NFL Nation: Peyton Manning

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has gathered most of the team's wide receivers and tight end Julius Thomas at Duke University this week for the well-planned headstart on the offseason work.

Thomas
Thomas
Newly-minted Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders tweeted a picture of the group Tuesday, a photo that also included Wes Welker, Andre Caldwell and Julius Thomas. And that set off the requisite amount of social media panic in the local zip codes on the Front Range because the Broncos' No. 1 wide receiver, Demaryius Thomas, was not in the photo. Or even at Duke for that matter.

Cancel the panic. There is no rift or bubbing controversy. Thomas is still recovering from a left shoulder injury he suffered in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Thomas suffered what some with the team have described as a separated left shoulder in the Broncos' 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks when he was hit by Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor in the first quarter of the 35-point loss. He played through the injury and did finish out the game with a Super Bowl record 13 catches.

Thomas could still be limited in some of the OTA work in the weeks to come, but the Broncos don't expect issues when training camp opens. Thomas had shoulder problems during the regular season as well, even leaving the Dec. 1 win over Kansas City after the first series but he did return to the lineup just before halftime.

Thomas left a 2012 game against the Raiders with a shoulder injury as well but returned in that December win.
John FoxJustin Edmonds/Getty ImagesJohn Fox, 59, is 34-14 with three AFC West titles in his three seasons with the Broncos.
At the start of free agency, John Elway was asked about the chances of the Denver Broncos making the effort to bring back some of their players who were set to test the market.

The Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager said:

“The market sets the prices."

When it comes to NFL head coaches, the market has been set in recent weeks. On Friday, Pete Carroll, 62, signed a three-year extension with the Seattle Seahawks that runs through the 2016 season.

Carroll’s deal had been set to expire following the 2014 season.

Like Carroll, Denver coach John Fox’s contract was set to expire following the 2014 season. And like Carroll and the Seahawks, the Broncos and Fox came together on a three-year extension Friday. Despite some who said the fact things had not been wrapped with Fox meant there was potential trouble on the horizon, both Fox and Elway had consistently expressed optimism a deal would get done.

There were talks at the scouting combine in February, and Elway said at the league meetings in Orlando, Fla., last week that Fox’s deal was “the next thing on the agenda."

The only way a deal wouldn't have gotten done is if one side had simply pushed too hard to win. If the Broncos tried to dig in a little too hard on the money, Fox could have ended up coaching the coming season without an extension. And if Fox’s agent, Bob LaMonte, had pushed too much, also on the money or for too many years, the Broncos might have folded their arms to simply wait and see.

Fox signed a four-year deal worth about $3 million per year in 2011, and he would have received a $1 million bonus had the Broncos won Super Bowl XLVIII in February, but Denver was bullied 43-8 by Carroll's team. And this is where Carroll’s deal comes in. Essentially, welcome to the market being set.

After all, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl and looked like a far better prepared team on the way to a 35-point win. Carroll is 38-26 as the Seahawks’ coach and 5-2 in the playoffs.

That is where the fence stands. Win the big trophy as a 60-something head coach, get a three-year extension.

Fox just turned 59 in February, he’s 34-14 with three AFC West titles in his three seasons with the Broncos, and he helped recalibrate the franchise to dig out of the crater that was the 4-12 finish in 2010.

However, the Broncos have also let quality championship opportunities slip through their fingers with a double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to end their 2012 season, to go with February’s title-game rout. Those two games alone, at least from the Broncos’ perspective, could have pushed Fox out of consideration for a three-year extension, and there were rumblings to that effect in and around the team early in the talks. But this is where the Broncos stepped up to get things done.

Again, the market had been set. Seven active head coaches have won Super Bowls, and Fox is not one of them. But Elway has repeatedly said, including last week, he likes the direction the team has gone in the last three years, and that he didn't expect any major hurdles in the negotiations, but also always added he expected the team to take the next step.

To not just play for a title, but to win one. And Fox obviously outlined his plan to get that done to Elway's satisfaction.

Those who know Fox well know he did not enjoy coaching the Carolina Panthers in the last year of his contract there in 2010, when the roster was scraped to the foundation and the Panthers limped to a 2-14 finish. Fox knew for that dismal season that the Panthers had no intention of bringing him back no matter what happened.

But coaching a team coming off back-to-back 13-3 finishes with Peyton Manning at quarterback in the last year of your contract isn't in the same football galaxy of what Fox went through in 2010. And at the league meetings, Fox said the sides were “working on it."

“Really I’m going to coach my rear end off no matter what happens," Fox said. “That’s in people’s hands, and I feel confident something will happen. But either way I’m going to be fine, I’m under contract ... They’re talking and working on it ... Everybody’s got good intentions, we’ll see where it goes."

Where it went is where all involved expected, and they all did what needed to be done to get there.
When the Denver Broncos didn't make wide receiver Eric Decker an offer in free agency, they were making a fairly public admission that they simply wanted to spend their available dollars elsewhere.

And that they could spend those dollars elsewhere to fix some holes in the depth chart and somehow replace Decker in the offense.

For it all to work as they hope, those major investments -- DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib -- will certainly have to lift the defense. But for the plan to go from drawing board to deep in the postseason, preferably a return trip to the Super Bowl, the Broncos will simply have to be right about Emmanuel Sanders.

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesEmmanuel Sanders had a career-best 67 receptions last season, but the Broncos believe he can do more in their system.
The wide receiver was among their top offensive targets when the Broncos made their wish list before free agency opened. They see him as a versatile, fast, quick-twitch receiver who is ready to benefit from Peyton Manning's presence behind center.

Or as John Elway has put it: “When we looked at him, and I've said this to our guys, too, you saw a guy who has only scratched the surface. He's young with a lot of potential, even on top of what he's already done."

