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Broncos can hang around in AFC West

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Recent posts by Mike Wilkening

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Posted July 13, 2010 @ 10 a.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

Are the Broncos going to catch us napping again?

At this time last year, the Broncos were believed to be closer to the bottom of the AFC West than the top. They had traded QB Jay Cutler to Chicago, and new head coach Josh McDaniels was being widely panned.

Well, the 2009 Broncos burst out of the gate, winning six games in a row. But they finished horribly, losing eight of their last 10 contests, and McDaniels has continued his dismantling of the Broncos' core, trading WR Brandon Marshall, certainly one of the NFL's top five receivers when potential and production are most heavily weighed, to Miami.

In the draft, the Broncos passed on Oklahoma State WR Dez Bryant — a top talent who caught 87 passes as a sophomore — and took Georgia Tech WR Demaryius Thomas, a deep threat in a triple-option offense. Their other first-round pick, of course, was Florida QB Tim Tebow, and if you consider Thomas a projection, Tebow is a projection.

I mention this for reasons of perception. Once again, the Broncos are more curiosity than contender, it seems.

But I still hold that Denver is the primary threat to San Diego in the AFC West, and that puts the Broncos in the division-title discussion, for San Diego, while the superior team, can be prone to losing focus in the regular season.

Some will say the Chiefs or Raiders might be ready to pass the Broncos in the pecking order, but I don't believe it, as both clubs have shaky passing offenses and porous defenses. Yes, both clubs defeated the Broncos in Denver toward the end of last season, but I'm not going to put too much stock in those results.

I will, however, take the Broncos' defensive improvement in 2009 as a sign of things to come. Denver finished seventh in total defense a season ago, and though coordinator Mike Nolan has moved on to Miami, plenty of talent remains. Also, the signings of Justin Bannan, Jarvis Green and Jamal Williams bolster the D-line.

There's another reason I like the Broncos: Kyle Orton is likely to be their starting quarterback.

Orton developed nicely in McDaniels' offense in 2009, setting career highs in TD passes, yards, completion percentage and yards per completion, among other categories. Tebow's arrival signals that Orton may not have a long-term future in Denver, but I would be stunned if Orton wasn't the Broncos' starter in '10, and I'll be mildly surprised if he doesn't have a steady starting job for several more seasons — in Denver or elsewhere.

Orton no longer has Marshall at his disposal, but he will make due, and if he keeps the starting job, he's going to keep Denver competitive, especially in this division. Mix in improvement from second-year RB Knowshon Moreno — a distinct possibility — and the offense will fare just fine. The defense, experienced and rugged, should be respectable, too. The schedule features tilts with the Colts, Ravens and Jets in the first six weeks, but six of Denver's final 10 games are against divisional foes, making a late run possible.

The Broncos have made some bold, even curious, decisions, and I can't see them all panning out for McDaniels and Co. But if the Broncos were a stock, I would be buying, for I suspect they're going to be more competitive than most people think.


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