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How I Spent My Offseason - Denver Broncos Edition

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We continue with our review of what the other teams in the AFC have been up to in the offseason. Sit back and grab your favorite munchies, because our next stop is in Colorado...

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Summary

The Broncos, like Oakland, have a new head coach (Gary Kubiak).  The change means a new offensive scheme, a new defensive scheme, and a new way of doing things for the entire team.  Remember Bolts fans, as we saw in 2007, this adjustment period can be painful.

No matter how much talent is on the field, it means that a lot of guys trying will be trying to get stuff sorted out starting the season.  The Bolts began 2007 with a 1-4 record, but did manage to win the division that year.  The 2015 Broncos may not have that luxury, as there are two teams that are both near and recent playoff quality in the division.

Kubiak's offense has a West Coast Offense ancestry, fused with spread concepts (especially in formations), and a zone blocking scheme running game as a cherry on top.  To call the offense a complex hybrid would be an understatement.  This plays right into Manning's wheelhouse though; if any QB in league can make a complex scheme look simple, it is Peyton Manning.

Kubiak brought Rick Dennison (his coordinator during the last three years in Houston) with him to manage Denver's running game and make sure Manning is happy reigning over the passing offense.  This is Dennison's 2nd stint as an OC in Denver; he was Mike Shanahan's OC from 2006-2008.

Unfortunately for the Bolts, Kubiak also brought his former Texan DC to do the same job in Denver.  That would be Wade Philips; probably the best 3-4 defense coach in the league.  If Phillips has even one iota of talent to work with, his defenses will be solid.  Give him a pro-bowler or two and those defenses can be scary good.  The talent is certainly there in Denver for Wade to build a monster defense.

Bottom line on coaches:  With Peyton Manning still on the field, an offensive minded coach and quality coordinator is kind of like winning the lottery and then finding some pocket change.  I do believe that Kubiak is limited as a head coach, but not as limited as others {cough rexryan cough}.  From the point of view of Bolts fans, Wade Phillips as the DC in Denver is nightmarish.

Free Agency

Together with the coaching changes, this has been an offseason of nearly wholesale personnel changes affecting several Denver units.  Consider:

Position Lost Added Verdict
TE Julius Thomas James Casey (-)
Jacob Tamme Owen Daniels
C Will Montgomery Gino Gradkowski (NEUTRAL)
G/OT Orlando Franklin* Shelley Smith (-)
DL Terrance Knighton Antonio Smith
Mitch Unrein Vance Walker (NEUTRAL)
S Rahim Moore Darian Stewart (NEUTRAL)
ILB Nate Irving Reggie Walker (NEUTRAL)

* Ryan Clady, the team's starting LT, was lost for 2015 with a torn ACL in the first OTA.

To my amateurish eyes, the free agent changes look like some pretty serious losses with downgrades or break even changes.   The offensive line was a trouble spot during 2014 and with the loss of Franklin to the Bolts (Yay!) and Clady to injury, that unit may be a problem area again in 2015.

The Draft

The Broncos had a somewhat strange draft; even looking past using a 1st round pick on a young man that seems to enjoy his 4:20 time to play in a state with legal weed:

Round Player Position
1 Shane Ray DE/OLB
2 Ty Sambrailo OL
3 Jeff Heuerman TE
4 Max Garcia OL
5 Lorenzo Doss CB
6 Darius Kilgo DL
7 Trevor Siemian QB
Taurean Nixon CB
Josh Furman S


Past and possible future dirty pee tests aside, the Ray pick was heavily questioned due to scheme fit.  A lot of scouts believed he was better suited to be a 4-3 DE in the NFL.  In Denver, he will be asked to become a 3-4 OLB, which will be new for him.  Sambrailo was believed to be a project and a reach in Round 2 (he may need to start soon), Heuerman is a huge question mark due to injury history (in fact, he is on the IR), and there are no clear immediate starters in this group.

