Projecting the Denver Broncos Starting Lineup Before the 2014 NFL Draft
The Denver Broncos are on a mission. They have begun the offseason program with the memory of the Super Bowl loss still fresh in their minds.
Earlier this week, third-year defensive end Malik Jackson said the team is using the 35-point beatdown as motivation.
“We use it every day. These workouts, we come in and we say, ‘We lost by 35.’ So that’s our motivation.” Jackson continued, “Whenever someone gets tired, you just say ‘35,’ and they just start picking it up again. We know we have to come back strong this year. We had a disappointing loss. But that’s last season. We’re ready to move on.”
The Broncos' schedule is much tougher this season, but they should still be able to contend for the AFC West title and make a playoff run. They have used free agency to make big splashes by adding impact players like strong safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
During the NFL draft, the team could add impact players with developmental upside. The starting lineup is almost completely set for the 2014 season, so the Broncos can use the draft to build depth at multiple positions.
Let’s take a look at what their starting lineup looks like before the 2014 NFL draft.
Peyton Manning is coming off the statistically best season of his pro career. His 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards passing both set single-season records in the NFL. So what does he do for an encore in 2014?
The Broncos have publicly stated they are striving for more balance this season. Head coach John Fox spoke about this at the scouting combine earlier this year.
“I think, offensively, you do strive for balance. You’d like to have that attitude, that mindset to be able to run the football.” Fox continued, “It is something that I think every year when you look back at your season and evaluate schematically or even physically where you go, that’s an area we want to improve in.”
When asked if they were going to take the ball out of Manning’s hands in 2014, general manager John Elway replied. “No, we’re going to continue to do what we do.”
Elway did express a desire to improve the ground game.
“Now, obviously we’ve got to get better in the running game. There are some things that we’d like to do to take some pressure off Peyton with the running game. So that’s why it’s important to do that and continue to work on that.”
Repeating (or besting) what he did last year would be a tough bill to fill for Manning. However, we should easily see Manning throw for 45 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards in 2014.
Projected Starter: Peyton Manning
Montee Ball is likely to be the starting back for the Broncos this year. Last year’s starter, Knowshon Moreno, moved on in free agency to the Miami Dolphins. It’s Ball’s time to shine in a featured role.
He spoke to the media on Wednesday, and Ball said that he’s preparing as if he’s going to be the starter.
“Yeah, I know for a fact that they are not going to hand it to me and that they are going to make sure we all get our opportunities throughout OTAs and camp to see who will be the most productive, but my mentality is that it is my job and that I’m going to make sure nobody takes it from me.”
Ball looked bigger than he did last year, and he confirmed that he’s added weight in anticipation of a larger role in 2014.
“Yeah, of course [he’s bulked up]. Like I said, I’m really taking it to heart, taking a lot of pride in working with our strength coaches, who are doing fantastic and really focusing on what you need to get better at—and my flexibility, which will help me with my speed and will keep me a lot healthier throughout the season.”
He continued to improve as his rookie season went on in 2013. Ball should continue on that trajectory as he enters his second year. He could be in line to match—or even top—what Moreno did last year.
Projected Starter: Montee Ball
The Broncos lost Eric Decker (New York Jets) in free agency, but they filled his spot with a speedier player in Emmanuel Sanders. He should step into the starting lineup outside opposite Demaryius Thomas.
General manager John Elway believes Sanders can help this offense with the ball in his hands.
“We have great expectations of Emmanuel and really think he’s going to come in and add a tremendous amount to the offensive side. He had 67 receptions last year, 740 yards, six touchdowns.” Elway continued, “An interesting stat was he caused more missed tackles—15—than all but three NFL wide receivers in 2013. So that shows you what he can do with the ball after he catches it.”
Sanders is now in a more creative offense, and he’s fast enough to take the top off the defense. He has 11 career receiving touchdowns while Decker had 11 receiving touchdowns in 2013 alone. Sanders could be an upgrade from Decker because of his speed and ability to get open quickly.
Not only is Elway excited, but Peyton Manning liked what he learned during private workouts with Sanders earlier this offseason.
