Unit By Unit Analysis

Clinton Portis had a sensational rookie season, and should be even better this year. Take a look at the projected starters and backups for the Broncos when the regular season opens.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Jake Plummer. Backups -- Steve Beuerlein, Jarious Jackson, Danny Kanell.

With Plummer, the Broncos can put some of their old plays back in the playbook. He's hoping a fresh start in Denver will mean a return to the playoffs for the Broncos. Beuerlein is a wily vet, who knows the offense well but lacks mobility. Jackson has the inside track to win the No. 3 job, and take over the backup job next year.

RUNNING BACK: Starters -- RB Clinton Portis, FB Mike Anderson. Backups -- FB Reuben Droughns, RB Quentin Griffin, RB Cecil Sapp, FB Marlion Jackson.

Portis had a sensational rookie season, and should be even better this year. So should converted fullback Anderson with another year under his belt. There's plenty of depth here, especially if Griffin can come back strong from broken leg suffered early in training camp.

TIGHT END/H-BACK: Starter -- Shannon Sharpe. Backups -- Dwayne Carswell, Jeb Putzier, Patrick Hape.

A solid group, with Sharpe looking for one more run at glory before he retires. The only question concerns Carswell's status following an off-the-field incident.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey. Backups -- Ashley Lelie, Chris Cole, Adrian Madise, Herb Haygood, Frank Rice, Charlie Adams.

The way Lelie sees, it Denver has three starters. Lelie has played well enough to earn a first-string job, but McCaffrey is looking good after coming back strong from off-season groin injury. Definitely the strength of the team.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Ephraim Salaam, LG Ben Hamilton, C Tom Nalen, RG Dan Neil, RT Matt Lepsis. Backups -- T George Foster, G Steve Herndon, T Blake Brockermeyer, T-G Cooper Carlisle.

Nalen and Neil are solid, but only if they're healthy. They are for now, coming back from offseason knee surgery. Lepsis and Salaam, meanwhile, are both viewing this as a contract year since rookie George Foster figures to replace one of them eventually.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Trevor Pryce, NT Daryl Gardener, DT Dorsett Davis, RDE Bertrand Berry. Backups -- DT Monsanto Pope, DE Reggie Hayward, DT Nick Eason, DE Aaron Hunt, DT Darius Holland, DE Clint Mitchell.

Gardener vows to be ready for the opener, but even if he is he'll be limited with a cast to protect the torn ligaments in his right wrist. If Davis plays as well as he did in camp, he'll be a force. Pryce should find more freedom to make plays in Larry Coyer's system. The big question is at right end, where teams figure to run at undersized Berry or Hayward.

LINEBACKER: Starters -- SLB John Mobley, MLB Al Wilson, WLB Ian Gold. Backups -- Terry Pierce, Keith Burns, Donnie Spragan, Jashon Sykes.

There's no questions here. This group is among the quickest in the league, with Wilson looking to raise the bar in this his contract year. Rookie Pierce should see action in goal line situations with his punishing style.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Lenny Walls, SS Kenoy Kennedy, FS Sam Brandon, RCB Deltha O'Neal. Backups -- Kelly Herndon, S Lee Flowers, CB Jimmy Spencer, CB Willie Middlebrooks, S Nick Ferguson, S Chris Young.

Denver's season may ride on how well the youngsters fare back here. Walls has never started a game. Neither has Herndon, and Brandon is a full-time starter for the first time this season. Which O'Neal will show up, the one who went to the Pro Bowl or the one who went in the tank a year ago.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- K Jason Elam, P Micah Knorr, PR Deltha O'Neal, KR Chris Cole.

Elam is feeling good after getting a fat new contract, and can only do better after a tough '02. Knorr has boosted his average thanks to some high-tech help. Cole is back after missing a year with a dislocated wrist, and has the potential to break one at any time. O'Neal is still struggling to return to his 2000 form when he was all-Rookie punt returner.

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