There are two outcomes I can see happening in the AFC West in the upcoming season. On one hand, the Denver Broncos will utterly dominate the division like they did last season and clinching a title by week 12. On the other hand, their division foes may be able to put up a fight, much bigger than the efforts from last season. Considering the addition of two new coaches, Andy Reid to Kansas City and Mike McCoy to San Diego, combined with the improvemnt of those two teams, I tend to lead with the latter.
Let’s take a look at the AFC West and how it will shape up this season.
The San Diego Chargers stayed true to their typical form winning 3 out of their first 4 games and reverting back to their mediocre level of play over the past few seasons. They ended up finishing a disappointing 7-9, which was good enough for second in the very weak AFC West.
What plagued them the most, in my opinion, was their inability to protect Philip Rivers. You are not going to entirely convince me that this guy simply cannot play anymore. Yes the loss of Vincent Jackson has hurt him but their offensive line has not been up to par. When a quarterback gets sacked 79 times over the last two seasons (49 in 2012 and 30 in 2011), they become antsy in the pocket and will have a tendency to rush their throws, fearing the pocket is constantly collapsing. As such, Rivers has been prone to 35 interceptions within that same time frame.
What did the Chargers do to help improve their ability to protect the quarterback? They used their first round pick in the 2013 NFL draft on D.J. Fluker, a mammoth tackle out of Alabama, who stands at 6-5 and 339 lbs. While he has the pedigree as a First-Team All-SEC as well as a First-Team All-American, notice that I did not specify whether he was a left or right tackle. Well, that is because his skill set and size is ideal to be placed on the right side, which is the running side of the offensive line, yet the Chargers seem like they may want to utilize him on the left side. Either way, this was the selection to make, as he was the best tackle left on the board, after there was a big time run on them with the drafting of Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson. The rest of the line is nothing to ride home about; although Nick Hardwick remains one of the more solid centers in the league. King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker could make one of the biggest bookend tackle tandems in the league, but it will be interesting to see how they fare against speed rushers.
The rest of the offense is underrated, but still has a lot to prove. We know about Ryan Mathews’ struggles. Whether it is ball protection (12 fumbles in 3 seasons), staying healthy (10 games missed in 3 seasons) or overall consistency (only in 2011 did he have back-to-back 100 yard games in week 13,14 and 15), he remains one of the more frustrating players in the league. He has so much talent and he displayed many flashes of that in the 2011 season, but he was simply awful in 2012. He seemed not only slower but showed a lack of vision and football IQ for a third year player. At this point of his career, entering his fourth NFL season, he should be staying in games and not coming out of it because of his pass blocking. The Chargers will need a big year from him if they are to improve on a 28th ranked rushing attack in 2013.
With Mike McCoy at the helm, the Chargers will try and feature a slightly more balanced attack. McCoy is one of the best game planners in the league and he does a great job of playing to the strengths of his roster. In Denver, they ran a mixture of up the gut runs with Wilis McGahee and some inside zone blocking with quicker backs like Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno. I envision McCoy utilizing Mathews’ strengths, which is his straight-line speed and above average agility and quickness to ensure he does not need to be too decisive when making his reads while at the line of scrimmage.
At the wide receiver position, Danario Alexander finally showed some of the promise that the Rams were hoping to see when they drafted him as a 4th rounder in 2010. Although he is not a burner, he has good enough speed (similar to Vincent Jackson) to catch most balls over defenders. Alexander was one of the leaders in yards per catch last year (17.8 ypc). I recall last season a beautiful 80-yard touchdown by Alexander, where he broke several tackles and made defenders look bad. A mid-season pickup from the Chargers, he played 10 games and and ammassed 37 catches for over 650 yards and 7 touchdowns. Expect a big year from the former Missouri Tiger and he should easily eclipse the 1000-yard mark.
