The Denver Broncos will have a new coach and a change in attitude in store for the 2011 season, though the team still can't seem to shake some of its problems from the past.
The train-wreck of a soap opera that was the Josh McDaniels era was mercifully canceled after less than two seasons, but the damage caused by the proclaimed young prodigy's laundry list of personnel blunders was extensive. The Broncos were one of the NFL's least competitive teams in 2010 and finished the year with a 4-12 record that set a club record for losses in a single campaign.
In hopes of restoring the Broncos back to their former glory, franchise icon and new vice president of football operations John Elway tabbed John Fox, a man with a track record of resurrecting an organization from the depths of rock- bottom status, to aid in Denver's massive rebuilding effort. The ex-Carolina head coach inherited a Panthers outfit that won only a single game in 2001 and had the team in the Super Bowl just two years later.
"He's a dynamic and proven leader," said Elway of Fox. "He's coached great defenses, turned teams around and been to Super Bowls. We couldn't be more excited to have him lead our football team."
Fox will have his work cut out for him in his latest renovation project, however. The 2011 Broncos will be painfully young in several areas, and rather long in the tooth in others. Three high rookie draft choices -- outside linebacker Von Miller, safety Rahim Moore and offensive tackle Orlando Franklin -- are set to hold down starting roles for the upcoming season, with Moore bringing some fresh legs to an aging secondary anchored by 13th-year veteran cornerback Champ Bailey and soon-to-be 38-year-old safety Brian Dawkins.
Miller, the second overall pick in last April's college selection process, will be counted on immediately to provide a pass-rushing presence to a defense that ranked dead last in the league in both yards and points allowed in Denver's 2010 debacle.
Among the many low points of McDaniels' ill-fated tenure was a personality clash with Jay Cutler that led to the talented quarterback's jettisoning to Chicago during the spring of 2009. Two years later, the Broncos found themselves embroiled in another controversy at the position when it was revealed the team was engaged in trade discussions regarding returning starter Kyle Orton at the onset of this summer's training camp.
A proposed deal with Miami ultimately fell through, however, and Orton will enter a contract year once again at the offense's controls after holding off fan favorite Tim Tebow in the preseason.
Orton said he wasn't bothered by the rumors and is ready to lead what the Broncos believe will be a more cohesive and successful operation in 2011.
"There's a lot of stuff that goes on business-wise, and I really don't take any hard feelings or anything like that," he stated. "I'm excited to be here. I'm excited to have a great year. What's in the past is in the past."
That a mindset Orton's teammates will be taking as well as Denver attempts to put to rest the memories of its recent failures.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Broncos, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 4-12 (4th, AFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2005, lost to Pittsburgh in AFC Championship
COACH (RECORD): John Fox (first season with Broncos, 73-71 in nine seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike McCoy (second season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dennis Allen (first season)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Brandon Lloyd, WR (77 receptions, 1448 yards, 11 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Champ Bailey, CB (45 tackles, 2 INT, 13 PD)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 13th overall (26th rushing, 7th passing), 19th scoring (21.5 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 32nd overall (31st rushing, 25th passing), 32nd scoring (29.4 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: TE Daniel Fells (from Rams), OT Orlando Franklin (2nd Round, Miami-Florida), DT Brodrick Bunkley (from Eagles), OLB Von Miller (1st Round, Texas A&M), FS Rahim Moore (2nd Round, UCLA), RB Willis McGahee (from Ravens), WR David Anderson (from Texans), TE Julius Thomas (4th Round, Portland State), TE Dante Rosario (from Panthers), DE Jeremy Jarmon (from Redskins), DE Derrick Harvey (from Jaguars), DT Ty Warren (from Patriots)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Jabar Gaffney (to Redskins), TE Daniel Graham (to Titans), OT Ryan Harris (to Eagles), NT Jamal Williams (released), DE Justin Bannan (to Rams), S Renaldo Hill (released), RB Correll Buckhalter (released), RB Laurence Maroney (not tendered), RB LenDale White (released), FB Daniel Coats (released), TE Daniel Coats (to Giants), NT Ronald Fields (to Dolphins)
QB: With back-to-back seasons of over 3,600 passing yards and at least 20 touchdowns, Orton (3653 passing yards, 20 TD, 9 INT) is clearly the Broncos' most proven option under center, and the steady seventh-year pro was on his way to establishing career bests in both categories in 2010 before being replaced by Tebow for the final three games with Denver well out of the race. Given Fox's history in Carolina of deferring to experience, Orton will be the man as long as he's healthy and the Broncos don't face-plant. Tebow (654 passing yards, 5 TD, 3 INT) may still be the team's future at quarterback, as Orton is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency at season's end, but the popular Heisman Trophy recipient doesn't seem to have yet earned the trust of the new staff despite an encouraging performance in last year's audition. He's spent the summer battling Brady Quinn, the former first-round pick who failed in a 12-start stint with Cleveland from 2008-09, to be Orton's primary backup come the start of the season.
