A year after leading the NFL in rushing due in no small part to quarterback Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos will return to the more conventional way of moving the football by simply allowing Peyton Manning to do what he does best - attack defenses through the air.
Though the decision to sign the 36 year-old Manning coming off of three spinal surgeries is certainly a gamble, it is one that could pay off in spades. The future Hall of Famer comes to Denver seeking to capture the resurrection that current Vice President of Football Operations John Elway enjoyed during Super Bowl titles late in his playing career with the Broncos. In choosing a team willing to scrap the strategy that earned them a spot in the divisional playoffs last season, as well as one boasting an attacking defense well suited to playing with a lead, Manning may have put himself in position to do precisely that.
For history to look kindly on the Broncos' risky decision, however, Elway, general manager Brian Xanders and head coach John Fox must continue to fill holes in the Denver roster. Defensive tackle is an obvious area of concern, but so too is depth at running back and cornerback.
Five picks Elway and Co. should contemplate:
DT Jerel Worthy, Michigan State (NFLDraftScout.com ranking: 27)
The Broncos' biggest need - literally and figuratively - is clearly at defensive tackle. The team 22nd in the league in run defense in 2011 and that ranking was enhanced by the Broncos' ability to control the clock with their own No. 1 rated running attack. Denver could see two new starters in the defensive interior in 2012 as Brodrick Bunkley signed a free agent contract with the New Orleans Saints and the team hasn't made re-signing Marcus Thomas a priority. As such, should Worthy still be on the board when the Broncos pick at No. 25, the powerful and explosive defender certainly would make a great deal of sense.
RB Chris Polk, Washington (NFLDraftScout.com ranking: 61)
Despite leading the NFL in rushing last season, the Broncos need help at the position. Veteran Willis McGahee deserved Comeback Player of the Year consideration after rushing for 1,199 yards in 2011 - just 48 yards shy of his previous career high gained back in 2005 with the Buffalo Bills. Without the threat of Tebow, however, McGahee could sink back to the journeyman status that saw him earn just three starts in his two seasons with Baltimore prior to signing with the Broncos. Polk has as good of tape as any running back in the country not named Trent Richardson. He's the type of determined, physical runner that Fox has preferred over his career and is an excellent receiver out of the backfield capable of earning Manning's trust quickly. If Denver is comfortable with the heavy workload Polk had with the Huskies, he'd be a quality schematic fit in the second round (No. 57 overall).
WR Rishard Matthews, Nevada (NFLDraftScout.com ranking: 89)
The Broncos already boast two intriguing big and athletic young receivers in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas for Peyton Manning to work with but replacing slot receiver and punt returner Eddie Royal (who signed with the San Diego Chargers) could make a versatile playmaker like Matthews a surprise target in the middle rounds (like third round pick, No. 87 overall). The Broncos may have addressed this concern already by signing veterans Andre Caldwell and Jason Hill and are reportedly interested in reuniting Manning with free agent Brandon Stokley but Matthews, who stepped up his game for the Wolfpack in 2011 after Colin Kaepernick was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, is not only a talented receiver but returned punts for touchdowns in each of his two seasons at Nevada, as well. Still not convinced that Matthews would make sense? Check out this video.
QB Russell Wilson, Wisconsin (NFLDraftScout.com ranking: 115)
Prior to the series of neck surgeries that sidelined him for the entire 2011 season, Manning's remarkable string of 227 consecutive starts ranks as one of the more impressive accomplishments of any player in NFL history. With Bears' castoff Caleb Hanie and 2011 undrafted free agent Adam Weber as the only quarterbacks on the roster behind Manning, don't be surprised if the Broncos add another passer via the draft. Arizona State's Brock Osweiler visited with the Broncos and, as such, he's been often projected to land in Denver. However, considering the risk involved with Manning's health and advanced age, adding a player with Wilson's starting experience and composure makes sense as well. If still available when the Broncos are up with their first of two picks in the fourth round, the underrated Wilson might simply provide too much value to pass up at No. 108 overall.
CB Leonard Johnson, Iowa State (NFLDraftScout.com ranking: 136)
The Broncos got younger at cornerback by adding free agent Tracy Porter and releasing Andre Goodman to play opposite Champ Bailey, but with this remains a position of concern, especially considering that Bailey will be entering his 14th NFL season in 2012. Johnson may slip a bit on draft day after a disappointing showing at the Combine, but he plays with the physicality and competitiveness necessary to enjoy success behind the Broncos' extraordinary pass-rushing duo of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. He'd make sense with the Broncos' second fourth round pick, No. 120 overall.