“He is explosive. You can’t hold the ball very long when he is running a route, I learned that. In the studies that I kind of did on him, I saw that he led their team in tackles on kickoff team one year. That tells you the guy likes football. That is more than just being a receiver; that is being a football player." Manning continued, "I know he’s eager to learn. I know he was excited to get started today where he is allowed to meet with the coaches and learn the offense. I look forward to playing with a guy like that. I think he’ll be a really nice addition to our football team.”
Thomas had another big season in 2013. He’s entering a contract year, and he should be able to duplicate the 92 catches he had last year.
A third receiver on the Broncos (and essentially a starter) is Wes Welker. He missed three games last year due to a concussion, but he was a hit for most of his first season with the Broncos. In his second year with this team, Welker could put up even better numbers.
Projected Starters: Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker
Julius Thomas stayed healthy in 2013, and he quickly showed what a huge impact he can make as a weapon in this high-powered offense. He was a Pro Bowl selection in his first year as a full-time starter.
Thomas is focused on not being a one-year wonder.
“You want to come out and you want to continue that [production]. You don’t want it to be something that just happened that one year.” Thomas continued, “You want it to be something that you’re known as, time and time again like the great guys that have played the position.”
Like Demaryius Thomas, Julius is in a contract year. He wants to stay healthy and produce like he did last season. If he does that, then Thomas should be rewarded with a rich contract.
Projected Starter: Julius Thomas
The Broncos have shuffled some things here after losing left guard Zane Beadles (Jacksonville Jaguars) in free agency. In addition to starting a new left guard, the Broncos may also have a new starting center and a new starting right tackle.
Their left tackle Ryan Clady will be back after missing 14 games in 2013 due to a Lisfranc injury. Getting him back gives the team an All-Pro to protect Peyton Manning’s blindside.
Clady is getting close to full strength, but he’s not yet 100 percent. “I’m not quite sure on the percentage, but I’m getting there. I’ve just been working and trying to get my foot right and ease back into things.”
The team’s new left guard may be their old right tackle. Orlando Franklin is going to get a shot at playing inside at guard in 2014.
Clady believes the team can have a stout line regardless of who is lining up next to him. “I think we’ll recover from [losing Beadles] and with [T] Orlando [Franklin] moving to guard or whoever else moves in there, we should still be able to have a great offensive line, no doubt.”
The Broncos could also draft a guard with a premium pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Players like Xavier Su’a-Filo (UCLA) or David Yankey (Stanford) could be targets for the team in the first or second round.
Last year’s starting center, Manny Ramirez, is going to be challenged by free-agent addition Will Montgomery. If Ramirez loses the starting center spot, he could be moved back to his more natural position of guard.
The right guard is going to be manned once again by Louis Vasquez. He’s one of the best in the game at his position and arguably the team’s best player on the offensive line.
With Franklin being moved inside, the team will turn to Chris Clark to start on the right side. He filled in nicely for Clady last year as the team’s left tackle for most of the season. Clark should be able to do the same in his new spot.
Projected Starters: LT Ryan Clady, LG Orlando Franklin, C Will Montgomery, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Chris Clark
The defensive line got a huge upgrade when DeMarcus Ware signed with the team in free agency. Ware is a future Hall of Fame player who now has a chip on his shoulder after a disappointing 2013 season.
The veteran struggled through an elbow injury that limited him to only six sacks during his final year with the Dallas Cowboys. He feels good about his health at this point. “I rehab every day. I’m not 100 percent—I would say about 94 percent (laughing)—but I’m ready to play and get after it this season.”
In the middle of the defensive line, we’ll see “Pot Roast” Terrance Knighton as one of the starting defensive tackles. Despite earlier reports to the contrary, Mike Klis of The Denver Post reports that Knighton will not hold out for more money in 2014.
Next to Knighton there will be a competition at the position between veteran Kevin Vickerson and second-year pro Sylvester Williams. Vickerson missed about half the season last year after suffering a hip injury. Williams steadily improved as the season went on, and he may be considered the favorite for the starting job at this time.
The other defensive end will likely be Derek Wolfe. Like Vickerson, Wolfe missed about half the year after a scary nerve injury gave him seizure-like symptoms. He is recovered now, and Wolfe gives the Broncos a sound edge-setter against the run.
