How Bad of a Hangover?
Teams often regress after winning a championship. Old veterans retire because they got their ring. Coordinators get head coaching gigs. A lot of guys think that it is time they should get paid and in the salary cap era, that can mean only another team can do that. The draft provides little help, since the champion goes last in every round. And then there is the intangible "we did it" feeling among members of the team that CAN remove the edge and intensity from offseason conditioning, pre-season preparation, and overall focus.
The Broncos have kept their coordinators. They did lose two players to retirement (Manning and Tyler Polumbus). And, there were a lot of guys that thought they should get paid and did. On other teams. Free Agency was not kind to the Broncos. They lost Malik Jackson (Jacksonville), Danny Trevathan (Chicago) and Brock Osweiler (QB). They also lost valuable depth in David Bruton (S), Evan Mathis (G), Ryan Harris (Swing T), and Andre Caldwell (WR). And Guard Louis Vasquez was released (rumors from Tennessee cite a bum knee and not being able to pass a physical for the Titans declining to pick him up).
They were able to add Russell Okung, Mark Sanchez, Jared Crick (DL) and Donald Stephenson. The turnover that happens to many championship teams was on full display in the Rockies starting last March. You can put Free Agency down as a net loss.
An Interesting Draft
The Broncos took Paxton Lynch with their first pick, trading up to #26 to get him. While he is not expected to start (he would be only the second rookie QB for a SB champion to do so), Elway must have seen something there that led him to believe Lynch could be the guy in another year or two.
The Broncos than over-reached for Adam Gotsis in the 2nd round (he was viewed as 3rd round back-up caliber talent or lower round development project by most pundits) and made up for it in the 4th by getting Devontae Booker, a Utah RB that has an NFL skill-set and was rated as a 2nd rounder by a few experts. Sandwiched in between those was 3rd round pick Justin Simmons, a Safety that had a knack for getting turnovers at Boston College and put up some impressive combine performances.
The remaining draft picks were the usual project linemen, a fullback, punter, and a potential special team player/back-up safety. There is some mention of the 5th round pick Conner McGovern being in the mix for a starting guard spot, but coaches and writers both say all kinds of bizarre crap in the preseason. Gotsis will probably contribute to a D-line rotation, and I would not be surprised to see Booker be the primary back by the end of the season. I would also not be surprised to see him spending a lot of time watching Anderson and Hillman carry the ball. If Lynch sees any significant time in 2016, things have run off the rails for this team
In early 2015, it looked like this team was team was trying to prove Elway the fool for showing John Fox the door after 2014. Elway had the last laugh as the team benched Manning (with the fig leaf of an injury) and got just enough offense from the running game and Osweiler to win games. It did not take much offense for them to win last year.
In what was a nightmare for Bolt fans, Wade Phillips joined Kubiak in Denver. A defense already loaded with some of the best talent in the league, under the
cruel tutelage of Pai Mei superb coaching of Philips became a dominating monster squad in 2015. Five Finger Death Punch-ing their way to the championship, the Broncos expect to repeat that formula again this year.
The pieces seem to be there, but include some question marks. Will the offensive line be able to effectively run block and give Sanchez enough time? How badly will Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan be missed? How much does DeMarcus Ware have left in the tank and if he has little left (he is on the PUP list at the start of camp), can Shane Ray contribute anything? Finally, how hard will the champions play with that bullseye on their chests and a pretty tough schedule?
The Broncos defense remains fierce, but here are some small cracks in the castle wall. Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby forming one of if not the best CB groups in the NFL. The starting safeties are good, but there is not much depth behind TJ Ward and Darian Stewart. Trevathan was not adequately replaced (which would have been a tall order and aren't we glad he is in the NFC North now!) and neither was Jackson.
Offensively, Okung made a nice addition on the frontline, but the rest of the unit looks average to questionable. The starting receivers of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are superb, but there is not much else there. The TE unit may be one of the better blocking groups in the league, but there are no threatening receivers in the group. The Broncos RB by committee looks good, but not elite. And then there is Mark Sanchez, who has shown a knack for producing a turnover at precisely the worst time for the last few years of his career.
There are some experts that cited the Broncos as having the worst offseason in the NFL. I don't fully agree with that, mostly because of where they finished in 2015. When you are at the top, you really have only one direction to go. By keeping their key coaches, treading water on offense, and not completely bleeding out on defense, this team retains the ability to make the playoffs again. As usual in the NFL, it will not be easy. A 12-4 season would be surprising; a 7-9 season would not be shocking at all.
Outlook Against The Chargers
On offense, the Bolts will have their work cut out for them just as much as they did in the season opener at Kansas City. Denver has been able to get to PR in every game of the McCoy era, with the exception being the Thursday nighter in late 2013. Protecting PR against the Denver pass rush and getting something of a running game going will be the key to winning this game. We will probably know by the time this game rolls around if the Bolts can do that in 2016.
On defense, stopping the running game and forcing Sanchez to beat you in the air will be needed. If Sanchez has to throw the ball more than 30 times, the Chargers should win with a turnover or two to help that. In yet another week, the match-up of Verrett and the opponent's best receiver (Thomas in this case) will be a fascinating sub-plot. The lack of a TE receiving threat can create some blitz and double team opportunities that would not normally be there. Hopefully Pagano can try to create some chaos with those opportunities.
Prediction: This could be a winnable game, but I don't think it will happen. Both teams will be on short rest, but the Bolts will be coming off a road game against their emotional division rival, in what is usually a brutal beatdown of a game. The Broncos are coming off a home game against the Falcons. I think the Broncos have the advantage for this game, just in terms of overall physical condition and will be able to pull out a win.
17 days later, on the afternoon of October 30, I think the cleat is on the other foot. The Broncos will be playing on short rest, having played the Texans in Houston on Monday night. The Bolts will have the Falcons in Atlanta the previous Sunday. If there is one road AFC West game the Bolts win, I would figure that one. Few teams in the AFC play as physically tough as Denver or Kansas City, but Houston is one of them.