The Broncos finished last regular season #1 in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential, as they had done the year before, when they ended up losing in the Super Bowl to Seattle. Like the previous season, the Broncos were unable to capitalize when they got to the playoffs, but, unlike the previous season, the Broncos didn’t even make the Super Bowl, or even win a game. The Broncos, after a first round bye, lost at home to the Colts 24-13.
What happened? Well, while they did rank #1 over the whole season, they played their worst football at the worst time. Of the 12 playoff teams, the Broncos ranked 9th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential in the final 4 weeks of the season. An injury to talented linebacker Brandon Marshall was part of it, but, undeniably, the biggest problem over the final 4 weeks of the season and into the playoff loss was quarterback Peyton Manning.
After completing 68.1% of his passes for an average of 8.05 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in the first 11 games of the season, Peyton Manning completed just 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.54 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the final 5 games of the season. Manning followed that up by completing 56.5% of his passes for an average of 4.59 YPA and a touchdown in the playoff loss. And that was despite having some fantastic supporting talent around him on offense.
His late season struggles caused him to finish the season only 10th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, after never grading out worse than 5th since Pro Football Focus’ origin in 2007. His performance in the playoff loss ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 20th best quarterbacked game out of 22 eligible post-season games. A late season thigh injury seems like the obvious culprit to many people and he’s just 2 years removed from a record setting 2013 season where he completed 68.3% of his passes for 8.31 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He also had similar numbers to those last season through the first 11 games. At first glance, he might look like a good bounce back candidate, but the thing that needs to be remembered is that he’s going into his age 39 season with a history of neck problems and considered retirement this off-season. He’s at the point where it’s impossible to trust him going forward, especially since he did show a steep decline in his abilities late last season.
Over the past 20 years, quarterbacks in their age 39 season complete 60.4% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 90 touchdowns, and 80 interceptions. That’s as opposed to 61.2% completion, a 6.92 YPA, 235 touchdowns, and 177 interceptions in age 38 seasons. Now, not all of the players in those statistical pools are as good as Peyton Manning, but you also need to be pretty good to be playing until you’re 38 or 39. Looking at the end of Brett Favre’s career shows the range of what we could see from Manning this season. In his age 39 season, he completed 65.7% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions. In his age 40 season, he completed 68.4% of his passes for an average of 7.91 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. In his age 41 season, he completed 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.01 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions. Any of those options is in play for Manning this season. It’s simply impossible to know which one or to trust him right now.
The uncertainty around Peyton Manning’s abilities in 2015 is one reason why I have some doubts about the Broncos becoming the team they were to start last season, before Manning’s quad injury. A 2nd reason is that they lost a great deal this off-season in terms of talent through free agency. The Broncos went all in on free agency last off-season, signing DeMarcus Ware, TJ Ward, and Aqib Talib to solidify their defense, after having their toughness challenged as the old adage goes in their Super Bowl loss to Seattle the previous season. Their defensive upgrades worked as the Broncos improved from 20th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 to 4th in 2014.
However, that didn’t translate to better post-season success, as I mentioned above, which should pour some water on the aforementioned adage about toughness. As a result of all the spending they did last off-season, they had very little room to re-sign their own pending free agents this off-season, bad news because they had arguably the best pending free agency class in the league going into this off-season. Going all in last off-season made sense because of Peyton Manning’s age, but this off-season the bill was due and they still don’t have their ring.
Arguably their biggest free agent loss was offensive lineman Orlando Franklin. It’s not just because he was an above average starter for the Broncos on the line for the last 3 seasons, 12th among offensive tackles in 2012, 17th among offensive tackles in 2013, and 13th among guards in 2014, but also because the offensive line was already the biggest weakness on this strong Bronco roster. Because of their financial situation, the Broncos didn’t really do much in the way of adding a veteran replacement this off-season, opting instead to draft Ty Sambrailo in the 2nd round and Max Garcia in the 4th.
