To put it succinctly, the Denver Broncos' 2013 season was memorable. From the first-game domination of the Baltimore Ravens, to the multitude of records Peyton Manning and this offense broke, to the exciting playoff run, all capped by a stunning loss to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, it was a season that won't soon be forgotten - although most fans wish it could be. Despite all of the success in 2013, the Broncos ultimately came up short and must make changes in the offseason in order to find a way to make that final step in 2014.
Plain and simple, one thing was apparent in that tough Super Bowl loss: a stifling defense still has the ability to win championships over even the greatest offense. The Seahawks defense was impenetrable, creating four turnovers against the number one offense of all time, while the Broncos defense was unable to generate a single takeaway all post-season. More than anything else, the Broncos need to assemble a team that can create more takeaways in the 2014 season; of the four teams that played in the conference championships in January, the Broncos were the only team without a positive turnover differential in 2013 (0), and were one of only four teams that made the playoffs without a positive turnover differential. This need to create turnovers and have a more imposing defense is the source of many of the Broncos top offseason needs, but the record-breaking offense of 2013 is also going to undergo a minor face-lift that must be executed effectively in order to put together the team that can compete with the top teams in the NFC. Here are the Denver Broncos' top seven needs of the 2013 offseason:
6. The New Plan B: After Peyton Manning
While many fans are not ready to look post-Peyton-Manning quite yet, it's essential that the Broncos have a plan in place. Manning wants to keep playing for as long as his body allows, and as long as he continues to enjoy the work, and fans would love to see him remain in Denver for many more years, but the reality that Manning himself admitted is that the end is on the horizon. And while we hope that horizon is still a couple seasons off, there's no way of knowing when Manning is going to call it a career, which means the Broncos must be prepared to replace the legendary QB when that time comes.
Currently, the depth chart behind Manning at quarterback consists of Brock Osweiler and Zac Dysert, two unproven, raw, young quarterbacks. Osweiler, a 2012 second-round draft pick of the Broncos, is heading into his third year under contract in Denver, with only 84 snaps and 20 passing attempts under his belt in the NFL. Zac Dysert, meanwhile, was drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, and did not take a single snap this season. Questions have arisen over whether either of these young players would be ready to take over an NFL offense if the need presented itself. Osweiler had a chance to show his abilities off in the Broncos' 2013 regular season finale against the Raiders, and did not impress, completing 9/13 for 85 yards, while being sacked twice on just 15 dropbacks. I personally like Brock Osweiler, and would like to see him succeed in post-Manning Denver, but I'm not entirely sold on his capabilities. John Elway supposedly has confidence in Osweiler as a future franchise quarterback, but it's hard to tell whether that is the truth, or simply talk coming from the same guy who gushed confidence for Tim Tebowas a starter, then proceeded to deal him for mid-round draft picks. If the Broncos aren't entirely sold on Osweiler, as I'd assume they aren't, they'd be crazy to not at least take a look at the deep class of quarterbacks that will be in this year's draft. With Peyton Manning around for at least one more season, it may be smart for Denver to select a quarterback who could be groomed under Manning's tutelage before he retires. Whether they take a quarterback in this draft, or stick with the two young guys who currently reside behind Manning on the depth chart, the Broncos must be sure that they have a plan in place for Manning's impending retirement.
5. A receiver to replace Eric Decker
Most Broncos fans have come to terms with the fact that Eric Decker will not be back in the blue-and-orange, come 2014. The Broncos receiver has said he'd like to remain in Denver moving forward, yet he'll be one of the hottest commodities on the free agent receiver market this season, and will more-than-likely receive a contract offer that Denver will be unable to match with their limited cap space. Additionally, the Broncos must set aside some cap space for the 2015 offseason, where they'll need to re-sign their number one receiver, Demaryius Thomas, to a contract extension. So, rather than spending way too much money on Decker, the Broncos will be tasked with finding a replacement for him. The fourth-year receiver will be tough to replace, especially with a new receiver having to step in and learn Manning's complex offense. One relatively cheap replacement could come in the form of fellow Broncos free agent receiver, Andre Caldwell, who played well in a limited role in 2013 and already knows the Broncos offense. It's unlikely that Caldwell could replace the big numbers of Eric Decker, but it's unknown to this point whether Decker's numbers were of his own devices, or whether he experienced success simply because of Peyton Manning. Decker undoubtedly has talent, but his numbers have likely been inflated by Manning's talents, which means that Caldwell might very well experience the same sort of inflation in a more expanded 2014 role. In addition to re-signing Caldwell, the Broncos could attempt to find a replacement through the draft, which is being advertised as one of the deepest drafts in a long while. The 2014 draft is loaded with receivers, and the Broncos could likely find a talented player at the position in one of the middle rounds. For example, Ole Miss prospect Donte Moncrief, who is foregoing his senior year to enter the draft, is projected to be selected towards the end of the third round of the draft. Moncrief is nearly identical to Decker physically, and was a standout in three years for the Rebels; these are the sorts of talent that may be available for Denver in one of the middle rounds of the upcoming draft.
