollar extension, with 44 million guaranteed and he’s just not worth anywhere near that. I wouldn’t even guarantee him half of that. Fortunately for him, he gets to protect Peyton Manning’s blindside this season, which will make him look better, so the overrated 2 time Pro-Bowler (2009, 2011) will continue to be overrated and might even get his desired deal. At the very least, he’ll be franchised as teams don’t often let their left tackles hit the open market. That’s almost as rare as a team letting their quarterback hit the open market.

Opposite Clady, at right tackle, the Broncos have Orlando Franklin. Franklin, a mere 2nd round rookie last season, actually played the best of any of the Broncos’ starting 5 offensive linemen last season, according to ProFootballFocus. However, that’s not saying much and his -9.7 rating is hardly ideal. He allowed 7 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 31 quarterback pressures, while committing 6 penalties and, though he was his team’s best run blocking starting offensive line, he was still slightly below average in that respect.

On the interior, things are even worse. Chris Kuper was the best of the bunch last season with an only slightly pathetic -11.5 rating. He was an above average pass protector, allowing just 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 15 quarterback pressures, but he was awful as a run blocker, ranking 73rd at his position out of 76 as a run blocker. He’s also coming off a broken leg and dislocated ankle sustained late last season, which required 2 surgeries. He’s been cleared for camp, but that was no major injury. In his absence, Russ Hochstein played poorly as well. He’s really their only experienced depth, sadly.

The other two interior offensive linemen were the worst of the bunch. I don’t know why they didn’t do more to upgrade them. They used a 4th round pick on Philip Blake, who can play both guard and center, but that’s it. He’ll probably end up a starter somewhere before the end of the season, most likely at center, a spot which the Broncos tried to upgrade this offseason by unsuccessfully trying to bring in Manning’s old center, Jeff Saturday, from Indianapolis.

Instead, they’re stuck with JD Walton, who was ProFootballFocus’ worst rated center by over 13 points with a -32.9 rating and their worst rated run blocker at any position. As I mentioned, he could be replaced by Blake before the season is over, but he’s just a mere 4th round rookie so he’d probably only be an upgrade by default.

Meanwhile, left guard Zane Beadles ranked 73rd among 76 guards on ProFootballFocus, playing equally poor as a run blocker and pass protector. He allowed 7 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures, while committing 7 penalties. What the Broncos should do next offseason is add another offensive tackle, possibly move Ryan Clady to the right side, move Franklin inside, get a new center (unless Blake works out), and bench both Beadles and Walton.

The Broncos allowed 42 sacks last season, 9th most in the NFL. Going from Tim Tebow, who holds the ball a very long time, to Peyton Manning, who is legendarily good at avoiding sacks, should cut that number in half, but it won’t make them a good pass blocking offensive line. Also, there’s obviously an injury risk with Manning and they don’t have a proven backup on the roster.

On top of all this, there isn’t much Manning is going to do to make this a better run blocking team. Sure, he’ll open things up for the running game because they have to fear his ability to throw, but that won’t actually make them a better run blocking team. It’s weird to say that this was the league’s worst run blocking unit last year because they led the league in rushing, but it was.

Running Backs

One of the reasons why they led the league in rushing was because they led the league in rushing attempts. Still, their 4.8 YPC was very impressive. Tim Tebow’s absence will hurt that. Not only did Tebow rush for 660 yards on 124 carries (5.4 YPC), he also opened things up for their other back, Willis McGahee.

Mobile quarterbacks have a way of opening things up for running backs better than even the best passing quarterbacks can. Opposing front 7s almost always had to use a spy when playing the Broncos last year, for fear of Tebow taking off, which weakens and distracts their overall run defense as they try to stop running backs.

Just look at LeSean McCoy and Chris Johnson. In the last 2 seasons, McCoy has carried the ball 375 times for 1954 yards (5.2 YPC) and 21 touchdowns in 24 games with Michael Vick and 105 times for 435 yards (4.1) and 3 touchdowns in 6 games without him. Meanwhile, Chris Johnson averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2009, when Vince Young was his primary quarterback. In 2010, he rushed for 4.8 YPC with Young and 3.8 YPC without him. Last year, without him at all, he averaged just 4.0 YPC.