Decker's departure leaves a fairly large gap in what the team did on offense last season. At least in the regular season, anyway. Decker's totals dipped in the postseason, as Manning focused elsewhere, but Manning looked Decker's way 137 times in the regular season. Demaryius Thomas was the only Broncos receiver targeted more in 2013. Thomas isn't going anywhere in the pecking order. The Broncos see him as a special player who still has room to grow, even after his 1,430-yard, 14-touchdown season in 2013.

Tight end Julius Thomas was the fourth-most targeted player in the Broncos' offense last season. He missed two games with a knee injury in the regular season, but was far more active in the playoffs. He will be a bigger part of the offense in the coming season.

Wes Welker missed the final three games of the regular season while recovering from a concussion, but he was the third-most targeted player in the offense.

Sanders' ability as a slot receiver, as well as his ability to line up out wide, should help the Broncos create more matchups to get Julius Thomas the ball down the hashmarks. It was Sanders' ability to line up all over the formation, as well as his after-the-catch performance, that made him the Broncos' top target on the offensive side of the ball once free agency opened.

Sanders had a career-best 67 catches last season, but the Broncos believe he can go far north of that total in their offense, given the choices Manning has before the ball is in the air. Still, all of those plans are built around the idea that Sanders has to be up for the job, too.

The Broncos may feel like Sanders is quicker in the short area, faster in the open field and better after the catch than Decker. But Decker was on the finishing end of touchdown passes 24 times in the two seasons he played with Manning.

Some of that was Manning's ability to work the Broncos' scheme and find the favorable matchup. There is a long list of receivers who have put up career-best numbers with Manning. Still, Decker's production will have to be replaced. The Broncos lined up in a three-wide receiver set on 73.6 percent of their offensive snaps last season.

The Broncos lined up in a three-wide set even more than that as the season wore on, including all but one snap against the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round. And even with their intentions to run the ball better next season, Sanders will be key in how successful the Broncos are in making the transition from how the formation looked in 2013 to how it will look in 2014.

Questions surround Welker, who enters the season with two concussions in 2013 to go with a concussion history from before he signed in Denver. There is always a chance he will miss some time in the coming season.

In the end, the New York Jets put a $36.25 million contract in front of Decker and the Broncos signed Sanders to a $15 million deal. The Broncos did their comparison shopping, looked at the balance in the checkbook and made Sanders their choice.

 
Earlier this week, as the NFL's power brokers moved around a nicely-appointed Florida resort, Denver Broncos head John Fox referred more than once to "the dropoff" in the team's defensive performance from 2012 to what it became in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJohn Fox is hoping his defense can regain the top form it had in 2012.
Certainly, linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension to open the season didn't help matters last season, nor did his ACL injury to close the regular season. And when all was said and done the Broncos had six players they had called starters at some point on defense finish the year on injured reserve. That is a total that was hard to overcome even before free agency changed the face of team-building, let alone before a third of the roster turned over each year.

The Broncos also played with the lead for much of the year, with their offense scoring a season record 606 points as opposing teams felt compelled by the scoreboard to throw 613 passes just to try to keep up. Those 613 pass attempts would have been the eighth-highest total in the league last season if they had been attempted by one team.

"That gets your attention," Fox said. "... And all of those things probably affected what we did, we're not making excuses, it's just fact. We didn't play as well as we could have, either, whether it was personnel, coaching, game-planning whatever, it wasn't what we want it to be. That was a significant dropoff from where we were -- we played some pretty good defense [in 2012], and we'd like to get back to that. We feel better about where we are, but we'll see how it plays out. But we want to have that balanced look."

It's why the 2012 season will always be the One That Got Away, or was ripped away, however folks want to look at it. But with Peyton Manning another year older for the coming season and another year down the road from his fourth neck surgery.

Because the "balanced" team, with Manning at quarterback, has always been a difficult, well, balance to find when it comes to the construction of the roster.

In terms of the Broncos' franchise history, it's why 2012 was even more of a remember-when affair, at least in some ways, than last season's offensive explosion. Because '12 was just the second time in the franchise's history the Broncos had a top 10 defense and a 4,000-yard passer on offense in the same year.

The first was 2004 when Jake Plummer finished with 4,089 yards passing and the Broncos were fourth overall in defense. In '12 Manning threw for 4,659 yards as the team finished No. 2 in fewest yards allowed per game (290.8) and No. 4 in fewest points allowed per game (18.1).

That's the kind of balance the Broncos want this time around, why they've put the money where they want the defense to be. It's why, even as they did write a significant check to give Manning another target in the offense in Emmanuel Sanders, they leaned so hard on defense in free agency and will continue to lean hard as they watch the draft unfold in May.

It's a difficult line to walk, however, with the lure always there to surround the franchise quarterback with as much talent as possible. But it's one the Broncos will need to walk if they are to secure the brightest trophy during Manning's time in Denver.

"You want to eliminate as many holes in the roster as you can and have the depth to overcome things," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. "We want to create a situation where we can win a lot of different ways. That's always our challenge and we'd like to think we're getting closer to that ability."

The defense-Manning combination has always been difficult to keep consistently strong over his career. In all of his time in Indianapolis, Manning had a top 10 defense with a 4,000-yard passing season just four times -- the 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. The Colts went a combined 49-13 in those years, eventually losing in the wild-card round twice, the divisional round once and in Super Bowl XLIV (to New Orleans).

The year the Colts won the Super Bowl in Manning's time with the team -- the 2006 season -- their defense was ranked 21st overall, 23rd in scoring defense.

But it certainly doesn't happen without the commitment to put resources into the defense or special teams, to the parts of the depth chart that handle the business when Manning doesn't have the ball. The Broncos have already shown the commitment, with the draft still to come, but they'll just have to wait to see if they reap the benefits.
It was a telling moment from a competitive guy, one who knows the question is going to come and needs an answer even if he doesn't want to publicly reveal it.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJohn Elway and the Broncos have to take a deep look at themselves with their Super Bowl loss still lingering in the rear-view mirror.
That's because if you've been an NFL head coach fortunate enough to play in the season's final meaningful game and not win it, the question will always come. Over and over again in the season that follows.

