Surprising optimism from Broncoland 

All through last summer, the feeling here was that the Denver Broncos were seriously, almost unbelievably, overrated.

They were picked by many to make the playoffs, win the AFC West and perhaps reach the Super Bowl. Much of that misguided assessment somehow had sprouted from the memory of how close the Broncos came in the 2005 season, when they actually hosted the AFC Championship Game but lost to Pittsburgh, which went on to take the championship.

After falling just short of the postseason in 2006, Denver became a trendy pick to overachieve in 2007.

You didn't see that positive thinking here, and a humbling 7-9 season led to many stunning changes throughout Mike Shanahan's kingdom, from the front office to the coaching staff to the roster itself.

Based on all that, you'd figure the prevailing mood in Dove Valley to be hopeful at best, but more likely uncertain, going into the 2008 season. The national prognosticators definitely feel that way, as evidenced by some of the early preseason forecasts that bury the Broncos among the league's also-rans, perhaps still second in the AFC West but nowhere near contender status.

One of those experts, well-known NFL analyst Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, has pushed Denver down from No. 18 in the league after last season to No. 28 for the new year at the bottom of the division, underneath Kansas City and Oakland.

Many coaches love that kind of disrespect, and use it to their maximum advantage. But we're not hearing such ominous, meek themes from Shanahan.

Instead, the Mastermind actually sounds upbeat. When asked for a summertime outlook in a recent interview with Denver TV station KCNC (Channel 4), the head coach talked about feeling so good about the team's offseason progress that he canceled a July 7-8 minicamp. In other words, he thinks the Broncos are ready for training camp, right now.

He's saying nice things about second-year runner Selvin Young, who's telling the world he expects to run for 2,000 yards this year. It's OK to talk big, Shanny says, because that means the kid believes in himself.

He's also high on the linebacking corps, which should be much improved with D.J. Williams back outside and Boss Bailey a solid addition. Offensively, Shanahan flatly declares that in another trouble spot, wide receiver, "we've got more depth there than we've ever had since I've been here."

You hear all that, along with the continuing good news about quarterback Jay Cutler dealing with diabetes, and you begin to wonder if the Broncos might be capable of proving all those doomsday predictions wrong. Could they instead blossom into one of the NFL's biggest surprises of 2008?

Sorry, but you won't hear that from this space today, for one main reason: Denver's offensive line. The starting left tackle, Ryan Clady, has yet to play his first NFL game. The guards, Montrae Holland and Chris Kuper, need to show steady improvement, along with right tackle Erik Pears. Veteran center Tom Nalen, after missing most of 2007 with a biceps injury, is the lone survivor from the glory years when Denver's lines were lean and mean.

If Nalen at 37 can regain his Pro Bowl form, if Clady develops quickly, and the unit as a whole can avoid major injuries, Denver might have a chance to pull some surprises.

But that's a lot of ifs for late June. We'll know much more come August.


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