Tim Tebow was that for Willis McGahee last season. There’s a reason he rushed for 1199 yards and 4 touchdowns on 249 carries (4.8 YPC) last year, after rushing for just 380 yards and 5 touchdowns on 100 carries (3.8 YPC) the year before. Without Tebow, he could easily regress and heading into his age 31 season, his abilities could drop off a cliff at any time. On top of that, he will be running behind a poor offensive line.

With that in mind, the Broncos used a 3rd round pick on Ronnie Hillman, to compliment him and help him stay fresh. Both backs will get carries this season and Hillman, a much superior pass catcher, could easily get more playing time as the season goes on at Manning’s urging. However, he’s still just a rookie and he doesn’t have the prototypical size to carry a load if McGahee gets hurt, definitely a possibility. If that happens, either the mediocre Lance Ball, the always injured Knowshon Moreno, or the inexperienced Mario Fannin will get some playing time. Head Coach John Fox is a fan of two-back sets anyway.

They could go from one of the league’s best rushing teams to one of the league’s worst, especially since they won’t run nearly as much as they did last year now that they have Manning. Indianapolis ranked 29th, 32nd, 31st in rushing yards in 2010, 2009, 2008 with Manning. It’s not that important, but it’s worth noting that they won’t be very good on the ground this year.

Grade: B-

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Peyton Manning might not be throwing to Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Pierre Garcon, and Dallas Clark in their primes, but the Broncos do have a few intriguing young receivers and Manning should be able to make do with them. Demaryius Thomas is a very popular breakout candidate, to the point where he’s become a 4th round pick on average in fantasy drafts, despite the fact that he hasn’t accomplished much yet.

However, I like Decker at his current ADP in the 6th round much more. I think he’ll be their leading receiver. While Thomas had 25 catches for 448 yards and 3 touchdowns in his last 5 games last year, Eric Decker had 20 catches for 270 yards and 4 touchdowns in his first 4 games last year and that was with Brandon Lloyd opposite him stealing targets.

Just because Thomas had great chemistry with Tim Tebow doesn’t mean he will have great chemistry with Peyton Manning. Thomas is still a very unproven player and Decker has shown better chemistry with more traditional pocket passers. Decker is reportedly impressing in Training Camp, with some like SI’s Peter King saying he could be among the league leaders in catches this season. Meanwhile, Thomas is struggling to learn the full route tree, something Manning requires of his receivers that Tebow didn’t.

Manning has always been more comfortable with sure handed possession receivers who run routes well over pure athletes like Thomas and that will only become more the case as he’s now older with somewhat diminished arm strength and in a place where he’s not familiar with most of the receivers. It’s also worth noting that Peyton Manning specifically requested the Colts draft Eric Decker in the 3rd round in 2010, but the Broncos got him first. We know he thinks highly of him.

Manning has made lemonade out of apples before with his receivers. If Austin Collie can catch 58 passes for 649 yards and 8 touchdowns in 9 games on a more crowded receiving corps in 2010 with Manning, Decker can have a 1000 yard season. He’ll be especially valuable in PPR leagues. Thomas, meanwhile, has never had any success in the NFL without Tim Tebow. He also has very little proven success in general with just 54 catches for 834 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2 seasons. Thomas will produce as well, but he’ll be a disappointment based off of what people are projecting for him. He’ll be 2nd among wide receivers on this team.

He might even be behind tight end Jacob Tamme statistically. Tamme might not be a great athlete, but, like Decker, he has sure hands and runs routes well. He’s also familiar with Manning, catching 67 passes for 631 yards and 4 touchdowns in 10 games in place of an injured Clark in 2010. With less wide receiver talent around him than in Indianapolis, and no other receivers (other than the mediocre Brandon Stokley) that Manning has any familiarity with, he could be an even more frequent target for Manning this year. A tight end is frequently going to be the first option on this offense this year.

The Broncos also did well to bring in Joel Dreessen from Houston. Dreessen is one of the league’s most underrated players and best #2 tight ends. ProFootballFocus rated him as the 6th best tight end in the league last year as the #2 tight end in Houston. The Texans run more two-tight end sets than anyone in the league and Dreessen is an adequate pass catcher and a phenomenal blocker. In the last 3 years, he’s caught 90 passes for 1191 yards and 11 touchdowns. He won’t put up huge numbers, but, like he did in Houston, he’ll be an important part of an offense that uses a lot of two-tight end sets. The Colts also have Andre Caldwell, a decent slot receiver, as their #3 receiver.

