Boom or Bust for the Denver Broncos…Again – Part 1
How many NFL teams go into the season aiming for the championship? 32.
Unfortunately, only two teams will ultimately play in the Super Bowl and only one can stand victorious.
So where does the road to the championship begin?
Generally, after discussions within the organization, a plan is devised (whether that involves a new coaching staff, players, etc.) for free-agency and the draft. And hopefully, the pieces of the puzzle come together during voluntary off-season practice and spring camp. With the draft now around the corner, one of the biggest questions on many NFL analysts’ minds is what road have the Denver Broncos decided to take and whether that will lead them to another championship opportunity.
The Broncos Plan- What is it?
With 39 year old quarterback Peyton Manning back at the helm, the Broncos head office and newly hired head coach, Gary Kubiak, are aiming for a championship season.
After a whirlwind of off-season free-agency moves within the NFL, the Broncos have been subtle in their free-agency pick-ups, primarily due to limited cap space, while sustaining significant losses:
- Julius Thomas (TE)
- Terrance Knighton (DT)
- Rahim Moore (FS)
- Orlando Franklin (RT)
- Wes Welker (WR)
So what does this mean for Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the 2015 season?
Like all 32 teams in the NFL, only time will tell for sure. History tells us that spending big money during free-agency doesn’t necessarily result in a championship season. After all, one of the objectives of free-agency is to fill select holes on the roster with veterans that fit the system in order to provide flexibility in selecting the best player during the NFL draft…right?
The Denver Broncos are no longer considered the favorites in the AFC to reach the Super Bowl in 2015. That title has now past to the 4-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. Why have the Broncos slipped out of contention? Part of the answer is rooted in recent history.
In the 2013 season, the Broncos had one of the most feared offenses in the NFL. Peyton Manning had turned back time and any running back not named Montee Ball was having a field day behind a solid offensive line. Manning took the Broncos to Super Bowl XLVIII against the Seattle Seahawks at Met-Life Stadium in New York/New Jersey, but then proceeded to be dismantled on offense and defense resulting in a devastating lose of 43-8.
In the following season, Peyton Manning started where he left off and with an improved defense, it appeared that sky was the limit. Unfortunately, due to a late season injury and some inexplicably conservative play calling, the Broncos managed to earn a by-week during the wild card playoffs only to lose in the post-season to Manning’s former team, the Indianapolis Colts.
Due to the disappointing results of the last two seasons, analysts are understandably skeptical. But there’s plenty of potential still there, and with Manning in what could be his last year with the Broncos, certain moves in the draft need to be made to ensure that this and future seasons won’t continue to miss expectations.
So for Part 1, let’s take a look at the Quarterback, Tight End and Wide Receiver positions.
Filling the Gaps
Suffice to say, although it’s clear they wanted him back, the Broncos head office might have lost some faith in their quarterback. In 2015, Peyton Manning agreed to restructure his contract — a $4 million pay cut, which he can earn back through incentives, in exchange for a no-trade clause for the 2015-2016 season. In part, Manning’s contract restructure provided the Broncos with some ability to keep certain integral pieces of the team while also acquiring additional talent where needed. Whether that talent will be enough for Manning to remain with the Denver Broncos in 2016 is still to be seen, but much of that may depend on how the Broncos fare in 2015.
At least on paper, with a year remaining in Mannings’ contract after this up-coming season, and with Brock Osweiler waiting in the wings after being acquired in the second round of 2012 draft, drafting a quarterback will be a low priority for the Broncos.
The most notable loss for the Broncos is tight end Julius Thomas, who left for the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2014, Thomas was the leading scorer with 12 TDs. He had 43 receptions from 60 targets, 489 yards and 30 first downs. Jacob Tamme (age 30), an eight year veteran in the NFL and an unrestricted free-agent, also left the Broncos and went to the Atlanta Falcons. Last year, Tamme caught 14 of 28 targets, converted 4 first downs and scored 2 TDs.
To fill the loss of Thomas, Denver picked up ex-Houston Texan and ex-Baltimore Raven Owen Daniels (age 32) during free-agency for a 3-year $12 million deal. In 2014, Owens caught 48 of 79 targets, had 527 yards, 32 first downs and 4 TDs.
Daniels won’t be enough to fill the gap left by Thomas. Players like Virgil Green (age 26), who has become more of a blocking tight end rather than a receiver, with career statistics of 23 receptions from 29 targets, 206 yards, 11 first downs and 1 TD, will most likely increase his role as a receiver on the field as Kubiak incorporates two tight end sets.
Which also might be why the Broncos signed tight end, James Casey (age 31), to a one year contract. Casey, like Green, is a versatile player with the ability to line up in the backfield to block, or play a move tight end position. The two can be interchangeable based on the play, adding depth to the position.
Although it will take three players to fill Thomas’ previous role, at least it will be filled for this season. The tight end position should be a low priority for the Broncos at the up-coming draft, which is fortunate, since there are very few elite tight end prospects available in the 2015 draft class. The Broncos are best off waiting to wait to pull the trigger on filling the tight end position until the 2016 off season or 2016 draft.
The Broncos have decided to part ways with Wes Welker (age 34), who was once Manning’s favorite 3rd down target and had the fifth highest salary cap last season ($7.647 million).
But, there’s no love lost and barely a gap to fill with his absence.
Emmanuel Sanders (age 28) was the third highest receiving scorer last year for the Broncos with 9 TDs. And for the first time in his career, Sanders had over a thousand receiving yards with 1,404, catching 101 of 141 targets with 69 first down conversions. Often playing slot receiver while at Pittsburgh, Sanders has added versatility in the Broncos receiving routes.
Although the Broncos drafted Cody Latimer (age 22) in the second round of the 2014 draft, he had little playing time last season even though he showed promise in the preseason. That should change. With a need for a third receiver behind Demaryius Thomas (who had 11 TDs and 1,619 receiving yards last year and is still working out his contract with the team) and Emmanuel Sanders, Latimer should have more opportunities to demonstrates his value as a second round pick.
With little wide receiver depth after Thomas, Sanders and Latimer and with Thomas’ contract still uncertain, with the possibility of ending up with only the one year franchise tag, the Broncos might want to consider an early round draft pick for wide receiver to fill the potential future gap. If they want to kill two birds with one stone, perhaps selecting Devin Funchess from Michigan in the second round could pay off. Funchess was an effective move tight end that was converted to a wide receiver and, in fact, became Michigan’s primary receiving target in his last year. This could provide Denver with a prospect that that has significant versatility and could allow Denver some flexibility in future drafts.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the rest of the Broncos offense — Running Backs and the Offensive Line.
See you for Part 2! And please don’t be late. Peyton gets pretty upset when people don’t show up on time.