Despite housing a defensive corps that’s been together for the past several seasons, the Denver Broncos are not an old team. They have only four projected starters over 30, with two of them at 30.
They remain in good shape from an age standpoint. And excluding their dominant pass defense, not a lot went well for the 2016 Broncos. Their 9-7 record ended a run of four straight 12-plus-win seasons, and the lineup that followed a maligned Super Bowl championship offense actually lowered that bar. So identifying players who will decline this season isn’t as easy as looking at a a few aging veterans.
Some Broncos do fit the profile of players who will deliver less in 2017 than they did a season ago, however.
Aqib Talib, CB
It’s safe to say John Elway’s 2014 investment in this mercurial cornerback worked out. Talib will enter the fourth season of a six-year contract on the heels of a first-team All-Pro season. Little about Talib’s past suggested he could vault onto that tier, let alone do so at age 30. But he and Chris Harris were the best thing about the 2016 Broncos. Their joint appearance on the All-Pro first team was a staggering accomplishment. That said, Harris has been the more consistent player and is in better position to produce at an elite level than his ex-Kansas University teammate.
Talib finished the regular season as the league’s only full-time corner not to allow a touchdown pass. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers first-round pick didn’t yield more than 43 yards in any of his 13 games, and he faced the likes of A.J. Green, Mike Evans, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins. Talib has delivered since joining the Broncos, with three of his four Pro Bowl campaigns in Denver. But he turned 31 in February, and it’s nearly impossible to expect a replication of ’16.
While the 27-year-old Harris has been the Broncos’ most consistent corner since the franchise assembled its dominant coverage trio (also including Bradley Roby) in 2014, Talib has been more volatile. Suspensions, injuries and other issues (if we’re being picky) have plagued Talib throughout his late-blooming career. Going into his 10th year, Talib still hasn’t played a 16-game season. He has been more reliable lately, playing in at least 13 games a year from 2013-16. And since he should be judged him on his superior 2016 play, it’s hard to expect that again.
This isn’t to say Talib will tail off and force Roby into the starting lineup; it’s just to point out it’s going to be incredibly difficult for him to stay on an All-Pro level. The NFL’s active leader in interception-return touchdowns (nine), Talib should still bring his brand of tenacity and play-making ability while he nears the end of his prime. But don’t be surprised if the performance gap between he and Harris widens in 2017.
Ronald Leary, G
The Broncos made Leary by far the highest-paid guard in franchise history based on his even-year seasons. Lining up at left guard for the Cowboys in 2014 and ’16, Leary was an upper-echelon talent on the game’s best offensive line. He helped DeMarco Murray blaze to his defining season and, after the suddenly less effective La’el Collins was sidelined by a severe foot injury, became a trusted Ezekiel Elliott escort two years later.
Leary did not allow a sack in 2016 and permitted just three knockdowns and 21 quarterback pressures. But he’s going to be asked to do more in Denver and do it without All-Pros flanking him.
The 28-year-old guard should be a fine member of a Broncos offense that needed more talent at just about every position. But free of Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, will Leary be able to look as good as he did in 2014 and ’16? Collins did relegate him to the bench in 2015 and beat him out in training camp last summer.
Leary is still a major upgrade from Michael Schofield and will give the Broncos a mauling presence as they try to revive a ground game that’s been inconsistent over the past two years. But it may be difficult for Leary to equal his contract-year success now that he’s going to be flanked by Garett Bolles and Matt Paradis instead of the dynamos that lined up next to him in Dallas.
Matt Paradis, C
For his career outlook, Paradis doesn’t fit the profile of a declining player. He’s a 27-year-old former sixth-round success story who has played every snap for the Broncos the past two years —the only player to do that.
But the third-year center is coming off two hip surgeries after improving by so much in Year 2, vaulting from a middling center to a player whom Pro Football Focus graded as the league’s 28th-best at any position last season. Paradis still profiles as the team’s cornerstone lineman, but coming off two such surgeries, will he be able to immediately re-establish himself?
He’ll also be adjusting to Mike McCoy’s offense, and the last time McCoy coached in Denver, the team used more power-blocking sets. For the most part, Paradis was the only player to thrive in Gary Kubiak’s zone setup last season. The rest of the Broncos line did not follow suit and spearhead the ground-game re-emergence most assumed would take place after Kubiak’s return. The former Boise State blocker should have better linemates this season, but delivering a repeat of 2016’s dynamism is a tough ask considering the circumstances.
He is still Denver’s anchor up front, but the injuries and the systemic switch are variables that might make Paradis returning to his 2016 perch a more arduous process than it otherwise would have been.