Projected Starters: DeMarcus Ware, Sylvester Williams, Terrance Knighton, Derek Wolfe
If the draft adds one starter to the team, it will be at middle linebacker. As of right now, the Broncos plan on having Nate Irving compete with Steven Johnson for the starting position in the middle. It would be a surprise if either opens the season as the starter.
The draft could yield a player like C.J. Mosley (Alabama), Ryan Shazier (Ohio State), Chris Borland (Wisconsin) or Shayne Skov (Stanford) within the first three rounds of the draft. Mosley and Shazier are both options for the first-round pick, but they may not be on the board when the Broncos pick at No. 31 overall. Borland grades out as a second-round pick, while Skov is graded as a third-round pick.
The Broncos are set on the outside with strong-side linebacker Von Miller and weak-side linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Miller is coming off a disappointing 2013 season. He started the year with a six-game suspension due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy. After coming back, Miller ended up injuring his knee in the Week 16 game against the Houston Texans.
He’ll still be recovering from that knee injury when training camp opens up. His status for the start of camp is unclear at this time, but he could begin August on the physically unable to perform list.
Trevathan had a breakout year in 2013. He wowed Broncos fans with his athleticism and ability to make plays in coverage. Trevathan vows that he’ll have a further breakout in 2014.
“My job last year was just to make plays. To be a leader, you have to set an example. You have to make your name known. I don’t think I wanted to come here and be a leader, I had to earn that.” Trevathan continued, “Last year was a breaking-out season for me, and this year is going to be another breakout season for me. It’s my job to help lead as much as I can. Just bring my characteristics to this team, my attitude to this team as much as I can.”
Projected Starters: SLB Von Miller, MLB rookie pick, WLB Danny Trevathan
Last year’s top cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie declined an offer from the Broncos in free agency. The team didn’t miss a beat, and it signed an upgrade in Aqib Talib instead.
Talib gives the team toughness in the secondary. He has a good size/speed combination, and Talib is a true shutdown corner when healthy. In six pro seasons, Talib has never played a full 16-game season.
This is one of the reasons why the Broncos may select a cornerback with a premium pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Another reason is the fact that their other starting cornerback, Chris Harris Jr., is coming off a partially torn ACL injury that he suffered in the playoff game against the Chargers.
Harris has emerged as a quality starter since the Broncos picked him up as an undrafted free agent in 2011. He has the ability to play the slot, but he proved himself as a solid player on the outside in 2013. His status for the start of training camp is unknown at this time, but Harris should be ready by the beginning of the regular season.
Projected Starters: Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr.
Their first free-agent signing could arguably have the biggest impact in 2014. T.J. Ward was immediately signed when free agency started, and he will bring an attitude to the defense the team was missing.
Ward’s nickname is "Boss," and he earned that with his physical style of play. He loves to hit, and Ward is known as an intimidator on the football field. When talking about his playing style, Ward is matter-of-fact with his answer.
“I think it just comes natural. I’ve always kind of been this way since I started playing.” Ward continued, “It’s a mindset, a mentality, and that’s just the way I have to approach it. Whatever is your strong suit, you have to work at it and if you want to be the best, you keep working, keep working, but I think it’s just something that I’ve been blessed [with]. It comes natural.”
Opposite of Ward will be Rahim Moore. He was playing with more confidence in 2013 before a rare lower-leg injury knocked him out for the year. Moore is healthy, and he’s impressed Ward at team workouts.
“Rahim, he is a young, smart, talented player.” Ward said, “He works hard. He is very hungry. He got hurt last year and you can tell he is trying to bounce back from that and have a great season this year.”
Ward is one of the most confident players in the league. He feels that confidence is resonating with his new teammates.
“I think you have confidence at whatever position you play. Whatever you do, you want to be successful and you have to have confidence.” Ward continued, “This is definitely a confident defense and you can tell it is very talented. But, talent doesn’t get you—you need the hard work, the dedication and we have that here.”
Projected Starters: T.J. Ward, Rahim Moore
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com. Contract information provided by Spotrac.com. Draft grades provided by NFLDraftScout.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.