It looks to be an exciting year for Denver fans as the 2008 Broncos seem like a team on a positive rebound from a 7-9 season that featured key injuries, a sputtering red zone offense and a new but ineffective defensive scheme in which the players did not look comfortable with from the get go.

Its true that winning games in the preseason doesn’t really matter (unless you’re Horvil), but the way the team is playing, the starters in particular, is certainly telling. The Broncos offense has looked impressive in its ability to move the chains and score often with Jay Cutler at the helm. In his third season, Cutler is really beginning to live up to his potential as one of the game’s elite quarterbacks. He is mobile, he can make every throw and is a “student of the game” according to Mike Shanahan.

The offensive line, while not the dominating force of the late 90’s Broncos, looks solid and will improve with rookies Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris who is basically a rookie since he was injured last year. Ben Hamilton seems to be fine after his awful concussion last year and center Tom Nalen… well… while I wish Nalen, being the perennial Pro Bowler he is, I wish he could contribute as much as possible this year, but I feel Casey Wiegman may end up being one of the most necessary free agent pickups in the offseason next to Marlon McCree and Boss Bailey. Going into this preseason, I expected Clady to be where he is, good enough to start but not great, not yet at least so no surprise there but Ryan Harris really caught me by surprise. I remember the Broncos were high on him last year and viewing him in the preaseason, he’s big and athletic and I believe Shanahan’s claim that Clady and Harris will be a very good pair of tackles for years to come.

The Broncos will enter this season with a bevy of receivers for Cutler to utilize. The emergence of rookie wide receiver Eddie Royal is huge, if he stays consistent and improves the Broncos will add to an already strong cast of receiving targets with the likes of Darrell Jackson, Brandon Stokely, Tony Scheffler, sure-handed Nate Jackson, Daniel Graham and of course Brandon Marshall who’s rise to stardom is right on par with Cutler. The Broncos running backs Selvin Young, Michael Pittman even catch well, in addition to rookie fullback Peyton Hillis.

The running back situation is an interesting one since Andre Hall has played so well and run with such fierce determination. If Selvin Young’s offseason conditioning and bulking up doesn’t pay dividends and he falls short of his goal as an every-down-back the rotation is in pretty good hands with Hall and the veteran Pittman. Andre Hall even seems like he could take over Selvin Young’s starting position if Young were to falter. Ryan Torain is a bit of an X factor, I have heard praise from coaches and fans who watched him in college yet have seen nothing of him on the field to form an opinion as of yet. If he comes back from his elbow injury in October and plays really well, thats yet another weapon in a very capable offense.

On the defensive side of the ball the Broncos seem to have shored up against the run but continue to serve up an anemic pass rush. As Horvil points out often, the lack of pass rush provides the opposing quarterback with enough time to read those second, third and fourth receivers or better yet, halt his aim until the cornerbacks -no matter how talented- are beaten. So much falls on the shoulders of Jarvis Moss to be the guy Broncos fans hope he will be, the sack specialist who can be counted on for at least 8 sacks or so. The more the merrier really. As it stands I feel John Engelberger is a great backup, a decent guy to have in the rotation, but not a force to be reckoned with. The Broncos need to upgrade the starting defensive end position opposite Dumervil. Until then, I feel this team will be hard pressed to make any havoc in the playoffs without a lot of luck and creative blitzing.

The defensive line seems to hold its ground and even get some penetration this preseason. Last year’s line seemed to get manhandled and oft beaten at the point of attack. One player in particular I’ve noticed playing well is Dewayne Robertson. He doesn’t seem to get pushed around and I’ve witnessed him on many occasions keeping his position at the line of scrimmage and riding the offensive lineman parallel to the line to get in on the running play. While perhaps unspectacular this is a much better showing than getting blown off the ball or being eaten up completely by the offensive linemen.

The defense seems to be an adequate one with few big names besides Champ Bailey, Dre Bly, Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams. Marlon McCree and Marquand Manuel may not be all-world but they do seem to be very consistent and McCree in particular just seems to have that knack for constantly being around the ball. The linebackers are improved with D.J. Williams, Nate Webster (playing at his best with heavy competition) and the quickness and athleticism of Boss Bailey who hopefully can stay on the field. The defense seems adequate in just about every way besides cornerback which is certainly above average. The real exception I feel is the Broncos have shown me nothing thus far that the glaring issue of a terrible pass rush won’t continue on this way. It hasn’t been addressed much besides trumpeting a “waiting period” for Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder to finally emerge.

If the Broncos offense manages to put up 24+ points a game, I don’t think you need an all world defense. However, I think you do need a pass rush to prevent the opposing team from keeping things close with quick strikes through the air and shootouts that often boil down to a “whoever has possession last wins” type scenario.

Special teams looks surprisingly good to me after consistently lousy play last year which amounted to horrible field position more times than not. The loss of Jason Elam doesn’t sting so bad with Matt Prater playing pretty well and the punter battle was… as epic as a punter battle can be to say the least. There are some good young players like Wesley Woodyard and Niko Koutovides to help control the return lanes as well.

I predict the Broncos will reach the playoffs on a 10-6 or 11-5 record, nothing more, nothing less. Barring injuries I think it’s a pretty easy conclusion. They have an excellent and potentially explosive offense, an adequate defense and a somewhat lighter than usual schedule. I feel the Broncos will reach the playoffs but will be eliminated in the first or second game especially due to their Achilles heel: no or little pass rush. It seems like this one piece of the puzzle that eludes the team. The playoffs are the time when a pass rush is critical, and if not much changes and no one emerges, I think the Broncos will be left wanting.