5 Denver Broncos Players Who Should See Their Roles Expand in 2014
With most moves in free agency done, the Broncos are now putting together their board for the 2014 NFL draft. General manager John Elway uses free agency to fill holes on the roster, and he uses the draft to build depth and develop future starters.
The team is also looking to their own roster for players who they believe could be productive with expanded roles in 2014. Elway has selected quite a few players in the draft the team has been developing, and now is their time to shine.
Based on how these players perform, the Broncos could make another deep run in the playoffs in 2014. They have put the time into these developmental players, and now their vision must be rewarded.
Here’s a list of players who should see their playing time increase this upcoming season.
The list has to begin with Montee Ball. Last year’s starting running back, Knowshon Moreno, has moved on in free agency to the Miami Dolphins. Denver didn’t make an offer to retain Moreno because they believe in Ball’s ability.
Ball was selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft with the idea that one day he could be the team’s lead back. He failed to win the starting job in training camp last year due to fumbling and pass-protection problems. To begin his rookie season, Ball rotated with Ronnie Hillman as the primary backup behind Moreno.
After Hillman’s fumble near the goal line against the Indianapolis Colts, Ball locked up the No. 2 job. He took the opportunity and ran with it.
In the second half of the season, Ball improved his production and rushing style. Gone were the carries where he tried to do too much. Instead, Ball was intent and patient with the rock. He didn’t try to bounce carries outside anymore, but would follow his blockers and look to pick up yards after contact.
He matured as a runner, and Ball finished the season strong.
Patrick Smyth, executive director of media relations for the Denver Broncos, recently pointed out some great numbers from Ball. Over the final six weeks of 2013, only Jamaal Charles (6.6) averaged more yards per carry than Ball (6.5, 52-337). Ball also led the NFL in percentage of rushes for first downs (40.4 percent) and 10-plus yards (21.2 percent) during final six weeks of 2013.
The Broncos are likely to paint the picture of competition for the starting running back job in 2014, but Ball is likely to be the team’s primary back this season.
We should see second-year cornerback Kayvon Webster asked to do more in 2014. He will compete for the team’s nickel cornerback job.
The starting duo at cornerback is going to be newly-acquired Aqib Talib and last year’s starter Chris Harris Jr. Talib is a fine talent, but has never played a full 16-game season during his six-year pro career. Harris is coming off a partially torn ACL he suffered in the playoff game against the San Diego Chargers last season. If either one struggles to stay healthy, Webster could be ushered into the starting lineup.
Webster came out of South Florida last year as the Broncos’ third-round pick. He’s known as a big hitter with a nose for the football. Webster also has good straight-line speed, and he can arrive at the ball in a hurry.
He got plenty of experience as a rookie, and there were times he was burned by opposing wide receivers. That experience will come in handy if Webster is to improve on his game this year. His struggles in coverage need to lessen if he wants to build the coaching staff’s trust.
Over the last two years, Malik Jackson has consistently improved his game. The third-year defensive end is a rising star on the team with developmental upside.
Jackson is strong at the point of attack. He doesn’t waste time being engaged with a blocker. Instead, Jackson will quickly shed an opponent to get after the quarterback. He has the length to make up ground quickly once the ball-carrier is in his sight. Jackson is a sound run-stuffer with his strength.
He’s still learning how to use multiple moves to get after the quarterback. When Jackson first came into the league, he got by on brute strength and tenacity. Now, Jackson can utilize the rip, swim and bull rush to create pressure from the edge.
In 2014 we could see Jackson continue to develop. He’ll work as a part-time pass-rusher for the Broncos, but he has the ability to develop into a starter.
Last year’s first-round pick, Sylvester Williams, began last season as a reserve player. This year, he could be a starter from day one.
As a rookie, Williams struggled with snap anticipation and play diagnosis. Too often he would guess the wrong shoulder to attack, then he would try to run around the blocker. These mistakes made him late to the play. He slowly improved as the season went on until an opportunity arose to get him more playing time.
Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson was lost for the season with a hip injury he suffered in the Week 12 game against the New England Patriots. After that game, Williams was thrust into the starting lineup.
He performed much better in the second half of the year. Terrance Knighton put Williams under his wing, and he gave him guidance on how to anticipate the snap of the ball. Williams did a good job of listening, and he began to create middle pressure with his quick initial burst.
Williams should compete with Vickerson for the starting job opposite Knighton in 2014. With the way he improved in the final four games of the regular season, Williams is a strong candidate to win that job.
The Broncos did not address the middle linebacker position in free agency. They pursued guys like Daryl Smith (Baltimore Ravens) and D’Qwell Jackson (Colts), but they didn’t come to an agreement with either one.
In the 2014 NFL draft, there are a few middle linebackers that might draw the interest of the team at various rounds in the process. A player like C.J. Mosley (Alabama) could be a target of the team in the first round, while guys like Chris Borland (Wisconsin) and Shayne Skov (Stanford) could be targeted in later rounds.
According to Mike Klis, from the Denver Post, the Broncos’ plan at this time is to let Nate Irving and Steven Johnson compete for the starting middle linebacker job in 2014. Irving has more experience, and he should be considered the favorite at this time.
He looked good as a part-time strong-side linebacker last year, but in limited snaps he’s struggled in the middle. Irving needs to diagnose plays quicker as they unfold in front of him. He has the athleticism to scrape and flow down the line of scrimmage to the football quickly. Too often in the middle, Irving has been slow to react and thus slow to the play.
The Broncos would like a three-down middle linebacker, and with his athleticism, Irving might be their best bet.