On the opposite side of Alexander, is the steady and reliable Malcolm Floyd who is getting up there in age, but is still adept at catching the deep ball with his 6-5 frame He caught 56 balls for a little over 800 yards. He fits in well as a solid number 2 receiver. The drafting of Keenan Allen was a steal. As long as his knee checks out fine, after slipping in the draft due to a poor 40-yard dash time, Allen has the potential to be a very good possession receiver because he possesses good hands and is a great route runner. The return of Vincent Brown, who suffered a devastating injury last season, should be music to Rivers’ ears, as he showed good chemistry with Brown in 2011. At the tail end of the depth chart, Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal will hope to re-kindle success they had with other teams and apply that to the Chargers receiving corps. They will duel it out for duties at the slot position. It would not surprise me if one of them gets cut.
The one aspect of the Chargers receiving corps that is a given, aside from their high yards per catch total, is Antonio Gates being the main player to stop. Regardless of his injuries and age, he is still the focal point of defensive game plans for opposing team. Philip Rivers’ struggles are typically tied to Gates and how he performs and vice-versa. If Rivers can find more time in the pocket and avoid turning the ball over, Gates can still be a near 1000-yard receiver next season, as long as he is healthy.
On defense, the Chargers are devoid of star talent at the key positions however; they still managed to finish middle of the pack in many defensive categories.
Eric Weddle is the anchor of the secondary and the team’s best player. He is solid on coverage, but terrific against the run, which helped the Chargers achieve the 5th least rushing yards per game in the league.
The rest of the secondary, with the defection of Quentin Jammer is a big question mark. Derek Cox was added in the offseason from Jacksonville. He is solid, but more suited to be a number 2 corner. Look for Shareece Wright to be asked to play a focal role and start opposite Fox. He was highly rated in the 2011 draft, despite being drafted in the 3rd round.
The linebackers on the onset seem unproven and raw but I like this corps especially with the addition of Dwight Freeney. Now, it will be interesting to see if he can fit in a 3-4 scheme the second time around, as he had trouble adjusting to Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defense in Indianapolis.
Manti Te’o will be getting all the publicity during camp, but Donald Butler is the guy that teams know as the best linebacker of the group. He had a solid season last year and I look for him to get up to the 100 tackles plateau this year. As for Te’o, he inherits a team that plays the 3-4 style that he was accustomed to at Notre Dame. He is smart and he knows how to read plays instinctively. The concern teams had was during the National Championship, he was dominated by players who were much bigger than him (ironically by D.J. Fluker, his current teammate). Thankfully for Te’o, he has a very good 3-man front that should be able to protect him and keep him clean. You probably do not know the names of Coret Liuget, Cam Thomas and Kendall Reyes, but you will this season. They are all young and Reyes and Liuget can rush the passer quite well for 5-techniques. Along with Cam Thomas, all three lineman are terrific at taking on double teams, which will makes Te’o’s life that much easier.
The special teams features Nick Novak who has an accurate leg, but should not be counted on to consistently make long field goals. Mike Scifries is one of the best in the league and had a very impressive 30 punts inside the 20-yard line. The return game will need to improve, as I am not sure Eddie Royal is still the man to lead this aspect of the team.
The keys to the Chargers are Philip Rivers reverting back to his 2010 form and an improved and consistent running attack in which Ryan Mathews is featured. The defense is young and perfectly suited to play a 3-4. Schematically, defensive coordinator John Pagano will get the best out of this unit, with Freeney being the x-factor that could propel them to greener pastures in 2013.
The Kansas City Chiefs in 2012 managed to have 5 Pro Bowlers despite a 2-14 record. The culprits in their horrific season were mainly bad quarterback play and an inability to stop the run.
Their first order of business in the offseason, after the hiring of Andy Reid, was to get a proven Quarterback that would fit in the West Coast system that Reid has operated since his days as an assistant with the Packers. Alex Smith is not a world-beater, but he is certainly better than Matt Cassell or Brady Quinn. If you are looking for Smith to be your number one fantasy quarterback, you are badly mistaken. Smith is a game manager who can make enough plays with his arm and legs at key moments in the game to help a team win games. Before Colin Kaepernick became the starter, Smith had a quarterback rating of 104.1, despite only 173 yards per game. Now he enters a team with solid talent at the wide receiver positions and a top 5-7 running back. It is not inconceivable that he may post slightly better numbers, given Reid’s propensity to favour the passing game.