The biggest addition the Broncos made to the offensive line this off-season wasn’t an offensive lineman at all; it was new head coach Gary Kubiak, who replaces John Fox, as Fox was shockingly fired after the Broncos’ late season collapse. Many remember Gary Kubiak for his final season in Houston, when he was fired after a 2-11 start, but he generally got the most out of his players in his 8 seasons in Houston, going 61-64 with 2 playoff wins. Furthermore, he’s done a fantastic job in his career as offensive coordinator, specializing on improving offensive line play and running back production.
The two veterans that the Broncos did add on the offensive line this off-season are players with whom Gary Kubiak is familiar. However, his familiarity with them is almost solely from practice. Shelley Smith was drafted by Kubiak and the Texans in the 6th round in 2010, but he didn’t play a snap in either 2010 in 2011 with the Texans and was a final cut before the 2012 season. He then went to St. Louis, grading out 55th out of 81 eligible on 360 snaps in 2012. Smith was better in 2013, grading out 23rd among guards on 371 snaps, earning him a 2-year, 5.5 million dollar deal from the Dolphins last off-season. However, he was cut, after grading out 54th out of 78 eligible guards on just 367 snaps. The Broncos signed him to a 2-year, 5.65 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s only a backup caliber player.
Gino Gradkowski is the other veteran coming in. Gradkowski played 10 snaps for the Ravens in 2014, where Kubiak was the offensive coordinator, so, while he does have game experience under Kubiak, it’s very, very limited. Gradkowski, a 2012 4th round pick, struggled mightily in his only starting experience in the NFL in 2013, grading out dead last among centers that season. Like Smith, he’s a backup caliber player, but one of those two players has a good chance of starting on this thin offensive line.
Gradkowski will compete with 4th round rookie Max Garcia at center. Shelley Smith could see some snaps at center this off-season, especially if both Gradkowski and Garcia fail to impress, but he’s needed more at guard. His only competition there as the depth chart currently stands is Jon Halapio, a 2014 6th round pick who has yet to play a snap in his career. Rookie 2nd round pick Ty Sambrailo could move inside to guard and could be a candidate to start at guard if needed, but I think he’s needed more at offensive tackle, also a more natural position for him.
The reason he’s so badly needed at offensive tackle is not just because the Broncos had issues at right tackle last season, but also because left tackle Ryan Clady is out for the season with a torn ACL. That’s the other reason I’m tentative about the Broncos this season. In addition to Manning’s age and their off-season losses, they also suffered relatively no injuries last season, ranking best in the NFL in adjusted games lost. Clady isn’t the player he used to be, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus for the 2nd time in his 7-year career last season, but the injury still really hurts because of their lack of offensive line talent. It’s also a reminder that they can expect to lose more players to injuries this season. Sambrailo will likely start at left tackle, but news because College Football Focus rated him as a reach in the 2nd round.
At right tackle, it’ll be a competition between Ryan Harris, Chris Clark, and Michael Schofield. Harris, a veteran free agent acquisition signed directly after the Clady injury, is the heavy favorite. Harris is a veteran journeyman who has bounced from Denver to Houston to Kansas City, but, from 2008-2014, he graded out above average 4 times, below average twice, and didn’t play a snap in 2011. He graded out below average in 2014, his first full season as a starter since 2009, but only barely. He’s going into his age 30 season, but he’s not completely over the hill yet. He’s a marginal starter.
Meanwhile, Schofield is a 2014 3rd round pick, didn’t play a snap as a rookie, is a poor fit for Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme, and is generally not considered a strong candidate to start this season. Chris Clark was the starter at right tackle to begin last season, but made just 7 starts on the season, played just 480 snaps, and graded out 52nd out of 84 eligible on the season. Clark was better in 2013, when he graded out 22nd among offensive tackles, playing primarily on the blindside in place of an injured Ryan Clady, but the 2008 undrafted free agent had played just 182 snaps in his career leading up to 2013, so he’s a one year wonder, and he’s now heading into his age 31 season.
