James Paradis

Eight Broncos Players Who Can Make the Difference in 2014

Created on Feb. 27, 2014 10:51 PM EST

The Denver Broncos’ starting roster should look considerably different next year compared to the one they trotted out for Super Bowl XLVIII. It might not seem like a team that just made the big game should require much of a makeover headed into next season, but the Seattle Seahawks exposed just how many holes the Broncos had developed by the end of the season. While Denver fared more than fine against middling opponents all season long (thanks to the NFL’s easiest regular-season schedule), the Broncos could no longer cover up all their missing pieces once they encountered a formidable foe in Seattle.

The good news for the Broncos is that many of their holes can be filled by players already on their roster. A significant number of the team’s major contributors were lost due to injury during the season, and if the Broncos can get healthy this offseason they could show substantial improvement in many areas, especially on defense. Additionally, a number of young, talented players selected in the past few drafts could be poised to breakout in the coming season.

The Broncos sorely lacked defensive impact players down the final stretch, recording zero turnovers throughout the entire postseason. It’s easy to forget that only a season earlier the Broncos boasted one of the NFL’s top defenses, anchored by several players who could return to full health in 2014.

The following eight players could be major difference-makers next season, helping the Broncos take that extra step they fell short of in the Super Bowl. These players, currently on Denver’s roster, are either recovering from injuries, are in line to assume a more prominent role next season, or both.

8. Sylvester Williams, Defensive Tackle

Selected in the first round of last year’s draft, Williams seemed to steadily improve throughout 2013, especially after his snap count dramatically increased following Kevin Vickerson’s season-ending injury in Week 12. Still a very raw but powerful talent, Williams will be expected to make a significant jump in 2014 and validate his first-round pick status. Alongside postseason breakout player Terrance Knighton, the duo could wreak some serious havoc in the trenches.

7. Malik Jackson, Defensive End

Jackson, a second-year player out of Tennessee, began to emerge last season as a potential force, pressuring quarterbacks and stopping the run, leading the Broncos with 11 tackles for a loss and 15 quarterback hits, according to denverbroncos.com. He also recorded six sacks, four passes defensed and a forced fumble. With Shaun Phillips likely to test free agency this offseason, Jackson could possibly provide his replacement, along with . . .

6. Quanterus Smith, Defensive End

Smith suffered an ACL injury during his senior year at Western Kentucky University and missed his entire rookie season with the Broncos while recovering. A fifth-round pick in last season’s draft, Smith led the NCAA in sacks his senior year (12.5) before his injury caused him to miss his last two games, according to denverbroncos.com. Denver sorely needs Smith and/or Jackson to come on strong in 2014 — the team’s pass rush is still reeling from losing Elvis Dumervil to last offseason’s faulty fax machine fiasco and Von Miller to suspensions and injury (more on him later).

5. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cornerback

The Broncos need to prioritize re-signing Rodgers-Cromartie this offseason to maintain some consistency in their already-thin group of defensive backs. With fellow cornerback Chris Harris fresh off ACL surgery and the aging Champ Bailey possibly moving to safety, Denver is in dire straits at this position. Looking like he may finally be emerging as the Pro Bowl-caliber player the Arizona Cardinals expected when they drafted him in the first round in 2008, DRC had a great first year with the Broncos following his subpar stint in Philadelphia. If DRC continues to take the next step toward becoming a shutdown cornerback, he could be extremely valuable to the Broncos this coming season.

4. Montee Ball, Running Back

Knowshon Moreno had a career year leading the Broncos backfield in 2013, while the rookie Ball started the season slowly but began to break out later in the year. With Moreno now entering free agency, Denver could opt to put its faith in Ball, the NCAA’s all-time touchdown leader, whom they selected with a second-round pick last offseason. The Broncos likely drafted Ball with the hope that he could eventually assume the team’s starting role, considering his college career exhibited his ability to be a workhorse back. Presuming that Denver’s aerial attack is bound to regress somewhat after last season’s video game-like passing numbers, Ball could become one of the more featured running backs in the league.

3. Chris Harris, Cornerback

When Harris went down with a knee injury in the Broncos’ divisional round playoff game against the San Diego Chargers this past January, Denver lost possibly its most consistent contributor on defense. Harris has flown somewhat under the radar nationally considering how well he has played recently, with few realizing that he, and not Bailey, has been the best defensive back for the Broncos over the past couple seasons. Depending on his recovery, Harris could miss more than half of the 2014 season. However, Denver will need him to return to full strength and lead their secondary if the Broncos plan to make another title run.

2. Ryan Clady, Left Tackle

Before the 2013 season, Clady had started every game for the Broncos since his rookie year in 2008, emerging as one of the premiere left tackles in the NFL. Clady completed possibly the best season of his career in 2012, allowing the fewest sacks in the league among starting tackles, according to denverbroncos.com, and earning his third Pro Bowl selection. Therefore, the Broncos offense took a major hit when Clady tore his ACL in Week 2 of the regular season. Suddenly, the most important player in terms of keeping Broncos centerpiece Peyton Manning upright and healthy would not take another snap. Backup tackle Chris Clark did a respectable job filling in for the injured Clady, but, he was severely exposed when matched up against the league’s top pass-rushers. The Broncos will need a healthy Clady all season long in 2014, considering they are slated to face many of the league’s best defenses in the regular season and likely again in the postseason.

1. Von Miller, Outside Linebacker

Miller has significant incentive to have a big comeback year in 2014. Entering the last year of his rookie deal, the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker should be in line for a major contract extension if he can return to full strength this coming season. Things could not have gone much worse for Miller in 2013, as he served a six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Week 16 against the Houston Texans. Miller played well in the nine games he started last season, but never fully displayed the same explosiveness the Broncos were accustomed to seeing in previous years. A disruptive force on par with the most elite defensive players in the league, a healthy Miller could return the Denver defense to its 2012 prominence and play a key role in another postseason run.

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