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Broncos camp preview: Any more Shanahan magic?

8/18/2008


Editor's note: These camp previews are up to date as of the start of preseason games. For the latest changes since then, check our updated rankings, projections and profiles.

Once a perennial playoff contender, the Broncos have been a disappointing team the past two years, riddled by injuries, underperformers and off-field distractions. Coach Mike Shanahan, seemingly a wizard at guiding his team toward important January games, couldn't coax another winner out of the 2007 squad; they won seven games overall, and dropped four of their final six as the wheels came off the wagon.

So what happens when your team's roster is littered with overpaid, disappointing ex-stars? That's right, you cut 'em, calling upon younger, hungrier players as replacements. Gone are Travis Henry and Javon Walker, who barely combined for 1,000 scrimmage yards in 2007 (they totaled 1,040). That's right, those two former fantasy stalwarts, each considered a guaranteed 1,000-yard performer, fell flat on their faces.

That leaves the reins of the team in the hands of younger, up-and-coming players like Jay Cutler, Selvin Young and Brandon Marshall, while 2008 draftees Eddie Royal and Ryan Torain should get extended looks. There's a decent amount of upside to be found on the Broncos' roster, and as we know, Shanahan and his crew tend to squeeze a lot of production out of their seemingly limited on paper personnel year after year.

Ah, but then there's the grand question: Were the 2006 and 2007 letdowns a product of poor player performance? Or could it be that Shanahan, historically brilliant at generating out-of-nowhere 1,000-yard rushers, has lost his edge? Only time will tell...

What to look for in camp


Key position battles: Though he is coy with his decisions at the position -- driving fantasy owners nuts -- Shanahan has been nothing short of a magician with his running backs in 13 years in Denver (this will be his 14th). The 2007 season represented only the second during his tenure without a 1,000-yard rusher; that's how much of a bust Henry was. As a result, Henry's departure might represent nothing but good news for the fantasy faithful. It paves the way for Selvin Young to get a shot at the role, while also opening an interesting battle for his caddy.

And speaking of that caddy, Shanahan has been known to bump the leader in the preseason competition to starter status, or at least toyed with the idea, so keep close watch on the Andre Hall-Michael Pittman battle. Hall kicked off the preseason as the favorite, but fantasy owners were already abuzz about fifth-rounder Torain before he suffered a fractured arm. Torain will definitely get into the mix when he returns, although staying healthy after that is no sure bet with him.

On the mend: Marshall, who suffered cuts on his arm when he fell through a TV in March, seems to have bounced back and appears to be fine for training camp. He's coming off a scorching finish to 2007, supplanting Walker as the team's top receiving target by totaling three 100-yard efforts and five touchdowns in his final seven games. Marshall's health will be worth monitoring, but he should be fine at latest by the regular season.

Fitting in: Opposite Marshall, Royal, Keary Colbert and Darrell Jackson will duke it out for the No. 2 receiver role. Colbert appeals to Shanahan for his run-blocking skills, Jackson brings better experience as a pass catcher and Royals is a fine route-runner. Beyond them is free-agent addition Samie Parker, who'll provide depth. Unfortunately, Cutler has shown over the past year-plus how much he relies on Marshall as his primary target, a situation much like Houston's, where it's one elite receiver and then "all the rest."

On the line: Shanahan's magic has been most evident on the offensive line during his tenure in Denver, with the team ranking among the NFL's top 10 in yards per carry every year since 2002. In 2007, they finished third at 4.6, so in spite of the individual running backs' numbers, it seems the opportunity was there for them to shine. On paper, they're in a similar position for 2008, especially with the addition of first-round pick Ryan Clady, who should help provide additional pass protection. The problem: They're enduring injury issues at center, with both Tom Nalen (knee) and fourth-round rookie Kory Lichtensteiger (shoulder) coming off surgery. Nalen's status is critical to the O-line's success, so monitor his health as camp gets underway.

The bottom line

Fantasy owners and Shanahan running backs have developed a love/hate relationship in recent years, but let's hope this is one of the years we're all in love. Selvin Young and Ryan Torain might not be names that scream out "fantasy stud," but facts are facts; Shanahan has gotten an awful lot out of less likely candidates over the past decade-plus. Among his least-probable 1,000-yard running backs: Mike Anderson (2000 and 2005), Tatum Bell (2006), Reuben Droughns (2004) and Olandis Gary (1999). Look at what that quartet has done -- rather, not done -- removed from Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme! Here's the problem: Shanahan could back Young as his starter every day of the preseason, then change his mind and announce someone else as the starter on the eve of his team's opener. He's fantasy's greatest enigma, producing standouts but frustrating us with his close-to-the-vest approach to roster decisions.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.