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Complete 2011 Denver Broncos Season Preview

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The Denver Broncos are no strangers to regime changes.

Owner Pat Bowlen fired “Coach for Life” Mike Shanahan following the 2008 season, opening the door for Josh McDaniels to take over. The plan was for the young McDaniels to inherit Shanahan’s throne. McDaniels, given total control as both personnel manager and coach, would install the New England Patriots‘ culture of winning to the Rocky Mountains and maintain it for years to come.

2011 BRONCOS SEASON PREVIEW – TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Changing of the Guard
  2. Kyle Orton – One Last Chance to Take the Next Step
  3. Breaking Down the Offense
  4. The Defense and Special Teams
  5. The Prediction

It was a great plan in theory. The execution, however, was far from it. It came with casualties.

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Gone were Jay Cutler. Brandon Marshall. Tony Scheffler. Peyton Hillis. The offensive line was overhauled. A new defensive scheme was installed, full of new personnel. Players changed positions. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan left after 2009′s half-remarkable season.

In many cases, the Broncos stockpiled draft picks in return for the players they lost, but the talent the Broncos netted with those picks didn’t compensate for the talent lost. The Broncos fell to 4-12 in 2010, the losingest season in franchise history. McDaniels was fired before he could see the season through.

Setting aside the inexperience, the media subterfuge, the gameday behavior, and even Spygate II, the McDaniels Era failed at the most basic, philosophical level. McDaniels’ scheme became more important than McDaniels’ team. If you didn’t fit a role in his playbook, you were gone.

Historically, the best coaches in the NFL maximized the talent on their roster. They scripted plays to hide their personnel weaknesses and utilized the players they did have to their highest potential. They didn’t clean house for the sake of a better-looking power blocking offensive line. They didn’t ignore the talents of a pass-catching tight end or a dynamic running back because they believed in their spread offense. They maximized the pieces they had in place.

Enter John Elway, John Fox, and Brian Xanders.

The Executive Vice President of Football Operations, Head Coach, and General Manager (respectively) of the Denver Broncos have installed a new football plan in the Rocky Mountains. It’s not flashy. It’s not full of sweeping changes. It’s pragmatic.

The simple fact that Kyle Orton remains the embattled starter at quarterback illustrates the patience the new regime is willing to exercise. It punctuates the difference between the gameplan of this front office and the last.

Brandon Lloyd pulls in a touchdown pass as the Broncos defeated the Chiefs 49-29. (AP Photo Joe Mahoney)

For the most part, the Broncos are keeping their offensive personnel from a year ago. The quarterbacks and wide receivers return, for the most part. The offensive line has been tweaked but returns four starters from 2010. The emphasis has moved from the pass to the run, but the Broncos didn’t have to gouge their roster to make it so.

The defense, on the other hand, has undergone a makeover. Fox deemed a return to the 4-3 in order, and cleaned up the defensive line to make it so. Elvis Dumervil returns from injury, joined by pass rushing rookie Von Miller.

And this is where the Broncos will find their new identity.

The difference between McDaniels’ idea of cleaning house and Fox’s idea of cleaning house is that the former removed young, talented, established players from the Broncos’ roster because they didn’t fit his system. Fox removed the aging retreads of a failed defense in lieu of a younger, more aggressive group while keeping the talent he had in place. Just imagine if Fox had traded Elvis Dumervil, or failed to come to terms with Champ Bailey in contract negotiations to get an idea of McDaniels’ failures. Fox wisely kept the talent in place and fit them into his scheme rather than trading them for youth, potential, and “better fits.”

All this being said, a 4-12 season requires a rebuild. How quickly can the Broncos truly turn this ship around? While teams go from the NFL basement to the playoffs every year (see: Kansas City Chiefs, 2010), it’s far from the norm. How competitive can these rebuilding Broncos really expect to be?

The answer rests on the shoulders of Kyle Orton.

“Kyle Orton is a game manager. He has been his whole career, whether it was in Chicago or Denver. He won’t lose the game for you, but he won’t win it either.”

You’ve heard such descriptions countless times before. In large part, they ring true. Given the proper tools (a defense and a running game), Kyle Orton excels at being an NFL quarterback. Without them, he struggles. He isn’t the type of player to elevate those around him; he needs the supporting cast to thrive.

