2011 Denver Broncos preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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For now, Orton has the upper hand on Tebow. But the issue won't go away. (Getty Images)  
For now, Orton has the upper hand on Tebow. But the issue won't go away. (Getty Images)  

2010 RECORD: 4-12 (fourth, AFC West)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2005, Lost to Pittsburgh, 34-17, in AFC Championship game

COACH (RECORD): John Fox (first season with Broncos, 73-71 overall)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike McCoy

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dennis Allen

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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 26th rushing, 7th passing, 19th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 31st rushing, 25th passing, 32nd scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: RB Willis McGahee (from Ravens), DT Ty Warren (from Patriots), DT Brodrick Bunkley (from Eagles), DE Derrick Harvey (from Jaguars), TE Dante Rosario (from Panthers), TE Daniel Fells (from Rams), DE Jeremy Jarmon (from Redskins), LB Von Miller (first round, Texas A&M), FS Rahim Moore (second round, UCLA), OT Orlando Franklin (second round, Miami), MLB Nate Irving (third round, N.C. State)

KEY DEPARTURES: DT Justin Bannan (to Rams), RB Correll Buckhalter (released), WR Jabar Gaffney (to Redskins), TE Daniel Graham (to Titans), FS Renaldo Hill (released), NT Jamal Williams (released): OT Ryan Harris (to Eagles), NT Ronald Fields (to Dolphins)

QUIET STORM: QB Kyle Orton was on his way to his best statistical season even in the midst of a disastrous team performance last December when a rib injury sent him to the sidelines and opened up the can of worms known as Tim Tebow. Josh McDaniels maneuvered to take the former Heisman winner in April 2010 despite skepticism as to whether Tebow had the goods to be an NFL-caliber signal caller, then the head coach/potential mentor was gone himself not eight full months later. And when Orton went down, in came Tebow, who acquitted himself pretty well in a three-game end-of-season trial (41 of 82, 654 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs). Tebow spent the offseason working on his operation under center and accuracy. The Broncos worked the phones, seeing if a deal was there for Orton. But in the end, Orton stayed and quickly demonstrated he's still way ahead of Tebow's learning curve. Still, the problem will continue to fester. Even if Orton starts, if the team loses, which is a distinct possibility, the clamor for Tebow will continue among the fan base. Tebow is wildly popular; Orton not so much. So while it isn't an out-and-out QB controversy due to results so far on the practice field that are decidedly one-sided in Orton's favor, the seeds are still there for a potential headache for new coach John Fox.

ROLLING IN THE DEEP: Denver opted to bypass defensive line needs almost entirely during the draft, which didn't seem like the brightest of ideas when it owned the No. 2 overall pick (which was used on LB Von Miller instead), was coming off a season in which it yielded 154.6 rushing yards per game, and didn't retain either starting tackle. But the team spent late July and early August throwing bodies at the problem, one exacerbated by a scheme change from a three-man front to a four-man alignment. In about a one-week span, the team added four new players on the front four -- DTs Ty Warren, Brodrick Bunkley and DEs Derrick Harvey and Jeremy Jarmon -- while retaining unrestricted free agent DT Marcus Thomas and exclusive-rights FA Ryan McBean. Mix in the return of 2010 sack leader Elvis Dumervil from chest surgery and at least there are some usable parts. The question remains how the personnel will ultimately fit into the rotation. Odds are Dumervil will be the starting right end, flanked by 2009 first-round pick Robert Ayers, who will be moving from outside linebacker to his more familiar spot playing in a three-point stance. Warren and Bunkley give Denver beef at nose tackle, or could potentially play side-by-side. Holdover Kevin Vickerson could be the three-technique starter but will have a role regardless.

YOUNG BLOOD: The lack of organized team activities meant no minicamps, which, in turn, might mean less opportunity league-wide for rookies to come into training camp, learn the system and make an immediate impact. The Broncos don't have the luxury of time, or talent, to be able to make such a concession. Youth will be served, early and often. Von Miller is the star of the group. The second overall pick has an explosive first step that will be a dangerous complement to Dumervil in the pass rush. He also has the athletic ability to drop and cover, though it's unrefined. He should be an every-down player. Orlando Franklin from Miami has massive size and the potential to be a road grader in the run game, matching the physical ground attack Fox expects from his teams. Franklin will replace the departed Ryan Harris, whose underrated pass protection Franklin will have to duplicate in quick fashion. Denver released FS Renaldo Hill and will plug in rangy Rahim Moore next to SS Brian Dawkins, who will continue to start but could see another first-year player, Quinton Carter, cut into his snaps. Nate Irving has a tough transition moving to pro MLB, where the calls and checks are vital. He's currently running third-team but could be No. 1 in short order due to his imposing size and hitting ability. Tight end Julius Thomas, a converted hoops player from Portland State, is a sleeper.

ONLY STRONG SURVIVE: One look at Denver's defensive performance last season and it was obvious change was needed. The team ranked 32nd in total yards, yielded 29.4 points per game and created just 18 takeaways, eight via fumble. Take a gander on the other side of the ball and the rushing statistics and performance were equally pitiful. The Broncos were 27th in attempts (24.9), 23rd in average per carry (3.9) and had just seven rushes of 20-plus yards all season. That runs anathema to Fox's core philosophy of tough, physical play on both sides of the ball. Fox hired Dennis Allen to become his defensive coordinator, and the bright young assistant was known for his creativity in helping Gregg Williams run an aggressive Saints group. Denver signed running back Willis McGahee in free agency, a 235-pound plugger between the tackles that is better suited to the grind-it-out philosophy than incumbent Knowshon Moreno. The question, though, remains as to whether both trenches can handle what Fox expects. The turnover on the defensive line gives that group at least a chance to succeed. But questions remain offensively, where the same line remains intact. Denver ran the ball on fewer than 40 percent of its offensive plays last year. That number should swell into at least the 50s, and it is unclear whether a group that had two rookie starters last year and will add one in 2011 can pave the way to consistent success.

FINAL WORD: Bringing in the upbeat Fox and his largely new staff was like mouthwash applied to the overall bad taste that was 2010. The players seem to appreciate the change of philosophy and climate. And Fox has a track record of turning around losing programs, guiding the Panthers from 1-15 in 2001 to 7-9 the next season to a Super Bowl appearance in '03. The cupboard isn't bare. There are some stars, like Dumervil, Champ Bailey, Brandon Lloyd and Ryan Clady around which to build. But the preseason is about continuing to change the climate, refining the roster and returning swagger to a team that's missed the postseason five straight seasons.

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