4. A balanced exterior pass rush
Whether it was the departure of Elvis Dumervil, or all of the games that Von Miller missed, or a combination of both, the Broncos pass rush was nothing comparable to the days of "Gloom and Doom" that Denver fans had become used to. In order to get back to the balanced exterior pass rush that the Broncos were dependent upon with Miller and Dumervil, two things must happen; one, Von Miller must be healthy, and two, John Elway must sign another premier edge player to open up more holes for Miller to get to the quarterback. Option one is obviously to re-sign Shaun Phillips, who provided the team with an unexpected ten sacks in 2013; however, there are more premier edge rushers that may be available on the market. Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers, and Seattle Seahawksedge defender, Michael Bennett are two big-time players who may be able to provide that needed boost to the Broncos pass rush, if they are able to free up enough cap space to afford one of them. Releasing Chris Kuper alone will open up $4 million in cap room, which may be used to reel in a big-time pass-rusher. The Broncos will have plenty of depth at the position, with Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe both showing promise in their limited 2013 roles, but signing a real impact player would make the Broncos offense much more formidable.
3. Healthy returns to action for Von Miller, Chris Harris, and Rahim Moore
It was mentioned by Mike Klis that the Seahawks victory in Super Bowl 48 was not against the Broncos "A-team", and I'd have to fully agree. In that Super Bowl game, the Broncos were missing their best pass rusher and biggest defensive star, their most talented cover cornerback, and their best safety; healthy returns to the lineup for Miller, Harris, and Moore are a must if the Broncos hope to have success in 2014. Miller, who starts at outside linebacker for the Broncos, and Moore, the free safety, are reportedly on schedule to return for 2014; Miller suffered a torn ACL on December 13th against Houston, and Moore missed the second half of the season with a rare circulatory condition that required leg surgery. Cornerback Chris Harris is reportedly ahead of schedule with his recovery from a torn ACL that he suffered in the Broncos divisional round playoff win against the Chargers; he expects to be fully healthy and ready to go for the 2014 season. If the Broncos are going to start forcing more turnovers as a defensive unit, these three players will need to have a key role in that; as a group, they have forced 12 fumbles and intercepted 12 passes over the past three seasons.
2. The 2013 Draft Class must step into expanded roles
Specifically, three players that the Broncos drafted in the 2013 NFL draft must step into bigger roles in the 2014 season; those three players are running back Montee Ball, corner Kayvon Webster, and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.
After a tumultuous start to his rookie season, in which he was criticized for ball security issues, Montee Ball rebounded and managed to rack up 704 all-purpose yards and 4 touchdowns, averaging 4.66 yards per carry. With Knowshon Moreno ready to cash in on his breakout season in free agency, Ball looks to be the feature back in the Denver offense next season. Ball has said that he's ready to step up into a bigger role, and his performance in the second half of the season, once he was fully acquainted with Peyton's offense speaks for itself in that regard. The Broncos were unstoppable in 2013 when they were able to balance their potent passing attack with an effective run game; Ball will be counted on to be that balance in 2014.
Kayvon Webster was one of only three Broncos cornerbacks to play at least 25% of the team's defensive snaps in 2013, and he'll likely be called on to do the same, but more effectively in 2014. Webster was often picked on, with opposing quarterbacks trying to stay away from DRC and Chris Harris; despite this, he ranked third on the team in coverage stats, higher up than Champ Bailey, Omar Bolden, Tony Carter, and Quentin Jammer. Webster must progress during the offseason in order to bounce back from a rough second half, in which he was less effective in coverage, suffered a wrist injury, and saw a much-reduced workload. With two rock-solid coverage cornerbacks (whether that is Harris and DRC, or Harris and another high-end corner), the Broncos need a guy who isn't going to get burned in that CB3 slot, and Webster needs to step into that role in 2014.
