|08-30-2007, 08:59 PM||#1|
Join Date: Apr 2006
Denver Broncos 2007 Season Preview
After an offseason littered with tragedy and transition, the Denver Broncos believe they're about to embark on a glorious new era.
When we last saw the Mile High City's favorite sons, the Broncos had closed out the calendar year 2006 with a disheartening overtime loss to the upstart San Francisco 49ers. A second-half collapse that become an all-too-familiar refrain during the course of last season not only cost Denver a victory in that season finale, but also a spot in the AFC's postseason parade.
New Year's Eve 2006 may have been a bad night for the organization, but New Year's Day 2007 turned out to be far worse. Just a few hours after that painful defeat, starting cornerback Darrent Williams was killed in a drive-by shooting after leaving a downtown club.
The bad tidings didn't stop there. Less than two months after Williams' murder, reserve running back Damien Nash collapsed and died following a charity basketball game. In April, Denver released middle linebacker Al Wilson, the heart and soul of the team's defense, because of salary and injury concerns.
Despite all that turmoil, there's plenty of reason for optimism for the new- look Broncos in 2007. A bountiful offseason landed big-play corner Dre' Bly in a trade with Detroit and two other impact players, running back Travis Henry and tight end Daniel Graham, via free agency. That trio will be among a host of new faces for a proud franchise that viewed last year's 9-7 finish as a major disappointment. As many as 11 players (six defensive, five offensive) considered starters on last year's squad are either no longer with the Broncos or have been relegated to reserve status.
The most significant chance, however, took place with five games to go in the 2006 regular season. That's when head coach Mike Shanahan handed the keys to the Denver offense to quarterback Jay Cutler. While the rest of his team wilted during the stretch run, the rifle-armed rookie displayed skill and poise that Bronco fans hadn't seen since the legendary John Elway walked off into the sunset nearly a decade ago with the ultimate retirement gift -- a Super Bowl victory.
Cutler's eyebrow-raising audition and immense potential have re-energized a rabid fan base that never completely bought into the Jake Plummer era, but the grace period may be short for the newly-anointed franchise savior. The Broncos weren't that far away from returning to the league's elite last year and enter 2007 with high expectations.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2007 edition of the Denver Broncos, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2006 RECORD: 9-7 (t2nd, AFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2005, lost to Pittsburgh, 34-17 in AFC Championship
COACH (RECORD): Mike Shanahan (123-69 in 11 seasons with Broncos, 131-81 overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rick Dennison
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jim Bates
OFFENSIVE STAR: Jay Cutler, QB (1001 passing yards, 9 TD, 5 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Champ Bailey, CB (85 tackles, 10 INT)
OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 8th rushing, 25th passing, 17th scoring
DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 12th rushing, 21st passing, t8th scoring
FIVE KEY GAMES: Jacksonville (9/23), San Diego (10/7), at Detroit (11/4), at Kansas City (11/11), at Oakland (12/2)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Patrick Ramsey (from Jets), RB Travis Henry (from Titans), FB Paul Smith (from Rams), WR Brandon Stokley (from Colts), TE Daniel Graham (from Patriots), G Montrae Holland (from Saints), T Ryan Harris (3rd Round, Notre Dame), DE Jarvis Moss (1st Round, Florida), DE Tim Crowder (2nd Round, Texas), DT Jimmy Kennedy (from Rams), DT Sam Adams (from Bengals), DT Alvin McKinley (from Browns), DT John Browning (from Chiefs), LB D.D. Lewis (from Seahawks), CB Dr Bly (from Lions, March 2), P Todd Sauerbrun (from Patriots)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Jake Plummer (retired after trade to Buccaneers), RB Tatum Bell (to Lions), RB Cedric Cobbs (released), RB Damien Nash (deceased), T George Foster (to Lions), G Tim Duckworth (to Saints), G Cooper Carlisle (to Raiders), DE Ebenezer Ekuban (out for season/injured), DE Kenard Lang (released), DE Courtney Brown (released), DT Michael Myers (to Bengals), DT Gerard Warren (to Raiders), LB Al Wilson (released), LB Patrick Chukwurah (to Buccaneers), LB Warrick Holdman (out for season/injured), LB Keith Burns (not tendered), CB Darrent Williams (deceased), P Paul Ernster (released)
QB: Although Cutler had moments where he looked like a raw rookie struggling to grasp the speed and complexity of NFL defenses, there's no debating the fact that the Denver offense was a more efficient and effective operation with him at the controls than when the mercurial Plummer was running things. The Broncos averaged 24.8 points and 320.8 yards in Cutler's five starts, compared to 17.7 points and 304.3 yards under the command of Plummer, who was shipped to Tampa Bay in March and subsequently retired. One-time Redskins quarterback- of-the-future Patrick Ramsey was signed in the offseason to provide Cutler with a seasoned understudy. The former first-round pick has started 24 career games during his five-year career.
