John Elway's drive to win has been on display for quite some time now in Denver. During his glory days as the starting quarterback, he was able to deliver two Super Bowls before exiting the league on top. He hasn't quite found that success under the title of GM, but that passion and burn to win are prevalent. Complacency is evidently not in Elway's vocabulary. Not resting on an AFC title, he aggressively and purposefully pursued some big time players in free agency. At the same time, the Broncos saw some key contributors from last year leak from the organization and land with other teams. This article explained the holes the team needed to fill after the embarrassment that was Super Bowl XLVIII. Now that the offseason is nearly over, it's time to analyze where the Broncos should expect improvement and which positions are still lacking. What does the offense look like heading into 2014, and have all the holes been filled?
QB: There will be minimal changes at quarterback this year, as expected. Bryn Renner will get a chance to unseat Zach Dysert for the third quarterback position, but that seems unlikely. Osweiler, whose contract is up in two seasons, will hopefully see all of his playing time in the preseason. Who knows if he's ready, but everyone knows Peyton Manning is. The 38-year-old will look to continue his domination of NFL defenses and while reaching the same numbers as last year isn't a given, he should come close.
WR: The Broncos have a top-10, maybe top-5 receiver in Demaryius Thomas. Coming into a contract year, he is seeking a third straight, 90 catch, 1400 yard, 10+ TD season. Though his running mate Eric Decker was lost to the Jets via free agency, Thomas will share the field with newcomers Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer. Sanders has the potential to out-produce Decker, as broken down more thoroughly here. While Latimer seems to have small expectations despite being a second round pick, he has the raw athletic ability to make plays before his route running gets more polished.
Not to be lost in the receiver scrum is Wes Welker, a guy who has pioneered the slot position. Like Thomas, he is entering a contract year. After missing a few games due to concussions, there were quiet rumors about Welker being a candidate for release this summer, but his talents are needed on this team. Next year, however, he very likely will be looking for a new home if he doesn't retire. This may be his last opportunity to win a Super Bowl. Andre Caldwell was resigned this summer and while he is consistent and familiar with the offense, a UDFA with kick return skills like Isaiah Burse could take his spot. Without Decker, the Broncos needed another receiving threat. They got a much more flexible player in Sanders and a physically gifted rookie in Latimer. The wide receiver group was dealt with extreme precision.
TE: Jacob Tamme is still around despite a cap hit around $3M. He plays more like a wide receiver and is one dimensional. He and Manning's chemistry goes back to their Indianapolis days. Recently released was the oft-injured Joel Dreesen. He was versatile, but the health problems proved too prevalent. Julius Thomas' emergence into stardom last season solidified this position. While not a great blocker, he proved to be a mismatch all over the field. Virgil Green is the fastest of the tight ends, and potentially the receivers as well, but he lacks some football IQ. He blocks extremely well but has a hard time putting it all together in the receiving game. With more playing time, his physical gifts could show.
A very interesting addition to this group was Gerrell Robinson, who's floated around the Broncos' roster and practice squad for a couple seasons now. Osweiler's number 1 target at ASU, Robinson has transitioned this offseason from being a WR and now checks in at 6'4 and 238 lbs. He's one of those guys who management has purposefully kept around. With some young, emerging talent, the Broncos didn't need to add to this group. Releasing Dreesen was necessary and there's quality depth here.
OL: A critical spot on the team which the Broncos failed to inject the right talent into is the offensive line. The Seahawks tore Denver's line apart, yet Elway didn't address the need. Ryan Clady will assume his spot at left tackle after going down early in 2013 with a season ending injury, but that’s where the good news ends.
A cap casualty, starting left guard Zane Beadles departed for Jacksonville to get a contract he deserved. Not a huge loss, but still a starter gone. After getting abused in the Super Bowl by more athletic players, Orlando Franklin has been moved to the left guard spot. He played there in college and doesn't seem to be a liability there, but the right tackle is still a major question mark. The competition there is Chris Clark and Winston Justice, two uninspiring players. Clark is a good swing tackle as a backup and played admirably last season, but he's not the guy I would want protecting Peyton Manning from some elite DE's. Louis Vasquez is a world-class guard on the right side, but guards aren't nearly as important in the passing game, which is where the Broncos excel. Guards usually deal with the gap fillers, whereas the tackles are often left on an island and their athleticism is put to the test. Center will be a competition between Manny Ramirez and veteran addition Will Montgomery.
While Clady will make the Broncos' line better than last year, it remains to be seen how the rest of the line will mesh and keep the quarterback safe. The Broncos drafted a tackle Michael Schofield in the third round, but he is not expected to protect Manning quite yet. A veteran signing could still be coming, but the Broncos did not make enough effort to fix their largest problem in the Super Bowl. Their line is good enough to get them back into the playoffs, but still an injury away from being exposed.
RB: The Broncos' running backs are an interesting, though not intriguing bunch. Knowshon Moreno departed in free agency which leaves Montee Ball as the Denver bell cow. People here believe in him, but most NFL offenses don't rely on one featured back these days. Last year, Moreno saw 58% of the offense's snaps. Although Ball has a little more grit and less receiving skills than Moreno, he will be the feature back and play a similar amount. The backups are a bit weaker this year, so maybe he sees 70%. Still, who gets that last 30%?
Ronnie Hillman has been an absolute failure in Denver and fails to impress even on the carries he doesn't fumble away. C.J. Anderson looked above average in preseason last year and even suited up over Hillman down the stretch of the 2013 season, yet his pass blocking skills are questionable and he had a knee injury last year. CSU standout Kapri Bibbs was brought in after going undrafted, as were Juwan Thompson from Duke and Brennan Clay from Oklahoma. The running back position has indeed fallen out of favor in the NFL recently, but the lack of experience the Broncos have assembled here is concerning.
Yes, Manning is on the team and the Broncos don't need a superstar for him to hand off to, but he does need protection. What Moreno brought last year was knowledge and versatility. He could block when Manning wanted him to, but also could slip out and act as a pretty decent receiving threat when the linebackers were racing after Julius Thomas. Maybe Montee Ball can do all that, but the Broncos don't have another Ball behind him to take the load off like they did last season. Denver could stand to pick up a cheap, veteran RB who has a track record in the NFL.
Look Ahead: The offense’s starting lineup dazzles just as much as last season, but inexperience within the depth chart raises some cause for concern. With Manning at the helm, everything should remain in top shape in Denver if the injury bug can stay away. While historic offenses have consistently shown regression their next season, don’t expect much of a letdown with this unit.