Playoff contenders again?

Expectations might be low outside of Denver, but the Broncos think that if they remain injury free and get some breaks, they could be playoff contenders again.

The reason for optimism is a young and talented offense that appeared way ahead of the learning curve during the preseason, and a retooled defense that has to be better after a horrid 2007.

The preseason doesn't mean much, but the Broncos were optimistic about their progress after the starters played well against Dallas and Green Bay in the second and third preseason games. Last year, the Broncos were pushed around by the Cowboys in the preseason, which was a sign of things to come.

The Broncos' early schedule isn't easy -- they get 2007 playoff teams San Diego, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and New England before the bye in Week 8 -- but it gets lighter in the second half of the season. If they can survive the tough games and receiver Brandon Marshall's suspension, the Broncos could make a late playoff push.

Three keys for the season

1. The run defense has to be better. Denver finished 30th in run defense last year, and the inability to stop the run is the reason Jim Bates is no longer heading up the defense. Bob Slowik is in charge of the defense now, and has some new personnel. Tackle Dewayne Robertson should help in the middle of the line if he stays healthy. D.J. Williams could have a big year back at his natural weak-side position. Boss Bailey is an upgrade at linebacker. At safety, Marquand Manuel and Marlon McCree have experience and a bit of range. Denver did look better against the run in the preseason, which was an encouraging sign.

2. Jay Cutler has to take a big step. The Broncos have been building around the franchise quarterback, and it is his time to become an elite player. In the offseason he showed all the signs of making an improvement -- and he = wasn't bad last year with almost 3,500 yards and 20 touchdowns. Not having Marshall at the beginning of the season because of a suspension will hurt, but Cutler has great command of the offense and can spread the ball around to Denver's receivers. The Broncos' receivers should be good enough to give Cutler some support. Denver does need offensive tackles Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris, who are each in their first year starting, to keep the pass rush off of Cutler.

3. Denver's special teams have to play well right away. Given the Broncos' youth at punter, kicker and returner it's tough to expect an easy transition on special teams, but the team doesn't have a great margin for error. Matt Prater is especially on the hot seat because he's replacing popular kicker Jason Elam, who signed with Atlanta this offseason. Elam had four game-winning kicks on the final play of a game last season, and nobody can expect Prater to be as good a clutch performer. But Denver needs him to be consistent.


WR Eddie Royal: Royal wasn't expected to start at receiver as a rookie. Then in camp, he just kept making plays and forced his way into the starting lineup. When Marshall is out under suspension, he'll be a key target for Cutler. When Marshall is back, Royal is still expected to start, and he'll have to be effective enough that if teams double-team Marshall, Cutler has other options.

RB Andre Hall: Watch Hall's playing time closely early in the year. He and Selvin Young had a pretty even split of carries with the starters in the preseason, and the Broncos could use a tailback committee again. Hall is a talented back with good burst and is hard to bring down because he is built low to the ground and has good balance. He could be a weapon for the offense.

LB Nate Webster: Webster won the starting middle linebacker job after a training-camp battle with Niko Koutouvides. Webster has good instincts, given that middle linebacker is his natural position. The Broncos are hoping the defense is better this season, and a key will be how much better the play of the linebackers is.

TOP GAME TO WATCH: Chargers at Broncos, Sept. 14: The Broncos were outscored 64-6 by San Diego last year. They'll know quickly if they're more competitive this season.


--LB Niko Koutouvides lost to Nate Webster in the battle for Denver's middle linebacker spot. Koutouvides still has good value as a top special teams player, and the coaching staff thought the competition was close, so Koutouvides could get a chance if Webster doesn't play well right away.

--CB Karl Paymah rebounded after a slow start to camp and is pushing to get on the field as the nickel cornerback. He and Domonique Foxworth are fighting for the spot.

--QB Patrick Ramsey didn't start training camp or the preseason well, but= has settled down a bit. The biggest problem is an elbow injury he sustained in the third preseason game that bothered him a bit going into the fourth game.

--DE Tim Crowder will get extended playing time in the fourth preseason game. It is his chance to show how much playing time he deserves once the season starts. Crowder, a second-round pick last year, didn't have a great start to camp and found himself third string on the depth chart.

--WR Keary Colbert will battle for a role on the team. A high priority free-agent signing for the Broncos in the offseason, Colbert has struggled to distinguish himself among the Broncos' receiving corps.

--WR Samie Parker was among the Broncos' first set of cuts. He wasn't going to make the team in Denver, but quickly latched on with Carolina.

--DT Josh Mallard was a bit of a surprise cut, considering he had three-and-a-half sacks with Denver last year. Mallard could be brought back later. \

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