"We're a better team, there's no question about it," were the optimistic words of head coach Mike Shanahan following this year's draft, even though few of the players selected will provide the immediate boost some teams expect from their selections. Regardless, Broncos fans will demand a better team this year after seeing the squad finish 9-7 and 7-9 in the last two years, respectively, while missing the playoffs both seasons.
Change was plentiful in the offseason, as the Broncos fired general manager Ted Sundquist after 16 years with the franchise. Though many gave credit to Shanahan for finding steals in the draft, it was Sundquist who was responsible for bringing in Champ Bailey, Jay Cutler and John Lynch, among others, who have gone on to play essential roles for the team.
Speaking of Cutler, it will be interesting to see how he responds in his third year with the team, as many of Shanahan's former quarterbacks took positive steps in their third seasons under him (see: Griese, Brian and Plummer, Jake). One possible setback could be Cutler's recently discovered Type 1 diabetes, a serious condition to be sure, but one that team doctors have indicated should not affect his on-field effectiveness.
One main staple missing last season was the presence of a 1,000-yard rusher, something the team previously had in every year but one since Shanahan took over in 1995. Selvin Young's 729 yards last season were good enough to lead the team, while Travis Henry -
battling injuries and with a possible suspension hanging over his head - chipped in 691 yards. Young became the fifth running back in the last five years to lead the Broncos in rushing, and this season's crop of backs could certainly generate a sixth. Henry was cut in June, which opens the door for a spirited training camp battle between Young and fifth-round pick Ryan Torain, with Andre Hall and Michael Pittman also in the mix.
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos need to do better, as the defense ranked 28th in the NFL in points allowed and 30th in rushing yards allowed in 2007. The additions of Boss Bailey and Dewayne Robertson should help, but it's always difficult to stop the run when six of your 16 games require lining up against LaDanian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson and, now, Darren McFadden.
Finally, special teams could become a focus early on in the year if the kicking game struggles. Jason Elam is gone and, for the first time in 15 years, someone else will be attempting game-winning field goals for Denver.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (12) Ryan Clady, OT, Boise State
Left tackle should provide solid run blocking and pass protection.
2. (42) Eddie Royal, WR, Virginia Tech
Should make an impact as a returner.
Cutler was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes this spring, which will require him to have daily insulin injections, as well as maintain a much stricter diet. According to the Broncos, Cutler was tested for diabetes after he lost a significant amount of weight during last season, but he should be able to put the weight back on in time for training camp. The team's training staff insists that the condition will not adversely affect his play and have pointed to other athletes who have played with diabetes, with great success, including baseball legend Jackie Robinson and NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke. Worth noting is that a low-energy version of Cutler put up decent numbers last season and now that his health will be closely monitored and his condition treated, he figures to regain the bounce in his step and the zip on his throws that he sometimes lacked in 2007.
WHO WILL CUTLER THROW TO?
With the release of former No. 1 receiver Javon Walker, Cutler has one fewer big time receiver to look for in the passing game. The Broncos grabbed whomever they could in the offseason, picking up former Seahawk and 49er Darrell Jackson, former Panther Keary Colbert and former Chief Samie Parker to try to fill the void that Walker left. Brandon Marshall is locked into the top receiver spot, with ex-Peyton Manning target Brandon Stokley also returning to give Cutler more options than ever before. Marshall, who hurt his forearm in an accident in the offseason, is projected to be fully recovered when training camp opens in July, but keep an eye on his status.
WHO WILL CARRY THE RUSHING LOAD?
Though Mike Shanahan has a record of driving fantasy owners nuts with his lack of transparency regarding the running game, he rarely (last year was an exception) fails to deliver a productive fantasy rusher. With Travis Henry gone, the competition for the starting gig looks wide open and will be worth monitoring closely in training camp. Returnees Selvin Young and Andre Hall are joined by potential sleeper Ryan Torain and former Buc, Michael Pittman. Regardless of who comes out on top, you can be almost sure that one of them will hit the 1,000-yard mark, especially after the Broncos used the 12th pick in this year's draft on left tackle Ryan Clady, a 316-pounder capable of opening running lanes.
WHO GETS THE MILE HIGH KICKS?
The Broncos are looking to fill the void left when long-time place-kicker Jason Elam signed with Atlanta this offseason. The team passed on the experienced Mike Vanderjagt in April, and instead signed Oklahoma's Garrett Hartley as an undrafted college free agent to provide current favorite for the job, Matt Prater, with at least one challenger.