And Denver Broncos head coach John Fox knows what's ahead in the coming months.

Former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, who is entering his third season as St. Louis Rams head coach, saw his receiver -- Kevin Dyson -- tackled one yard short of sending a Super Bowl into overtime. Long after the game ended and the workers had started to clean up the confetti that had rained down on the other team, Fisher was asked if he had already thought about what would change the result.

"One yard," he said. "That's my answer. We have to get everybody to get one more yard."

This past week, with the Broncos' 35-point loss in the Super Bowl not all that far in the rearview mirror yet, Fox was asked what he would change about Super Bowl XLVIII, a bad day at the office for the Broncos that was broadcast to every continent on the planet.

"Probably everything," Fox said. "Right now I'd like to get there [again] ... even my kids were getting on me, the getaway hotel 'Dad, that's 80 percent bad' ... You change a lot of things. You change if it didn't work ... It's like you end up every season, if you don't win the last game, it gnaws on you and it gnaws on you for a while. It really never kind of goes away, it's like that scar, but you learn from it, you move on, and you do everything you can to get better ... but I didn't watch it for a week."

The Broncos' football boss, John Elway, said following the Broncos' double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season the team had to be honest with itself about what happened and why. They ramped up the aggressiveness on offense, put the no-huddle attack in high gear -- a long way down the road from taking a knee with time still on the clock and timeouts still in hand -- and re-wrote many of the league's season records doing it.

The Broncos need that same honesty this time around. They have been open as to why they went defense-first in free agency, why they let most of their own free agents go into the market and why they needed more speed and youth all over the roster. But the Broncos have also tempted the odds having not turned back-to-back 13-3 seasons into more than crushing disappointment in their season's final game. And to change that they will have to continue to be honest, from the top down, with themselves as to why that happened.

And the one thing they -- Elway, Fox or anybody else -- simply can't take away from all that is status quo.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen was not at the league meetings this week, but by all accounts he's happy with the people who represented his team at the annual spring gathering and the direction they have taken the team over the last three years.

The Broncos just completed their third season with John Elway as the chief decision-maker on the football side with Joe Ellis as team president. A painful, somewhat embarrassing Super Bowl blowout last month aside, the results have been three consecutive AFC West titles, a favorable enough salary cap situation that allowed them to aggressively work free agency, and fan interest back where Bowlen always wants it to be.

All things, as the Broncos decision-makers adjourned from the meetings this week, have made Bowlen a happy team owner.

"He feels, we feel, the franchise is headed in the right direction," Ellis said as the meetings drew to a close. "Certainly hiring John Elway established the foundation, beginning of a trust that needed to be re-established with our fans, that was No. 1. No. 2, bringing John Fox on helped shift the culture both outside the building and inside the building. Those two hires have kind of re-established trust and re-ignited interest in the team."

Ellis said Bowlen likes the disciplined approach Elway has taken in terms of which players have gottten the long-term contracts that carry heavy salary-cap risks. In the four high-profile deals the Broncos signed with free agents this month -- Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders -- Ware's contract is the only one that carries a significant risk toward the salary cap beyond the 2014 season if Ware doesn’t play how the Broncos expect him to.

Ware is also the only one of the four who is more than 28 years old. The Broncos have taken similar approaches in the previous two forays into free agency when, beyond the deal for quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012, the longer -- three years or more -- bonus-heavy deals have largely gone to younger players.

"John has done a very good job of bringing in players to help us win and he’s done it with the short term in mind and the long term in mind," Ellis said. "He doesn’t waver from that, sticks to his plan with discipline. I know Pat feels this way and so do I, we have the right team in place in football to have short- and long-term success. We’ve established a program that should allow -- they’ll be blips in the road -- but should allow for sustained success."

Ellis added that both he and Bowlen believe the Broncos’ approach has to be draft first and supplement with free agency if the team is to succeed both with Manning behind center and in the post-Manning era.

"People say we’re all-in because of the players we signed, I don’t see that way and John is very open and very honest in how he goes about shaping the roster," Ellis said. "He doesn’t talk about this year, he talks about this year and beyond … . He and Mike Sullivan structure deals that make sure we’re talking about this year and beyond."

"The clubs that have success, that have good performance over time, are the ones that stick to a discipline when it comes to picking players and paying players," Ellis added. "And at times in the past we may have gotten off track by signing players who were fix-it-now type players with fix-it-now type contracts and not showing any regard for financial discipline. Listen we need to spend to the cap to be competitive, we believe that, but you can’t spend recklessly. Some say you’re doing this through free agency, but I don’t think John, and I don’t want to speak for John, but the draft is equally important, if not more, to the organization."
So, you already knew that the recently acquired Matt Schaub was earmarked to be the Oakland Raiders' starting quarterback this season. And while neither Terrelle Pryor nor his fans should be happy about that development, what coach Dennis Allen told reporters Tuesday will perk up more than a few ears.

Schaub
Schaub
"We have a quarterback now," Allen said at the NFL owners meetings, per the Bay Area News Group, "that's on par with the quarterbacks in the division."

Got it?

Shaub = Kansas City's Alex Smith. Sure.

Shaub = San Diego's Philip Rivers. Meh.

Shaub = Denver's Peyton Manning. Um ...

If nothing else, Allen is a glass-half-full kind of guy. He has to be. After consecutive 4-12 seasons in which his teams folded spectacularly down the stretch both times, Allen knows this is a make-or-break type of year in which the Raiders need to show improvement.

And for the purposes of this discussion, it all begins under center ... with a new quarterback who is a two-time Pro Bowler coming off a nightmarish season. So what kind of quarterback does Allen prefer, exactly?

