The Denver Broncos front office and coaching staff are already in the midst of player evaluations, a process of deciding which free agents are priorities to re-sign, which players are tradable or releasable, and perhaps most importantly, which positions need more depth and/or talent.
For that, the Broncos need to look no further than the divisional round playoff game against the New England Patriots – 60 minutes of painful game film that answers the “Which positions do we need to focus on this offseason?” question.
Unlike the lockout-ridden offseason of 2011, the Broncos have the benefit of normalcy this time around. Denver will certainly look for affordable, available veterans, or “valuable signings” as general manager Brian Xanders called them last month, to address particular positional needs, as well as the NFL Draft, something John Elway said must be treated as a can’t-miss situation for the team.
Defensive Linemen – The Broncos handling of this in 2011 is a classic example of why quantity does not equal quality.
Denver’s strategy was to sign or re-sign a slew of average players, overlooking the glaring need for a game-changer. Thanks to season-ending injuries to Ty Warren and Kevin Vickerson, the Broncos relied on Brodrick Bunkley, Ryan McBean, Marcus Thomas, and Mitch Unrein. No one was bad, but then again, no one provided the type of presence the Broncos need to avoid blowouts against elite offenses. Bunkley was a pleasant surprise, and presumably is a priority for Denver to re-sign. He, McBean, and Thomas are free agents.
Priority No. 1: improving the Broncos defensive line. (personal photo)
Secondary – The Broncos focused on bolstering their safety corps in last year’s NFL Draft, taking Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter. Moore began the season as starter, but a series of missed tackles, bad coverage, and apparent on-field confusion led to his benching.
Carter gladly assumed Moore’s role, and like Moore, seemed at times to regress during the game. Not coincidentally, the Broncos young secondary folded without Brian Dawkins’ in-game leadership. Whether mentor Dawkins returns or not, Denver’s young safeties must develop a firmer understanding of their roles on the field, and find the confidence execute their assignments. At the end of the season Carter’s game began showing some promise, but the pressure is officially on Moore as he was the top safety drafted in 2011, and has yet to show any sign of that pick being warranted.
The cornerback position is a more pressing concern. Champ Bailey is a shutdown cornerback, and the entire league knows that. What’s the easiest way to take a shutdown cornerback out of a game? Don’t throw to his receiver. That’s as good as done for teams with multiple receiving threats. We’re also very much in the territory where it’s time to discuss how much longer Bailey will not only be around, but be the dominant player he’s been all these years.
Andre Goodman was routinely outplayed this season. He’s also deep into a career. Chris Harris shows promise, and could very likely assume the mantle of starting cornerback. Still, assuming Bailey has three strong years left the Broncos must find and develop new talent at corner. Two receiver sets are becoming rare so a strong rotation of coverage players is basically mandatory.
Running Back – Unofficially, the Knowshon Moreno experiment is officially over. When healthy Moreno has been a back stuck in limbo: not strong or balanced enough to go inside, yet not quite quick enough to work outside. The Broncos need a consistent and reliable running back, especially in John Fox’s ground-oriented, two-back system. Moreno’s lack of durability and inability to be an impact player rule him out of this discussion.
Willis McGahee turned out to be the back the Broncos needed, but he also turned 30 during the regular season. McGahee had his best rushing year since 2007 – third best in his career. Lance Ball is a dependable role player, but not a breakaway-style rusher.
McGahee handled the bulk of Denver’s running duties, but he needs a cohort, a younger, speedier, flashier cohort.
Wide Receiver – Wait, isn’t Tim Tebow still quarterback?
Why yes he is, but Tebow plans to dedicate much of his offseason working on his football mechanics, notably his passing. Tebow knows he must improve his passing efficiency. The Broncos have an eclectic receiving corps, minus the true speedster.
Demaryius Thomas is the physical receiver. Eric Decker is the slot receiver. Eddie Royal, who is a free agent, is the role player, and Matthew Willis is the understudy. Thomas must pick up where he left off. Eric Decker must attend the Brandon Stokley school of creating separation, and bring Royal and Willis with him.
We expect more passing from Tim Tebow in 2012. Might as well give him another receiving threat. (personal photo)
Aside from a handful of truly elite wide receivers (the Calvin Johnsons of the NFL), there is a surplus of talented veterans available for the Broncos’ choosing. Bring in an experienced wide receiver with good hands and fast legs, and let’s see how Tebow responds with a spread out offense.
Offensive Line – Apart from late in the season when injuries caught up with the Denver offensive line (i.e. the grotesque Chris Kuper injury in Week 17), this was arguably one of the strongest units in the league. It’s also the second youngest offensive line in the NFL. It never hurts to have depth on the line, but given the past season’s performance, there isn’t much need to build here.
Tight End – Thanks to Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez, tight ends are that shiny new toy that every team wants this offseason. Historically, tight ends are like TVs. For the most part the ones you have get the job done well enough, but then you see one that has all kinds of fun features, looks great, and possesses all the latest technology and you start thinking, “We need THAT!” Before Graham and Gronkowski, it was Gates and Clark, and Gonzalez and Sharpe before that. Commentary on unwarranted hype aside, Denver has big question marks at tight end. Daniel Fells played well for the most part but isn’t built to be the receiving threat of those mentioned above. Julius Thomas was supposed to be that threat, but may not be able to block or stay healthy long enough to become a presence on the field. That leaves Dante Rosario and Virgil Green. Both saw playing time. Green was more the blocker and Rosario the receiving threat. In this case though the old adage appears true: If you have four tight ends, you have none.
Quarterback – Wait, isn’t Tim Tebow still quarterback?
It’s only a matter of time before free agent backup Brady Quinn signs elsewhere, leaving just Tebow and practice squad quarterback Adam Weber on the roster. The Broncos have made it no secret they will bring in other quarterbacks, and all must be willing to compete with Tebow.
Some veteran quarterbacks may scoff at the prospect of squaring off with the man behind Tebowmania, which is why pursuing this position could prove delicate. Denver will likely find some younger NFL backups with limited experience – Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke suspects a guy like Tampa Bay’s Josh Johnson is a good candidate – along with some older journeymen eager for another chance.
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