- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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The winter doldrums of a football-less mid-February are taking over in the Rocky Mountains. The days are a little colder and a little darker as the Denver Broncos come to grips with what could have been.
Watching confetti fall on the jubilant Baltimore Ravens after their Super Bowl victory Feb. 3 had to further damage the Broncos’ collective psyche -- part of a haunting winter theme of “it could have been us.”
The Broncos saw their Super Bowl push end in a 38-35 double-overtime defeat to the visiting Ravens in the AFC divisional round. Denver was 13-3 in the regular season, had the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and entered the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak in which it won every game by at least a touchdown. Its early exit from the postseason was stunning -- and particularly painful for the Broncos because they know it was so avoidable.
Baltimore sent the game to overtime on a 70-yard bomb from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones on a play in which Denver safety Rahim Moore inexplicably allowed Jones to get behind him in the final seconds of regulation. Countless former players said they had never seen an NFL defensive back make that type of play. Had Moore simply done his job, Denver would have advanced.
Instead, the Broncos will try to regroup and move forward. Despite the sobering end of the season and its painful aftereffects, the Broncos should feel good about themselves heading into the 2013 season as NFL Comeback Player of the Year winner and MVP runner-up Peyton Manning prepares for his second season in Denver at age 37.
“There’s a lot of young players in this locker room that need to use this as motivation, as a spark to have that fire burning inside of them this offseason and come back stronger,” veteran middle linebacker Keith Brooking said shortly after the season. “This is a great locker room. The Denver Broncos are really close.”
The Broncos are not alone in building high expectations for the immediate future. The Las Vegas oddsmakers have made the Broncos the early favorite to win next year’s Super Bowl. In an Insider piece, ESPN.com pegged them as a strong early contender for next season.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. had this to say about the Broncos heading into next season: “I think their roster is exceptional.”
Still, it would be inaccurate to say this is the perfect roster. The Broncos, two years removed from a 4-12 season, need to upgrade at certain spots. With the No. 28 pick in the draft and expected room under the salary cap, Denver should be able to improve. Let’s take a look at some areas the Broncos should look at as they aim for a long Super Bowl run next season:
Running back: The Broncos have the making of a decent stable of running backs but could use another pair of legs. I think Denver needs to find a bigger back to help in short-yardage situations. Jacob Hester did a nice job at the end of the season, but Denver might want to find a better back. Again, with Willis McGahee, a revived Knowshon Moreno and young Ronnie Hillman, there is a lot to like in the immediate future. But another talented runner wouldn’t hurt.
Receiver: Brandon Stokley did a nice job at age 36 as the slot receiver, but I could see Denver looking for a younger, more special option. There will be some interesting options available, including Wes Welker in free agency and perhaps Percy Harvin in a trade. Denver could even try to go big and add a player such as Mike Wallace. If Denver’s brass decides it can afford to make a big splash, this could be an area where Manning can take advantage. The truth is that the future is now in Denver. Manning has only so many years left, so Denver could be intrigued by striking big at this spot.
Defensive tackle: Denver’s defense made huge strides in 2012 under first-year defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Veteran defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan were good in their roles. But both are free agents, and Denver might want to get younger. There could be some solid options in the first round at this position, such as Purdue’s Kawann Short and Georgia’s Johnathan Jenkins. Denver should find a good, young run-stuffer to plug in the middle of an explosive defense.
Middle linebacker: Brooking played well last season, but he was 37 and Denver needs to find a better starting option, whether via free agency in the form of someone like Baltimore’s Dannell Ellerbe or in the draft if Notre Dame’s Manti Te'o, Georgia’s Alec Ogletree or LSU’s Kevin Minter is available. Denver has a lot of young pieces on defense. Adding another one at this position wouldn’t be a terrible idea.
Secondary: The last time we saw the Broncos, it wasn’t a great day for Denver’s secondary. In addition to Moore’s last-second gaffe, surefire Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey was torched. But Bailey, who will turn 35 in June, had a good season and the Broncos will keep him for another year with young, promising Chris Harris and Tony Carter. As at receiver, though, Denver could be tempted to go big and try to get into the Darrelle Revis trade talks if the Jets make a move. I also could see Denver looking to upgrade at safety. Moore, a second-round pick in 2011, made strides in 2012, and the team likely will not give up on him because of the one bad play. But adding another safety might be smart.