"Guys that can move the team down the field, guys who can put points on the board," Allen said. "I think there's certain qualities you look at in the quarterbacks that have been able to be successful over the years. I'm talking about guys like Drew Brees, who I was with [in New Orleans]. I'm talking about guys like Peyton Manning. I'm talking about guys like Tom Brady. Guys [whose] work ethic is unmatched; they're the first ones in the building, they're the last one to leave.

"They have the ability to process information quickly and they can throw the ball with timing and accuracy. And those are the things you have to be able to do to play the quarterback position."

And water is wet.

Of course, that's the goal of every team -- to find a franchise quarterback. It's been a tortuous journey for the Raiders the past three years as they've used first- and second-round picks (Carson Palmer), a third-round supplemental pick (Pryor), a fourth-round pick (Tyler Wilson) a fifth-round pick (Matt Flynn) and now a sixth-rounder (Schaub) in their search for a savior.

The new regime of Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie is responsible for the last three on the list.

"It's pretty obvious that we feel good about Matt Schaub as our starting quarterback," Allen said. "We feel comfortable with Matt McGloin as a back up. But we'll see what happens in the next few days, next couple weeks.

"Everybody has down seasons. Everybody has down years. It's not a shame to get knocked down; it's a shame to not get back up. [Schaub] is a guy that's been a two-time Pro Bowl player, he's been a top 10 quarterback in the National Football League over the last five years and we believe, and he believes, that he's still that. And I don't think that changes overnight, I really don't."

Schaub had a career-worst total quarterback rating of 43.65 last season, losing his starting job midway through the season and throwing 14 interceptions, including a stretch of four straight games with a pick-6, with 10 touchdowns and a 61.1 completion percentage rate.

"Do I think he's going to have a little bit of a chip on his shoulder? Yeah, I really do," Allen said. "I think there's going to be a little bit of added incentive for him to kind of prove what he can do? Yeah, I think there will be, and I think that's a good thing."
The Philadelphia Eagles need a backup quarterback. Mark Sanchez needs a new place to restart his career.

With ESPN Insider Chris Mortenson reporting Sanchez is expected to sign with the Eagles, it brings together two sides filling a major need.

Sanchez
Nick Foles is without question the Eagles' starter. He threw 27 touchdown passes and had just two interceptions while compiling an 8-2 record in 2013. But with Michael Vick off to the New York Jets and Matt Barkley an unknown, coach Chip Kelly is dipping into the Pac-12 quarterbacks again.

Kelly was Oregon's offensive coordinator when Sanchez played at Southern Cal.

We will now get to see if he can revitalize Sanchez.

Things started so well for Sanchez with the Jets. He helped New York and Rex Ryan to two straight AFC Championship Games, losing to Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, but he never made the next step in his career.

His best statistical year came in 2011, when he threw for 3,474 yards with 26 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, but the Jets lost their final three games and that was the end of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

Tony Sparano did not help Sanchez in 2012. A shoulder injury kept Sanchez out last year.

Provided the shoulder checks out, Sanchez will become the backup to Foles.

Kelly's first order of business is lifting Sanchez's accuracy. He is a 55.1 percent passer for his career. The best he has had in his career is 56.7 percent. In today's NFL with the rules the way they are, quarterbacks must complete about 65 percent to be effective.

With the Eagles, Sanchez would have better tools around him, especially on the offensive line. He could have DeSean Jackson at wide receiver, at least for a minute. He would have Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to go with Brent Celek and Zach Ertz at tight end. And of course he would have LeSean McCoy.

He would also have Kelly, who has won with different kinds of quarterbacks along his stops at New Hampshire, Oregon and last year with the Eagles.

The Eagles are not the ground-and-pound of the Jets in Sanchez's first two years, but Kelly will run the ball to control the game and his quarterback.

Sanchez would be going to a perfect spot without the pressure to be the Sanch-ise. All he would need to be is a backup, not a savior.
The talk of the NFL's free-agency period through the first two weeks in the AFC has centered on the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots.

The Broncos bulked up their defense by acquiring defensive end DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib to go with quarterback Peyton Manning and the rest of the offense. The Patriots signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner while re-signing receiver Julian Edelman.

The Indianapolis Colts?

They didn’t make any free-agent splashes outside of re-signing cornerback Vontae Davis. General manager Ryan Grigson easily could have panicked as the Patriots and Broncos, the two teams who played in the AFC Championship Game last season, made their moves.

Nope.

The Colts went into the free-agency period with a plan, a plan they weren’t going to deviate from. Grigson said they signed all the players they wanted to get.

"You're competitive, but you can't be competitive in that way where you're watching what they're doing and say, 'We’re going to one-up you.' That makes no sense to me," he said. "We're in our own little world over here with our own vision of the future with our own set of problems and circumstances and things we're trying to work through positionally and needs we're trying to address. And they have a completely different landscape on all of those different teams."

The Broncos loaded up their roster in an attempt to make at least one more run at a Super Bowl with Manning before his Hall of Fame career likely ends in the next couple of years.

The Colts, like the other 31 teams, want to win the Super Bowl, but don’t have a short window to win a title like Denver and New England. Their quarterback, Andrew Luck, is headed into only his third season. Grigson also has to be financially conscious because they’ll have to pay players such as Luck, offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo and receiver T.Y. Hilton sooner than later.

"It's a team effort when we bring guys into the building," Grigson said. "We really attack it like a team and at the end of the day, we stick to our plan and our vision. Again, it's forward thinking and always looking ahead and not necessarily living in the now even though we feel like Super Bowl XLIX is something that we can attain. With the quarterback that we have and the young players around him, you want to build for sustained success. It's something that you have to stay disciplined in day in and day out."
Those who sat in the seats for Denver Broncos games this past season have no difficulty believing the league was awash in an ocean’s worth of records on offense.

