2009 team preview: Denver Broncos

Inside Slant

Training camp and the preseason didn’t do much to encourage Denver Broncos fans, who have been baffled at times over the direction of the team since Mike Shanahan was fired.

The team looked as if it was still learning new schemes on offense and defense as it lost the first three preseason games. The third game, which is for most NFL teams a dress rehearsal for the season, was a bit disheartening.

The starting offense scored only three points against Chicago in the first half at home, and quarterback Kyle Orton suffered a right index finger injury. The defense allowed former Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler to move the Bears down the field, the second straight game in which Denver’s starting defense allowed the opposition to pass the ball at will. Seattle’s Matt Hasselbeck had a good outing against Denver in the second preseason game. And Denver’s special teams allowed a long punt return to Devin Hester.

“Can’t play like that and win against a good football team,” Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. “We’ve got to do a hell of a lot better job.”

The preseason hasn’t been completely miserable for the Broncos. The run defense has been surprisingly good and the front seven has gotten consistent pressure on the quarterback. The players seem to be taking to the 3-4 scheme well, with a lot of energy and excitement. The Broncos hadn’t forced a turnover in three preseason games, but with pressure on the quarterback and veteran players in the secondary, they figure turnovers will come.

Offensively, Denver has moved the ball at times, with short timing passes designed to find the open receiver. The running game has been slow to improve, but when rookie first-round pick Knowshon Moreno returns from a knee injury, he should add a much-needed spark. The Broncos‘ quarterback situation isn’t ideal, with Orton and Chris Simms (ankle) nursing injuries, but both quarterbacks have had some good moments.

One issue hanging over the team is receiver Brandon Marshall‘s situation. Marshall doesn’t want to be with the team, was disruptive in practice and was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. He’ll be reinstated before the regular season, but the team is unsure how he’ll behave in his return.

Denver feels it can move on without Marshall if need be, because they do have some playmakers on offense, especially once Moreno returns. The offense should be effective. If the defense continues to mature, Denver is optimistic.

The early-season schedule favors the Broncos, too, with three winnable games (at Cincinnati, vs. Cleveland, at Oakland) in September. The problem is October and November are brutal, with a tough game every time out.

If the Broncos can get some momentum and confidence early in the season, and then navigate through the middle of the slate with a few victories, they could position themselves to be a contender in December. If the quarterback injuries and other issues keep the team from winning any games early in the schedule, it could end up being a long first season for McDaniels.

COACHING: Josh McDaniels, 1st year, 1st with Broncos (0-0).

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 8-8 (2nd in AFC West).

PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 6-10 (3rd in AFC West).

Notes and Quotes

–Broncos rookie Knowshon Moreno returned to practice before Denver’s fourth preseason game, a welcomed sight for a struggling team that has been hit with injuries. Moreno had been out since hurting his knee in the preseason opener, and the Broncos were going to be cautious with him on his return.

“We’re going to work him back the way we should, not 100 percent of the reps the first day,” McDaniels said.

–The Broncos weren’t taking their final preseason game for granted. Mike Shanahan would sit all of his starters, but new coach Josh McDaniels knew there was work to do. The team struggled to a 0-3 start to the preseason.

“We’re not going to go through the motions, we have a lot of work to do and we don’t have much time to do it,” McDaniels said. “We’re running out of time.”

–Rookie quarterback Tom Brandstater looked much better in his second preseason appearance than his first. He threw for 1 yard and was sacked four times in his preseason debut. He had 110 yards in his second game and looked more comfortable.

“Something clicked, I felt so much better,” Brandstater said. “It wasn’t that nervous second-guessing anymore.”

–Jay Cutler’s return to Denver for the third preseason game was an event for Broncos fans who weren’t happy with how the quarterback forced his own trade to Chicago. They booed him loudly at every opportunity.

“I think it was exactly what I thought it would be,” Cutler said. “It was a hostile environment.”

BY THE NUMBERS: 1 – Season in which the Broncos had a winless preseason coming into this year. The only time Denver had a winless preseason was in 1960, the team’s first year of existence.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “Certainly more than a six on a scale of 1-10, in terms of the crowd.” – Broncos coach Josh McDaniels on the Denver crowd for a preseason game against Chicago. That was a swipe at Jay Cutler, who said Broncos fans were a “6” compared to Bears fans being a “9.”

