In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
The Broncos were busier than the typical conference champion this offseason. They had no choice. There's a large gap between them and the other AFC contenders -- even the Patriots are pretty clearly in the rear-view mirror -- but the gap between the Broncos and the NFC powerhouses looked even larger after a Super Bowl reminiscent of the golden age of noncompetitive Super Bowls. The Broncos entered the offseason with the greatest passing game in history, a defense led by one of the league's best pass rushers, and a ton of work to do.
The Broncos definitely worked, as a handful of big-name free agents and top draft picks have changed the complexion of the defense. It may not be enough to keep pace with the Seahawks-Niners arms race, but it should be enough to make this another year in which the real Broncos season starts in January.
Biggest Offseason Move: Assembling the Bad Boys secondary
The going got tough for the Broncos pass defense last season: 4,360 passing yards allowed (not as many of them as you might think in blowouts), 29 passing touchdowns allowed, and more 51-48 and 34-31 shootouts than Peyton Manning would prefer to cope with at his age. So the Broncos got tougher. DeMarcus Ware was the biggest-name addition, but Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and rookie Bradley Roby represent a re-imagining of the secondary: more talented, more volatile, and more dangerous, both to opposing quarterbacks and themselves.
Talib replaces Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in what was essentially a one-for-one swap. Both cornerbacks are talented-but-inconsistent ballhawks who can read the quarterback's eyes and gamble for interceptions but have a habit of quickly wearing out welcomes. Talib can cherry pick bad quarterbacks, but he also blankets top receivers when fully focused on the task. But Talib is not always focused, and he becomes a mistake-prone clutch-and-grab guy when things go wrong, a problem made worse by the fact that he gives up a few "reputation" interference penalties. The Broncos hope they signed the Talib that shut Julio Jones down for an entire game last year, not the one who neglected to watch game film or read headlines about Josh Gordon and resorted to schoolyard tactics (maybe no one will notice if I jab him in the face, then trip him) when not getting burned for long touchdowns.
Roby is essentially Talib Deluxe: faster, a better hitter, equally capable of plucking cherries, but even less consistent. Good Roby is faster and more physical than all but the best receivers and can break on an errant pass like lightning. Bad Roby considers holding part of his standard coverage technique and reacted to Jared Abbrederis' top-of-stem moves as if the Wisconsin receiver had teleportation superpowers. Both Talib and Roby have had their legal scrapes, underlining the similarities.
Ward is a "bad boy" in a different way: bad to the bone in run support and other "in the box" safety skills. He made 66 tackles on running plays last season, the average tackle coming 3.8 yards downfield. Those are Pro Bowl linebacker numbers, and they illustrate how defensive mad scientist Ray Horton used Ward last year.
Ward's close-strike capability may also offer a window into Jack Del Rio's plans for 2014: Ward can act as a nickel linebacker on passing downs, blitzing and taking on underneath zones when teams are playing catchup against Peyton, which will be often. With Ward lurking underneath as Ware and Von Miller converge on the quarterback, rushed-and-wobbly passes will be a regular occurrence. Talib and Roby know how to find those, and what to do with them.
Depth may be Del Rio's bonus weapon: Chris Harris, Rahim Moore, and Duke Ihenacho are still around to play supporting roles, allowing Del Rio to create favorable matchups. The Broncos allowed opponents' third-to-fifth wideouts to average 7.5 catches for 64 yards per game, according to Football Outsiders: only the Eagles were more generous to the depth receivers. Some of that was blowout production, but some of it was an indicator of how thin the Broncos secondary was. That secondary may now be unpredictable and mistake prone, but it is talented, and it sure isn't thin.
Biggest Gamble: We don't need no stinkin' middle linebacker!
The Broncos pursued D'Qwell Jackson (now in Indy) and tried to move up in the draft for C.J. Mosley (Ozzie Newsome activated the Alabama-to-Baltimore homing beacon). When they could not get the middle linebackers they wanted, the Broncos decided to learn to want the ones they have. Nate Irving served as the starting middle linebacker in minicamp, though the Broncos shuffled through multiple starters last spring and summer, so anything is possible.
Irving was a useful super-sub last year, starting a few games at strongside linebacker during Von Miller's absence. He's a big thumper who can defend the run and rush the passer a little, making him an adequate choice at middle linebacker for a team that has other package plans in nickel situations (like using safety T.J. Ward as a hybrid linebacker beside Danny Trevathan, for instance). It's telling that the Broncos did not use Irving in the middle last year when cycling from Wesley Woodyard to Paris Lenon, a pair of stopgap starters. Irving is a placeholder, a guy the Broncos hope will be good enough to hold his own with lots of talent around him.
Other candidates for the middle linebacker job include Jamar Chaney, an effort guy who flunked a long tryout with the Eagles a few years ago, and sixth-round pick Lamin Barrow. Barrow played outside at LSU but has some middle linebacker skills: he sifts through traffic and pursues well, for example. Still, he's a raw mid-tier prospect behind a journeyman and a multi-position backup.
If the pass rush is cookin', Peyton is being Peyton, and the secondary is enjoying an interception shopping spree, none of this will matter, because the Broncos defense will be in nickel or dime 75% of the time. But all three of the Broncos' division foes plan to use ball-control offenses -- can you blame them? -- and weak linebacker play could be a real problem against Jamaal Charles or the Chargers runners. Oh, and those NFC West teams (and the latest iteration of the Patriots) tend to run between the tackles pretty well, too.
Biggest Question: Does it matter? Does anything matter?
Ware and Ward definitely upgrade the Broncos defense. Most of the team's other moves appear to just be a frantic effort to remain among the pack as the 49ers, Patriots and Seahawks open their throttles for another season-long sprint. The Broncos definitely kept the NFL a four-team race. But did they gain any ground?
February's Super Bowl showed us something those of us who remember the early 90s are very familiar with: a sheer cliff separating the AFC's best teams from the NFC's best teams. Peyton Manning faced what Jim Kelly faced over 20 years ago. It doesn't matter how record breaking or groundbreaking your offense is: the teams in the other conference are simply superior. They are also so well managed that they are not going anywhere.
The Broncos did the right thing by focusing on defense, and more specifically, on playmaking defense. Yes, they bring back Ryan Clady this year, have swapped out Eric Decker for a pair of new receivers, and made other offensive tune-ups. But their offseason focus was on building a defense that will punish you for trying to keep up with them. A high-volatility defense may be the team's best bet against the Seahawks and 49ers: maybe the Broncos can be the team that forces the mistakes instead of making them this year.
The Broncos get the Seahawks in Week 3, 49ers in Week 7, and Patriots in Week 9. We won't have to wait until the playoffs to learn if their plan has a chance of working. Even if results are mixed, it's hard to think of a better alternative.
Despite the additions of Cody Latimer and Emmanuel Sanders to offset Decker's loss, look for the Broncos' overall passing numbers to drop by nearly 20 percent. The two culprits: a schedule featuring the NFC West, and an improved Broncos defense that will decrease the number of shootouts the team is lured into.
Peyton Manning's 2013 passing stats, decreased by 20%: 4,382 passing yards, 44 touchdowns. Even if you leave his interception totals alone, the Broncos can probably live with that.