2015 NFL Offseason: Denver Broncos

Denver Broncos (Last Year: 12-4)

2015 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
TE Owen Daniels, TE James Casey, G Shelley Smith, C Gino Gradkowski, DE/DT Antonio Smith, DE/DT Vance Walker, ILB Reggie Walker, S Darian Stewart.
Early Draft Picks:
DE/OLB Shane Ray, OT Ty Sambarilo, TE Jeff Heuerman, C/G Max Garcia, CB Lorenzo Doss. Broncos Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
WR Wes Welker, TE Julius Thomas, TE Jacob Tamme, G Orlando Franklin, C Will Montgomery, DE/DT Mitch Unrein, NT Terrance Knighton, ILB Nate Irving, S Rahim Moore.

2015 Denver Broncos Offense:
Peyton Manning managed to break Brett Favre’s career touchdown record last year, but the 2014 campaign was one of his worst seasons as a pro. Laboring through a torn quad during the final month, Manning looked like a helpless old man in upset losses to the Bengals, Rams and Colts. Manning still threw for 39 touchdowns, but he hurled six interceptions compared to just three scores in his final four regular-season contests.

Manning has had time to heal, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll remain healthy, or that he’ll even be completely effective if he’s 100 percent. Manning turned 39 in March, so the drop-off that every athlete faces at some point will be arriving soon. Perhaps it even happened in 2014, and the quad injury wasn’t the true culprit. There’s a chance Manning will revert to dominant form – if anyone can at 39, it’s him – but he could just as easily begin his quick decline.

With that in mind, the Broncos needed to do everything in their power this offseason to make sure Manning is protected as well as possible. The problem, however, is that the offensive line figures to be much worse in 2015 than it was last year. The big factor is that Ryan Clady sustained a season-ending ACL tear in May. The blind-side protector didn’t enjoy his best season in 2014, but at just 28, there was no reason to think that he couldn’t rebound, especially in Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme.

The team also lost Orlando Franklin in free agency to rival San Diego. Franklin was Denver’s best blocker, and he will sorely be missed on the interior. The pedestrian Shelley Smith, who was signed over from the Dolphins, will start in Franklin’s place, but will likely continue to struggle.

Franklin wasn’t the only lineman who departed; center Will Montgomery left the squad as well. Montgomery wasn’t a talented blocker, but he was solid enough to be a capable starter. The Broncos traded for Gino Gradkowski to be a replacement, but the former Raven was woeful when given the chance to start. He’ll compete with fourth-round rookie Max Garcia for the job next to mediocre right guard Louis Vasquez. Meanwhile, the right tackle spot is up for grabs between inept veteran Chris Clark, second-round rookie Ty Sambrailo, and 2014 third-rounder Michael Schofield. The latter is exceptional when it comes to escaping from prison, but it’s unknown how he’ll perform on the field.

Manning didn’t just lose blockers; he’ll be without one of his top weapons from the past couple of seasons, as Julius Thomas signed with the Jaguars. Not having Thomas will be huge, so Manning will have to lean even more on Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Given that Demaryius Thomas is threatening to hold out, that could be an issue. Owen Daniels, who will once again join Kubiak, as well as Cody Latimer, who was chosen in the second frame of the 2014 NFL Draft, will both have to step up to fill the void created by Julius Thomas’ departure.

The strongest part of Denver’s offense last season was the rushing attack. C.J. Anderson took over for the injured Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, and he never looked back. He was exceptional at times, posting back-to-back 160-yard outings. There’s no guarantee Anderson will retain the starting job with a new coaching staff in place, but he should be able to flourish in Kubiak’s blocking scheme.

2015 Denver Broncos Defense:
It’s pretty absurd that Von Miller has been so dominant in the NFL despite not playing in the best system to suit his strengths. That would be a 3-4 type of defense, and that’s exactly what the Broncos will run in 2015 and beyond under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

Miller, who registered 14 sacks in 2014, could approach Michael Strahan’s single-season mark, now that he’ll be asked to rush the passer more often. Miller has a great chance to eclipse Strahan’s figure of 22.5 because the opposition won’t be able to pay complete attention to him. With DeMarcus Ware generating pressure on the other side, that’s simply impossible. The Broncos also have Shane Ray as a seemingly capable backup; the first-round rookie was once considered a top-10 prospect before off-the-field issues surfaced. If either Miller or Ware gets hurt, Ray should be able to fill in as a capable starter.