However, like everywhere else on offense, the Broncos don’t have a lot of proven talent in their receiving corps. Decker and Thomas are still young and Tamme has never produced without Manning. Meanwhile, they have one of the worst offensive lines in the league and their only proven good offensive player is running back Willis McGahee, who is on his last legs. Meanwhile, none of the backs behind him on the depth chart are proven. Manning will make do just fine, but it’s worth noting that this is a pretty talentless group, which scored just 19.3 points per game last season, worst of any playoff team by a full point per game. Manning, meanwhile, probably won’t be his old self for a variety of reasons.

Grade: B-

Defense

While the Broncos ranked 25th in points per game offensively, worst among playoff teams, they also ranked 24th in points per game allowed defensively, allowing 24.4 points per game, 2nd worst among playoff teams behind only the Giants (25.0 points per game). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This team isn’t really that much better than they were in 2010 (aside from Manning of course). They just got incredibly lucky last year (or Tebow is magic, whatever you want to believe). Either way, that shouldn’t happen again this year. Manning will obviously upgrade the offense, but they’ll once again have a subpar defense and that will prevent this team from being the elite team many think they’ll be.

Defensive Line

The one good thing the Broncos have going for them is their pass rush. Including playoffs, they had 49 sacks last year, and, in their regular season, they ranked tied for 10th in the league with 41. Of those 49 sacks, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller each had 13, combining for 26 of their 49 sacks. They need someone to step up as a 3rd pass rusher this year, particularly on the interior of their defensive line, where starters Marcus Thomas and Brodrick Bunkley combined for just 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures on a combined 493 pass rush snaps, good for a pathetic 2.2% rate.

3rd on the team in sacks last season was Robert Ayers, who had 6 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures on 389 pass rush snaps, good for a decent 8.0% pass rush rate. He also played well against the run, finally having a good season after looking like a bust in his first two years in the league after going 18th overall in 2010. Turns out all he needed was to play in a 4-3 defense, though there’s no way Josh McDaniels could have known that. It’s not like every scouting report in the world said that Ayers was a 4-3 only player (I miss bashing Josh McDaniels).

Ayers played left end in the base package and then Von Miller came down from linebacker and played defensive end on passing downs. Miller had an amazing rookie season. He ranked 2nd among all defensive players on ProFootballFocus with a 53.4 rating as a mere rookie, rushing the passer well, stopping the run well, and doing well in coverage. He had 13 sacks, 21 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures on 468 pass rush snaps, good for an incredible rate of 15.0%. He should be one of the league’s premier defensive players for years and years to come.

Elvis Dumervil will once again almost always play at the opposite defensive end spot, only being taken out of the game for rest. He too had a fantastic season, with 13 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 33 quarterback pressures on 562 pass rush snaps, good for an above average 9.4% pass rush rate. He’s led the league in sacks before and should be considered one of the best pass rushers in the league, as should Miller.

While Ayers played defensive end opposite Dumervil last year, and played pretty well, the Broncos will be using 2nd round rookie Derek Wolfe at defensive end opposite Dumervil this year, even though he’s a natural defensive tackle and would fill a bigger need there. It’s unclear what Ayers’ role will be this season, so this is a pretty head scratching move. He’ll probably play the old role of Jason Hunter, an awful defensive end who had just 1 sack, no quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback pressures on 202 pass rush snaps as a situational player, good for a pathetic 5.0% rate. He played the run well though.

Like Ayers would last year, Wolfe will be a base defensive end, but he’ll also move inside and play defensive tackle on passing downs, which will help their interior pass rush, which was non-existent last year. However, he’d be better served as a full time member of the defensive tackle rotation and a starter there.

At defensive tackle, the Broncos have lost starters Bunkley and Thomas. Neither could do anything as pass rushers, but both will still be missed as they were among the best run stuffing defensive tackles in the league, with Bunkley ranking 1st and Thomas ranking 14th in that aspect on ProFootballFocus last year.

