When you come as close to an NFL championship as the Denver Broncos did last season, looking invincible going into the playoffs and losing only to the team (Baltimore) that went all the way, you don't have to make major changes.
For the Broncos, putting together a Super Bowl run in 2013 will depend largely on factors such as defensive leadership, avoiding key injuries and, well, the bad karma that might build from front-office executives' behavior. Of course, when your players are doing a better job of staying out of trouble, that's a good thing.
As training camps begin this week across the NFL (Denver's players report on July 24), the Broncos appear co-favored with San Francisco to reach the Super Bowl, with odds in the 6-1 range. (Those two teams start the preseason on Aug. 8 at San Francisco.) But that doesn't mean Denver simply has to show up to breeze all the way to the NFL title game next Feb. 2 at the Meadowlands.
From this view, 10 players (or, in a certain case, one of several at the same position) must come through for the Broncos to reach their ultimate goal, beyond the obvious of quarterback Peyton Manning. Start watching them now and you should have a better idea of how the season will go. Here's the list, in no particular order because they all matter, but you'll notice it's defense-heavy:
• Montee Ball. Denver starts with Ball joining Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno at running back. The load will be spread around, but somebody has to become a clear-cut No. 1. If it's Ball, in the 1,000-yard range, that's ideal.
• Dan Koppen. The veteran center, brought back because of J.D. Walton's ankle surgery, has to continue as a quiet catalyst. This offense, and Manning, can't afford a weak link at center.
• Rahim Moore. He was the goat of the playoff loss to Baltimore, but Denver's giving the third-year safety a chance to mature into a dependable fixture. If he falters early, he'll be out of the picture.
• Shaun Phillips. The veteran outside linebacker reminds me of Neil Smith, who came from Kansas City and was a defensive mainstay for Denver's champion teams of 1997-98. Phillips is a good guy to have on your side, as Smith was.
• Nate Irving, Stewart Bradley, Joe Mays. Somebody has to emerge at inside linebacker. It's now or never for Irving and Mays, which is why the 29-year-old Bradley was signed as a free agent. Keep an eye on him, No. 55.
• Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Will the free-agent cornerback push Champ Bailey to safety, or at least be the match-up corner against super-fast receivers?
• Louis Vasquez. Signing the offensive guard away from San Diego was a coup, and he should make the offensive line better.
• Wes Welker. Some would call him as much of a given as Manning, but Welker still has to mesh into the offense as the slot receiver. Manning surely feels challenged to use Welker as effectively as Tom Brady did at New England.
• Derek Wolfe. Will the second-year defensive end make progress and develop into a regular playmaker, after a solid rookie season? Or will he share the position?
• Kevin Vickerson. The 30-year-old defensive tackle was a free agent, but Denver made sure to keep him while also signing Terrance Knighton from Jacksonville. If they stay healthy and stabilize the inside, that's a big plus.
You can see the pattern easily enough. As camp begins, Denver's main questions deal with the defense, which should be helped considerably by the return of defensive boss Jack Del Rio (after so many seasons of Denver having a new coordinator every year). Yet another positive difference should be veteran assistant Cory Undlin, who took over as secondary coach after Ron Milus was fired following the Baltimore playoff debacle.
If the defense jells, and Manning stays injury-free at 37, this team has a chance. But as the Broncos and their fans learned last year, nothing's ever guaranteed.
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