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25 Mar 2013

State of the Team: Denver Broncos

by Andy Benoit

The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that there are 12 "starters" for each unit rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.

Color Legend:

  • Star
  • Good
  • Adequate
  • Jury’s still out
  • Just a guy
  • Upgrade needed
  • No longer on the team

Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.

Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.

Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.

DENVER BRONCOS

OFFENSE

OVERVIEW

The Peyton Manning experiment paid off. (When the Broncos weren’t having him take a knee with the season on the line, that is.) Given that he’s the one running this show, the transition from Mike McCoy to Adam Gase at coordinator should be seamless. Manning’s offense naturally lends itself to consistency because so much of it is static and in response to what the defense is doing. With Manning directing traffic, there isn’t a more comfortable situation that an offensive player can find himself in.

BACKFIELD

QB: Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler
RB: Willis McGahee, Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball, Jacob Hester (FB)

You already know the book on Manning. A few pages of that book that aren’t talked about enough are his pocket mobility and "improvised accuracy." Watch Manning’s feet; you’ll notice they never stop moving. He’s always playing on choppy steps. That allows him to subtly elude pass-rushers, avoid injurious hits, and get the ball out quickly. "Improvised accuracy" is a way of describing Manning’s unbelievable ability to adjust his ball placement at the last second. He throws some of the most uniquely precise and catchable passes you’ll ever see.

Manning’s pre-snap masterfulness means the Broncos will always have a competitive run game. Most of the time, they’re running against seven- or six-man boxes. The backfield’s 2013 makeup will depend on whether Hillman improves as a pass-blocker and receiver. He’s the guy Denver presumably wants to feature, but if he doesn’t sharpen up in those facets, he’ll find himself behind McGahee and perhaps even Moreno.

RECEIVERS

WR: Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Andre Caldwell; Lost: Matt Willis, Brandon Stokley

TE: Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme, Virgil Green

Thomas’s improvements as a route runner have made him perhaps the most effective all-around receiver in the AFC. He’s great on screens and in tight areas, and he can explode vertically, which is why he led the conference with 29 catches that went for 20 or more yards last season. Decker is another superb route runner who fits perfectly in this system. Welker will be what Stokley was, only better. Given that Dreessen and Tamme are both viable and flexible receivers, two things are all but certain with this offense: it won’t use many (if any) four wide receiver sets in 2013 and it won’t be easy to stop.

OFFENSIVE LINE

LT: Ryan Clady LG: Zane Beadles C: J.D. Walton RG: Louis Vasquez RT: Orlando Franklin

Backups: Chris Kuper, Manny Ramirez; Lost: C Dan Koppen

Clady was the best left tackle in football last season, and it wasn’t really close. Franklin has the size to move bodies in the ground game, and he’s reliable enough to survive one-on-one in pass protection given how great Manning is at helping his blockers through pocket movement. Inside, Beadles and Kuper were tremendous with double teams in the run game. It’s a little surprising management chose to replace Kuper with the more expensive Vasquez, but Vasquez hasn’t been prone to injuries like Kuper has. The only real concern is whether Walton can be serviceable after missing most of last season with a fractured ankle. Prior to getting hurt, he was an up-and-coming run-blocker who could sometimes stalemate one-on-one against bigger nose tackles.

DEFENSE

OVERVIEW

The Broncos made great use of their two superstars (Von Miller, Champ Bailey) through aggressive and multifaceted man-based schemes that hinged on individual matchups at key spots in 2012. They were particularly strong with this in third-down amoeba packages. In all third-down packages, the Broncos benefited from having linebackers and backup defensive backs who could play man coverage. Often those third downs were third-and-longs, as on first and second down, Denver’s front seven proved difficult to move.

DEFENSIVE LINE

DE: Derek Wolfe, Robert Ayers, Jeremy Beal, Malik Jackson; Lost: Jason Hunter, Elvis Dumervil

DT: Terrance Knighton, Kevin Vickerson, Mitch Unrein, Sealver Siliga; Lost: Justin Bannan

Wolfe is a burgeoning phone-booth brawler who has the quickness to make flash plays. Dumervil will be missed; his natural leverage and speed were nightmarish for tackles on an island. Hope isn’t lost, though, as Ayers was sensational for a few weeks in the middle of last season. He showed an ability to play inside and outside, as well as in space. That said, it’s important the Broncos find quality depth to support him. Inside, re-signing Vickerson was a good move, especially since it was only a two-year contract. (He has a reputation for needing to constantly be incentivized.) This season he must earn more reps in nickel packages, where his outstanding initial quickness could lead to a seven- or eight-sack type year. Knighton is an athletic clogger who will rotate with Unrein, an undrafted fourth-year pro who keeps gradually improving.

