The Denver Broncos are a franchise on the brink. Which team did Josh McDaniels take over a year ago? The Broncos started the season 6-0, but finished 8-8 after collapsing in the second half of the season. They went from being a surprise powerhouse to a laughingstock in the span of two months.
McDaniels came into Denver as the hot young head-coaching superstar, weaned at the teat of Bill Belichick and ready to bring a new, impressive look to the Broncos. What has happened has been nothing short of disastrous. In less than 18 months, he has shipped off franchise offensive talents Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. It would seem that a power struggle has created a "my way or the highway" attitude in Denver and it has taken a toll on the franchise.
Injuries have taken an incredible toll at a time when the Broncos should be gearing down for a 16-week marathon. The injuries to the Broncos have been nothing short of rampant. On Monday and Tuesday of this week alone, 12 key players missed at least one of the two practices – RB Correll Buckhalter, WR Demaryius Thomas, TEs Daniel Graham and Richard Quinn, OL Russ Hochstein, Chris Kuper and Ryan Clady, LB Elvis Dumervil and DBs Champ Bailey, Brian Dawkins and Andre' Goodman.
The Broncos have one of the league's more interesting quarterback situations. After trading away a young franchise QB in Cutler, they are looking to the past and future while living in the present. The QB of the present is Kyle Orton, the former Bear who was tossed Denver's way in the Cutler deal. While not spectacular, Orton has a low-level "it" factor that allows some QBs to succeed without elite talent and others to fail. He was recently given a one-year, $9 million contract extension with $5.5 million of that guaranteed, so he fits into the plans beyond the 2010 season – or Denver is just throwing more than $5 million to the wind. The ghost of first-rounders' past is represented by Brady Quinn. A much-hyped prospect some analysts thought the Vikings might take instead of Adrian Peterson (what?), he dropped to the final third of the first round before getting taken by Cleveland. Given ample chances to win the starting job with the Browns, he was cast adrift in a trade to Denver. Quinn is likely going to win the No. 2 job. The ghost of first-rounders' future is Tim Tebow, a beloved college player few scouts believed should be a first-round pick, but Denver pulled the trigger in April. He is likely to see a lot of action tonight and should be a player to keep an eye on, since, if things go as planned, he won't play at all during the regular season except for gimmick plays in the Wildcat formation. As such, Quinn may end up being the No. 3 quarterback on game days more often than Tebow.
Injuries have hit the backfield as well. Starter Knowshon Moreno has been sidelined with a hamstring injury that, earlier this week, he proclaimed "80 percent" healthy. Strange number. Other Broncos have played with injuries during the preseason, but it's hard to imagine that the team would risk their top running back when he admits there is room for improvement. Correll Buckhalter and LenDale White have both sidelined with injuries during the preseason, opening the door for a pair of youngsters who may end up on the roster. Lance Ball played on every passing down last week for the Broncos, so the anticipation is that he will see considerable action this week and 2009 practice-squader Bruce Hall is getting opportunities as well. Expect Ball and Hall to carry most of the mail. One or both may make the final roster after the Broncos cut loose former Raider Justin Fargas to keep them. Third-year fullback Spencer Larsen is the only fullback on the roster, so his lead-blocking job appears secure.
The wide receiver position has been equally devastated by injury. Thomas was supposed to be the savior, drafted because he reminded team scouts of Brandon Marshall, begging the question why would you trade a player to get a pick that is used to replace him with a younger clone version? Thomas has been sidelined with a foot injury that will likely not only keep him out of the Vikings game, but he is already viewed as questionable for the Broncos' regular-season opener. Even if he does play, it likely won't be at 100 percent and the injury has been recurring throughout the preseason. Veteran Brandon Stokley has been out most of the preseason with a groin injury. For a team that uses three-receiver sets as a base formation, they need wide receivers in heavy numbers. Throw in former Gopher Eric Decker being dinged up, there is an opportunity for a lot of players to make an impact. Eddie Royal is safe and veterans Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Lloyd are favorites to hold down roster spots as well. Don't expect to see too much of any of them. Instead, Matthew Willis and undrafted rookie Alric Arnett and Britt Davis are expected to see more action.
Tight end has been an even bigger mess, with starter Daniel Graham and backup Richard Quinn having been sidelined. That has given chances for untested, unknown Marquez Branson, Riar Geer, Nathan Overbay and Kory Sperry. It's a far cry from the Shannon Sharpe days in Denver.
