The Broncos head into the 2015 season with high expectations all around.
This is the fourth year of the Peyton Manning in Denver era with no rings to show for it. And after coming off an embarrassing Divisional Round loss in the 2014 NFL Playoffs, it seems it’s put up or shut up time for the Broncos.
Luckily, Manning does not have to do the heavy lifting expected of him in the past. He’s got a three-headed monster of a running game that produced a Pro Bowler in C.J. Anderson last year. The Broncos also have a defense that should be one of it not the best in the NFL.
This defense is led by individual groups that are respectably deep, including at inside linebacker and corner back. But the Broncos aren’t deep at any position on the defensive side like they are on the edge with their pass rushers.
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We all know about the tag team that leads this group, the dynamic duo that combines for 11 Pro Bowls, six First-team All-Pro selections, and 176 career sacks; Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
Last year Miller and Ware combined for 24 sacks, one of three pairs of teammates in the top 15 of the league in sacks (Baltimore and Buffalo).
In addition, though Ware just turned 33, his Head Coach for three and a half years in Dallas Wade Phillips will rejoin him, switching him back to outside linebacker where he’s been the most successful.
Von Miller is heading into his fifth year as a professional. His career has been filled with highs and lows, All-Pro years and suspension and injuries. Even his weight has been on a roller coaster since he was drafted in 2011.
But perhaps everything Miller has gone through, all the mistakes on and off the field have let him know what he can and cannot do. He’s cleaned up off the field, being released from the NFL’s drug program this offseason. He also knows where the butter zone is for his weight and how to get there.
Miller will look to play even better than last year, even though that’s a pretty lofty goal in itself. According to Pro Football Focus, Miller’s grade of 54.0 was the third best of any player at any position in all of the NFL, behind J.J. Watt (107.5!!!) and Khalil Mack (55.3).
And if having Miller and Ware on the edge wasn’t enough, the Broncos also have two young studs coming off the bench.
Rookie Shane Ray and (redshirt rookie) sophomore Shaquil Barrett showed in the preseason that they are what will put this edge rushing group over the top.
I was critical of the Broncos for trading up in the first round of this year’s draft to get Ray, but I still think he’s going to be a really good player.
My biggest problem with him coming out of Missouri was that he couldn’t bend around the edge. That was still a problem in preseason and will be for much of his career.
However, there’s been more positive than negative with Ray so far, which is why he was a first round pick and why I thought he should’ve been picked in the first half of day two.
He’s a menace going inside on rushes. What’s good about this is Ray’s been flashing good strength and pad level. He gets under the pads of his man, gets him on his heels, and quickly gets inside for a shot at the QB. Getting inside is how Ray will win most of his matchups on the edge and that’s what happened in the preseason.
Ray, who was knocked for his run defense in college, also showed why he won’t be a complete black hole in any facet of the game – his effort.
He still isn’t the strongest and will get wiped out at times, but in the meantime, while he’s still a novice, effort will help him get by in certain situations like it did in the play above.
So far he’s been a fun player to watch and will be a fan favorite so long as he keeps playing the way he has been.
PFF had a 5.9 grade on Ray in the preseason, second best on the team behind… Shaq Barrett’s 14.5.
Barrett is a local product out of Colorado State. Both he and collegiate teammate Kapri Bibbs went undrafted in 2014 and were signed by the Broncos. Both spent at least most of the season on the practice squad (neither getting any snaps).
This year, their paths deviated. While Bibbs is back on the practice squad, Barrett made a huge splash in the preseason, forcing the Broncos hand to keep him on the active 53-man roster.
And by forcing their hand, I mean by plays like this…
…and many others in the preseason.
I get it. It’s just the preseason. Most of the competition he faced was either backups or guys that were just cut from teams. But at the very least Barrett showed he has the talent that supersedes the necessity to play in the fourth preseason game. He was making big boy plays with big boy moves the whole preseason.
Barrett led the Broncos this preseason in sacks (for the second consecutive year), hits, and hurries, the statistical sweep for a pass rusher. It will be fascinating to see what he can do against better talent, and it would seem as if he’s ready for it.
The Broncos will be pressuring opposing quarterbacks all season long. And with a group of Miller, Ware, Ray, and Barrett, there will be plenty of sacks and hurries to go around.