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Denver Broncos

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By Clark Judge | Senior NFL Columnist

Offense

This is all about one man, and, yeah, it's the offensive coordinator ... Peyton Manning. OK, so Mike McCoy serves that role, but let's be honest: Manning runs this offense. McCoy did a Herculean job in 2011 when he was forced to tear up his playbook and devise a scheme to suit the unique talents of quarterback Tim Tebow. It not only worked; it took the Broncos to the playoffs ... and a playoff defeat to the eventual AFC champions.

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But now Manning runs the show now, and that means changes.

First, of course, he's not going to complete 46.5 percent of his passes. The Broncos will be more effective in their pass game than they were last season. Second, they won't repeat as the league's top rushing club, and they won't make the top ten. Sorry, but that's what happens when you have a passer as proficient as Manning who, it just so happens, also calls the plays. Third, the Broncos will convert third downs as they did not a year ago with Tebow. Denver ranked 30th in that department; Manning and the Colts were fifth in the league in 2010.

But the question is: Which Manning do we see? The confident and accurate Peyton of 2010 or a fragile and aging quarterback coming off four neck surgeries? I don't know, but I do know the Broncos' future depends on it -- which is a red alert to Denver's offensive line. Remember, the backup is Caleb Hanie, and I don't need to remind you what happened to Chicago when he took over last season.

Defense

People tell me it was the Broncos' defense that carried the team in 2011, but all I know is that it ranked 20th overall and hemorrhaged 40 or more points in three of its last five games, including the playoffs. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is gone, replaced by Jack Del Rio, who reunites with coach John Fox for the first time since the two were together in Carolina, and his job will be to shore up a secondary that was burned too often down the stretch.

Hiring Tracy Porter to replace cornerback Andre Goodman is an upgrade, but the Broncos will miss the leadership and play of safety Brian Dawkins. Either Mike Adams or Rahim Moore replaces him, and, yes, that could be a concern. But when you have Elvis Dumervil and Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller coming off the edge, your pass defense starts with your pass rush -- and Denver's is effective. I'm a little concerned how the Broncos replace Brodrick Bunkley inside, but maybe, just maybe, Ty Warren or second-round draft pick Derek Wolfe is the answer. Warren sat out all last season after he was hurt.

Key Changes

Roster Additions: QB Peyton Manning; S Mike Adams; DT Justin Bannan; WR Andre Caldwell; WR Bandon Stokley; QB Caleb Hanie; TE Joel Dreessen; CB Tracy Porter; TE Jacob Tamme.

Roster Departures: QB Tim Tebow; S Brian Dawkins; DT Brodrick Bunkley; QB Brady Quinn; WR Eddie Royal; TE Dante Rosario; TE Daniel Fells; CB Andre Goodman.

Staff: Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio replaces Dennis Allen, who took the head-coaching job in Oakland, while GM Brian Xanders agreed to leave after four years on the job.

Manning not only is the biggest free-agent addition of the offseason; he's the biggest free-agent addition in NFL history. The Broncos' passing game improves immeasurably with his arrival, but that's only if Manning is the quarterback he was two years ago. Having Tamme, a former teammate at Indianapolis, and the underrated Dreessen helps. Both will be targets in the middle of the field, an area Tebow was reluctant to explore. Dawkins is the biggest loss, not only for what he brought to the Broncos on the field but what he brought to the locker room. He will be difficult to replace, as the Philadelphia Eagles found out.

X-Factor: LT Ryan Clady

I'll make this short and to the point. Clady plays left tackle. He protects Peyton Manning's back. He also blocks opponents' best pass rushers. Manning is 36 and coming off four neck surgeries. If Manning is hurt, the Broncos are toast ... and Manning's career might be, too. I don't think I have to draw you a picture. Clady is the Broncos' best offensive lineman and one of the top tackles in the game, and he must be both for Denver to repeat as AFC West champions. Essentially, it's his job to seal off the edge and make sure Manning doesn't suffer an unexpected blow from behind. The Broncos have a big investment in Manning, and the expectations are enormous. But Manning is operating with a new offensive line, and it's up to Clady to make sure that unit acts as a shield, not a sieve.

Which Peyton Manning do we see?

It's not as if he's coming off an ankle injury or sore arm that shelved him the second half of last season. The guy hasn't played since the 2010 season and underwent four neck surgeries. I don't know what his arm strength is now, and I don't know what happens when he takes that first shot to his back. What I do know is that no one -- and I mean no one -- knows what to expect from a 36-year-old who plays for the first time since January, 2011.

How good is Manning's protection?

I can't imagine it can exceed what he had in Indianapolis. Remember, the Broncos were this close to taking guard David DeCastro with the 26th pick before Pittsburgh (25th) beat them to him.

How much does Willis McGahee have left?

The guy had a Pro Bowl season at the age of 30 and was a major part of the league's No. 1-ranked run offense, but tell me that happens again -- because I can't see it. So how much does McGahee have left in the tank? We're about to see.

