Denver Broncos 2013 Team Review: Stuck at a Crossroads

When should John Elway wave goodbye to Manning and start building for the future?

"With great power comes great responsibility."

When John Elway took control of all football operations in Denver after the 2011 season, he knew he would have to make a big splash to keep the Broncos in playoff - and Super Bowl - contention year in and year out. So Elway went out, recruited, and won the lottery for Peyton Manning. But in doing so, Elway put the Broncos in a “win-now” mentality since Manning's career was near the end.

Fast-forward a couple years, and the team now has wide receiver Wes Welker, and they've had two legitimate chances of winning the championship. But now, the Broncos find themselves at a crossroads: go all-in again, or start building for the future? In looking back at the 2013 season for the Broncos, there are already pieces in place to build that future.

The Good

Manning was brought in to make a difference for the Broncos, and he has. With potent receivers such as Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Manning lit up the scoreboard in 2013. He deflated the passing touchdown record held by rival Tom Brady with 55, and his 5,477 passing yards were also a single-season record. But it’s not all about Manning here, as the youth on the team is gaining experience to keep this squad moving forward whenever the post-Manning era begins.

Thomas, Decker, and Welker joined Julius Thomas and Knowshon Moreno to form the highest-scoring offense to date in the NFL. While the Terrible Thomas’ will provide a youthful receiving corp for the future, there could be just as bright of one in the backfield with running back Montee Ball.

By diving into our Net Expected Points data, we can see the week by week performance of the rookie from Wisconsin. And it wasn’t all negative.

OpponentRush NEP

In terms of Rushing NEP, Ball put himself into a hole early thanks to inexperience and fumblitis, and as a result, he finished the season contributing only 3.65 points overall to the Broncos via the ground. In case you aren’t familiar with our NEP data, the Rushing NEP metric shows how many points a running back added for his team throughout the course of the season. Keep in mind, NEP is typically lower for running backs than it is for receivers or quarterbacks.

The Week 13 and 14 games against the Chiefs and Chargers were the best two performances (in terms of NEP) for Ball, as he contributed a total of 9.38 points on the ground. Those two weeks alone would have been enough to eclipse Adrian Peterson's Rush NEP mark (again, the name of the game for Rushing NEP is consistent efficiency, which is hard to do on the ground).

But interestingly enough, if we go back to Week 8, Ball contributed 18.44 points from that point through the end of the season. That mark was higher than than teammate Knowshon Moreno's season-long total, third-highest in the league. If the Broncos are ready to build for the future, Ball should be ready to play an integral role. The question would be whether he can keep up the pace with more volume.

Not only did the Broncos have some studs running the ball, but they had studs stopping the run on defense as well. Leading the way was linebacker Danny Trevathan with 105 tackles. By the end of the season, the Broncos gave up 1,626 yards on the ground, good for seventh-best in the league.

But after we adjust our Defensive Rushing NEP metric for strength of schedule, the Broncos finished as the top run defense with a -51.45 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP score. In layman terms, an “average” rush defense would have allowed 51.45 more points than the Broncos over the course of the 2013 season via the ground. For comparison, there was a 125.19 point swing between the best rush defense (Denver) and the worst rush defense (Bears), an average of eight points per game.

The Bad

Despite winning the AFC Championship, the Broncos did have a sore spot on the team: the pass defense. Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie signed from the Eagles and had three interceptions. But he also only had 33 tackles, the second-lowest total of his career. Champ Bailey is nearing AARP status, and his injuries kept him off the field for all but five games. Chris Harris had three interceptions on the season, but missed the playoffs, crippling an already fragile pass defense.

Just how bad was the Broncos’ pass defense? They were sixth-worst in terms of yardage, giving up up over 4,000 yards in the air. Our Defensive Pass NEP metrics do paint a little better picture, but not much.

Adj. D PNEPRankAdj. D Passing NEP per PlayRank

The Falcons, Raiders, and Texans were a few of the teams that finished worse in defending the pass than Denver, but teams like the Cowboys (yes, strength of schedule favored them), Jets, and Browns were all better. Its not exactly what you would expect of a Super Bowl contending defense.

As the Bronocs build for the future, the pass defense is in need of the biggest fix.

What Should They Do?

Since the Broncos are at such a critical place for the future, one or two decisions could force two completely different paths for the next few years.

The first decision will involve a overhaul of the defense, as you can expect Elway to draft defensive players heavily this year. With a defense that can defend an opponent’s running game pretty well, a few solid contributors in the secondary could make all the difference in the future.

I expect Elway to look at cornerbacks Justin Gilbert, (Oklahoma State), Jason Verrett (TCU) and Marcus Roberson (Florida), hoping they fall to the 31st pick. If all three are gone, they could look to improve the front seven instead with Kyle Van Noy (BYU) or Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame), which could take a little pressure off of the secondary. There are many ways Elway could patch up the defense.

While the defense needs addressing, the pending free agency of Eric Decker might have the biggest impact for the future of the Broncos. Letting him walk, however, may be the best thing the Broncos could do at this juncture. First, they would lose money they need in order to extend Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas next year. This is this final year for the contract for both of the Thomas’, and a long-term contract for Decker would make that harder than necessary.

Secondly, Decker may not be affordable. According to our NEP data for receivers, Decker has had number one receiver-like stats the past two years.

YearRec NEPRankTarget NEPRankRec NEP/TargetRank

In the table above, Target NEP refers to how a receiver did on all targets, not just the receptions. All ranks are based on receivers with at least 40 receptions.

Decker’s Target NEP has been so good that we should expect him to see money a number one receiver would get, despite being the second or third option in the Broncos offense over past two years. With those numbers, you could argue he deserves Antonio Brown or DeSean Jackson-like money.

Playing for Manning shouldn’t hurt Decker’s perceived value either; Decker’s backed up his play according to our NEP data. While it will be tempting, the Broncos should not try to retain Decker, or at least not overpay. By not doing so, they can still lock up a great corp of young players that will keep them going for the foreseeable future. Throw in a stellar run defense and the Broncos will be in contention in the AFC for the next four to five years allowing Elway to add to his trophy collection.