Speaking of the running attack, Adrian Peterson gets all the publicity and love affair for his magical season following a torn ACL. Lest we forget that Jamaal Charles also suffered an ACL tear last season, albeit in week 3 against the Colts. But regardless, Charles was 4th in rushing with just over 1500 yards and had a career high in carries with 285. It is typically well known that year 2 after ACL surgery is the one in which you hit your stride, although Peterson and Charles are debunking that myth better than anyone has ever done. The key for the Chiefs and their running game is Andy Reid and not putting barriers with how he utilizes Charles. Reid was often times LeSean McCoy’s biggest obstacle because he prefers to pass the ball. His play calling is at times inconsistent and mind numbing in key situations. Reid gets a second chance at a thoroughbred running back and he needs to realize that the run will only help set up the sophisticated passing game he implements.
Out wide, Dwayne Bowe got a big deal, to the tune of $56 million, $26 million of that guaranteed, despite a pedestrian season with 803 yards receiving on 56 catches and only 3 touchdowns.
Bowe has always been an enigma. He has so much talent but the production does not always match that. At times, it has been the fault of the signal caller and Bowe has dealt with some mediocre one’s, but he has also been the victim of his own inconsistency and drops in the past. With a new contract, more security and a better quarterback and scheme, there are no more excuses for Bowe. I expect a big season in the touchdown category, with an improved offensive scheme and talent at quarterback.
The rest of the receiving corps is hard to evaluate, again, with the inadequacy of the quarterback position from a year ago. Jon Baldwin made some big plays averaging over 16 yards per catch, but much more is expected out of the former 1st rounder. I love the addition of Donnie Avery, as the Chiefs have not had a legitimate deep threat who can run with any corner in the league in quite some time. Avery played well last season with Andrew Luck in a scheme that favoured the deep passing game but he can also play well in the slot position catching bubble screens and option routes. Reid, like he did in Philadelphia with DeSean Jackson, will find ways to free up Avery and he will catch 5 to 7 long passes in 2013.
Tony Moeaki is back after a season ending injury in 2012. He showed much promise after a solid first two seasons and he could post a nice 800-yard season in a scheme that favours tight ends. We all know how well Chad Lewis and Brent Celek have performed for the Eagles in the past and Moeaki has the skill set to equal and possibly better those numbers. The signing of Anthony Fasano is a good insurance in case Moeaki gets injured again.
Andy Reid’s pride and joy for this team will be the offensive line. Eric Fisher was unquestionably the right selection as he was more athletic and possessed the same skillsets as Luke Joeckel. Brandon Albert can either slide to the right side or stay at left tackle, but either way, the Chiefs are set at the bookend tackle position. The interior of the line is solid and led by Jon Asomoah, who spearheaded a top 10 rushing attack in 2012 that should be even better in 2013.
On defense, the Chiefs have enough talent to be a top 10 defense. Brandon Flowers has the ability to be a an elite corner. The additions of Sean Smith from Miami and Dunta Robinson from Atlanta will help secure a pass defense that was surprisingly middle of the pack. This could turn out as one of the better defensive back groups in the AFC by the end of the season. Look out for the Chiefs to utilize a lot of bump and run with physical and feisty corners in Flowers and Smith.
The league knows how good Eric Berry can be. Now it is time for him to take the next step to being an elite safety. His combination of speed and size makes him one of the best hitters in the league. Last season was his first coming off of an ACL injury and while he started out slowly, he ended the season in his last 7 games recording 44 tackles, 3 missed tackles and 28 stops, according to Arrowhead Addict. The next level is improvement in coverage where he tends to get lost, but all the tools are there for Berry to be a perennial Pro Bowler.
The linebackers are very good and led by Derrick Johnson, who had one of his best seasons as a pro. Johnson looked good in a 4-3 earlier in his career, but has flourished under the tutelage of Romeo Crennell and now Bob Sutton who has been on the Chiefs staff as a linebacker’s coach since 2006 and will now coordinate the defense.
