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Everything looks solid on paper.
The Denver Broncos have gotten deeper, faster, more athletic and edgier this offseason. They've significantly upgraded a defense that failed to create enough turnovers last season and lacked the mental toughness displayed by their Super Bowl XLVIII counterpart.
The Broncos learned the hard way last season that having Peyton Manning and the most prolific offense in the history of the National Football League is not enough to win a championship. It takes an opportunistic defense that can disrupt the quarterback and contend with receivers who, through rules changes, enjoy a significant advantage.
|The addition of DeMarcus Ware should elevate the play of Denver's young stars, especially Von Miller.|
It is those realities that guided John Elway, the Broncos general manager and executive vice president of football operations, this offseason. Through shrewd personnel moves aided in part by the ongoing allure of playing with Manning, Elway upgraded his team and established it, again, as the favorite in the AFC entering this season.
This time around, with a defense that should be stacked, the Broncos are poised to become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to rebound from losing a Super Bowl to winning one the next season.
"[On] paper, going into training camp trying to be better than we were the year before," Elway told me recently. "I kind of feel like we're there. That doesn't mean the outcome is going to be different or the same, but you like to give yourself the best chance as you can. We like where we are on paper."
And they should.
Elway made significant upgrades along the defensive side, signing defensive end DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib.
Although he will turn 32 years old next month, Ware remains capable of producing a double-digit sack season. Perhaps even more important will be the example he sets for Von Miller, who reported to offseason workouts slimmed down from last season and has said he wants to emulate Ware. If nothing else, Ware will alleviate some of the pressure from Miller, because offenses will have to account for him, which should free things up for Miller.
Ward is a hard-hitting safety who is capable of blitzing from all over the field. Talib is an upgrade over the aging Champ Bailey, whom the Broncos parted with after 10 seasons. Talib is capable of matching up with an opponent's best receiver, can play on the outside or in the slot and is also not afraid to come up and play against the run.
In addition to adding three talented veterans, Elway used the Broncos' first-round draft pick to select Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, whom Elway thought had the best man-to-man coverage skills of any defensive back in the draft and should be the Broncos nickel corner.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has said one of the Broncos' biggest problems last season was that they let opponents get over the top of the defense as well as run through it. They allowed too many big plays. Denver ranked 23rd in the NFL allowing 40 run plays of 10 or more yards and ranked 27th in the league allowing 61 pass plays of 20 or more yards.
The Broncos also finished the season ranked 14th in sacks (41), 19th in yards allowed (356.0) and 22nd in points allowed (24.9). It didn't help that five defensive starters -- Miller, cornerback Chris Harris, safety Rahim Moore, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and defensive end Derek Wolfe -- ended the season on injured reserve.
Despite spending lavishly on four free agents -- including wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who replaces the departed Eric Decker -- Elway bristled at the notion that the Broncos are trying to maximize what time they have left with Manning.
"Everyone says you want to win now," Elway said. "I say, 'No, we want to win from now on.'"
That should be able to happen. To his credit, Elway has structured the free-agent contracts to the point that, should any of the players not pan out, the Broncos won't be paying for it for years to come. Denver is, as Elway said, "a cash-to-cap team," which means they refrain from giving huge signing bonuses that would impact their salary cap for years to come.
That is important in the grand scheme of things and one reason Denver has won the AFC West three seasons running and should make it a fourth this upcoming season. It helps having a future Hall of Famer under center, sure, but the Broncos learned last season that is not enough.
It takes a tenacious defense and mental toughness and developing a brotherhood through which every player believes in each other. As Seattle showed, Denver lacked that last season when it mattered most. This season, the Broncos should prove they learned from that costly mistake.