We could see the Denver Broncos win the Super Bowl in 2014. They’ve won the AFC West each of the last three seasons, but every year they’ve come up short in the postseason.
In 2011 with Tim Tebow at quarterback for most of the year, the Broncos made an improbable run to the playoffs after finishing 8-8. They won in the Wild Card Round against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they lost the next week in the divisional round against the New England Patriots.
Peyton Manning was added in the offseason of 2012, and his arrival immediately made the Broncos Super Bowl contenders. They ran through the regular season with a 13-3 record and were the No. 1 overall seed in the conference. That season ended when below-freezing temperatures, a hot quarterback named Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens beat them at home in the divisional round.
Entering 2013, the Broncos had a first-year offensive coordinator in Adam Gase. He got the best out of Manning, and the veteran quarterback set single-season records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards passing. They once again finished 13-3 but eventually lost in the Super Bowl with a disappointing 43-8 defeat.
The Broncos want to be the first team since the 1993 Buffalo Bills to get back to the Super Bowl after losing it the previous season.
As we enter 2014, the Broncos roster has a much different look than it did last year. Several starters from last year moved on in free agency, and they’ll be starting elsewhere in 2014. Starters like left guard Zane Beadles (Jacksonville Jaguars), wide receiver Eric Decker (New York Jets), running back Knowshon Moreno (Miami Dolphins), linebacker Wesley Woodyard (Tennessee Titans) and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (New York Giants) are no longer in Denver.
At every position previously mentioned, the Broncos have players in place who they feel are upgrades.
Young players like running back Montee Ball and linebacker Nate Irving are going to get the chance to be the starters at their position. Both have good upside—and big shoes to fill this season.
The Broncos were one of the most active teams in free agency this offseason. They were creative with their salary-cap space, and the team made big splashes in the market.
New Broncos like strong safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders will be counted on to start for Denver in 2014. These guys all have amazing natural talent, and they should be able to produce at a high level for the Broncos this season.
General manager John Elway was bold in the 2014 NFL draft. The team explored trading up in the first round of the draft, but they stayed put and added a cornerback with shutdown upside in Bradley Roby. He could be starting opposite Talib from day one.
In the second round, the team had to make a move up when wide receiver Cody Latimer fell to the 56th-overall pick. Latimer has great potential because of his size/speed combination, strong hands and ability to play “above the rim.” He may not be a starter to begin the season, but he’s a future starter who could get onto the field this season as a red-zone target at least.
It’s an important season for the Broncos as they are entering the third year in a possibly five-year long window for a Super Bowl championship. Manning isn’t getting any younger, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down. The Broncos need to secure a championship before Manning’s game begins to decline.
When examining what could be the ceiling and the floor for the 2014 season, it comes down to staying healthy and executing. So long as Manning is starting for this team, they’ll be a threat to win the division and the AFC title. If the defensive additions prove to be upgrades, the Broncos could hang with two of the NFL’s best—Seattle and San Francisco—in 2014.
The Broncos are one of the AFC’s best, but do they have enough to hang against the toughest teams from the NFC? Let’s take a closer look.
The ceiling for the offense is once again astronomical. Manning’s record-setting season in 2013 is almost a baseline for what the team could do this season. It may be unlikely to best (or duplicate) those numbers, but Manning should get close.
Manning could have around 45-50 touchdown passes this year. He should also be able to pass for more than 5,000 yards this year for only the second time in his career. In his second year under Gase, Manning should be more comfortable than he ever has been before in the Mile High City.
The targets in the passing game remain mostly the same, with only a couple of exceptions.
Demaryius Thomas is in a contract year, and he should be able to put up phenomenal numbers again this season. Over the last two years, Thomas’ numbers have been remarkably similar. He should catch around 90 passes (94 in 2012, 92 in 2013) for around 1,400 receiving yards (1,442 in 2012, 1,430 in 2013) and 12 touchdowns (10 in 2012, 14 in 2013).
Wes Welker was added in free agency last year. He started out his Broncos career hot, catching nine touchdown passes in his first eight games of 2013. Welker had 50 catches in the first eight games of the 2013 season, but he had only 23 catches (only one touchdown) in the last half of the year.
Concussion problems slowed Welker down in the second half of the 2013 season, and he missed three games because of them. Provided that he stays healthy, Welker should be able to best the numbers that he posted in 2013. Losing a red-zone threat like Decker means the Broncos could be targeting Welker more when they are close to paydirt.