Tamba Hali had a big year in 2010 with 14.5 sacks, but has been on a slight decline since. His 2012 season of 9.5 sacks is more in line with what you will get from Hali, which is solid pressure from the outside and good containment of the running game. On the opposite side, Justin Houston had a great year with 10 sacks and 66 tackles. The 3rd year pro looks to be a fixture on the Chiefs defense and together with Hali, they form a duo that should easily be able to combine for over 20 sacks in the coming years.
The front 3 is solid with Tyson Jackson, Dontari Poe and the addition of Mike DeVito. Poe was a rookie last season out of Alabama and has a high ceiling as an athletic nose tackle that has a mauling presence. DeVito is accustomed to playing in a 3-4 defense and can supplant as a nose tackle or a 5-technique end in a 3-4 scheme.
Schematically, Sutton as mentioned will be the new defensive coordinator this season. While he will employ the 3-4 like Crennell did, the early word is that this unit will attack much more than they did with Crennell. This means that the blitz may be coming from many places and the Chiefs may end up using multiple fronts by featuring Hali and Houston on the defensive line.
On special teams, Dustin Colquitt was a Pro Bowler and had a tremendous season with a punting average of over 46 yards. Ryan Succopp was solid as well and Dexter McCluster can bring back a punt to the house on any occasion.
The Chiefs can be a much-improved team depending on how well Alex Smith can learn Andy Reid’s playbook and develop chemistry with Dwayne Bowe. Their rushing attack is a major asset for a game managing quarterback. Defensively, they will have to be stout against the run and improve on a 28th ranked rush defense. The front 7 has enough talent to help solidify their run defense, which should be improved in 2013.
The Oakland Raiders are going through a re-branding and a rebuilding towards a new era. The last remnants of the Al Davis era have been jettisoned. Gone are the likes of Richard Seymour, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Rolando McClain, Michael Huff , Tommy Kelly and others. The Silver and Black are ushering in a brand new regime, led by former Green Bay Packer personnel man, Reggie McKenzie and already you can tell there will be big differences from the Al Davis way. There will be no more drafting players purely on their combine results. The best player available, combined with the player with the best football tools will be valued more than overall athletic ability, which usually leads to players with raw football skills. McKenzie will also make sure that the Raiders are not cap-strapped like they have been recently with some of the moves Davis approved. Currently, with all the player releases from this offseason, the Raiders have over $50 million in dead weight money, but will be in a position to have a lot of cap space over the next few seasons.
Statistically, the Raiders had a solid passing game with Carson Palmer, with over 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. Despite those numbers, the Raiders were 26th in points per game, largely due to an inefficient redzone touchdown conversion percentage and a non-existant rushing attack (42%).
Ultimately, the trade of Carson Palmer was one that needed to be made, as he does not fit a rebuilding roster at this point. Matt Flynn was acquired from Seattle and will compete with Terrelle Pryor and Tyler Wilson for the starting job. Flynn has only started two games, so while he has experience in the league, he has started only one game in his career. Of course, it was the game that put him on the map and the forefront, but he still has a lot to prove. Pryor is the hot commodity right now because he has the speed and athletic ability to run the ‘flavour of the month’ read option that is making waves in the league. He will need a big camp to show he can be accurate and scan the entire field to make his reads, which is typically an issue for young quarterbacks. Tyler Wilson is the wild card here. He had a miserable 2012 season for Arkansas, but was very good in 2011. The team derailed and had a terrible season, but many pundits believe that it was not his fault that he went from 24 touchdowns and 6 interceptions ion 2011, to 21 scores and 13 interceptions in 2012. Wilson possesses a big arm that scouts raved about and his throwing ability at the combine showed that he has a decent amount of potential. He should not be looked over as being a potential starter as a rookie, as Matt Flynn can attest to.
We know how talented Darren McFadden is and he has the ability to consistently be a plus 1400-yard running back. However, in 5 seasons as a starter, McFadden has missed 23 games and he has never completed a full 16 game season.
Adding to that, 2012 was his worst season as a pro, amassing only 707 yards on 3.3 yards per carry and only 2 touchdowns.
