Denver Broncos 2014 preview: As always, a Manning team has a shot
JUL 15, 2014 11:20a ET
With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it's the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes ... even February. Goodbye, offseason!
The series continues with the Denver Broncos.
2013: 13-3, won AFC West, lost in Super Bowl to Seattle, 43-8
Head coach: John Fox
Key departures: RB Knowshon Moreno, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, WR Eric Decker
Key arrivals: DE DeMarcus Ware, CB Aqib Talib, WR Emmanuel Sanders, rookie WR Cody Latimer
1. How much does Peyton Manning have left?
It's a legitimate question. We all know that Manning is as good as it gets during the regular season. Even at 37 last year, Manning still performed at an incredibly high level. Want proof? How about a career-high 55 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions? And how about a 68 percent completion rate?
Manning did last season what he has done so well throughout his career -- take short drops, make great, quick reads and unload the ball. He threw 659 passes and yet took only 18 sacks. And that's not because he's a great scrambler. There aren't many quarterbacks in history better at reading defenses well enough to avoid danger pre-snap. Manning reads the defense, makes his call (Omaha! Omaha!) and unloads the ball as quickly as possible.
But there are whispers in Denver that Seattle exposed some weaknesses in Manning's game at this stage of his career -- namely, his inability to create plays once the original play breaks down. Seattle cut off Denver's quick slant and short routes in the Super Bowl, which gave the Seahawks that extra split second to get a rusher in Manning's face -- and that didn't fare well for Manning. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the NFL tries the same strategy this season -- take away his initial reads and bring pressure up the middle.
2. Is Montee Ball ready for the big time?
General manager John Elway and the Broncos' staff felt confident enough that former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball could take over for Knowshon Moreno that they let Moreno walk (he signed with the Dolphins). That's a lot of faith in Ball, who is entering his second NFL season.
That faith is based on the theory that Ball can read defenses along with Manning and pick up blitzes, which is vital because Manning prefers a lot of single-back sets and could get exposed with a less-aware running back behind him. The only issue is that Ball isn't nearly the game-breaking back that Moreno was. Ball is a head-first, initiate-contact plugger who gets the most out of tough yards inside. But Ball is anything but elusive and speedy. The days of any back going 80 yards will vanish with Ball in the backfield.
The thinking is that in Manning's pass-first offense, the Broncos don't need running backs to hit home runs -- just hit singles and doubles and play good defense (protect the quarterback). Ball should fit the bill for all of that, and he is a pretty sound receiver as well.
3. How do they replace Eric Decker?
It's interesting that teams that employ Manning or Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady tend not to overpay for wide receivers, which pretty much explains why Elway let Decker walk. Decker is an outstanding wideout, a big target with good speed and pretty good hands who makes the big play. But when you have a future Hall of Famer like Manning at QB, chances are you can find another tall wideout ready to reach stardom under Manning's tutelage. And we'll see how Decker fares with the Jets and a young quarterback still learning the game at this high level. (Read: Decker likely isn't a great pickup in fantasy football drafts.)
The Broncos did go out and get some speed to replace Decker -- former Steelers wideout Emmanuel Sanders. Chances are that Manning will make Sanders look like an All-Pro very soon. The Broncos also took the very athletic 6-foot-2 wide receiver Cody Latimer (Indiana) with their second pick in the draft. Latimer likely could get a lot of playing time this year.
The bottom line: Manning and Co. will find a way to replace Decker.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders
Sanders was pretty much a third or fourth target during most of his four years with the Steelers, but that is about to change with the Broncos. Sanders will move into the No. 2 receiver role with Denver and (fantasy alert) expect him to enjoy a breakout season in Manning's offense.
Sanders isn't all that big (5 feet 11, 180 pounds) and he certainly isn't the huge target that Decker (6-3) was, but scouts say Sanders is a smart receiver who can find open patches in zone defenses and who also knows how to get some separation in man coverage. Sanders isn't a great runner after the catch (only 4.4 yards) nor does he particularly enjoy contact (a mere 0.9-yard average after contact). But Sanders has sure hands and has greatly improved his route running. He's not a great blocker, so he likely won't be on the field for certain running plays.
But overall, Sanders should enjoy a huge spike in production. His numbers gradually improved in Pittsburgh and last year he hauled in 67 passes, six of those for touchdowns. There's a good chance he'll grab 90 passes this season with Denver.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Let's be honest: When you have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, you have much reason for optimism. The Vikings had the same optimism when they acquired veteran Brett Favre a few years go and, with just a mediocre team, still wound up only one play away from the Super Bowl. The Broncos took the same chance with Manning two years ago, and they got to the Super Bowl last season.
Like Favre, Manning always will give his team a chance to win it all. Yes, perhaps Seattle exposed some weaknesses in Manning's game. But Manning, even at his advanced age, is still among the best at his position. And the supporting cast around Manning still is strong enough that the Broncos should not have too much trouble knocking on the Super Bowl door again. The Broncos have rising stars on offense to support Manning, such as tight end Julius Thomas, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, and wideout Demaryius Thomas.
"You want other teams to have the discussion, 'How do we handle that guy?' " Manning said recently. "And we have that with those guys. The more you have, the harder it is for the defense."
REASON FOR PANIC
Health. Elway no doubt is in an all-in mode, which means he is counting on a number of veterans, starting with Manning, to remain healthy.
Elway and team officials are crossing their fingers that pass rushers Von Miller and newly acquired DeMarcus Ware (from Dallas) can stay healthy the whole year. Miller was suspended for six games before the start of last season. Worse yet, Miller blew out his ACL in Week 16. The Broncos desperately need him to repeat his 18 1/2-sack season from 2012. Ware is coming to the Broncos off elbow surgery.
Moreover, run stuffer Kevin Vickerson is coming off a hip injury. Cornerback Aqib Talib is one of the most gifted corners in the NFL, but he has had issues in the past ranging from injury to attitude.
Talib, though, said after signing with the Broncos that all the injury discussion about him the last two years was nonsense. Talib was listed throughout the end of last season with the Patriots as having a hip injury, which Talib said was made up.
"It's just the way (New England) does things, I guess," Talib recently told reporters.
ALEX MARVEZ'S 2014 PREDICTION
Besides the expected return of five starters who ended last season on injured reserve, Denver upgraded two areas of weakness – its secondary and pass rush – with the expensive free-agent signings of cornerback Aqib Talib (New England), strong safety T.J. Ward (Cleveland) and defensive end DeMarcus Ware (Dallas). What was the most potent regular-season offense in NFL history should keep rolling along behind Peyton Manning. The Broncos could very well field just as good a team as last year's squad that went 13-3, but the record won't be as gaudy because of a tougher schedule. Nonetheless, Denver is still the AFC's Super Bowl favorite. Prediction: 11-5.