The Broncos get a jump on the competition, only to struggle and fade into obscurity down the stretch and into the playoffs. The same thing happened in 2004. The Broncos looked like a serious contender in the AFC with a 5-1 start, but they finished 5-5 and stumbled into the postseason, where they were embarrassed by the Indianapolis Colts.
Going into last season, the Broncos looked to improve their speed on defense. Linebacker D.J. Williams, the team's first-round pick, had a solid rookie campaign and the Denver defense played well during the season's first half. Reggie Hayward displayed solid skills at defensive end and safety Kenoy Kennedy provided some hard, physical play in the defensive backfield. New additions Champ Bailey and John Lynch provided some stellar defense, but Bailey suffered through phases where he appeared to lose focus and was beaten deep.
As the season wore on, the defense showed some flaws, and the offense lacked the big-play ability in the red zone. An effective running game – whether it was Quentin Griffin, Reuben Droughns or Tatum Bell – covered the inconsistency in quarterback Jake Plummer’s game, but the Broncos struggled to score points.
The Broncos' season was marred by inconsistency. What one playmaker on the offensive side of the ball would have meant to this team.
The Broncos could be headed for tough times if their offseason moves don't pan out. With Denver having no room under the salary cap to retain some of its own players, adding quality and depth through free agency appears to be a long shot.
The team remains set on trading starting defensive end Trevor Pryce to relieve salary-cap issues. Starting right defensive end Reggie Hayward signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars early in free agency, and underachieving defensive tackle Gerard Warren was acquired from Cleveland. Defensive end Marco Coleman and defensive tackles Luther Elliss and Ellis Johnson are free agents and may not return.
Playing in the explosive AFC West, the Broncos will face their share of quality offenses. Each team in the division sports a power running game that will exploit the Denver defense if significant additions aren't made. A change to the 3-4 defense will add speed and quickness to the front seven and should help the Broncos address any potential issues against the run. However, the perceived lack of a pass rush could create further problems for a secondary that expects to field a replacement safety and cornerback.
Offensively, the Broncos build their attack around the run and do so extremely well. The potential loss of Cooper Carlisle and the release of Dan Neil could create some uneasiness and inconsistency along the offensive line, but Denver always puts together a solid rushing attack, regardless of injury or roster changes.
SALARY CAP STATUS
The Broncos have approximately $1.5 million under the league-mandated 2005 salary cap.
Defensive end – Losing the likes of Bert Berry last year and Hayward and almost certainly Pryce this offseason, the Broncos have a huge void to fill. Without space under the salary cap to improve or replace the pass-rushing ends, Denver will be forced to add middle-of-the-road types (such as Carl Powell and Marcellus Wiley) in free agency or the draft.
Defensive tackle – Despite the acquisition of Warren, the Broncos are looking at free agency and the draft for a defensive tackle/nose tackle wide body. The roster lacks depth all along the defensive line. The team is looking at middle-tier players like Marcus Bell in free agency to fill the immediate need.
Safety – The Broncos lost starting safety Kenoy Kennedy in free agency. They would've liked to retain the solid defensive back, but salary-cap issues forced them to be a non-player. The Broncos will look towards cheaper alternatives in free agency and the draft to address the issue.
Offensive line – Offensive guard Cooper Carlisle is a free agent and could go elsewhere. Veteran Dan Neil was released in a salary-cap related move, while Ben Hamilton was re-signed. Quality and depth are quickly becoming an issue for the Broncos along the offensive line.
Wide receiver – Starting and leading receiver Rod Smith’s age is a concern for the Broncos. At 35, Smith remains productive, but he is not the consistent big-play threat he once was. The Broncos are looking for speed, size and depth at the position, likely in the draft.
FREE AGENCY AND OFFSEASON
KEY ACQUISITIONS: LB Ian Gold (Tampa Bay).
KEY DEPARTURES: DE Reggie Hayward (Jacksonville), S Kenoy Kennedy (Detroit).
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: P Jason Baker, OG Cooper Carlisle, DE Marco Coleman, DT Luther Elliss, OG Ben Hamilton (re-signed), TE Patrick Hape, DE Reggie Hayward, RB Garrison Hearst, DT Ellis Johnson, S Kenoy Kennedy, TE Mike Leach, LB Donnie Spragan.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: S Sam Brandon, DT Dorsett Davis, CB Kelly Herndon, DE Anton Palepoi, DT Monsanto Pope, TE Jeb Putzier, CB Lenny Walls.