A D like this couldn't get better—right?
The best player on the best defense in pro football had not even washed the champagne off his championship ring when he proclaimed that "we could be even better" in 2016. That's Von Miller: disrupter of offenses, stalker of quarterbacks, MVP of Super Bowl 50 and now the highest-paid nonquarterback in NFL history (new deal: six years, $114.5 million, up to $70 million guaranteed).
While pundits focused on which defenders the Broncos lost—linebacker Danny Trevathan to the Bears and defensive tackle Malik Jackson to the Jaguars—Miller fixated on how they secured their playoff victories. Denver allowed all of 44 points in three postseason triumphs, stifling three of the NFL's top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton. The Broncos' 194 yards of total offense in the Super Bowl marked the fewest ever by a winning team. It didn't matter. Papa John could have subbed for his buddy Peyton Manning at quarterback and they would still have orange-crushed the Panthers.
Denver's D remains stocked with Pro Bowl--caliber players: three shutdown corners in Aqib Talib (recovering from an off-season gunshot wound suffered at a club in Dallas), Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby; a hard-hitting safety in T.J. Ward; an athletic linebacker in Brandon Marshall; and pass rushers (Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray, Shaquil Barrett) who make opposing quarterbacks want to call in sick. "We're a group where each guy could get more than eight sacks," Ray says.
Sure, Ware turned 34 in July, missed five games last season and was shelved early in camp by a back injury. But coaches expect his role to become more specialized (think: third down, around 15 snaps a game), as Ray and Barrett assume added responsibility. Denver used the 23rd pick in the 2015 draft on Ray for that reason, and he packed on 10 pounds of muscle this off-season so that he can rotate some inside. "I did that in college," Ray says of his time at Missouri. "I had no problem beating guards. I feel like if a tackle can't block me, a guard sure can't."
Last year the Broncos started two safeties with similar skill sets in Ward and Darian Stewart. The addition of 6'2", 202-pound Justin Simmons, a third-round pick from Boston College, gives them more flexibility at the back end. In some packages all three will be on the field.
Of course, none of the defenders can throw the football, and Denver's repeat chances will hinge in part on its quarterback play. With Manning retired and Brock Osweiler, who started seven games last year in relief, having signed with the Texans, the options are Mark Sanchez (a journeyman off-season acquisition), Trevor Siemian (a seventh-rounder in 2015) and first-round rookie Paxton Lynch from Memphis, the QB of the future who isn't expected to play much this season. One of those three will now direct an offense that, unsteady as it was last year, still ranked 14th in passing yards and 16th overall.
The Patriots are the last team to win back-to-back Super Bowls, in the 2003 and '04 seasons, and the Broncos pose an interesting attempt at succession. As they opened camp, Jay Z's On to the Next One echoed across the practice fields on a cloudless day in Colorado. Receiver Demaryius Thomas was snagging passes after an uneven, drop-marred 2015. Sanchez looked sharp, if not spectacular. But their chances of repeating as champions will depend on making history. As Ward says, "We can become one of the best defenses of all time."
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
O.K., crumbles may be an impossibility for a unit this loaded. But the Broncos' strategy in the Super Bowl showed the sort of freedom that cornerback Chris Harris Jr. gives them. When the Panthers played three wide receivers, they did so expecting Denver to sub out a linebacker for a third corner. Instead, the Broncos subbed a safety, which kept their hybrid front seven intact and negated the advantage that Carolina hoped to create for its running game. This was huge, and it was only possible because Denver has three first-class corners who can cover one-on-one. The key CB is Harris, who shadows the quickest, and usually most versatile, wide receiver. Not only is he suffocating on the outside, but he's also so comfortable inside that he'll align at linebacker in the rare instances when his receiver goes into the backfield. Von Miller is the MVP up front, but Harris is the main man at the back end.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 9--7
2015 Record: 12--4
SEPT. 8 vs.CAR
SEPT. 18 vs.IND [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 atCIN
OCT. 2 atTB [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 vs.ATL [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 13 atSD
OCT. 24 vs.HOU [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 30 vs.SD
NOV. 6 atOAK
NOV. 13 atNO
NOV. 27 vs.KC [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 atJAX [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 atTEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 vs.NE [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 25 atKC
JAN. 1 vs.OAK [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER