Jussel: Return to health of six players huge for Broncos

The Denver Broncos made news early in the free-agent signing period with the signings of two defensive backs, an edge defender and a wide receiver.

John Elway & Co. are applauded.

They are a better team now than the team that masqueraded as the Broncos and laid one over-easy egg in the Super Bowl.

Safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib make them better. Ward will be more consistent than young Duke Ihenacho. And Talib has much more attitude than the player he replaces, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and is at least his equal in coverage.

DeMarcus Ware, a linebacker and defensive end, is also an upgrade over Shaun Phillips. Ware should continue to be one of those players other teams have to spend time preparing for. Denver’s opponents last season didn’t spend much time scheming for Phillips.

The one spot the Broncos will likely take a hit is wide receiver, where Emmanuel Sanders, signed from Pittsburgh, will have to go some to replace Eric Decker, now a New York Jet.

Sanders is smaller and quicker than Decker, but will have to put in plenty of work to get in the good graces of a certain quarterback who thrives on knowing where his receivers are going to be — and when. Not to say he can’t do that, but it will take time.

But the Broncos can afford a hit on offense — if indeed the three defensive additions improve that side of the ball.

The addition of these free agents, while certainly worthy of headlines, is not the biggest reason Denver is better now than at any time last season.

Let’s look at six other “free agents” the team will bring in: Players brought in from the Broncos’ lengthy injury list.

Start with Ryan Clady at left offensive tackle. If he’s not the best on the planet, he’s in the top two or three. And he’ll be back from the dreaded Lisfranc injury that kept him out of all but two games last season.

He also should benefit from having almost another full year of recovery from shoulder surgery. A healthier Clady can do nothing but help keep that certain quarterback upright.

While we’re talking superstars returning, let’s add Von Miller, who will return after knee surgery.

We know all too well Miller’s problems last season, his early season suspension, then the injury. What we tend to overlook is the fact he was the most dominant linebacker in the league in the eight-plus games he did play. Miller had six sacks, eight QB hits, 27 QB hurries and 25 tackles in those eight games.

Right now, quick: Tell me what team in the league will have more outside pressure than Denver with Ware and Miller. Seattle? They just lost two of their three top defensive ends to free agency. Try again.

Let’s get back to adding more “free agents” to Denver’s roster from the injured list:

Add free safety Rahim Moore. He went down to a mysterious leg ailment in Game 11. Prior to that point, he was off the field on only eight of nearly 600 possible snaps. He was a constant and having a superb season.

And he’ll be back to pair with Ward, playing the role of ball hawk as Ward blows up the line of scrimmage and tight ends in the middle of the field.

Let’s also add strong-side defensive end starter Derek Wolfe, who went down to a neck injury in Week 12, then suffered an assortment of seizures later thought to be related to the injury. Wolfe plays every spot on the line pending down and distance, versatile to the max.

Add interior lineman Kevin Vickerson to the mass in the middle, putting him beside or rotating with Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton to stuff runs and provide inside pressure on passers. Vickerson went down in Week 12 to a knee injury.

Finally, let’s add another “free agent” in cornerback Chris Harris, who suffered a knee injury in the first playoff game and missed the Super Bowl. Harris graded out higher than Rodgers-Cromartie as a pass defender, playing both against slot receivers and wideouts.

Yes, Elway and his staff did a superb job early in free agency with four signings.

But it might be said the most valuable Bronco staff members next season might be the medical staff that will put the injured six back in the lineup — all welcome additions to a team that was good enough to earn a Super Bowl berth.

With four free agents and six returning starters, my math tells me that’s 10 players who weren’t hammered by the Seahawks.

That, folks, is good news in Broncoland.

Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one. His Bronco-related columns also are published on SI.com’s “Predominantly Orange” and “Fan-sided” websites.


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