The only Bronco offensive lineman locked into his 2015 spot is Louis Vasquez at right guard. Vasquez only made 8 starts at right guard last season, but that was because the Broncos decided to move him to right tackle late in the season as they were shuffling their offensive front around. This season, I expect Vasquez to stay at right guard, as he struggled at right tackle. At right guard, he graded out 29th at his position on Pro Football Focus in 8 starts and that’s actually a down year for him. The 2009 3rd round pick graded out 26th among guards in 2009, 29th in 2010, 30th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 3rd in 2013. Only going into his age 28 season, him bouncing back in his natural position is the surest thing the Broncos have on the offensive line.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The one key free agent that the Broncos didn’t lose this off-season is Demaryius Thomas, as they knew they couldn’t afford to lose him and franchise tagged him. A long-term deal hasn’t been struck and there haven’t been any substantial rumors about a long-term deal being close, but, barring an unlikely extended holdout that gets him out of shape, Thomas will be in Denver this season, once again dominating opposing defensive backs.
Thomas has put up absurd numbers over the past 3 seasons, playing all 48 games, catching 297 passes for 4483 yards and 35 touchdowns. Playing with Peyton Manning at quarterback and being a target monster has definitely helped him, so his numbers could see a little bit of a dip this season if Manning has a down year, but he’s graded out 2nd, 5th, and 5th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in his own right in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. No other wide receiver has graded out in the top-5 in all 3 of those seasons. The 2010 1st round pick was also productive with Tim Tebow in 2011, as he had 35 catches for 745 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 7 games, including playoffs. That’s 80 catches for 1703 yards and 9 touchdowns extrapolated over 16 games. Along with Antonio Brown and Calvin Johnson, you can make a case for him as the best wide receiver in football.
Thomas wasn’t the only Denver wide receiver that graded out in the top-8 among wide receivers last season, as Emmanuel Sanders graded out 8th overall, including 3rd in pure pass catching grade, in a big-time breakout season in 2014. A mid-sized free agent signing that has paid big dividends, Sanders was sized to a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal last off-season after 4 nondescript seasons in Pittsburgh, after getting drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. In 2 years as a key contributor for the Steelers in 2012 and 2013, including a starting role in 2013, Sanders graded out very middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, grading out 57th and 60th respectively among wide receivers, while averaging 1.48 and 1.34 yards per route run. He’s still a one year wonder, but he and Thomas are arguably the best wide receiver duo in football.
The Broncos did lose Wes Welker to free agency, but that won’t be a huge loss. There’s a reason he’s still unsigned as of this writing, going into his age 34 season. Once again, the Patriots cut ties with a player at the perfect time. Letting Welker go looked like a mistake in 2013, when the Broncos were breaking records and beat the Patriots easily in the AFC Championship, but that was largely because of Peyton Manning’s huge season, Julius Thomas’ breakout year, and the loss of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez by the Patriots. Obviously, that script flipped in 2014.
Overall, over the course of his 2-year, 12 million dollar deal, Welker caught 122 passes for 1242 yards and 12 touchdowns, missing 5 games with injury. His replacement in New England, Julian Edelman, had 197 catches for 2028 yards and 10 touchdowns over that time period. Statistically, Welker had the worst season of his career since 2005 last season, catching 49 passes for 464 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cody Latimer, a 2014 2nd round pick, will slide in as the 3rd receiver, moving Sanders to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets. Latimer played just 37 snaps as a rookie, behind not just Welker, but veteran Andre Caldwell, so he’s unproven, but he could easily be ready for a bigger role. Unlike last season, when he missed valuable off-season time with a foot injury, Latimer is healthy as the team implements their new offense.
The Broncos were unable to bring back both Thomases, as they lost Julius Thomas to the Jaguars this off-season, but they did keep the significantly more important one. Julius’ loss will be bigger than Welker’s loss, but that doesn’t mean the Jaguars didn’t overpay, giving him a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal. Julius Thomas played 50 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, catching 1 pass, after the incredibly athletic former basketball player was drafted in the 4th round in 2011. He broke out in 2013, catching 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he was limited by injuries in 2014, catching 43 passes for 489 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games. Thomas is a poor run blocker, has never played all 16 games in a season, and a lot of his passing game production was the result of getting to play with Peyton Manning.
