2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Eli Kaberon
The Broncos made major strides toward restoring the tradition of a once-proud franchise after finishing last in the AFC a season ago when owner Pat Bowlen brought in legendary QB John Elway to run football operations and hired ex-Panthers boss John Fox as head coach this past January.
Elway's presence brings a new structure to the organization. Unlike the regimes of Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels, the head coach no longer will have final say in personnel decisions. Elway, general manager Brian Xanders and Fox discuss every move made by the team, with Elway serving as the tiebreaker in any disputes.
Fox is faced with the task of turning things around on the field. The veteran coach showed he was capable of doing so in Carolina and likely will depend on conservative play-calling to limit mistakes on offense.
There is a lot that needs fixing on a defense that finished last in the league a year ago. A lack of push up front gave quarterbacks too much time to see the field and opposing backs too much room to run.
Losing has become the norm in Denver, with no playoff appearences since '05, which is a mindset the incoming rookies will be faced with breaking. OLB Von Miller should single-handedly improve the team's pass rush. The rest of the draft class brings speed and athleticism and creates competition at various positions.
In a division that hasn't had a Super Bowl representative since the 2002 season, the Broncos hope to turn things around sooner rather than later, banking on the changes made since the 2010 season ended.
A holdover from the Josh McDaniels era, Mike McCoy enters his third season as the Broncos' offensive coordinator but his first as the full-time play-caller. McCoy, who was a quarterbacks coach for John Fox with the Panthers, took over play-calling duties with four games remaining last season under interim coach Eric Studesville. Fox runs a much more traditional offense than McDaniels did, and is sure to depend heavily on the ground game. The Broncos will switch to a zone-blocking scheme, which they used under Mike Shanahan, in an attempt to replicate the successful rushing attack of the Panthers.
Quarterbacks: To the surprise of many around the league, the Broncos opted not to trade their starting quarterback from 2010, Kyle Orton, this offseason. Instead, he is back on the roster, keeping fan favorite and last year's first-round pick, Tim Tebow, in a backup role. Orton, the most experienced QB on the team, threw for 295 yards or more in eight of his 13 starts last season. His consistency allows him to be a field general in the NFL, as he plays smart, hits his spots, rarely turns the ball over and manages games well. However, Orton lacks the athletic ability to create plays on his own and is far less productive once he steps outside the pocket. Tebow presents the opposite dilemma. There is no question he has the "it" factor to make things happen on the field, but there is some uncertainty regarding his ability to become a productive pocket passer. Tebow had a 5-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but never completed more than 16 passes in a game and has yet to truly show that he can develop into a franchise QB. He did, however, show playmaking ability with six rushing touchdowns. Brady Quinn has a strong arm and has shown his athleticism and could challenge Tebow for the No. 2 job on a weekly basis.
Running backs: The Broncos gained 96.5 rushing yards per game a season ago, 26th in the NFL, but the backs likely will get more carries under John Fox. Former first-rounder Knowshon Moreno has yet to live up to his potential, but he began to come on strong in the second half last season. After being slowed by a hamstring injury early in the campaign, Moreno finally started to show the explosiveness expected of him after the Broncos' Week Eight bye, gaining five yards per carry the rest of the way. If Moreno continues to make crisp cuts and play with the same edge he ended the season with, he should excel in Fox's offense. Free-agent signee Willis McGahee was brought in to complement Moreno with a tough, straight-ahead running style. The former Raven is not the every-down player he was early in his career, but he should add punch to the rushing attack and still has a nose for the endzone. Jeremiah Johnson has been impressive in camp and could find a role as the team's third back. Spencer Larsen, a part-time linebacker, could see some playing time at fullback.
Receivers: The receiving corps played a huge role last season, especially Brandon Lloyd. The veteran wideout finally reached his potential by leading the league with 1,448 yards, by far his best output as a pro. Lloyd is among the NFL's most athletic players and has the type of body control to make mid-air adjustments. He has struggled to hold on to the ball at times, but makes up for it with his big-play ability. Second-year pro Demaryius Thomas will start the season on the PUP list with a torn Achilles, but is expected to play a major role when healthy. Thomas struggled with injuries his rookie season but showed flashes. Slot man Eddie Royal hasn't lived up to the promise he showed in his rookie campaign but can be dangerous in the open field. He underwent hip surgery in the offseason but is expected to be ready when the season begins. Eric Decker has proven to have reliable hands and a high ceiling and could see a decent amount of snaps prior to Thomas' return. The team believes that ex-Texan David Anderson could be a poor man's Wes Welker in the slot. Rookie TEs Julius Thomas and Virgil Green are both athletic pass catchers with the ability to stretch the field, but each will need to improve their blocking to see substantial playing time. Thomas, a collegiate basketball player who played only one season of football, has athletic talent that cannot be taught. Veteran free-agent signees Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario also are in the mix. Fells is the strongest of the four and is expected to start.
