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Jan 22, 2006
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Jul 17, 2006, 8:52:47 AM by Bob Gretz

(This week, we’ll look at the rest of the AFC West as all four division teams get ready to start training camp next week. Today it’s the Broncos, on Wednesday the Chargers and on Friday the Raiders.)

The defending AFC West champion Denver Broncos have barely tweaked their roster as they get ready to start training camp.

Gone are long-time DE Trevor Pryce and the leading rusher from last season, Mike Anderson (1,014 yards.) Disappointing WR Ashley Lelie has demanded a trade, unhappy with his role with the Broncos. One reason he’s not thrilled is the team’s biggest off-season addition: WR Javon Walker, acquired in a draft-day trade from the Green Bay Packers. But Walker is coming off a torn ACL in his right knee and missed the last 15 weeks of the 2005 regular season.

The rest of Mike Shanahan’s attack will look very similar to what Denver rode to a 13-3 record in winning the division last year.

Strength: The Broncos ability to run the ball remains the heart beat of this offense, no matter who is carrying the ball. Most teams losing their leading rusher would have gone out and signed somebody in free agency or used a high draft choice on a running back. Not Shanahan. Anderson signs in Baltimore and the head coach has so much confidence in his scheme and line that any back can gain 1,000 yards. It appears Ron Dayne will get that chance to be the man in 2006. Tatum Bell is back as well and will push for playing time.

The reason Denver runs the ball so well is the offensive line and it returns intact for the coming season. They led the Broncos to 158.7 yards rushing per game (No. 2 in the league) and 360.4 offensive yards per game (5th in the NFL.) The starting O-Line played together for all 16 games; that’s good for Denver, because the Broncos lack any experience among their backup linemen.

Weakness: Shanahan pulled back on the offense in ‘05 and QB Jake Plummer put together one of his best overall seasons, throwing 18 TD passes versus seven interceptions. That didn’t stop Shanahan from trading up and using a No. 1 draft pick on Vanderbilt QB Jay Cutler. How well Plummer handles this situation, and whether he continues to play “smart” football (few interceptions) will decide the Broncos season. Shanahan doesn’t need Plummer to be a hero; he needs him to be efficient.

Questions: If Walker bounces back, he provides a top-notch one-two punch with the ageless 36-year old Rod Smith (1,105 yards in ‘05/eighth time in nine years he’s gone over 1,000 yards.) If Walker doesn’t return to his previous form, the Broncos will have a problem. They lack a true receiving threat at tight end. That’s one reason that Shanahan has been in no hurry to deal Lelie; he may still need him in ‘06.

Strength: The Broncos linebackers do a great job and helped the Broncos finish as the No. 2 defense in the league against the run, allowing an average of just 85.2 yards per game. MLB Al Wilson is the leader of this group and last year, WLB Ian Gold really stepped forward, leading the team in tackles with 106, along with three sacks. After a strong rookie season in 2004, SLB D.J. Williams took a step back last year, finishing sixth on the team with 68 tackles, no sacks, no interceptions and no fumble recoveries.

Weakness: Veteran FS John Lynch said during the Broncos mini-camp that he thought his year’s Denver defense has enough talent to be No. 1 in the league. Lynch was part of a defense in Tampa Bay that finished as the top unit in the league.

To achieve that, the Broncos will have to significantly improve their pass defense. They allowed 227.7 yards per game, finishing 29th in the league and just two yards less per game than the often-ridiculed Chiefs pass defense. In the secondary, CB Champ Bailey finished with a career-high eight interceptions, but he was also frequently burned (see Eddie Kennison’s 108 yards against Broncos in December at Arrowhead for example.) Bailey did play the whole season wearing a harness on his right shoulder after suffering a dislocation in the season opener against Miami. He will apparently wear that harness again in ‘06, because he did not have surgery in the off-season.

Questions: Pryce was released and he signed with Baltimore. The Broncos picked up another defensive lineman from the Cleveland Browns, this time DE Kenard Lang. He’s the fifth DL to join the team from the Browns in the last two years. Where is the pass rush going to come from? Last year, Denver had 28 sacks, with 11 of those coming from the back seven. Pryce left with four sacks.

The Broncos suffered a blow when kickoff man-punter Todd Sauerbrun was hit with a four-game NFL suspension for testing positive for the use of the diuretic ephedra. He’ll be gone for the first Chiefs-Broncos game on September 17th at Invesco Field. Jason Elam is a solid kicker and Darrent Williams has potential as a returner. Coverage units finished 10th on punts, 29th in kick coverage last season.

ADDITIONS OF NOTE: WR Javon Walker(from Green Bay in a draft day trade/suffered season ending knee injury in Packers first game), DE Kenard Lang (from Cleveland as an unrestricted free agent/43 tackles, 2 sacks with Browns, playing all 16 games, starting five), LB Nate Webster (from Cincinnati as an unrestricted free agent/spent 11 games on PUP list and played in just one game in ‘05 for the Bengals.)

LOST: DE Trevor Pryce(41 tackles, 4 sacks while starting 16 games at right DE), RB Mike Anderson (Broncos’ leading rusher with 1,014 yards and 12 rushing TDs while starting 15 games in ‘05), TE Jeb Putzier (Broncos third leading receiver in ‘05 with 37 catches for 481 yards/signed with Houston), DE Marco Coleman (10 tackles, 1 sack in seven games/remains unsigned, considering retirement), DT Monsanto Pope (2 tackles in 2 games/signed with New York Jets), TE Wesley Duke (2 catches for 21 yards in 3 games/released, but may be re-signed.)

SOON TO BE LOST?: WR Ashley Lelie (unhappy with contract/Broncos second leading receiver last season with 42 catches for 770 yards.)

FREE AGENTS RETAINED: LT Matt Lepsis (16 starts), DT Gerard Warren (16 starts, 42 tackles, 3 sacks), RB Ron Dayne (10 games/53 carries, 270 yards), LB Keith Burns (15 games, leading coverage man in kicking game with 17 tackles), S Sam Brandon (14 games, 20 tackles), DE John Engelberger (14 games, 24 tackles), LB Patrick Chukwurah (14 games, 7 special teams tackles), Mike Leach (long snapper.)

The opinions offered in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Kansas City Chiefs.
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