RB: The Broncos sent 1,000-yard rusher Tatum Bell to Detroit as part of the trade which reeled in Bly, then quickly filled that void by signing Henry just days after the powerful back was cut by Tennessee in a salary-related move. The six-year pro rebounded strongly from two injury-plagued seasons to rush for 1,211 yards with a career-best 4.5 yards-per-carry average last year, and should thrive in Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme that has made stars out of lesser players (see Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns) if he can stay healthy. Mike Bell (677 rushing yards, 8 TD, 20 receptions) was a nice rookie find, as the undrafted free agent showed good short-yardage and receiving skills during his debut campaign, and gives the Broncos a reliable backup. Denver's depth at fullback, where both returning starter Kyle Johnson and ex-Ram Paul Smith are capable blockers and receivers, has enabled the team to switch talented bruiser Cecil Sapp (80 rushing yards, 8 receptions) to tailback and compete with Mike Bell for No. 2 duties.
WR/TE: The receiving corps underwent a changing of the guard in 2006, as Javon Walker supplanted longtime stalwart Rod Smith as Denver's top target. The former Packer delivered an excellent first season with the Broncos, snaring 69 passes for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in spite of the team's instability under center, and emphatically proved that an ACL tear which cost him virtually the entire 2005 campaign was no longer a concern. Smith's 52 catches and 512 receiving yards last season were his lowest totals since 1996, and the 37-year-old figures to be further phased out due to the emergence of gifted youngster Brandon Marshall (20 receptions, 2 TD), the offseason signing of veteran Brandon Stokley, plus a slow recovery from spring hip surgery which will likely cost the franchise icon at least the first six weeks of the regular season. Stokley (8 receptions, 1 TD) also has injury issues, as an Achilles tear limited him to just four games in '06, but the 31-year-old can be a valuable presence in the slot if he comes back 100 percent. Marshall flourished when given an extended look late last season, and the second-year wideout has the size and speed to become a dangerous big-play threat for years to come. Graham (21 receptions, 2 TD) comes over from New England to provide an upgrade over the workmanlike Stephen Alexander (18 receptions, 2 TD) and is expected to play a significant role in the air attack. So is fellow tight end Tony Scheffler (18 receptions, 4 TD), a speedy field-stretcher who developed a good rapport with Cutler as a rookie. Brian Clark and Domenik Hixon, the latter of whom spent his entire debut season on injured reserve, will supply depth and help out in the return game.
OL: This media-shy group has long been a staple of the Broncos' success under Shanahan, but the unit underperformed as a whole last season. The left side of tackle Matt Lepsis and guard Ben Hamilton is very good, while five-time Pro Bowl honoree Tom Nalen remains a master technician as he enters his 14th NFL season at center. Last year's right-side regulars, Cooper Carlisle and George Foster, were both inconsistent, however, and subsequently are now drawing paychecks from other clubs. Undrafted free agent Erik Pears started 10 games after Lepsis went down to a season-ending knee injury in week six of last season and has a slight edge on brittle vet Adam Meadows in the battle for the starting nod at right tackle. Free-agent acquisition Montrae Holland (New Orleans) and second-year man Chris Kuper are competing for snaps at right guard. The reserve force, which should include interior player Chris Myers, converted tight end Chad Mustard and rookie tackle Ryan Harris, is promising but unproven.