Insider's Take

The Broncos won the division with Tebow and now upgraded the quarterback position substantially, so why shouldn't they be the division favorite? They should provided Manning is what they think he is. Nobody can be sure, but one coach told me he had no doubt that Manning's arm strength -- which was iffy in March -- would return and that Manning would be OK. Maybe, but it's not the arm that worries people; it's the neck and how Manning holds up after blind-side hits. It's not just that he's coming off four surgeries; he's 36 and hasn't played in a year and a half. No one argues the wisdom of the move. I mean, if you have a chance to take Peyton Manning, you jump. No, what they question is what we're about to witness. Nobody really knows. Nevertheless, Denver is the popular pick to repeat in the AFC West.

Xs and Os

By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider

No team in 2012 had a more radical makeover on offense than the Denver Broncos. Gone is the Tebow wildcat offense and in is the pure NFL no-huddle passing attack led by Peyton Manning. As John Fox said to me, "We are eager to learn from Peyton." The Broncos haven't had a winning record in five years and they are on their third head coach in that same period. Now Peyton is the coach on the field and young wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are about to explode. I wouldn't be surprised to see the two guys who caught 76 passes between them last year combine for 150 receptions this year.

Broncos' Rivals: AFC West

2012 Preview • Schedule
Chiefs @ Broncos: 12/30 (4:15 p.m. ET)
Broncos @ Chiefs: 11/25 (1 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Raiders @ Broncos: 9/30 (4:05 p.m. ET)
Broncos @ Raiders: 12/6 (8:20 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Chargers @ Broncos: 11/18 (4:15 p.m. ET)
Broncos @ Chargers: 10/15 (8:30 p.m. ET)

Manning likes 12 personnel (1RB, 2TE, 2WR) and a no-huddle attack. His former teammate Jacob Tamme told me he takes on the Dallas Clark role which he did for the Colts when Clark got hurt. Joel Dreessen, former Texan and jack-of-all-trades gives the Broncos the flexibility to build a spread set or a two-back set or any other formation in their attack package. There will be a lot of pressure on center J.D. Walton, who will have to learn to check protections constantly as Manning makes multiple changes at the line of scrimmage. Manning is used to Jeff Saturday, who had 13 years of experience in that role. Walton has two years and has never played with the likes of a Peyton Manning.

Don't think the Broncos will ignore the run game. As Bill Cowher said to me, "Peyton likes the stretch zone run game to set up his play-action pass and he sees so much two high safety coverages he has to take the run."

The defense made a nice transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3 last year and now Jack Del Rio reunites with John Fox from their Carolina days to finish the project. Check out this list of quarterbacks the Broncos see in the first six weeks of the season: Roethlisberger, Ryan, Schaub, Palmer, Brady and Rivers. Their pass rush and secondary better operate at a high level.

Pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller will probably get close to 240 pass plays to rush in those six games, and they will affect the QB. But will the coverage units hold up? CB Tracy Porter was added to play opposite Champ Bailey. I expect the Broncos to play the majority of the season in nickel defense because of the offenses they face and the fact that Peyton will create a lead most weeks and teams will be playing catchup. CB Chris Harris will play a key role in the success of this defense. As for the safeties I'm not so sure they can handle all the flex tight ends they will see so keep an eye on the matchups they face. For example last season Patriot TE Aaron Hernandez caught 13 balls in two games against the Broncos. Mike Adams was added to bring some stability to the safety position.

Draft Recap

By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

After trading out of the first round, the Broncos addressed their gaping lack of depth along their defensive interior with Cincinnati tackle Derek Wolfe at No. 52 overall.

Broncos Draft Analysis

The 6-5, 295-pound Wolfe was a three-year starter who steadily improved throughout his career, culminating with a senior season that saw him honored as the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year with 70 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Wolfe isn't as powerful as his size would indicate nor as explosive as a pass rusher as his stats would suggest. He is, however, a versatile, high-effort player.

Former Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler was an intriguing selection later in the second round. He lacks the mobility to consistently escape pressure but he has the natural arm talent of a first-round prospect. He's quite raw after only starting one season with the Sun Devils, but has the skill set worthy of developing behind Peyton Manning.

At 5-9, 200 pounds, most assume running back Ronnie Hillman (third round) will strictly be a change-of-pace back to complement returning starter Willis McGahee. I think he can be much more than that.

Despite his lack of ideal size, Hillman is surprisingly effective as a between-the-tackles runner and doesn't need the open field to string together the type of moves to generate gaudy yardage totals -- though he's certainly dangerous on the outside as well.

The rest of the Broncos' picks:

2nd Round - No. 52 overall - Derek Wolfe, DT, Cincinnati
2nd Round - No. 57 overall - Brock Osweiler, QB, Arizona State
3rd Round - No. 67 overall - Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State
4th Round - No. 101 overall - Omar Bolden, CB, Arizona State
4th Round - No. 108 overall - Philip Blake, C, Baylor
5th Round - No. 137 overall - Malik Jackson, DL, Tennessee
6th Round - No. 188 overall - Danny Trevathan, OLB, Kentucky

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