|Don McPeak/US Presswire|
|Demaryius Thomas made a splash in 2011, despite playing in an offense that downplayed its passing attack.|
Peyton Manning is coming to Denver. Time to put the Tim Tebow project on ice. Admit it, Denver fans, you kind of love it.
While there's little room to debate that this was quite a coup by the Johns, Elway and Fox now must focus their concerns on developing the best team they can around their new centerpiece. When Elway was around Manning's age, he was doing helicopters in the Super Bowl. But there would be no mid-air acrobatics in Super Bowl XXXII without Rod Smith, Terrell Davis and Ed McCaffrey.
Those guys aren't walking through the door in Denver. So what to make of the cast of characters playing alongside Manning in Colorado this fall?
Demaryius Thomas is a good place to start. The third-year receiver emanated a bright future with his play from midseason on. Everyone by now has seen the game-winning catch-and-run against Pittsburgh many times. There should be plenty more of those for the 24-year-old Thomas, who averaged 17.2 yards per catch last season, particularly with a talent like Manning throwing him the ball.
Wideout Eric Decker, who just turned 25, should benefit greatly from Manning's presence, as well. But how well these guys grasp a new offense is the question. With Decker, that shouldn't be a problem, considering he reportedly posted the highest score on the Wonderlic Test at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine. Bear in mind, all of Denver's skill players had to adjust to a radically different offense on the fly last season. For the most part, they passed that test. Why wouldn't guys like Thomas and Decker be able to respond with a pro's pro like Manning pulling the strings?
Not to mention, Mike McCoy is no slouch. The Broncos' offensive coordinator deserves a lot of credit for getting the production out of running back Willis McGahee last season (1,199 yards). Manning will need the help from a solid ground attack, as his body might not be able to withstand a 16-game schedule in which he's throwing 45 times a game. A solid running game is a veteran quarterback's best friend -- just ask Elway -- and Denver had that in spades last season. Even Tebow (if he's not dealt) could be used to spell Manning in certain packages that call for mobility.
The offensive line might not be gangbusters, but it certainly wasn't the problem for the 8-8 Broncos. Manning's decision-making and quick release will make a decent group look a whole lot prettier in orange and navy.
While offensive firepower is the subject of the day in Denver, Manning's presence should do wonders for the defense, too. The Tebow-led running game of 2011 was capable of burning clock, but building leads ... not so much. Manning surely should put more points on the board than Tebow, and don't expect McCoy to junk the running game just because of the adrenaline Peyton pumps into the air attack. Either way, a secondary that was exploited in New England back in January might have some cushion to play with, while not feeling like every mistake could be a game-changer.
Perhaps more importantly, Manning's presence could spell opportunity for the teeth of the Denver defense: the pass rush. Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller combined for 21 sacks last season. Their opportunities to meet at the quarterback should only jump with the opposition playing catch-up a lot more than it did in 2011. Playing catch-up means passing, and with Dumervil and Miller, that means sacks. One of the huge advantages Manning had for the past decade with the Colts was the tremendous pressure Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis applied on offenses trying to match wits and production with the Colts quarterback. How many franchises have two guys who've combined for more than 180 career sacks?
With smart coaching, a balanced attack and a defense predicated on applying pressure, the Manning-led Broncos must be considered the frontrunners in what was already considered a weak AFC West. Who knows, maybe Elway will get another ring without having to strap the pads on himself.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL