RotoWire Partners

2014 Team Preview: Denver Broncos

Andrew M. Laird

Andrew M. Laird

Andrew M. Laird is the Senior Soccer Editor for RotoWire.com, co-host of the RotoWire Fantasy Soccer Podcast and an NFL contributor to the site.

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE

There was no question that the 2013 Broncos were only going to go as far as Peyton Manning took them. Sure, there was plenty of talent all over the field in Denver, but if Manning didn't perform, the Broncos weren't going to succeed. So what happened? Manning set the NFL single-season record for passing yards (5,477), while also setting a new record with 55 passing touchdowns. The dynamic offense led by Manning took the Broncos to the Super Bowl, where they were surprisingly manhandled by the Seahawks.

As can happen with title-contending teams, the Broncos lost a few major pieces from last season's squad in free agency. Wideout Eric Decker signed with the Jets, while last year's leading rusher Knowshon Moreno took his talents to South Beach. Montee Ball is expected to shoulder the rushing load now that Moreno is gone, but the void left by Decker will be a tough one to fill. The team signed former Steeler Emmanuel Sanders, and then drafted Cody Latimer to try to replace some of the lost production, but it would be surprising if they were able to reach the levels that Decker did.

If Sanders and Latimer can't do it, surely Denver's Thomas duo could step up. Demaryius Thomas finished fourth in the NFL with 1,430 yards last season, while leading all wideouts with 14 touchdowns. Meanwhile, tight end Julius Thomas emerged to catch 65 passes and scored more touchdowns (12) than any tight end in the league other than Jimmy Graham or Vernon Davis.

The defensive side of the ball saw some major offseason upgrades in areas that desperately needed them. Unable to get a consistent pass rush for most of last season, the Broncos signed former Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware. He'll start opposite Von Miller, who tore his ACL last December and had surgery in January. If Miller can return to his previous form, the Broncos could have one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the NFL.

Pass coverage was also a glaring weakness last season, especially given Champ Bailey's injury woes. The team decided not to bring him back for an 11th season. However, the Broncos bagged a significant upgrade when they signed Aqib Talib. The shut down corner's talent has never been questioned, but he's battled injuries for much of his career, leaving the Broncos vulnerable if the injury bug strikes again.

Talib wasn't the only addition to the secondary that the Broncos hope will improve the unit. After a triple-digit tackle season for the Browns, T.J. Ward moved to Denver on a four-year pact. And with the final push to improve the defensive backfield, the Broncos selected cornerback Bradley Roby with the 31st overall pick. With Chris Harris recovering from a torn ACL, Roby could get a chance to start opposite Talib.

OFFSEASON MOVES

Key Acquisitions

Emmanuel Sanders - WR, Steelers
Could slot right into Eric Decker's old spot opposite Demaryius Thomas.

DeMarcus Ware - LB, Cowboys
Will help form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL along with Von Miller.

Aqib Talib - CB, Patriots
Takes over for Broncos' legend Champ Bailey to fill a key defensive role.

Cody Latimer - WR, Indiana (Round 2, 56th overall)
Has good size (6-2, 215) but is recovering from a January foot procedure.

Key Losses

Eric Decker - WR, Jets
While he now slots in as the Jets' top wideout, he'll no doubt miss working with Peyton Manning.

Knowshon Moreno - RB, Dolphins
His departure paves the way for a larger role for Montee Ball.

Wesley Woodyard - LB, Titans
Averaged 99 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two picks over the last two seasons.

Champ Bailey - CB, Saints
An all-time great, who played only five games last season, is close to the end of his career.

TEAM NOTES

TIME TO RUN THE BALL
After being selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Montee Ball was widely believed to be the front-runner for Denver's starting RB job last season. However, he struggled to pick up pass-blocking schemes and was surprisingly passed by Knowshon Moreno on the depth chart to start the season. Moreno, who had battled knee injuries since being chosen 12th overall in the 2009 Draft, kept the job for the entire season, eventually finishing with 1,586 total yards and 13 touchdowns. Moreno is now with Miami, leaving Ball as the expected starter once again. His main competition will be C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, neither of whom have the pedigree or talent that Ball has. If he can continue to develop as a blocker, a vital skill for a running back next to Peyton Manning, Ball could be a fantasy star this season.

CAN ORANGE JULIUS DO IT AGAIN?
After appearing in just nine games during his first two seasons due to multiple injuries, Julius Thomas shocked everyone by catching five passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the Broncos' season-opener against the Ravens. Fantasy owners sprinted to their computers to put in waiver requests for the former college basketball player, hoping they had stumbled upon the next Jimmy Graham. While he wasn't quite up to Graham's level, Thomas had an excellent season, catching 65 passes on 90 targets for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. Knee and ankle injuries forced him to miss two games, while he was limited in a few others, but when he's healthy, he's one of the best fantasy options at his position. Moreover, with Eric Decker no longer around, Thomas could see even more looks in close this season.

RESTACKING THE DECK-ER
With Decker off to New York, the Broncos will need to find a way to replace the lost production. A healthy Julius Thomas could certainly take up some of the red-zone work, but Decker was more than just a goal-line target. Emmanuel Sanders should certainly help, although he doesn't have the size or the strength that Decker brought. Cody Latimer will be a candidate, with his 6-2 frame, but the track record of rookie wide receivers isn't great, even in an offense like Denver's. The key replacement might just be running back Montee Ball. The team's over-dependence on the passing game was greatly exposed during the Super Bowl, and if the Broncos are going to enjoy a more-balanced offense, then they'll need Ball, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman to produce more on the ground. If Ball can take the leap everyone is expecting, then Manning won't need to find an even replacement for his second-favorite receiver.

VALUE METER

Rising: Montee Ball is the unquestioned starting running back for an offense that is capable of putting up big points once again.

Declining: Wes Welker started last season as one of the best fantasy wideouts in the league, but was later hampered by concussions.

Sleeper: C.J. Anderson will compete with Ronnie Hillman for the backup running back job, and he could find a role if he can improve his pass-blocking.

Supersleeper: Cody Latimer has the size to evolve into a solid red-zone threat, with targets available after Eric Decker left for New York.

IDP WATCH

Von Miller - LB
Has notched 35 sacks in 40 career games, but is bouncing back from ACL surgery.

DeMarcus Ware - LB
Had six straight seasons with at least 11 sacks until last year.

Aqib Talib - CB
Injury prone throughout his career, but he's one of the best ball-hawks in the NFL.

TEAM DEFENSE
RotoWire Rank: 17