After two consecutive seasons of strong starts, midseason slumps and playoff blowouts, the Denver Broncos want to be more consistent and win their first division title since 1998.
The Broncos spent most of their offseason adding to the defense, which was done because they have gotten embarrassed at Indianapolis in the playoffs each of the past two seasons. The moves on the defense that will be scrutinized most are the acquisitions of four former Cleveland Browns defensive linemen.
Offensively the Broncos brought back pretty much the same team, which isn't that bad considering they were among the league leaders in total offense. If Denver can eliminate its mistakes and produce touchdowns and not field goals in the red zone, the Broncos should compete for that elusive AFC West title.
*Three keys for the season:
1. The Broncos need to create more turnovers.
Denver has struggled each of the last three seasons to get fumbles and interceptions. In 2002 and 2003 they had only nine interceptions each year. Last year they had 20 takeaways -- only three teams in the NFL had fewer. The talent is there on defense, and the players have to make some big plays.
2. Quarterback Jake Plummer has to become steadier.
Plummer has been better in Denver than he probably gets credit for. He threw for more than 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns last year, and he has led the Broncos to two 10-win playoff seasons in his two seasons in Denver. But he also threw 20 interceptions last year and had a stretch during the season where he struggled with bad decisions. If he can be consistent this season and cut down his mistakes, he could have a career year.
3. The special teams have to be at least average.
Last season the Broncos were bad on special teams. They never found a steady kickoff returner, punt returner, punter or anyone to handle kickoffs. The special teams rarely helped Denver win. So in the offseason the Broncos traded for punter Todd Sauerbrun, signed their former special-teams captain Keith Burns and drafted cornerback Darrent Williams, who has a lot of potential as a kickoff and punt returner.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
RB Mike Anderson: Anderson could be Denver's next great back. He is one of Denver's old great backs, of course, having rushed for 1,487 yards in 2000, but he's getting another chance to be the featured back five years later. He had a great training camp and preseason and there's no reason to believe he can't be a 1,000-yard back again if he stays healthy.
DT Gerard Warren: Warren has a new start after failing to live up to expectations in Cleveland. The Broncos have placed their own expectations on Warren -- Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he thinks Warren will be in the Pro Bowl -- but Warren seems comfortable and ready for a big season. He might also get on the field as a fullback in goal-line situations.
TE Jeb Putzier: The Broncos matched a large contract that Putzier signed with the New York Jets when he was an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Putzier spent almost all of the preseason behind Stephen Alexander on the depth chart, but even if Putzier doesn't start he'll be a big part of the passing game. To become an every-down tight end he'll have to improve as a blocker.
--LB Terry Pierce was cut in the final roster reduction before the season. He was a second-round pick in 2003 who never started a game for Denver. When the Broncos signed Ian Gold in the offseason, it meant Pierce wasn't going to play much and he was released.
--WR Charlie Adams has made a play just about every time he has returned a punt this preseason. But the Broncos drafted Darrent Williams to be their punt returner and they'll likely give him every chance to keep that job.
--TE Wesley Duke was kept on the roster because of his potential. He was a basketball player at Mercer who didn't play a down of college football. He didn't play much in the preseason but is a fantastic athlete who could develop into a dangerous target.
--P/K Paul Ernster made the team and will be a kickoff specialist. He is also the team's punter of the future after Todd Sauerbrun.
--S Marques Anderson was claimed off waivers late in the preseason when the Raiders released him, but the Broncos liked Anderson enough to keep him on the final roster even though he played in only one preseason game. He beat out 2004 third-round pick Jeremy LeSueur for a roster spot.
--QB Bradlee Van_Pelt started and threw three touchdowns in Denver's preseason finale. The team cut quarterbacks Danny Kanell and Matt Mauck, so Van Pelt and Jake Plummer are the only quarterbacks on the active roster. Van Pelt has no regular-season experience but he's a great athlete.
--WR Darius Watts had a much-needed two-touchdown game to end the preseason. On one touchdown he caught a fade route over Cardinals starting cornerback David Macklin. On the other, he made a fantastic over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone. Watts had trouble with dropped passes earlier this preseason but probably regained the third receiver job with his final preseason performance.
--DE Courtney Brown didn't play in Denver's preseason finale because of a precaution, although he said he was ready. Brown suffered a dislocated elbow early in camp and didn't play in the preseason. Brown said he'll be ready for the regular-season opener.
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