DL: This area has undergone a major facelift under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who has installed a scheme that relies on oversized tackles clogging up the interior and quick ends whose primary task is to pressure the quarterback, something the Broncos have had trouble doing in recent years. Denver will head into Week 1 with four new starters on the line, as Gerard Warren and his cap-eating contract were exiled to Oakland during preseason, fellow tackle Mike Myers left via free-agency and sturdy end Ebenezer Ekuban (63 tackles, 7 sacks) is out for the season after he ruptured his Achilles in the second preseason game. Kenard Lang, the incumbent left end, was recently cut after losing his starting job to John Engelberger (30 tackles, 1 sack). The Broncos brought in four seasoned linemen -- tackles Sam Adams (14 tackles, 2 sacks with Cincinnati) and Jimmy Kennedy (39 tackles, 1 sack with St. Louis) and versatile ex-Brown Alvin McKinley (45 tackles, 1 sack with Cleveland) -- during the offseason and added three inexperienced ones in 2007 draftees Jarvis Moss (1st round), Tim Crowder (2nd) and Marcus Thomas (4th). Crowder appears to have the inside track at taking over Ekuban's spot, while Moss and second-year standout Elvis Dumervil (17 tackles, 8.5 sacks) should give Denver a pair of young explosive pass rushers. Amon Gordon, a seldom-used third-year tackle who spent last year on the practice squad, has worked has way into a possible starting gig alongside the beefy Adams, who's still an effective run stuffer at age 34 but needs a limited workload. Kennedy, the former first- round washout in St. Louis, and Thomas will also be part of the inside rotation.
LB: D.J. Williams (76 tackles, 1 sack), a mainstay on the strong side since his rookie season of 2004, has been moved to the middle to fill the sizeable void left by the departure of Wilson, who went to five Pro Bowl's during his eight-year tenure in Denver. Williams is faster and more athletic than Wilson but will be hard-pressed to match his predecessor's instincts and leadership skills. Oft-injured veteran Nate Webster (11 tackles) is the probable new starter at the SAM position and can also shift inside if Williams struggles, with the speedy and steady Ian Gold (90 tackles) back to man the weak side. Former Seahawk D.D. Lewis (9 tackles, 1 sack) was signed to serve as the primary backup, but depth has been thinned due to a season-ending spinal cord injury suffered by Warrick Holdman, a 16-game starter for Washington last year, during training camp. Louis Green (8 tackles) and journeyman Wesly Mallard (12 tackles) are both quality special-teamers who should fill out the roster.
DB: Easing the pain of Darrent Williams' loss, at least from a football standpoint, is the addition of Bly (59 tackles, 3 INT), a two-time Pro Bowl participant who will team with the incomparable Champ Bailey to give Denver arguably the best cornerback tandem in the game. Bailey may have had the most dominant year of any defensive player in the NFL last season. Teams rarely threw his way, yet the perennial All-Pro still tied for the league lead with 10 interceptions along with 11 passes defended. Both corners are proficient in man coverage, which should ease the burden on aging safeties John Lynch (83 tackles) and Nick Ferguson (35 tackles, 1 INT). Although free safety Lynch's range has declined, the hard-hitting 36-year-old compensates with smarts and his patented all-out mentality. Ferguson's knee problems which forced the eight-year pro to IR last November are a concern, but Curome Cox (27 tackles, 1 INT) and underrated nickel back Dominique Foxworth (61 tackles, 1 INT) are both capable fill-ins. Karl Paymah (26 tackles) will reprise his role as the dime corner, while fellow Washington State alum Hamza Abdullah (11 tackles) is considered Lynch's possible heir apparent.
SPECIAL TEAMS: While Jason Elam's leg strength isn't quite what it used to be, the 15th-year kicker is still deadly accurate inside 50 yards and is coming off a banner 2006 in which he made a career-best 93 percent (27-of-29) of his field goal attempts. Paul Ernster (41.7 avg.) was nothing special on punts and kickoffs, however, and did not survive the first round of cuts due to the return of veteran Todd Sauerbrun, who averaged nearly 44 yards a punt with the Broncos in 2005 but was cut loose after being hit with a four-game suspension to begin last season. Quincy Morgan (24.9 avg.) did a good job running back kickoffs last year and Hixon, a terrific return man as a collegian, is the favorite to take over Darrent Williams' job of handling punts. The reliable Mike Leach will be back for his sixth consecutive season as Denver's long snapper.
PROGNOSIS: Last year's Denver squad couldn't live up to the lofty standards set by the 2005 edition, which won 13 games and reached the AFC title game, and that feeling of underachievement was evident in the way the roster was overhauled in the spring. It's unclear whether such a drastic makeover was necessary, however, considering the fact that the Broncos lost four games at home in which they held second-half leads last season. One of those stinging setbacks was dealt by eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis, and another came at the hands of powerhouse San Diego. The pieces are in place for Denver to present a serious challenge to the Chargers for AFC West supremacy and for a deep playoff run -- it's just not certain yet whether they will fit. A remodeled defense will need time to jell but has the potential to be quite good, while the offense could border on unstoppable provided the young skill players continue to make strides and Henry can remain healthy. But the success of the 2007 Broncos will ultimately be dictated by how Cutler holds up under the grind of a first full NFL season as a starter.