It’s easy to forget how incredibly dichotomous the Denver Broncos were in 2011. At times they looked (and probably were) simply unbeatable. Other times the team was left exposed, giving up big play after big play. Pinning the inconsistencies on the quarterback situation is the simple explanation, of course. A peek at the roster, however, reveals the problem was in the depth chart.
Last year the Broncos were shredded when the defense lined up in the nickle formation. When emotional leader Brian Dawkins was out with injury, the safeties struggled to make critical tackles. At one point early during the season, the team was so depleted at wide receiver that Tim Tebow ran routes on a handful of plays. Fullback? Just have a tight end fill in. Tight ends? Didn’t really utilize them anyway.
2012 is shaping up quite differently and fans can look at cornerback for a model of what the Broncos are trying to do. Champ Bailey, Tracy Porter, Drayton Florence, Chris Harris, Syd’Quan Thompson, and Omar Bolden are all players who could make substantial impact on any team. The Broncos’ only real problem is going to be deciding which of these players sees the field…minus Bailey, obviously.
The running backs benefited greatly from the option offense last year, but one flaw was that when Willis McGahee was dinged up, there wasn’t really a proven alternate. Lance Ball did a decent job as a sidekick when Knowshon Moreno tore his ACL. Both will return this year looking to compete, likely as the third down back. Jeremiah Johnson and Mario Fannin (who could be a very pleasant surprise after spending last year on injured reserve) also return with the addition of third-round pick Ronnie Hillman.
Ask anyone what the Broncos’ Achillies’ heel has been over the past few years and almost universally the answer is, “defensive tackle.” When the Broncos can’t dominate at the line of scrimmage, opposing teams run wild and their quarterbacks have easy looks to receivers. No doubt that the revolving door at defensive coordinator hasn’t helped, but the presence of a players’ coach in Jack Del Rio should help matters. So should the return of injured veterans Ty Warren and Kevin Vickerson, along with the second tour of duty for Justin Bannan. They’ll be joined by second-round draft pick Derek Wolfe who is expected to have the kind of motor and presence that the Broncos have struggled to find from an interior lineman. Barring an injury, this squad could be the one to erase the recent history of defensive tackles in Denver.
Of course, Peyton Manning was the Crown Jewel of the free agent signings this offseason. Along the way, the Broncos have also been able to develop a depth chart that shows improvement to the previously mentioned positions as well as to the offensive line, tight ends, and receiving corps.
Perhaps this is the new NFL trend: build a depth chart that is virtually bottomless, draft well, grab a few stars along the way, and win tough games. It worked out well for the 2011 New York Giants. The Broncos will look to model that formula in 2012.