Also gone is Ryan McBean, who led the position in snaps played. He won’t be missed at all though, as he was ProFootballFocus’ worst rated defensive tackle. He didn’t play the run well and struggled as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 1 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures on 414 pass rush snaps, good for a pathetic 3.1% rate. Between Bunkley, Thomas, and McBean, the Broncos’ top 3 defensive tackles got a sack/pressure/hit on 2.6% of their pass rush snaps.

In 2012, they should be better than that, but maybe not by much and only by default. Penciled in as starters right now are Kevin Vickerson, a career journeyman who played just 206 snaps last year as the #4 defensive tackle (and did not play well), and Ty Warren, who hasn’t played in a game since 2009 thanks to various injuries. That tells you all you need to know about their weakness at defensive tackle. Why the hell isn’t Wolfe starting there?!

Wolfe will provide depth as a situational pass rusher and be part of the rotation. Also in the rotation is Justin Bannan, a veteran who could push for a starting job out of sheer need. Bannan played pretty well in a situational role in St. Louis last year, but he was cut by them this offseason and he is heading into his age 33 season. The Broncos should be a good pass rushing team again in 2012, but they could really struggle against the run and if anything happens to one of their top 2 pass rushers, they’d be left awfully thin.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

In base packages, the Broncos will start DJ Williams, Joe Mays, and Von Miller at linebacker. I already talked about how awesome Von Miller is under the defensive line section, he leaves the linebacking unit in two-linebacker sets in nickel packages and goes to the defensive line. Joe Mays leaves the linebacking unit as well in that situation, as he’s just a two down run stuffer. He’s awful in coverage, but stuffs the run pretty well.

Wesley Woodyard comes in during sub packages as a pure coverage linebacker, but he struggled in that role last year, ranking 45th among 53 middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus, despite his situational role. He also played outside linebacker last year when injuries hit Miller and Williams, but he wasn’t much better there.

DJ Williams was once one of their best defensive players, but he was pretty bad last season, ranking 35th out of 42 4-3 outside linebackers on ProFootballFocus, struggling in coverage and against the run. Heading into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to ever bounce back. He’ll also miss the first 6 games of the season after failing 2 drug tests and attempting to use a non-human specimen on the 3rd one. There was talk of the Broncos outright cutting him this offseason to avoid paying him a non-guaranteed 11 million over the next 2 seasons, but nothing appears imminent. He still may be asked to restructure.

In Williams’ absence, Woodyard and Mays will have to play every down roles, unless 2011 3rd round pick Nate Irving can establish some sort of role for himself. He only played 7 snaps as a rookie though and the organization hasn’t seemed too impressed with him yet, so that’s unlikely. Woodyard and Mays will probably have to be the every down linebackers, which has proved to be a problem for them in the past.

Grade: B-

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Secondary

Things aren’t that great in the secondary either. There’s a reason why the Broncos allowed 7.4 YPA, 20th in the league, despite a strong pass rush. Champ Bailey was good as always, allowing 36 completions on 72 attempts (50.0%) for 552 yards (7.6 YPA), 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 13 passes and committing just 2 penalties. He was ProFootballFocus’ 7th rated cornerback, marking the 4th straight year he ranked in the top-8 at his position. Only Darrelle Revis can say the same. However, he’s heading into his age 34 season so he could start to decline.

The problem last year was that Bailey’s talents were minimized by the fact that opposing quarterbacks could just pick on the opposite cornerbacks. Andre Goodman was terrible and was cut this offseason, heading into his age 34 season. He remains unsigned on the open market as of this writing, which tells you all you need to know. No cornerback surrendered more touchdowns in coverage than the 9 Goodman surrendered. The Broncos have signed Tracy Porter to replace him, in hopes that he can bounce back. Once a solid starting cornerback, Porter allowed 71.3% completion as the 3rd cornerback in New Orleans last season.

In the slot, free agent acquisition Drayton Florence will compete with incumbent Chris Harris. Harris was thrust into the nickel back role as a mere undrafted rookie last year and, while he impressed at times, he also often played like an undrafted rookie, allowing 51 completions on 70 attempts (72.9%) for 539 yards (7.7 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 2 penalties.

Florence, however, looks pretty washed up. Heading into his age 32 season, Florence was ProFootballFocus’ 89th ranked cornerback out of 98 as a starter in Buffalo last year, allowing 44 completions on 73 attempts (60.3%) for 714 yards (9.8 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 9 penalties. His best days are behind him and, while he could play better now that he’s just on the slot, the Broncos would be smart to let Harris play there and hope that he makes improvements in his 2nd year in the league. Unfortunately, Florence looks like the favorite as of this writing.

