The Broncos were the cream of the crop of the AFC West for the first 14 weeks of the 2008 season, but an 0-3 finish, which included a 52-21 thrashing by the Chargers in Week 17 to miss out on the playoffs, led to drastic changes in Denver. Long-time head coach Mike Shanahan was sent packing, and the team brought in Bill Belichick disciple Josh McDaniels to run the show, with assistant general manager Brian Xanders taking over the GM duties full time.
Despite the terrible finish, the Broncos' offense got the job done in 2008, finishing second in total yards, led by quarterback Jay Cutler, who threw for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns. Brandon Marshall, who caught 104 passes for 1,265 yards and six touchdowns despite missing the first game of the season, and rookie Eddie Royal, who surprised many with his 91 catches for 980 yards, were Cutler's two favorite targets.
What you won't find as part of that prolific offense is a dominant running back, which long had been a staple of the Broncos' attack. Injuries were the culprit, with seven different ball carriers being placed on Injured Reserve throughout the season. The team's running back depth chart was in such shambles all season long that the team had to bring in former-Bronco Tatum Bell (who was working in a Denver-area cell phone store when the season started) and deployed rookie Peyton Hillis, who began the season as the team's starting fullback. Hillis ended up leading the team in rushing with 343 yards and five touchdowns.
However, no matter what happened in the backfield last season, it was the trade of franchise quarterback Jay Cutler that has been the defining story of the offseason. After being rumored to be a component in trade talks that would have brought in quarterback Matt Cassel, who McDaniels built into a legitimate quarterback in New England, Cutler demanded a trade. With interest from numerous teams for a 25-year old Pro Bowl quarterback, the Broncos sent the disgruntled Cutler and his ruffled feathers to the Bears, along with a fifth-round pick in 2009, in exchange for fellow quarterback Kyle Orton, first and third-round picks in 2009 and a first-round pick in 2010.
Whether it's Orton or newly acquired Chris Simms who takes the snaps in 2009, the team will obviously be quite different than the one that took the field in 2008, with its marquee signal-caller now in the Windy City. The Broncos also brought in a load of free agent running backs and used their first pick in the 2009 draft on another, so it's safe to assume that establishing a more balanced offence will be the chosen method of compensating for the loss of Cutler.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (12) Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia
Should be given every opportunity to be the next great Broncos' running back.
1. (18) Robert Ayers, LB, Tennessee
Will play a big part in rebuilding a porous defense.
2. (37) Alphonso Smith, CB, Wake Forest
Will provide much needed help after the departure of Dre' Bly.
2. (48) Darcel McBath, S, Texas Tech
Team needs all the defensive help it can get.
Cutler threw for a fantasy-friendly 4,526 yards with 25 touchdowns last season and made his first Pro Bowl appearance. So naturally the Broncos decided to make a not-so-discreet play for Matt Cassell, a former Josh McDaniels protégée. When the deal didn't happen, a miffed Cutler demanded a trade and the team obliged, sending him to Chicago for Orton and draft picks. While the team also signed Chris Simms, the quarterback job appears to be Orton's to lose and he will have plenty of opportunities to perform better than his numbers in Chicago would suggest, thanks to the presence of Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal on either side of him, along with the offensive schemes that worked so well for McDaniels in New England in play.
WHO WILL GET THE CARRIES?
After seeing seven different running backs land on IR last year, the Broncos decided to bring in a slew of players to provide some depth. Despite letting go last year's Week 1 starter Selvin Young in April, the team is well-stocked at the position after signing Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan and Darius Walker before using the No. 12 overall pick in April's draft on Georgia's Knowshon Moreno, who many rated as the top running back in the Class of 2009. Last year's touted rookie Ryan Torain returns, although his trouble staying healthy has taken some of the shine off his star. The competition appears to be open, although Moreno has the inside track to get the starting job given his lofty draft status, with Buckhalter fighting with Torain and Jordan to grab carries from the hotshot rookie.
HOW WILL THE RECEIVERS RESPOND TO LIFE WITHOUT CUTLER?
Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal both recorded over 90 receptions last season with Jay Cutler behind center, but we sense a shift in gears here with the running back depth chart having more talent and depth than in years past, starting with first round pick Knowshon Moreno. It will be interesting to see how often Josh McDaniels trusts Kyle Orton's arm to get the team moving on offense, or if he will simply pound the ball as often as possible, as the team's personal decisions would seem to preview. On the plus side, the Broncos brought in former Patriots receiver Jabar Gaffney, who could become a legitimate No. 3 receiver for the Broncos given his comfort with McDaniels' schemes.
Rising: While it may take a little time, Kyle Orton could become the next Josh McDaniels project to surpass expectations just as Matt Cassel did in New England.
Declining: The bar is set high for Brandon Marshall after back-to-back 100-catch seasons, but a new quarterback at the helm and the possibility of NFL discipline will make it difficult for him to match that sort of production.
Sleeper: With his knowledge of McDaniels' offensive system, Jabar Gaffney could find himself with more looks.
Supersleeper: If the team is able to move tight end Tony Scheffler, Richard Quinn could be in line to grab some catches at the position.
Champ Bailey, CB
Although interceptions have been down in recent years, he is still one of the best.
Brian Dawkins, S
The hard-hitting safety was brought in to bring some fire to a struggling defense.
D.J. Williams, LB
Continues to be a tackle machine, just needs to stay on the field.