There are certain factors aside from his inability to stay healthy that contributed to his woeful season. One of them was former offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp. Knapp, not only deployed an extremely conservative passing attack but also implemented a zone blocking scheme that does not put into evidence McFadden’s immense talents. McFadden has enough speed to get around any defender and break long runs. With the zone-blocking scheme, he was forced to wait for blocks to materialize and then make a cut. Imagine having a thoroughbred that wants to simply go full speed but you are brining in the reigns on his speed. The former Razorback is best suited when he goes downhill and new offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who is from Jacksonville will ensure McFadden is properly utilized.
I wrote in a previous blog post that McFadden is a finished product at this point of his career, who may never be able to stay healthy. The best option would be for the Raiders to succumb to this thought process and start using Marcel Reece primarily as a second running back to McFadden. This will put another talented runner in the fold, as Reece is your prototypical true fullback from the old days. He caught 73 balls for over 490 yards last season and has enough talent to be a solid runner as well.
The offensive line is big and nasty and there is no reason for this team to not be at least a middle of the pack rushing attack. A zone scheme is not ideal for this offensive line, as they do not move very well laterally. Regardless, this is a very good unit led by Jared Veldheer and Steve Wisniewski. Menelik Watson is very raw and has only been playing football for a few years, but he has a load of potential and will step in and be the most athletic linemen on the time.
The receiving corps will have to adjust with the losses of Brandon Myers, who had a big year last season with 79 catches and just over 800 yards and to a certain extent, Darrius Heyward-Bey who started to show strides in 2011 with over 900 yards receiving, but regressed somewhat in 2013.
Denarius Moore is going to be the main target and will need to find more consistency in 2013. Looking at his first two seasons, he went from 33 catches and 76 targets in 2011, to 51 catches and 113 targets in 2013, amassing 618 and 741 yards respectively in each season.
As you can see, there was a much higher jump in the targets he had in 2013, but that only accounted for a jump in 123 yards from 2011 to 2012. His 7 touchdowns were an improvement as well but overall, we need to see more from Moore (bad pun intended).
He has the propensity to have a monster game and show the catching ability and route running that could make him a 1000-yard receiver. Then he has games where he simply disappears. In 2011, he had three 100-yard games. His first two were followed by absolute stinkers, to the tune of 66 yards in the next 5 games and then 27 yards in two games after his second 100-yard game. In 2012, he only had one 100-yard game, although he had a little more consistency. All that is to say that Moore needs to step up his game in 2013, especially with the Raiders going with a youth movement on his opposite flanker.
Rod Streater and Juron Criner have potential and one of them will surprise and be a focal point of the offense. The likelihood is Streater who is a 6-3, 200 lbs speedster, who averaged 15 yards per catch last season and ended the year with 351 receiving yards in his last 5 games.
On defense, the Raiders were 19th against the pass and 17th against the run, but their scoring defense was 28th in the league. With some decent additions in the back-end, they could potentially be better in 2013.
On paper, the secondary will be solid with some key additions. Many scouts considered D.J. Hayden as the premier cornerback in the 2013 draft. He is blazing fast and has better ball skills than his draft counterpart, Dee Millner He ended up sliding because teams feared a freak injury that almost took his life. Doctors have cleared him for all contact, therefore the after effects of his injury should be absolutely non-existant.. On the opposite side, Malcom Jenkins is a good corner who can cover some of the bigger wide receivers in the division. He will not be asked to consistently cover the number one receivers though as he does not possess elite speed as a corner. Jenkins in certain situations is best suited as a safety. Tracy Porter is a ball hawk and will be able to cover slot receivers as well as a lot of corners in the league. This was a very good pickup by the Raiders.
Tyvon Branch and Charles Woodson are still respectively very good players at their positions. Branch is a battering ram strong safety who has consistently been one of the better run stuffers in the league. Charles Woodson will continue to make the transition as a safety while being allowed to roam free around the line of scrimmage to blitz or help support the run. Woodson has definitely lost a step, but his experience will be crucial for this team.
