2010 NFL Preview: Denver Broncos

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 8-8, 3-3
Division finish: 2nd AFC West
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 20th, 15th, 13th, 18th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 12th, 7th, 3rd, 26th

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Knowshown Moreno, 947 yards, 7 TD; Correll Buckhalter, 642 yards, 1 TD
Passing: Kyle Orton, 3,802 yards, 21 TD; 12 INT
Receiving: Brandon Marshall, 1,120 yards, 10 TD; Jabar Gaffney, 732 yards, 2 TD; Eddie Royal, 345 yards, 0 TD; Tony Scheffler, 416 yards, 2 TD
Tackles: D.J. Williams, 100 total tackles, Brian Dawkins, 95 total tackles
Sacks: Elvis Dumervil, 17.0 sacks, Vonnie Holliday, 5.0 sacks
Interceptions: Andre' Goodman, 5 INT, 0 TD; Champ Bailey, 3 INT, 0 TD

2010 Season Outlook

(* denotes division game)lt;/em>

Key Matchups

September 12 at Jacksonville: Go ahead and call it the Tebow bowl. The Broncos open on the road in Jacksonville, where their rookie quarterback's fan base is the largest. This means that the Broncos will be sure to want to showcase Tebow, so coach Josh McDaniels will be experimenting with Tebow all over the field. It's possible we will see him under center, in the shotgun, at running back, and out wide all in the same game. Tebow's one of the most versatile athletes to play football, and presents huge matchup problems for defenses. Luckily for the Broncos, they get to try him out in front of a crowd that may very well cheer whenever he steps on the field, similar to the way Houston Texans fans cheered when Vince Young's Titans beat them in overtime in his rookie year.

October 3 at Tennessee: The Broncos' offense shouldn't have too tough of a time moving the ball against the Titans' defense, especially through the air. However, the combination of Vince Young and Chris Johnson in the same backfield, plus the development of Tennessee's young receiver Kenny Britt, will mean that the Broncos' defense will have their hands full. In only their fourth game under new defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, this defense will have to be playing at its absolute best.

December 26 vs Houston: This is a late-season game, which tends to be the Texans' weakness. Also, Invesco Field at Mile High truly gives the Broncos an advantage because the high altitude normally causes the opposing players to get out-of-breath more quickly than they usually do. This is most true for heavier players, such as the linemen on either side of the ball, so this game has major potential to spoil the Texans' playoff hopes. Another aspect to factor when trying to handicap this game is the fact that the Broncos are a highly unpredictable team, especially when you factor Tim Tebow into the equation. I'm no blind Tebow fan, but I'm highly impressed with his improvements since the end of his senior season, and I think that he could be doing well with the Broncos' offense by this point in the year. Due to the above reasons, this game could be the most pivotal point in the Texans' season.

Key Losses

Peyton Hillis, RB; Brandon Marshall, WR; Tony Scheffler, TE; Vonnie Holliday, DE; Ty Law, CB; Andra Davis, ILB; Kasey Wiegmann, C

Key Returning Players

 Kyle Orton, QB; Knowshon Moreno, RB; Eddie Royal, WR; Elvis Dumervil, OLB; Champ Bailey, CB; Andre' Goodman, CB

Key Draft Picks

DeMaryius Thomas, WR; Tim Tebow, QB; Perrish Cox, CB; Zane Beadles, C

Key Free Agent Signings

Justin Bannan, DE; Jamal Williams, NT; Jarvis Green, DE; Nate Jones, SS; Akin Ayodele, ILB