The player to replace Decker is former Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. He is faster and quicker than Decker, so Sanders should be able to get better separation in his routes. His speed and quickness will also help him stand out more than Decker after the catch and in the open field.
Sanders is not the red-zone threat that Decker was, and that could change the way targets are distributed inside the 20-yard line. Decker had 11 receiving touchdowns last year for the Broncos, while Sanders has 11 receiving touchdowns in his four-year career.
The Broncos could make Sanders a big part of the offense in 2014. Gase is being creative with the way that he’s been using the veteran receiver at minicamp. This could be a sign of things to come in the regular season.
Sanders should be able to catch 75 or more passes this year. There’s a chance that he could join Demaryius Thomas in the team’s 90-catch club. Sanders should be projected for about 1,200 receiving yards and six or seven touchdowns.
Another big part of the league’s most dangerous passing game is tight end Julius Thomas.
He became a star last year for the Broncos. Julius Thomas is a former basketball star from Portland State who finally stayed healthy and played up to his enormous potential in 2013. After missing most of the first two seasons of his pro career, Thomas put himself on the map in a big way last season.
The year, Thomas could produce at an even higher level. Even with the career-best numbers of 2013, Thomas still missed two games due to a minor knee injury. The loss of Decker could also lead to more red-zone targets for Thomas in 2014.
Thomas creates mismatches every time he’s on the field. He’s too fast for linebackers to cover underneath. He’s also too large for safeties to cover when running down the middle seam.
His 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns could just be the tip of the iceberg in terms of production. Projecting Thomas to have 75 catches, 900 yards and 12 touchdowns is not outlandish in the least bit.
The ground game is going to be mostly about Montee Ball in 2014. Ball is the likely starter, and he could be the workhorse the Broncos have been looking for under John Fox. The team has spent a lot of time this offseason addressing having more balance offensively—that means more Ball.
Defenses will be preoccupied trying to slow down Manning and the passing game. This will lead to boxes that aren’t stacked against the run at all. Ball should be able to take advantage of those looks more than last year’s starter Knowshon Moreno did.
In 2013, Moreno ran against six or fewer defenders in the box on 79.7 percent of his carries. Giving Ball around 270 carries against those type of defensive fronts could work out very well for the Broncos. Ball is tough to bring down between the tackles as he runs with great determination and leg drive.
Ball is not a big-play threat, but he can pick up plenty of yards after contact. He’ll spend most of the time running between the tackles to wear down an opponent. Ball has a fantastic nose for the end zone, and he’ll see plenty of carries near the goal line in 2014.
He’s not the receiving threat that Moreno is, so he could haul in fewer than the total (60) Moreno snared in 2013. Ball has impressed the coaching staff with his improved hands, so catching 40 passes is not out of the question.
Ball could have 250 or more carries this year as the team emphasizes a more balanced offense. They won’t take the ball out of Manning’s hands in critical situations, but they will try to grind out the clock late in games.
Projecting Ball for 260 carries, 1,200 yards rushing, 12 rushing touchdowns, 40 catches, 350 yards receiving and two receiving touchdowns should be fairly accurate.
The offensive line for the Broncos has a new look this year.
Left tackle Ryan Clady missed most of 2013 with a Lisfranc injury that he suffered in Week 2 against the Giants. He is near full strength now, and Clady should be more than fine by the start of the regular season. Having Clady back in the lineup only helps protect Manning even better than the Broncos did before.
Left guard is now going to be manned by Orlando Franklin. He started at right tackle last year but has been moved inside for 2014. Franklin is a mauler as a run-blocker, and his pass-blocking problems will be covered up a bit more playing guard on the inside.
The center position is likely going to be Manny Ramirez. He started all of the 2013 season at center, but the team added a center through free agency (Will Montgomery) and the draft (Matt Paradis) for competition. Montgomery is the biggest competition to Ramirez, but so far he hasn’t worked with the first team in offseason workouts.
Right guard is locked up by one of the best in the game. Louis Vasquez is a tough, hard-nosed player who loves to dominate opponents. He’s a fantastic run-blocker and equally as talented in pass protection.
Right tackle is an unsettled position right now. Chris Clark filled in for Clady last year at left tackle. He did a decent job at that spot for most of the year, and he has a slight edge as the front-runner at right tackle over veteran Winston Justice.