On the way to a 606-point season -- an NFL record -- the Broncos were certainly productive in their home games. Working out of their no-huddle, high-altitude, the Broncos scored 49, 37, 52, 35, 45, 27, 51 and 20 in their regular-season home games, or 316 of their season's total.

That was a smooth 39.5 points per game.

So no one who sat through that is going to be all that surprised at the offensive numbers Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, a co-chairman of the league’s competition committee, rolled out during a conference call earlier this week.

That the 697 combined yards per game on offense or the 47.82 combined points per game were both league records. Or that teams overcame deficits of at least 14 times this past season, which tied another record.

But it was one other number McKay rolled that far more closely mirrored what the Broncos have done thus far in the offseason.

"Despite those two offensive statistics, the top five teams in total defense -- Seattle, Carolina, Cincinnati, New Orleans and San Francisco -- all qualified for the playoffs," McKay said, "and all won at least 11 games, again, establishing that defense does matter."

Those five were ranked in the NFL's curious way to annually rank their defensive leaders -- yards per game allowed -- but those same five teams were all ranked in the top five in points allowed game as well, with the Kansas City Chiefs tied with the Bengals -- with 19.1 points allowed per game.

The Chiefs also made the playoffs and also won 11 games. So, that’s the top six in defense in terms of points allowed. Also, ranked No. 7 in fewest points allowed per game this past season, was the Arizona Cardinals, who did not make the playoffs, but did win 10 games.

None of this diminishes the importance of locating a franchise quarterback in the construction of the roster or the quarterback’s proficiency to work behind center in an era when the league’s rules makers have opened the gates to throw in any and all situations. The single biggest factor in any team’s drive to a championship is still whether the guy behind center is up to the challenge.

And one year does not a trend make. But while the salary cap makes it difficult to build a balanced team on both sides of the ball, 2013 showed the effort is worth it and given the relative youth on the rosters of those defensive leaders, it appears its required.

The Broncos certainly believed it with safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib having been the team’s first three signings after free agency formally opened. They have Peyton Manning, they have a playbook that powered the highest-scoring offense in league history and they have no reason to think they won’t pile up some points this time around either.

But if a 600-point offense can’t close the title-game deal, there is no reason to think whatever the Broncos do on offense will be enough in the coming year either without more on defense and special teams. They have recognized it and have put their money where that thought is.
In the wake of the Denver Broncos' free-agency spending binge on defense, you asked, so I tried to answer ...

But from the aisle at my local King Soopers came this query:

What is the highest-ranked defense Peyton Manning has had in his career?

Sift through the numbers and there are two candidates, really.

Manning
In 2007, the year after Indianapolis won its only Super Bowl with Manning behind center -- also the franchise's only title after moving from Baltimore -- it finished third in total defense (yards allowed per game), and the Colts were No. 1 in scoring defense.

The Colts finished 13-3 in the regular season but then lost to the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round.

And in the category of lost opportunity also resides the 2012 Broncos, Manning's first season in Denver. The Broncos were second in total defense, No. 4 in scoring defense, tied for the league lead in sacks and third in forced fumbles.

Couple that with the Broncos' offensive output that season, at 30.1 points per game on offense, and it's one of the most balanced teams they have fielded in any era. They finished, yes, 13-3, and also lost in the divisional round.

So, while, even though the Super Bowl stomp-down by the Seattle Seahawks left a significant bruise on the local football psyche, many long-time fans say the double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to abruptly close out the 2012 season stings even more since it came with the shocking Ravens touchdown in the final minute of regulation to go with the Broncos' kneel-down that followed.

In the year Manning and the Colts won the Super Bowl, Indianapolis was 21st in total defense and 23rd in scoring defense. And in the 2009 season, when the Colts advanced to the Super Bowl where they were beaten by the New Orleans Saints, they were 18th in total defense but eighth in scoring defense.

All food for thought as the Broncos have gone about the business of rebuilding the defensive depth chart, including the three recent signings to go with the recovery of the starters who finished last season on injured reserve.
When the Denver Broncos played offense last season, they were often driving toward history.

Their 606 points were a new NFL single-season record, as were quarterback Peyton Manning's 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards. They worked fast, stayed aggressive and piled up the points, wins, and some did-you-see-that highlights week after week.

And why not? The league has constructed an environment to get the points it wants, and it’s easier to throw now, given the wording and enforcement of the rules, than it has ever been. Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is a co-chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, which reviews any potential rules changes before they go before the owners for a vote each year, said Wednesday that the 47.682 total points per game and 697 combined yards per game last season were league records.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesMontee Ball and Denver's running backs might handle a bigger workload in 2014.
Also, 18 times a team overcame at least a 14-point deficit last season to win. That tied a league record, set in 2011. So, this is unquestionably the era of throw to score. Yet, the Broncos’ ability to be one win better in February in the coming season might rest on how well they do on offense when Manning isn’t throwing the ball.

“No question, we have to be better in the run game," said Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “... To keep our personality, our approach on offense, but to do better when we do run the ball."

By necessity, design, and just the simple fact it was working so historically well, the Broncos became a one-trick pony for the most part on offense. Oh, it was an awesome trick all right, the best ever, a never-before seen combination of speed, precision and grand design.

However, the trophy didn’t come with it. There will be the same number of Lombardi trophies in the Broncos’ newly renovated complex this September as there was last year in the now demolished lobby.

And after 606 points, 55 passing touchdowns, and six 40-point games, it’s simply bad football business to really expect the passing game to do any more of the heavy lifting to finish the unfinished business. So, with the ball in their hands, that leaves special teams -- and the Broncos need to be exponentially better on both their coverage and return units there -- and the running game.

Start with running back Montee Ball. In a support role last season, his 4.7 yards per carry led the three backs -- Knowshon Moreno, Ball, and Ronnie Hillman -- who had at least 50 carries last season, and his 45-yard run was the team’s longest rushing play of the season.

