Broncos Europe columnist Stuart Roche gives us his first preview for the upcoming 2017 season
Denver’s 2016 season came to an unofficial end when Randy Gregory ‘Man Of The Year Award-Winner’ Tyreek Hill ran a screen pass 80 yards untouched for the Kansas City Chiefs.
For all of the previous games leading up to that point, we’d seen a defence that had aggressively overcome its shortcomings—Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan leaving being the main ones—and had fought tooth and nail to keep the team in games they really had no business being in.
Never was this summed up better than the moment after TJ Ward body-slammed Julian Edelman and flexed his muscles at the New England Patriots bench in another hard fought loss; yes we know we’ve somehow brought a water pistol to a gun fight, but we’ll fix it, and we’ll see you again.
Against the Chiefs however, we saw a defence that had gone to the well too many times and now realised there was nothing left. In order for this season to reveal itself as merely the blip we hope instead of an indication of a full changing of the guard in the AFC, several things need to happen, three of which look like John Elway has gone someways to fixing:
- Stopping the run.
Denver’s secondary is ferociously good. Chris Harris and Aqib Talib are an all-time great tandem, Bradley Roby would start for 30 teams in the NFL, although with the amount of Nickel played now you could argue he more or less does start already. Darian Stewart keeps getting better and while Ward may be tailing off slightly, he does still act as a tone-setter through his brutal hitting and general demeanour. He’s a nasty man which is exactly what you want in a safety.
Teams are understandably wary of taking on the No Fly Zone as only bad things can come from it, so they run the ball.
In previous seasons, particularly the Super Bowl winning one, this proved futile. If by some miracle the running back got past the D-Line, they were stopped dead by the linebackers. But the aforementioned departures of Jackson and Trevathan, coupled with the unfortunate injury to Vance Walker in training camp meant that suddenly it looked like the Broncos were playing Barry Sanders or Eric Dickerson every week.
Jared Crick, a role player brought in from the Houston Texans presumably to rush the passer in obvious situations, now found himself playing far more than anyone had anticipated. Or hoped, being brutally honest. Adam Gotsis, the Melbourne-born defensive end Bill Kollar slammed tables for on draft day, struggled mightily and it was a genuine relief to hear Kollar hadn’t slammed the young Aussie’s head through a table. And unlike previous seasons, once the running backs got past Crick (teams don’t run at Wolfe, it’s pointless) they weren’t stopped dead by the linebackers, they were waved on their way.
Brandon Marshall had a down year, but seems aware of it and looks re-focused in OTAs, while Todd Davis was game but limited. Davis was credited as having not missed a single tackle all year but that was largely due to him not being in position to make the tackle anyway. Most sites have measured the Broncos run defense last year around 28th in the NFL, the response to which from most Denver fans was probably “wait, there were four worse teams than us?”
So what has the Duke done to fix this? Got some beef. Zach Kerr was brought in from the Indianapolis Colts and looks to be the kind of under-the-radar free agent John Elway has targeted to great effect like Stewart. Veteran nose tackle Domato Peko is long in the tooth—and hair, rather wonderfully—but is a unit that will take some shifting.
Between them there is almost 700 pounds of space eaters that will go some ways to improving what was a wretched performance last year. The glowing reports about Gotsis from OTAs are a real bonus. He’s added size through muscle and has now has been given the ultimate accolade for a Broncos lineman: his nickname is “Baby Wolfe”.
Look for these moves and the sleeper in undrafted rookie Tyrique Jarrett, already nicknamed “Pot Roast Jr”, to move the Broncos run defense from miserable to some sort of respectability.
Tyrique Jarrett (Pittsburgh DT) vs Georgia Tech 2015
- The Offensive line.
Achieved only two things last season: made everyone aware that wasn’t already how good center Matt Paradis is and lost a bet to the run defense to see who could be the worst unit on the team. Maybe ever.
One of the slightly unusual things for non-Americans is the sport’s fixation with stats. Those of us who grew up watching football or rugby were used to spouting off opinions without any real factual basis and sticking to them.
In American football it seems like there is a stat to suit every statement. Ironically however, it was something of a relief to read what our eyes were telling us every week: the O-Line was historically bad, one of the worst ever to be assembled in Denver.
Third and one became third and 12. Punter Riley Dixon was given a legitimate shot at rookie of the year. It made it impossible to gauge how good Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch actually were as they spent every play scrambling for their lives. And that includes run plays.