But he’s capable of more. He’s shown hints of more. In his first season as Broncos starter, 2009, Orton showed flashes of brilliance in the first half of the season. He single-handedly dissected the New Englands Patriots defense to drive the offense down the field twice in the closing minutes of the game — once to tie it, and again in overtime to win it. Josh McDaniels’ famous sideline fist pumps never happen if Orton doesn’t deliver a flurry of game-ending clutch throws.

Orton was in the MVP conversation that year before the 6-0 Broncos’ defense collapsed, Orton struggled, and the team finished 2-8 down the stretch. Then, again, Orton put together impressive stats early in 2010. They didn’t often result in a notch in the win column, but he tallied stats nonetheless. He can put together an impressive single-game performance.

What’s left for him to put together is an impressive season.

Every year in Orton’s career, either due to injury, benching, or something unexplainable, Orton’s performances fall apart as his team heads into November and December. Orton has proven to be a reliable option through October; all bets are off come November.

That’s the key for Orton in 2011. Put together a full 16-game slate of solid performances, mixed with stellar ones. Take the next step from “Top 16 Quarterback” in the NFL to “Top 8.”

I believe he’s capable. I’ve seen enough to believe he can stand in the pocket and deliver accurate throws to this group of receivers.

Entering the last year of his contract in Denver, and with Tim Tebow waiting in the wings, this is Kyle Orton’s last chance to reward that belief. It’s time to take the next step for the Broncos. Very likely, it’s also the last chance for his career.

The Broncos haven’t committed to any quarterback in 2012. Orton has said he likes it here and would like to stay.

A 10-game extension of his first-six-game performance in 2009 would do the trick.

Now let’s look at Orton’s supporting cast, the Denver Broncos offense.

Quarterback

Starter: Kyle Orton
Backups: Brady Quinn, Tim Tebow

Analysis: Kyle Orton is the experienced veteran and rightfully won the starting job in training camp. But the other story (and, if you ask the media, predominant story) of training camp has been Tim Tebow’s rise and fall up and down the Broncos’ depth chart. Once slated to start, he was rumored to be the 4th best quarterback before finally settling somewhere along what we’ll call Depth Chart Position 2.5. I truly expect Tebow is the 2nd string quarterback if for no other reason than the fact that an Orton injury gives the Broncos an opportunity to evaluate Tebow.

Running Back

Starter: Knowshon Moreno
Backups: Willis McGahee, Lance Ball

Analysis: The real question heading into 2011 is if Knowshon Moreno can stay healthy. While Willis McGahee is a solid #1b, and sure-fire goal line ball carrier, the Broncos need Moreno to live up to his first round draft status. A healthier, somewhat rebuilt offensive line, along with a stronger commitment to the run under head coach John Fox, will help improve the Broncos’ running totals from a year ago, but the Broncos are far removed from their running ways. Can Moreno improve his vision and upfield attack and limit his steps behind the line of scrimmage? More importantly, can Moreno carry the Broncos when his team when his teammates can’t carry him? As a John Fox back, at times, he’s expected to.

Fullback

Starter: Spencer Larsen
Backups: None

Analysis: Spencer Larsen was over-utilized under Mike Shanahan. He was under-utilized under Josh McDaniels. At times starting at both linebacker and fullback in 2008 under Shanahan, Larsen proved to be a versatile weapon for the Broncos but ultimately settled into his offensive role. But McDaniels didn’t value the fullback, and Larsen’s impact was severely lessened. John Fox is hoping he’s found a happy medium for Larsen – one where he can both focus on and flourish in the role of fullback.

Tackle

Starters: Ryan Clady (left), Orlando Franklin (right)
Backups: Chris Clark, Herb Taylor, Tony Hills

Analysis: The Broncos need this to be a significant area of improvement from 2010. The talented but oft-injured Ryan Harris was allowed to leave as the team brought in Orlando Franklin via the draft (the move would prove proactive so far as Harris was released with an injury settlement by the Philadelphia Eagles). Franklin is a road-grading run-blocking machine, but questions remain regarding his ability to block the league’s better pass rushers. Meanwhile, a 100% healthy Ryan Clady needs to return to 2008-2009 form at left tackle. 2010 was a dreadful year for the former All Pro. The backup situation isn’t pretty; let’s hope Clady and Franklin stay healthy.

