While it is irritating to think about, credit must be given where it is due. To the misfortune of the every AFC West team outside of Colorado, not all former NFL players turn into Matt Millen if they get a chance to be a GM. John Elway has to be recognized as one of the league’s better GM’s, building up a Denver team into a powerhouse through a lot of confusion and tumultuous situations over the last 5 years. His savvy in the draft is only matched by his ability as a recruiter of free agents.
After getting the NFL equivalent of a swirlie in last year’s Super Bowl, Elway went out and reinforced the defense, added speed to the offense, and once again added some nice pieces to his team in the draft. At this point, Elway’s mojo seems to be working better than the team that dished out some of the finest donkey-slapping ever seen last February. Some of these guys are not well known yet, but they have all become important the Broncos.
UBIC – Offense
Emmanuel Sanders, WR (#10) – In the NFL, success is often rewarded with punishment. Coordinators get hired away to become head coaches, up and coming stars demand to get paid (becoming too expensive to keep in a salary cap league), and veteran leadership retires or becomes a liability on the field. Last season, the Broncos had four pass catchers with at least 10 TD receptions. One of those was Eric Decker, with 11. Decker became a free agent at the end of 2013 and wanted to get paid, but the Broncos chose to use most of their available free agent money on the defensive side of the ball. Decker departed for the greener (in more ways than one) pastures on the other side of the hill in New Jersey. Farewell, Peyton – Hello Geno…
To replace him, the Broncos signed a cast off from Pittsburgh, Emmanuel Sanders. Pittsburgh had gotten weary of his habit of dropping balls and not being able to win contested balls, so they let him walk when he became a free agent at end of 2013. Sanders is shorter than Decker but much faster. At 5’11" and 195, he is not a jump ball threat in the red zone, but can stretch the field. This still leaves Peyton Manning two tall targets (both of the Thomas’es) and a shifty possession type receiver (Welker).
Sanders and Manning have seemed to quickly develop a rapport. He is second on the team this season in targets (51), receptions (38), and yards (514) behind only Demaryius Thomas in all three categories. He has scored once this season as Manning has favored Julius Thomas in the Red Zone, connecting with his TE for 9 scores in 2014. Sanders does most of his damage in between the 20s, but he is capable of winning a lot of his one on one matchups. The drop problem that he had sometimes in Pittsburgh has not been seen this season...yet. Providing Manning an alternative to the perennially doubled covered Thomas is really all that Denver wants him to do. So far this season, he has done quite well at it. Expect to hear his name called out often on Thursday Night.
Ronnie Hillman, RB (#23) – Hillman draws the honorable mention because he is far from unknown to San Diego football fans that are partial to the Aztecs. Hillman was arguably the most talented SDSU RB since Marshall Faulk. Leaving school as soon as he was eligible, the explosive Hillman was picked in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft. After flashing some ability in his rookie season, he spent most of 2013 in Coach Fox’s doghouse after developing a case of fumble-itis early in the year. He started this year as Montee Ball’s back-up, with some additional competition from CJ Anderson and rookie Juwan Thompson. An injury to Ball has given Hillman a shot at showing Denver (and other NFL GM’s) what he can do. He has not disappointed.
Over the last 3 games, his YPC average is solidly over 4, he has become a reliable option in the passing game, and showed the big play ability that Aztec fans will remember in a 37 yard run against the 49ers in the most recent game. Expect to see a lot of an old friend on Thursday; he has filled out to 200 pounds on his 5’9" frame. He still looks just as fast and shifty in Navy & Orange as he did wearing Red & Black.
UBIC - Defense
Nate Irving, ILB (#56) – ILB Danny Trevathan went from UBIC to a rising star in the league during 2013. Trevathan made 6 tackles in his one start this year (the opener against the Colts) and went onto the IR (designated for return) with a bad knee after that game. Enter Nate Irving, the Broncos 3rd round selection in 2011. Hopefully, he and Philip Rivers will not get a chance to compare notes on NC State during the game as they share that college football background.
In his 5 starts this season, he is now 3rd on the tem in solo tackles with 18. He has added another 17 assists, plus one sack for a safety. The 6’1" 240 pound Irving is slightly undersized and a little slow for a modern NFL ILB. He is not a sideline to sideline guy, but does do a good job of filling holes, if his D-Line can keep him clean. He is not an asset in pass defense, as he has not recorded a pass defended this season.
So far in his career, Irving has developed into a back-up and that looks like his ceiling, which is probably a little disappointing, given his 3rd round selection in 2011. On Thursday night, the Broncos will be depending on him to wrap up any Bolts runners on plays between the tackles. While the Broncos would certainly prefer having a playmaker like Trevathan on the field, the job is Irving’s for now and they are expecting him to perform well.
Bradley Roby, DB (#29) – If Roby’s name also sounds familiar, you were hanging around during the run-up to the draft and maybe you offered an opinion on Roby as part of the "who should the Chargers take in the 1st round?" question. Roby was mentioned as a possibility for the Bolts a few times. He did end up going to the Broncos in the first round of the 2014 draft. The 5’11" 195 pound Roby has started all 6 games for the Broncos, playing the slot corner position.
Roby is getting increasingly popular in Denver. He is second on the team in tackles (29) 3rd in passes defended (6), and has chipped in with one sack, plus one fumble recovery. Roby is more physical than his size would suggest. Expect to see him opposite Eddie Royal most of the time; Roby’s speed, physical play, and natural ability suggest that it could be an interesting challenge for Royal.