When it comes to the NFL, you have to expect the unexpected. Every year there are a handful of players that either improve upon prior year performance or come out of nowhere to demonstrate their ability to play a high level in the NFL. This year will be no exception and for the Broncos as a team to reach their biggest goal (hoisting a Lombardi) they will need several players to perform at a high level. Without further adieu, here is my take on three young Broncos who are need to saddle up and play well in 2015.
Snagged in the first-round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Broncos had high expectations for the former Buckeye corner. After falling in the draft due to character and mental concerns, Denver believed his big play potential on the field was worth the gamble at that spot all things considered. As expected, he had his fair shares of ups and downs as a rookie, but overall looked impressive and showed glimpses of becoming a Pro-Bowl player in the future.
In his first season as a pro, Roby played over 800 snaps and recorded 65 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. Those are quality numbers for a rookie, but he endured a tough go of it down the stretch when he surrendered six touchdown passes in several consecutive games.
Most people would be pleased with those numbers, but not Roby. They weren't good enough for him, nor were they acceptable. Roby announced to the media that he believed his overall grade for 2014 would be a C-. Fellow cornerback and All-Pro Chris Harris agreed with his sentiments.
"He was really up and down a lot," Harris stated in regard to Roby. "He went through a stretch where he gave up like six touchdowns in a row. Whenever you do that, it's definitely a C-minus. He knows that and what he has to get better at. He had some rough times, but he still fought through it and made a lot of plays."
Broncos fans should be happy knowing that Roby has set such high expectations for himself. He knows he has to get better and realizes what it will take for him to ascend to the premier caliber level he is capable of performing at. Earlier in the off-season, the young Broncos corner espoused on what those things are, referencing the need to master the mental aspects of the pro game.
"I'm just learning the whole concept of offense in general. I feel like in college, a lot of guys just go out there and just try to play and not really understand the game. In the NFL, it's a mental game. Once you start understanding the game mentally and paying attention to the splits, route concepts and offensive coordinators favorite things to do in certain situations, that's really when you become a great player."
The Broncos have one of the deepest cornerback groups in all of the league. Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Jr., and Roby are one of the best trios in the league, Beyond them, Kayvon Webster, Tony Carter and the pair of Tulane rookies will be battling for position on the depth chart. For the Broncos to fire on cylinders, the defense has to work cohesively as a unit. If the Broncos are able to muster a significant pass rush, the defensive backfield should be able to perform adequately. More consistency and less big play give-ups for scores in 2015 are a priority, chiefly for Roby, who ran hot and cold as the season lingered on.
As the old adage says, "knowing is half the battle," and Roby is very aware of what he needs to do to make 2015 a bigger success than his rookie season. It is clear that Roby has matured greatly in just one season in the NFL and his dedication and diligence should pay big dividends for the Broncos in 2015.
It isn't often that rookie offensive lineman come in guns blazing and have resounding success as rookies. It may have not been said explicitly by the Broncos coaching staff, but the expectations for rookie tackle Ty Sambrailo are perhaps the highest of anyone on the team. The Colorado State product was scheduled to compete for the starting right tackle job, but a season ending knee injury to Pro-Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady signaled a change of plans. At the beginning of OTA's, head coach Gary Kubiak remarked on Sambrailo's transition to the left side of the line.
"He's a very athletic young man. That's a lot to ask of a very young player," Kubiak said. "But we've got a good month here of work. I sat down with Rick and Clancy and James, and we felt like, 'Let's start working him there today.'"
Kubiak went on to further note that Sambrailo's athleticism and ability to play both tackle spots is one of the reasons they drafted him in the second round. It will be a trial by fire for the rookie, who will get to face Pro-Bowl outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and friends on a regular basis throughout training camp. It is a tough task for certain, but Sambrailo is already showing he has the toughness both physically and mentally to succeed.
"I couldn't have asked for a better situation to be thrown into in terms of learning as a young player going against a guy like that. I'm going to have my growing pains, but I think that ultimately it will make me a better player."
There is no doubt that replacing an Pro-Bowl left tackle in Ryan Clady will be an arduous endeavor, but one that Sambrailo must do well in order for the Broncos offensive line to protect Peyton Manning and pave the way for their rushing attack this season. But who knows? Perhaps Sambrailo will play just as well as Clady did as a rookie for the Broncos and prove himself as his heir for next season and beyond.
After letting former UCLA standout and Bronco free safety Rahim Moore leave in free agency to the Houston Texans, the Broncos decided to go for a value signing by picking up unrestricted free agent Darian Stewart from Baltimore to fill the starting void. Stewart was a sixteen game starter for the Ravens in 2014. Prior to that, he had spent time with the St. Louis Rams, but never seemed to stick as a legitimate long-term option at safety.
Last year in Baltimore, Stewart registered 53 tackles, 1 sack and 1 interception over the course of 782 snaps. For comparisons sake, Moore played 1074 snaps last season — accounting for a 292 snap difference. It is safe to say that Stewart will likely be tested more this year in Denver.
Stewart doesn't bring the size or athleticism Moore had to the table, but what he does offer to the back-end of the Broncos defense is a high football IQ. He has a penchant for bending and not breaking — allowing the play to stay in front of him as opposed to giving up the big play. The game of football is a game of inches, and while blazing speed and athleticism is great to have, it means nothing if you aren't mentally adept to recognizing plays and responsibilities and can end up catching you off guard and hurting the team in the long run. (Does Moore vs. Baltimore ring a bell?) On the surface, this seems to be an improvement over Moore, but there are larger concerns that need to be addressed.
One of the biggest issues in regard to Stewart is lack of experience. He has only two full seasons as a starter under his belt in his five year career. Furthermore, he spent a majority of those games being a box defender near the line of scrimmage at the safety position. His stint with the Ravens last season was the only time in his playing career where playing deep at the safety position was a regular occurrence. Moreover, various outlets have reported on his questionable tackling abilities, which is a significant red flag for any back-end defender. In St. Louis, he was replaced as a starter after his second season due to poor play and inconsistency.
Whether or not he can successfully be the back-end guard for the Broncos remains to be seen, but as of now, there isn't a better option on the team. The Broncos have T.J. Ward slated in at strong safety, with long-time special teams demon David Bruton as his back-up. Rafael Bush also appears on the depth chart, but is more of a strong safety than free safety.
That being said, there is little room for error for Stewart this season. I was as surprised as anybody that the Broncos didn't use one of their selections in the 2015 on a free safety, but the front office must have confidence in the players already available at their disposal. From my perspective, both Moore and Ward struggled in coverage, especially in the red zone in 2014. As of now, it doesn't seem like the Broncos took adequate measures to ensure that from happening again this year.
If Stewart falters, perhaps their back-up plan won't be one of the reserve safeties above, but by moving Roby to free safety given the depth Denver has at corner. Here's to hoping it doesn't come to that and Stewart plays the best football of his career with the Broncos.