By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) – While it may be a touch overzealous of me to break out the navy blue and burnt orange face paint, tug on the Dan Bazuin jersey, and down a six-pack in the parking lot, I am genuinely excited for some Bears football.
Yes, Thursday night’s matchup against the Denver Broncos is a practice game, but it’s the first chance to see the team you’ve spent all offseason thinking about in action.
At this point in camp, players have grown weary of beating on their teammates every day and are eager to line up against a real opponent, so there will be plenty of shoulder pads cracking. The primary goal of Thursday’s game is to stay healthy. The secondary goal is to get game tape of younger players to see who is ready to make the cut and earn a living in the NFL.
There are plenty of new faces on both sidelines, and chances are you’re less familiar with the other team wearing orange and blue, but don’t you worry, I’ve got you covered with a look at the 2012 Denver Broncos.
As long as Jay Cutler is in a Bears uniform, these two franchises will be linked. Thanks to Josh McDaniels’ ego, Cutler is now the franchise quarterback the Bears had been seeking for decades, and the Broncos quarterback situation devolved from Cutler, to Kyle Orton, to Tim Tebow.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Elway made the move to Tebow last season as a public relations move to appease the fans, never anticipating it would work out the way it did. The pained looks on Elway’s face in the luxury box during “Tebowmania” told you everything you needed to know. Tebow offended Elway’s quarterbacking sensibilities as much as the rest of us. So this offseason, Elway made a decision to go in a different direction. A big, potentially franchise-altering decision.
Elway “won” the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, giving the future hall-of-famer a 5-year $96M contract with $18M fully guaranteed in 2012, and the possibility of an additional $40M if Manning is healthy at the end of the season. Those are truly staggering numbers for a player who has had four neck surgeries in the past year.
Speaking of Manning, for a guy who no longer has time or health on his side, I was shocked when he chose the Broncos over the 49ers. Manning claimed his head was telling him to go to the 49ers, but his heart was telling him to go to the Broncos. His heart in this context was his bank account, and you can’t blame him for accepting a deal that will assure generational wealth for his family.
Acquiring Manning was a “win now” move, so Elway’s subsequent moves were puzzling to say the least, in particular during the draft. The Broncos traded down in the first round twice, then reached for a defensive lineman – Derek Wolfe from Cincinnati – early in the second round, and followed that up with quarterback Brock Osweiler from Arizona State. None of those moves help the team in the short term, and given the fact that Manning’s health is no guarantee, they’re hard to reconcile.
I am curious to see the personnel groupings the Broncos deploy on offense. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy did an outstanding job last season transforming the philosophy on the fly from a drop back passing attack with Orton, to a run-heavy scheme to mask Tebow’s myriad deficiencies. Being only four years older than Manning, McCoy stands to learn and grow from the relationship with his new signal caller, so if the Broncos have a productive offensive season, expect McCoy’s name to surface as a head coaching candidate.
Incumbent receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker have complementary skill sets. Thomas is a raw, physical deep threat, and Decker is a reliable route runner who is willing to do the dirty work over the middle of the field. While Thomas has more upside, Manning doesn’t have the arm strength he once had to drive the ball deep, so I have a hunch Decker is going to earn Manning’s trust this year. Elway also brought in wide receiver Brandon Stokley and tight end Jacob Tamme, who are familiar faces to Manning, but neither are impact players.
Willis McGahee tops the depth chart of a very ordinary group of running backs. Lance Ball is the No. 2, and rookie Ronnie Hillman is listed as the No. 3, but is currently dealing with a hamstring injury. Josh McDaniels’ other franchise cornerstone Knowshon Moreno has been a colossal bust for the Broncos, and if Hillman is able to battle through the hamstring injury, Moreno will most likely find himself on the depth chart of the local unemployment office.
While the Manning acquisition garnered all the headlines, the Broncos defense went through a massive overhaul this off-season. Former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is now the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, and former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio is the new defensive coordinator. The Broncos really struggled to stop the run last season when other teams spread them out and forced them to run their nickel personnel.
The Broncos responded by retooling their secondary in free agency, bringing in cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence, as well as safeties Mike Adams and Jim Leonhard to push starters Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore. Porter will start opposite the ageless Champ Bailey. Despite the 34 years on his body, Bailey is still the cover corner teams covet, drawing the opponent’s top receiving threat, which gives flexibility with safety alignments.
The Broncos struck gold in last year’s draft with linebacker Von Miller. There was a period of time last season when I thought Miller might win defensive player of the year. But a broken thumb in Week 12 hampered his effectiveness down the stretch, and Miller settled for defensive rookie of the year. Miller is the standout on a solid group of Broncos linebackers, rounded out by DJ Williams and Joe Mays.
Elvis Dumervil got some good news yesterday, learning that the Miami-Dade state attorney will not press charges against him, stemming from a July arrest for suspicion of brandishing a gun in a threatening manner during a road rage incident. Dumervil and Miller form a dangerous pass rushing combination in Denver.
As I mentioned above, the primary goals for both teams are to come out of this game healthy, and to get some game film to make roster evaluations. However, there are some intriguing matchups to watch when the starters are in the game.
When the Bears have the ball, keep an eye on Brandon Marshall when he’s matched up against Champ Bailey, J’Marcus Webb against Elvis Dumervil, and Gabe Carimi against Von Miller on passing downs.
When the Broncos have the ball, keep an eye on Julius Peppers against Ryan Clady, Tim Jennings against Eric Decker, and look to see if the Bears sub Israel Idonije with Shea McClellin on passing downs.
With the expansion of NFL rosters from 80 to 90 players this season but no change to the 53-man roster size, there are a lot of personnel decisions to be made in the next few weeks. I’m excited to see which players will force Phil Emery and the Bears coaches to make some hard decisions.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.