The Broncos lost a player this offseason who would’ve been a logical fit for their 3-4 when Terrance Knighton signed with the Redskins. Knighton’s run-stopping ability will be missed, and it’s currently unclear if Denver has a capable starting nose tackle. Sylvester Williams, a 2013 first-round selection, will get first crack at it, but he hasn’t proven to be a quality player in his first two seasons. Perhaps Phillips will be able to get the most out of him. If he ends up starting at nose tackle, he’ll be flanked by ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, both of whom are quality linemen. Jackson in particular was outstanding in 2014 in all aspects.

The secondary is also a strong area, for the most part. It was difficult to throw on the Broncos last year because they had two terrific outside cornerbacks in Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. The former was so stellar that he received a 5-year, $42.5 million extension. Both are in their prime, so they should continue to play well, while nickel Bradley Roby, a 2014 first-rounder, figures to improve.

The one potential area of weakness in the secondary is at safety next to T.J. Ward. Rahim Moore has moved on, so former Raven Darian Stewart figures to start. Stewart is just an average player who should be a backup.

While Stewart could be a liability, the glaring weak point of Denver’s defense is at inside linebacker. Brandon Marshall was fantastic last year prior to getting hurt, but who’s going to play next to him? Danny Trevathan, Reggie Walker and Steven Johnson are all major question marks.

2015 Denver Broncos Schedule and Intangibles:
The thin Denver air creates a hostile environment for opponents, which explains why it had an NFL-best 77-18 home record from 1995 to 2005. The team tailed off after that, but has since reestablished its great homefield advantage. With Peyton Manning under center, the Broncos are 24-4 as hosts, including the playoffs.

The Broncos had kicking issues during the 2014 campaign until they brought in Connor Barth. He was a near-perfect 15-of-16, though he tried (and converted) only one attempt from 50-plus.

Punter Britton Colquitt was outstanding in 2012, maintaining a 42.1 net average, ranking third in the league. However, he dropped to 24th in 2013 with a 38.8 average and was even worse in 2014 (28th, 37.6).

The Broncos need to improve their special teams. The opposition outgained them both in punt and kickoff returns last year, and Denver even surrendered one touchdown, failing to score any themselves.

Denver has a taxing schedule. In fact, it’s only slated to be favored by six points or more just three times, and two of those contests are against Oakland (the third is home versus Minnesota). The Broncos have to battle the likes of Baltimore, Detroit, Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and of course, San Diego and Kansas City twice each.

2015 Denver Broncos Rookies:
Go here for the Broncos Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.

2015 Denver Broncos Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2015 Denver Broncos Analysis: Peyton Manning has constantly fallen short in the playoffs, but he’s unquestionably the best regular-season quarterback in NFL history. Whether he can claim another divisional title at 39 remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be wise to bet against him. Of course, things will be different come playoff time. Manning will likely suffer yet another early postseason exit, even if his pedestrian offensive line manages to keep him upright throughout the contest.

Projection: 10-6 (1st in AFC West)

2015 Fantasy Football Rankings

More 2015 NFL Season Previews

NFL Draft Team Grade: B Grade

Goals Entering the 2015 NFL Draft: Peyton Manning doesn’t have much time left in this league, so the Broncos have to do everything in their power to surround him with the best talent available so that they can win a Super Bowl in the next year or two. At the same time, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if Denver uses a second-day choice on a signal-caller to eventually replace Manning.

2015 NFL Draft Accomplishments: Did the Broncos do “everything in their power” to surround Manning with the pieces for a final Super Bowl run? It sure seems as though they tried to. I liked that they moved up for Shane Ray at the end of the first round. Ray may not have made it to their pick, so the trade was necessary. He’ll be a future starter once DeMarcus Ware moves on, but his primary function right away will be providing needed depth at outside linebacker.

Most of Denver’s other choices were solid choices. Jeff Heuerman, Max Garcia and Lorenzo Doss all fit the range and addressed positions of need that Denver had on its roster. Heuerman and Garcia have a shot to start as rookies.

The one pick of John Elway’s that I didn’t like very much was Ty Sambrailo in the second round. He also fills a need, but happened to be a reach. However, that one blemish won’t be enough to move Denver out of the solid “B” range for its overall grade.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

23. Shane Ray, DE/OLB, Missouri: B+ Grade
I stupidly dropped Shane Ray to the third round in the wake of his arrest, but I was told to slot him back into the first round. I ultimately had Ray going No. 22, so this is definitely the right range. Ray would’ve been a top-10 selection if it wasn’t for his off-the-field issues, so Denver is getting a potential steal. Ray won’t start right away, but he’ll provide quality depth behind Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and ultimately take over for the latter once he retires.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

59. Ty Sambrailo, OT, Colorado State: C Grade
Meh. That’s how I feel about this pick. Meh. Ty Sambrailo was a third- or fourth-round prospect for me, so Denver is picking him a bit early. Still, the selection makes sense, as the Broncos had to find an upgrade at the right tackle position to help protect the ancient Peyton Manning.

