His name is Joe (he doesn't ever want me to use his last name), and he's been a devoted Denver Broncos fan since the 1970s, back to the days of Randy Gradishar, Lyle Alzado and Tom Jackson, Joe's favorites from that era.
Joe calls a few times a year, talking a few minutes or just leaving messages, offering observations and asking questions. He says he played in college, though he's never said where, but he's my best barometer to gauge how Denver's more intellectual followers are feeling.
So when Joe checked in the other day, as the Broncos were going through their first official OTA (organized team activity) workouts with new quarterback Peyton Manning, it was perfect timing. I wanted to see whether he agreed with the popular assessment that Manning alone makes Denver a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
"I know a lot of people who feel that way," Joe says, "but I can't go along with them."
This is one time when Joe and I share the same general assessment. But let's dig a little deeper. Why the uncertainty?
"It's not about Manning," Joe says. "I think getting him was a great move, and I'm sure the Broncos will be a lot more exciting on offense. They've got better receivers, tight ends, too, and I really like that runner they drafted out of San Diego State, Ronnie Hillman. But..."
I knew exactly where he was going: "How can anybody be that excited about the defense yet? I'm not."
Joe's on target, once again. He and I have no problem with outside linebacker Von Miller, the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and defensive end Elvis Dumervil, after those two combined for 21 sacks last year. We think the secondary will be better with veteran additions Mike Adams at safety plus Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence at cornerback.
But the Broncos ranked 19th overall in the league defensively last year, and a poor 22nd against the run. They did bring in a proven defensive mind in new coordinator Jack Del Rio, the former Jacksonville head coach. But as has been the case in recent years, Denver still looks deficient at defensive tackle and especially at inside linebacker.
At tackle, second-round draftee Derek Wolfe out of Cincinnati should contend for playing time along with Kevin Vickerson, Justin Bannan and Mitch Unrein, with former Air Force standout Ben Garland in the mix. But unless veteran Ty Warren (who was hurt last year) makes a major turnaround and/or Wolfe becomes an instant phenom, that group simply won't scare opposing offenses. "Nobody like Alzado," as Joe puts it, recalling the always-energetic Denver star from the Orange Crush days.
Inevitably, our conversation moves to inside linebacker, where Denver obviously is counting on Joe Mays to stand out. It's easy to like Mays, who has come a long way from his playing days at little North Dakota State, but Joe thinks the Broncos are crazy to put so much pressure on a 5-foot-11 linebacker who had just 86 tackles last year. (That's 5.4 a game, not enough for a middle linebacker.) His apparent backup, Nate Irving, managed only four tackles in his entire rookie season.
Joe was hoping that the Broncos would sign free-agent Jameel McClain from Baltimore, but they kept Mays instead. "That's not good enough," Joe says smartly. "Mays has no real competition, and what if he gets hurt? Then the defense is dead. They need somebody like a Gradishar who's a leader and makes plays all over the field."
Denver did sign two undrafted college linebackers with credentials. Jerry Franklin, as a four-year starter at Arkansas, led the Razorbacks in tackles all four seasons (376 career tackles, second-best in Southeastern Conference history). He has good speed as well, and was projected as high as the fifth round of the draft. Elliot Coffey, a two-year starter and team leader at Baylor, had a shoulder injury that might have kept him from being drafted, but he's promising.
"Those guys sound OK," Joe says, "but will either one be a star now? I don't think so. I'm worried about this defense."
Put it this way: If Joe isn't that optimistic about Denver, you shouldn't be, either.