In 2011, the Denver Broncos put Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway in charge of the franchise he led to back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990s. Elway hired head coach John Fox, whose long and mostly successful tenure with the Carolina Panthers ended when his contract was not renewed after the 2010 season. In that first season together, the Broncos rode a run-first offense and solid defense to an AFC West title and advanced to the divisional playoff round after an overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round.
The Broncos were pasted by the New England Patriots the following week, losing 45-10 as their offense, led by quarterback Tim Tebow, was not much of a challenge to the Patriots, who shut it down for the final three quarters of their regular-season meeting the month before. The Broncos had been exposed for what they were: An 8-8 team that had a -81 point differential, turned the ball over too many times (30, including 17 on fumbles) and would not have made the playoffs if the NFL didn't require a participant from the AFC West.
Elway knows a thing or two about quarterbacks, so he pounced when Peyton Manning, one of the best to ever play the position, became available when his long, mostly successful tenure with the Indianapolis Colts came to an end when his contract was terminated after he missed the 2011 season due to multiple neck surgeries.
As offensive coordinator Mike McCoy did with Tebow (who was traded to the New York Jets) in 2011, he tailored an offense to fit Manning's strengths, turning a run-heavy offense to one that averaged nearly 37 pass attempts per game. The result was a unit that ranked fourth in total offense, second in scoring offense and put four offensive players, including Manning, in the Pro Bowl. Under Fox, and new coordinator Jack Del Rio, the Broncos were one of the top defenses in the league, finishing second in total defense, fourth in scoring defense and were tops in the league on third down. The Broncos won an AFC-high 13 games and clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
The Broncos had a hard fought divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens and had a 35-28 lead with 3:12 remaining in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Broncos, they could not drain the clock and the Ravens took advantage of their final opportunity when Joe Flacco found Jacoby Jones, who had gotten behind the secondary, for a 70-yard touchdown to tie the game and force overtime. Manning would be intercepted by Corey Graham in Broncos' territory with one minute remaining in the first overtime period, allowing the Ravens to upset the Broncos with a 47-yard field goal from Justin Tucker with 13:24 to play in the second overtime.
Though it was a disappointing end to the 2012 season for the Broncos, their Super Bowl window remains wide open. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and defensive end Elvis Dumervil may have left this offseason and Elway's top two assistants in the personnel department (Matt Russell, Tom Heckert) were suspended after arrests on DUI charges, which made for bit of a rocky offseason in Denver. But the Broncos still have Manning and what is perhaps the best offense in the NFL to go along with a solid defense led by Von Miller, a perennial contender for Defensive Player of the Year. With one of the deepest rosters and talented coaching staffs in the NFL, the Broncos are the heavy favorites to win a third straight AFC West title and represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Is the roster better, worse, or about the same? Overall, the roster is about the same. Wes Welker improves a receiving corps that already boasted the best 1-2 duo (Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker) in the league and 2013 second-round pick Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman made it possible to release Willis McGahee, so the offense is in good shape. Free-agent guard Louis Vasquez is definitely an upgrade over Manny Ramirez at right guard.
The concern lies on defense where the Broncos have traded in veteran experience to go younger at defensive tackle, defensive end and linebacker. The biggest loss was defensive end Elvis Dumervil. After agreeing to a pay cut, Dumervil became a free agent when the paperwork was delayed by a fax machine error and the Broncos had no choice but to release him in order to avoid having his gargantuan base salary becoming fully guaranteed at the start of the league year. The positive free agent addition came in the secondary as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie should provide an upgrade over Chris Harris at the cornerback spot opposite Champ Bailey.
Best offseason acquisition: Wes Welker. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Broncos used three or more receivers on 67 percent of the offensive snaps, which ranked fourth in the league last season. The Broncos used Brandon Stokley and Matt Willis as the third and fourth receivers behind the Thomas and Decker. The offense "got by", but Broncos did not stand pat, aggressively pursuing Welker, who ranked 19th in Football Outsiders' receiving DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and received a two-year, $12 million contract to be the Broncos' No. 3 receiver and Manning's security blanket.
Biggest hole on the roster: Ideally, the Broncos would have J.D. Walton at center, but he will likely miss the 2013 season after suffering a setback in his recovery from an ankle injury that ended his 2012 season. The Broncos had re-signed veteran Dan Koppen to again replace Walton, but he suffered a torn ACL in the opening days of camp and will also miss the 2013 season. The Broncos are now throwing bodies at the position, cross-training reserve guard Manny Ramirez at the position and veterans Ryan Lilja and Steve Vallos have been signed. Lilja is this year's version of Stokley, a former teammate of Manning's in Indianapolis who has been coaxed out of semi-retirement to play for the Broncos.
Position in flux: Defensive tackle and pass-rushing defensive end.
The Broncos started veteran defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan last season. Bannan was released for cap reasons, but Vickerson returns, albeit in a rotational role. This year's projected starters are free agent addition Terrence Knighton, who played for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville, and first-round pick Sylvester Williams. As for the pass rush, eliance on antiquated office equipment caused the Broncos lose Dumervil in March and the team could lose Miller to a four-game suspension to open the season. The Broncos tied for the league lead in sacks (52) last season and Dumervil and Miller produced 29.5 of them. It's not just about sacks, though. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, Dumervil and Miller combined for 64 "hurries" and no one else on the returning roster hit double-digits in that category. Miller will return — if he's suspended at all — but who will provide pressure off the other edge? The Broncos added veteran Shaun Phillips, who had 9.5 sacks for the San Diego Chargers last year, and the team is high on fifth-round pick Quanterus Smith, who had 20 sacks the last two seasons at Western Kentucky.
Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: With the release of Willis McGahee, 2012 third-round pick Ronnie Hillman ascends from a spare part (18.2 percent playing-time as a rookie) to the top of the Broncos' running back depth chart. The Broncos drafted Montee Ball in the second round, and he'll eventually be the lead back, but Hillman ran with the first-team offense during the OTAs and that has only continued in training camp.
Stat fact: The Broncos used a single-back formation on 91 percent of their offensive plays in 2012, which was the highest percentage in the NFL. No Broncos running back played more than 400 offensive plays last season as McGahee, who suffered a season-ending injury in mid-November, led the team with 391 plays and a 34.21 percent playing-time percentage.
The team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Manning is even better as his familiarity with the offensive system and personnel increases and Welker is the chain-mover he was brought in to be. The defense doesn't regress too much and, without a serious challenger in the AFC West, the Broncos drive the playoff wagon to New York City in February.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Manning regresses, or worse, takes significant abuse when the center position never sorts itself out. The new parts on defense don't pan out and either the Chargers, Chiefs or Raiders (ranked in order of likelihood) take the AFC West this season.
The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: It's all about Peyton Manning. If he produces at a clip similar to last season — 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns, nearly 70 percent completion percentage — the Broncos will win a dozen games and be one of the top Super Bowl contenders in 2013.
The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Indianapolis Colts
14. New Orleans Saints
13. Chicago Bears
12. New York Giants
11. Carolina Panthers
10. Washington Redskins
9. Cincinnati Bengals
8. Atlanta Falcons
7. Houston Texans
6. Baltimore Ravens
5. New England Patriots
4. Green Bay Packers
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