In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the AFC West, continuing with the defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos today.
Recap of 2015: I am positive Broncos fans are still nursing their hangovers from the Super Bowl Champion season, which ended with a 24-10 win against a very good Carolina Panthers team. It’s interesting to look back now at the 12-4 regular season Broncos and see that they eked out close wins over the Ravens (5-11), Raiders (7-9), Browns (3-13), and Bears (6-10). Had they dropped any two of those games, the Broncos would have been more in line with their win expectancy of 9.7 wins, per Pro Football Reference.com, and likely fighting for a wild card spot heading into the playoffs. Instead, with an offense led for most of eight games by now ex-Bronco Brock Osweiler and for the other ten by noodle-armed Peyton Manning, the Broncos relied on their 4th ranked defense to win the championship. The Super Bowl winning season will be remembered not only as Manning’s last, but also the one that paved the way for Von Miller’s payday, despite it being a statistically down year for the star linebacker. The result of winning may also have serious repercussions going forward.
Significant Additions: QB Mark Sanchez, OT Donald Stephenson, OT Russell Okung
Significant Subtractions: QB Brock Osweiler, QB Peyton Manning, TE Owen Daniels, DE Malik Jackson, LB Danny Trevathan
Potential Impact Rookies: QB Paxton Lynch, DT Adam Gotsis, FS Justin Simmons, RB Devontae Booker
Team Strengths: It’s not really going out on a limb to say the Broncos will be leaning heavily on their defense again this year, with Miller leading a largely intact force that should compete again to be one of the best in the league. In 2015, they led the NFL in forced fumbles and if they can continue to come up big in turnovers, they should have no problem giving their less-than-stellar offense good field position and a chance to win. The Broncos were also smart to bring back CJ Anderson, who figures to be heavily involved as a steady presence next to Sanchez. If the rookie Booker can also produce, it should be a nice one-two punch in the backfield.
Team Weaknesses: I have to believe that everyone from John Elway down knows that relying on Sanchez in any meaningful way is a dangerous road. I doubt they will expect him to do much beyond serving as a caretaker, but in 13 games for the Eagles over the past two years, he’s thrown 15 interceptions and fumbled four times. If the turnovers start to happen again, the Broncos may turn to Lynch and hope the QB out of Memphis can survive trial by fire. In either case, the passing game in Denver probably won’t be much to look at this year. Then again, it wasn’t much better in 2015 and that worked out alright.
Fantasy Players to Watch: CJ Anderson is a safe bet to go early in any draft, but real sleeper value might be found in Booker who may overtake him in touches depending on his performance in camp and the preseason. Likewise, Paxton Lynch may be worth keeping an eye on, particularly as a free agent a few weeks into the season and in dynasty leagues. Elsewhere, if Sanchez can get the ball out, look for Demaryius Thomas to have a bounce back year and Emmanuel Sanders has 15 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Both are worth a pick at wideout. Lastly, the Broncos defense is certain to enjoy another Top 10 year.
2016 Outlook: The Broncos are fortunate to play only the projected 14th most difficult schedule, although with some tricky games on the slate including a season opening rematch with a Panthers’ squad looking for revenge. Outside of the their usual conference opponents, who ought to be competitive this year, their 2016 schedule includes a road game against the Bengals and home stands against the Colts, Patriots and Texans. The Broncos will have growing pains on offense this year, having to take a step down at quarterback. Not to beat a dead horse, but the defense will have to carry the day for the team to achieve the same success as last season and it will mean winning a few more close games. Something about 2015 just felt almost storybook perfect as Peyton’s last hurrah, but that same feeling will be hard to conjure this year.
Record Prediction: In truth, I don’t see the Broncos over-achieving again, at least record-wise. More likely, this is closer to a 10-6 team that could still potentially win the division depending on the Chiefs’ record. If the Chiefs-or an upstart Raiders team for that matter-do take the division, the Broncos will find themselves in what will be another competitive wild card race in the AFC (remember, the Jets missed out at 10-6 last year). And as much faith as I have in Von Miller and crew to produce, this will not be a team to achieve back-to-back championships if they do manage to make the playoffs. Look for the Broncos to nurse their Super Bowl hangover through the 2016 season and hope their young guys on offense can develop for the future.
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