2006 NFL Season Preview: Denver Broncos

With the preseason in full swing and the opening weekend less than a calendar month away, now is the perfect time to glance in at all 32 NFL franchises and get a scoop on what to expect this season. I will be grading every team on all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. I will also take a look at the coaching staffs of all 32 teams, including the 10 new Head Coaches and evaluate the impact they might have on their team’s success. Then I will outline some key position battles and some names you may or may not know about to watch for the upcoming season.

2005 was another solid season for Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos. There was actually talk before the season that Shanahan wasn’t the coach that he used to be. Well, after the performance of the team last season and their trip to the AFC Championship Game, the prospects for 2006 seem to be a little brighter. Of course, they wouldn’t be the Broncos if there were some improvements and changes made to the team. The concern, of course, is how much more can the Broncos possibly do this season that they didn’t do in 2005? They have new weapons all over the offense and a defense which is highly underrated around the league. They won’t sneak up on teams again this season, so the Broncos will have to play from ahead. How will that affect what they can do?

Offense

While Mike Shanahan is the biggest catalyst for the offense, he does have under his employ Assistant Head Coach Mike Heimerdinger and Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison to help run the offense. The offense performed well last season under Coordinator Gary Kubiak, who has since moved on to take the Houston Texans’ Head Coaching job. Heimerdinger and Dennison will work with the offense to keep the progress from last season intact while integrating another new running back and a new number one receiver to the fold. Returning is quarterback Jake Plummer to lead the offense. Look for Shanahan to have a presence early for the Broncos, at least until Heimerdinger and Dennison get more comfortable with their roles leading the offense. Can the 2006 edition of the offense match or surpass the 2005 club?

QB: Jake Plummer is back and in full swing for the Broncos yet again. Plummer was very underrated and performed very well last season, earning his first career trip to the Pro Bowl. Plummer is coming back in 2006 with more to do, according to Plummer and the coaching staff. Plummer wants to open up the passing game even more than they did last season, taking more chances downfield and making the action happen instead of just playing not to make a mistake. That’s what Plummer did last season, manage the game and not make mistakes. He did awesome with the task, but the Broncos want more and so does Plummer. He’s a mobile quarterback who makes plays on the run effectively and can be effective in many aspects of the position. The problem is when Plummer seems to want to take over and force plays because he’s not that type of passer. They look very solid for backups with rookie Jay Cutler, who is grasping the offense very quickly and looks very comfortable.

RB/FB: The running back carousel continues in Denver. This season, Mike Shanahan has gone way off the reservation for his starting running back. It’s not roster incumbents Tatum Bell or Ron Dayne. Mike Anderson, last season’s starting running back, is gone to Baltimore. No, the starting job this season goes to rookie Mike Bell. Bell, from Arizona, is a decent-sized back who runs with good forward momentum and willing to attack the defense. He isn’t super fast, but he has the ability to turn the corner and beat defensive lineman with consistency. It’ll be interesting to see how he does being handed the starting running back job in Shanahan’s system so soon, but at least Shanahan believes in himâÂ?¦ or at least in his system, which has produced five different thousand yard backs in recent seasons. Expect Shanahan to get back to either Tatum Bell or Ron Dayne should the need arise. Cecil Sapp will be the team’s top fullback in 2006. He’s been a big contributor on special teams and will see regular time now as the fullback.

WR/TE: The Broncos pulled off one of the biggest moves during the draft weekend and it didn’t involve them drafting a rookie. They swapped a second round pick with Green Bay in order to pick up a legitimate number one receiver in Javon Walker. Walker, who had contract issues prior to last season before begin injured in the opening game of the season, comes to Denver with a new slate and ready to perform. Walker is a great receiver who gives the Broncos what they had been expecting from Ashley Lelie, who they just traded to Atlanta. Walker will stretch defenses and make them respect the passing game more than last year. Opposite of Walker is the ageless veteran Rod Smith. Smith has been a solid member of the Broncos for years and has been a solid receiver for that long. Smith still runs precise routes and always manages to find himself open against the defense. They’ve got some good young receivers to fill in the other slots, such as Darius Watts and Brandon Marshall. Tight end is another revolving door for the Broncos as they will go with Stephen Alexander this season. He really contributed to the Broncos with his run blocking ability and looks to fill the same role in 2006.

OL: One of the staples of the Broncos’ offense for years, their offensive line is still one of the best in the NFL. Its starts with NFL veteran Tom Nalen, who has been with the Broncos for all 13 years of his career and has seen time in 5 different Pro Bowls. He’s been an integral part of a running system that has been widely successful despite the constant change in running back over the years. To his left will be Matt Lepsis at tackle and Ben Hamliton inside. Lepsis has only missed one of the last 117 games with the Broncos, starting all of them. A solid tackle that has superior technique that makes up for his smaller size. Hamilton has also been durable, starting the last 68 contests for the Broncos including the postseason. The right side of the line features tackle George Foster and Cooper Carlisle inside of him at guard. Foster is a guy who goes against the grain as far as size for the Broncos, but displays good flexibility and agility and works the Broncos’ system well. Carlisle is the baby of the group in terms of experience, but did start all 16 last season with the Broncos and is a solid last link on the line.
Overall Grade: B

Defense

Underrated is he word used most often when speaking about the Denver defense. They still possess one of the best playmaking defensive backs in the league and an above average linebacker corp. Under coordinator Larry Coyer, who hasn’t received as much accolade as other coaches in the NFL, the defense has quietly emerged as one of the league’s stingiest. In each of Coyer’s three years in the NFL, the Broncos’ have ranked in the top 7 against the run. The defense doesn’t surrender a lot of yardage to their opponents and doesn’t allow very many points in general on the scoreboard. They will look to continue to provide the Broncos with solid defense and limit the opportunities of their opponents.