Key Acquisitions via Trade

Brady Quinn, QB

Offensive Overview

The offensive line had its struggles from time to time, but they should see some mild improvement this year and won't be a terrible unit. Left tackle Branden Albert isn't very athletic, but he's a capable pass-blocker who can hold his block for long enough to let the quarterback get the ball out of his hand. Left guard Brian Waters was on the lower end of average, and Darryl Harris appears as if he will replace Waters in the starting lineup this year. Center Wade Smith was pretty good, but he is no longer with the team and free-agent addition Casey Weigmann will be unspectacular, but decent. Weigmann isn't the best, but he can hold the point of attack for long enough to keep his defender from getting to the ball. Right guard was a gaping hole on the offensive line last year, and rookie John Asamoah looks as if he will make the push to start at that position this year. Former Colt Ryan Lilja was signed to add another guard into the mix, the 290-pound Lilja isn't going to be seen blowing anyone off of the ball, and his impact will likely be minimal. Right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan was my personal favorite of the bunch. Although right tackles are usually primarily run-blockers, he also holds up well when protecting the quarterback. As a whole, this line isn't filled with athletic guys who can move the pocket, but they are very capable of opening holes for their running game. Once those holes are open, running back Jamaal Charles can really hurt defenses with his speed and vision. Charles came on very strongly at the end of last season, and will drastically improve this year as the full-time starter. The Chiefs' offense had only 8 touchdowns on the ground last year, and seven of those came from Charles. Additionally, the Chiefs signed Thomas Jones, who played for the Jets last year, to bolster their backfield and provide a hard-hitting running back to complement with Charles's speed and quickness.

Left guard Russ Hochstein tore a knee ligament during the season, and will be coming back to shore up the only position on the offensive line that was weak in pass protection. Left tackle Ryan Clady is a future star in the league, but will be sidelined for a while from a torn patellar tendon. The Broncos are aiming for him to be ready to start in the season opener. If fully healthy, Clady will keep quarterback Kyle Orton from facing any blind-side pressure. Center Casey Weigmann signed with the Chiefs this offseason, so the performance of his replacement will be very important. Third-round pick J.D. Walton, a center from Baylor looks to be his heir apparent. Right guard Chris Kuper was rock-solid and signed a six-year extension this offseason, and he's going to be the Broncos' starter for a long time. Right tackle will be a battle between Ryan Harris, whose season ended prematurely in 2009 with a toe injury, and Tyler Polumbus, who played well in his place. Regardless of who starts at right tackle, that position won't be a weakness. The Broncos' run-blocking was mediocre at best last year, as Denver's large offensive linemen often played in zone-blocking schemes that were better-suited for smaller, more athletic linemen. This year, they are going to use a pure power running scheme, which will allow more holes to be opened for running back Knowshon Moreno, who excelled in his rookie year and will explode now that he will have so many more holes opened for him. Although he tore his right hamstring on the first day of training camp, he is expected to miss only three weeks, and will likely be back to full speed by the time training camp starts back up. Behind him, the only depth is injury-prone Correll Buckhalter, who was pulled from the first training camp practice with a back injury. If Moreno gets hurt, the Broncos' running game will suffer tremendously, putting more pressure on their passing attack, which saw two major departures over the offseason.

Brandon Marshall had 101 receptions and caught 10 of Orton's 21 TDs, and the player with the next-most receptions was Jabar Gaffney, with 54. Gaffney and Eddie Royal are pretty good secondary options, but the whole offense would be a lot better if rookie receiver DeMaryius Thomas is able to step up and make immediate contributions. Although he played very similarly to Marshall when in college, replacing Marshall will be entirely way too much to ask of for a rookie receiver, so Orton is going to have to spread the ball around a lot more than he did last year. Orton has pretty good improvisational skills and gets great protection, so he could really excel this year. It's probable that his over-reliance on Marshall last year didn't have as much to do with a flaw in Orton's game as much as it had to do with Marshall being too good to not feed him the ball.

The trade of pass-catching tight end Tony Scheffler leaves a major question mark at the position. A tight end like Scheffler is too big to be covered by defensive backs, and too fast to be covered by linebackers, so defenses have to make all kinds of adjustments for him and this opens up all kinds of opportunities for the rest of the offense. Therefore, the loss of Scheffler is possibly an even bigger hole than the loss of Marshall, which is saying a lot. Practice squad player Marquez Branson has drawn raving reviews at OTAs, so there's a long shot he could be the answer here.

Ironically, the biggest name on the Broncos' offense is one that they hope never needs to be put on the top of the depth chart this year. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is making huge strides towards becoming a full-time starting quarterback, but coach Josh McDaniels would rather let Tebow learn from the bench for at least a year before taking the reins. However, Tebow is simply too dynamic and versatile to keep off the field completely, so he will likely end up on the field in Wildcat-style formations such as the Broncos' “Wild Horses” set. In goal-line situations, he can become a huge difference-maker.


