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Denver Broncos Talentless? I Think Not.

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There have been a lot of arguments, of late, about how the Denver Broncos are pretty much bereft of talent. Some want to point their fingers at Mike Shanahan and his decisions with trades, free agency and the draft. Others would like to place responsibility on Josh McDaniels' decisions in those same areas. Reality is probably closer to the idea that both coaches secured some gems for the team while missing on other choices.

Some fans want to point to the current 3-11 record as evidence that the team is without talent. There certainly is some justification for that. Some fans go back to 2008 and point to 33-19 and 52-21 losses to Kansas City and San Diego, along with two three-game losing streaks as evidence. Others will lift up the 30-7 and 44-24 losses to Baltimore and Kansas City along with two four-game losing streaks in 2009. Some fans want to use the 59-14 spanking handed out by the Oakland Raiders combined with a four-game losing streak and the current five-game losing streak as further evidence that the current Broncos team lacks talented players. The list goes on and on.

However, I would like to suggest that while the team has significant needs and has been playing abysmally poor. There is some talent that can be used as a foundation to build on. Consider this: Take a look at our eleven losses: in two of them (NYJ and SF) the Broncos held the lead going into the fourth quarter, in one (JAX) they were tied, and in four (IND, BAL, KC#2, OAK#2) the Broncos trailed by ten points or less. Seven out of eleven losses were within reach as Denver entered the final quarter of each of those games.

After the jump, we'll take a look at some of the changes the Broncos have gone through since the end of the 2008 season, and why I believe we may not be quite as talentless as some would have us believe.

Let's start by taking a look at the changes in the starting lineup from the last game of 2008 to the the most recent game (year-game number; names in bold indicate a change in starter).
2008-16 2009-1 2009-16 2010-1 2010-14
QB Cutler Orton Orton Orton Tebow
RB Bell Buckhalter Buckhalter Moreno Moreno
WR Marshall Hillis (FB) Stokley (WR) Larsen (FB) Larsen
WR Royal Royal Lloyd (WR) Lloyd Royal
TE Graham Gaffney (WR) Willis (WR) Gaffney Graham (TE)
TE Scheffler Graham Gaffney (WR) Graham (TE) Quinn (TE)
LT Clady Clady Clady Clady Clady
LG Hamilton Hamilton Hamilton Daniels Beadles
C Wiegmann Wiegmann Wiegmann Walton Walton
RG Kuper Hochstein Kuper Kuper Kuper
RT Harris Harris Polumbus Beadles Harris
LE Ekuban McBean (DE) McBean McBean Vickerson
LT Robertson Fields (NT) Fields Williams Williams
RT Thomas Peterson (DE) Peterson Bannan Bannan
RE Dumervil Haggan (OLB) Haggan Hunter Hunter
WLB Williams Williams (ILB) Davis Williams WIlliams
MLB Webster Davis (ILB) Williams Haggan Haggan
SLB Winborn Dumervil (OLB) Dumervil Ayers Ayers
LCB Bailey Bailey Bailey Bailey Bailey
RCB Bly Goodman Goodman Goodman Goodman
SS Fox Hill Hill Hill Hill
FS Barrett Dawkins Dawkins Dawkins McBath

One of the things I find interesting in looking at these changing lineups, is the often repeated mantra that Denver has not addressed the defense. It is a common perception that McDaniels came in and "blew up" the offense while neglecting the defense. When we compare the starting lineup in the last game of 2008 to the first game of 2009, there are five new starters on offense -- one of whom (Hillis) was on the team in 2008 -- while there were eight new starters on defense -- only two of whom (Peterson and Haggan) had been on the team in 2008. By the end of 2009, however, the defense had remained the same while there were significant shifts in the offensive starters. 2010 saw more shifts in the starting lineup, due in no little measure to injuries.

I'm also fairly certain that experience has played a role in how the Broncos have fared this year, especially as younger players have been asked to step up and fill in for injured veterans. Now not knowing how the Broncos' experience stacked up against other teams, I took a look at the two top teams (by record) in each conference and the two bottom teams (by record) in each conference. When looking at the relative NFL experience of our fifty-three man roster plus those players listed on the practice squad and the injured reserve list, we find:

Denver (3-11) New England (12-2) Atlanta (12-2) Cincinnati (3-11) Carolina (2-12)
Rookie 14 15 0 18 15
1 5 6 26 3 1
2 11 14 6 13 19
3 7 7 7 9 12
4 4 3 1 8 11
5 6 7 6 6 8
6 2 5 5 5 0
7 2 2 1 5 3
8 2 5 4 2 2
9 4 2 0 1 0
10 or more 7 13 7 8 3

When we look at the players in terms of the percentage of the roster based on experience we find:

Rookies 2 or less 3 or less 5 or less
Denver 22% 47% 58% 73%
New England 19% 44% 53% 66%
Atlanta 0% 51% 62% 73%
Cincinnati 23% 44% 55% 73%
Carolina 20% 47% 64% 89%

This intrigued me. On the one hand, Denver's breakdown is very similar to Cincinnati (3-11) and Carolina (2-12) -- 20-23% rookie players, 44-47% with two or less years in the NFL. On the other hand, there are some parallels with New England (12-2) and Atlanta (12-2) -- 53-58% of the players with three years or less experience (Denver and New England) and 73% with five or fewer years (Denver and Atlanta). This suggests that Denver is very typical in terms roster makeup. So is it a case of bad coaching, injuries or simply a case of our individuals not being very good? I'm guessing that the truth is most likely a combination of varying degrees of all three.

