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NFL preview: Denver Broncos

It seems like I sell the Broncos short every year in this space (though they don't really set the world on fire, either), but at the risk of doing it once again, I'm predicting a lonnnnnnng year in Denver.

Projected finish: 3-13 (4th in AFC West)

Not much that's happened since Josh McDaniels became coach has been positive for the Broncos. Attitude aside, they downgraded significantly at QB, where Kyle Orton replaces Jay Cutler. That's bad news for an offense that basically needs to outscore everyone to compensate for a defense that can't stop anyone. Broncos fans like Jim Ludes might disagree, but I see their team leapfrogging Kansas City and Oakland in the AFC West ... going in the wrong direction.

I liked Orton while he was a Chicago Bear ... but it might be a stretch calling him one of the 25 best QBs in football. Calling him a player with talent comparable to Cutler's is downright ridiculous, and backup Chris Simms isn't the answer, either. Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal are a top pair of starting receivers for Orton to throw to ... though we'll find out quickly how much of their recent success was due to having Cutler under center. Their numbers, along with those of backups Brandon Stokley and Brandon Lloyd and TEs Tony Scheffler and Daniel Graham, will certainly take a hit without Cutler in town.

Yahoo! lists former Philadelphia part-timer Correll Buchhalter as the No. 1 RBI in Denver. Whether the majority of the carries go to Buckhalter, rookie Knowshon Moreno, Peyton Hillis or LaMont Jordan, I don't think they'll produce like Terrell Davis did in his heyday. The offensive line, which includes Ryan Clady, Ben Hamilton, Casey Wiegmann, Chris Kuper and Ryan Harris, is a far cry from the undersized but extremely effective units that Broncos trotted out a few years back.

Kenny Peterson, who has seven sacks and 78 tackles in 60 career games, and fourth-round draft pick Ryan McBean look like the starting DEs for the Broncos. Former San Francisco first-rounder Ronald Fields starts between them in the 3-4 scheme to complete what might be the worst defensive line in the NFL. D.J. Williams and sack machine Elvis Dumervil are an intimidating ILB combination, provided Dumervil adjusts adequately in his move from the defensive line. Andra Davis is a nice OLB as well, though I'm not nearly as sold on Mario Haggan, who is slated to start opposite Davis.

Champ Bailey gives the Broncos one excellent but aging cornerback, provided he's able to stay healthy. Andre Goodman made 5 interceptions at the position last year, but does not qualify as a shutdown corner by any means. Nor do backups Alphonso Smith (at least not until he plays an NFL game) or Jack Williams. Safety could be a strength, as veteran additon Brian Dawkins starts alongside Renaldo Smith, but neither Dawkins nor Smith is known for being great in coverage ... and both should be kept busier than safeties ever should be.

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