Head Coach: Gary Kubiak (First year)
2014 Record: 12-4
Postseason: 24-13 L to Indianapolis in Divisional Playoffs
Odds to win Division: -170
Odds to win Conference: +520
Odds to win Super Bowl: +1500
Season Wins: Over 10 (-120); Under 10 (+100)
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John Elway went out and hired his longtime backup quarterback Gary Kubiak to coach Peyton Manning to the next level of Superbowl contention after having fallen short four straight seasons of division title-winning football.
That typically is enough to keep a coach in town, but patience was running thin with John Fox, however unfair that may seem. Kubiak will alter the offense some, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will change the team to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
The Broncos had 11 Pro Bowl talents last season and all but one return, making this team unquestionably good enough to be a Superbowl threat.
Its title odds sit at +1500 on oddsmaker 5dimes.
Peyton Manning was having a great season last year until he battled quad injuries at the end of the year, and the Broncos need a fully healthy Manning to be anywhere near its best. Kubiak will no doubt be a great mentor to Manning, who despite his brilliance is always learning ways to better his game. The Broncos now Brock Osweiler behind Manning, who has yet to really prove himself.
Osweiler threw his first NFL TD pass in Week 17 last season and he’s going to need a good year since this is a contract season. Manning is unquestionably still a top-QB, but the clock is ticking at this point and GM John Elway seems pretty confident Kubiak is the one to make something happen before it’s too late; the team has been knocking on the door for several seasons now.
Manning sat out the 22-20 win over Seattle last week, but he is expected to make his preseason debut against Houston and will play “quite a bit” according to Kubiak, who refused to elucidate exactly how much that meant when pressed.
C.J. Anderson became a savior to the Broncos last season in the backfield and he was the No. 2 gaining back in the NFL for the final six weeks of the season as he gained the starting gig. He’s quick and can make big plays, which is something that the Broncos will be able to utilize well with an OL versed in creating holes using zone blocks.
Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman fill out the backfield very well. Ball was the Week 1 starter but had groin injuries that slowed him. He worked this offseason on his flexibility in attempt to prevent it from happening again, and he certainly showed at the NCAA level that he can power right through a defense.
Hillman is a good change of pace back and he had two games with 100-plus yards before suffering a sprained foot that limited him the remainder of the year. Juwan Thompson is a big back that will be used in fullback sets and often for short yardage. Ball is perhaps the highest upside outside of Anderson, if only because he looks to be a rock of consistency if he stays healthy.
At WR the Broncos lose TE Julius Thomas, which will hurt in some ways. However, the team does return two Pro Bowlers (Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders) and they can both step it up into superstar level production. Cody Latimer will also be called upon more, given that the Broncos spent a second round pick to obtain his services.
When the Broncos go to three-wide formations, Latimer will line up on the outside with Sanders moving inside. Owen Daniels is the replacement for Thomas at TE and he’s played his entire career with Kubiak. He’ll be the quickest to adapt given nothing is changing for him, and he could be a valuable target for Manning. Virgil Green will also see time in two-TE sets that the Broncos promise to employ this season. James Casey is a TE/FB that will also lend to having a lot of flexibility within the units, and third-round pick Jeff Heurenman will see time this season as well.
The OL has some true foundation pieces in Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez. Clady is a five-time Pro Bowl selection and he’s healthy. Vasquez is the RG after playing out of position at RT last season. The other three starters from last season all left via free agency. There is still experience remaining on the roster, but it’s short of top-end talent.
Shelley Smith played for Kubiak and Denisson in Houston and Gradkowski was a backup for them last year in Baltimore, so there will be “pet” options, whether they are the best or not.
The team would much prefer its young talent with Matt Paradis and Michael Schofield having a lot of promise, but if the team is to compete on a high level, it will be likely the experience of Smith and Gradkowski that is preferred. The OL is average at best, due to the uncertainty at three of its positions and the lack of experience lower on the depth chart where unproven talents lurk.
The Broncos finished No.3 in defense in the league last season and five Pro Bowlers start.
OLB DeMarcus Ware had his best seasons with the Dallas Cowboys with Phillips as the HC. Ware and Von Miller combined for two dozen sacks last season, but there were less of those in the final seven games as the defense began to limp though the latter half of the season, injured and depleted.
A healthy defense could mean an even more productive season from Ware and Miller.
The move to a 3-4 probably is better for a lot of the Broncos’ talents. Settling the questions at NT is important, now that Terrance Knighton is in Washington. Sixth-round pick Darius Kilgo of Maryland or Sylvester Williams could be used, or potentially the veteran Marvin Austin. Williams is basically in make or break mode at this point in his career, so maybe the desperation is enough to see him go “all in.”
Regardless of the situation, the DL is mediocre. Derek Wolfe came back strong last season and free agent signees Antonio Smith and Vance Walker are both good fits, but overall the line is lacking the punch that the rest of the defense finds great ways to fully compensate for.
It starts with the LB corp. Ware is the OLB and he dominated in Dallas at that position. He’s 33 now, but he’ll get adequate rest this season as the Broncos look to develop Shane Ray of Missouri, who it spent a first-round pick on.
Von Miller had 14 sacks last year and appears to be fully over the torn ACL he sustained 1.5 years ago. Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are great tackling LBs in a 4-3 scheme and should have no problem transitioning this year, the only matter is keeping everyone on the field, because if this unit is healthy it is among the best in the NFL.
The secondary loses Rahim Moore to free agency but returns three Pro Bowlers, the best of which is Chris Harris Jr, who has progressed from being an undrafted rookie to one of the league’s best CBs. Aqib Talib starts opposite. The SS and FS positions are manned by T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart, respectively. Ward made a Pro Bowl appearance despite playing most of last season out of position as a nickel LB. Marshall and Trevathan have to stay healthy to allow Ward to stay where he can impact the game best.
SP coordinator Joe DeCamillis directed the Broncos special teams from 1988 to 1992. He wants to re-do a lot. The Broncos were not a good special teams club in 2014, and are hoping that Omar Bolden really is the solution as a return man after he came on strong late last season. He doesn’t have much experience as a punt returner though, making it likely that Isaiah Burse or Jordan Norwood handles punts.
At K, the Broncos will have to decide between either Connor Barth or Brandon McManus, both of whom have their faults. If McManus were more consistent, his range would make him the easy choice. He hit a 70 yard field goal in camp, which kind of makes anyone the favorite for a kicking job. Not to be out-done Connor Barth knocked in a 65-yarder himself. “It’s a tight competition,” DeCamillis said of his place kickers.
The Broncos have a motivated Manning to say the least, as his contract is now heavily tied into accomplishments. Elway is a savvy guy that figures Kubiak can bring it all together.
Manning has been a bit of a disappointment as a Bronco to most, but with new schemes and a lot of overhaul it’s difficult to be too high on Denver. The team has to learn Kubiak quickly, and that doesn’t seem like the easiest proposition necessarily. The over/under at 5dimes is ’10’ wins and Denver won 12 a year ago. Is the team worse or is Manning just older with a new coach? The expectation here is the team falls right between last year and oddsmakers’ projection for this season.
Prediction: 11 wins