As the Denver Broncos gather next week for training camp, it's all about Peyton Manning, the superstar quarterback who's brought his still-impressive skills and savvy to the Broncos. Based on Manning alone, Denver has become the talk of the league and a projected contender for the AFC West title along with a possible playoff run. Perhaps not to the Super Bowl, but you never know...
Granted, the level of expectations has risen sharply with Manning in charge. He easily could produce three or four dramatic victories by himself. So if this was an 8-8 team last year, that should mean 11-5 or 12-4, right?
Uh, no. That bit of wishful thinking is based on the assumption that all schedules are created equally. They're not. Thanks to winning the AFC West last year, Denver faces a difficult road with trips to Atlanta, New England, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Carolina, plus home tests against Pittsburgh, Houston, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
Solely because of the schedule, the Broncos can't count on finishing any better than 10-6. Especially with one big uncertainty hanging over them.
We're talking about linebackers. Playing the 4-3 defense, Denver must have a solid trio of starters, with good depth behind them, to make the unit good enough for the entire season. And that's far from being the case in mid-July.
Granted, outside linebacker Von Miller as a rookie was an instant big-play producer. But he made many mistakes that he'll have to rectify to become a complete player. He's easily the best of Denver's corps, but what makes you squeamish is that nobody is close to him.
The other outside 'backer, Wesley Woodyard, should be a backup, but he's pushed into starting because of D.J. Williams' drug-related troubles, which threaten to end his stay in Denver. And it's impossible to feel good about the depth when the reserves are rookies and unproven second-year guys.
It would help if the Broncos had a true anchor at middle linebacker, but they don't. Joe Mays might be the starter, but this defense would be far better with him in the No. 2 role. He's fine against the run but pretty much clueless in passing situations, so much so that he will come off the field in nickel and dime coverage.
That's not how it's supposed to work. That inside linebacker should be the nucleus in any situation, not just a two-down guy. Yet, as of now, Denver has only a few undrafted free-agent rookies behind Mays.
The problem is crying out for a short-term solution who could bring experience and smarts on any down. At this point, you have to assume the Broncos will watch closely for other teams' cuts. Or they might look at one remaining free agent who could help quickly — and who happens to know Manning very well.
Gary Brackett had been the Indianapolis Colts' defensive captain in recent years, and a solid presence at inside linebacker. But a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery ended his 2011 season after one game, making him a victim of the Colts' new youth movement. Brackett, 32, is fully cleared to play but didn't jump at earlier offers, reportedly because he has handled his money well and his wife is doing fine as a physician. But he's apparently not ready to retire.
Given all that, with Brackett's reputation for high character and on-field intelligence, it's hard to envision a better fix for Denver. Otherwise, we'll be writing and talking about linebackers as the team's weakest link.
There's a school of thought that suggests the Broncos don't need a good defense as long as they have Manning. That's blasphemy. They need stability on defense, or they'll find themselves on the wrong end of 34-31 and 48-45 scores.
They need somebody like Gary Brackett, or somebody else via trade. Or else, even a 10-6 prediction might be too optimistic.