The linebackers are all completely different from the previous season for Oakland. Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett and Kaluka Maiava will be asked to improve a rush defense that was middle of the pack last year. The unit is a little older, but still solid. Kevin Burnett will be a calming influence for a young defense and he is used to this 4-3 defense that the Raiders will deploy.
The defensive line sees a big change as well with some key losses from Richard Seymour, Matt Shaughnessy and Tommy Kelly. Look out for Lamaar Houston, who finally gets the opportunity to play the majority of the snaps to have a breakout season. Although some feel he is more suited as a 5-technique in a 3-4 defense, he has the strength and enough quickness to play on the edge in a 4-3 defense. Pat Sims proved to be a solid contributor on the interior defensive line alongside Geno Atkins, although he saw limited playing time for a Bengals team that had more defensive line depth. As a veteran, he should see much more playing time for the Raiders.
I like the re-signing of Andre Carter who can be better utilized as a pitch-count/situational pass rusher who can be deployed on third downs and obvious passing situations.
The defense should stay middle of the pack against the run and the pass and ultimately could wind up being better than last season with some younger additions on the defensive line and better secondary depth.
The Raiders special teams gets a big boost with the return of Jacoby Ford and the addition of Josh Cribbs. Together, they should form one of the best return tandems in the league. Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler both the quintessential kicking tandem in the NFL and should both be top 3 at their positions again.
The Denver Broncos are easily the consensus pick to win the AFC West division and potentially represent the AFC for the Super Bowl.
We know what we will get from Peyton Manning. After an average first 3 games, he turned in one of his best seasons by finishing second in quarterback rating, 6th in passing yards and 3rd in touchdowns. Make no mistake about it, the balls he through did not look as crisp as they used to and his tight spiral and arm strength were lacking. However, he still made terrific reads and accurate throws. As the season went on, his arm strength did get better and better, as the motion and strength in his surgically repaired neck got stronger and stronger.
It is hard to list the keys that will get Manning back to the Super Bowl. He is virtually always a lock for top 5 numbers all across the board. However, his playoff record is severely lacking. As one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, a playoff record of 9-11 with eight one and done postseason appearances is paltry at best as is his quarterback rating of 88.1 in said 20 postseason games. He will need to come up in the clutch or simply put more of a throttle on his opponents, so he does not need to worry about big comebacks like last season. At times, Manning will throw the key interception at the worst moment of the game and those will need to be avoided in the postseason for Manning to win a second ring.
At running back, the Broncos released Willis McGahee, meaning that Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno or Montee Ball will be sharing the running duties. Denver was the 16th best rushing team last season and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry as a unit. However, as is always the case in the NFL, the Broncos rushing attack was a tale of two teams. In fact, from September to November, the Broncos averaged 104.73 yards per game as a team, which would have made them the 23rd ranked rushing attack. In December, they trended upwards and averaged over 136 yards per game as a unit, which would have ranked them in the top 10. The injury to McGahee and promotions of Moreno and Hillman were crucial in improving a rushing attack that featured some zone read blocking, which was more suited to the more athletic runners in the aforementioned Moreno and Hillman.
Now you add in Montee Ball, who was a solid workhorse back in Wisconsin and you have the proverbial three-headed monster at running back that many teams are trying to deploy. Ball is not a spectacular runner and will be similar to Moreno where they will be patient with their blocks and use vision to beat you. Hillman is a speedster who can break a long run at a moments notice.
Ball will only see significant playing time on one condition: how well he pass protects for Peyton Manning. There have been running backs that had minimal to average talent for Manning in the past (Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai), but they stuck on the team and were fixtures due to their terrific pass protection. Manning often needs time to go through his progression a second time and as such, you need running backs that can pick up blitzes more than adequately.
Ultimately, there is a lot of depth in the running game. I personally feel Hillman has the most talent due to his speed, although he does not have ideal size. Regardless, this will be one of the better rushing attacks in the league, in my opinion.
