ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - Good thing Jay Cutler, the Broncos' third-year quarterback, has his strength back. He's going to need it this year.
Coach Mike Shanahan, a man not normally given to sound bites, all but guaranteed a return to the playoffs on the radio last week. On Monday, he waxed enthusiastic about what he called an improved offensive line, an improved defense, the team's best depth at running back in his 14 years as head coach, and -- get this -- a group of wide receivers whom he has as much as proclaimed the best in the league.
How much of that actually comes to pass remains to be seen, of course. But of this much we can be fairly sure: In a city which once worshipped at the altar of John Elway, if the rest of the team turns out to be as good as Shanahan seems to believe it can be, Cutler will be expected to take a leap to what is euphemistically referred to as the "next level," or, more simply, as greatness.
"If we can stay fairly healthy, I think you'll see him reach that level and possibly then some," Shanahan said.
Cutler will need to muster all his strength to carry those expectations on his shoulders.
At least, he seems to have it. By now, you probably know the outline, how Cutler was diagnosed with diabetes in the spring, how it was figured as the reason he lost nearly 35 pounds during the 2007 season, became easily fatigued and run down. Was that the reason his completion percentage dropped from 65.8 in the season's first half to 61.7 in the second half? Perhaps.
Mysteriously, no one figured out the reason for the huge weight loss until April. Even Shanahan said he attributed it to nerves.
"Last year, you could just see the guy was worn out," said wide receiver Brandon Stokley. "He'd be falling asleep before the games in the locker room. He was just absolutely worn down. Nobody knew why. He was thin, and now you can see he's back to his old self. So I think that's going to help, and, I think, experience. There's nothing that can take the place of experience. He's been (starting) now for a year and a half."
Cutler, who said he was down to 201 pounds for the season-ending game against Minnesota, has regained the weight; he's now a solid 233. The diabetes is under control and monitored on a regular basis.
He acknowledged that he didn't get much sleep during the season and that he was "always tired."
"I'd come here in the morning, I'd be tired," he said. "I'd leave here, I'd be tired. We'd play games, before the game, I'd be dead tired. So it's just nice to feel normal again."
Denver does not exactly have a lot of household names around Cutler, but you have to figure Shanahan will find a way to move the ball and score points, because that's what he always has done.
The group of unproven backs is headed by Selvin Young, who averaged 5.2 yards a carry as an undrafted rookie in 2007 and openly has set a goal of rushing for 2,000 yards. He has good hands, good smarts, a good work ethic and a chip on his shoulder.
"I came (undrafted) off the street, nobody thought I could play," Young said. "So for me to go in and accomplish a little bit my first year and to come back more hungry and wanting it a lot more, I feel is the mindset that I need to have right now. There's no way, no how that I can get complacent."
With the retirement of Rod Smith, the wideouts are headed by Brandon Marshall, who had a terrific season a year ago but is likely facing a two- or three-game suspension for repeated off-field issues. In Stokley, the Broncos also have an outstanding third-down slot receiver. But the others range from unproven rookie Eddie Royal, a second round draft choice who looks like a potential star in practice, to inconsistent journeymen like Darrell Jackson and Keary Colbert.
"You tell me a team that has a much better cast than that," Shanahan said. "I don't know of any."
Well, New England comes to mind, and there are others. But that's hardly the point. The Broncos will move the ball. The question is whether they can stop opponents from doing the same thing.
!(http://www.nfl.com/teams/profile?team=DEN)Camp: Englewood, Colo.
Aug. 9: at Houston,8 p.m. ET
Aug. 16: Dallas, 9 p.m. ET
Aug. 22: Green Bay, 9 p.m. ET
Aug. 29: at Arizona, 10 p.m. ET
The defensive philosophy, or at least the system, is changing. Cornerback Champ Bailey explained that, when Jim Bates was in charge of the defense last year, the system did not fit the players. Bailey said it was too complex and made it too difficult to stop the run, because there was never a defender for the center to block.
Coordinator Bob Slowik has changed that. The linebackers have undergone a major overhaul, with D.J. Williams moving back to his more natural outside spot after a year in the middle, with Bailey's brother, Boss, coming in to play the other outside position, and with a competition for the middle linebacker spot, where veteran acquisition Niko Koutouvides is trying to unseat holdover Nate Webster.
The biggest questions on the defense revolve around the line, which will be counted on to hold opponents to fewer than the 4.6 yards a carry they allowed last year. The return to health of defensive end Jarvis Moss, last year's first-round draft choice, might help. So might defensive tackle DeWayne Robertson, signed as a free agent despite a history of knee troubles; he failed a physical exam with the Cincinnati Bengals.
"When doctors take a look at the knee, they don't understand how he can play," Shanahan said. Yet Robertson rarely missed time while playing for the Jets.
The Broncos' bottom line is that, based on the last two years, they have a lot of catching up to do to catch San Diego, considered by many to have the league's deepest roster, in the AFC West. In four games the last two seasons, the Chargers beat the Broncos by a combined score of 147 to 53. The Broncos did not score a touchdown in either game last year.
"I've never taken a whipping like I did last year, and that kind of pissed me off," Young said.
It won't take long to find out if things have changed. Denver hosts San Diego in its second game.
"It's one of those challenges early in the season, you can see where you stand," said Young.
Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.