It’s obvious that the most valuable player to the Denver Broncos is Peyton Manning, and a list of the most talented Broncos would certainly include Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. But that’s not what this list is about.
This list is about the players that you aren’t totally sure what you are going to get, the players who need to step up if the 2014 Broncos want to win a third consecutive AFC West Championship, a third consecutive No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and eventually achieve their dream of a Super Bowl Championship.
1) Montee Ball
It has become quite obvious that running backs are disposable in the NFL, and the Broncos showed they believe in that adage by letting Knowshon Moreno become a Miami Dolphin. While guys that can run the rock may come a dime-a-dozen these days, Moreno’s true value came in facets of the game that not every back out there can do.
It was no secret towards the end of the season that Ball was a better runner when the ball was handed off to him, but he still wasn’t the starting back because of how much better Moreno was in pass coverage, and catching the ball out of the backfield. Moreno was a huge part of the Broncos putting together the greatest offense of all time, and if Ball can’t find a way to improve his game in those areas to at least a similar level as Moreno, No. 27 will be sorely missed.
2) DeMarcus Ware
After finishing first in sacks and second in yards against in 2012, the Broncos fell to 13th in sacks and 19th in yards against in 2013. Don’t think for a second that the two aren’t directly correlated. In today’s pass happy NFL, rules and all, it’s just impossible for defensive backs to stick with the receivers unless the front line is getting pressure.
Ware is replacing Shaun Phillips who had a very respectable year at 10 sacks, but Ware hasn’t had that few sacks in any 16 game season since his rookie year in 2005. If Ware can get back anywhere near where he was in 2011 when he registered 19.5 sacks, he is going to demand a ton of attention from opposing offenses. That is really going to open things up for Von Miller (who just as easily could have been put in this position on this list) on the other side, to wreak havoc. Miller has had the fortune to play opposite guys like Elvis Dumervil and Phillips, but future Hall-of-Famer Ware figures to be the best of the group.
The Broncos need ware and Miller to both be on top of their games in 2014 if they are going to achieve their goal.
3) Chris Harris
As much pressure as there is on the defensive line, it’s a two way street. The more pressure you get on the quarterback, the less covering the secondary has to do, and the longer the secondary covers up the receivers, the longer the line has to get pressure. In other words, as great as Ware and Miller could be, you still have to guard the receivers.
The way Chris Harris returns from his ACL injury will go a long way in determining how well the Broncos cover those receivers, and therefore how successful the defense is. Since joining Denver’s D as an un-drafted free agent in 2011 Harris has done an admirable job wherever he has been slotted on the defense. But for the first time, this year, he will be expected to be a featured full-time corner opposite Aquib Talib. The Broncos have obviously put a ton of trust in Harris, and a ton of trust in their doctors. If Harris doesn’t come back quickly and at full strength, you’re stuck with inconsistent Tony Carter, or still not fully proven Kayvon Webster starting at corner.
4) Ryan Clady
Clady is another guy coming of an injury (foot, Lisfranc), that the Broncos really need to come back at 100 percent. With the gaping hole the Broncos have at left guard, many different shakeups have been pondered to figure out what the Broncos do at that position. Whether it’s moving Manny Ramirez to guard, or moving Orlando Franklin inside, the health of Clady will determine the decision, and determine the success of the line. In the end, it’s all about keeping your future Hall-of-Famer under center on his feet, and having Clady back in the lineup and at full strength is essential to that.
Follow Ryan on Twitter (@RyanKoenigsberg).
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