2007 NFL Preview: Denver Broncos

Looking At 2006 In The Rear View Mirror

The Kansas City Chiefs needed to catch more breaks than Paris Hilton at an STD test to make the playoffs on the final week of the regular season and thanks to the Denver Broncos' failure against the San Francisco 49ers — among other things — the Chiefs made it in.

One week does not sum up a season, especially for the Broncos, who grew, shrunk, impressed, and disappointed throughout all of last season.

They started on a positive tip, stifling their opponents defensive and holding them to 10 points or less for the first seven weeks.

But then the Broncos faced their kryptonite, the Indianapolis Colts. They were shook and made into a slave in the page of the Colts' rhyme book, which hurt their confidence the rest of the way.

A large part of the problem was quarterback Jake Plummer, who was having his worst season as a member of the Denver Broncos. His completion percentage was just at 55.2% and his quarterback rating, which hovered around 90 in his three previous seasons, finished at 68.8. More importantly, his interceptions outnumbered his touchdowns for the first time in Denver.

Compounding the problems was the backfield, which has traditionally always been a strength.

The Bells, Tatum and Mike, were just barely adequate, although coach Mike Shanahan didn't have confidence in either one. Interestingly enough, when Tatum got hurt in the Colts game, both he and the offense were never the same afterwards. Tatum battled turf toes, which is a major hindrance for his home run speed.

After starting 7-2, then slipping into a two-game losing streak, Shanahan felt he had nothing to lose by inserting rookie quarterback Jay Cutler into the starting lineup.

Cutler was thrown into the fire and lost his first two games to eventual playoff teams, Seattle and San Diego. But even so, Cutler gave the Broncos a better chance to win than Plummer, and seemed more comfortable starting than most other rookie quarterbacks.

For the first time in a while, the Broncos' offensive line was not a strong unit. The coaches weren't too happy with the performance of tackle George Foster, while the Broncos lost their other tackle, Matt Lepsis, for the season after six games. Cutler was sacked 13 times in five games and even though they only allowed 31 sacks, that was still their most allowed since 2002.

On defense, the Broncos finally found a couple of legitimate cornerbacks to complement All-Pro Champ Bailey. Dominique Foxworth was a solid nickel back while Darrent Williams, who nailed down the starting role opposite of Bailey, was also a nice boost as a punt returner.

The main issue with the Broncos defense is the same issues it has been for last five years: they don't generate enough pressure.

Quarterbacks frequently had a lot of time to pick apart their secondary and even though they had a talent group of defensive backs, they were asked to cover too long.

This is one of the reasons that the Colts and their prolific passing game have dominated the Broncos (see the Colts' 2007 game-winning drive versus Denver).

Using Letters to Breakdown Numbers: Pass Rush

The Broncos defense has been right around 35 sacks per season over the past five years, but their pressure has been far from consistent.

While they did have their share of sack artists last year (Elvis Dumervil: 8.5, Ebenezer Ekuban: 7, Kenard Lang: 6), nobody will ever mix up the Broncos' pass rush with the San Diego Chargers.

In 2005, the Broncos line accounted for a measly 15 sacks.

There is no semblance of dominance here. Another way of saying that is that there is no real consistency.

Against New England, Indianapolis, Seattle, and both San Diego contests, the Broncos accumulated only four sacks, three of which were by the defensive line.

Last year — and for the last few years — the Broncos have had a number of quality parts along the long (Trevor Pryce and Reggie Hayward to name a couple), but they haven't had a cornerstone.

As of now, the Broncos have a few complementing pieces who can generate sacks, but don't necessarily open up opportunities for others.

Players like Tommie Harris or Julius Peppers ‚ obvious franchise players that are not readily available — are the type of players that could headline this unit. These type of guys attract attention on every single snap, which will make the complementary pieces like Dumervil, Ekuban, and Lang significantly better.

Clearly, the Broncos agree since they spent their first two draft picks (and three of their four) on defensive linemen, in search of that one special guy who can help take this unit — and defense — to the next level.

What Happened to That Running Back Factory?

On draft day, many people speculated that Tatum Bell would eventually put up Clinton Portis numbers. All right, so that didn't work out.

For years, the Broncos have always had an in-house solution in the backfield. From Terrell Davis, to Portis, to Orlandis Gary, to Reuben Droughs, to Mike Anderson. Last year, they it was supposed to be one of the Bells, but the plan didn't come to fruition. So for the first time in a while, the Broncos have looked to free agency to fill their starting spot and they've caught a big fish this year.

At an NFL combine, Travis Henry probably wouldn't rank first in many categories. But Henry is "very good" at almost everything and is a perfect fit for the Broncos.

For starters, Henry's five-year, $22.5 million contract is very reasonable given the demands of many other backs.

Secondly, Henry has proven that he can handle wear and tear, as well as adversity, particularly after Buffalo ditched him. He has also shown a willingness to learn and improve on his weaknesses. After three NFL seasons, Henry was labeled as a fumbler after coughing up 13 in his first three years. He has only lost two since.

Henry has worked in a similar offense before and should post some career-highs in Denver.

Should I Be Worried About Cutler?