RB: The Panthers had a reputation of a ball-control, run-oriented team under Fox, and that philosophy could very well find its way to the Rockies this fall. Top rusher Knowshon Moreno (779 rushing yards, 37 receptions, 8 total TD), the first draft selection of the McDaniels regime, hasn't yet lived to up to his lofty billing as the 12th overall choice in 2009, but the 24-year-old is a skilled and well-rounded player who may be primed for a breakout year in the new system. He'll work in a tandem with veteran addition Willis McGahee (380 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 6 total TD with Ravens), a three-time 1,000-yard rusher earlier in his career who can still be an asset as a physical change-of- pace option and short-yardage specialist. The 235-pound bruiser recorded 14 touchdowns in a reserve capacity with Baltimore just two years back. Holdover Lance Bell (158 rushing yards) is the most seasoned of several nondescript candidates to be the third back in the rotation, while fullback Spencer Larsen (5 receptions, 1 TD) is a former college linebacker whose best contributions come on the special-teams coverage units.
WR/TE: Perhaps McDaniels' best accomplishment in Denver was his ability to get the most out of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (77 receptions, 11 TD), with the longtime underachiever coming out of nowhere to emerge as one of the league's premier deep threats last season. The journeyman led the NFL with 1,448 receiving yards -- nearly doubling his previous best over his first seven years in the pros -- and averaging 18.8 yards per catch while developing a strong rapport with Orton. The Broncos traded reliable second option Jabar Gaffney to Washington in July, in part due to the confidence the organization has in youngster Eric Decker, a good-sized third-round pick in 2010 who's ready to be a much larger part of the game plan after being used sparingly as a rookie. Return standout Eddie Royal (59 receptions, 3 TD) is back as the main slot receiver, with ex-Texan David Anderson (11 receptions) the favorite to begin the year as the No. 4 wideout with promising sophomore Demaryius Thomas (22 receptions, 2 TD) out until at least midseason with a torn Achilles tendon. Denver underwent heavy turnover at the tight end position during the offseason, releasing veteran Daniel Graham and adding expected starter Daniel Fells (41 receptions, 2 TD with Rams) and former Panther Dante Rosario (32 receptions) via free agency. The Broncos also brought in two athletic specimens with impressive upside with the selections of Julius Thomas (4th Round, Portland State) and Virgil Green (7th Round, Nevada) in this past draft.
OL: Two-time All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady anchors a young offensive line that will be aiming to improve upon the 40 sacks the group allowed last season. Center J.D. Walton and left guard Zane Beadles started 16 and 14 games, respectively, as rookies in 2010 and should be more comfortable in their second years, while the organization is high on the long-term prospects of Franklin, a second-round pick in April's draft whose strength and run-blocking skills fit the team's profile at right tackle. The rookie will pair with Clady, regarded among of the league's elite pass protectors, to give Denver an athletic pair of bookends. The dean of the unit is Chris Kuper, a four-year mainstay at right guard who's missed only two games over that span, while top reserve Russ Hochstein owns 36 career starts as three different positions (C, LG, RG) over a 10-year career. Manny Ramirez, a one-time regular in Detroit who spent most of last season out of football, has been making a bid to be Walton's chief understudy at center.