When looking at the construct of the offensive line this offseason, it’s clear to see that Denver wanted more beef up front. This is first and foremost to protect Manning better. However, more size up front will also help them run the ball more effectively against physical defenses like that of Seattle or San Francisco.
While the offense may look quite similar (in terms of production) to last year, the defense is looking to make marked improvement.
One of the biggest changes will be up front on the defensive line. DeMarcus Ware is one of the best pass-rushers to ever play this game. He’ll one day be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but his career isn’t over just yet.
Ware is trying to prove that he has plenty left in the tank after a disappointing 2013 season that saw him produce only six sacks. He’s not yet at full strength after battling an elbow injury most of last season. Ware should be near full strength at the start of the regular season, and projecting him for double-digit sacks is a good baseline number.
Sylvester Williams was a first-round pick by the Broncos last year. He received plenty of experience as a rookie, and now he’s ready to take the next step this season. He’s strong, quick off the line and can create interior pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Next to Williams will be Terrance Knighton. The veteran defensive tackle has seen a resurgence of his career after reuniting with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. The duo had previously worked together in Jacksonville when Del Rio was the head coach. Knighton’s size allows him to stuff the run with ease, and when he received playing time in the nickel package Knighton could create some pressure on the passer.
Derek Wolfe is returning from the neck injury he suffered last year. The injury led to seizure-like symptoms and caused him to only play in 11 games in 2013. Wolfe is now healthy, weighing in at 295 pounds—the largest he’s ever been as a member of the Broncos. We’ll see if Wolfe can pick up where he left off before the injury and continue to develop into a quality defender.
The linebacker position is going to look a bit different this year.
Von Miller is coming back from a torn ACL he suffered in Week 16 against the Houston Texans. His 2013 season was one to forget. He missed the first six games of the year because of a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
He gained 15 pounds of muscle to hold up better against the run last year, and he didn’t look quite as explosive off the edge because of it. The weight is gone this year, and Miller seems rejuvenated with the addition of Ware.
Miller may be ahead in the recovery process, and the team is going to be cautious with him as he comes back from this injury. He’ll likely be limited in training camp as the team prepares him for the start of the regular season.
If he can return to form, Miller could push for 15 or more sacks in 2014. Opponents will certainly have their hands full trying to block both Miller and Ware. This duo is a key component for the Broncos defense, and their success will resonate across the entire unit.
Nate Irving gets his shot to play middle linebacker for the Broncos this year. He was a fine reserve strong-side linebacker last year, and he showed better in coverage than he did earlier in his career. Irving is a strong tackler, and he should be able to at least work well as a run defender for the Broncos this season.
Danny Trevathan has developed into a standout player for the Broncos. He’s fantastic in coverage, and Trevathan can bait opposing quarterbacks into bad throws. Trevathan flies to the ball from his weak-side position, and he can regularly be counted on to make plays against both the pass and the run.
The secondary for the Broncos received the biggest face-lift this offseason.
Adding cornerback Aqib Talib is a big move for the Broncos. Talib has the size, strength and speed to hang with any top target in the league. He’s even shut down the likes of superstar tight end Jimmy Graham (New Orleans Saints), and Talib will take away half the field for the Broncos in 2014.
Chris Harris Jr. is coming back from the partially torn ACL injury he suffered in the playoff victory over the San Diego Chargers last year. If healthy, he should start opposite his former college teammate Talib on the outside. When the team plays in its nickel package, Harris could move inside to make way for another fantastic addition.
Bradley Roby was a standout player at Ohio State because of his size/speed combination. He’s a physical defender who loves to rough up opposing wide receivers. Roby has incredible speed which helps him stay in the back pocket of receivers on downfield routes. He also has the click-and-close ability to jump routes or run plays that break down in front of him.
The addition of Talib and Roby should be able to help the Broncos immediately. Their addition could also greatly aid the team in the postseason.
#Broncos Roby needs to help them in postseason Pass D L2 Yrs Reg season 57.8% comp, Postseason 62.4%, Reg season YPA 6.8, Postseason YPA 8.3— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) May 9, 2014
The team’s first move in free agency this offseason was to add strong safety T.J. Ward. He’s an incredibly gifted player who can play as an enforcer for the Broncos in 2014.
