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TGS 2012 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW... DENVER BRONCOS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


John Elway considered it a gift from heaven.

Peyton Manning, interested in becoming a Denver Bronco?

The series of dominoes that had to fall in the right order to get Manning to the doorstep of the Broncos remains a story unto itself. For team prexy Elway, however, it offered him a chance to escape the Tim Tebow dilemma without too much collateral damage.

Though “Tim Terrific” was a revelation in the unorthodox manner in which he rejuvenated the Broncos last season, Elway was always a reluctant passenger on the Tebow bandwagon. Although Elway was also well aware of Tebow’s wild popularity in the Rockies and throughout Bronco Nation. If he were to extricate himself from Tebow mania, he had to do nothing short of replacing the ex-Florida Heisman winner with a Hall of Fame caliber QB.

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Enter Peyton Manning, and the rest of the storyline in spring was written. Manning, after his release from the Colts, embarked upon a brief courtship period with a handful of teams before signing with the Broncos in late March. Elway subsequently packaged Tebow in a trade to the Jets. All of a sudden, Tebow Mania was extinguished in the Rockies, but replaced by Manning Mania and a likely better chance for the Broncos to make a deeper run in the playoffs than the surprise charge to final eight authored by Tebow and friends last season.

Las Vegas oddsmakers, not paid to be card-carrying members of the Tebow bandwagon, have responded to the Manning addition accordingly. Picked at the bottom of the AFC West at this time a year ago, the Broncos are now favored to win the division at 6/4. Denver is also ranked among the favorites to win the conference at 17/2, and is priced among the top contenders for the Super Bowl at 14/1.

Meanwhile, the season-win total is a respectable 9 at the majority of Las Vegas sports books.

Of course, there have to remain questions about Manning’s health after the neck surgery that sidelined him for the entirety of 2011 and made the Colts (who had the first draft pick and intended to use it on a successor to Manning at QB, who turned out to be Stanford’s Andrew Luck). But Elway, head coach John Fox, and a slew of doctors gave Manning a clean bill of health in the offseason, enough that the Denver brass felt comfy enough to reward Manning a five-year contract. Manning, now 36, says he feels as good as ever.

But it is not a stretch to say that the Broncos will flourish in 2012 based almost solely upon Manning resembling his pre-injury form.

The Bronco offense that Manning will orchestrate will look a lot like the Indy versions he piloted over the past several years. Lots of no-huddle, timing routes, dump-offs to backs and liberal use of tight ends. Indeed, Manning’s comfort level with o.c. Mike McCoy’s schemes was said to be a big selling point in the ex-Tennessee Vol inking with Denver.

There is plenty of upside within a young receiving corps that might really flourish with Manning firing his customary darts. Third-year wideouts Demaryius Thomas (whose 80-yard TD catch from Tebow on the first scrimmage play of overtime knocked the Steelers out of the Wild Card Round last January, shown right) and Eric Decker have flashed plenty of upside, and if each can stay healthy could post monster numbers. Ex-Kentucky TE Jacob Tamme is a familiar target of Manning’s from days with the Colts.

A young and talented offensive line, led by All-Pro LT Ryan Clady, provides a nice fortress. Among the rookies, San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman is expected to make significant contributions after vet Willis McGahee (left) wore down late in 2011 and Knowshon Moreno battled through more injuries, although the latter two remain ahead on the depth chart heading into the regular-season opener vs. the Steelers. Place-kicker Matt Prater is also a weapon, having won a pair of OT games last fall on 50+-yard field goals vs. the Dolphins and Bears.

There is concern, however, about depth behind Manning, with Tebow and last year’s other QB options (Kyle Orton, who was released before the end of 2011, and Brady Quinn) having left town. As cover for Manning, all Fox has at the moment is ex-Bears journeyman Caleb Hanie and Arizona State rookie Brock Osweiler, a second-round pick and considered strictly a developmental project until further notice.

