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Team Previews: Denver Broncos

Andy Segedin

Andy is a business and sports writer residing in South Philly - home to the world's greatest sandwiches. He is a lifelong fan of your Super Bowl 50 champion Denver Broncos, a fact that he enjoys bringing up in conversation - especially when speaking with Bostonians.

THE SKINNY
The Broncos' defense remained strong in 2016, but the offense cratered, scoring 23 total points in a late three-game skid. This year's squad boasts reinforcements along both lines, increased team speed and the hope that one of Peyton Manning's heirs apparent looks more like the Sheriff than his deputy.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

MILE HIGH ARMS RACE
With both a new head coach and offense in town, yet another quarterback battle is brewing in Denver. In one corner, you have Trevor Siemian -- a hand-picked developmental prospect held over from the old regime. He was brilliant in spots in 2016, including bombardments of Cincinnati in Week 3 and Kansas City in Week 12. In those two games, he threw for seven scores and no picks with a QB rating of 128.9. In his other 12 starts, Siemian posted an 11:10 TD:INT ratio en route to a passer rating of 77.2 and was at the helm of a three-game stretch in which the Broncos scored just two touchdowns. Paxton Lynch, the team's first-round pick last year, played his best football in Tampa Bay in Week 4, tallying 170 yards and a touchdown in just over a half of play. However, he looked scattered in two other spot starts, averaging just 5.5 yards per attempt and absorbing eight sacks against the Falcons and Jaguars. In the short term, Siemian's experience will give him an edge over Lynch as they both absorb new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's system, but over time expect the scheme itself to cater more to Lynch's arm strength and athleticism, with more spread-out looks. Meanwhile, the team's decision last offseason to allow Brock Osweiler to walk despite the retirement of Peyton Manning has obviously been vindicated.

ONE, TWO, THEN WHO AT WIDEOUT?
The Broncos were the NFL's 21st-ranked passing offense in 2016, yet were one of just four teams with a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders combined to account for nearly 50 percent of Denver's catches and 54 percent of its receiving yards in 2016. Coach Vance Joseph has said that if he were to game plan against his own team, he'd try to take Thomas and Sanders away and make the rest of the offensive weaponry beat him. The team thus endeavored to add to its arsenal in the draft. Third-round pick Carlos Henderson -- a receiver with a running back's mentality in the mold of Golden Tate -- led NCAA wideouts with 48 missed tackles in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus, 22 more than the next closest competitor. Isaiah McKenzie, taken in the fifth round, is a dynamo in space and was effective on everything from deep balls to quick slants to reverses for Georgia last season. Among returning options, Jordan Taylor and Bennie Fowler are the most likely contributors. Taylor's length and body control provides Denver with the big-bodied red-zone target it otherwise lacks opposite Thomas. Fowler showed down the stretch in 2015 that, when healthy, he has the toughness over the middle to be an effective big slot receiver to complement Denver's new smaller, speedier options.

LINE BEEFED UP
Heading into the 2017 season, the Broncos' biggest free-agency expenditures and first-round pick were all directed toward an effort to shore up the team's porous offensive line. First, they signed guard Ronald Leary, who made 48 starts over the past four seasons on Dallas' road-grading offensive line. Leary joins the Broncos' best two linemen from 2016, center Matt Paradis and fellow guard Max Garcia, to form a suddenly sturdy interior. The team then spent the No. 20 overall pick in the draft on left tackle Garett Bolles out of Utah. He'll be a 25-year-old rookie, but his NFL Combine agility marks were comparable with those of second-round running back Dalvin Cook. Bolles immediately brings strong run blocking and a nasty edge to the team's left side, while possessing the requisite athleticism needed to take on opponents' top rushers. Denver figures to have a spirited competition on the right side with free-agent pickup Menelik Watson, 2015 second-rounder Ty Sambrailo, 2016 starter Donald Stephenson and 2015 starter Michael Schofield all potential victors. The Broncos recorded the fifth-fewest yards per rush and gave up the ninth-highest amount of sacks in 2016. Even moderate improvements along the line are bound to pay dividends for Denver's playmakers, who were stifled at points last season.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: C.J. Anderson
Few players have tugged on, and broken, as many fantasy heartstrings recently as Anderson. Since bursting onto the scene in 2014, Anderson has been streaky both in his play and his health. Still, he's managed 1,308 total yards and 11 TDs in his last 16 games, including playoffs. After knee surgery, he enters 2017 facing stiff competition.

