Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Broncos Go All in For Manning

By Brad Oremland

Peyton Manning turned 38 yesterday. Only one quarterback has started for a Super Bowl winner after turning 38: John Elway. No quarterback has started for a Super Bowl winner after his 39th birthday.

Manning was the best QB in the NFL last year, but his window is closing. That laser, rocket arm isn't the same since his neck surgery, and it might not be realistic to expect that he can still perform at a championship level in two years.

The Broncos clearly understand this, so they're going all in for 2014. No team has created more headlines in free agency. They signed Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders. How much impact will those signings have? What will Denver look like this season?

The offense, which broke yardage and scoring records in 2013, figures to look pretty good. Knowshon Moreno is as good as gone, but evidently the team has faith in young running backs Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. Wide receiver Eric Decker signed with the Jets, but Sanders will fill his roster spot, for a fraction of the money. Decker got as much guaranteed money from the Jets (roughly $15 million) as Sanders will get in his entire three-year contract, and Sanders is a good player. He'll be Manning's fourth option as a receiver, behind Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, and tight end Julius Thomas. The team's 2014 offense should look a lot like its 2013 offense, though probably a bit more down to earth, just as a function of normal regression to the mean.

What's really created a buzz is the movement on Denver's defense. Champ Bailey is gone, replaced by Talib. That's a huge upgrade. Bailey is almost as old as Manning, and he hasn't been an elite player in years. Talib, as long as he stays healthy and keeps his head on straight, is one of the best cornerbacks in the league. The one really underrated signing is T.J. Ward. He doesn't carry the same name recognition as Talib and Ware, but Ward is one of best strong safeties in the NFL. He'll replace Duke Ihenacho in the starting lineup, or push him to another position. Denver's secondary suddenly has two very good players who weren't there last season.

DeMarcus Ware has probably generated the most publicity, but his signing is the most puzzling to me, the one that has the least obvious impact. The Broncos started two good pass rushers last year, Shaun Phillips and Von Miller. Phillips is a free agent, so I guess Ware will replace him, but it's not obvious, at this stage of their careers, that he's an upgrade. If Phillips does return — and that seems unlikely — then the Broncos have nice depth on the defensive line, but they'll have a Pro Bowler in a part-time role. I expected the team to target other positions.

Two thousand miles to the East, the New England Patriots are keeping pace. After losing to Denver in the AFC Championship Game, the Pats have been almost as aggressive in free agency as the Broncos. New England has improved its defensive backfield, despite losing Talib. The team signed Darrelle Revis and former Seahawk Brandon Browner, giving the Patriots probably the best pair of starting cornerbacks in the NFL. That ought to slow down any quarterback, including Manning.

Both teams have lost players who merit more attention. Moreno is a big loss for the Broncos, and left guard Zane Beadles signed with Jacksonville. Wesley Woodyard and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are gone. Shaun Phillips and Mike Adams will probably sign with other teams. The Broncos have lost more players than they've added. It's not all gravy. The Patriots have signed two star cornerbacks, but they've lost one, too, and linebacker Brandon Spikes signed with the rival Buffalo Bills. That's a big loss.

It's too early to declare anyone a Super Bowl favorite, but neither of the AFC's powerhouses is standing pat, and neither seems content. If the windows are closing for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, it appears they'll do so with a final blaze of glory.

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