COMMENTARY | The Denver Broncos are pinning the bulk of their Super Bowl aspirations on a trio of future Hall of Famers and three other rapidly rising stars.
But no matter what Peyton Manning, Champ Bailey, Wes Welker, Von Miller, Ryan Clady and Demaryius Thomas accomplish this coming season, it might all be for naught if a few select early-20-something teammates don't grow up in an NFL hurry and step up their games.
That much was evident in the playoffs this past season when some of the Orange and Blue's least-experienced players proved to be some of the team's weakest links in a 38-35, double-overtime loss to the more-seasoned Baltimore Ravens.
To avoid a similar stumble in 2013, here are four young Denver Broncos starters who will need to play with veteran poise and pick up their production:
No, the Broncos aren't planning on turning back the clock to 1998 and riding their running game to the AFC playoffs and beyond.
With one of the league's all-time greats taking snaps from center, the Broncos are first and foremost a passing team, and the headline-grabbing offseason addition of the game's top slot receiver in Welker only reinforces that fact.
Still, with every opposing defense focusing on Manning and his embarrassment of receiver riches, the running lanes and big-yardage opportunities will be there for the Bronco backs, and the second-year Hillman and the rookie Ball must take full advantage.
There's also more than straight-up running involved with pass protection and pass receiving out of the backfield a major part of the job description. With Hillman's offseason improvements and Ball's standout rookie resume, though, both -- or at least some combo of the two -- appear more than capable of shouldering the load.
That's on paper, though. Starting Sept. 5, the Ravens return to town, and the rematch will be for real.
DE/DT Derek Wolfe
The Broncos' top 2012 draft pick had a solid debut season, starting all 16 games and notching 40 tackles -- including nine for losses -- six sacks and batting down a pair of passes.
But a bigger contribution will be needed from the "Wolfeman," now that Elvis Dumervil has traded in his orange and blue for Ravens' purple and black. To be sure, it'll take a committee effort to replace Dumervil's pass-rushing prowess, but Wolfe has the versatility -- able to swing from back and forth from end to tackle -- the skills and the motor to pick up the majority of the slack.
And a step-up sophomore season is what the Broncos are expecting from the second-year player, who actually could boast the most 2012 starts with the squad along the team's reconfigured starting defensive front.
S Rahim Moore
Now, OK, Moore isn't exactly a fresh face or Safety-Come-Lately with the 2011 second-round pick having started 22 games over his first seasons in the Mile High City, but the just-turned 23-year-old still has plenty of room to improve.
If his infamous late-game playoff coverage gaffe against the Ravens isn't ample evidence, his paltry play-making career stat totals -- two interceptions, nine passes defensed, zero forced fumbles -- should be.
To his credit, though, Moore stood up amid the funeral-like postgame playoff locker room, shouldered more than his share of the blame and vowed to get better.
That would entail making more game-changing plays and avoiding the win-killing miscalculations. And if the self-titled Rahim 'The Dream" does find a way to bounce back and rise above his personal playoff nightmare, it has the potential to lift the entire team right along with him.
Ken Pomponio has spent the past 25 years as a sports journalist who has been published extensively in print and online. He's been an avid follower of the Denver sports scene since early childhood, and can be found on Twitter @kenpomp.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Denver Broncos
- Peyton Manning
- Wes Welker
- Baltimore Ravens
- Ronnie Hillman