BAROMETER

RISING: A.J. Derby
Derby is the safe bet to emerge from Denver's logjam of young tight ends as the group's primary pass catcher. Acquired in a midseason trade, Derby caught at least four passes in three of his last four games.

FALLING: Bennie Fowler
Fowler's 2015 playoff heroics made him a favorite to emerge as Denver's No. 3 receiver in 2016, but injuries got in the way. Now, he enters 2017 with two rookie speedsters added to the competition.

SLEEPER: Jamaal Charles
His name and reputation say "star," but Charles' age and injury history scream "flier!" Look for Charles' receiving ability to be a plus working with coordinator Mike McCoy, under whom Danny Woodhead thrived in San Diego.

KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING TIGHT END
Somewhere, hanging out with the spotted elephant and toy train with square wheels on the Island of Misfit Toys, is the Broncos’ tight end room. The sad irony of the position’s depth chart is that the closest Denver thing has to a prototypical, in-line tight end is probably rookie fifth-round pick Jake Butt, who is still on the mend from a torn ACL suffered in the Orange Bowl. Among those expected to be up and ready for Week 1, last year’s midseason acquisition, A.J. Derby, figures to be the most relevant from a fantasy perspective after besting starter Virgil Green in receptions after the team’s Week 10 bye, 16 to three. Green’s blocking ability makes him a candidate for a high snap count, especially given Mike McCoy’s penchant for using multiple tight ends, potentially masking Green’s receiving deficiencies. Green has posted just 57 catches and 616 yards in six seasons, neither of which would have put him in the top 10 among tight ends just for last year. The wild card is 2015 third-round pick Jeff Heuerman, who missed his rookie season with a torn ACL and was slow to adjust last season. He has the length to stretch the field and is a willing blocker from his days in Ohio State’s run-heavy attack, but he has yet to put it all together and is on the clock with Derby and Butt joining the team within the last year. It bears remembering that whoever wins the job to start the season isn’t guaranteed to keep it. Denver has swung midseason trades for tight ends in each of the last two seasons – Vernon Davis in 2015 and Derby in 2016.

KEY ACQUISITIONS:
Jamaal Charles – RB (from Chiefs)
Injuries have limited him to just 106 touches over the last two seasons.

Carlos Henderson – WR (Rd. 3, No. 82 – Louisiana Tech)
Shifty target tied for NCAA lead with 19 receiving TDs in 2016.

DeMARCUS WALKER – DE (Rd. 2, No. 51 – Florida State)
Brings his 16 sacks in 2016 to Denver's interior rush.

Jake Butt – TE (Rd. 5, No. 145 – Michigan)
2016 Mackey Award winner is on the mend from a torn ACL.

KEY LOSSES:
DeMarcus Ware – LB (retired)
Veteran leader posted 21.5 sacks in three seasons in Denver.

RUSSELL OKUNG – OT (to Chargers)
Departure leaves Denver inexperienced at tackle.

JORDAN NORWOOD – WR (FA)
Caught 21 passes, but fumbles were an issue last season.

KAPRI BIBBS – RB (to 49ers)
Tallied 204 total yards in 2016 in a reserve role.

THE INJURY FRONT
Trevor Siemian, QB – Siemian’s bum non-throwing shoulder was healed by minicamp, but nagged him through most of last season. The wispy quarterback’s durability may be a factor in the Broncos’ arms race.

Demaryius Thomas, WR – It didn’t keep him out of action, but Thomas has cited an injured hip as something that held him back in 2016. Now healthy, the Broncos hope that he can become the catch-and-run threat he was a season ago.

Shaq Barrett, LB – Barrett’s non-descript hip injury might keep him out up until the regular season. It also leaves a giant hole in a Denver front seven seeking depth on the edge with the retirement of DeMarcus Ware.