The offensive line has been one of the more interesting storylines with the Broncos in the offseason. The team used its second- and third-round draft picks on guard Zane Beadles and center J.D. Walton. Both are expected to start, which would give the Broncos one of the youngest offensive lines in the league. Fifth-year guard Chris Kuper is the old man of the group, but he has missed significant time during training camp with an ankle injury. Clady is returning from offseason knee surgery suffered while playing basketball on the same weekend the team invested in two premium picks on the O-line. Given the injuries, Beadles and Walton may be asked to play longer to get more reps. With Hochstein, the only other true center on the roster, Walton may have to play most if not all of the game. D'Anthony Batiste may see dual action at guard and tackle and, when he moves to tackle, Beadles may be asked to try his hand at left tackle, given Clady's status. The last unit on any team that can sustain injury or inexperience is on the offensive line. Denver has both.
Over the last decade, no organization regurgitated more defensive linemen than the Broncos. Underachievers, downside veterans and disappointing enigmas have been the norm in Denver. The process continues in the McDaniels Administration. In McDaniels' first year as head coach, fourth-year man Ronald Fields started every game at nose tackle. When free agency arrived, one of the first moves Denver made was to sign former Charger Jamal Williams to run the 3-4 defense. Fields is still in the picture, but it begs the question of loyalty. Marcus Thomas played in all 16 games last year and Chris Baker worked his way onto the active roster in McDaniels' first season. One of them (if not both) will have to go. At the end in the 3-4 system, Jarvis Green may find this to be a critical game. The nine-year vet has lost his starting spot to third-year pro Ryan McBean, who starts opposite Justin Bannan. Depth is going to be provided by a hodgepodge of youngsters, including fifth-year special-teamer Le Kevin Smith, fourth-year backup Marcus Thomas and undrafted rookies Ben Garland and Jeff Stehle. Who stays and who goes among this group isn't even known to them.
In a 3-4 defense, success or failure is based on the play of the linebackers. The Broncos have one of the game's premier 3-4 ‘backers in Elvis Dumervil. But, as luck would have it, the biggest difference-maker is injured. The issue facing the Broncos is the torn pectoral muscle injury suffered by Dumervil. Typically, such an injury ends a player's season. The Broncos haven't put him on injured reserve in the event he can make a miraculous comeback, so he currently is using a roster spot, but not able to play. It made the decision in late August to release nine-year veteran Akin Oyodele even more questionable. McDaniels justified the move by expressing the wish to give Oyodele time to hook on with another team, but it comes off as just another veteran who may have displayed dissent that was cut loose to keep the rest of the squad in line. Fourth-year pro Jarvis Moss, a career disappointment, replaces Dumervil on the outside with youngster Robert Ayers, who showed little as a rookie first-rounder last year but appears destined to live up to expectations this year. In the middle, Mario Haggan is steady if unspectacular and D.J. Williams has proved he can play every linebacker position the coaching staff throws at him. Backups in the middle are question marks at best. Following the draft, the only inside linebacker other than Williams and Haggan (Ayodele was still in play) that was on the roster was special teamer Wesley Woodyard. He's competing with Joe May, Worrell Williams and Johnny Williams for roster spots at a position that appears painfully thin. It might get bad enough that fullback Spencer Larsen, the only FB on the roster, may get sent back to the defensive side of the ball.
It can't be viewed as a positive that three of the four projected starters in the secondary – cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman and safety Brian Dawkins – have been sidelined with injuries. The only healthy starter is Renaldo Hill, a serviceable player who gets exposed too often in pass coverage. Rookie Perrish Cox is a talent whose off-field red flags allowed him to drop into the fifth round. He is competing with Alphonso Smith, who the Broncos liked enough that they gave up a first-round pick to get back into the second round of the 2009 draft to take him. Smith was a big disappointment in 2009 and needs to take a big step forward this year to justify the risk that was placed in scouting him. Seventh-round rookie Syd'Quan Thompson is also looking to hook on at corner with second-year special teams contributors David Bruton and Darcel McBath leading the race for backup spots at safety.
Like the first preseason game of a season, the last preseason game is little more than a film exercise for teams to see a flash of something in a player who is likely to be cut and a chance for players on the bubble to solidify their spot on the 53-man roster. The turmoil in Denver may make this game much more important to them because the Broncos have many more question marks on their final roster than the Vikings have.
Preview: A wounded, confused Broncos team
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