92. Jeff Heuerman, TE, Ohio State: B Grade
I think I had Jeff Heuerman slotted to the Broncos at this juncture in one of my updates. Thus, I can’t really argue the pick, as it makes a ton of sense. Heuerman fits the range as a late third-round prospect, and he definitely fills a need in the wake of Julius Thomas’ departure to Jacksonville.

133. Max Garcia, C/G, Florida: B Grade
The Broncos had to keep adding to their offensive line, and they’re getting a solid fourth-round prospect at the end of that very frame. Max Garcia can play center and guard, so it’ll help to have his versatility on hand.

164. Lorenzo Doss, CB, Tulane: B Grade
Lorenzo Doss was a fifth-round pick, and he fits a need as a player who can give the Broncos some cornerback depth, so he’s a logical choice. Doss is a small corner, but he can fit in as a slot player.

203. Darius Kilgo, NT, Maryland: B Grade
A new nose tackle for Wade Phillips. After losing Terrance Knighton, the Broncos were expected to find a replacement much earlier than this, so I’m shocked they waited this long. Darius Kilgo, who got a ton of interest in the pre-draft process, was projected to go in this area.

250. Trevor Siemian, QB, Northwestern: B- Grade
The Trevor Siemian selection is curious, as the Broncos passed over some other quarterbacks like Shane Carden or Brandon Bridge. I don’t think this is a bad pick though, as Siemian will have a chance to become a long-term backup.

251. Taurean Nixon, CB, Tulane: C Grade
Taurean Nixon wasn’t on my radar at all. He’s a good athlete, but has a long way to go before he can see the field in the NFL.

252. Josh Furman, S, Oklahoma State: C Grade
Josh Furman played linebacker at Oklahoma State and Michigan, but he’ll be relegated to special teams as a pro. I don’t see him making Denver’s roster.

Season Summary:
Another year, another one-and-done playoff choke job for Peyton Manning. The Broncos are in a tough spot, as Manning will turn 39 this offseason. How much longer can they keep going with him, knowing that he’ll keep regressing, and he’ll just disappoint come January regardless?

Offseason Moves:
  • Broncos sign TE James Casey
  • Broncos sign DE/DT Antonio Smith
  • Bears sign C Will Montgomery
  • Broncos acquire C Gino Gradkowski and 2016 5th-rounder from Ravens for 2016 4th-rounder
  • Broncos sign S Darian Stewart
  • Colts sign ILB Nate Irving
  • Broncos sign ILB Reggie Walker
  • Falcons sign TE Jacob Tamme
  • Chargers sign DE/DT Mitch Unrein
  • Broncos sign G Shelley Smith
  • Redskins sign NT Terrance Knighton
  • Broncos sign DE/DT Vance Walker
  • Texans sign S Rahim Moore
  • Broncos sign TE Owen Daniels
  • Broncos re-sign S Virgil Green
  • Broncos re-sign ILB Steven Johnson
  • Jaguars sign TE Julius Thomas
  • Broncos tender CB Tony Carter
  • Chargers sign G/OT Orlando Franklin

    Team Needs:
    1. Center: Denver’s top priority is upgrading the offensive line so that it can keep Peyton Manning upright next season. The center position has been a big need for quite some time. The front office should spend an early pick on an upgrade. Traded for Gino Gradkowski

    2. Right Tackle: Here’s another position that must be addressed up front. The Broncos had poor production from the right tackle position all year. They may use their first-round pick on an upgrade.

    3. Wide Receiver: Demaryius Thomas is a free agent. The Broncos will need to retain him, despite his drops in the playoff loss to Indianapolis. Franchised Demaryius Thomas

    4. Tight End: The other Thomas is about to hit the market as well. He struggled with an injury down the stretch, but he remains one of the most explosive tight ends in the NFL. Signed Owen Daniels and James Casey

    5. Nose Tackle: The Broncos actually have four key players about to hit the market. Terrance Knighton is the third. He was a major reason why Denver was so dominant against the run.