Guard

Starters: Zane Beadles (left), Chris Kuper (right)
Backups: Russ Hochstein

Analysis: At one time early in his career, Chris Kuper looked like he would be a perennial stud. And maybe, with a little consistency in 2011, he can return to that potential. But the interior of the Broncos’ offensive line was far from a strength in 2010. He and Zane Beadles are playing for their 2012 jobs. The fact that Russ Hochstein remains on the roster tells me the Broncos didn’t do a good enough job addressing OL depth in the offseason.

Center

Starters: J.D. Walton
Backups: Manny Ramirez

Analysis: This is a position of particular weakness for the Broncos. J.D. Walton, along with the entire offensive line, struggled in 2010. Injuries and indecision by Coach McDaniels led to inconsistencies in the starting lineup from week-to-week — never a good formula when dealing with rookies like Walton and Beadles. As a result the Broncos went from the 6th-ranked offensive line in 2009 to the 30th in 2010 according to Football Outsiders. … Walton will likely fend off Manny Ramirez this season, but it’s worth noting that Ramirez put together his best preseason game in Week Four.

Tight End

Starter: Daniel Fells
Backups: Julius Thomas, Virgil Green

Analysis: Talk about overhaul. None of the players filling in the tight end portion of the Denver Broncos depth chart were with the team last year (meaning everyone in 2010 is gone). An added importance has been placed on the position under John Fox, so expect “backup” Julius Thomas to get a handful of starts if and when the Broncos open in two tight end sets this season. Daniel Fells is the prized free agent, the most polished of the three, and the only tight end with any NFL experience at all. Thomas is a project in the mold of Antonio Gates, and while it’s silly to suggest he could have that type of impact long-term, he’s ahead of schedule as a potential starter in Week One. Green is a project, a blocking tight end and special teamer.

Wide Receiver

Starters: Brandon Lloyd, Eddie Royal
Backups: Eric Decker, Matthew Willis, Demaryius Thomas

Analysis: Brandon Lloyd enters his contract year aiming to prove that his 2010 breakout season was no fluke. Publicly happy that Kyle Orton will be continuing to be the man throwing him footballs, Lloyd’s production will undoubtedly drop from a year ago due to the scheme change, but expect him to still be the Broncos’ clear #1 receiver, and another candidate for the Pro Bowl. … Eddie Royal and company will fill the void felt by Thomas’ absence until he is fully ready.

Now on to the defense…

Defensive Tackle

Starters: Kevin Vickerson, Brodrick Bunkley
Backups: Ty Warren, Marcus Thomas, Ryan McBean, Mitch Unrein

Analysis: The Broncos’ position of greatest weakness has also been hit hardest by injuries. While it’s possible Marcus Thomas and Brodrick Bunkley could return to practice this week, star free agent pickup Ty Warren isn’t a lock to return in 2011 at all. The Broncos have kept him on the roster in hopes he will, though, with a 10-12 week timeline given from the time of his triceps injury just over a week ago. … The Broncos may enter their season opener against the Oakland Raiders with Vickerson, McBean, and Unrein as the sole interior defensive linemen. Let’s hope they can get some healthy aid before then; that isn’t a pretty picture.

Defensive End

Starters: Robert Ayers, Elvis Dumervil
Backups: Jason Hunter, Derrick Harvey

Analysis: Both Ayers and Dumervil move from their roles as 3-4 outside linebackers to defensive ends in the 4-3. Dumervil is familiar and has found success with the position, while this is a new development in Ayers’ professional career. It may be well-suited, though; Ayers was scouted by many teams as a 4-3 end, and following the 2009 draft Josh McDaniels evenly publicly said Ayers was drafted to be a defensive lineman (a proclamation, of course, that turned out not to be true). Expect a healthy mix of rookie Von Miller in pass rushing situations here as well.

Linebacker

Starters: Von Miller (Sam), D.J. Williams (Will), Joe Mays (Mike)
Backups: Mike Mohamed (Sam), Wesley Woodyard (Will), Mario Haggan, Nate Irving (Mike)

Analysis: What the Broncos’ linebackers lack in experience they make up for in talent and potential. Truly, I expect it to be one of the deeper and more productive units on the Broncos squad. Joe Mays has been tabbed by many around the league to have a breakout year, and Von Miller is the odds-on favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. If D.J. Williams can get healthy soon and excel his game from “great” to “elite” status, this Broncos linebacker corps will be formidable indeed.

