Originally written on The Sports Headquarters  |  Last updated 8/24/12

2011 in a Nutshell: 8-8 AFC West Champions; Lost Divisional Playoff

Last year was one of those seasons where, as a Broncos fan, you spent the entire year wondering what the hell was going on. After an awful 1-4 start Kyle Orton was replaced as the team’s starting quarterback by Tim Tebow who won his debut against the Dolphins thanks to some late game heroics before being on the end of a 45-10 beating at home by the Lions. From there, with a 2-5 record things got crazy for the Broncos, the defense stepped up big time and the offense… well it did the bare minimum helping the team to a six game winning streak that took them to 8-5 and seemingly a guaranteed division title. Despite a three game losing streak to end the regular season the Broncos won a three-way tie of mediocrity to claim the division and fall into a playoff matchup against the beat-up Steelers. A phenomenal passing day from Tebow helped the Broncos to a 29-23 overtime victory, leading to a divisional round match against the New England which brought their season to an end. A near-perfect first half from Tom Brady had the Patriots up 35-7 by halftime and the Patriots ended the Broncos season with a 45-10 victory.

2012 Season Motto: Make every play count!

Personnel Performance

After salvaging the 2011 Broncos season, Tim Tebow had the equivalent status of the deity he worships in the Colorado area and looked like he could be a long-term option for the Broncos to build around. John Elway, the team’s decision maker was not entirely sold on what he saw from Tebow and sought to replace him in the only way possible, by bringing in Peyton Manning. The entire quarterback position for the Broncos was overhauled in the offseason with former Bear Caleb Hanie signed to compete for the backup spot with rookie second round pick Brock Osweiler.

Overall free agency was not kind to the Broncos as the team lost several key players as part of the Elway/Manning overhaul. Safety Brian Dawkins retired just before the draft instead of re-signing with the team, he will be replaced by eight year veteran Mike Adams who was signed away from Cleveland having started all 16 games for them last year tallying three interceptions. The defensive line took some big hits too with tackles Marcus Thomas, Broderick Bunkley and Ryan McBean both departing, McBean was a restricted free agent but had his tender rescinded after incurring a suspension for violating the substance abuse policy so losing him may not be a bad thing.

Also departing the Broncos were receiver Eddie Royal, tight ends Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario, linebacker Mario Haggan, as well as interior offensive lineman Russ Hochstein. They were able to retain some key players though with linebacker Joe Mays and kicker Matt Prater returning to the team. Joining the Broncos through free agency were some old friends of Manning’s, receiver Brandon Stokley was brought in to add some familiarity as was tight end Jacob Tamme who will no doubt be glad to have Manning throwing him the ball after last year’s quarterback carousel. The man who made a crucial interception of Manning in Super Bowl XLIV, Tracy Porter, was also signed in free agency to bring some playmaking skill to the secondary. Directing that defense now will be former Jaguars head coach Jack del Rio, replacing Dennis Allen who made the jump to Oakland to take over the head coaching role there.

With all of the moves made in free agency the Broncos were in a position where they were able to address depth rather than talent shortages in the draft. After trading out of the first round thanks to a pair of deals with the Patriots and Buccaneers, Denver went to work on day 2 to shore up their roster. Their first move was to draft Cincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe at number 36 and he figures to receive some situational playing time this year. Afterwards they drafted Brock Osweiler who will be given a playbook and a cushion to sit on for this year. Their steal of the draft came in the third round when they picked up running back Ronnie Hillman out of San Diego State who had a very productive career with the Aztecs. He will be below Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno and Lance Ball on the depth chart but if he manages to get on the field he could be hard to take off.

Key Player for 2012: Peyton Manning – QB

Ok this is the easy, lame choice to make here but this is the guy who will decide if the Broncos are successful this year or not. We all know about the neck problems, we all know about how he is somewhere between 50 and 90 percent of what he used to be but the fact of the matter remains, if Manning sucks after Elway invested so much in acquiring him and made a complete turnover of the roster to make him happy, then things could get very ugly in Denver. Based off his performances so far in the preseason, Manning is slowly working his way back to form but he still has a way to go. In the preseason so far Manning has been relatively successful in limited work, going 20 of 30 for 221 yards and three interceptions. When Manning drops back to pass, he still looks like a person coming off a major injury and is trying to overcome the mental scars. In the pocket he looks more skittish than normal and his throws are still lacking that same zip he used to have. Considering the severity of Manning’s injury it’s fair for him to be nervous and it will take some time for him to recover. Mentally though, Manning looks like he is his same old self making reads and picking apart defenses. If he is anything like what fans are used to seeing then he will guide the Broncos to a comfortable division title, if not then it could lead to a tough season.

Season Expectations

Maybe it was due to the fact they had a quarterback incapable of completing a pass, but the Broncos running game was a major strength for the team last year. Leading the pack this year will be Willis McGahee who experienced a career revival in his first season as a Bronco last year, rushing for nearly 1200 yards. Backing him up will be Knowshon Moreno who is recovering from a torn ACL and is looking to kick start his career after a disappointing start so far and Lance Ball who performed well in spot duty last season. A good running game is important for the Broncos this year as they will need to keep the defense off Manning. Every receiver on the Broncos is primed for a potentially spectacular season thanks to the change at quarterback, however the prime candidate will be Demaryius Thomas who is finally healthy after going into the last two seasons battling injuries. Thomas has the big play potential to excite fans and a quarterback who will be able to get him the ball. Look for Thomas to match his current career output this year if he manages to stay healthy.

Last year the Broncos defense had one of the toughest jobs in the league but they somehow managed to succeed despite being asked to hold teams to two scores or less so that Tebow could pull out some crazy stuff at the end of the game. When fully available, the Broncos linebackers are the strength of the team with D.J. Williams and Von Miller serving as bookends for Joe Mays in the middle. It will be a while before they are at full strength however as Williams is serving a six game suspension at the start of the season. There is some quality depth on offer for the Broncos too with Wesley Woodyard and Keith Brooking fighting for playing time (the latter has been battling a hamstring injury throughout camp but could contribute if given the chance). In the secondary Champ Bailey leads the group and is still playing at an elite level despite being much closer to retirement than his draft day. He will be paired with Drayton Florence on the corners with safety help coming in the form of Mike Adams and Rahim Moore and again behind those four there are plenty of starting calibre players including Tracy Porter, David Bruton and Jim Leonhard (also if he is in fact healthy). Up front Elvis Dumervil is the key man in the pass rush, if he can produce double digit sacks then it will go a long way to helping the defense be successful. Dumervil should benefit from the addition of Manning as he will get more opportunities to rush the quarterback this season.

On paper (and maybe in Madden) the Broncos schedule looks rather tough but as we all know things change over the course of the season. They open up with two primetime appearances, first at home to the Steelers on Sunday Night Football before a trip to Atlanta on Monday Night Football. Their biggest game comes in week 5 when they travel to New England for another edition of the Brady versus Manning rivalry.

Final: Will they be better or worse off than last year?

Until I see physical proof that Peyton Manning is not himself come the start of the regular season I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he will be fine. Therefore the Broncos will get double digit wins this year and make the divisional round of the playoffs at least.

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