Ward is an intimidating presence as he regularly stuffs the run or brings down a receiver with natural violence. Opponents will be fearful of running routes over the middle of the field with Ward on patrol. In addition to playing strong safety, Ward can also line up at middle linebacker in a nickel package.
Rahim Moore is back at free safety after missing about half the year with a lower leg injury. His 2013 may have been cut short, but Moore looked fantastic before the injury forced him onto the injured reserve-designated to return list. His confidence returned in 2013, and Moore should be able to pick up where he left off in 2014.
Defensively, the Broncos may be able to perform better this season. In 2013 they ranked 19th in yards allowed per game (356.0), 27th in passing yards allowed per game (254.3) and 22nd in points allowed per game (24.9). Clearly, they needed to make changes mostly on the defensive side of the ball.
If they can climb into the top 20 (at least) in these categories, it will greatly help the team’s performance in 2014.
Overall, this team has the potential to win 14 or more games in 2014. The schedule is certainly tough, but the talent on both sides of the ball is there.
The upside is there for the Broncos to win 14 games, but a different outcome is also possible. They’ve won 26 games over the last two years, and with all this talent it’s difficult to project them winning less than 11 or 12 games in 2014.
Injuries are the great equalizer, but outside of an injury to Manning—the Broncos have enough depth at other positions to win double-digit games this season.
If Manning were to miss time, the team would turn to third-year pro Brock Osweiler. He’s had his struggles during minicamp this offseason, but working with these weapons would help him out greatly. The Broncos could probably win eight games if Osweiler started most of the season.
If Ball goes down to injury, the Broncos have a potential star in backup running back C.J. Anderson. The second-year runner is the team’s only true power back, and he has a fantastic initial burst. He could be a quality starter for the Broncos if called upon.
If Welker or Sanders miss time because they’re banged up, the team would turn to rookie Cody Latimer. He’s a future starter for this team with incredible potential. Latimer has a large wingspan and the speed to be a downfield threat. He could start on the outside or even from the slot if the team needed him to.
The offensive line has many quality backups added through the draft and free agency. It were able to lose Clady last year and still won 13 games. Clady is the team's best lineman, and the Broncos didn’t really miss a beat without him.
Defensively, the team has a great rotation on the defensive line. If called upon, guys like Malik Jackson, Quanterus Smith or Kevin Vickerson could produce with a larger role.
They also have built good depth at the linebacker position. Lerentee McCray missed his rookie season in 2013, but he’s a great option at strong-side linebacker if need be. Lamin Barrow is a rookie with the potential to be starting at middle linebacker this year.
The secondary lacks quality depth behind Talib, Roby and Harris. Kayvon Webster was a third-round pick last year, and he received plenty of experience as a rookie. He’s the best option the team has as a reserve corner, but Tony Carter might be asked to do more in case of injury.
A reserve player that could really star with a larger role is strong/free safety Quinton Carter. He’s missed most of the last two years due to a knee injury that required microfracture surgery, but he had the makings of a star before the injury.
Outside of a Manning injury, the Broncos are built for the long haul at other positions. Provided that Manning stays healthy, the Broncos should finish with at least 10 wins in 2014.
Let’s take a look at the league’s second-toughest schedule.
A Look at the Broncos Schedule
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, vs. Indianapolis, 8:30 p.m. – It’s Peyton Manning versus his old team for the second time in two years. Best Case: Denver opens up the year with a big win at home against a playoff-caliber team. Worst Case: Manning struggles against his old team again.
Broncos Likely Record: 1-0
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, vs. Kansas City Chiefs, 4:25 p.m. – The Chiefs surprised many in 2013 when they made the playoffs. Best Case: Denver beats up on a team that lacks the offensive firepower to keep up with Manning and the passing game. Worst Case: The Broncos fail to stop the Chiefs' new-look pass rush and lose a close game.
Broncos Likely Record: 2-0
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at Seattle Seahawks, 4:25 p.m. – Revenge will be on the minds of Broncos Country when the team travels to Seattle to play the Seahawks, but this is not a revenge game—it’s not in the playoffs! Best Case: Denver shakes off the 12th man, goes vertical with the passing game and gets the big win. Worst Case: The team struggles to protect Manning adequately and gets beat again by the NFL’s defending champion.