He’s the starter and also the reason the Broncos haven’t made much of a move to bring Moreno back. But with guard Zane Beadles' departure in free agency, the Broncos do have some decisions up front. Protecting Manning in the middle of the formation is always Job 1.

The Broncos are looking to be bigger, more powerful on the offensive front. And looking at the video from last season’s work, looking at some of the video from the available free agents in the offensive line, and in discussions with several personnel people around the league, their best move right now is still to bump Orlando Franklin down inside to left guard and play Chris Clark at right tackle.

There are plenty of scouts who have always believed Franklin came into the league with the potential to be a better guard than tackle after he had started games at both positions at the University of Miami.

And the feeling among those personnel folks is Manny Ramirez played better at center last season than he did at guard the season before, so a move back to guard wouldn’t seem to make the Broncos better overall. But there are some plug-and-play centers in this draft, including USC’s Marcus Martin and Colorado State’s Weston Richburg (a four-year starter who once had to snap with his left hand in a game because he had broken his right one), that will be worth a long look in the second round.

The Broncos were able to get by with the throw first, second and sometimes third, approach in the regular season if 13 wins and a big slice of scoring history could ever be called just getting by. However, in the playoffs their inability to move the line of scrimmage in the run game was a factor, particularly to the weak side when you’re largely running behind offensive linemen and no tight end.

The Broncos averaged just 1.6 yards per carry in runs over the left tackle in the three postseason games, just 2.43 yards per carry inside over the left guard. The figures were far better to the right -- 5.2 yards per carry over the right tackle in the postseason, and 4.4 over the right guard.

For a team that opens up the formation in three-wide receiver sets as much as the Broncos do (more than 70 percent of the time, and more than 90 percent down the stretch) with the tight end also in the slot or out wide, they have to be far more efficient on weak-side runs. Because they all look like weak-side runs with just the center, guard and tackle moving defenders and everybody else in the pattern.

No, they don’t have to box up a historical fast-break no-huddle attack, but in those times they need to do something besides throw, they have to be far better at it, far more committed to it. This includes Manning, because if you can't win a Super Bowl after the first-ever 606-point season, it might a good idea to consider another way.
Russell Wilson, Drew BreesJonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesDespite a lack of height, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees haven't struggled with passes being batted at the line of scrimmage.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Over the course of the past few weeks, I've been chipping away at the Hot Read piece that was published today on why evaluating quarterbacks is so difficult -- and hasn't gotten any more precise in an era where teams have more information at their disposal than ever. In the process of talking to more than a dozen GMs and coaches for the story, I came across a number of interesting tidbits that didn't make the final edition.

I thought I'd pass them along here, in case they're of interest to you:

  • First, for Vikings fans, I had a good conversation with offensive coordinator Norv Turner about what he looks for in a quarterback. Turner was Troy Aikman's offensive coordinator in Dallas, worked with Philip Rivers as the San Diego Chargers' head coach and was the Chargers' offensive coordinator when they drafted Drew Brees (which is a prominent part of the story). He places a high emphasis on a quarterback's ability to learn quickly, understand complex systems and boil those systems down into manageable terms for the rest of the offense. Aikman and Brees both excelled at that, Turner said, and he also mentioned former Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson, whom Turner coached with the Redskins. One thing teams are doing now, as they try to put young QBs on the field sooner, Turner said, is simplifying the terminology of their offenses. "They're cutting down some of the verbiage, code-naming more things and helping them, where it's not just so much rote memorization and you don't get into the concepts," Turner said.

  • We talked in the story about the issue of short quarterbacks, and after talking to Turner and Colts GM Ryan Grigson in particular, the sense I got is that smart teams aren't dismissing short QBs simply because they're short -- they're looking to see how many batted balls come about because of a quarterback's stature. In some ways, shorter quarterbacks actually fare better here, because they've already learned how to compensate for their lack of height. In fact, Brees and Russell Wilson were tied for just 21st in the league in batted passes last season, with six each, according to Pro Football Focus. The leaders? The 6-foot-2 Chad Henne (with 20), the 6-2 Matthew Stafford (with 17) and the 6-5 Matt Ryan (with 14). Said Turner of Brees: "He'd been playing like that his whole life. It's not like he was 6-4 or you're going to make him 6-4. He understood how to play that way. He created lanes, he moved and he was very competitive against the rush. That's what it comes down to: that ability to visualize. You don't have to actually see the guy running free -- you 'see' him, you see where the defense is and you know where you're going to throw it."

