Sunday, July 28, 2013

Suspensions and Injuries Will Not Derail Denver Broncos 2013 Season

(Photo courtesy of Paul Cloud)
This offseason, it has seemed at times that the Denver Broncos have been falling apart.

Two team executives—Matt Russell and Tom Heckert—were suspended by the team earlier this month for DUI arrests, outside linebacker Von Miller is facing a potential four-game suspension for allegedly breaking the league's substance-abuse policy, and center Dan Koppen tore his ACL on Sunday, ending his season.

Koppen was signed by the team when starter J.D. Walton (who is currently on the PUP list) underwent surgery in June.  Expected to again be the team's starter as he was last year during Walton's absence, Koppen will now miss the entire season.

This, coupled with Miller's suspension and Denver's other offseason woes, has some proclaiming that the sky is falling in Denver.  Count's Adam Schein among those questioning the team's ability to bounce back:
When Schein says the Broncos "have questions," he's not talking about which of their three star receivers will be the first to reach ten touchdown receptions or about the possibility of the team going undefeated this fall.  Schein believes the Koppen loss is a big hit.

But at the end of the day, the Broncos shouldn't feel overwhelmed by Sunday's news.

Last season, Denver's secondary stepped up when cornerback Tracy Porter went down, the offensive line stepped up when Walton and Chris Kuper went down, the running backs stepped up during Willis McGahee's injury, and the defensive line survived without Ty Warren, who was placed on the injured reserve list during training camp.

All of those cases were unique and at different positions, but each confirms that the Broncos have depth at every position.  John Elway has done a commendable job strengthening the roster since arriving in Denver and the team has embraced John Fox's "next man up" mentality.  The Broncos have a deep roster and are running a well-oiled machine—there aren't often many chinks when a non-starter is thrust into increased playing time.

Granted, this is not always the case, but the sky is not falling in Denver.  Players stepped up in Denver last season, and they will again this fall.

Even before Koppen's injury, Manny Ramirez had spent time snapping to quarterback Peyton Manning.  Ramirez is a seven-year veteran that started in eleven games for the Broncos last season, moving all over the offensive line.

Ramirez was the team's all-around reserve lineman last season (practicing and playing at nearly every position on the offensive line), and he has 26 NFL starts under his belt.  He's no Pro Bowler, but neither was Koppen last season.

Giving competition to Ramirez will be Philip Blake, who was drafted by the team out of Baylor in the fourth round of last year's draft.  Additional depth will be provided by veteran Steve Vallos, who signed with the team just hours after Koppen's injury.

Once he returns from injury, C.J. Davis is also expected to see time at center.

Five weeks ago, Koppen was a free agent probably considering retirement.  Before Walton had additional surgery on his ankle, Koppen wasn't even in the team's plans for 2013.

That says something about what the team thought about their depth behind Walton.

Moving on to the linebacker position, during Miller's four-game absence (if his suspension is upheld and not reduced), Denver's defense will be missing a key play-maker, but they will not be crippled.

Wesley Woodyard is coming off a 117-tackle, 5.5-sack, 3-interception season, and there is no reason to believe that he will not again be a dominant outside linebacker for the team this fall. That leaves the team in need of just one fill-in OLB at the "SAM" position.

Fortunately, the Broncos have two players that fit the bill.

First up is Shaun Phillips, who signed a one-year, $1 million deal with the team earlier in the offseason.  Phillips spent the first nine years of his career with the San Diego Chargers, notching 69.5 sacks along the way.

When the Broncos signed Phillips, Elway noted that he would be Miller's backup.

"We are looking for a backup "SAM" to play behind Von and we’re also looking for a guy that can also rush the passer.  Shaun Phillips can do both of those.  When we looked at Shaun, we thought that he would be a guy that’s a perfect fit for us," Elway said in April.

A perfect fit, indeed.

Last season, Phillips totaled 50 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 11 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles, deflected a handful of passes and caused two fumbles.  Those aren't Von Miller numbers, but they're starter material.

A second option to help replace Miller, in this case, mostly as a rusher, is rookie Quanterus Smith, who was drafted by the team in the fifth round of April's draft.  Last season, Smith led the NCAA in sacks per game, finishing the season with 12.5 sacks.

Coming off knee surgery, expectations for Smith should be tempered, but the Broncos have set them high.

“When we studied him, we saw a first-round talent," Fox told's Peter King.  "That’s the kind of flyer you take on draft day, using a fifth-round pick on a kid who has rare talent and you just hope he can make it back from the injury. So far, I really like what I see."

Both Phillips and Smith excel at rushing the passer, and Phillips is a veteran player that has experience at outside linebacker and can defend the run.  Combined, the two are capable of replacing Miller's production, at least temporarily.

As for the team's two suspended executives, they'll probably both be back around cut time, which is when they will be needed the most.

The offseason has been a little rocky for the Broncos, but every team faces adversity.  How will the team respond is perhaps the question Schein was meaning to ask.

Only time will answer that question, but the team's track record appears to be a good indication that all hope is not lost.  After all, the Broncos aren't the only AFC team to have been hit this summer.

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