At safety, the Broncos will miss Brian Dawkins, who has retired. He didn’t play all that well last season, which makes sense because he was 38, but he played solidly and provided great veteran leadership. Unwilling to give the job to 2011 4th round pick Quinton Carter full time, the Broncos signed Mike Adams, a solid and underrated safety, from the Browns. He should have another solid year this year. Opposite him, the Broncos will be hoping that 2011 2nd round pick Rahim Moore can bounce back in his 2nd season in the league, after ranking 67th at his position out of 84 last season. If he doesn’t, Carter could potentially push for his job, but he played every worse last year, ranking 74th at the position.

In 2010, the Broncos ranked dead last in the NFL, allowing 29.4 points per game. They were a little better last year, ranking 24th and allowing 24.4 points per game. However, the improvement was not as big as some seem to think as their defense is still subpar. They have major questions on all 3 levels of the defense and, while Peyton Manning will help things offensively, their defense will hold them back.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

John Fox has been in the NFL a long time, coaching 10 seasons, including 9 with the Panthers and last year with the Broncos. He has a career 81-79 regular season record and 6-4 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 he’s managed to stay around a long time.

Grade: B

Overall

In 2010, the Broncos ranked dead last in the NFL in points allowed, allowing 29.4 points per game, and 19th in the league, scoring 21.5 points per game. They had a points differential of -117 and a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.2 wins, while ranking 26th in the league in DVOA.  Last year, they ranked 24th defensively, allowing 24.4 points per game, and 25th offensively, scoring 19.3 points per game. They had a points differential of -81 and a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.8 wins, while ranking 24th in the league in DVOA. Though they improved 4 games, they didn’t really play much better last season than in 2010 and they still have a very weak supporting cast with questions everywhere.

Peyton Manning undoubtedly helps, but to say that this is a playoff team adding a franchise quarterback would be inaccurate because they didn’t play like a playoff team last year. Manning also figures to not quite be his normal self and he’s one bad hit away from being done for good and they don’t have a veteran backup on the roster. Should he stay healthy, the offense will play well, but they defense won’t.

In comparing the team to the Chargers, who I think are their primary competition for the division, at this stage in his career, Manning is comparable to Philip Rivers and I think Rivers has the better supporting cast, in addition to being more durable. Rivers did throw 20 touchdowns last year, but Eli Manning threw 25 the year before. Both were outliers and Rivers should bounce back like Eli did (well maybe not quite like Eli did). The Chargers had a points differential 110 points better last year, yet did not win the division on a tiebreaker. I don’t think Manning, at this stage in his career, is good enough, on his own, to make up those 110 points (6.9 points per game) and on top of that, I think the Chargers will be improved.

They do have a pretty easy division and should be able to go 3-3 or 4-2 in the division. However, outside of the division, they host Pittsburgh week 1, when Manning still figures to be getting his timing back). You know they’ll be out for blood after the playoff defeat last season. Their other 4 games at home aren’t much easier, Houston, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland. The latter two should be very winnable, but I think they’ll only win one of the first 3, especially since two are in the first 3 weeks. Meanwhile, they go to Atlanta and New England early, then Cincinnati, Carolina, and Baltimore. Three of those teams are very tough at home (going a combined 22-2 in 2011) so they should go 2-3 in those 5 games.

Manning should take at least 4-6 weeks to get right. They host Pittsburgh, go to Atlanta (always tough at home), and then host Houston and Oakland, before going to New England and San Diego. They could easily start 2-4. Then they host New Orleans after the bye (not easy), before going on the road for two more (Carolina, and Cincinnati), and then they host the Chargers. Could they start 4-6? Yes, yes they can. Their last 6 games will be easier (@ Kansas City, vs. Tampa Bay, @ Oakland, @ Baltimore, vs. Cleveland, vs. Kansas City), but it’s almost cruel that the scheduler gave them most of their tough games earlier in the season as Manning tries to get his timing back. I don’t see them winning the division. 8 or 9 wins seems more likely.

Projection: 9-7 2nd in AFC West

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