DL: Fox will be switching the Broncos to a 4-3 alignment in his debut season, and the change has triggered an exorbitant amount of upheaval to a defensive line that was a major trouble spot in 2010. Pass-rushing terror Elvis Dumervil and 2009 first-round pick Robert Ayers (39 tackles, 1.5 sacks), both of whom worked as stand-up outside linebackers under the old model, will be the team's starting ends, while ex-Patriots stopper Ty Warren and former Eagles first- rounder Brodrick Bunkley (20 tackles) were added over the summer to help shore up a weak interior. Warren tore his triceps during a practice session in August, however, and may miss the entire season as a result, leaving holdovers Marcus Thomas (35 tackles, 1 sack) and Kevin Vickerson (42 tackles, 2 sacks) as the front-runners to claim that open spot. The team does get Dumervil, who topped the entire NFL with 17 sacks in 2009, back after he sat out all of last year with a torn pectorals, which should surely boost a pass rush that produced a league-low 23 sacks this past season.
LB: Denver's inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks a year ago also prompted the team's decision to snare Miller, regarded as the best pass rusher in the college ranks, with the second overall selection in April's draft. The 2010 Butkus Award winner showed he's up to the task by registering three sacks in four preseason outings, and will be immediately inserted as a starter on the strong side while kicking to end in nickel situations. Miller is one of two new starters in the revised arrangement, with hard-hitting fourth-year man Joe Mays (40 tackles) taking over in the middle after acquitting himself well in spot duty last year. He'll eventually be pushed, however, by rookie Nate Irving, a 2011 third-round choice who will be eased into a more prominent role as a rookie. Weakside stalwart D.J. Williams (119 tackles, 5.5 sacks) has made 101 starts over seven seasons in the Mile High City and led the Broncos in both tackles and sacks last year, though he'll likely miss the first couple of weeks after dislocating his elbow in the preseason. Denver does have a capable fill- in in Wesley Woodyard (37 tackles, 1 sack), also one of the club's top special teamers, while eight-year pro Mario Haggan (87 tackles, 5 sacks) is experienced and versatile, possessing the aptitude to play all three linebacker spots as well as defensive end.
DB: Bailey (45 tackles, 2 INT, 13 PD) continues to play at a high level in spite of his advanced age, with the 33-year-old named to his 10th Pro Bowl in the past 11 years following the 2010 campaign. The same couldn't be said for Denver's secondary as a whole, however, after the Broncos ended the year 30th overall in pass efficiency defense and placing next-to-last in the league with a measly 10 interceptions. That number could improve with the insertion of Moore, a noted ball-hawk at UCLA who led the nation with 10 picks as a junior in 2009. The rookie's addition provides a needed element of youth and range to the backfield, as Dawkins (66 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) remains a peerless team leader but has seen better days as a player. There are question marks at the cornerback spot opposite Bailey as well, as solid veteran Andre Goodman (17 tackles) missed half of last season with a quadriceps injury and turned 33 in August, while talented second-year pro Perrish Cox (58 tackles, 1 INT, 14 PD) is slated to go to trial in October for felony sexual assault charges that leaves his long-term availability in doubt. Syd'Quan Thompson (18 tackles, 2 INT), a seventh-round find in last year's draft, is the top contender for nickel duties, with 2011 fourth-round draftee Quinton Carter (Oklahoma) to be groomed as Dawkins' heir apparent at strong safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Matt Prater owns a very strong leg that plays even bigger in the thin Denver air, as evidenced by his outstanding 75 percent (9-of-12) success rate on field goals of 50-plus yards in three seasons with the Broncos. The fifth-year pro made good on 16-of-18 attempts overall in 2010 and excels on kickoffs as well. Young punter Britton Colquitt was also a weapon in his rookie year of 2010, compiling a respectable 44.6 yards-per-kick average and placing 19 balls inside the 20-yard line. Royal is one of the game's most accomplished returners, having run back both a kickoff and punt for a touchdown in 2009 and ranking third in the AFC (11.9 avg.) in the latter category last season. He'll likely retain punt responsibilities, with reserve corner Cassius Vaughn and Anderson in the mix to handle kicks. Vaughn had a 97-yard kickoff return against San Diego in the 2010 regular-season finale.
PROGNOSIS: McDaniels left a giant mess behind for the new regime, and the rebuilding process won't be a quick fix. The Broncos were able to take a step in the right direction with what looks to be a solid draft haul, however, and the retaining of Orton bodes well for an upgrade over last year's shabby four- win total. That improvement may be only marginal, though, as the defense still has a few holes to adequately fill and the overall talent level isn't anything special. Denver will be more disciplined and competitive under Fox, but putting an end to the once-formidable franchise's five-year playoff drought seems like a major reach.