Virgil Green was re-signed this off-season. Green has only caught 23 passes in 4 seasons since getting drafted in the 7th round in 2011, but the 6-3 249 pounder is a strong run blocker, grading out above average as a run blocker in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including 4th in 2014. Green might see a few more targets this season, but he was re-signed primarily for his blocking ability. He’ll work in tandem with pass catching tight end Owen Daniels, who follows Gary Kubiak once again. Daniels has played his whole career for Gary Kubiak, first in Houston where he was head coach and then Baltimore where he was offensive coordinator. He’s not the same player he once was though.
Owen Daniels hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2008 and has missed 27 games over the past 6 seasons combined. He’s also going into his age 33 season. He did have a decent season in 2014, catching 48 passes for 527 yards and 4 touchdowns on 72 attempts (66.7%) and 410 routes run (1.29 yards per route run) in 15 games. He’s graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 4 seasons and he’s a decent run blocker too. However, he’s just a borderline starter.
Gary Kubiak also brought James Casey in, another player he once had in Houston. Casey was signed by the Eagles following the 2012 season, where he was expected to be a jack of all traits matchup nightmare, but struggled to make it onto the field, playing a combined 330 snaps in 2 seasons in Philadelphia, before being an easy cap casualty this off-season. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he’s had success with Kubiak before.
He’ll likely reprise his old role from Houston, where he played 609 snaps in 2012, despite the fact that the Texans had Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham. Kubiak frequently uses two tight ends and a fullback. He’ll do that less this season in Denver because of Peyton Manning, but Casey will see a lot of playing time at fullback. He’s was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked fullback in 2011 and 10th ranked fullback in 2012. Jeff Heuerman is a tight end that the Broncos drafted in the 3rd round this past year, but that pick was likely more of a developmental pick for the future with Daniels aging and he’ll miss his entire rookie year with a torn ACL anyway. It’s still an overall very strong receiving corps thanks to Thomas and Sanders.
The offensive line is one specialty of Gary Kubiak. The other is getting production out of running backs. That’s largely thanks to the strong offensive line play that Kubiak teams usually show, but it also speaks to his ability to coach running backs and diagram run play. In 20 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Kubiak has had 8 different running backs put up a combined 15 seasons of 1000 or more yards. Of those 8 running backs, only 1 (Clinton Portis) was drafted higher than the 2nd round and 4 of them, including Justin Forsett last season in Baltimore, were drafted in the 6th round or later.
That’s great news for CJ Anderson, an ideal fit for Kubiak’s one cut system, an undrafted player in his own right back in 2013, and a player who was dominant down the stretch for the Broncos last season. A bright spot down the stretch for the Broncos, Anderson rushed for 849 yards and 8 touchdowns on 179 carries (4.74 YPC). Anderson has very little breakaway speed, but he’s been able to produce despite a career long run of 27, he has 63 first downs on 220 career touches, and he caught 34 passes and pass protected well last season, showing three down ability as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in the first extended experience of his career last season. He’s still unproven, but I like his breakout potential as a 300+ carry runner in Gary Kubiak’s offense.
Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball were drafted to be a strong running back duo, Hillman in the 3rd round in 2012 and Ball in the 2nd round in 2013, but both were leaped by Anderson on the depth chart last season and both will be backups this year. Hillman, a smaller scatback, is a better change of pace complement for Anderson. Hillman has missed 16 games in 3 seasons in the league and has averaged 3.99 yards per carry in his career, including a career high 4.09 YPC on a career high 106 carries last season, grading out 50 out of 57 eligible running backs in the process. Ball, meanwhile, has averaged 4.18 yards per carry in 2 seasons in the league, including 3.13 last season in a season where he played just 5 games, thanks to groin problems. His skill set is redundant and inferior to CJ Anderson’s so he’ll likely be a 3rd running back that would need an injury to Anderson to see significant playing time. He’s a solid insurance policy though.
The Broncos didn’t just lose talented starters on offense. They also lost two talented starters on the defensive side of the ball. However, they did a nice job of cheaply adding veteran talent on defense this off-season so they still have a very talented bunch, after allowing opponents to move the chains at a 70.08% rate last season, 4th best in the NFL. As is the case with their offense, the Broncos’ biggest addition on defense this off-season might not have been a player at all.
