By Matt Bunke
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Broncos entered the 2006 season with lofty expectations following a 13-3 finish
in 2005. While most felt the team had the makeup of a potential Super Bowl
contender, there were questions that had to be answered first.
Could Tatum Bell handle the punishment as a feature back in the NFL? Could
the defense put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks? And most importantly, could
Jake Plummer repeat his career-best 2005 performance?
After the Broncos raced out to a 7-2 start, the answers seemed promising. The defense
drew comparisons to several of the NFL’s all-time best, Bell ranked among the league’s
leading rushers and Plummer was doing just enough to win. But after the Broncos lost the
next four games and eventually missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record, the answer to all three
questions morphed into a resounding no.
The once impenetrable defense crumbled
down the stretch, Bell battled turf toe injuries,
and Plummer finally played his way
out of the starting job.
The second-half collapse led to an active
offseason for the Broncos. The onslaught
of moves really began when Jay Cutler
took over the starting quarterback job
in Week 13, and the overhaul continued
after the season when a flurry of coaching
changes was highlighted by the firing of
defensive coordinator Larry Coyer.
The Broncos hope new defensive coordinator
Jim Bates is successful in resurrecting
the team’s dormant pass rush, and
if he is, the defense could resemble the
one that allowed just 44 points in the first
six games of 2006. Miami’s Jason Taylor
and Green Bay’s Aaron Kampman had breakout seasons under Bates, and the Broncos
hope his presence will have a similar effect on Elvis Dumervil and the rest of the youthful
defensive line, which will likely be one of the team’s biggest question marks.
The Broncos were forced to release veteran middle linebacker Al Wilson due to salary
and health issues, but D.J. Williams, Ian Gold, and free agent addition Warrick Holdman
still leave the team fairly strong at the position. Furthermore, the addition of Dre’ Bly
opposite Champ Bailey gives the Broncos one of the best cornerback tandems in the
While addressing the defense was a priority, the team made its biggest moves on
offense. After dealing Tatum Bell to the Lions, the Broncos signed new feature back Travis
Henry to a five-year contract. The team also added Daniel Graham, who figures to see a lot
of time in two-tight end sets with Tony Scheffler. The addition of Brandon Stokley could
give the Broncos valuable depth at receiver behind Javon Walker, Brandon Marshall and
Rod Smith -- if he’s fully recovered from an Achilles’ tendon injury. And if Cutler develops
as the organization hopes, the Broncos should have enough offensive weapons to make it to the playoffs.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (17) Jarvis Moss, DE, Florida
Dominant pass rusher who should be
instant contributor on passing downs.
2. (56) Tim Crowder, DE, Texas
Strong and complete player, should see
some playing time at a position of need.
3. (70) Ryan Harris, OT, Notre Dame
Gives the Broncos valuable depth on the
offensive line after injuries ravaged the
unit in 2006.
4. (121) Marcus Thomas, DT, Florida
May have been best defensive tackle in
draft. Character issues caused slip to fourth
round, but should see plenty of action if
he stays out of trouble.
1. Travis Henry, RB, (Titans)
Power back adds stability and could thrive
in Broncos’ run-friendly system.
2. Daniel Graham, TE, (Patriots)
One of the best blocking tight ends in
the league; could see a jump in receptions
3. Dre’ Bly, CB, (Lions)
Gives team arguably the best cornerback
tandem in the league.
1. Al Wilson, LB, (FA)
Heart and soul of defense -- leadership
will be missed after neck and back injuries
2. Tatum Bell, RB, (Lions)
After toughness was called into question,
struggled with injuries as feature back
3. Jake Plummer, QB, (Buccaneers)
Poor play in 2006 cost him his job and
at press time is retired.
1. Jay Cutler’S DEVELOPMENT
Cutler wasn’t spectacular during his five-game audition at the end of the 2006 season,
but he wasn’t terrible, either. He gained confidence each week, and although he posted
just a 2-3 record, he finished with over 1,000 yards passing, nine touchdowns and just five
interceptions. Getting a chance to run the offense last year should help his development,
but it remains to be seen if he can handle a full season as an NFL quarterback. If he has
developed as quickly as the Broncos think he has, it could be a deep playoff run for the
team. If he hasn’t, it could be another inconsistent season.
2. WHO’S NUMBER TWO?
The biggest question for the Broncos’ passing game may not be Jay Cutler, but rather,
who his biggest weapons will be. Javon Walker is solid at No. 1, but Rod Smith will be
37 years old at the start of the season and will be coming off his worst season since 1996.
All indications point to Brandon Marshall, a second-year receiver out of Central Florida,
climbing the depth chart to win the job. The Broncos love his size (6-4, 222 pounds), speed
and athleticism, and think he could evolve into a huge weapon for Cutler. He made just 20
catches for 309 yards last season, and is still unproven. However, 14 of those catches came
in the last five weeks after Cutler took over the starting quarterback job.
3. CAN Al Wilson BE REPLACED?
The release of Wilson due to health and salary cap issues leaves the Broncos with a gaping hole
in the middle of their defense. Now, the defense’s success could depend heavily on the play of D.J.
Williams, who will fill the void by shifting to middle linebacker after starting on the outside each
of the past two seasons. The Broncos also added veteran Warrick Holdman to the mix, and he will
likely start on the outside opposite Ian Gold. The Broncos’ linebacking corps certainly isn’t weak,
but without Wilson, a veteran leader and six-time Pro Bowler, the unit takes a definite step back.
4. REJUVENATED RUN GAME
The Broncos’ running game, typically the team’s biggest strength, was one of its largest disappointments
in 2006, as Tatum and Mike Bell struggled with inconsistency all season. Now,
after shipping Tatum Bell off to Detroit following an injury-plagued season, the Broncos are
banking on Travis Henry to rejuvenate the running game in 2007. The Broncos still have Mike
Bell, but it seems Mike Shanahan would prefer to go with one feature back. Henry, a strong
and powerful runner, seems to be a good fit in the Broncos’ system, and if he lives up to his
$22.5 million contract, he would take a lot of pressure off Cutler and the passing game.
Rising: Elvis Dumervil recorded 8.5 sacks
last season, but could explode in 2007 under
new defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who is
known for developing defensive ends.
Declining: Last year Mike Bell shared
carries with Tatum Bell, but with Travis Henry
now in the fold, his production will likely drop
Sleeper: Brandon Marshall looks poised
to claim the No. 2 receiving job, and his size
and speed could make him a great downfield
weapon for Jay Cutler.
Super Sleeper: If Jay Cutler fails to live up
to the hype, Patrick Ramsey
is an experienced is an experienced starter who provides insurance at the backup
1. Champ Bailey, CB
Opposing quarterbacks won’t be able to shy
away from him anymore with Dre’ Bly on the
2. D.J. Williams, LB
Tackles should easily exceed 100 as he becomes
an every down player and shifts to the middle.
3. Elvis Dumervil, DE
Played primarily on passing downs in 2006,
but should see an expanded role this season.
Article first appeared 6/16/07
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