Year Two of the Peyton Manning era for the Broncos doesn’t have an air of finality to it; if Manning emerges from the season upright and as healthy as he did in his first year following multiple neck surgeries, he should be in fine shape to return in 2014 for what would be his 17th NFL season.
But the Broncos prepare for training camp with a palpable sense of urgency to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years. Much of the Broncos’ core is at or approaching its prime; 15 projected starters have five years or less of previous experience. But Manning is 37 and cornerback Champ Bailey is 35, and although they played at a Pro-Bowl level last year, their time is starting to run out.
The Broncos’ primary offseason expenditures were designed to help both likely Hall of Famers push the Broncos back over the top. On offense, Denver added wide receiver Wes Welker to give Manning another elite target and added former Chargers guard Louis Vasquez to upgrade the right guard spot. The poaching of Welker from the Patriots grabbed the headlines, but Vasquez could prove more crucial; in four seasons, he has allowed just 8.5 sacks — only a half-sack more than the Broncos’ right guards permitted of Manning last year.
Defensively, the Broncos let go of Tracy Porter and signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to play right cornerback opposite Bailey. Talent was never a problem for Rodgers-Cromartie in five previous seasons, but motivation and consistency were. The Broncos hope that the examples set by Bailey and nickel back Chris Harris will rub off on the 2008 first-round pick and spur him to finally reach his potential.
Denver lost Elvis Dumervil after a fax-machine snafu prevented the Broncos from successfully renegotiating a pay cut in his contract; he was cut and signed with Baltimore. But between younger defensive tackles, returning defensive end Robert Ayers and free-agent pickup Shaun Phillips, the Broncos believe they have enough to replace Dumervil’s sack production in the aggregate.
Strengths: Manning remains among the elite quarterbacks in the sport and had his best statistical season in eight years. Three receivers are coming off 1,000-yard seasons, and Welker has transitioned smoothly into the Broncos’ offense after six years catching passes from Tom Brady. Von Miller is already one of the game’s elite pass rushers, and has also become an elite run defender as a strong-side linebacker. The cornerback corps is one of the league’s deepest, with nickel corner Chris Harris an underrated gem who can play every down, if need be. Punter Britton Colquitt has broken a slew of team records, and returner Trindon Holliday scored four times in just 12 total games last year — although he remains prone to fumbles.
Weaknesses: Although the Broncos expect Derek Wolfe and first-round rookie Sylvester Williams to bolster the interior pass rush, they also need Robert Ayers and April signee Shaun Phillips to adequately replace the pass-rush production of Dumervil. Ayers should represent an upgrade over Dumervil in defending the run, but has never been as effective as an edge pass rusher, which is where the ex-Charger Phillips can help. Kicker Matt Prater needs to add consistency to his leg strength, and needs to avoid the second-half fade he endured last year, which left his field-goal percentage among the lowest in the league. The running back corps is talented, but lacks experience after Willis McGahee’s release.