Worryingly, should Manning go down at some point this fall, preseason work suggested that the Broncos could be in as much trouble as the Bears were last December when Hanie was called upon to relieve an injured Jay Cutler. Denver had also dealt with mild criticism about the choice of Osweiler, who was far outperformed in summer by QBs drafted beneath him, especially Pac-12 rival Nick Foles from Arizona (Eagles) and Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson (now the Seahawks starter). Although it is too soon to jump to any of those conclusions, as if there is a target date for Osweiler, it’s not until 2014 or 2015.

Lost amid Tebow-mania last fall was an improved defensive effort spearheaded by impact sorts such as undersized DE Elvis Dumervil (right, sacking Jet QB Mark Sanchez; Elvis had missed the entirety of the previous 2010 campaign due to injury) and Texas A&M rookie LB Von Miller, who proved a revelation from the edge.

New defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who had been Jacksonville’s head coach for the last nine seasons, was hired after predecessor Dennis Allen took the Raiders’ HC job. Del Rio has tweaked the platoon instead of overhauling it, which was unnecessary after the improvements shown last fall.

Still, some believe the Broncos could have done a little bit more in the draft, when the need for a run-stuffing defensive lineman was at the top of the wish list after DT Brodrick Bunkley moved to the Saints in free agency. Denver continued to trade down in late April at Radio City Music Hall before opting for Cincinnati Bearcats DT Derek Wolfe early in the second round. Wolfe has plenty of upside but was not regarded among the top-shelf DTs in the draft, many of which being available before the Broncos implemented their trade-down dynamics in the first round.

Wolfe, who saw more duty at DE in the preseason, might be forced into action early, but there are durability questions about others options at the DT spots in Del Rio’s 4-3 looks. Veterans such as Ty Warren, Kevin Vickerson, and FA addition Justin Bannan (from the Rams) have all had injury issues before, especially Warren, who hasn’t played since 2009 but heads into the regular season listed as a starter, and Vickerson, who missed most of 2011 with ankle problems. The defensive front was also occasionally soft vs. the rush in 2011, and the departure of Bunkley remains a concern for Del Rio after the Broncos sprung some leaks in preseason play vs. teams running straight-ahead at them, as was often the case a year ago.

But in Miller (left) and fellow OLB D.J. Williams, Denver can bring heavy pressure from the edge, while Dumervil and his 52 career sacks rates as one of the league’s top pass rush threats. Williams, however, will be on the suspended list for the first six games of the regular season after running afoul of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, and did not participate in preseason action. Recent backup and ex-Kentucky LB Wesley Woodyard (a bit undersized but with plenty of lateral speed) and veteran ex-Falcon and Cowboy Keith Brooking will man Williams’ spot at least until mid-October.

The secondary could miss the veteran leadership of safety Brian Dawkins, who retired, but the Broncos’ second most-influential FA signing, ex-Saint Tracy Porter, makes for a potential shutdown combo on the corners alongside vet Champ Bailey (right). Ironically, it’s the same Porter whose late TD interception return off Manning sealed the Saints win over the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. Ex-Jet FS Jim Leonhard was also a late free-agent addition who will contribute depth to the secondary and will provide another punt return option.

One trend to watch that has carried over from the aborted Josh McDaniels era into the John Fox regime has been the spate of "overs" (now 27-12 since late in the 2009 campaign).

Summing up...The Broncos, surprise winners of the AFC West a a year ago, were still only 8-8 last season, and used the uniqueness of the spread option and Tebow to reinvent themselves at midseason. That path seemed an unlikely one back to the playoffs, so it's back to a more traditional look with Manning at the helm in one of the more intriguing storylines to follow in the NFL this season.

Though the Bronco defense improved last year, and LB Miller looks like a superstar in the making, make no mistake that the Broncos’ fortunes in 2012 rest with Manning. The fact the AFC West appears to be in a transition phase should open the door for a return to the playoffs if Manning is still the old, pre-injury Peyton this fall.


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