DL: The defensive line continues to be one area of great concern for the Broncos. They only had 28 sacks last season, their lowest total in over a decade, and have seen injuries to regulars Gerard Warren and Courtney Brown force them to use a number of different rotations just to get some production from them. When healthy, they expect Brown and Ebenezer Ekuban to man the ends for the line. Brown saw improvement after coming over from Cleveland and showed some of the potential that saw him selected first overall in 2000. Ekuban is the other end, an NFL veteran who also saw his career take a better turn after his trade to Cleveland. Ekuban has been seeing time at both end and tackle because of their injury and depth problems. Rookie Elvis Dumervil is also seeing some time at both positions while filling in for Brown. Inside will be Warren and Michael Myers. Warren and Myers are two more players that the Broncos acquired from Cleveland, making their entire line from Cleveland when healthy. Warren is another top-5 overall selection who showed true form with the Broncos and Myers was solid in leading all defensive linemen in tackles last season Look for veterans Kenard Lang and John Engelberger to see time now as they mend injuries.

LB: Maybe the strength of the entire team. They have Al Wilson in the middle of the unit. Wilson is a four-time Pro Bowl selection who has anchored the defense for many of the last few years. A speedy linebacker who’s a consistent playmaker, he’s got the speed and grit to play from sideline-to-sideline and be effective in making plays against the run and the pass. Outside of him are D.J. Williams and Ian Gold. Williams, from the University of Miami, goes into his third season in the NFL looking to be a more consistent factor for the defense. He’s improved his pass-coverage and should see more time after having been taken out during nickel packages because of weakness in his coverage. Gold, a veteran who is one of the fastest linebackers in the league, has 3 times had over 100 tackles and is a great playmaker, particularly against the run.

DB: They have one of the best in the league with Champ Bailey. They were willing to give up Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis in order to obtain Bailey, and so far they have seen great dividends from it. Bailey is widely considered the best cover corner in the NFL, and has shown so with his ability to shut down an entire side of the field in coverage, something that offenses hate to deal with. Either you avoid him and throw into heavy coverage opposite of him, or you take your shot against him. Bailey has been to 6 Pro Bowls and is a 2-time All-Pro and is an elite corner. Opposite him will be Darrent Williams, who is beginning to show more comfort in the Denver system and has a knack for making the big plays. He is a gambler who likes to take the chances to make the big play. At safety is former Pro Bowl and All-Pro safety John Lynch along with Nick Ferguson. Lynch is known as a strong leader who hits hard and plays the run very effectively. With that, he’s also got an interception in each of his past 11 seasons, showing his ability to make plays in the passing game as well. Ferguson has been a top special teams guy for the Broncos who is entering his third year playing defense full time at the strong safety position. Continues to be a leader as well in the clubhouse and enjoyed by his teammates as a good character in the locker room.
Overall Grade: B+

Special Teams

K: Jason Elam has been one of the best kickers in the NFL for quite some time. He is a strong leg who benefits greatly from the thin air in Denver. A three-time Pro Bowl selection that has a career 79.3 FG percentage, Elam has been the unquestioned kicker in Denver for years and has no competition.

P: Todd Sauerbrun is a former Pro-Bowl punter who gives the Broncos quite the edge in the field position game. A strong punter who dominates in all aspects from the long drives to the high floaters, Sauerbrun can give your team at least a 5 yard advantage over other punters because of his strength and accuracy.
Overall Grade: A-

Coaching Staff

Mike Shanahan has been somewhat embattled during his past few seasons. Some have questioned whether he was still the coach that people thought he was or the genius that he was known as when he was winning Super Bowls with John Elway in the late 90’s. However, the Broncos have continually been competitive and shown a great ability to adjust despite many losses within the organization. This season he will work with new offensive personnel in the staff, with assistant Mike Heimerdinger and Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison. The defense, meanwhile, will have a stabilizing face in Defensive Coordinator Larry Coyer, who has led one of the best defenses in the NFL over the past three years.
Overall Grade: B+

Position Battles to Watch

RB: Yes, I know that Mike Bell is the started as of right now. But with the names behind him and the history of the position for the Broncos, I wouldn’t be surprised if things went either way for them. By that I mean they could easily be satisfied and watch Mike Bell have an incredible season or they could want to replace him nearly immediately with either Ron Dayne or Tatum Bell.

DL: Who knows about the mess that is the line? They have injuries and veterans all over the place that could either work their way into the lineup or play themselves out of a roster spot. Guys like Ebenezer Ekuban, John Engelberger, and Kenard Lang could all see time because of injuries, or not be included at all with a decline in their performances.

Player to Watch

Tony Scheffler, TE: Scheffler has top speed for a tight end and has shown an ability to make good, solid plays all over the field. He’s worked very hard in improving his blocking ability during the offseason by weight training to get stronger and watching tape to refine the technique. You may even see him work his way into the lineup as a second TE or a slot receiver. He’s that versatile.

Bold Predictions
Record: 10-6
Offensive MVP: Javon Walker
Defensive MVP: D.J. Williams

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