LINEBACKER

OLB: Von Miller, Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan; Lost: D.J. Williams

ILB: Nate Irving, Joe Mays, Stewart Bradley; Lost: Keith Brooking

Miller might be the best all-around defensive player in football. We know about his pass-rushing; what’s not talked about is his value as an edge-setter in base formations and spying as a lurker behind a three-man rush. The finesse-based Woodyard is one of the best cover linebackers in the NFL, which is often why the Broncos are so sound in their nickel and dime packages. On early downs, it’s a gamble to replace trusted veteran Brooking with the unproven Irving, though the move upgrades the base 4-3’s athleticism. If Irving struggles, the Broncos can go back to Mays.

SECONDARY

CB: Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris, Tony Carter, Omar Bolden; Lost: Tracy Porter

S: Rahim Moore, Mike Adams, Quinton Carter; Lost: Jim Leonhard

Bailey’s tough day in the first half of the Divisional Round loss to Baltimore shouldn’t detract from the fact that, throughout the entire 2012 regular season, he was once again one of the five most valuable corners in football. His game charting numbers rebounded from the decline of recent years (32nd in yards per pass, 16th in success rate) but even those understate his importance to the team, because he draws the No. 1 assignment week in and week out, usually without safety help, and is still one of the best run-defending corners in the NFL.

It’s surprising the Broncos brought in Rodgers-Cromartie considering they already had a good trio with Bailey, Harris and Carter. Harris might be the best pure nickelback in the game right now. Carter is a tantalizing solo cover artist. At safety, Moore must bounce back from what hopefully won’t be a career-wrecking mistake on the Jacoby Jones prayer. It’s a make-or-break year for him as a starter. Adams is a good cover guy, though more preferably just in dime packages.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Matt Prater, P: Britton Colquitt

Remember that Denver kickers and punters will always be overrated by the press because of the effects of altitude on their raw numbers.

Posted by: Andy Benoit on 25 Mar 2013

21 comments, Last at 28 Mar 2013, 2:28am by theslothook

Comments

1
by trevorpatriots (not verified) :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 11:14am

Welker will do well with Peyton but I do not think Peyton/Welker will be able to replicate Brady/Welker. Brady and Welker were together for 5 seasons and are great friends. It's hard to see Welker/Peyton getting on that level in their 1st season together. And Welker is getting older and his hands are quite clearly deteriorating. Nonetheless, he'll still post 100 catches with 1000 yds and probably 2-5 TDs.

16
by ncm42 (not verified) :: Wed, 03/27/2013 - 2:54pm

Welker's numbers are going to drop off, because he has to share targets with DT and Decker.

19
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 03/27/2013 - 6:04pm

As opposed to sharing targets with Gronkowski and Hernandez?

20
by MJK :: Wed, 03/27/2013 - 11:22pm

Disagree strongly. I know I"m in the minority here, but I actually think that Welker was hurt by New England's system, not a product of it (although he was helped by playing with Tom Brady). He is awesome at getting open in tight spaces and attacking the inside of the field, but isn't a deep threat (despite McDaniels efforts last year to make it so). In New England's system, where all of their real passing weapons were attacking the middle of the field and they had no deep threats, good teams could succeed by regularly crowding the line, clogging the lanes, and tackling immediately to minimize YAC. Welker would catch a ton of 4-5 yard passes and get tackled two yards later, because teams would rather pull their safeties up to make sure they could tackle two yards later and risk that Tom Brady couldn't connect with Lloyd or Matt Slater on a deep bomb rather than play a conventional defense and give up 5-10 YAC to Welker on every reception.

In Denver, with a legitimate deep threat in Thomas, a QB who can hit him like Manning, thin air to make the deep threat even worse, and a QB who is almost as good at hitting the short quick throws as Brady was, I think Welker will thrive. Teams will be forced to keep their safeties back to contain Thomas and Welker will be facing fewer clogged lanes and more space to work in after the catch. Expect him to excel. Maybe with a few fewer catches per game, but probalby more yards and more 3rd down conversions.

21
by theslothook :: Thu, 03/28/2013 - 2:28am

That's true..but the offense doesn't run through welker's strengths like it did in NE. Eric Magini always repeats this...to stop NE, you have to cloud the middle of the field and take away brady's first two reads. If that is done, the routes don't develop and you beat them. While welker will be useful in the slot, stokley wasn't a short receiver - that went to the tight ends. In point of fact, through manning's time in indy- the slot receiver was always a mulitfaceted target - stokley, clarke, and later collie. Welker may be asked to fulfill that role and while he'll be effective, it won't be utilizing him in the way that he is best - short short and more short.

2
by bubqr :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 11:38am

Can't you color DRC blue and red ?

3
by commissionerleaf :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 12:01pm

Looks like 1st round defensive line, second round RB?

Peyton/Welker isn't supposed to replicate Brady/Welker. Brady threw Welker 150 balls a year because the offense demanded that he move the chains that way, and because Brady's intermediate accuracy, especially on the numbers or outside, is a weakness, so the slot receiver was especially important.

