Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough. In the meantime, here's the 11th of our 32 team previews for the upcoming season, the Denver Broncos.
TOM'S TAKE: Mike Shanahan has made his career off of John Elway. Since then, he's tried to replace Big E with Brian Griese and Jake Plummer. What he's realized is that elite, franchise quarterbacks don't come skiing down the slopes everyday with Super Bowls on their backs, no matter how good of a run game is supporting them.
Last year was THE year for the Broncos to capitalize and win a championship. All the stars were aligned -- the defense was playing great, the team was on its way to pushing two runners over 1,000 yards, and Jake Plummer was playing as un-Plummerly as he could. Until they played the Steelers in the playoffs, when Cinderella's glass slipper turned into a muddy cleat, and Plummer's luck ran out. Plummer had the best year in his nine-year career last season and had the supporting cast to boot. He won't top last year's performance. The Broncos seem to realize so much, spending a first round pick, a quite valuable one for a win-now franchise at that, on Jay Cutler. I'm of the belief Plummer needs to be replaced -- he's not an elite quarterback, and he makes far too many mistakes to be a caretaker -- but I'm not entirely sold on Cutler. His high draft status had a lot to do with the typical pre-draft hype that builds around certain players. Cutler made his name on ballsiness and gusto -- the same type of zealous bravado that NFL defenses love to pounce on.
The biggest story of the Broncos offseason has been the holdout of Ashley Lelie, who's unhappy with his role on the team. He was incredibly underused for a speedy deep threat last year, but part of that is on his shoulders -- he's flashy but inconsistent. The Broncos have failed on a few attempts to replace 36 year-old Rod Smith, but none of their attempts have worked out and Smith has continued to confound expectations with his high level of play. Still, I wonder when his age will start to show. The Broncos might have made a huge mistake trading a second rounder for Javon Walker and giving him big money. Walker missed almost all of last season with a torn ACL and will come to camp looking to vindicate himself, but it'll take him most of the season to get back into form. Look for Brandon Marshall, the team's fourth round pick this year, to prove a valuable asset in the air game. He'll provide the steady deep threat Lelie has failed to provide, possibly as early as this year. The Broncos' run game is never a question. They'll have one, possibly two 1,000 yard rushers this year. The question is who. After Mike Anderson left for the Ravens in the offseason, you'd think it'd be a foregone conclusion that Tatum Bell, his partner in crime last year, would assume the lion's share of the carries. But the coaching staff has never shown a lot of confidence in Bell's complete game, despite his ability to score from anywhere on the field. The fact that Ron Dayne -- yes, THAT Ron Dayne -- is going to be the starter in Denver and that, even moreso, his prospects for the season actually look good is just further proof that Shanahan's run scheme is the best in history. The loss of offensive line coach Gary Kubiak won't hurt their production.
The Broncos' defense should be a top 10 unit this year. They've upgraded one of their end spots by replacing the aging Trevor Pryce with Ebenezer Ekuban, and rookie Elvis Dumervil from Louisville will step into the starting rotation next year, but this year he'll provide a burst at the quarterback on passing downs. Champ Baily was one of the best cornerbacks in football last year despite having hamstring problems that hindered him from being his best. This, ironically, led to him playing less bump and run, which increased his interception total because he had more time to watch a play develop. Domonique Foxworth, a second year player from Maryland, will start the season as a nickle but he's too great of a playmaker to be kept out of the starting lineup.
With a week to go before training camp, the Broncos have yet to sign any of their draft picks. This is less crucial for them than for other teams because they won't be relying on any of their rookies to step in and contribute immediately, but it's still pressing. Their schedule seems only moderately difficult, and the division shouldn't be as difficult as it was last year with San Diego taking a step backwards and Kansas City continuing to get older. They should win the division, albeit at 9-7 or 10-6, because Plummer is slightly better than average. But they won't be a Super Bowl threat like last year -- they'll get bounced in the first round.
KYLE'S TAKE: I've always been down on Jake "The Snake" Plummer (does every guy name Jake have to endure "the Snake" as a nickname?) Even last year, when he went 277 passes without an interception, I was weary of him. A lot of those passes were short and some of them could have been caught by the opposing secondary. Nonetheless, "No Mistake Jake" (worst nickname ever) didn't screw up. Make no mistake. Plummer will start and if he can play within his limits as he did last year, he won't hold the team back.
Do the Broncos front office feel as weary about Plummer as I do? It may look that way because they traded up with the St. Louis Rams for the #11 pick to grab Vanderbilt's Jay Culter. Unfortunately, there was no Out Route available to vent about Cutler when the draft was on the horizon. I thought that the Culter hype was some bullshit. There was no way he was better than Leinart as some said (Leinart went one spot earlier in the draft to the Cards at #10). Vanderbilt won their first four games (against Wake Forest, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Richmond-- no real good teams there) but lost their next six. Leinart didn't lose until USC played Texas. Well, I guess Plummer and Cutler have one thing in common. They're both overrated.
It doesn't matter who plays running back in Denver. They have a system that will spit out 1,000 yard rushers annually. Although Tom disagrees with me, I think I could pick up 1,000 yards in Denver. Clinton Portis was rookie of the year in Denver and, although a good running back, was never as good in Washington. Reuben Droughns was big in Denver and disappointed in Cleveland. Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell kicked ass last year (1935 total yards combined). Tatum Bell is still around and even Ron Dayne, who has disappointed since holding up the Heismann eight years ago, can succeed there.
Receivers are interesting. Ashley Lelie wants out since the Broncos were actively searching for another starting WR (they failed to pick up T.O., but acquired Javon Walker for a draft pick). I think Lelie will get his trade, leaving an aging Rod Smith and Walker, who has a knee injury he's still recovering from. If Walker is healthy he'll have a good revenge season, sticking it to the Packers and Brett Favre, who basically screwed him. There's no doubt if he can, he's going to give it his all. But if he can't get healthy, the Broncos will be stuck with a depleted receiving core. Tight end Stephen Alexander had a worse year than Jeb Putzier, who they released.
Defensively, the Broncos are decent. Their all-Cleveland Browns defensive line was strong. The defense was second in the league in rushing yards allowed. Their secondary, even with Champ Bailey, was one of the last in the league in yards allowed (3643) and in the middle with TDs allowed (20). Maryland alumn Domonique Foxworth has shown promise though and will hopefully get a starting job to help their secondary.
The Broncos don't really have a tough division. Their only threat is the Chiefs. The wild card will not be coming out of the West this year, so the Broncos will need to win the division to make the playoffs. They very easily could, but it's not a gimme with the Chiefs. Even if they do win the division, they still don't have the leadership at quarterback to take them far into the playoffs (they won't have the luxury of a first round bye this year). But look on the bright side, Denver fans. You still have the biggest and baddest punter in the league. Well...you will after the first month of the season, when he's done serving his steroid suspension.