DENVER -- Clarity arrives unexpectedly.
It hit me at 6 a.m. Monday morning as I sat across Mark Schlereth co-hosting on 104.3 The Fan. We talked Rockies pitching -- with Bryan Shaw on the DL, can someone please examine Jake McGee's calf? -- childhood music favorites and, of course, the Broncos.
Optimism reigns this time of year. No losses speckle the record. Players remain, for the most part, healthy. An argument can be crafted for the Broncos to contend. Is that realistic? I see the Broncos as an eight-win team battling for a postseason berth into December. It will take a minimum nine victories to sneak under the velvet rope, possibly 10. Denver is better. With a few days to digest, it's time to look back at seven offseason developments that will determine whether the Broncos avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972.
1) Case Closed
Quarterback Case Keenum requires no C on his chest. No Walt Whitman recital needed. He is the captain of the offense. He commands the huddle, and players view him as the leader. It's hard to be The Man if you don't know if you are The Man. No controversy this season. Keenum holds the keys to the offense. Here's what impresses me about Keenum. All the small things matter. That typically leads to big things. He is a film rat. He practices with purpose. I am not saying he's Peyton Manning. No one is. But Keenum brings an attention to detail and accuracy that should help the Broncos' offense finally operate at something beyond a sitting heart rate. Mark it down, if Keenum posts a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and/or throws fewer than 10 picks, the Broncos will end their two-year playoff drought.
2) Unleash Von
Outside linebacker Von Miller receives roughly eight realistic sack attempts a game, in my opinion. Teams game plan against him, and quarterbacks release the ball quickly to negate his rush. The Broncos learned the hard way last season that they need to be more creative with Miller. The easiest way to spring him loose is to create a threat on the opposite side with Shaq Barrett, Bradley Chubb, and when his left wrist heals, Shane Ray. The second way? Exotic packages. Line him up in different spots. Use three outside rushers in some packages. Miller represents the Broncos best player. He must be maximized through scheme tweaks. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods knows this now more than ever.
3) Born to run
When Vance Joseph took the job, he planned to employ a physical offense built around a reliable running game. Then Trevor Siemian went off against the Dallas Cowboys, and by all appearances, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy decided to drive the ball down the field in the passing game with three-wide sets as if Manning were taking snaps. Um, yeah, that stunk. It led to sacks, picks and numbing ineffectiveness. Joseph fired McCoy, and Bill Musgrave took over. His time as OC provided a peek into this season. He will run the ball. Keenum delivered a career season in Minnesota because the Vikings committed to the ground attack. The Broncos possess the youngest running back room in the NFL, but require Royce Freeman to contend for offensive rookie of the year honors to rebound. I believe the kid starts in September.
4) Harris leads the way
With Aqib Talib gone, the Broncos lost their voice, and a slice of their edge. Talib played with swag, and had teammates' respect because he had their backs. With Talib gone, Bradley Roby is poised to step up. He must become a more consistent practice player to achieve stardom. He has a role model on the opposite side. With Talib in Los Angeles, it's past time Chris Harris Jr. serves as a captain. Harris is ready for the role. Everyone believes the No Fly Zone will drop off. Harris coined the term. He is prepared to show why the secondary remains legit. There are plenty of leaders on the defense, but Harris' presence needs to grow.
5) Bark at the moon
Defensive end Derek Wolfe smiles again. It's a reminder of how well his neck surgery went. Wolfe is invaluable because of his nastiness and versatility. He can provide an inside rush and stop the run, but struggled to dominate because of pain the past two seasons. A healthy Wolfe provides a leader, a rudder, and deepens a defensive line that unearthed surprises in Domata Peko and Shelby Harris last season. Add DeMarcus Walker to the group, and the Broncos should be stout up front. Good teams win at the line of scrimmage.
6) The kids are all right
The juxtaposition between the last two rookie classes remains striking. The Broncos drafted captains with high football IQ in April. It reflected in their quicker development. Receivers Courtland Sutton -- because of body control, and freak athleticism -- and DeSean Hamilton -- he takes better routes than Google Maps -- shone in workouts. The Broncos seem bent on getting them on the field. If the two combine for 50 catches and 5 touchdowns, it would provide a lift. The X-factor is tight end Jake Butt. The Broncos need a threat in the middle of the field. He showed encouraging signs in camp. If he develops into a red zone threat, teams will no longer be able to bracket Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
7) Let's be real about line in sand
I can argue the Broncos will bounce back. But there are more "ifs" than a Rudyard Kipling poem. If the stars shine, if the coaching staff improves dramatically, if the rookies excel -- you get the picture. The offensive line concerns me. Jared Veldheer must prove he's better than he showed at right tackle in Arizona. Ron Leary has to navigate a sore knee. And there's a question mark at right guard where I expect Connor McGovern to beat out Max Garcia. This is where coaching matters. The new line coaches are switching to shorter pass-blocking sets -- no more deep drops. This can camouflage weaknesses and combined with Keenum's quick release, give the group a chance. And did I mention, they need to run the ball?
In June, everything seems clear. The picture painted remains positive. Then comes training camp, and two words: prove it.