Denver Broncos 2014 Season Preview

( - If you were thinking the Denver Broncos' 43-8 thumping at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII would cause Peyton Manning to ponder his football mortality, think again.

The reigning NFL MVP, who turned 38 in March, has flashed a sense of urgency highlighted by his organization's high-profile foray into free agency.

"I feel that I have a responsibility to the team to be on top of my game," Manning said during the offseason. "That's what I think about every day when I lift weights and throw with my receivers -- doing my job to help the Denver Broncos.

"That's what I've tried to do since I've been here and that's what I'll keep doing until I stop playing."

A win in the big game had many speculating that Manning would indeed stop playing and ride off into the sunset as a champion with his second Lombardi Trophy -- legacy stamped, a thought process fueled by the fact that the five- time MVP admitted he could see the "light at the end of the tunnel" of his playing career.

Only Manning knows if that's how things would have played out if Denver bested Seattle, but the Seahawks' rout ensured there would be no happy ending to his fairy tale, at least in 2014.

"I don't really have a word for it," Manning said when reflecting on his team's disastrous effort against Seattle, one that put a black mark on what was a record-setting regular season.

"Obviously, it was disappointing. You study it. You study the game just like you do any game -- a win or a loss. What went well, what didn't go well. You try to be better for it and that's what you have to do. We will use that to fuel us this offseason and, hopefully, it will make us better."

Any remaining doubts Manning would be back for another run at the game's ultimate prize ended in March when he was formally cleared to play after an exam on his surgically repaired neck.

Since then, the 13-time Pro Bowl selection has been preparing for the grind of another 16-game campaign, honing his rapport with some familiar teammates like emerging tight end Julius Thomas, as well as some new ones like free agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

Like most, Manning was very impressed by John Elway's handiwork in free agency which resulted in a haul that not only placed Sanders in the Rocky Mountains but also high-profile defensive targets like pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, shutdown cornerback Aqib Talib and ascending young safety T.J. Ward.

"I know Eli (Manning) told me he was glad DeMarcus Ware was leaving his division," Manning said. "He can no longer hit him and I'm glad he's on my team. Talib has been a tough player to play against, so I'm glad he's on our team, as well as T.J. Ward."

Denver was always going to be a serious threat to get back to the Super Bowl as long as Manning returned, but by "winning" free agency, the Broncos have seemingly lapped an AFC field they were already dominating.

"The front office has addressed some offseason needs via free agency," Manning said. "(Now) it's up to the players to put in the hard work in the weight room, in the film room and on the practice field to try and be a better team this year."

Better remains a possibility, but the shelf life of this group remains about as lengthy as that gallon of milk you picked up last night. The future isn't what this team is about, though.

It's all about finishing that fairy tale the right way and living happily ever after.

"Absolutely, that's what I want to do," Manning said. "That's what the Denver Broncos want to do. I'm glad to be a part of a team where that's what they want to do. I want to try to do my best to do my part."

2013 RECORD: 13-3 (1st, AFC West)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2013, lost Super Bowl Super Bowl XLVIII to Seattle.

HEAD COACH (RECORD): John Fox (34-14 in three seasons with Broncos, 107-85 in 12 seasons overall)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Adam Gase (sixth season with Broncos, second as OC)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jack Del Rio (third season with Broncos)

KEY ADDITIONS: WR Emmanuel Sanders (from Steelers), C Will Montgomery (from Redskins), DE DeMarcus Ware (from Cowboys), CB Aqib Talib (from Patriots), S T.J. Ward (from Browns), CB Bradley Roby (first round, Ohio State), WR Cody Latimer (second round, Indiana)

KEY DEPARTURES: RB Knowshon Moreno (to Dolphins), WR Eric Decker (to Jets), G Zane Beadles (to Jaguars), DE Robert Ayers (to Giants), DE Shaun Phillips (to Titans), OLB Wesley Woodyard (to Titans), CB Champ Bailey (to Saints), CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (to Giants)

QB: Manning may have had the best single season in NFL history in 2013, winning his record fifth MVP award after leading the league in nearly every significant passing category. A runner-up for league MVP following his first season with Denver in 2012, Manning has finished first or second in the most valuable voting in eight of the 15 seasons he has played.

Manning broke multiple NFL passing records in 2013, most notably the single- season marks for touchdowns (55) and yards (5,477), while piloting the first offense in history to cross the 600-point barrier

The heady Manning is all about preparation and eats, sleeps and breathes pro football but at age 38 and with multiple neck surgeries under his belt, the window is closing and he is far closer to the end than the beginning.

The backup situation isn't great with lengthy Brock Osweiler and second-year man Zac Dysert serving as more developmental types who are likely not ready to play if disaster strikes.


RB: The Broncos don't need an Adrian Peterson-type but they do need at least a competent running game, something veteran Knowshon Moreno provided last season.

Despite rushing for over 1,000 yards and scoring 13 TDs, Denver had no problem letting Moreno walk to Miami because they believe both second-year player Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman have higher ceilings as players.