Cornerback

Starters: Champ Bailey, Andre Goodman
Backups: Cassius Vaughn, Jonathan Wilhite, Chris Harris

Analysis: For all the credit Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman receive, they are still wholly underrated by the mainstream media in my mind. The utter lack of pass rush crippled this secondary in 2010, but the pass-rushing combination of Miller and Dumervil promises to give Bailey and Goodman many more big play opportunities. … Bailey has been lining up as nickel cornerback against three wide receiver sets in the preseason, a curious move that has proved effective so far. The recent addition of Jonathan Wilhite, a young but experienced nickelback from New England, may see the Broncos adjust this plan of attack.

Safety

Starters: Brian Dawkins, Rahim Moore
Backups: Quinton Carter, David Bruton

Analysis: What a hit. Rahim Moore‘s decimation of Bills WR Donald Jones in the preseason is still ringing in my ears (one can only imagine how Jones is feeling). Moore is a rookie and so will make rookie mistakes, but he’s shown promise in the preseason beyond the hit that’s defined his career thus far. … It was a tough 2010 for Brian Dawkins, and clearly the beginning of the end. One hopes he can return to form, but the Broncos may be relying on their pass rush to mask the weaknesses of their too-old/too-young safety tandem.

Special Teams

Specialists

Kicker: Matt Prater
Punter: Britton Colquitt
Longsnapper: Lonie Paxton

Analysis: Matt Prater is one of the league’s best, and has boldly made his personal goal of a Pro Bowl in 2011 public. … Britton Colquitt had a phenomenal preseason. … A solid, underrated group in Denver, high altitude be damned.

Returners

Punt Returner: Eddie Royal, Eric Decker
Kick Returner: Cassius Vaughn, Lance Ball

Analysis: Everyone knows Royal is always a threat to take it the distance.

On to the 2011 Season Prediction…

The Broncos still have problems, the greatest being their run defense. The interior of that defensive line is still full of retreads; middle linebacker Joe Mays truly has his work cut out for him. All five positions on the offensive line come with questions as well. (Will Ryan Clady return to form? Can the interior guys improve from a year ago? Is rookie Orlando Franklin ready to start 16 games at the NFL level?).

But there’s a lot of talent on this team, too. A lot more than national “experts” may notice.

The problem is, this talent only goes one level deep. It’s a side effect of rebuilding. The talent gap between the Broncos’ starters and backups is wide and dramatic. The Broncos have done a good job acquiring youthful, skilled players (three promising rookies starting from Week One, and a fourth, Julius Thomas, who figures to see the field early and often), but their depth is lacking. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” as the saying goes, and neither was a football dynasty.

And make no mistake, John Elway has his sights on nothing less. That’ll take time. As ugly as the word is, the Broncos are in a “rebuild.”

So, more than any season in recent memory — more even than the injury-plagued disaster of 2010 — the 2011 Denver Broncos are at the mercy of the injury bug. This offseason and preseason, the bug has been relatively kind, but the Broncos need the following players to both stay healthy and excel in order to make the playoffs:

  • Kyle Orton
  • Ryan Clady
  • Elvis Dumervil
  • Von Miller
  • Champ Bailey

If all of these players finish the season with 14+ healthy starts… If Ryan Clady and Elvis Dumervil return to pre-2010 form… If Kyle Orton takes the next step… If Champ Bailey maintains his form and if Von Miller fulfills his promise… we’re talking about an 11-win Broncos football team.

11 wins. Imagine that.

But, you might have noticed, that’s a lot of “If’s.” No single one of those “If’s” is outside the realm of possibility, but banking on all of them coming true is foolhardy.

Sports Authority Field at Mile High

The Rundown: Let’s look at the Denver Broncos 2011 schedule and predict the wins and losses, one game at a time. They’ll start hot with an easier schedule but cool off before the bye. They go 3-0 against the Raiders, Bengals and Titans before falling to the Super Bowl champion Packers and the Chargers at home. 3-2 at the bye.

They win against Miami and Detroit before losing four straight – at Oakland, at Kansas City, vs. the Jets, and at San Diego. They’re 5-6 heading into Minnesota and pull out a squeaker. The Broncos are .500, 6-6, when Jay Cutler and the Bears come into town, and while I feel like I’m betraying some sort of Broncos trust by saying this, I think they lose to the defending NFC North champs. They upset the Patriots at home then blow a December road game in Buffalo before finishing with a home win against the Chiefs.

The Prediction: The 2011 Denver Broncos will finish 8-8, tied for 2nd in the AFC West with the Kansas City Chiefs.