Strategy and Personnel

One of the Broncos‘ training camp competitions was settled early, when the team cut rookie punter Britton Colquitt in the first set of cuts. That left Brett Kern as the only punter on the roster. Kern had a promising rookie season and should improve in his second season with the job, assuming the Broncos don’t bring in a veteran at the last minute.


–TE Jeb Putzier was released in the first set of cuts. The veteran didn’t have a role, because he is primarily a receiver and the Broncos already have Tony Scheffler.

–WR C.J. Jones was among the Broncos first cuts. He didn’t have a chance to make the team at a deep position.

–C Blake Schlueter was let go when the team cut down to 75 players, which was a surprise considering the team drafted him in the seventh round. Schlueter wasn’t going to beat out Kory Lichtensteiger for a second-team job, and veteran guards Ben Hamilton and Russ Hochstein can also play center.

–RB LaMont Jordan missed Denver’s third preseason game with an undisclosed injury. That won’t help him carve out a role in the Broncos‘ confusing backfield situation.

–DE Le Kevin Smith has been out with an undisclosed injury and could miss his second straight preseason game. Still, he should end up as part of the defensive line rotation.

–CB Tony Carter was having a good camp, but an injury could cost him the final two preseason games. The Broncos will have to decide if they saw enough out of the rookie corner in early August to give him a roster spot.

PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Chad Jackson – With Brandon Marshall‘s situation a thorn in the Broncos‘ side and Jabar Gaffney dealing with a thumb injury, Chad Jackson moved up the depth chart. He started Denver’s third preseason game and could get some playing time early in the season. Jackson is a former second-round pick who has spent time in Josh McDaniels’ offense from his time in New England. Jackson started the third preseason game with the Broncos thin at receiver.


Rd. 1/12, RB Knowshon Moreno, Georgia – Moreno missed most of training camp and the preseason with a contract holdout, then a knee injury. But he has superior talent and will be a big part of the offense very soon.

Rd. 1/18, LB Robert Ayers, Tennessee – One of the upsets of August was that Ayers didn’t win a starting job somewhere. Ayers will still play a situational role and could make a late charge for a first-team role in the base defense.

Rd. 2/37, CB Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest – Smith’s ball security issues in the return game was a bit of a disappointment, but he is a playmaker who should be the nickel cornerback right away, and get a fair share of time on special teams.

Rd. 2/48, S Darcel McBath, Texas Tech – McBath’s versatility could get him a role on passing downs. Otherwise, he’ll be a special teams contributor and top backup.

Rd. 2/64, TE Richard Quinn, North Carolina – Primarily a blocker, Quinn should play in jumbo packages and can help the run game.

Rd. 4/114, S David Bruton, Notre Dame – Bruton got a chance to play with the first-team defense early in camp with Brian Dawkins out, but slid back down the depth chart. Still, he will be on most of the special teams.

Rd. 4/132, G Seth Olsen, Iowa – Olsen looks to be a keeper. He has a chance to start the season opener if right guard Chris Kuper‘s injured ankle is slow to heal.

Rd. 5/141, WR Kenny McKinley, South Carolina – McKinley’s problem is inconsistency. He’ll follow up a great catch with a drop. Still, the talent is evident.

Rd. 6/174, QB Tom Brandstater, Fresno State – Brandstater was pressed into action in the preseason because of injuries. He had a solid showing in the third preseason game against Chicago.


QUARTERBACK: Starter – Kyle Orton. Backups – Chris Simms, Tom Brandstater.

Orton’s right finger injury is a concern for the team, especially since Simms is bothered by an ankle injury. Orton has had some rough moments, but many can be chalked up to learning the offense and the coaching staff figuring out Orton’s limits as they call plays. Orton won’t be a dynamic Pro Bowler – Denver had a quarterback like that, but traded him to Chicago – but he can be solid and steady. The Broncos are hoping for fewer turnovers and solid numbers from Orton. Most of Denver’s offense will be underneath, rather than the vertical game the Broncos had with Jay Cutler throwing the ball.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters – TB Knowshon Moreno, FB Peyton Hillis. Backups – TB Correll Buckhalter, TB LaMont Jordan, FB Spencer Larsen.