In fact, Hillman was Plan A last season until ball-security issues derailed that. Ball, meanwhile, has excellent vision, patience, and running instincts and should be ready to be the bell cow in his second NFL season.


WR: Denver is loaded at the wide receiver spot, with slot star Wes Welker complementing the solid outside the numbers duo of Demaryius Thomas and Sanders, who will replace the departed Eric Decker.

Thomas is the vertical threat, earning his second career Pro Bowl selection after amassing 1,430 receiving yards and a franchise single-season record 14 TDs on 92 catches in 2013. Thomas also ranks first in the NFL with 35 receptions of 25-plus yards over the past two seasons so understand he's a big play waiting to happen.

Decker wasn't as explosive as Thomas but he was almost as productive, amassing 11 receiving touchdowns and 1,288 yards on 87 catches. Sanders isn't as big as the player he's replacing but he runs crisp routes and is a tailor-made fit for a timing-run offensive scheme like Denver's.

Welker, meanwhile, now owns 841 career receptions, and will soon pass Broncos Ring of Fame wide receiver Rod Smith (849) for the most ever among undrafted players. A tremendous route runner with great short-area quickness, Welker is the only player in league annals to top the 100-catch mark five times. A possible complication arose in Week 3 of the preseason, however, when Welker suffered the latest in a series of concussions during his career,

"We have a next-guy-up mentality around here," Sanders told the Denver Post. "But we want to make sure Wes is good, because we all want to get him back."

The next-guy up would likely be crafty veteran Andre Caldwell or perhaps lengthy second-round rookie Cody Latimer, who shapes up as the potential long- term replacement for Decker. Like most rookies Latimer needs to sharpen his route-running skills but he has a chance to do some special things with Manning throwing the ball to him.


TE: Former Portland State basketball star Julius Thomas exploded onto the scene under Manning's tutelage in 2013, recording 65 catches and 12 TDs. The next person Thomas blocks might be his first but he is a perfect example of the new-breed of detached tight ends who can put incredible stress on defenses by stretching the field down the seam.

Backup Virgil Green is another natural receiver with speed and solid ball skills while Jacob Tamme is more of a route runner and ball-control tight end who can move the chains.

Denver doesn't rally possess a traditional in-line tight end and that can hurt in short-yardage situations.


OL: The Denver O-line took a big hit last year, losing both veteran center Dan Koppen and left tackle Ryan Clady, the one elite player on the unit, to injury.

Manning, though, persevered thanks to his smarts along with his ultra-quick release. Clady's return shouldn't be underestimated. It enables Manning to breathe a sigh of relief when thinking about his blind side and also moves Chris Clark, who did yeoman work at left tackle last season, to slip to the right side.

Clady is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and a premier pass blocker, who allowed just one sack in 2012, the fewest among offensive tackles who started every game for their team that year.

Manny Ramirez, a 31-year-old veteran from Texas Tech, replaced Koppen in the pivot last year and performed well enough to be invited back to play in between guards Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin, who slides inside from right tackle to replace the departed Zane Beadles.

Vasquez, who was signed away from division rival San Diego before last season, is a plus player while Franklin has the size, strength, and leverage to anchor against the power rush but can struggle with speed so he should be helped by not having to play in space nearly as much.

The Broncos acquired former Redskins starting center Will Montgomery to challenge Ramirez and drafted a pair of prospects, Michigan tackle Michael Schofield and Boise State center Matt Paradis, to help with depth. Schofield, in fact, could turn into a starter down the line if he hits the weight room hard.


DL: A deep and talented line was bolstered by the arrival of Ware, one of the game's best pure pass rushers who signed a three- year deal worth $30 million, with $20 million guaranteed.

The 31-year-old Ware has totaled 117 sacks since 2005 and has been a first- or second-team All-Pro on seven different occasions as well as a member of the NFL's 2000s All-Decade Team.

His addition opposite Von Miller on the edges figures to give the Broncos perhaps the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL. Meanwhile, the front four -- which also includes tackles Sylvester Williams and Terrance Knighton -- projects as the NFL's most talented.

Knighton is a solid two-down run-stuffer while former first-round pick Williams has the athleticism to be a disruptor.

The other end, Derek Wolfe, suffered through a miserable 2013 season fueled by a spinal-cord injury suffered in the preseason against Seattle. Wolfe also suffered through two bouts of food poisoning and a seizure believed to be related to the original spinal injury. He's healthy again and Wolfe is the type of high motor, effort guy who will outwork his opponent on most days.

Former starter Kevin Vickerson is a veteran rotational player on the inside, while Malik Jackson and Quanterus Smith offer solid depth on the outside.


LB: A suspension and a torn ACL robbed Miller of most of his 2013 season. The two-time Pro Bowl selection was runner-up for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012 when he finished in the top five in sacks, quarterback knockdowns, quarterback hurries, tackles for a loss, run stuffs and forced fumbles.

