What a wonderful regular season this Denver Broncos team had, clinching their third-straight AFC West division title under head coach John Fox, clinching the first-seed in the AFC, and setting multiple records throughout the way to end up 13-3, clinching home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Here are my grades on the team, position-by-position.
What more could you say about the season Peyton Manning had? The 37-year-old set multiple records this season as well as tying an NFL record for most touchdown passes in a game week one against the defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens. Manning recently surpassed Tom Brady‘s single-season record of 50 touchdown passes in a season last weekend against the Houston Texans. Most recently, Manning just passed Drew Brees for the single-season passing yards with 5,477 on the season against the Oakland Raiders. Manning needed exactly 266 yards to accomplish this feat and that’s what he finished with on the day. He had impressive stats throughout the season, finishing with 55 touchdown passes while passing for 5,477 yards, throwing just 10 interceptions.
The resurgence of Knowshon Moreno has been a huge addition to this already potent offense. Moreno appeared in just eight regular season games last year and was inactive for multiple weeks. Moreno knew he had to step up or would find himself as a free-agent. The former first-round, 12th overall pick back in 2009 had to feel some let down as Denver drafted running back Montee Ball in the second-round this season. Denver was facing a youthful look in the backfield with Ronnie Hillman paired with Montee Ball, but Hillman’s fumbling issues sidelined him for more chances with the tandem of Moreno-Ball. Moreno finished the season with a career-high 1,038 rushing yards while adding 11 touchdowns and Ball had a solid rookie season, rushing for 559 yards on just 120 attempts.
Wes Welker was a big addition to the Bronco’s offense in the offseason, as Denver pried him away from the New England Patriots. Welker was targeted 110 times, 3rd-most on the roster as Manning connected with him for 73 times resulting in 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas was Manning’s most targeted receiver and rightfully so. The speedy wide-out would finish the season with 92 catches for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns. Eric Decker on the other side of the field was Manning’s second option, striking with the wide-out for 87 catches accumulating 1,288 yards while adding 11 touchdowns. Andre Caldwell filled in nicely when Wes Welker went out with concussion symptoms, he would catch 16 passes for 200 yards with 3 touchdowns.
Julius Thomas was perhaps the biggest surprise on this Denver Broncos roster. The former basketball player in college at Portland State was drafted in the fourth-round of the 2011 draft by the Denver Broncos. During his rookie season, Thomas appeared in five games catching one pass for seven yards. He would not appear in a game during the 2012 season after an ankle injury that sidelined him during his rookie season. The big tight-end would catch 65 passes for 788 yards with 12 touchdowns. Jacob Tamme was Denver’s second tight-end, catching 20 passes for 184 yards with just one touchdown. Joel Dreessen was slated to be the number one tight-end but was sidelined for most of the season with a knee injury. The former Colorado State Ram would wind up catching just 7 passes on the season for just 47 yards and one touchdown.
The offensive line took a huge blow earlier in the season as Pro-Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady went down with a foot injury, opening up the door for back-up tackle Chris Clark and he did not disappoint. The whole offensive-line just gave up 20 sacks for the whole season, that’s an amazing feat. The O-line with Clady out was led by free-agent pick-up Louis Vasquez. Vasquez came over from the San Diego Chargers in the off-season to fill the hole at right guard, sliding Manny Ramirez over to center. Vasquez earned himself his first Pro Bowl selection after his stellar play on the line. According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Denver Broncos liked to run up the middle/guard position, occupied by Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, and Louis Vasquez. They have done an excellent job in protecting Peyton Manning nonetheless, allowing a league-low of 20 sacks on the season.
The Denver Broncos defensive-line was in the top-10 in rushing yards allowed per game, allowing 101.6 yards. Denver was 13th in the league in sacks, sitting at 41.0 on the season. Shaun Phillips was a key pick-up through free agency this offseason with the loss the Elvis Dumervil. The 32-year-old accounted for 10.0 of the teams 41.0 sacks on the year, 24.4% percent. Malik Jackson was a solid contributor as well. The second-year pro out of the University of Tennessee recorded 6.0 sacks on the year. Robert Ayers was a first-round pick, 18th overall by Denver in 2009 and finally produced a solid season under John Fox, accounting for 5.5 sacks. Derek Wolfe was expected to be a big contributor for this defensive-line, but got off to a slow-start, accounting for 16 tackles and 4 sacks. He would fall ill prior to the last meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs and hasn’t been on the field since.
The linebackers did a great job without Von Miller for the first six games of the regular season. The Von Miller they got back after the six-game suspension wasn’t exactly the player they were hoping for but did a good job hurrying the quarterback. Miller finished the season with 5.0 sacks and 3 forced fumbles, but received terrible news on Denver’s second defensive series in Houston Week 16. Von Miller was diagnosed with a torn right ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs. In John Fox’s words, Nate Irving would be “the next man up”. In the final regular season game against Oakland, Irving record 2 tackles and a sack. On the season, he would combine for 38 tackles. Wesley Woodyard has been the leader of the Denver Broncos linebacking core. The six-year veteran out of Kentucky finished the season with 83 combined tackles and 1.5 sacks. The linebacker would also account for one interception. Danny Trevathan was Denver’s leading tackler on the season with 128 combined tackles, 4 forced fumbles and 2 sacks.
The loss of Champ Bailey earlier in the season seemed huge to many but ever since the Pro-Bowl cornerback suffered a foot injury in the preseason against the Seattle Seahawks, he hasn’t been the same player. Bailey has combined for 13 tackles and had no interceptions. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie filled in nicely for the veteran, combining for 33 tackles, 15 passes defended and 3 interceptions. Chris Harris on the other hand has been a key defender, combining for 65 tackles, with 13 pass deflections and 3 interceptions. Denver’s secondary was a mess during the regular season, keeping opposing teams into the game. Prior to week 17, Denver was ranked 28th in opposing passing yards with 258.6 per game. Duke Ihenacho has played well at the safety position, combining for 73 tackles while forcing 3 fumbles and recovering 2. Denver took a big hit as Rahim Moore went down with a leg injury and his status as of right now is uncertain for the playoffs.
Matt Prater was absolutely phenomenal for the Broncos this season, knocking down 25-of-26 field goals 96.1% percent. He would set the NFL record for longest field goal made as he knocked down a 64-yard field goal in the freezing cold against the Tennessee Titans. Prater would be a perfect 75-of-75 on extra points. Prater would get selected to his first Pro Bowl appearance. Pro Football Talk would downplay the season Prater had, saying his 64-yarder wasn’t impressive and other NFL kickers could make that same exact field goal in Denver if given the chance. They also noted that his touch backs were a product of the altitude. Britton Colquitt was a guy you rarely saw come out onto the field for the Denver Broncos due to the high-powered offense led by Peyton Manning and the four-horseman. Colquitt ranked 27th in the NFL in total punts with just 65. His net average would only be 38.8 yards but he would be ranked 23th in the NFL with 44.5 yards per punt. The Broncos haven’t really needed Colquitt so there is no reason to give him a good grade.
Kicker Grade: A+
Punter Grade: C-
The special teams play of the Denver Broncos has its pros and cons. The pros would be Trindon Holliday returning kicks to the house, the cons would be Trindon Holliday fumbling the football. Denver single-handedly lose their match-up with the New England Patriots as Wes Welker waived for a fair-catch in overtime as Tony Carter bumped into the ball, setting up the Patriots for the eventual game-winning field goal. The special teams play was a bit weary in the win over Oakland Sunday as well.