  • A couple more good stories from Bill Polian and Ron Wolf about drafting Peyton Manning and trading for Brett Favre, respectively. Polian, who now works as a NFL analyst for ESPN, dispelled the since-developed myth that the Colts were split between Manning and Ryan Leaf until just before the draft. In reality, Polian said, the decision was made by mid-March.
    "A lot of people now have amnesia, and said Ryan Leaf was by far the better product," Polian said. "The consensus of so-called experts on Peyton was, he had a weak arm, couldn’t make all the throws and was 'a product of the system.' We worked him out, and found out he had a better arm than Ryan Leaf. He was much better than people gave him credit for. The athleticism thing, that one I can understand, because he looked a little bit gawky. But he had an incredible work ethic, incredible desire to be the best, incredible accuracy when he threw the ball, a unique understanding of defenses. None of that was present with Ryan." And Wolf, when he told the Packers' board of directors when he explained he was about to trade a first-round pick for a player the Atlanta Falcons had taken in the second round and no longer wanted, said this: "I compared him to a player like Lou Gehrig -- a face of the franchise. I told them everybody would one day around Green Bay wear No. 4. I'm sure they were a little shaken. I'm sure they thought they hired some idiot."Wolf said he hadn't thought about the obvious ironman parallels between Favre and Gehrig until we discussed it in our conversation; rather, he saw an aura about Favre that put him in that class. Wolf rightly gets credit now because few others saw what he did, but as he admitted, those evaluations are almost the more obvious ones to make."I thought the field tilted in his team’s favor when he ran on the field," Wolf said. "He played teams [at Southern Miss] that did not have the same type of talent that he was playing against. By and large, he kept them in the game. I think [former Auburn coach] Pat Dye put it the best; was reading somewhere where he was asked 'Who’s the best player you've seen as a head coach?' He said right away, 'Brett Favre.' I think a lot of people would have said that. He won games he had no business being able to win. He's just a rare, rare player."
  • Wolf, then, would agree with the point ESPN NFL scout Matt Williamson made -- that teams and executives who are often branded "quarterback experts" get that reputation unjustly, because all they had to do was be correct once. "If you do hit one, then you don’t have to do it any more," Williamson said. "It's hard to say, 'Boy, these guys are great at developing QBs," because they did it once. They don’t have to worry about it for 12 years."
  • Lastly, I'd commend to you a Sports Illustrated story published just after the 2001 NFL draft. The magazine followed Brees around during his entire pre-draft process and chronicled what the experience was like, and there are lots of cameos from talent evaluators who are still in the NFL limelight, from Turner to Vikings GM Rick Spielman and Seahawks GM John Schneider. And for the Minnesotans in the crowd, the story ran in an issue adorned with a cover photo of former Twins outfielder Matt Lawton, discussing the upstart Twins' hot start to the 2001 MLB season.

Just wanted to pass those things along, before we return to the rhythms of the Vikings beat. Hope you enjoyed them.
When he was behind center for the Denver Broncos, John Elway was a 30-something player, was one for quite some time in fact. He was a Super Bowl starter as a 37- and a 38-year-old as the Broncos won back-to-back titles in the final two years of his playing career.

So he knows the value a productive, respected, proven veteran player can bring to a team, on the field and in the locker room.

But as an executive charged with spending Pat Bowlen’s money wisely and keeping the Broncos relevant in the Super Bowl chase every season, Elway has been particular about handing out the team’s biggest checks in free agency to the over-30 crowd.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/James D. SmithJohn Elway on signing pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware: "We feel like he's got a lot of football ahead of him."
In fact, three trips into free agency in his current job, the list is essentially two -- Peyton Manning and now DeMarcus Ware -- and Elway is pretty clear on why he made them exceptions to the rule.

“I like to get Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders," Elway said.

In 2011, Elway’s first year in his role as the team’s chief football decision-maker, the Broncos only dabbled in free agency, sticking with short-term deals for the likes of Marcus Thomas, Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario.

In 2012, the Broncos dove in for Manning for a $96 million deal that included a pile of guaranteed money when Manning was ready to turn 36 following four neck surgeries. That has worked out with back-to-back 13-3 seasons and back-to-back division titles with some NFL single-season records tossed in.

The rest of the deals in 2012 were largely short-term, low-impact contracts. Tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen received three-year deals. Tamme turned 27 just after signing his deal, and Dreessen was 29 when he signed. The 30-and-over crowd of Keith Brooking, Jim Leonhard, Dan Koppen and Brandon Stokley received one-year deals.

Safety Mike Adams was 30 when he signed and received a two-year deal. Adams, however, had played in at least 15 games in five of the previous six seasons before arriving in Denver. The rest, players such as Shaun Phillips and Quentin Jammer, both 30 or older, received one-year deals without signing bonuses.

In 2013, the Broncos’ biggest contract in free agency (four years, $23.5 million) went to guard Louis Vasquez, who was 25 when he signed his deal and went on to be named All-Pro. Terrance Knighton received a two-year deal, as did Wes Welker.

This past week, the Broncos were one of the most aggressive teams in free agency, but they still largely stuck to the younger-is-better plan when the big money was in play. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and safety T.J. Ward are 27 (Sanders turned 27 this week), and cornerback Aqib Talib is 28.

“It’s not [win] for now. We want young football players who are going to be here for a long time," Elway said. “... The age thing is big."

But in Ware, the Broncos saw a durable, high character player with 117 career sacks who has been a team captain and performed over the long haul. Ware, who soon will be 32, received a three-year, $30 million deal from the Broncos.

For that deal not to sting the salary cap, however, Ware simply has to play at least two of those seasons and be a major contributor. But the Broncos like that Ware’s preparation is unquestioned and that he has missed just three games in his career -- all in 2013.

“With 117 sacks, yeah, we feel like he’s got a lot of football ahead of him," Elway said. " ... We think he's going to perform at a high level, and with the way he practices, prepares and his knowledge of the game, he's going to help us on a lot of levels."

Elway the player made a career of taking risks with the ball and often turning those opportunities into history. Elway the executive has been more prudent -- a guy looking down the road, avoiding the franchise-crushing confines created by a we'll-worry-about-it-later approach to the salary cap.

“You have your wish list," Elway said. “We’re fortunate enough on our wish list we were able to X off a lot of guys on our wish list and [they] were able to come here. ... We want to plug in the right guys, the guys that make sense for us as an organization and guys who can be here and help us win for a long, long time."
Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib Getty ImagesBoth the Patriots and Broncos bolstered their defense by signing Darrelle Revis and Aqib Talib.
Since the start of the 2005 season, the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots have played 10 times, with three of those postseason games, including a 26-16 Denver win in the AFC Championship Game in January.

The two are so familiar with each other that even Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has joked, "The league says the schedule is random, like where you play, but that doesn't feel random. We're always facing them and it always feels like it's at their place."

In 2014, the Broncos play the Patriots again -- and it will be in Foxborough, Mass., for the second consecutive year (as part of the NFL's rotating schedule formula).

As two franchises with five Super Bowl wins between them race to make the most of what's left in the careers of their respective future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, they almost appear to be answering the other's signings.