That valuable non-player addition is defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is one of the best in the business. The Broncos lost a strong defensive coordinator in Jack Del Rio when he took the head coaching job with the divisional rival Raiders, but they found the best replacement out there. Phillips, who was in semi-retirement last season, was with Kubiak for 3 years in Houston from 2011-2013 and the Kubiak connection was likely a very important part of the reason why Phillips is now in Denver. Phillips will be moving the Broncos to a 3-4, which I think their personnel fits really well and, despite off-season losses, they still have plenty of talent.
One of those two defensive starters they lost this off-season is defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, who broke out as Pro Football Focus 9th and 12th ranked defensive tackle over the past 2 seasons. With him gone, the opportunity opens up for Sylvester Williams to be the starting nose tackle. Williams, a 2013 1st round pick, has played just 735 snaps in 2 seasons in the NFL combined, stuck behind talented players like Knighton and Malik Jackson.
Williams has struggled in limited action thus far in his career so, going into his first chance at the starting job, Williams is entering a make or break 3rd year. However, even though he’ll be a starter, he’s unlikely to exceed 500 snaps as primarily a base package player. The 6-3 320 pounder doesn’t quite have ideal nose tackle size, but he’s plenty big and Phillips has had previous success with nose tackles who aren’t quite as big as nose tackles traditionally are (Jay Ratliff and Earl Mitchell are the recent examples).
In an effort to make up for the loss of Knighton, the Broncos added two veteran players to their 3-4 defensive line, Antonio Smith and Vance Walker. Smith is another player familiar with Kubiak from his time in Houston, joining Shelley Smith, Owen Daniels, and James Casey as one of four ex-Texans added by the Broncos this off-season. More important is his familiarity with Wade Phillips, who was his defensive coordinator in Houston for 3 seasons from 2011-2013.
Smith has a very specific, unique skill set at 6-3 272 and Wade Phillips has always gotten more out of him than anyone else. It’s no coincidence that Smith graded out below average last season in Oakland for the first time since 2010, his last season without Phillips. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, Smith graded out 6th, 5th, and 18th among 3-4 defensive ends, including 2nd, 2nd, and 5th in pure pass rush grade. Last season in Oakland, Smith ranked 58th out of defensive tackles. He still got great pass rush, grading out 3rd in that aspect, but ranked dead last against the run, which led to his release by the Raiders this off-season.
A return to Phillips’ 3-4 should help him, but it’s also worth noting that he’s going into his age 34 season. If his struggles in Oakland last season were age related, he could easily struggle again this season. If they were scheme related, he has a very good chance to bounce back. Realistically, it’s a combination of both and he should have one more decent season left in the tank. It’ll help him that he won’t be counted on in an every down fashion. He’ll work in rotation and see primarily sub package snaps. Smith has always struggled against the run, but he’s a tremendous interior pass rusher in sub packages and should provide value to the Broncos in that role this season.
The other off-season addition by the Broncos on the defensive line is Vance Walker, who will also serve a rotational role at 3-4 defensive end. Walker graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013, including 17th in 2012, earning him a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal with the Chiefs last off-season. However, Walker ended up playing just 238 snaps with the Chiefs in 16 games and got released this off-season. Even though Walker didn’t earn the trust of the coaching staff in Kansas City, leading to that limited playing time for him, he actually played pretty well on the field. In fact, no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out better at his position in 2014. He’ll provide solid rotational depth.
Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe will slot in as the starters with Smith and Walker as the reserves. Jackson, a 2012 5th round pick, has broken out over the past 2 seasons as a defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid at 6-5 284 and would seem to be a natural fit as a 3-4 defensive end. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked defensive tackle in 2013 and their 3rd ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2014. Only going into his age 25 season, Jackson should have an every down role as a 3-4 defensive end this season and could easily have the best season of his career in that role, set a career high in snaps (currently at 601), and break out as one of the best 5-technique defensive ends in the league, just in time for him to hit unrestricted free agency next off-season. The Broncos would be wise to try to lock him up now if they can.
