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Draft team needs: Denver Broncos

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Broncos brass -- GM Brian Xanders, coach John Fox, owner Pat Bowlen, VP John Elway -- has work to do. (AP)  
Broncos brass -- GM Brian Xanders, coach John Fox, owner Pat Bowlen, VP John Elway -- has work to do. (AP)  

There's a reason Peyton Manning is in Denver, and it's not only team exec John Elway or head coach John Fox. It's Tim Tebow, the quarterback he displaced.

Let me explain. Tebow made the Broncos an attractive choice because he turned what should have been a 4-12 doormat into a division winner that upset defending AFC champion Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

That told Manning the Broncos aren't that far away ... except they might be. Eliminate those miracle finishes and last-gasp victories, and you're looking at the AFC West's worst ballclub.

Still, Manning will make this team better, with most confident that Denver wins the AFC West. Maybe, but that's only if he is recovered from a significant injury and plays as he did two seasons ago. That's a big if, with nothing certain until play resumes.

QB: The only question here is how healthy Manning is or will be. One coach I trust told me he doesn't have the arm strength yet, comparing it to, oh, say, that of Chad Pennington. Then again, we're over five months from the start of the season. There seems little doubt Manning will improve, that his arm will return and that he will be effective. But he hasn't played in over a year and just turned 36, so you have to wonder: At what level does he play and where, exactly, will he come up short? We're about to find out, and heaven help Denver if Manning is sidelined. Caleb Hanie is the backup.

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RB: Willis McGahee wasn't just good last season; he was marvelous, rushing for 1,199 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and shouldering the bulk of the Broncos' top-rated rushing attack. But McGahee turns 31 this season and was winding down at the end of last year, failing to rush for more than 76 yards in five of his final six starts, including the playoffs. Also, he's not a big playmaker. The Broncos still have Knowshon Moreno as a backup, but the guy has missed 12 games over the past two seasons -- including nine last year. As a holdover from the Josh McDaniels era, he wouldn't appear to have much of a future here. Lance Ball and Jeremiah Johnson comprise the rest of the running-back brigade, and we're missing someone significant from last year's rushing attack. Oh, yeah, it's Tim Tebow. Look for the Broncos' running game to suffer without him.

WR: DeMaryius Thomas is a star waiting to happen ... if he can stay healthy. So far he hasn't, having missed parts of his first two seasons. When he's on the field, he's a load. But he could use help, and while Eric Decker is a solid possession receiver with sure hands, he's not much more than a No. 3. Andre Caldwell and Jason Hill are next in line, and connect the dots, people. This is not Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Manning doesn't have the receivers he had in Indianapolis.

TE: Once, there was the expectation that Denver would hire Dallas Clark to join his favorite quarterback. But so far, that hasn't happened, which may tell you how much Clark has declined. He turns 33 this summer and missed 15 games the past two seasons. Instead of reaching for him, Denver chose another Indianapolis tight end, Jacob Tamme, who is younger and healthier. Look for him and fellow newcomer Joel Dreesen to be Manning's favorite short-to-intermediate targets.

OL: Former Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday was expected to follow Manning to Denver too, but he didn't. Instead, he took a deal with Green Bay. So Manning operates behind an offensive line that is strong at left and right tackle, where Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin operate. The Broncos aren't quite as strong inside, but having Chris Kuper back at guard is critical. He broke his leg and dislocated his ankle late last season, breaking a string of 15 games where the Broncos' offensive line was intact. Protecting Manning is not just important, it's critical -- and his quick release and smarts will help his bodyguards. He knows how to avoid repeated hits, which always makes an offensive line look good.

DL: There is talent on the outside, where Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil man the end positions, with Ayers more comfortable as a 4-3 down lineman than a 3-4 outside linebacker. Still, he doesn't have the push you would like to see from an outside pass rusher -- one reason the club re-signed backup Jason Hunter. Brodrick Bunkley, who was a pleasant surprise, will be missed, with the Broncos plugging in Kevin Vickerson and Ty Warren as prospective starters inside. Vickerson is good for rotations but doesn't look like star material, while Ryan McBean and Mitch Unrein provide inside depth. Denver needs help at defensive tackle, and don't be surprised if it makes one an early draft pick.

LB: Despite a thumb injury that forced him to miss a start and handicapped him down the stretch, Von Miller was the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year. And he should have been. The guy was an impact player, explosive in his pass rush and solid in his play -- with former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen moving him around to confuse and confound opponents. But neither Miller nor the Broncos' defense was the same after he was hurt in late November, with turnovers one area where they were deficient. The Broncos wound up finishing tied for 28th in that department, with none in their final three regular-season games. D.J. Williams' limitations in pass coverage were exposed, with special-teams whiz Wesley Woodyard sitting behind him. Joe Mays was re-signed to plug the middle. Mays is solid vs. the run, but look for Nate Irving to push him.

DB: There's an overhaul here, and there should be. The Broncos got torched down the stretch, especially in the playoff loss to New England. In three of their final five games, opponents scored 40 or more points, with quarterbacks picking apart a secondary that had played well until then. Look for three new starters, with Champ Bailey the only returnee. Tracy Porter and Mike Adams joined the Broncos via free agency, while Quinton Carter is being promoted from within. Carter was inconsistent when he played last season, but coaches are high on him and believe he will improve with experience. Chris Harris played well in his role as a nickel back, while safety Rahim Moore must look better than he played as a rookie.


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