Last year, the Broncos made two huge free-agent decisions. One paid off handsomely as quarterback Jake Plummer was probably a little better than advertised, and still has room to grow in Mike Shanahan's system.
The team stayed together despite a rash of serious injuries, particularly ones that devastated the linebacking corps (Ian Gold, John Mobley). By season's end Denver had eight defensive starters that either had gone undrafted or were street free agents when acquired by the Broncos.
Despite that, Denver had a fairly formidable defense, one that was solid in the red zone and on third down -- just not in the wild-card game against Indy.
Keeping the linebacking corps intact will be a priority this off-season, but don't be surprised to see Denver part ways with problem-child Gardener, especially if it is able to recoup his signing bonus. Otherwise, the big question is whether Denver will add a solid cover corner. Though Lenny Walls and Kelly Herndon are scrappy fighters, they don't have the experience and at times it showed.
Offensively, with its line healthy, the Broncos running game returned to its Super Bowl levels, led by second-year back Clinton Portis. Only injuries kept him from rushing for 2,000 yards, and don't count him out this year. He showed his leadership and toughness, and should continue to get better.
While Portis didn't experience any sophomore slump, the same couldn't be said for wide receiver Ashley Lelie or safety Sam Brandon -- whose struggles proved costly, particularly in the playoffs. Still, the Broncos remain high on Lelie, though they may try to add another game-breaking wide receiver, especially if Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe retires as many expect.
One area that Shanahan no doubt will try to improve is special teams, where If anything 2003 showed the Broncos the lack of big plays in the return game stood out.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--Alex Gibbs was only a part-time coach the past few years for the Broncos, but when he was around, players knew it because of his gruff demeanor. Now he's gone, deciding to take a full-time job as Atlanta Falcons line coach.
"It's hard to get over the fact that he was a tyrant on the sidelines," said center Tom Nalen, a five-time Pro Bowl selection.
"You weren't only battling your guy sometimes, you were battling him. It created a lot of tension, but it also brought out the best of you. I don't know how. But it seemed to make you mad enough to want to go out there and prove him wrong, or prove him right."
Nalen offered some advice to the Falcons offensive linemen: "Grow a thick skin."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Despite their withholding of the signing bonus, Daryl still wants to be a Bronco." -- Agent Neal Schwartz, referring to controversial defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, who is embroiled in a legal battle over his $5 million signing bonus. The Broncos are going after the $3 million already paid and said they would not pay the $2 million Gardener was scheduled to receive last week.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Though coach Mike Shanahan indicated he wanted to keep his staff in place, he lost two members in a span of two days. First special teams coach Frank Bush took a job with Arizona coaching linebackers, his first love. Then Alex Gibbs, a confidante and assistant line coach, took more money and a full-time position coaching the line with Atlanta.
There's great debate about how much the team will miss Gibbs. He was visible and vocal on game day, and helped with game plan preparation, but aside from camp he wasn't there for practices. Rick Dennison ran the show there and he likely will exert his presence more now that Gibbs is gone.
As for players, the Broncos have a dozen who will be unrestricted free agents: Bert Berry, Blake Brockermeyer, Keith Burns, Chris Cole, Reuben Droughns, Ian Gold, Patrick Hape, Ryan McNeil, Johnny Rutledge, Jimmy Spencer, Scott Turner and Al Wilson.
They will attack first by trying to re-sign the big four: Berry, Droughns, Gold and Wilson. There's a very good chance all four will return.
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