Highlighting the Broncos' Deepest, Thinnest Positions Ahead of the 2014 Season
For the Denver Broncos, the depth on the rooster—or the lack thereof—could be all that it takes to make or break the 2014 season. Every snap is a risk—every block, every tackle and every catch over the middle. It's inherent to the game, and some people even go so far as to say that the team that wins the Super Bowl every year is simply the team with the least injuries.
The injuries don't always make sense. Just ask New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. The guy broke his arm blocking for an extra point. All those catches, yards and big hits and a tough player goes down blocking for an extra point.
Top-end talent is hard to come by. One twisted ankle can take a team that feels stacked at a position and make it vulnerable. One broken leg can take a team right out of the playoff picture.
It's depth that helps you weather the stuff you can't see coming. You're not going to replace a Pro Bowler with some guy who has been riding the bench, but getting production out of those guys often means a team can continue fighting even when stars go down.
Without depth, that top tier can get ripped away in a heartbeat. That's why it's such a gamble to have a team that runs through a single superstar. If you lose that guy, can you still win? Or is that it for the rest of the year?
Before the season kicks in, it's worth taking a look at places where Denver has a ton of depth and an injury will just be a minor bump in the road. However, it's seemingly more important to look at the places where one guy going down could spell disaster for the entire unit or even the entire team.
Deep: Wide Receiver
Denver was already stacked at wide receiver, and then the team drafted Cody Latimer in the second round. That now gives the Broncos a lineup consisting of Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker, Andre Caldwell and Latimer. If you want to go farther than that, they have vets such as Jordan Norwood and a potential steal in undrafted rookie Bennie Fowler, out of Michigan State.
On the few chances he got last year, Caldwell actually looked pretty good; his numbers just suffered from being buried on that depth chart. Latimer is guy who had first-round talent, but a foot injury held him back. He still ran a 4.39 40 on a broken foot, so the guy's a freak when he's healthy. Fowler was ignored in the draft, but he was played well at MSU, with 622 yards and six touchdowns in his senior season.
Of course, throwing a rookie such as Latimer on the field if Thomas goes down is not going to give you the same stats that Thomas brings. The guy is nuts, one of the best receivers in the game right now. But Denver could easily score points with Welker, Sanders and Caldwell as the starting group, with Latimer and others coming in when needed.
If someone such as Sanders goes down, the impact is decidedly less, even though he should be the starting No. 2. He's a great pickup for his explosiveness and speed, but Caldwell could produce if needed, and Thomas would still be there as the go-to option.
You never want injuries, but Peyton Manning is the best in the league at making his receivers better than they are, and he has enough raw talent around him to win 12 or 13 games with whomever they put out there.
Thin: Middle Linebacker
I'm still somewhat annoyed that this position was not addressed more in the draft. Perhaps I'm missing something, and I hope I am, but plugging Nate Irving in at the middle spot doesn't even seem like that great of a starting lineup, let alone a position of depth. Irving is young, at just 25, so maybe he steps up and develops, but he's hardly a dominant force in the middle of the field right now.
The Broncos did have some issues at linebacker last year. Paris Lenon was a starter at points. Congrats to the guy on making a long career out of it after going undrafted back in 2000 and even playing in the XFL, but that's not the type of depth you want, and Denver didn't even bring him back.
The Broncos did take some linebackers in the draft; in particular, Lamin Barrow looks like he could be good. He wore No. 18 when he played at LSU, which, as any Tigers fan will tell you, means he's a leader and a respected player in the locker room. Those are great qualities in a linebacker, but he's also smaller than Irving by 16 pounds. That doesn't help in the middle.
He might have good speed, but could he hold up as the "Mike" linebacker, or are they going to use him more on the outside, just like another fast linebacker who isn't much of bruiser, Danny Trevathan?
Now, I like what Trevathan did last year, leading the team in tackles, but he's definitely got some work to do if they want to give him a shot in the middle. He's not the type of guy to light people up and stuff the run. He does well on the outside, running plays down and running in coverage. That's where he should stay.
At the end of the day, if Irving goes down, the Broncos have some potential but a lot of question marks. For that matter, Irving himself is a question mark.
Deep: Pass Rush
The modern NFL doesn't give me the chance to label this as simply “defensive ends” or something as easy as that. Basically, you've got guys such as Von Miller who are dominant pass-rushers, and they need to get into this group.
While Miller is technically a linebacker, it's clear that his job is to hunt the quarterback, not to stop the run or to chase guys in coverage. So, for the sake of making this realistic, we're just going with “pass rush” in general.
This is an aspect where Denver is set up to excel.
Adding DeMarcus Ware was huge. The guy is still going strong, one of those vets who just keeps the fire going even as he ages. He's going to draw attention and double-teams, and that pulls the protection away from Miller. Of course, teams could cycle the protection toward Miller instead, but are you really going to let Ware have a shot all on his own? They're a perfect pair on the ends.
In the middle of the line, the Broncos should be set, as well. Terrance Knighton, the man they call Pot Roast, was awesome last year. Sylvester Williams is young and just getting better, and he has all of the physical tools that he needs—in other words, he's huge. Combine those guys with players such as Kevin Vickerson and Mitch Unrein, and you've got a line that can bring it every week.
Even the other defensive end position feels stacked now that Derek Wolfe is coming back. He and Malik Jackson should both see the field, and they'll absolutely get one-on-ones all day long.
Denver lost Elvis Dumervil before last year and didn't bring back the best DE on the team from the previous season, Shaun Phillips, but you can see why when you look at that lineup. The Broncos are stacked, and they'll be better in 2014 than they were the last two years, even with those losses.
They have the best quarterback in the game, and I'm about to complain about it. But it's just where Denver is right now. Peyton Manning is on another level, a level most people can't even see, but after that, there's nothing that's known.
I highlight that because I think this position might be deeper than we know. Brock Osweiler has a chance to be special. His physical measurements are great. He's a huge, towering quarterback at 6'7'', with a rocket for an arm.
Word out of camp from Andrew Mason, via DenverBroncos.com, is that his deep ball is terrific. These are the types of things that can make stellar pocket passers for years to come.
However, no one knows what he's going to bring because he never plays. Osweiler has thrown a grand total of 20 passes. Thirteen of those have been caught, and they've gone for 107 yards. He has no touchdowns, but he also doesn't have a single pick.
It's just not enough to know. This is a guy who was taken before the quarterback who just won the Super Bowl, but it's impossible to determine what he'll bring.
Personally, I think he has a chance to be incredible. He's built for it, and he'll have a few years learning from the smartest QB in football. Athletically and physically, he's ahead of Manning. If he can pick up some of Manning's mental game, he'll easily tear it up in the NFL when he gets his chance.
That being said, if Manning goes down in the second week of the season, I'm not feeling great about Osweiler taking the field.
As of right now, Denver also has Zac Dysert and Bryn Renner on the roster. Renner is a rookie who was not drafted, so we really have no clue what he'll turn out to be, though he put up good numbers at North Carolina, especially in 2011 and 2012, when he was able to play every game, and he threw for 26 and 28 touchdowns, respectively.
Dysert, who is 6'3'' just like Renner, played at Miami of Ohio, and Denver took him in the seventh round in 2013. He threw for over 12,000 yards in college. However, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, he hasn't so much as thrown a single pass in a game for the Broncos.
Fans should feel great about the quarterback position on the top end, obviously, and the whole offense runs through Manning. If he goes down, though, there is absolutely no indication that anything good would happen in Denver for the rest of the year. There's just not enough information to know how the year would go because, as Dysert proves, there's often just no information out there at all.