The Denver Broncos finished fourth in the NFL in offense, averaging 397.9 yards and 30.8 points per game. Peyton Manning, bless his heart, threw for more than 4,600 yards and running backs ground out more than 1,800 yards.
So, you’d take that again in 2013, right?
Not if with Manning on your team. Not with John Elway at the controls.
These are two folks who are competitive to the max. And the Bronco offense of last year is not remotely close to what these two have in mind.
Let’s throw in a couple of “what ifs.”
What if Manning’s arm is stronger next season than it was in his return from four neck surgeries? What if the dink and dunk of last season gives way to deep slants or deeper fade or post patterns?
What if the Broncos actually could move the pile at will, meaning their offensive line could force the issue and running backs could pound out better than a 3.8-yard-per-carry clip?
What if the Bronco play-action passing and up-the-gut rushing improve?
Here’s what if: Nobody, not Baltimore, not New England, not San Francisco, not San Diego, nobody, would want anything to do with this team.
So, how does that happen?
First, of course, is Manning. He has to stay on the field and he has to keep getting stronger. Then, Manning needs better support, from his line, receivers and backs.
The Broncos have depth on the line in spades.
They have at least two quality NFL starting centers in J.D. Walton and Dan Koppen (if re-signed). They also have second-year man Philip Blake to add to the mix.
They have two guards in Zane Beadles and Chris Kuper who were voted Pro Bowl alternates, with Beadles playing in the contest. They also have Manny Ramirez as an alternate, who stepped in after Kuper was injured this season.
Ryan Clady may be the best left tackle in football on the left side and up-and-comer Orlando Franklin on the right side.
Problem is the line was often not great up the middle in terms of moving foes, or with pass blocking, particularly against the blitz.
Kuper’s injuries have hurt. Walton and Koppen are smart, which helps when Manning is doing his quick-thinking thing, but not much of a threat when it comes to pounding out 3 or 4 needed yards. Clady is great against the pass, not great at blocking on the edge for runs. Franklin is a run-blocking monster, but has had trouble against edge pass rushers.
Much of what happens will depend on Kuper, who is still suffering ankle woes.
Does the team move Franklin inside or maybe put Blake into that position?
Draft possibilities at the 28th spot are guard Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina or tackle D.J. Fluker of Alabama, either of whom might replace Denver’s need pick for a defender in the first round if available.
Free-agent possibilities are numerous, including tackles Sam Baker of Atlanta, Gosder Chelius of Detroit and guards Brandon Moore of the Jets and Andy Levitre of Buffalo. Those beefy bodies and many other veterans would cost plenty on the free-agent market.
Another thing that has been bandied about often is the possibility of adding more beef at running back.
Willis McGahee gained nearly 800 yards last year before going down to a knee injury, but he is 31 and has missed many games over the last several seasons.
Knowshon Moreno proved surprisingly reliable over the final two months, but is he your No. 1 running back for the next several years?
And rookie Ronnie Hillman showed flashes, but at 195 pounds, struggled to pass block against the blitz – something that will not be tolerated with Manning in the pocket.
Possible improvements might come via the draft, where Alabama’s Eddie Lacey would be a godsend with the 28th pick. The free-agent pool is slim with Steven Jackson old and slowing, Peyton Hillis a huge gamble, Rashard Mendenhall coming off a knee injury, Ahmad Bradshaw foot surgery and Shonn Green, Cedric Benson and Felix Jones all questionable as upgrades.
The one other position that could use help would be at receiver, where speed and quickness in the slot might be added, with Brandon Stokely 36 and not much of a threat downfield.
Possibilities at the 28th spot would be Cordarrelle Patterson of Tennessee or Keenan Allen of Cal, if they would last that long. Both, however, are in the tall, lanky mode of Denver’s current wide receivers. Tavon Austin of West Virginia is a slot type who is outstanding as a return man and could last into the second round.
Free agent help, again at a huge price, could come from slot receivers Danny Amendola of the Rams, maybe even – gulp! – Wes Welker of the Patriots. As for pure outside talent, what about Greg Jennings the Packers, Mike Wallace of the Steelers or Dwayne Bowe of the Chiefs?
Yes, there are possibilities for improvement on the offensive side, maybe from a few tweaks, maybe from a gigantic leap of faith or two that fits into the puzzle that is the Manning-led offense.