    6. Guard: Orlando Franklin is the fourth key free agent. He was one of Denver’s better blockers this past season. Signed Shelley Smith

    7. Safety: Rahim Moore, who also has an expiring contract, wasn’t the same last year after coming off a brutal leg injury. Denver may want to find someone new to play next to T.J. Ward. Signed Darian Stewart

    8. Inside Linebacker: The Broncos will be using Brandon Marshall in the middle of their new 3-4 defense. They could use more help here. Signed Reggie Walker

    9. Defensive Line Depth: With the Broncos transitioning to the 3-4, they could use some pieces for that scheme. Signed Antonio Smith

    10. Quarterback: The Broncos need a quarterback to take over in the future. Brock Osweiler doesn’t seem like he would be that guy, as he has not looked good in limited action, but I’m sure Denver’s coaching staff will give him a chance.

    11. Kicker: Denver had some kicking issues during the season. Connor Barth did well toward the end, but this position will need to be addressed.

    12. Punter: Britton Colquitt has been in the bottom 10 of net punting average the past two years.

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2015 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Darian Stewart, S, Ravens. Age: 27.
      Signed with Broncos (2 years)

      Darian Stewart has dealt with numerous lingering injuries throughout his tenure in St. Louis, but his first year in Baltimore was a healthy and successful one. Stewart is an adequate starter when 100 percent.

    2. Antonio Smith, DE/DT, Raiders. Age: 33.
      Signed with Broncos (1 year)

      Antonio Smith took the money and ran to Oakland last offseason, so he was a predictable disappointment. He was able to generate a decent pass rush, but struggled mightily against the run. He turns 34 in October, but can still be a decent rotational player in a 3-4.

    3. Owen Daniels, TE, Ravens. Age: 32. — Signed with Broncos (3 years, $12 million)
    4. Vance Walker, DE/DT, Chiefs. Age: 28. — Signed with Broncos (2 years, $4 million)
    5. Shelley Smith, G, Dolphins. Age: 28. — Signed with Broncos
    6. Reggie Walker, ILB, Chargers. Age: 28. — Signed with Broncos
    7. James Casey, TE, Eagles. Age: 30. — Signed with Broncos

    Denver Broncos Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos. Age: 27.
      Franchised by Broncos

      Demaryius Thomas showed flashes even before Peyton Manning arrived in Denver, but Manning’s presence allowed Thomas to play on an otherworldly level. He just had his best season, catching 111 passes for 1,619 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    2. Julius Thomas, TE, Broncos. Age: 27.
      Signed with Jaguars

      Julius Thomas does not function well as a blocker, but he’s one of the most athletic tight ends in the NFL. He has caught 24 touchdowns in the past two years, which isn’t a surprise considering who his quarterback has been. An ankle injury slowed Thomas down at the end of the 2014 campaign.

    3. Terrance Knighton, NT, Broncos. Age: 29.
      Signed with Redskins (1 year, $4 million)

      Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton is one of the top run-stuffers in the NFL. Unlike most nose tackles, however, Knighton can put a decent amount of pressure on the quarterback; including the playoffs, he had five sacks in 2013, which is a big number for a 330-pounder.

    4. Orlando Franklin, G/OT, Broncos. Age: 27.
      Signed with Chargers (5 years, $36.5 million; $20 million guaranteed)

      Orlando Franklin’s transition from right tackle to left guard was a successful one; though he was heavily penalized, he surrendered just one sack and blasted open huge running lanes for C.J. Anderson. Franklin’s versatility will help him on the open market.

    5. Rahim Moore, S, Broncos. Age: 25.
      Signed with Texans (3 years, $12 million)

      Rahim Moore nearly lost his leg a year ago because of lateral compartment syndrome and didn’t look like the same player in 2014. However, he’s still young (25 on Feb. 11), so perhaps he can get back to where he was. Moore didn’t play poorly this past season, but he wasn’t nearly as effective.

    6. Nate Irving, ILB, Broncos. Age: 27.
      Signed with Colts (3 years)

      Nate Irving is pretty strong against the run, but proved to be a liability in coverage this past year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He needs to be on the field for only two downs.

    7. Will Montgomery, C, Broncos. Age: 32. — Signed with Bears
    8. Virgil Green, TE, Broncos. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Broncos
    9. Wes Welker, WR, Broncos. Age: 34.
    10. Tony Carter (RFA), CB, Broncos. Age: 29. — Tendered by Broncos
    11. Quinton Carter, S, Broncos. Age: 27.
    12. Jacob Tamme, TE, Broncos. Age: 30. — Signed with Falcons
    13. Steven Johnson (RFA), ILB, Broncos. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Broncos
    14. Mitch Unrein, DT, Broncos. Age: 28. — Signed with Chargers
    15. Curtis Marsh, CB, Broncos. Age: 27.
    16. Jeremy Stewart (RFA), RB, Broncos. Age: 26.
    17. Kyle Williams, WR, Broncos. Age: 28.


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