Wolfe is another player who has played a defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid role in his career. Wolfe has graded out below average both overall and as a pass rusher in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, but he’s graded out above average against the run in 2 of those 3 seasons, including 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends last season (one spot better than Jackson). A tweener who should be a better fit for a 3-4 than a 4-3, Wolfe should also benefit from the scheme change. If he doesn’t, the Broncos have the depth to deal with it. Despite the loss of Knighton, it’s still a strong defensive line.
The Broncos made a weird first round pick. It wasn’t necessarily weird bad or weird good, but it was both surprising and out of custom with what we’ve seen from the Broncos recently. The Broncos have been in win now move ever since they added Peyton Manning, which makes sense, as Manning is aging with a troubling history of neck problems. However, rather than staying put at 28 and drafting an offensive lineman who could start day 1 like Jake Fisher or moving up into the teens to select Cameron Erving, an offensive lineman they loved, the Broncos moved up to 23, trading #28, a 5th rounder, and a future 5th rounder to Detroit to draft Shane Ray, who doesn’t fill an immediate need behind Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. They then waited until the 2nd round to take their offensive lineman. The Broncos had a top-10 grade on Ray, despite a recent marijuana arrest that caused his stock to fall from the top-10 to the mid-20s.
Talent wise, Ray is one of the top edge rushers in this draft class, but, in addition to that arrest, which immediately puts him into the NFL’s substance abuse program, he also has a bad foot that could cause him to miss valuable off-seasons workouts. The Broncos didn’t draft him really for 2015 though and see him more as a rotational player as a rookie and a long-term successor to DeMarcus Ware, who is going into his age 33 season. He could also be seen as insurance in case they are unable to re-sign Von Miller long-term. Miller is a free agent next off-season.
However, for now, Ware and Miller will continue to form arguably the best pass rush duo in the NFL with Ray behind them on the depth chart. Miller is the younger and better player. The 2nd overall pick in 2011, Miller won Defensive Rookie of the Year and then followed it up by finishing 2nd to JJ Watt in defensive player of the year voting in 2012. Miller missed 7 games with suspension and a torn ACL in 2013, but still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, despite the limited playing, making it 3 straight seasons as the #1 player at his position to start his career. Miller “slipped” to 2nd last year in his return from the ACL injury, but he remains one of the best defensive players in the entire league. After playing a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end position in Denver’s old 4-3 and playing in a 3-4 at Texas A&M in college, Miller is a natural fit for Denver’s change scheme. I’m excited to see the combination of him and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
DeMarcus Ware is also a natural fit for the 3-4 as well, playing in one for many Pro-Bowl caliber years in Dallas prior to joining the Broncos last year. Phillips was his head coach from 2007-2010. A future Hall-of-Famer, Ware has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons of its existence. However, after grading out in the top-3 among 3-4 outside linebackers in 5 straight seasons from 2007-2011, Ware has seen his play slip a little bit over the past 3 seasons, grading out 9th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012, 10th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013, and 20th among 4-3 defensive ends in 204. Going into his age 33 season, Ware is past his prime and could cede snaps to the rookie Ray, but, however you look at it, the Broncos have a talented and deep edge rush group.
The Broncos also have a lot of talent at inside linebacker in Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, but both are also coming off of significant injuries. Trevathan, a 2012 6th round pick, broke out as a starter in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, after struggling on 243 snaps as a rookie. However, he was limited to 100 snaps in 3 games last season thanks to a broken kneecap. He’s taking it easy in the off-season as of this writing, but he’s expected to be ready for training camp and the start of the season. A big bounce back year from him would be great, though he’s still a one-year wonder.
In Trevathan’s absence last season, Brandon Marshall stepped up big-time, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. Like Trevathan, he’s a one-year wonder as the 2012 5th rounder played a combined 15 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the NFL and like Trevathan he’s also coming off of a significant injury, as his breakout season was ended prematurely by a Lisfranc injury, a big part of the reason why the Broncos’ season fell apart.