It might not be fair to call Jake Plummer a scumbag, but I am going to shortly.

The Broncos have been a playoff team and an AFC contender for the past four seasons with Jake Plummer. With that scumbag under center, Broncos fans and coaches have been holding their breath each week hoping that Plummer doesn't cost them the game.

With Cutler leading the way, the Broncos can't — and won't — be worse. The Broncos will be a more confident team behind Cutler, who is a natural leader and has legitimate franchise quarterback talent.

Expect him to have some rough patches, but the Broncos are adept at dealing with a quarterback that can give away the game at any point.

The Broncos will go as far as Cutler can take them this year and while he won't have to win them many games, he should be ready to. A full offseason of work will speed up his growth and considering his poise in the final two games last season, as well as the confidence everyone surrounding the team is investing in him, I wouldn't be too worried.

Super Bowl-Bound?

The Broncos' offensive line, running game, and passing game will be much better this season.

I've dealt with the quarterback and running back situation, so let's move on to the other parts.

While Rod Smith's career may be on the fringes, the Broncos finally have enough receiving weapons with or without him.

Javon Walker put his injuries behind him and showed his playmaking ability last year, which makes him the top target. Behind him, there are injury concerns all the way around.

Brandon Marshall looks like the best No. 2 candidate, but he has battled various minor injuries that have kept him from repetitions on the field. Domenik Hixon could be a good complement, but missed his entire rookie campaign. Smith and free agent Brandon Stokley are also off serious injuries from a year ago.

If all healthy, the Broncos should have a corps that can range from adequate to dangerous.

The Broncos have a numbers of tight ends who can alleviate pressure and add to the passing game. Tony Scheffler, who recovering from a broken foot, is an excellent receiving tight end with downfield capabilities. The Broncos also signed free agent Daniel Graham, who is an excellent blocker and a decent receiver.

The Broncos have so many passing options here that Cutler could have a field day once he finds his feet. And the Broncos will always have a potent run game to fall back on.

On defense, the Broncos have done a makeover on their defensive line, adding Sam Adams, Jimmy Kennedy, Tim Crowder, and Jarvis Moss. The most important addition may be the one on the sidelines as the Broncos hired an excellent defensive coordinator in Jim Bates. The Broncos have been too much of a basic defense under Larry Coyer.

Adams had arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason and the hope is that he still has something left in the tank. If he does, combined with a healthy Gerard Warren, the Broncos will once again clog the gaps in the center of the line.

The Broncos are hoping that Moss can be special for them right off the bat. If he is, combined with the attention that Adams and Warren should receive, the pass rush should be improved. At the very least, the Broncos have enough talent to keep mixing in players until they find the right rotation.

The linebacking corp — also a strength for so many recent seasons — poses a couple of trepidations.

Defensive leader and captain Al Wilson was released and will be replaced in the middle by D.J. Williams. Williams has never played there before, but he has the talent to be an asset in the middle, as well.

The major problem is that with Williams shifting to the inside, it leaves a gaping hole on the outside. Warrick Holdman, who started in Washington last season, will probably keep the job. He's not a game-breaker, but he should be decent.

After the tragic death of Darrent Williams, the Broncos bounced back quickly and acquired a former Pro Bowler, Dre Bly. He'll see a lot of passes his way since no one throws at Bailey, but should be able to hold his own. Sometimes he's overly aggressive and gives up big plays as a result.

With an improved scheme and the additions of Moss and Bly, the Broncos defense also has taken steps in a positive direction.

The offense and defense are both Super Bowl-caliber. There is balance all the way through and this team can go to the Super Bowl if Cutler can take them there.

New England Patriots Killers

Not many teams have defeated the Patriots in the past six seasons, but the Broncos are one team that has their number. They have faced each other five times since 2001 and the Broncos have won four of the meetings. The Broncos know how to beat New England and are one of the few teams that will be capable of stopping them this year. But everything works in reverse if the Broncos have to face the Colts in the playoffs...

Biggest Weakness: Proven Commodities At QB, DE, OLB — The Broncos are a veteran team, but with Cutler, a influx of young defensive ends, and some anxiety at the spot that D.J. Williams vacated, there aren't any proven solution quite yet.

Offensive X-Factor: Jay Cutler — Quite simply, the Broncos will go as far as he can take them. That might be the third time in this article I've said that.

Defensive X-Factor: Jim Bates — Bates worked magic in Miami and then Green Bay. The Broncos need his touch to get them to the next level.

Fantasy Market: Buy Low

For the past decade, the Denver backfield has been a fantasy gold mine. Every year, experts are dissecting how the carries will be shared and who might possibly be the main guy. Now that Travis Henry is that guy, people are waiting until rounds two or three to pick him up. Broncos running backs have rarely made it past round two in recent drafts and the guys with Henry's talent have usually been top five or six. Henry should finish around 1,500 yards rushing with upwards of more than 7 touchdowns.

"Vegas" Dave Golokhov hosts "THE Fantasy Show" on Hardcore Sports Radio, channel 186 on Sirius Satellite Radio, beginning September. Send media requests, thoughts, love letters, or hate mail to [email protected].

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