This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Broncos' Super Bowl triumph proved that defense can still win championships, and they'll look to follow that formula again this season. Nine of 11 starters are back from the 2015 unit, while a spruced-up O-line will look to pave wider running lanes and give Denver's new signal-callers time to make plays.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
THE STATE OF THE SANCHIZE
After league legend Peyton Manning rode into retirement and his heir apparent Brock Osweiler was lured to Houston by a big-money deal, the Broncos traded for veteran QB Mark Sanchez and then invested a first-round pick on promising Paxton Lynch. Sanchez, who has the inside track to start for the team out of the gate this coming season, showed much-improved accuracy with the Eagles, completing more than 64 percent of his passes in two seasons after never topping the 57 percent mark for the Jets. His continued penchant for turnovers remains an issue, though. Of course, coach Gary Kubiak helped turn pick-prone Jake Plummer into "No Mistake Jake" a decade ago, but Sanchez's ceiling remains very low. On the other hand, Lynch, with his strong arm and athleticism, appears tailor-made for Kubiak's boot-action offense. Lynch faces an adjustment period after spending his college career working out of the shotgun formation, but don't be shocked if he ends up getting an early look if Sanchez falters. Ideally, the 6-7 signal-caller won't be hurried into NFL action, despite the obvious upside he possesses.
ASSEMBLING THE STABLE
After being a popular early fantasy pick in advance of the 2015 season, C.J. Anderson failed to top 50 yards rushing in any of his first six games out of the gate, while playing second fiddle to teammate Ronnie Hillman. Anderson is now back atop Denver's RB depth chart heading into the coming campaign, armed with a front-loaded four-year contract courtesy of an offer sheet from the Dolphins that the Broncos ended up matching. Their decision was justified by Anderson's strong finish last season that saw him rush for 402 yards and four scores in the team's final five contests, including the playoffs. While Hillman may have led the team in rushing in 2015, he faded fast in the playoffs, running for just 54 yards on 32 carries, while being clearly overtaken by Anderson. He'll now face competition from versatile fourth-rounder Devontae Booker, who has the decisiveness and wiggle to thrive in Denver's zone scheme. The rookie, who is coming off a torn meniscus, could well leapfrog Hillman before long and perhaps even challenge Anderson sooner than expected, health permitting.
RESTOCKING THE DEFENSE
The Broncos return nine defensive starters from last season's squad, including their full complement of outside linebackers, who combined for 28 sacks during the regular season and another 8.5 in the playoffs. Heading into 2016, however, the team's inside pass rush should be less intimidating. While Derek Wolfe returns to the D-line, Malik Jackson departed this offseason, after signing a big contract with the Jaguars. Returnees Vance Walker and Kenny Anunike, along with second-rounder Adam Gotsis and free-agent signee Jared Crick, could end up replacing Jackson by committee. Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan is another key departure, moving on after leading Denver in tackles (109) in 2015. Youngsters Todd Davis and Corey Nelson will compete to replace him. Meanwhile, Denver's "No Fly Zone" remains intact, save for sub-package safeties David Bruton and Omar Bolden. Enter third-round pick Justin Simmons, who gures to be the free safety of the future and contribute in sub-looks. Moreover, sixth-rounder Will Parks offers versatility to the Denver secondary after playing a hybrid role in college.
KEY JOB BATTLE
Within three months of being crowned Super Bowl champions, the Broncos transitioned from an all-time great veteran and reliable heir apparent at quarterback to a journeyman and two youngsters who have yet to attempt an NFL pass between them. The Broncos will be first-round pick Paxton Lynch's team eventually, but he'll likely start the season at the bottom of the totem pole. Mark Sanchez, who improved his accuracy during his stint in Philadelphia, should be the favorite, but 2015 seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian is the only holdover from last season and has drawn praise from coaches and teammates.
Eyes will be fixed on Thomas as the offense tries to carry its weight in 2016. The wideout caught 105 passes last season but logged his lowest total of yards (1,304) and touchdowns (six) since 2011, while disappearing at times. His ability to turn quick screens into touchdowns, however, could go a long way toward helping the team's new QBs.
RISING: Bennie Fowler
Expect Fowler, who reeled in a season-saving grab with Denver trailing late in the Divisional Round, to challenge for the team's No. 3 WR job. He's outperformed 2014 second-rounder Cody Latimer to date.
FALLING: Ronnie Hillman
Hillman had a hold on the top job from Week 6 to 17, carrying the ball 161 times to C.J. Anderson's 98. That grip was lost in the playoffs, 54 to 32. Why? He failed to hit 50 yards in six of Denver's final seven games.
SLEEPER: Jeff Heuerman
With Owen Daniels having departed, it's Heuerman's chance to step up. The 2015 third-rounder tore his ACL soon after the draft. Now healthy, Heuerman will compete with H-back Virgil Green and veteran Garrett Graham.
THE INJURY FRONT
Jeff Heuerman, TE – Coach Gary Kubiak has indicated that Heuerman has recovered from the torn ACL that he suffered last May, and initially the tight end wasn't limited in the Broncos' OTAs. A strained hamstring ended up slowing Heuerman some, but it's not something that should linger.
Devontae Booker, RB – The rookie fourth-round pick had his 2015 season cut short with a torn meniscus. Tailor-made for Denver's one-cut scheme, he tallied 3,395 total yards in two years at Utah and has made his intentions of competing for the starting job known.
DeMarcus Ware, LB – The veteran rusher played a career low 11 games in 2015, but still managed to rack up 7.5 sacks in the regular season and another 3.5 in the playoffs. As his balky back continues to be an issue, expect youngsters Shaq Barrett and Shane Ray to play larger roles opposite Von Miller – preserving Ware for passing downs.
Von Miller, LB – If the Broncos had lost in the Divisional Round to the Steelers, the book on the team's new $114-million man would have been quite different. His 11 sacks in 2015 were a career-low for a full season and he failed to get to a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger in a tight game. Of course, he managed five sacks, two forced fumbles and a pick in the AFC Championship and Super Bowl – elevating his status to hero. Whether or not he can continue at that level will help determine the Broncos' fate in 2016.
Brandon Marshall, LB – The owner of a new $32-million deal will be Denver's main man in the middle following the departure of last year's leading tackler Danny Trevathan. Likely slotted next to the inexperienced Todd Davis or Corey Nelson, Denver will need him to serve as a leader of the pack and rack up over 100 tackles for the third consecutive season.
Aqib Talib, CB – The rangy corner led the team with three interceptions in 2015, taking two back to the house. The bigger, more physical half of Denver's top-flight cornerback tandem, he has the potential to contain opponents' best option, but comes with baggage ranging from silly personal fouls to this off-season's shooting incident that left him with a minor leg injury.
Mark Sanchez – QB (from Eagles)
Set to bridge gap between franchise's past and future at QB.
Paxton Lynch – QB (Rd. 1, No. 26 – Memphis)
Big-armed rookie logged impressive 28:4 TD:INT ratio last season.
Garrett Graham – TE (from Texans)
Caught 49 passes under coach Gary Kubiak for Houston in 2013.
Peyton Manning – QB (retired)
The Sheriff bids farewell after earning second NFL title.
Brock Osweiler – QB (to Texans)
Went 5-2 as a starter in 2015 before bolting in free agency.
MALIK JACKSON – DT (to Jaguars)
Departure diminishes potent inside pass rush.
Danny Trevathan – LB (to Bears)
Team will go with internal options to replace prolific tackler.