Elway has been almost flawless as a GM since his return but he has one weakness and it’s O-Line talent appraisal. With the exception of 2014 sixth-round pick Paradis and maybe 2011 second-round pick Orlando Franklin, all his draft picks in that position are now doormen.
His free agency pick-ups are also hit and miss. For every Louis Vasquez there is a Donald Stephenson, or center Gino Gradkowski, who was traded for draft picks by the Baltimore Ravens then waived by the Broncos before the start of the 2015 season.
So knowing that part of the team needed to be blown up and started afresh and doing so was not necessarily a straightforward process.
However the signs are positive. By far and away the glittering prize in free agency was Ronald Leary, a bruising mauler from the Dallas Cowboys, who played a part in one of the best offensive lines in football. He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard and his attitude is going to be refreshing on that side of the ball.
Menelik Watson is an intriguing player, a clearly talented tackle who has struggled with injury. Maybe he can have a similar year to Russell Okung, who also had injury issues previously but was healthy, if ordinary last year.
Garrett Bolles will be expected to win the left tackle job, if not straightaway then before week eight. His is an interesting story, he certainly talks tough and hopefully that can be backed up. He struggles with inside rushes, but that can be fixed through coaching.
Oh yeah, we have a new O-Line coach in Jeff Davidson. You’d probably be surprised to hear we had an O-Line coach last year. Davidson who, as a young offensive lineman out of Ohio State, was drafted in the fifth round by the Broncos in 1990, worked with offensive co-ordinator Mike McCoy in San Diego last year. He is good by all accounts, and has three Super Bowl rings from his time as a coach with the New England Patriots.
Garett Bolles Utah Highlights
- Spark, pep, the old ziperoo
The Broncos didn’t have any on offence other than DT and Emmanuel Sanders. Who was supposed to be the slot receiver? We listed some people at tight end that would go unrecognised in a police lineup, such was their contribution. Punt and kick returning on special teams was a futile, largely cosmetic, and occasionally suicidal affair, if it was Jordan Norwood. The Broncos were dull, lacked zip and looked leaden footed for long stretches.
Having watched the Peyton Manning years in Denver, well three out of four of them, this averageness was particularly exacerbated. Comparing a YouTube video of all of Manning’s 55 TDs from three years ago to last season was like looking at a different sport, a much more exciting one.
Tyreek Hill is what he is as a person but as a football player he’s incredible. He would be a one-man fix for about four of Denver’s problems, which is why most of us were desperately hoping Christian McCaffrey, a better player, would land in our laps in the draft. Once this pipedream was over when he was snapped up by the Carolina Panthers, Elway went out and systematically fixed problems: left tackle, defensive end, slot receiver, kick and punt returners, and a couple of fliers on two real talents hit by injury.
Carlos Henderson is your new slot receiver. What excites most about the Louisiana Tech receiver is what he does after the catch. The excellent 104.3 The Fan NFL Insider Cecil Lammey, whose podcast you really have to subscribe to, has constantly described him as turning into a running back once he gets the ball. His style of play and build back this up. He was a running back in the past and you can see that at times. Plenty of examples here:
Denver’s rookies don’t usually see much playing time and are among the lowest in the NFL, with significant climbs in year two, but expect Henderson to reverse that trend to some extent. He’s fiery too, which is something the offence badly needs.
Isaiah McKenzie, the Broncos’ other rookie wide receiver, aka “The Human joystick” also brings plenty of upside. Cool nickname. Cool player. In an ideal world, think Trindon Holliday without the fumbles. The Georgia product had people raving about him after OTAs, he’s a playmaker with real gas. He’s been so good that there is lots of chatter about getting this guy on the field in as many ways as possible, despite his small stature – 5ft 7in, 173lbs.
Here’s a look at why and why you should be excited:
Added to these two young players we have experienced running backs CJ Anderson and Jamaal Charles. The ability of both is well documented. CJ played a huge role in winning Super Bowl 50 and Charles has torched the Broncos on too many occasions.
If these guys can get healthy, there could be real improvements in the run game. We may also have to wait until November to see Michigan rookie tight end Jake Butt, maybe longer, but it should be worth it. He was arguably the second best tight end in the draft talent-wise, so represents a steal if he can get healthy.
So that’s part one of Broncos Europe’s season review. Part two will be coming along next week, when we’ll touch on everyone’s favourite topic: the quarterback battle.
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