Here is a close look at the Denver Broncos as they head into their season opener against the Baltimore Ravens Thursday at 8:30 p.m. (ET)
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Peyton Manning. Backups -- Brock Osweiler, Zac Dysert.
Manning could be in line for the best statistical season of his great career thanks to excellent receivers and an up-tempo offense. Osweiler looked capable directing the first-team offense to a touchdown against St. Louis and completed 65.5 percent of his passes in August. Dysert is being groomed as an eventual backup to Osweiler, but could push him for the starter-in-waiting role.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Ronnie Hillman. Backups -- Montee Ball, Knowshon Moreno, C.J. Anderson.
Hillman may not get the most touches, and his hold on the job is as tenuous as his grip on the football recently. Ball, a second-round pick, is bigger, better between the tackles and will become the primary back. His weakness for now is in pass protection. Moreno, a former first rounder, is now insurance -- a capable blocker who is a dependable back. Anderson sprained his MCL, but looked great when healthy.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Julius Thomas. Backups -- Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme, Virgil Green.
Thomas capitalized on injuries to Dreessen and Tamme to earn the starting nod. A college basketball standout at Portland State, Thomas can be a dynamic downfield target. Dreessen should see plenty of time when he recovers from a knee injury. Tamme is not only insurance at tight end, but as a slot target if Welker is injured. Green, a capable blocker, will play frequently in two-tight end and short-yardage packages.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker. Backups -- Andre Caldwell, Trindon Holliday.
Decker and Thomas were 1,000-yard receivers last year, and could be even more effective with Welker drawing attention underneath. Manning's timing with all three targets appeared flawless by the end of training camp. Depth is a concern. Caldwell and Holliday combined for just three receptions last year. Caldwell had in four years with Cincinnati. The the 5-foot-5 Holliday is one of the fastest men in the NFL (4.21 second in 40 yards), but likely can't hold up under an every-down workload and has a fumbling problrm.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Ryan Clady, LG Zane Beadles, C Manny Ramirez, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Orlando Franklin. Backups -- OT Chris Clark, G John Moffitt, G Chris Kuper, C Steve Vallos. PUP -- C J.D. Walton.
Clady appears to be fully recovered from rotator cuff surgery and was back in the lineup by the third preseason game. Beadles made a massive leap last year. Vasquez, a free agent pickup, has committed just two penalties in four NFL seasons and Franklin has become an effective run blocker. The big questions revolve around center, where the Broncos wanted Walton to start before he had a second leg surgery. Ramirez got the job after Dan Koppen tore an ACL in training camp and mid-camp pickup Ryan Lilja failed to mount a charge in his comeback attempt. If Ramirez struggles, Vallos has starting experience at center, and Kuper, a former starter has worked on his snapping in recent weeks. Moffitt was acquired in a preseason trade from Seattle and could be a long-term center prospect.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Derek Wolfe, DRE Robert Ayers, DT Kevin Vickerson, DT Terrance Knighton. Backups -- DE/DT Malik Jackson, DE/SLB Shaun Phillips, DT Mitch Unrein, DT Sylvester Williams.
With Elvis Dumervil now in Baltimore, the Broncos hope that their interior pass rush can pick up the slack. Much will be asked of Wolfe, who starts at end but rotates inside to tackle when the Broncos go into their nickel and dime packages. Wolfe had six sacks as a rookie. Ayers replaces Dumervil in the starting lineup and is good vs. the run. Vickerson and Knighton were not as consistent in stuffing the run in the preseason as the Broncos expected, and Unrein could spell one of them frequently after a solid summer. Williams, the Broncos' first-round pick, factors in as a rotational tackle. Jackson can play any spot up front. Phillips will be asked to provide edge pressure that suspended Von Miller would have delivered.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Danny Trevathan, MLB Wesley Woodyard, SLB Nate Irving. Backups -- MLB Paris Lenon, WLB Steven Johnson, SLB Adrian Robinson. Suspended -- SLB/DE Von Miller.
With Miller suspended for six games and Stewart Bradley lost for the season after wrist surgery, this unit was forced to change. Woodyard moves to the middle after a breakout season on the weak side last year. Trevathan will start on the weak side. He has always around the ball, but struggled in the preseason. Irving, drafted as a middle linebacker in 2011, will make his first NFL starts on the strong side. Johnson is a special-teamer who missed his shot at starting in the middle. Robinson was claimed off waivers as a pass rusher to replace Lerentee McCray (IR, high ankle).
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Champ Bailey, RCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, SS Duke Ihenacho, FS Rahim Moore. Backups -- CB Chris Harris, CB Tony Carter, CB Kayvon Webster, CB Quentin Jammer, S David Bruton, S Mike Adams, S/CB Omar Bolden.
With Bailey recovering from a left foot sprain, this unit will be tested early and often. Harris, who started last year on the right side, will replace Bailey in the starting lineup, but will move inside to slot cornerback when the Broncos go into nickel packages, leaving third cornerback Carter to line up outside. Rodgers-Cromartie could be an upgrade if he lives up to the potential. Moore had a breakthrough season last year despite being beaten for the game-tying touchdown in the playoff loss to Baltimore. Ihenacho, an undrafted signee last year who spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad, was the surprise of training camp who beat out Adams and Bruton for the other safety spot. Jammer provides experience, Webster had a solid preseason and Bolden, a special-teams standout, is working at safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- K Matt Prater, P Britton Colquitt, LS Aaron Brewer, KOR/PR Trindon Holliday. Backups -- KR Omar Bolden, PR Wes Welker.
Prater needs to start earning his big contract after finishing in the league's bottom quarter in field-goal accuracy. Colquitt is rewriting the Broncos' record book and was the AFC's leader in net average. Holliday is as boom-or-bust speedster as a returner -- long gone or ball gone. The more sure-handed Welker will handle punt returns inside the Denver 10-yard-line.