Sylvester Williams took a while to come to terms on a contract with the Broncos last offseason, just like he took a while to come into his own on the Broncos defensive line. "Sly" Williams played in less than 30% of the Broncos defensive snaps heading into Week 12, but after the Week 12 injury to Kevin Vickerson, Williams stepped up and played 50% of the defensive snaps for the remainder of the season. The Broncos first round pick in 2013 is still raw, and was not spectacular last season, but showed some moments of promise, including two games towards the end of the season against the Titans and Chargers, where he racked up two sacks and seven tackles, including four run stops. Williams needs to get stronger over the offseason, and improve on his pass-rushing abilities in order to have a real impact on this defense. A healthy rotation of Terrance Knighton, Kevin Vickerson, and Sylvester Williams at defensive tackle could be formidable if Williams is able to unleash the raw talent that he holds.
1. A solution at corner
"Ideally, the Broncos will free some cap-space with a Champ re-structure, opening money for a number one corner (DRC or another high-end player), re-sign Harris long-term, and draft a corner of the future."
The Broncos cornerback situation is a mess, plain-and-simple, heading into the offseason. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Broncos number one corner in 2013, who was signed to a one-year contract last offseason, is ready to test free agency with a season of very solid football under his belt. Chris Harris, the Broncos' second corner and a guy who has proven himself as one of the premier slot corners in the league, is a restricted free agent coming off of a torn ACL that sidelined him for the final two games of the year. Champ Bailey has a contract that is far too high for his diminishing level of play, and will be asked to re-structure his deal or be dropped. Tony Carter, a year removed from a breakout season, had a rough year himself, and is a player the Broncos have exclusive rights to if they wish to bring him back. Quentin Jammer, who was burned all season in limited play, is no doubt on his way out the door. This leaves the Broncos with Kayvon Webster and Omar Bolden as the only signed corners right now.
Harris is reportedly ahead of schedule in his rehab for a torn ACL, and will no-doubt be signed at all costs by the Broncos. As mentioned above, Champ must re-structure, retire, or finish his career with another team. It's tough seeing a legend like Champ forced into a situation like this, but I'm sure Bailey will be understanding of a re-structure if it puts the team in a better position to win. It's tough to tell whether this season was an outlier in Tony Carter's play, or whether last season was, but he would be a cheap re-sign for the Broncos, who are tight on cap space. Assuming Harris, Bailey, and Carter all return, it would leave the Broncos searching for a solution at their number one corner spot. DRC is an option, who mentioned that he'd like to return to Denver, but he may be out-bid on by another team. Working in the Broncos' favors is the saturation that the cornerback market may experience this summer, with reports that talented corners, Alterraun Verner (Titans) and Captain Munnerlyn (Panthers) may be hitting the open market. Players of this caliber being available will lower DRC's stock within the market, making him a cheaper re-sign. If Rodgers-Cromartie does decide on a location other than Denver, these players are potential candidates for the Broncos CB1 job as well.
Outside of free agency, this year's draft has a number of cornerbacks that figure to be available when Denver's 31st overall pick comes around. TCU prospect Jason Verrett, Florida junior Marcus Roberson, and Buckeye's corner Bradley Roby are all potential picks for the Broncos nearing the end of the first round, who are expected to be able to make an impact in the NFL in the near-to-immediate future. Ideally, the Broncos will free some cap-space with a Champ re-structure, opening money for a number one corner (DRC or another high-end player), re-sign Harris long-term, and draft a corner of the future.
PAT: A long memory, and a short fuse
Nobody who's a Broncos fan wants to remember the Super Bowl; in fact, I've spent the last two weeks trying to push the game from my mind. If that's the case, why should the team members themselves want to remember the game? Revenge. The Broncos lost their bid for Super Bowl 47 last year in heartbreaking fashion against the Baltimore Ravens, which no doubt lit the fire within them that led to Denver stomping all over the Ravens in this season's opener. That vengeful beat-down was what began a season for the ages, which saw the Broncos break offensive record after offensive record, on their way to a 13-3 season. The Broncos kept up their tendency for revenge in this year's playoffs; after losing tight games to both the Chargers and Patriots in the regular season, Denver put both teams out of Super Bowl contention in the post-season, with two meticulously-executed games, where there was never any question who the better team was. Now, the Broncos are coming off a humiliating loss in the Super Bowl, to a team that they play to open the 2014 season, and hope to meet again a year from now in Super Bowl 49. The Broncos shouldn't push the memories of New York out of their minds; instead, they must use those memories as motivation to come back stronger in 2014, and wipe out one more giant on the way to the ultimate prize.
Editor's Note: This is Jacob's first tryout piece for joining the Mile High Report staff. Let him and us know what you think in the comments!