After failing to make the postseason in 2006, the Broncos refused to stand pat and were aggressive in free agency. The acquisition of running back Travis Henry was the top move from the fantasy perspective. The team also made notable additions to improve defensively, through veteran pickups and the draft. The Broncos will blend experience and youth on both sides of the ball.
The long-heralded ground attack is the centerpiece of the offense again. The Broncos won't be conservative in the passing game, though, as young quarterback Jay Cutler continues to rise. The second-year pro will have a good cast of receivers to work with, even with Rod Smith in obvious decline.
Key Backups/Position Battles
As expected, the Broncos jettisoned Plummer, and Patrick Ramsey was brought in as Cutler's new backup. Ramsey will fit well in the role, as he won't push Cutler for playing time, yet he can step in and be effective if needed. Ramsey has a strong arm and doesn't lack confidence. If he is ever pressed into action, he will make the most of a quality receiving corps and the support of a strong running game.
Mike Bell was a pleasant surprise as a rookie in 2006. After going undrafted, he became a quality fantasy option and the preferred goal-line runner for Mike Shanahan. The acquisition of Henry, though, will push Bell into a secondary role, and he will be useful only as a late-round handcuff pick to Henry in fantasy leagues. Mike Bell was able to earn extensive playing time last year because Tatum Bell could not be trusted. The Broncos acquired Henry to stabilize the position instead of using more than one runner to get the job done. You won't see a timeshare in a backfield that has annoyed fantasy owners so many times in the past. Mike Bell will get a few carries per game to spell Henry; if the second-year pro is needed to start at any point, he already has proven he can get the job done.
Smith has enjoyed an illustrious career, and fantasy leaguers have enjoyed his production in the past. After totaling only 512 receiving yards and three scores in 2006, Smith is ready to drop on the depth chart. Brandon Marshall might have to earn the No. 2 receiver job officially in the preseason, but he is ready to overtake Smith. At 6-foot-4, 222 pounds, Marshall is a big target, and he has great touchdown potential. He's a top fantasy sleeper. At 37 years old, Smith will be useful to Cutler as a possession receiver on key downs, but he is in the twilight of his career. Marshall is clearly on the come and will have some breakthrough performances in 2007. Newcomer Stokley has to work past an Achilles tendon problem before he can be a factor. Don't expect him to be a regular contributor.
Daniel Graham is a superb blocker who will improve the running game, but he was also underutilized as a pass-catcher in New England. Graham signed with Denver knowing he will be a bigger factor in the passing game, and he's a terrific late-round value pick. Tony Scheffler caught four touchdown passes in December of his rookie year. He suffered a broken foot in May, and the arrival of Graham initially appeared to hurt his value. The Broncos have maintained that they intend to use him a lot in the passing game this year. If Scheffler is back in form by the time the regular season begins, he'll still be worth drafting in the later rounds. Both Denver tight ends will be important factors in the passing game this year.
What to Look for in 2007
Cutler is firmly entrenched as the team leader and starting quarterback after an impressive showing during his rookie year. Now he gets the chance to start over a full season, and he won't disappoint. Cutler stands strong in the pocket and displays good accuracy. He won't be shy about throwing downfield or trying to thread the ball into tight spaces. Cutler will be a playmaker, and he'll continue to gain the confidence of fantasy owners in 2007. ESPN.com projects 24 touchdown passes for Cutler in 2007.
Henry is the ideal fit in the Denver zone-blocking scheme. He will pick his spots and burst through the line with authority. He can also break loose for some big gains when he reaches the second level of defenders, and he is a dependable ball carrier in goal-line situations. He'll run very effectively inside, and fumbling is no longer an issue for him. He's a very sexy pick this year, and he will be a No. 1 fantasy running back in 2007.
Walker quelled concerns about his health last year and will be Cutler's favorite target. Walker rebounded well from a major knee injury, and he has not lost his big-play form. Walker is a great combination of size and strength who can make things happen after the catch. As Cutler evolves, Walker will continue to post numbers worthy of a No. 1 fantasy receiver. Plus, he'll have a fine supporting cast to ensure he doesn't draw defensive attention.
Marshall will give Cutler another option downfield and in the red zone, and Smith still has great hands. A healthy Stokley will add another dangerous option on passing downs. The tight ends will make important catches. The Broncos' fantasy options will be steady starters, while role players like Smith and Stokley will lend support to younger players such as Cutler and Marshall.
The offensive line will again be solid, especially if left tackle Matt Lepsis can bounce back from knee surgery. Center Tom Nalen is ancient but still gets by with smarts.
Defensively, the line is still an area of concern. The Broncos added defensive ends Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder with their first two draft choices and defensive tackle Marcus Thomas with a fourth-rounder. The trio isn't going to make a major impact immediately, and recently-signed defensive tackle Sam Adams has seen better days. Linebackers Ian Gold and D.J. Williams are fine playmakers, and the Dre' Bly acquisition gives Denver one of the top cornerback tandems in the game. Champ Bailey is widely regarded as the best corner in the NFL, but Bly is a gambler who will get beaten at times. The unit as a whole looks good talent-wise, but the line still won't get enough pressure up front to protect the back seven consistently. Be careful not to overrate the unit, and use them judiciously based on matchups.
The Broncos will strike a lot of fear into opposing defenses, even with a second-year quarterback. The defense will be up and down, forcing the offense into a healthy number of shootouts. Fantasy owners won't complain about Shanahan anymore, as Henry will have one of the best seasons of his career. The Broncos will deliver fine fantasy numbers deep into the season as they make a push for the playoffs.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.