The receiving corps is as good as any you will find in the league. Eric Decker and Demayrius Thomas had big years. Decker was great in the red-zone and in the intermediate game and Thomas was making plays all over the field. The numbers that both put up were staggering and reminded Broncos fans of the days of Ed McCafferey and Rod Smith. Respectively, Decker had 85 catches and over 1,000 yards whereas Thomas had 94 catches and over 1,400 yards. The scariest aspect for defenders is the addition of Wes Welker who should find even more room to operate than he did in New England. The key to route running in the slot is being able to set up your routes with jump cuts and quick hesitation moves that set up defensive backs, which Welker is terrific at. Additionally, you want to have a receiver who can beat you over the top and the Broncos have two of them. The possibilities are endless for them to integrate Welker into this offense. If you had to bank on anyone to take a slight dive statistically, it would be Decker as Thomas will definitely still get his fair share of targets.
Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen are anything but elite tight ends, but as far as the scheme they are in goes, they are perfect players for the two tight end sets Manning loves running in running situations as they are crucial in play-action situations.
The offensive line is as good as it gets in the conference. Ryan Clady, who is still awaiting a long-term deal after rejecting his franchise tender, is a top 5 left tackle. The Broncos will be wise to compensate him accordingly. The addition of right guard Louis Vasquez from the division rival Chargers will also be a big boost to the line. He is a big, physical blocker and according to Pro Football Focus, ranked 9th in pass blocking in 2012. For the term they got him for (four years, $23.5 million and $5 million guaranteed), that is an absolute steal.
Defensively, the fax machine saga received most of the buzz and while the defection of Elvis Dumervil will hurt the Broncos, defensively there is still a solid amount of talent. The unit that finished only second to the Steelers in yards allowed per game, features a strong pass rush with the likes of Robert Ayers and Von Miller. Miller was neck and neck with J.J. Watt for the lead in sacks last season and is an absolute terror because of the multitude of positions he lines up from. He can rush from a 3-point stance, in a motorcycle stance near the line or rush from his strong side linebacker position. Miller is one of the best at creating angles and dipping his body as low to the ground as possible and he has the strength to use inside moves or simply bull rush big mauling right tackles (like Andre Smith). The rest of the linebacker core is solid with Joe Mays and Wesley Woodyard who made big strides last season with over 100 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Shaun Phillips was acquired for some depth. He is more accustomed to a rushing from a 3-4 motorcycle stance, but he will be able to come in a pinch on obvious passing downs and rush either from the defensive line or the linebacker spot.
The defensive line received a big boost with the drafting of Sylvester Williams who slid far enough for the Broncos to get an absolute steal. Williams is in the mold of a Warren Sapp interior defensive lineman as he is athletic with a plethora of moves. He will need to improve his gap containment to stay on the field and not consistently worry about pass rushing. The team drafted Robert Ayers in the first round four years ago and he has simply not been a productive player. A paltry 6.5 sacks in four seasons is not getting it done and the time may be now for Ayers to show that he can be a solid contributor to this Broncos team. Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe round out the left side of the defensive line, which does its job, but is not spectacular in any way.
The secondary had a terrific regular season, but was torched repeatedly by Joe Flacco in the playoffs. Champ Bailey looked slow trying to cover Torrey Smith, getting burned on passing scores of 59 and 32-yard touchdowns. We all remember the Rahim Moore debacle late in the game, with Jacoby Jones catching a 70 yard touchdown pass in the waning moments of the game. Sadly each time you see the video, it looks as if Moore will make the play, but he simply never does. Both are good players and Champ remains one of the best corners in the game. To help him, the Broncos acquired Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who will be used to cover the faster receivers in the game. Rodgers-Cromartie did not have a banner year with the Eagles, but very few players did in that scheme. With a better pass rush and safeties behind him, “DRC” should bounce back from a pedestrian season in Philadelphia.
Jack Del Rio has established himself as one of the best defensive coordinators in the league and he has the ammunition to make this an elite defense, again, for next season.
The special teams features a good kicking game with Matt Prater and Britton Colquitt and a return game that will be absolutely electric with Trendon Holliday who is as fast as they get in the league. He returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the regular season and in the postseason ran back two for scores. Since his midseason addition from Houston, he has added a new dynamic to the Broncos special teams and must be accounted for at all times in the return game.