That's not a knock on Brady; he has always had offenses built to suit his unique strengths (and they -are- unique, he is an undeniably amazing but also undeniably limited quarterback).

But there's no reason to expect Welker to catch balls that way from Manning. Manning's intermediate accuracy and ability to hit all areas of the field (well, except deep downfield after 2006 or so) is his game. He's thrown some of the most beautiful outside-the-numbers passes in football history (hitting a triple-covered Dallas Clark in the 2009-2010 Super Bowl is one of my favorites). So there isn't any reason to expect Welker's target numbers to be anything like they were in New England.

10
by Snack Flag (not verified) :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 6:29pm

Do you have anything to substantiate your claim that Brady is weak in the intermediate area? He's not good at the deep ball, but I always thought he was one of the best in the game at putting the ball only where his receiver can get in the 10-20 yard zone.

12
by theslothook :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 7:41pm

Pff ran an article for 2012 looking at the top comp percentages for the medium depth. Brady was not in the top 10. However, I still think that those stats are being heavily influenced by personnel around you.

4
by young curmudgeon :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 1:26pm

I'm thinking that after I read three or four of these, I'll get used to the color scheme and won't have to keep scrolling up to the key! If that's how it works out, I'll applaud this as a quick, handy way to present your info. If not, I'll grumble and complain.

13
by Andy Benoit :: Tue, 03/26/2013 - 12:45am

We're thinking it will work. I went through the same thing when inputting the colors and eventually it became secondhand. Hope it works out!

14
by Noah of Arkadia :: Tue, 03/26/2013 - 10:48am

I already got used to them. Only thing that throws me off is that some players names are in bold print to denote starters, but then you have a "Backups" bit in the OL. I'd suggest doing away with the bold print thing. Everyone knows how many starters there's supposed to be at each position.

------
FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

15
by big_jgke :: Tue, 03/26/2013 - 12:47pm

since the players that a team lost are preceded by the word 'lost,' wouldn't it be better to show their colour-based grade rather than a redundant lost colour? That would give a better sense of the difference in depth chart quality between last year and this year.

17
by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Wed, 03/27/2013 - 5:41pm

Sound idea.

18
by Porphyrogenitus (not verified) :: Wed, 03/27/2013 - 6:00pm

I agree. Lost players' names should also be in color to indicate their quality, though struck through (or italicized) to indicate that they are no longer with the team.

5
by Danish Denver-Fan :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 1:31pm

Is it certain that Vasquez will start? I like Kuper a lot, but he has a knack for picking up horrible injuries. So if Vasquez can play different positions (can he?), he may warrant the biggish price-tag (for a backup anyway).

7
by rageon :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 2:05pm

I can't imagine that Kuper will be on the bench given what he's going to be paid. I have to assume they (1) believe he's healthy and he'll be starting or (2) he will get cut. Kuper used to be very, very good , but I'm not sure I've read (or seen) enough to know whether he will even be what he used to be.

Perhaps my impression of Beadles is wrong, but he strikes me as a guy who is bsically just extremelly good at pulling off to the side and having a RB follow him (or two years ago, Tebow -- I believe Tebow followed him in on the 2-pt conversion in Miami). But aside from that, he hasn't impressed me too much.

In any event, Denver's o-line is certainly a strength this season if healthy. But re-signing Clady beyond this year seems like it's going to be difficult.

6
by Danish Denver-Fan :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 1:36pm

Bailey is considered a good tackler; is there any chance that the Broncos brought in Cromartie to move Bailey to safety?

9
by commissionerleaf :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 3:26pm

I doubt it; Bailey is a man corner, so it isn't like transitioning a cover 2 corner like Ronde Barber to safety, where the skill set (Zone + run support) is relatively static. And Bailey was a really good man corner, which is a lot more valuable than a safety anyway.

8
by theslothook :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 3:19pm

Denver ought to draft a pass rusher but even then - miller is so freaken dominant as an edge rusher that I'm pretty sure its going to make life easy for his opposite bookend no matter how mediocre he is in actuality. I call it the jared allen effect. Throw a pretty decent player opposite allen and you have a nice outside tandem.

11
by Sifter :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 7:07pm

Denver really has good depth in a lot of areas now so it's hard to say what they really need from here. I think the only 2 obvious spots of weakness are: 1. pass rush from DE: if Wolfe and Ayers are your ends then I'd question what kind of consistent pressure Denver might get. I think those 2 are decent enough players, they just need a 3rd guy - the specialist rusher to come in on passing downs. Lucky Vickerson signed because he'll get good push in the middle, and you've got Miller. A 3rd threat from DE would make a big difference I feel.
2. Safety: Mike Adams is over 30 now and merely solid. I think Denver should take one in the draft.

Apart from that there is a good enough mass of bodies to solve any roster problems. eg. RB, interior OL, CB, all could be potential areas of concern going forward, but you would have to think whoever wins the training camp battles will be a good solution just because of the quality of depth.