He’s also expected to be fine for training camp and the start of the season, but his immediate future is seen as a little murkier than Trevathan’s. Best case scenario, the Broncos have a talented pair of 3-4 inside linebackers if both are healthy and continue playing their best football, but there’s some doubt there. The Broncos seem confident in both of them, as they didn’t spend a single draft pick on depth, but they are very thin behind them if something happens to one of them. Reggie Walker, a mediocre journeyman, is their only experienced backup.
The other talented starter the Broncos lost defensively this off-season is Rahim Moore. He wasn’t as important to them last season as Terrance Knighton was, but he was still an average or better starter for them in the secondary in each of the last 3 seasons. To replace him, the Broncos signed Darian Stewart. Stewart, a 2010 undrafted free agent, was forced into a starting role too early in 2011, grading out 82nd out of 87 eligible safeties that season, and played just 82 snaps the following season consequently. Stewart has rehabbed his value in the last two seasons though. In 2013, he graded out only slightly below average on 583 snaps and then in 2014 he graded out above average for the first time since his rookie season on 782 snaps (14 starts). He’s not as good as Moore, but he came cheaper (4.5 million over 2 years compared to 12 million over 3 years) and he’s at least a borderline starting player at this point in his career.
The Broncos were never expected to re-sign Rahim Moore as they already have three big money defensive backs in Aqib Talib (6 years, 57 million), TJ Ward (4 years, 23 million), and Chris Harris (5 years, 42.5 million). The Broncos are hoping those three defensive backs can kind of mask the deficiencies of Stewart. While they are all making a large amount of money, all three of them are worth it. They’ll help keep this a strong secondary.
Aqib Talib is the higher paid and bigger name of the two cornerbacks, but Harris is actually the better player. A 2011 undrafted free agent, Harris has improved basically every year he’s been in the NFL, to the point where he’s one of the top cornerbacks in the entire NFL right now. Harris graded out 22nd as a rookie (on 465 snaps), 5th in 2012, 8th in 2013, and 1st in 2014. He joins Richard Sherman as the only player in the NFL to grade out in the top-8 in each of the last 3 seasons on Pro Football Focus. Harris shook off a January 2014 torn ACL like it was nothing, en route to his career best 2014 campaign, during which he received that well-deserved extension in December ahead of free agency.
Talib, meanwhile, received his large contract last off-season, leaving the New England Patriots. At the time, I said it was an overpay by the Broncos. Going into last off-season, he had never played all 16 games in a season and missed 23 games in 6 seasons combined in the league, thanks to a variety of injuries and off-the-field problems. He had also never graded out higher than 16th among cornerbacks going into last season. However, last season, he graded out 15th among cornerbacks in 15 starts, arguably the best season of his career.
TJ Ward, meanwhile, will be the safety opposite Stewart. Ward actually had a down season in 2014, grading out just 34th at his position and especially struggling in coverage, grading out 81st out of 87 eligible in that aspect. However, he’s been much better in the past, grading out 32nd, 14th, 6th, and 4th in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s a much better player against the run than against the pass, but he graded out positively in coverage in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He should be able to have a bounce back year in 2015.
The 5th member of this secondary, to go with the four aforementioned veterans, is 2014 1st round pick Bradley Roby, who will continue slotting in as the 3rd cornerback. Roby graded out slightly below average on 818 snaps as a rookie and has a good chance to improve upon that in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. He’s a very solid 3rd cornerback, important considering all the sub packages the Broncos use. Chris Harris moves to the slot in sub packages, with Roby and Talib manning the outside. Despite the loss of Moore, it’s still a very solid secondary on a very solid in general defense.
The Broncos are less talented than they were last season, when they finished #1 in rate of moving the chains differential and scheduled adjusted rate of moving the chains differential. They’ll also likely have more injuries, starting with an off-season ACL tear by left tackle Ryan Clady. However, they still have plenty of talent. Despite that, they have a wide range as a team because of the complete uncertainty of the quarterback Peyton Manning. If Manning is able to have a strong year, this might be the Super Bowl favorite. If he goes late career Favre on us, the Broncos might struggle to make the playoffs. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Broncos after I’ve done all team’s previews.
Prediction: 11-5 1st in AFC West