“The Big Steps Are Done”

While bored the other day — this happens a lot, believe it or not — I was reading a Grantland article on my phone, previewing the NBA season and the teams considered to be contenders, pretenders, or something in the middle.

Do I care about the NBA? Not particularly. But with the Nuggets expected to be fairly decent this year, one Vincent Casablancas and I have bandied about the idea of getting some tickets to watch the boys play ball at the Pepsi Center.

ANYway, I don’t usually read NBA news and predictions, but I did in this case (for the record, Grantland places Denver in the “Exciting Upside, Too Many Questions” category). One line in particular about the Oklahoma City Thunder stood out to me, relating to moves in free agency and how teams aspire to assemble their crew for each season. “The big steps are done,” it read, “but sometimes the smaller steps are hardest.”

Naturally, my thoughts immediately turned to football, and the Broncos. Because inevitably, that’s where my thoughts end up.

Like the Thunder, the Broncos’ big moves are done. Don’t expect a signing as splashy as Peyton Manning in the ’13 offseason; indeed, in the history of the league there’s never been such a big signing for any team. Reggie White signing with the Packers in the early ’90s is the closest thing we’ve ever seen to several teams pursuing one big name player, and thanks to the 24 hour news cycle now in existence, it was nowhere near the same scale of coverage.

Getting Manning was the coup of the off season. That was our “big move.” It didn’t signal an arrival, but signaled an intention: An intention to improve.

Now the tough part — making the little steps — begins.

There is still much work to be done, but it won’t get done with huge all-pro signings at every position; that’s not what teams do. The smart teams don’t flush big money on big names and come out on top. They build smart lineups, deep lineups, from available pieces who can contribute in different ways.

So what do they need? Glad you asked, disembodied voice. There are three positions which need an injection of talent and ability in order for the Denver Broncos to challenge for Super Bowl titles — not just playoff berths — from 2013 and on.

1. Middle Linebacker
Sweet Christ on a cracker, our linebackers are bad. Joe Mays is not a competent piece in the middle, and while Keith Brooking is an improvement in football intellect and probably skill, he’s a billion years old and cannot be relied upon to start and finish games. You get one or the other with him.
So who will be available in Free Agency? Sadly, not many pieces. MIKE LB is a tough position because once you find a good one, you hold on with both hands and don’t let a guy escape in FA. James Laurinaitis was resigned by the Rams. Brian Urlacher may test free agency, but he’ll be 36 in the middle of the next season and has been unreliable health-wise over the last couple of seasons (and smart money says that he’ll stay in Chicago).
I think Rey Maulaluga might be the smartest play for Denver. He’s still young, talented, could learn a ton from Jack Del Rio (assuming “of the River” stays with the Broncos next year) and brings a bit of that craziness that’s so imperative to building a strong defense.
For good measure, drafting an inside Linebacker would probably be wise, and I really like the steady, heady play of Stanford’s Shayne Skov.

2. Running Back
Willis McGahee isn’t getting any younger; Knowshon Moreno rightfully doesn’t appear to be in the team’s plans for even this season, let alone next year and moving forward; Ronnie Hillman does not appear to be  an every down back; Lance Ball is… ugh, Lance Ball. We’ve simply got to address the running game in the 2013 off-season. I’d put this on par with ILB as the most important position to fix.
So who’s available? After everything Marion Barber III has done for the Broncos already, we could bring him in, but I think that would be a terrible idea. Felix Jones might fit the scheme best of those available in Free Agency.
Of course, if we don’t want to do that and want to focus instead  on the draft, Montee Ball should be available with a Broncos first or second round pick, but the steal of the draft at the position would be Montana’s Dan Moore. Is that me being a homer? Yes, probably, but this kid can play. And if you were tantalized by the Peyton Hillis era in Denver, Mr. Moore might make you cream your pants. Not kidding.

3. Safety
The middle of our defense is our weakest point. Great teams build from the inside outward, and that means competent safety play. Rahim Moore is getting better, but to call Quinton Carter a disappointment would be an insult to disappointments. David Bruton is nothing more than a special teams ace and should be kept away from the defensive backfield except in cases of emergency. With the emergence of the Tight End position on every single team in the league, safety play is imperative to long-term objectives.
Who’s available? Ed Reed, for one, though that would be a rent-a-player situation not unlike the Brian Dawkins signing a couple years ago, and I’m not certain that the Ravens are going to let their best defensive player escape. At Strong Safety, I really like the idea of Kenny Phillips from the Giants. Young, solid player who can leave his mark on the defense.
Rookies: Make mine Robert Lester from Alabama. I’ve said it before, but any time you can draft someone from the best defense in the country, you should do it.

Sometimes the little steps are hardest.

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