So much so that Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway was even asked this past weekend if he felt like he was in an "arms race" with the Patriots during the free-agency period.

"You always know you have to go through New England," Elway said. "If you look at their track record the last 10 years, they're a team you're going to have to be able to deal with, and for us to get done what we want to get done, you've got to be able to beat them. It's kind of a fun type of arms race, and we'll see what happens next year."

ESPN.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a closer look at both teams' moves over the past week.

Legwold: Mike, the Broncos certainly see the Patriots as the chief hurdle in any attempt to get to another Super Bowl title, and whether they would admit it or not, the thought of having to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in a game that matters influences the decisions the Broncos make. How do the Patriots see this?

Reiss: Jeff, that will be atop the list of questions to ask Belichick the next time he meets with the press. As you might have noticed, unlike the Broncos, the Patriots haven't had any news conferences to trumpet their offseason moves, so we're left to answer this question for them based on their actions. And the answer, from this view, is the Broncos are a significant factor in the Patriots' decision-making process, specifically in what they're trying to put together defensively with physical press corners in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. It's hard to get to Manning with the pass rush (what the Seahawks accomplished in the Super Bowl is the exception), so another way to disrupt that high-powered attack is getting physical in the secondary. I don't think building a team to beat the Broncos is their sole focus and would imagine Belichick will dismiss most of this line of thinking, but to me the actions speak loudly that it's at least part of the thought process.

One of the big questions I've heard from Patriots followers: "How are the Broncos signing all these players -- Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders -- to such big-money contracts?" Along those lines, what is the Broncos' cap situation and could this be the type of thing that comes back to haunt them in future years?

Legwold: The short answer is the Broncos' cap situation was far better than many reported as free agency opened. They weren't on the list of teams that had no room to work with, and circumstances helped them as well. They had about $28.7 million worth of room when free agency was set to open -- that total was among the league's top 10 -- and gained another $10 million when they released Champ Bailey and another $4.1 million when guard Chris Kuper retired last week. They also structured most of the deals, including Talib's, with several kinds of bonuses in different years of the contract. Talib's deal is six years, $57 million on paper, but in reality, it's a three-year, $27 million contract that the Broncos could escape with limited cap implications after the 2014 season. They do not have any of the deals heavily front-loaded, essentially eliminating salary-cap implications down the road if they have to release the players after one or two years. They are selling the chance to play for a Super Bowl contender, and the players they signed were willing to work with them on deals that pay well if the player does well but make sense to the Broncos down the road, too. They simply bypassed the players who weren't willing to play ball that way. Also, they have made age a priority, with Talib, T.J. Ward and Sanders all just 27 or 28 years old. They have tried to limit their exposure with long-term contracts for 30-somethings.

With Wes Welker's signing last season and Talib's last week, there is an element of not only signing a free agent the Broncos want but also weakening a rival.

Mike, how do you think the Patriots saw those signings? Just business, or their players being targeted?

Also, Talib talked about the Patriots' injury-reporting procedures in his introductory news conference. How do you think those remarks were received in New England?

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Gail BurtonTom Brady has said he wants to play until he's 40 years old.
Reiss: More in the "just business” category. There is a pretty strong resolve among the team's decision-makers in how they want to build their team and what they view as the most responsible financial decisions. So, right or wrong, they often set a price and don't budge too far off it, knowing that could mean a player winds up on a top competitor. That's basically what happened with Welker and Talib. As for Talib's remarks, I don't think it was anything inflammatory in the eyes of the Patriots. Talib was very well-liked here, and I don't think what he said changes anything along those lines.

We remember from all the talk about the Eagles' "Dream Team” a few years ago that assembling talent is only part of the equation. It's how it comes together.

Jeff, can you shed some insight on the Broncos' locker room, the leadership, and if there should be any concern on how all the impressive individual parts come together as a team?

Legwold: The Broncos have a little different structure than most teams in that they are the only one with a Hall of Fame quarterback who is a sports icon in the same city where he also happens to run the team. Elway is the ultimate Alpha Dog in terms of how things go here, even with Manning in the locker room. But the Broncos like the makeup of their locker room, but it will be a year of transition in that regard given three former captains -- Bailey, Kuper and Wesley Woodyard -- have all departed. At the roster level, Manning's presence is all over the offense, and on defense they see youngsters such as Danny Trevathan and Chris Harris Jr. as future captains. They also believe they've been careful in the players they've signed -- Elway makes it clear who is, or isn't, what they are looking for. That said of the new arrivals, there certainly is the hope that Ware can be a mentor to Von Miller, both on and off the field, after Miller's rocky ride in 2013 that included a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Mike, there is a sense in Denver that Manning's career is winding down and that 2014 could be it. But what is the feeling about Brady and how much longer he intends to play?

Reiss: Brady is signed through 2017, and there is every expectation he will play to the end of that contract, and play at a high level. Brady has previously said he'd like to play into his 40s, and I don't think anyone would be wise to bet against that after what we've seen from him since he was selected 199th overall in the 2000 draft. He keeps himself in excellent physical condition and basically lives football year-round. So assuming good health, I'd put '17 as the earliest marker to when we might close the book on his career. He'd be 40 at that point.

Jeff, with the moves the Broncos have made, where do you see them as better than last year, and where is there work still to be done?

Legwold: We asked Elway that question Sunday when Sanders arrived as the latest signing. Elway's response was: "I do think we're better, especially when you consider we had five starters on defense on injured reserve last year. When I could move those names off IR, back onto our roster board, I felt a lot better about our team even before free agency opened. And now we added some guys who we think are the right kind of guys and who fill some big needs for us."

The Broncos' goal has been to use free agency to fill what Elway has called "glaring needs" so they can continue to draft the best available guys, no matter the position. They still need some depth on the offensive line, a middle linebacker who would play only in the base, and they will look at wide receiver and cornerback in the draft as well.

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