It’s easy to get overly excited about these Broncos following a big road win in San Diego and what appears to be a favorable path for the remainder of the season. Denver should be a strong bet to win the AFC West now, and as they say, once you’re in the play-offs, anything can happen.
But look at this team as a whole, and compare them to the best teams out there. If you’re objective, you’ll admit that the Broncos still aren’t good enough to make much noise in the post season. The rebuilding job got a big boost when Peyton Manning came on board, but there are still big time needs on defense. Just like in baseball, championship teams need to be strong up the middle. The Broncos aren’t there yet.
There’s no one close to Manning’s caliber in the middle of the field on the other side of the ball, and it shows. The league is full of big play QB’s, and to reach the Promised Land, Denver will have to find a way to slow down guys like Tom Brady at some point. We’ve already seen that play out…recently.
The answer? Probably grin and bear it for this season. Accept an AFC West title and start planning for better things in 2013. Thinking and looking ahead is the job of Broncos personnel man Matt Russell. He should already be thinking about free agency and next spring’s NFL Draft. That’s when significant upgrades can be made and a Super Bowl push can really begin.
But even before that, there’s an intriguing possibility for the future that exists with some existing parts. Young cornerbacks Chris Harris and Tony Carter look like keepers. Tracy Porter is on the roster. The Broncos appear to be deep at cornerback. Is this year – or next – the time to move Champ Bailey to safety? Hall of Famer Rod Woodson made the move and it worked out very well. Added years to his career and improved his team at the same time. Bailey remains a big time playmaker and a sure tackler – attributes that the Broncos secondary could certainly use in the middle of the field. His exemplary cover skills have not diminished much at all. Champ has the skill set of an All-Pro safety. The move is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. Next year would be fine.
Closer to the line of scrimmage, Denver desperately needs an every down middle linebacker to become the main cog of the defense. The way Ray Lewis has been in Baltimore, or Brian Urlacher’s done in Chicago. There IS a guy coming out next spring who fits the bill: Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o. He’s exactly what this Denver defense desperately needs: A rock in the middle. It may be too soon to start comparing Te’o to someone like former USC and Chargers star Junior Seau, but the two have a similar heritage (the late Seau was Samoan while Te’o is Hawaiian) and their measurables – height, weight, etc – are almost identical. Most importantly, they appear to be very similar in what can’t be measured. Seau was known for his relentless play and never ending pursuit of the ball. Te’o looks to be very much that same kind of player. A relentless, every-down kind of stud middle linebacker with big time heart.
CBS Sports NFL Draftniks put it this way before the season began: “Te'o is an intense competitor and covers a lot of ground with his rangy, active playing style and lateral agility to cover both sidelines. He trusts his eyes and attacks the action quickly, showing a high football IQ to play smart, assignment football. He is a smooth, thickly-built athlete and his ability to quickly diagnose the play is why he projects as a starter at the next level.” If you’ve seen Te’o play early this season, you have seen him take his play up another notch or two. He’ll be drafted in the top ten. Denver will need to find a way to trade up to get him.
No offense to Joe Mays, who currently mans the middle for Denver, or veteran Keith Brookings, who can fill in there as well. But when you’re forced to take a guy off the field in particular situations, be it on running downs or passing downs, it means you don’t really have the guy you need to build your defense around.
Te’o – with some coaching from Jack Del Rio (hopefully he breaks the mold and stays put for more than one season) and the defensive staff – can quickly become that badly needed force in the middle for the Broncos to build around. Let’s put it this way: Danny Woodhead isn’t running for 19 yards on third-and-17 with Te’o on the field.
A friend of mine – a Notre Dame fanatic – emailed me and implored me to cast my Heisman vote for Te’o. That’s not likely, considering I didn’t even vote for Ndamukong Suh, who was the most dominant college defensive player of the last quarter century. But while Te’o won’t win the Heisman, he’d be a huge trophy for the Broncos to collect next April. There’s no telling if Te’o can become the next Seau or not, but the Broncos would be an instant Super Bowl contender if Te’o could become another Patrick Willis.