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2012 Denver Broncos Team Preview: Can Manning Guide the Broncos back to the Playoffs?

Andrew Laird

Andrew Laird

Andrew Laird is the Senior Soccer Editor for RotoWire. He is also the Head of New Writer Training and a fantasy football and college basketball contributor.

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE

To say that the Broncos went on an improbable run last season to win the AFC West title would be an understatement. Sitting at 1-4 after five weeks with Kyle Orton under center, head coach John Fox made the fan-friendly decision to insert Tim Tebow into the starting lineup. What appeared to be a move to show fans that Tebow wasn't able to be a starting quarterback in the NFL turned into nearly the opposite. Winning seven of his first eight starts, Tebow led the Broncos to the AFC West crown and a first-round home game against the Steelers. A game everyone expected them to lose, the Broncos took at 20-6 halftime lead and eventually won in overtime on an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas, making the Tebow aura even greater.

So how did the franchise respond to their star quarterback leading them to a playoff victory? They went out and signed future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and shipped Tebow and a seventh-round draft pick off to the Jets for a fourth and a sixth-rounder. Despite his success on the field, it was clear that John Elway and the rest of the Denver front office were never really comfortable with Tebow and when given the chance to acquire Manning, they jumped on it. By signing Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract, Elway chose to put the franchise in the hands of a man who missed all of the 2011 season due to multiple neck surgeries, but can be the best in the game when he's completely healthy.

The defensive side of the ball was a positive for the Broncos last year, headlined by the pass rushing abilities of Elvis Dumervil and defensive rookie of the year, Von Miller. Both battled injuries throughout the season, but still managed to combine for 21.0 total sacks in the regular season and two more in the playoffs. If Miller can keep improving, the Broncos could arguably have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL.

That pass rush will be even more important after safety Brian Dawkins announced his retirement at the end of the season. A 16-year veteran, who played the last three years in Denver, Dawkins was a hard-hitting safety who protected the top of the Broncos' defense and will not be easily replaced.

The schedule is far from easy this season, as the team opens at home against the Steelers and then plays at Atlanta, home against the Texas, home against the Raiders and at New England. Games against the Saints, Ravens, Chargers and Browns await them later in the year. But with Manning at the helm, the team has the utmost confidence that they can compete for a Super Bowl.

KEY ACQUISITIONS

Peyton Manning, QB (Colts)
Missed all of last season due to neck surgery, but if he can return to full health, he is one of the best in the game. He'll have to adjust to new receivers, although there is plenty of talent on the outside, namely Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

Jacob Tamme, TE (Colts)
Was a favorite target of Manning's in Indianapolis, but will have to battle Joel Dreessen for tight end looks.

Joel Dreessen, TE (Texans)
Was a productive pass catcher in Houston and could succeed in two-TE sets with Jacob Tamme.

Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State (Round 3, 67th overall)
A Darren Sproles-type runner with the inside track to be Willis McGahee's backup, with Knowshon Moreno battling back from injury. He could be the regular third-down back thanks to his pass-catching and change-of-pace ability.

Andre Caldwell, WR (Bengals)
Will compete with a number of receivers for the No. 3 wideout spot behind Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

Caleb Hanie, QB (Bears)
Veteran insurance in case Manning goes down.

KEY LOSSES
Tim Tebow, QB (Jets)
With Manning in house, Tebow became expendable and was shipped off to the Jets for essentially a fourth-round draft pick.

Brian Dawkins, S (Retired)
The future Hall of Famer decided to hang it up after 16 seasons.

TEAM NOTES

CAN Peyton Manning RETURN TO FORM?
There is no question that Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time when healthy. But that's the major issue heading into this season for Manning and the Broncos. Multiple neck surgeries kept him out of action for all of last season and the Colts were ready to move on with Andrew Luck. The Broncos jumped at the opportunity to have Manning lead their offense and early reports are that he's getting his arm strength back and will be fully ready for training camp. He has some nice weapons around him in the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside, as well as newly acquired Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme at the tight end slots. If Manning is fully healthy, he can certainly return to the elite tier of fantasy quarterbacks.

OLD, INJURED AND INEXPERIENCED: MEET THE RUNNING BACKS
Willis McGahee started last year as the backup running back behind Knowshon Moreno, but was the starter by midseason and racked up 1,250 total yards and five touchdowns. The question now is whether he can do it again this season. Rushing for fewer than 700 yards in three straight years, McGahee had 285 carries last season (including the playoffs), his most since 2007. He will be 31 years old this fall and history tells us that most running backs don't last much longer. That could be why the Broncos drafted Ronnie Hillman, a Darren Sproles-type back and a great change-of-pace player to complement McGahee's bruising inside running style. It's entirely possible that Hillman will be the more productive of the two, especially given his ability to catch passes out of the backfield, something McGahee has been practically allergic to over the last few seasons. Add in the fact that Moreno will be returning from his torn ACL and the Broncos' backfield appears very crowded, but without a true star.

WILL THOMAS AND DECKER MAKE THE LEAP?
Both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker showed flashes of brilliance last season, although neither could sustain it on a consistent basis. Decker seemed to have a great relationship with Kyle Orton but fell off the map when Tim Tebow took over. Thomas was injured for most of the Orton Era, but developed solid chemistry with Tebow, highlighted by his 80-yard game-winning touchdown against the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs. Both players should be able to succeed with Peyton Manning as their quarterback, as long as he's healthy. Thomas has the size and speed to be a dominant force, and Decker has superb hands and runs solid routes. It's way too early to compare them to Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, but Manning has shown that multiple receivers can succeed when he's throwing the passes.

RISING: Demaryius Thomas came on in the second half of last season and was a star for the Broncos during their playoff run. With the massive upgrade at quarterback, he could make a leap.

DECLINING: Willis McGahee was a surprise last season, although moving away from the run-heavy offense and the addition of Ronnie Hillman could reduce his touches.

SLEEPER: Ronnie Hillman could be the Broncos' third-down runner and especially valuable in PPR leagues, given McGahee's history of few catches.

SUPERSLEEPER: Mario Fannin was a solid prospect coming into last season, but an ankle injury derailed him. With uncertainty and age in the backfield, he could find some carries.

IDP Watch

Elvis Dumervil, DE
When healthy, he's one of the best pass rushers in the league.

Von Miller, LB
The 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year had 11.5 sacks last season.

D.J. Williams, LB
One of the best tacklers in the game, but faces a six-game suspension.

TEAM DEFENSE:
RotoWire Rank: 23