Defensive Overview

The Broncos' 3-4 defense saw the loss of coordinator Mike Nolan, but the loss of Nolan will be compensated for by the acquisition of projected starters at each defensive line position. With Justin Bannan, Jamal Williams, and Jarvis Green starting this year, the defensive line will be a lot more experienced and intimidating. In reality, the line was the weakest point of the defense last year. By completely cleaning house on the defensive line, the Broncos may well have improved their entire defense, as the linebackers will now be able to get more penetration with their blitzes. Also, the Broncos' defensive line starters from 2009 are now backups, which gives them great depth here. The biggest concern is Williams' health. He has been an absolutely dominant nose tackle throughout his career, but suffered a season-ending arm injury against the Raiders in the season opener last year. He is currently on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, but if he is healthy throughout the season he will be a massive factor in the Broncos' defensive improvement.

The best unit on the team last year was the linebacking corps, who absolutely flew to the ball and made a ton of plays. Outside linebacker Darrell Reid is returning from knee injury and the Broncos have obtained Philadelphia's Joe Mays to provide depth in the event that Reid isn't ready to play in the opener. On the opposite side, former defensive end Elvis Dumervil racked up a league-leading 17 sacks in his first year at outside linebacker. However, Dumervil's chance to improve on that number has been postponed indefinitely, as he suffered a torn pectoral in training camp that will keep him out of action for most, if not all, of the season. While Dumervil's contributions to the defense will be impossible for any one player to replace, the Broncos will likely look to a rotation between Jarvis Moss and 2009 first-round pick Robert Ayers. At inside linebacker, D.J. Williams led the team in tackles last year and will now be accompanied by former Dolphin Akin Ayodele, who amassed 71 tackles for the Dolphins.

The secondary was also bolstered by the signing of a former Dolphin. Despite being a reserve and starting only four games, strong safety Nate Jones racked up 45 total tackles, as well as picking off two passes. As a full-time starter, he and free safety Brian Dawkins will roam all over the field and make it a lot harder to move the ball against the Broncos. Cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman were excellent last year, but the Broncos will be shredded in nickel packages if neither Alphonso Smith nor rookie Perrish Cox steps up and fills that role.

Special Teams Overview

The Broncos had the second-highest average kickoff distance, yet ranked 17th in average kickoff return distance allowed, meaning their opponents obtained much better field position than they should have. Similarly, they had the eighteenth-longest average punt distance, and the 9th-highest average punt return yards allowed.

In kickoff and punt returns, receiver Eddie Royal was absolutely phenomenal. His average punt return distance was 11.2 yards, his average kickoff return distance was 23.9 yards, and he returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown.

Kicker Matt Prater had the best season of his four-year career last year, making 85.7 percent of his field goals. In order to keep improving, he needs to work on consistency: he made only 6 of his 8 field goal attempts that were from 20 to 39 yards.

Head Coach: Josh McDaniels

McDaniels is known for his work with quarterbacks after the success of Tom Brady and Matt Cassell in New England, and is the perfect mentor for Tim Tebow as the former Gator transitions into the NFL. Of course, there would be no need for Tebow if McDaniels hadn't completely botched his handling of Jay Cutler. Similar to his mentor Bill Belichick, McDaniels takes a lot of risks, and is unafraid to completely clean house and get rid of his best players if he feels they aren't good for team chemistry. However, McDaniels is still young and unproven, and he hasn't even come close to approaching the success that Belichick has, so when McDaniels takes these risks, it opens him up to a lot more questioning than Belichick would face in the same situation. For this reason, McDaniels isn't very popular among Broncos fans, but owner Pat Bowlen seems to be fully behind him. This means that for better or for worse, the Broncos are going to be McDaniels's team for many years.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Champ Bailey, CB; Ryan Harris, OT; Ronald Fields, NT

Season Prediction

1st AFC West

While all the attention has been placed on the moves made on the offensive side of the ball this season, the biggest impact will be had by the under-the-radar acquisition of an entire set of defensive line starters. The defensive line's improvement will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense, and despite the Dumervil injury, the Broncos will look more like the team that started 6-0 last year than the team that stumbled to an 8-8 record after that start. Although their record will be pretty ugly at the middle of the season after a brutal 4-game stretch against the Colts, Titans, Ravens, and then Jets, the Broncos finish the season on a relatively easy schedule and should dethrone the Chargers as the kings of the AFC West. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.

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