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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.