Projected Starters

Position Player
QB P. Manning
RB CJ Anderson
WR D. Thomas
Sanders
Caldwell
OL Harris
(L to R) Smith
Gradkowski
Vasquez
Clark
TE Virgil Green
DL Wolfe
(L to R) Williams
Jackson
LB's Ware
(L to R) Marshall
Trevathan
Miller
Safeties TJ Ward
Stewart
CB's Talib
Roby

If Wade has one concern for his defense, it would have to be in the line.  Ray will be Ware's understudy and there are questions about Trevathan's ability to stay on the field.  The secondary is solid.  On Offense, Virgil Green is probably a much easier task to deal with than Julius Thomas was.

The Schedule:

Week Date Opponnent Time (MT) TV
1 9/13 BALTIMORE 2:25 p.m. CBS
2 9/17 at Kansas City 6:25 p.m. NFLN/CBS
3 9/27 at Detroit 6:30 p.m. NBC
4 10/4 MINNESOTA 2:25 p.m. FOX
5 10/11 at Oakland 2:25 p.m. CBS*
6 10/18 at Cleveland 11:00 a.m. CBS*
7 BYE
8 11/1 GREEN BAY 6:30 p.m. NBC (NTL)*
9 11/8 at Indianapolis 2:25 p.m. CBS*
10 11/15 KANSAS CITY 2:25 p.m. CBS*
11 11/22 at Chicago 11:00 a.m. CBS*
12 11/29 NEW ENGLAND 6:30 p.m. NBC (NTL)*
13 12/6 at San Diego 2:05 p.m. CBS*
14 12/13 OAKLAND 2:05 p.m. CBS*
15 12/20 at Pittsburgh 2:25 p.m. CBS*
16 12/28 CINCINNATI 6:30 p.m. ESPN (NTL)
17 1/3 SAN DIEGO 2:25 p.m. CBS*

What jumps out to me (as a Bolts fan) is that last game of the season.  Yes, the Chargers have to play in Denver, in January, but the Broncos will be coming off short rest.  The Chargers will have a chance to get well after playing the rivals in Oakland on Christmas Eve.  With the coaching change, this may have been a good year to play them early, but, oh well.  And it looks like some of the execs in Bristol wanted to do some skiing around Christmas.

A more in depth look reveals a brutal schedule, with only 5 games against teams that were sub - .500 in 2014.  There is reason to believe that the Vikings and Oakland will be better this season, and I'm certain that Coach Fox would love to flip Elway a bird when the Broncos travel to Chicago in November.  That may be a game that even Jay Cutler cares about...

Conclusion

The elephant in the living room for the Broncos is simple:  What will they get from their 39 year old QB?  As good as Peyton Manning has been throughout his (presumably) Hall of Fame career, he is at an age when QB's get worse, not better.

For the Broncos faithful, what they saw last year was a mixed bag that ended in the playoffs on a particularly sour note against the Colts.  Remember how lopsided the AFC Championship game was?  The same defense that got shredded by Brady's Bunch had shut down Denver the week before and looked like the 2nd coming of the 1985 Bears doing it.

Manning's 2014 stats say he was playing at a high level, but looking at the individual games shows erratic production during the season.  While Manning probably is not "done", I believe the combination of health, age, and a new offensive system potentially reduces his production to something that looks closer to average NFL QB.

The Broncos have too much talent to suddenly turn horrible, but if the team cannot gel quickly with everything being new, September might be a bad month in Denver.  The defense has enough to keep the Broncos in games (especially with Phillips calling the shots), but this team may start looking a lot like the Chiefs if Manning's decline is pronounced.

Significant erosion in Manning's physical abilities would make Denver a .500 team or worse.  If so, the culprit will be a depleted offensive line that cannot be masked by elite QB play.  In short, all of the eyes in Denver (bloodshot or not) are going to be on Manning in 2015.  I'm calling 8-8.