Broncos Likely Record: 2-1
Week 4: BYE
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, vs. Arizona Cardinals, 4:05 p.m. – This is not going to be an easy win. Best Case: Denver has too many weapons for the tough Cardinals defense to stop. Worst Case: Beat up by Seattle, Denver struggles against an opponent with a similarly tough defense.
Broncos Likely Record: 3-1
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at New York Jets, 1 p.m. – It will be good to see Eric Decker again, but the Jets have next to no shot of beating the Broncos. Best Case: Denver plays the game and gets an easy win. Worst Case: Decker and Michael Vick (or Geno Smith) go nuts in a shootout against Denver.
Broncos Likely Record: 4-1
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, vs. San Francisco 49ers, 8:30 p.m. – This game is going to be a lot like the game against the Seahawks from earlier in the schedule. Best Case: Denver has a strong showing against a worthy opponent it could face in the Super Bowl. Worst Case: The Broncos struggle to slow down Colin Kaepernick or the ferocious 49ers defense.
Broncos Likely Record: 4-2
Week 8: Thursday, Oct. 23, vs. San Diego Chargers, 8:25 p.m. – Like the Chiefs, the Chargers surprised some by making a playoff run in 2013. Best Case: Denver shows Mike McCoy a few wrinkles he didn’t know about. Worst Case: Philip Rivers exploits holes in the Denver defense.
Broncos Likely Record: 5-2
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, at New England Patriots, 4:25 p.m. – Another game in Foxborough for the Broncos here. Best Case: The Patriots sell out to stop the pass, and Montee Ball goes wild on the ground. Worst Case: The new-look Patriots passing game proves difficult for the Broncos to stop.
Broncos Likely Record: 6-2
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at Oakland Raiders, 4:05 p.m. – The Raiders are still terrible. Best Case: Denver gets an easy win. Worst Case: The “Black Hole” turns into a literal black hole.
Broncos Likely Record: 7-2
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at St. Louis Rams, 2 p.m. – This game is like the Cardinals game earlier in the schedule as the Rams have a nastier defense than some people think. Best Case: Denver holds off the Rams’ pass rush and soften them up with Ball. Worst Case: Sam Bradford eats his spinach and beats Manning in a shootout.
Broncos Likely Record: 8-2
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, vs. Miami Dolphins, 4:25 p.m. – The Broncos get an easy home game here. Best Case: A good performance that is balanced. Worst Case: Knowshon Moreno is actually healthy and plays out of his mind.
Broncos Likely Record: 9-2
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Kansas City Chiefs, 8:30 p.m. – The Broncos swept the Chiefs last year, but I always predict a home-and-home split for these two teams. Best Case: they get a win in a tough place on the road. Worst Case: Home-at-home split is what we usually get between these two teams.
Broncos Likely Record: 9-3
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, vs. Buffalo Bills, 4:05 p.m. – The Bills are in a “win-now” mode this season, but they don’t have what it takes to hang with Denver. Best Case: Easy win for Denver. Worst Case: Sammy Watkins shows off his amazing skill set in a high-scoring game.
Broncos Likely Record: 10-3
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at San Diego Chargers, 4:05 p.m. – The Broncos split with the Chargers last year, and that’s probably going to happen again this year. Best Case: They get the win in front of plenty of Denver fans. Worst Case: A home-at-home split.
Broncos Likely Record: 10-4
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 22, at Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m. – The Bengals are tough at home during the regular season before quarterback Andy Dalton chokes in the postseason. Best Case: Broncos beat a tough defense on the road. Worst Case: Dalton doesn’t choke just yet.
Broncos Likely Record: 11-4
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, vs. Oakland Raiders, 4:25 p.m. – Just like last year, the Broncos finish up the schedule with a game against the Raiders. Best Case: Osweiler takes over at halftime. Worst Case: Derek Carr sneaks a win late over an unsuspecting Broncos defense.
Broncos Likely Record: 12-4
As you can see, the floor and ceiling for this team are quite similar provided that Manning stays healthy. Regardless of their regular-season record, the Broncos should be able to make the playoffs and perhaps get back to the Super Bowl.
It’s really Super Bowl or bust for the Broncos. The floor is a run to the postseason—huge for most other teams in the NFL, but not Denver. The ceiling is winning it all—a realistic possibility for the Broncos.
It all comes down to building momentum for the playoffs, then playing better if/when they get to the Super Bowl.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.