This is the first of a two to three part series featuring extremely early projections for next season’s starting line-up. Take into account that we’ve yet to see how these players perform in camp and have no idea if or when injuries will take place. Have some fun with it…
It’s never too early to get excited for the NFL regular season. With the draft completed and mini camps only days away, now is as good a time as any to start the gears turning. Let’s start thinking about who’s going to start next season. Where will the new rookies fit in? What about the free agents we delayed talking about during the draft?
No position on this team is more secure than at quarterback. Jay Cutler certainly doesn’t have to worry about Patrick Ramsey breathing down his neck. An 88.2 QB rating and a 1.5 TD:INT ratio over two seasons should keep the twenty-four year old Cutler behind center. In fact, Ramsey has his own problems. Just ask Shaun Rogers and the Detroit Lions if the former Tulane quarterback is starter material. Ramsey better pray that Cutler is still healthy when Denver heads to the Dawg Pound to face the Browns…and Shaun Rogers.
Travis Henry’s still "the big name back" on the roster, and he could get the starting nod. However, as Broncos fans, we know that a "starting job" in Denver doesn’t mean all that much, at least in recent history. We’ll be sure to see that rotation of backs which has become a favorite of Denver’s. Travis Henry messed up. However, when he passed a lie detector test last December, he won back some good faith with the coach. He’s the pounding kind of back. Still, Henry logged just four TDs in 2007. I personally want a guy with more speed than Henry, but if the rotation works, don’t bother toying with it. Whatever works is just fine, but I’d like to see another franchise back again like the 1,500 yard rusher Portis was for two seasons.
Denver just doesn’t see Selvin Young as that workhorse back, and how could they with the durability issues the Texas running back has brought up of late. There’s nothing that’s solid or set in stone about the running back position. Denver good just as easily find another Andre Hall to bring in and plug into the system. I think they have to eventually look long term with a particular running back (maybe even in next year’s draft). If the Broncos are going to play the rotation card, they better do it right. We saw the advantages of rotations when Henry and Young went down last season, but like the Cardinals QB rotation, it’s hard to build confidence when you’re constantly getting a breather on the sidelines. I’m not a huge fan of Henry as the number one, and although he could still do big things, I think Denver needs to start formulating a plan for a different back. Of course, the DENVER BRONCOS do not need to worry too much about running back right now, but with the face of this offensive line constantly changing, it wouldn’t hurt to find a dependable guy to make the young line look good.
The receiver turned full-back that plays like a running back should do fine back in the fullback position. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…right? I say Cecil Sapp starts next season, and I’m not jumping out on a limb when I say that either. However, I like Hillis (a seventh round "steal") more and more each day, and he may get some licks due to his pass catching ability. Denver likes to interchange RBs with FBs (just look at Mike Anderson, Rueben Droughns, and now Mike Bell doing the opposite thing).
Neither D-Jack nor Marshall (18 receivers ran faster than his 4.5 back at the 2006 combine) necessarily have the speed of the "prototypical" deep threat, but Marshall has to be number one due to his size and ability to win balls. Even Seahawk fans admit that Jackson was shoved into the number one spot, when he really didn’t have the deep speed to do justice to the position. However, Jackson averaged 920.7 yards per season and caught 47 total touchdowns in seven seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. It turns out Seattle has a pretty solid quarterback: Matt Hasslebeck. Jackson moves from the QB uncertainty of San Fran a year ago back to a solid, developing quarterback. He’ll be a reliable target, and is unquestionably a two at the least next season.
Now that the starters are out of the way, it’s time to get to the competition. While newcomer Eddie Royal could eventually work his way up the depth chart, he’s got a lot of receivers ahead of him to dispose of first.
Keary Colbert was inactive for most of 2006 and he had a mediocre season in 2007, ending on the Injured Reserve list. The guy has struggled ever since his 47 catch, 754 yard, and five-touchdown rookie season. Colbert only caught 25 balls for 282 yards and two TDs the following year. Colbert will get the chance to play the slot early on, but he’ll have to show he can overcome an injury prone last two years. Will he resurrect his young career in Denver? Who knows?
Samie Parker starred in track at the University of Oregon and also caught some bombs from Joey Harrington while in college. The twenty-seven-year-old will be yet another contestant for a return job. Personally, I’d give the edge between Colbert and Parker to Samie. Both will benefit from increased QB play, but Parker hasn’t been injured as much as Colbert. I’ve seen Keary make plays off of slant routes in the past, but that’s just it: it’s been the past. A small guy at 5-11, Parker could beat out a guy who’s struggled to find the end zone the past two seasons.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the veteran here. Brandon Stokely won’t play every down in the slot, but he darn well deserves consideration to do so. We all know what he did in the slot with Indianapolis, and with Javon Walker gone, B-Stoke turned in 635 yards receiving and five TDs (I’d say that performance at second receiver is worth a slot job in 2008). The guy’s thirty-one, but he’s still as solid veteran. I think the top three spots are set as of now, but what we’ll really find out this off-season is who’s next. The young wide receivers brought in look to compete for the future. Parker, Colbert, and Royal all had lots of talent in college. It’s too early to judge Royal yet, but he could end up surprising everyone.
