This group will be much better if Pryce returns at 100 percent from a back injury, which he said he will in 2005. Hayward had a very good season even without Pryce to take up blockers on the other side, and is a free agent. He must be re-signed or the Broncos could have a tough time rushing the passer next season. Fatafehi and Pope started all season, but neither one was dominant. The Broncos should search for an upgrade in the offseason. Johnson, acquired from the Falcons in an early-season trade, played well in passing situations for the Broncos. Denver is hoping Davis, a former third-round pick who sat out the entire season with a finger injury, finally plays to his talent level in 2005.
Williams, who finished third in the NFL's defensive rookie of the year voting, was a major addition for the Broncos defense. Williams should be an impact player for years. Wilson is one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL. He is the emotional leader of the defense. He didn't stand out as much as he did in 2003, but with Williams next to him he didn't have to do it all for Denver's defense. Spragan should be pushed by Pierce next season for the starting strong-side linebacker job. Pierce is a natural middle linebacker who was drafted in case Wilson left via free agency after the 2003 season. Wilson was re-signed, Pierce moved to the strong side before last season but a knee injury kept him from competing for the starting job. He's a former second-round pick and the Broncos haven't gotten much out of him yet.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Champ Bailey, CB Kelly Herndon, FS John Lynch, SS Kenoy Kennedy. Backups -- S Nick Ferguson, S Sam Brandon, S Chris Young, CB Lenny Walls, CB Willie Middlebrooks, CB Roc Alexander, CB Jeff Shoate, CB Jeremy LeSueur.
Bailey didn't have a great year but he was a major upgrade for the Broncos. Lynch made the Pro Bowl and was another solid addition. Denver ran into trouble when Walls and Middlebrooks went on injured reserve. That pushed Alexander, an undrafted rookie, into a tough spot defending Reggie Wayne in Denver's playoff loss at Indianapolis. Walls will battle for a starting job next year if he's healthy. Getting him back would help Denver's depth at cornerback. Walls was a starter in 2003 and has a lot of potential because of his 6-4 frame and good speed. Kennedy had a very good season and is a free agent. If the Broncos can't afford to keep him, Ferguson is a former starter and the Broncos won't have a huge dropoff at that position.
Elam is still going strong. He hit 29-of-34 field-goal attempts and is the least of Denver's special-teams worries. The rest of the special teams were poor in 2004. The Broncos cut punter and kickoff specialist Micah Knorr in midseason and brought in Baker, who was unimpressive. The Broncos will try to upgrade in the offseason. Denver never found an answer at kickoff returner and punt returner after letting Chris Cole and Deltha O'Neal go after the 2003 season. The Broncos best punt returner was Rod Smith, but using him to return punts presents too much of an injury risk. Denver should put a greater emphasis on finding a return specialist in the offseason.
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