This leaves us with the question of whether or not there are any bright spots to look forward to in the rest of the season and into 2011? In my humble opinion there are. Let's take a look at some of them.

There are three possibilities here. Tim Tebow has come on strong in what little playing time he has been allowed. He has completed 52.9% of his passes for 141 yards, an 8.4 yard/attempt average and two touchdowns versus no interceptions. He has been sacked twice. His ability to use his legs to extend the play suggests that he could conceivably be the quarterback we've been waiting for.

Kyle Orton still remains a viable option -- despite his many shortcomings. His completion percentage of 58.8%, 3653 yards, twenty touchdowns versus nine interceptions are not something to be treated lightly. At the very least, he would make an effective backup if Tebow were to go down to injury.

The unknown in the equation is Brady Quinn. While the numbers from his time in Cleveland can only be called underwhelming, we have not had the opportunity to see what he can do in regular season game conditions. It also appears to me that a great deal of the antipathy that has been directed towards Quinn is derived as much from the fact that Quinn came to the Broncos through the trading of fan favorite Peyton Hillis as much as it does from Quinn's on-field performance.

Running Backs

There is a solid core here that can be built upon. Despite an abysmal start to the season, the rushing game has begun to emerge somewhat. Moreno, after leading all rookie running backs in yards in 2009, is currently ranked 24th in rushing yards -- despite missing three games, and most of the second Oakland game. In the five games in which he played, prior to the bye, Moreno had 252 yards. In the five games immediately after the bye, he rushed for 462 yards. The question with Moreno is whether or not he can remain healthy.

Spencer Larsen has shown flashes of promise in the role of fullback. He has carried the ball three times, and gotten a first down on each of them. He has also recorded first downs on three of his five catches. Another player who has likewise shown flashes of promise is Lance Ball. In the five games where he was allowed to carry the ball he rushed for 99 yards and logged three first downs.

One runner I would be interested in seeing return is LenDale White. He was a strong power runner at USC and served as a good change of pace to the speedy Reggie Bush. It would be interesting to see what he could do for Denver. If he could serve as the "punch them in the mouth" runner that we've lacked, the combination of Moreno, Ball and White could be an effective one.

Wide Receivers
In my humble opinion, this is the most solid group on the offensive side of the ball. We have seen Brandon Lloyd put to rest the perception of himself as a receiver who will duck away from a pass in order to avoid contact -- that was perhaps the most repeated video clip when he was first brought to Denver. Lloyd's 1264 yards, ten touchdowns, twenty pass plays of twenty or more yards and his fifty-nine first downs have made him a legitimate #1 wide receiver.

Eddie Royal has rebounded from his sophomore slump to put up some good numbers in 2010 -- 605 yards, three touchdowns, eight plays of twenty or more yards and thirty-one first downs. Jabbar Gaffney has proven himself to be dependable and productive logging 773 yards, two touchdowns, nine plays of twenty or more yards and thirty-seven first downs. Demaryius Thomas has shown some promise amassing 283 yards, two touchdowns, five plays of twenty or more yards and fifteen first downs, all coming through limited playing time. This issue with Thomas will be whether or not he can remain healthy. Eric Decker and Matthew Willis were both considered to have potential, but neither has had much of an opportunity to show what they can do.

Tight Ends
This is a unit that raises a great number of question. Part of the issue, in my humble opinion, comes from the fact that Denver fans have become accustomed to tight ends in the mold of Shannon Sharpe and Tony Scheffler, who were typically asked to be receivers first and blockers second. Josh McDaniels tried to install an offense in which the tight end was asked to be a blocker first and a receiver second. Daniel Graham seems to be showing his age by dropping passes that in previous years he would have caught. The remainder of the unit -- Daniel Coats, Richard Quinn, John Nalbone and Dan Gronkowski -- have not shown much that would provide a large dose of hope.

Offensive Line
This is another unit with question marks. In 2009, the offensive line protected Orton well enough to help the team to rank thirteenth in passing yards, sixteenth in passing touchdowns, and fifteenth in sacks given up. The line helped the running backs rank eighteenth in rushing yards and twenty-second in rushing touchdowns. In 2010, the line has helped Orton and Tebow rank seventh in passing yards, fifteenth in passing touchdowns and ninth in sacks given up. The rushing attack has fallen to twenty-ninth in rushing yards but risen to sixteenth in rushing touchdowns. So what changed?

