Four months ago, the Denver Broncos looked good enough to become Super Bowl champions — until the Baltimore Ravens spoiled those plans and exposed several shortcomings.
As the Ravens marched onward to their NFL title, the Broncos' front office quickly began addressing the problems, knowing that the window for quarterback Peyton Manning might close at any moment. Denver has filled some of its needs through free agency, and dealt with other issues in the NFL Draft.
By all accounts, team executive John Elway made some excellent decisions as the draft unfolded last week. When defensive tackle Sylvester Williams of North Carolina still was available late in the first round Thursday, Elway and the Broncos pounced on him, dealing with a major need. When the draft's top two running backs lasted deep into Round 2 on Friday, Elway made a brave call in taking Wisconsin's Montee Ball over Alabama's Eddie Lacy, realizing that Ball can be an effective receiver as well as an immediate inside threat.
Then on Saturday, knowing he still hadn't found a replacement for departed pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil, Elway upstaged the draft by announcing the signing of San Diego's Shaun Phillips, which both helps the Broncos and hurts the Chargers. Phillips, known for his swagger, also should become an instant leader, which Denver's defense needs.
Combine those additions with Elway's earlier moves, and even the pessimists have to be encouraged. Consider:
• Veteran receiver Wes Welker, pilfered from New England, gives Manning the slot target he needs to distract defenses from Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and the tight ends.
• Most didn't notice Denver signing San Diego offensive guard Louis Vasquez, but he's a noticeable upgrade from oft-injured Chris Kuper in helping the run game as well as pass protection. And again, a big loss for the Chargers.
• Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, signed away from Philadelphia, has the speed and ability in man-to-man deep coverage, especially against fleet threats like Baltimore's Torrey Smith, to sub in for aging Champ Bailey.
• For years Denver has needed a solid middle linebacker, and veteran Stewart Bradley could be the guy. A college standout at Nebraska, he fared well in Philadelphia before moving to Arizona and not fitting that 3-4 defensive scheme. He'll be fine in Denver's 4-3 alignment, plus he's big (6-foot-4, 258 pounds), fast and smart. Nobody in the draft could have stepped into that spot so quickly.
• Along the way, the Broncos strengthened their defensive line by keeping free-agent Kevin Vickerson and signing Terrance Knighton from Jacksonville, even before drafting Williams. So that concern is now a strength.
• Other draft picks should plug some backup holes, such as receiver Tavarres King of Georgia, offensive lineman Vinston Painter of Virginia Tech and quarterback Zac Dysert from Miami of Ohio. Dysert certainly could emerge as the No. 3 quarterback, even if he's just the emergency guy for now.
• As for Ball, let's not forget that others will share his load. Knowshon Moreno did have games of 115 and 119 yards last December, Willis McGahee expects to return at full speed, and Ronnie Hillman still has loads of potential. Still, Ball has the first crack at making an instant impact, with depth behind him.
Mix that all together, and it's obvious the Broncos weren't just content with the team that endured such a nightmarish crash landing back in January.
Not every piece fits perfectly. But enough do that Denver should feel better about the year ahead. And that's why, if you go to Las Vegas today, you'll see Denver among the early favorites for Super Bowl XLVIII.