Six-year vet Daniel Graham is coming up on thirty years of age, Graham made a key catch on the game-winning drive against Pittsburgh last season. Graham had 24 receptions for 246 yards and 2 TDs, with 12 of those receptions going for first downs. Tony Scheffler is Daniel’s young "heir apparent" and he has really developed a good relationship with Cutler over the past few seasons. His 49 receptions for 549 yards and 5 TDs led all Denver tight ends. Let’s face it: if it’s not already here, the day is coming when Scheffler is going to be the go-to-guy at the TE position.
What’s this? Denver’s looking at character issues this off-season? Daniel Graham may have had a little run-in with the ex in early January. I’d like to see Scheff in there myself, but it might not be his time yet. I think Denver goes with the veteran in the end. Scheffler can really take advantage of any possible two tight end sets, and the Broncos can take the Madden video game approach here (putting the more explosive of players second on the depth chart). Besides, Graham has proved his worth as a blocker in the past, and Shanahan and company liked him (Shanny said of Graham last season: "Even though he only had one catch, you talk about a guy that is very impressive)."
Graham gives them the ability to run, but Scheffler’s still a weapon, and is developing at just the right pace. While Scheff is clearly the future of the Broncos, Graham is the now as a blocker. Graham’s ankle sprain kept him out at the end of last season, and Scheff looked to prove himself and fill the void. It’ll certainly be one of the battles to watch, but with the way the Broncos used Scheffler and Mustard at the end of last season, you’ve got to think both TEs here will see decent time.
I’m not so sure Clady and his long arms are a "lock" at left tackle. The Broncos clearly liked him enough to nab him up and insert him at the LT position, for now. Who’s to say that pre-season competition won’t displace the rookie from his early throne?
The move of Kuper outside to tackle threw some people for a loop. Wouldn’t it make sense to play him at guard? Chris has played tackle in the past in college, and thankfully he has a good attitude about the proposed move. "If the competition is outside, that is where I want to be, whatever gives me the best chance to start and right now with two true tackles, if that is the opportunity, I am going to work towards that." Let’s just say this now: Kuper’s going to start somewhere on this offensive line next season.
What would I do? I’d make the "obvious" choice and keep Kuper at his natural guard position, giving Denver much more depth at guard. I honestly thought Denver would go guard in the draft after hearing Shanahan’s intent to move Kuper outside. However, it’s still very early, and the coach’s word is all we have to go on. This is a classic case of "what do we believe" as Broncos fans? I think Clady has a real chance to start, and if coach doesn’t change his mind, Kuper may just have to play right tackle, even though he had played left previously and in college. I also like Eric Pears, who I would have starting at RT if Shanahan didn’t thoroughly confuse me with his line comments this off-season.
Ryan Harris performed well in practices, but still hasn’t started yet. He’s a guy that could continue to compete, but he doesn’t blow me away at this point (although I’m sure he would if we met in real life). Thus, I’m relegating him to a back-up role at tackle.
With a lack of guard depth (if Kuper does end up at tackle), the projected starters at guard here couldn’t be more obvious. Hopefully Hamilton can avoid a concussion, and I’ll live with Holland. There’s no depth at guard with these projected starters, but would Shanahan risk moving Kuper back to guard and bringing in Pears if one of the guards were to go down? It’d certainly be tough on Kuper, that’s for sure. However, aside from also taking the coach’s word that Kuper will play tackle (at least at this point), I realized that some of the new guys have experience at guard as well. Wiegmann and Lichtensteiger have played guard, so why not count them as depth at the guard position as well? The versatility on this Denver line could give the Broncos more guard depth than originally believed (even with Kuper on the outside). When you take this into account, it looks like Holland or Hamilton could get bumped, but this early in the year, I’m willing to go with those who had experience playing in Denver before.
The fate of Kuper clearly determines the fate of the offensive line. Why would Shanahan mention moving Chris outside when he and his staff already had his eyes on some tackles in the draft? This tells me he sees something, and I’ll trust the coach, because he knows a lot more about football than me. Still, that doesn’t mean Shanny can’t change his mind between now and next August/September. I’m trying to decipher what will happen and not what I think should happen. It’s hard and it certainly is a mystery.
I’ll fittingly close by giving some props to Tom Nalen. The fourteen year player and five time Pro Bowler. He’ll be back from his bicep tear he suffered last season, and muster all his available strength for one last hurrah. Nalen’s a hard-nosed fighter at guard, and it’ll be a shame to see one of the last remnants of the famous Broncos line of recent history finally dislodged. Nalen’s 36 and on his way out, but not yet my friends, not yet.
If Shanahan goes with Kuper at tackle, I think Wiegmann could serve as a back-up guard as well (if not a starter). It all depends on what happens with Kuper. Hillis could eventually work ahead of Mike Bell (where has he gone to?) on the FB depth chart as well. Just to clear things up, I have Stokely rated ahead of Parker on the depth chart, the way I did it is the way a lot of visual depth charts "rank" players...it's kind of confusing at times.
Those are my thoughts. It’s still very early, but I wanted to have some fun with projections. There are still a lot of unknowns. Unforeseen injuries could certainly put a damper on these selections. The most intriguing positions on offense are the ones that do the majority of the blocking. Feel free to agree with any of these points and certainly to disagree and offer criticism. I don’t profess to know all that much about the team, but I’ll try my best to give you my opinions.