Some people believe that problem lie in the attempt to shift away from a run-blocking scheme that predominantly based on a zone blocking scheme. Others have pointed to the presence of two rookies on the offensive line in 2010. I am still of the opinion that 2009 suffered from the attempt to implement a new offense and 2010 was devastated by offseason injuries to Moreno, Buckhalter, White, and Clady, along with a very slow recovery from injuries on the part of Harris and Kuper. It is important to remember that in 2010, the offensive line did not start the same five players at the same positions until almost halfway through the season. Add in the struggles that rookie offensive linemen will experience and we can see that we had a recipe for disaster.

Having said all of that, however, the offensive line has some potential, especially among the five players who have become the acknowledged starters: Clady, Beadles, Walton, Kuper, Harris. This is a good mix of age and experience. As mentioned above, now that we have seen this unit play together over a longer period of time, we have begun to see the running game improve. Hopefully, the addition of a more mobile quarterback -- read Tim Tebow here -- will help the offensive line when it comes to pass protection as well.

Defensive Line
This unit has me worried. The average experience of the defensive line is five years. This is good in that it provides experience. This is bad in that this unit is showing its age in a lot of way. It is my understanding that in a 3-4 defense, the primary objective of the defensive line is to tie up blockers, fill up the running lanes and allow the linebackers to penetrate for sacks and tackles. It seems as though the defensive line has not been able to do this with any consistency. I have not seen anyone that stands out as playing a solid game with any consistency in this group -- if I'm wrong, please correct me, I would love to have some hope here.

That being said, I personally believe the players with the most promise are Justin Bannan (27 tackles, 1 sack, 2 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble), Kevin Vickerson (38 tackles, 1 sack, 2 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble), and Marcus Thomas (33 tackles, 1 sack, 1 pass defensed).

This has been a unit which has both shone, and been maligned for their failures. Like the defensive line, the linebacking corps has seemed to play with tremendous inconsistency. Many people will want to point to the loss of Elvis Dumervil as being the key to this unit's struggles. While there may be a kernel of truth to this, the reality is that -- as a whole -- this unit has not stepped up their game in the absence of 2009's sack leader. Still, there are a few bright spots for the future.

I think it goes without saying that everyone is looking forward to Dumervil's return in 2011. Another player I am anxious to see return from IR is Joe Mays who recorded thirty of his forty tackles in the four games immediately following the bye. D. J. Williams is our leading tackler with 104 tackles. He causes some concerns by releasing receivers into the secondary when there isn't anyone back there to pick up the receiver. Other than that, he appears to be a solid player. Robert Ayers, Mario Haggan and Jason Hunter should also benefit from the return of Dumervil and raise their own numbers. Beyond that group, the linebacking corps is rather thin.

This is unit which concerns me the most. The Broncos have long time veterans (Bailey 12 years, Goodman 9 years and Jones 7 years) and very young players (Thompson, Vaughn and Cox are rookies and Polk -- practice squad -- is a one year player). The situation is further exacerbated by the arrest of Cox -- which may just cost the Broncos their most promising rookie cornerback. Among the veterans, Bailey has begun to look like he wants to play somewhere else, Goodman seems to have lost a step and Jones has completely underwhelmed in pass coverage. Thompson and Vaughn have shown flashes of promise but have not seen enough playing time to truly determine their potential.

This continues the problem of aging veterans versus relatively proven younger players. Dawkins and Hill have both been in the league ten or more years and we have to question how much they have left in the tank. Bruton and McBath have shown some promise but are both only second year players. Kyle McCarthy (4th year but on IR) hasn't seen the field enough to feel good about.

With the possible exception of the ill-will generated by the release of Mike Leach and the subsequent arrival of Lonie Paxton, the Broncos' three special teams players are a bright spot. Paxton has proven to be reliable, with the exception of two snaps that I can think of. Prater is solid and dependable as the place kicker (10 for 10 under 40 yards in 2010, 4 for 5 from 40-49 yards and 2 for 3 from 50 or more yards). Britton Colquitt has come on strong in his first season with Denver -- a 44.2 yard average (13th in the NFL), fifteen punts landing inside the twenty, six touchbacks (10th in the league), and sixteen fair catches (11th in the NFL).

Final Thoughts

So where does this leave us as we look towards the future? Our wide receiver corps and our specialists would appear to be solid. Our quarterbacks and linebackers appear to be promising, but with little depth in the case of the linebackers. Our running backs and offensive line appear to be improving. Our tight end corps has some concerns, due largely to the question of whether the team is going to pursue a block first/receive second approach or a receive first/block second one. The defensive line also has some concerns, particularly in the question of depth. Our secondary has some serious issues, given the disparity between the aging starters and the inexperienced backups.

Is our team as devoid of talent as some would have us believe? I think not. Are we elite, or even above average? At this point in time, nowhere close to either. The Broncos have a lot of work to do and a large number of holes to fill. The good news is that they have some good players to serve as the foundation for that rebuilding process.

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