Moreno might not start right away because an injury wiped out most of his preseason, but he should eventually be the starter. He can play on all three downs and could have a good rookie year. He could also have company in the backfield. Hillis is the main fullback on the rare occasion the Broncos use more than one back (Spencer Larsen can also move from linebacker to play fullback) but Hillis will be much more than a fullback. He’s a talented runner and a fantastic receiver. He could also be the short-yardage back. Jordan and Buckhalter are veterans who could also have significant roles. Buckhalter’s receiving ability will be utilized by the offensive coaches.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Daniel Graham. Backups – Tony Scheffler, Richard Quinn.

Graham and Scheffler are opposite talents – Graham is a great blocker, Scheffler is a great receiver. Both will be used in the offense. Graham can also catch the ball when needed. With some concerns at receiver, Scheffler could find himself in an important role as the season begins. Quinn is third in the pecking order but will play when the team wants another blocker on the field.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal. Backups – Brandon Stokley, Jabar Gaffney, Chad Jackson, Kenny McKinley, Brandon Lloyd.

Marshall has to prove something before he can be counted on as a starter. Not on the field – he is a fantastic talent. But the Broncos need to know they can depend on the disgruntled player. They can count on Royal, and appear ready to feature him in a pass-heavy offense. Royal could get 100 catches if he stays healthy. He is very good with the ball in his hands. Stokley will again be one of the most reliable slot receivers in the NFL. Gaffney will factor in once he recovers from a thumb injury, and veterans Jackson and Lloyd will provide depth. McKinley is a talented and interesting rookie.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters – LT Ryan Clady, LG Ben Hamilton, C Casey Wiegmann, RG Chris Kuper, RT Ryan Harris. Backups – T Tyler Polumbus, T Brandon Gorin, C/G Russ Hochstein, G Seth Olsen, G Matt McChesney, C Kory Lichtensteiger.

The line wasn’t great in the preseason, especially in the running game, but there is not much concern when it comes to this unit. Clady looked human on some plays in the preseason, but until he has a bad regular-season game as a pro he’ll get the benefit of the doubt. The rest of the line is back and the team will benefit from that continuity. The preseason acquisition of Hochstein adds some experience and versatility to the second team. There isn’t a lot of proven depth among the other backups.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters – LDE Ryan McBean, NT Ronald Fields, RDE Kenny Peterson. Backups – NT Chris Baker, DE Le Kevin Smith, DE Nic Clemons, DE Marcus Thomas, DE Matthias Askew.

McBean, Fields and Peterson don’t have much starting experience but have done a passable job in the preseason. All three seem to fit in the three-man front and understand their roles. Baker, a rookie, had a good training camp and earned a promotion to the second team. Smith was acquired from New England, and should help in the rotation. Thomas can play tackle or end, although he settled in at end after Baker played well.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – LOLB Mario Haggan, ILB D.J. Williams, ILB Andra Davis, ROLB Elvis Dumervil. Backups – OLB Robert Ayers, OLB Tim Crowder, OLB Darrell Reid, OLB Jarvis Moss, ILB Spencer Larsen, ILB Wesley Woodyard.

Haggan was a surprise in camp, grabbing a starting spot and hanging onto it through the preseason. That and the fantastic play of Elvis Dumervil in his first season at outside linebacker kept Ayers in a situational role. Dumervil could have a good year, being able to get after the quarterback. Williams should have a big year as well, playing on the weak side at inside linebacker. Davis is a solid veteran who should pick up some tackles as well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Champ Bailey, RCB Andre Goodman, SS Brian Dawkins, FS Renaldo Hill. Backups – CB Alphonso Smith, CB Jack Williams, CB Tony Carter, S Darcel McBath, S Josh Barrett, S David Bruton.

Goodman had a good camp and Bailey looks like he hasn’t lost a step, even at 31 years old. The Broncos hope to get some big plays from those two veteran cornerbacks and Smith, a ball-hawking rookie. The safety position has improved a lot since last year, when the Broncos couldn’t find two competent starters. Dawkins became an immediate leader on the team, which was lacking at times last year. Smith, Williams, McBath and Barrett are a very young second team but each of them has flashed considerable ability.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Matt Prater, P Brett Kern, LS Lonie Paxton, KOR Peyton Hillis, PR Alphonso Smith.

Prater was up and down at the beginning of camp but never lost the confidence of the coaches. Kern beat out Britton Colquitt for the punting job. He was solid as a rookie last year. Hillis got a long look as a kickoff returner near the end of preseason, and his straight ahead style is an interesting fit. The reason Hillis got the chance is Smith had issues with ball security on returns. If Smith continues those problems, Eddie Royal could be the primary punt returner.