Offensive linemen: After playing the majority of the 2010 season with a pair of rookies and three other starters that had a combined nine years of experience on the O-line, the Broncos are hoping their regulars will take a step forward in '11. OLT Ryan Clady struggled to hold down the edge coming off a knee injury early in the season, but seemed to return to All-Pro form late in the campaign. A healthy Clady is arguably the most talented player on the offense. C J.D. Walton and OLG Zane Beadles were thrown into the mix last season as rookies. Walton started all 16 games at center and seemed to have no problem transitioning mentally. Strength needs to be added, but he might have the skills to hold down the position for years to come. Beadles was slated as a tackle early in the season but was moved to the guard position after his short arm length became an issue. Both players are expected to improve with experience. A team captain, ORG Chris Kuper looks to be the type of player John Fox prefers. Kuper is a powerful, physical lineman who has the leadership abilities to help the young players grow. Second-round pick Orlando Franklin is a big, physical player who excels as a run blocker because of his size. Franklin has the ability to play both guard and tackle, but likely will take over for former starting ORT Ryan Harris, who signed with the Eagles. The entire group will be tested as Fox implements a zone-blocking scheme. Veterans Russ Hochstein and Eric Olsen provide depth.
The Broncos hired Dennis Allen to run their defense, making the former Saints secondary coach the team's sixth defensive coordinator in as many years. Denver's "D" struggled mightily against both the run and the pass in 2010, with the majority of the struggles coming up front. The team will switch from a 3-4 defensive scheme to a 4-3, a simplified approach that should provide extra support against the run. While some players will be required to change position, the addition of six rookies on the defensive side of the ball hopess to greatly improve a unit that finished last in the league in 2010.
Defensive linemen: As the defense shifts to a 4-3 scheme, players such as Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers must transition from outside linebackers back to defensive end. Dumervil — who played end during his first three seasons in the NFL — is a ferocious pass rusher, registering 43 sacks between 2006 and '09 before missing all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle. At 5-foot-11, he is able to get lower than most offensive linemen and can use his long arms to create space. His explosive first step has been vital to his success in passing situations, but he can get buried at times on rushing downs. Ayers played end in college, but mainly has been a linebacker in the NFL. The '09 first-rounder has shown the ability to seal the edge and play the run well, but is not much of a pass rusher. At tackle, the team brought in a host of players through trades and free agency to shore up the run defense. Former Patriot Ty Warren, who missed all of last season with a torn labrum, won't make the impact the Broncos were hoping for after suffering a triceps tendon injury in camp. Veterans Kevin Vickerson, a run stuffer with great size, and former Eagles first-round pick Brodrick Bunkley will control the interior in Warren's place. Bunkley was inconsistent during his time in Philadelphia but has flashed ability that coaches are hoping will appear on a more consistent basis. Jeremy Jarmon, a versatile player who was out of place in the Redskins' 3-4, will see action at tackle. So, too, will Marcus Thomas, once he fully recovers from a torn chest muscle.
Linebackers: The No. 2 overall pick, Von Miller, was one of three linebackers taken by the Broncos in the 2011 draft. Miller is as explosive as they come and excels when rushing the passer. He primarily will line up as a strong-side 'backer behind DE Robert Ayers. OLB D.J. Williams will man the weak side after playing in the middle last season. Williams has notched a lot of tackles throughout his career and is at his best when given the ability to roam free, but often gets pushed back in traffic. He will, however, miss time early in the season due to a dislocated right elbow. Look for Joe Mays to start at middle linebacker, with Mario Haggan seeing plenty of snaps, as well. Mays is a scrappy player who is always around the ball, but he lacks Haggan's strength to finish plays. Rookie Nate Irving has the size needed to play in the middle, but he was near the bottom of the depth chart in camp. Another rookie, Mike Mohamed, should be able to use his versatility to his advantage and see time at all three LB spots. As a whole, the LB corps struggled to cover the middle of the field last season.
Defensive backs: Veteran CB Champ Bailey was named to his 10th Pro Bowl last season, a league record among cornerbacks, and he is showing no signs of slowing down. Bailey regularly takes the opposing team's top receiver out of the picture. He might not be as fast as he once was, but he can make up for any lost speed with his ability to scan the field extremely quickly and get to his spots in the blink of an eye. CB André Goodman forms the other half of the veteran corner duo. He struggled through injuries last season but was able to hold his own when healthy. Goodman is more of a physical defensive back but has been around long enough to know where to position himself. Second-year CB Perrish Cox faces serious legal allegations which could result in a suspension or jail time or both, and he is a major question mark. Cox showed a lot of upside in his rookie season and remained confident even when struggling. Another second-year player, CB SydQuan Thompson, would get more snaps if Cox is sidelined. FS Brian Dawkins will return as the emotional leader of the defense. While he might have lost some range over the years, his intelligence on the field is invaluable both for his own positioning and for lining up the rest of the defense. That will come in handy, as he likely will be starting next to one rookie — ball-hawking SS Rahim Moore — and backed up by another — hard-hitting Quinton Carter.
Eddie Royal was the primary return man last season, but after undergoing surgery in the offseason he might be limited on special teams. Eric Decker, who led the team in kickoff returns in 2010, doesn't have the same speed as Royal, but can consistently pick up a big chunk of yardage. If Royal can't go, Demaryius Thomas could get a crack at it, though he has injury concerns, too. PK Matt Prater has connected on 87 percent of his field-goal attempts in the past two seasons and regularly produces touchbacks. P Britton Colquitt showed off a big leg in his rookie season. He made some mistakes, but did show promise with his situational punts.
Though they opted to hold on to Kyle Orton, a lot of changes were made in an attempt to try to put a stop to the losing nature that has infiltrated the franchise. The organization welcomed a lot of new faces in the offseason — from players to coaches to front-office executives — and it could take some time for proper chemistry to develop. It might be another rebuilding year, as players begin to learn their roles and a large group of rookies gets accustomed to life in the NFL. If the players buy what John Fox is selling, the pieces might be in place for the Broncos to return to relevancy fairly soon.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.