Making a Case for a Super Return for 2014 Broncos

Let me immediately preface this
article with this statement: I am NOT proclaiming that I believe with
certainty the Denver Broncos will return to the Super Bowl next
season. However, I am going to make a “devil’s advocate”
argument, if you will, that their chances are not as dim as many
people think.

Of course, so much of it rests on one
decision, a decision that will not even come from a member of the
organization, but rather a doctor that advises Peyton Manning on
whether it would be wise to continue his magnificent playing career.
Should Manning receive the clearance we all expect, the Broncos can
proceed with the other pressing personnel issues facing them heading
into 2014.

First, the Broncos must decide on how
whether they will allocate their salary cap resources to retaining
some of Manning’s key offensive weapons. Wide receiver Eric Decker
and running back Knowshon Moreno are set to hit the free agent
market, as is wideout Andre Caldwell. Decker (87 rec., 1,288 yds., 11
TD) and Moreno (team-high 1,038 rushing yds., 10 TD) will likely
field bigger offers elsewhere, so the likelihood is they will be
gone. But will they be missed?

There is really no argument – good
or bad, because the sample size simply isn’t large enough – that
Montee Ball is ready to become a feature running back if Moreno
leaves. Ball (559 rushing yds., 4.7 YPC, 4 TD) played in all 16 games
last season but did not start one, so it remains to be seen whether
he can handle a full load, but the second-round pick in 2013 has
plenty of potential. For an organization used to turning no-names
into big-time producers at the running back position (see Mike
Anderson, Olandis Gary, Tatum Bell), there shouldn’t be much worry if
Ball is asked to step up.

Should Decker find greener pastures,
the receiving corps has plenty of depth to make up for it. Wide
receiver Demaryius Thomas (92 rec., 1,430 yds., 14 TD) and tight end
Julius Thomas (65-788, 12 TD) blossomed into borderline-elite players
at their positions last season, and Wes Welker (73-778, 10 TD), even
at 33 next season, is as steady as it gets. (As an aside, think it
might be more than just a slight coincidence that Welker’s arrival
has been a precursor to record-breaking, AFC-champion seasons by Tom
Brady and Peyton Manning?)

Before we move to the defense, let’s
also remember that injuries piled up on the 2013 Broncos on both
sides of the ball. Manning lost his left tackle, Ryan Clady, before
the season to a knee injury while playing basketball. Chris Clark
filled in admirably, but Clady’s return will be a major boost to the
pass protection, which at times was a problem spot for Denver.

Okay, now on to the defense. Yes, the
defense was the Achilles’ heel of the team for a part of the season,
but there was marked improvement down the stretch, and that was in
spite of a rash of injuries, so there is reason for optimism that
said improvement will carry over into next season.

Defensive end Von Miller missed seven
games, robbing the Broncos of their best pass rusher. Interior
linemen Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson each missed five games, while
safety Rahim Moore missed six. All four players missed the entire
postseason, while cornerback Chris Harris tore his ACL in the
divisional round against San Diego and was lost for the remainder of
the playoffs.

A presumable return to health of those
key injured defenders (and a return to Denver by Harris, who is a
restricted free agent) can do nothing but further improve a Broncos
defense that, heading into Super Bowl XLVIII, held four of its
previous six opponents under 300 yards and also held four opponents
under 20 points in that stretch.

There are pending free agent
departures on defense to attend to, such as cornerback Dominique
Rodgers-Cromartie, linebacker Wesley Woodyard, defensive end Robert
Ayers and outside linebacker Shaun Phillips. Still, one would have to
think at least one or two of those players will return to a Broncos
franchise that is looking to become the first team in NFL history to
post three straight 13-win seasons.

I know, the primary argument (barring
a major development with Manning) will likely be the Broncos’
schedule. Denver will face the NFC West in 2014, meaning trips to
Seattle at St. Louis are on the horizon as well as home games against
San Francisco and Arizona. The Broncos also return to New England and
play at Cincinnati while hosting the Colts in addition to their
annual home-and-home series with the Chiefs and Chargers. But about
those aforementioned divisional rivals – is either team ready to
unseat the Broncos in the AFC West?

Kansas City appears a better bet than
San Diego, but the Chiefs lost both meetings to Denver in 2013 and
could take a step back this season with sudden heightened
expectations. The Chargers made a great run at the end of last year,
but the fact remains that they were a 9-7 team and don’t have the
impact players that Denver does, at least at this time. So heading
into next year, a solid argument could be made that the Broncos are
still the team to beat in the AFC West, a division against which they
have gone 11-1 since Manning’s arrival in Denver. (As an another
aside, is there any reason to even mention the Raiders?)

Yes, it’s only February and the Super
Bowl wasn’t even two weeks ago yet. So much can and will change.
History seems to work against teams returning to the big game in this
age of parity, although the Patriots and 49ers have made it back to
the championship game after losing the Super Bowl the past two
seasons. But make no mistake: the Broncos did not get to 13-3 by
accident, and they are not a team about to be dismantled. So as
difficult as it might be in the recent wake of such a brutal Super
Bowl beating for Broncos fans to stay upbeat, there is still reason
for optimism in the Mile High city.

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