If Miller is healthy and can keep his nose clean, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio figures to have a pair of impact rushers who can threaten the 15-sack plateau in Miller and Ware.

Athletic weak side linebacker Danny Trevathan was one of just seven players in the NFL to post 120 tackles and three interceptions in 2013. Meanwhile, his 124 tackles were the most by a Broncos since D.J. Williams posted 170 defensive stops in 2007.

Unfortunately Trevathan suffered a left medial tibial impaction fracture. during practice on August 12, an injury that will keep him sidelined for six to eight weeks.

Nate Irving played a lot of SAM linebacker in Miller's absence last year and figures to move back to the middle in 2014. Irving is an athletic and instinctive player who has a quick first step but can get caught up in the trash if he doesn't succeed on his first instinct.

The backups are largely unproven with read-and-react LB Brandon Marshall penciled in to replace Trevathan, and rookie fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow, more of an inside guy also available.


DB: Denver totally revamped its shaky secondary in the offseason, first adding lockdown corner Talib and safety Ward in free agency before drafting talented Ohio State corner Bradley Roby with the 31st overall pick.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was Denver's top cover corner last year but the team upgraded by letting him walk and moving toward Talib, the former Patriots star who is a far more well-rounded corner and one of the few true lockdown options in the game.

"We know how much we hated playing against him," Elway said when introducing Talib to the Denver area media. "In Aqib, you have a great cover guy and somebody who will really add to our secondary and add toughness to our secondary."

The other starting cornerback, Chris Harris, suffered a torn ACL last year so he will be watched closely as he attempts to return. If Harris falters, look for Roby, who had top-20 talent but his stock took a hit because he was inconsistent at Ohio State and had a high-profile off-the-field incident days before the draft, to get a chance.

Nickel back Tony Carter is undersized but battles on the inside while Kayvon Webster, a third-round last year, brings speed and athleticism to the table.

Ward is everything you look for in a strong safety. He is physical in run support and flashes very good range in pass coverage. Ward is also very instinctive, quick to read his keys and diagnose run or pass. He'll be a big upgrade over former starter Duke Ihenacho, who was steady but unspectacular.

"We are excited to add T.J. Ward to the Denver Broncos," Elway said. "He's a young, explosive strong safety who is going to bring a lot of energy and toughness to our secondary."

Ward's running mate will be Rahim Moore, best known for letting Jacoby Jones get over the top in the 2012 playoffs, the kind of mental mistake which needs to be cleaned up if he wants to be viewed as a consistent starter in this league.


SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Matt Prater is coming off a spectacular 2013 regular season in which he converted 25 of his 26 field attempts and kicked an NFL record 64-yard field goal against Tennessee as time expired in the first half on Dec. 8, earning both Pro Bowl recognition and second-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his career.

He will be suspended for the first four games, however, after violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy due to a second alcohol-related DUI offense.

It's a big loss because Prater ranked second in the NFL with a franchise- record 150 points and led the league in both field goal accuracy (96.2) and touchbacks. The Central Florida product also took advantage of the Broncos' high-octane offense to set a new record for extra points in a single season with 75.

The Broncos signed rookie Mitch Ewald this offseason but he missed a field goal in the team's Week 3 preseason loss and hasn't been all that effective on kickoffs meaning Denver could be in the market for a veteran kicker if one becomes available in coming weeks.

Punting is in the Broncos' Britton Colquitt's DNA. He and his brother, Kansas City's Dustin Colquitt, are the first brothers to punt in the NFL at the same time since 1941. And they're just the latest practitioners of the family business. The Colquitt family has produced four different NFL punters, including Britton and Dustin's father, Craig, as well as uncle Jimmy. Craig Colquitt won two Super Bowl rings as the Steelers' punter and Jimmy Colquitt played two games for the Seahawks in 1985.

Britton, though, often doesn't get to display his talents because the Broncos' offense is so prolific. He only punted it 65 times in the regular season last year. When called upon Colquitt is rock solid, averaging 44.5 yards per punt with 23 placed inside the 20 versus just three touchbacks.

Diminutive return man Trindon Holliday is gone and Denver may rely on Welker to return punts and Caldwell to handle kickoffs.


COACHING: John Fox has delivered division titles in each of his first three years and it's hard to imagine him not garnering a fourth consecutive one but it's all about the Super Bowl for him and his club.

Adam Gase replaced Mike McCoy last year as offensive and didn't miss a beat mainly because this is Manning's team and he will always be the de facto on- field offensive coordinator.

Del Rio, an ex-head coach in Jacksonville, is one of the NFL's best defensive minds.


THE SKINNY: The Broncos won the AFC West for the third consecutive year and for the 13th time in their history in 2013. Chalk up a fourth straight in what shapes up as a tough division with three improving teams but that's not what this season is about.

It's Super Bowl or bust in Denver and the only order of business is making sure Glendale is on the itinerary come February.