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New additions should bolster Broncos defense

9/3/2004 - Denver Broncos

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Back it up a bit. The Broncos traded their Pro Bowl running back for a Pro
Bowl cornerback to try to get back to the playoffs.

Now, with RB Clinton Portis in Washington and CB Champ Bailey in Denver, the
Broncos have sacrificed some offense to bolster a defense they are hoping
will be championship caliber.

It was the Broncos' offseason theme. Joining Bailey on Denver's defense will
be a collection of decorated castoffs -- former Tampa Bay S John Lynch,
former Detroit DT Luther Elliss, former San Diego DE Raylee Johnson -- all
expecting to discover the Rocky Mountain fountain of youth.

Winning will help; it usually does. But for Denver to accomplish that, its
unproven offense is going to have to maintain the credentials that other
Broncos offenses in recent years had.

When Denver's starting offense failed to score a touchdown in its first three
preseason games, the signs were not favorable.

Quarterbacks: As good as Portis was last season, QB Jake Plummer might have
been even more valuable. With Plummer in the starting lineup, the Broncos
went 9-2; without him, 1-4. The Broncos believe Plummer will be that much
more advanced, that much more successful, in his second year in the offense.
But early in the preseason, Plummer looked, at best, erratic. Some throws
were high, others off the mark. For the Broncos to have the season they
want, Plummer must play like the quarterback who generated excitement around
Colorado last year, not the one who inspired apathy at the end of his career
in Arizona. Backing up Plummer is former Giants starter Danny Kanell, who
also expects to be more comfortable and successful during his second year in
the Broncos' scheme. But long term, watch out for rookie Matt Mauck, a
seventh-round pick the Broncos have come to really like. Grade: B.

Running backs: This season should help answer the question as to whether the
success Denver has had is due to its backs or its system. There is not a
stallion like Portis, but there is an ample supply of talented backs. Look
for Quentin Griffin, who rushed for 136 yards against the Colts last
December, to be the starting back. Denver's defenders already are comparing
the diminutive and elusive Griffin to Hall of Fame RB Barry Sanders. But do
not be surprised if second-round rookie Tatum Bell emerges in the second
half of the season. Bell fractured his middle finger during his first day of
training camp. But once it is completely healed, and once he has picked up
the offense, the ultra-speedy Bell could challenge Griffin for playing time
and provide an in-season jolt to the offense. Mike Anderson and Garrison
Hearst are the backfield's savvy vets, but a groin injury could postpone
Anderson's initial impact. Reuben Droughns should enjoy an expanded
offensive role at fullback. Grade: B-plus.

Receivers: With the losses of WR Ed McCaffrey and TE Shannon Sharpe to
retirement, the Broncos knew they were going to need other players to assume
the spotlight. Through training camp, second-round pick Darius Watts looked
like just that player. During training camp, Watts outshined Ashley Lelie,
the receiver from whom much is expected this season. The Broncos still hope
Lelie can make the type of plays he routinely does in practice but has
struggled to make on a consistent basis in games. Denver knows what it has
in veteran WR Rod Smith - the leader of the offense, an example as to how
other players should carry themselves. But Denver has questions at tight
end. While there are a number of players vying for playing time - Jed
Weaver, Byron Chamberlain, Jeb Putzier - none is going to be as clutch as
Sharpe. This season, Plummer must find another security blanket. Grade:
B-minus
.

Offensive Linemen: From the time he entered the NFL, Matt Lepsis has had a
desire to try left tackle as opposed to the ORT position he had manned. This
is his big chance. Lepsis struggled with defensive ends and holding
penalties early in the preseason, and the Broncos think he will only improve
the more time he spends at the position. But there also is a question at
right tackle. Former first-round pick George Foster is expected to start his
first NFL game Sept. 12 against the Chiefs. He is a different type of
Broncos lineman -- oversized, hulking, but still quick on his feet. The
interior of Denver's offensive line (C Tom Nalen and OGs Daniel Neil and Ben
Hamilton) is one of the most dependable parts of this offense. Grade:
B-minus
.

Defensive linemen: Not even the Broncos are sure how their defensive line is
going to shake out. For their preseason opener against Washington, the
Broncos started Johnson at right end, Trevor Pryce at right tackle, Mario
Fatafehi at left tackle and Marco Coleman at left end. The next week at
Buffalo, the Broncos started Pryce at left end, Darius Holland at left
tackle, Elliss at right tackle and Johnson at right end. No matter what
combination it decides to use, Denver is going to need more production out
of its defensive line. Problem is, Denver's leading sacker from last season,
Bertrand Berry, signed with Arizona. Now it will be up to Pryce, Johnson and
demoted DE Reggie Hayward to get the pressure that the Broncos must have.
Grade: B.

Linebackers: Denver can count on Al Wilson in the middle, but that's about
it. It hoped Jashon Sykes would man the strong-side spot, but he sprained
the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the preseason opener and
will be out a few more weeks. It hoped Terry Pierce could fill in for Sykes,
but he also injured his medial collateral ligament. Now the reliable Donnie
Spragan will shift over to the strong side while first-round pick D.J.
Williams works at the weak side. The Broncos needed Williams on the field
anyway, but they would like to be healthier than they are. When healthy,
Denver still has one of the fastest linebacking trios in the league, even
after it cut John Mobley and allowed Ian Gold to sign with Tampa Bay. Wilson
is the leader, and it is why the Broncos placed so much emphasis on
re-signing him during the offseason. Wilson is one of the game's hardest
hitters. Grade: B.

Defensive backs: For years, Denver sought a premium shutdown corner. It
signed Dale Carter and drafted Deltha O'Neal and Willie Middlebrooks but
could not solve the problem. Bailey has. He is a supreme player who should
elevate the play of the rest of the defense. With whom he will be paired is
another issue. Lenny Walls tore cartilage in his foot on the first day of
camp, and Kelly Herndon manned the spot in his absence. Once Walls returns,
the Broncos will be stocked with cornerbacks, including Middlebrooks and
rookies Jeremy LeSueur, Jeff Shoate and Roc Alexander. At safety, the
Broncos have the leadership of Lynch and the presence of Kenoy Kennedy, a
hard-hitting tandem. Backing them up is the ever-valuable Nick Ferguson, a
solid special-teams contributor. Grade: A.

Special teams: Even in his 12th season, Jason Elam is still one of the best
and steadiest kickers in the game. The Broncos like Micah Knorr's punting
abilities but really like his kickoff skills. The real question on special
teams is the return game. Whomever Denver trots out is likely to be young
and inexperienced, a risky combination. Grade: B.

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