DENVER — Long before the Denver Broncos took the field this season, there were danger signs.
That concern jumped off the roster page.
One glance at their core presented evidence that the Broncos on paper would struggle to bind.
Their defense, by NFL standards, is ancient. Seven starters — Brian Dawkins, Jamal Williams, Champ Bailey, AndrÉ Goodman, Renaldo Hill, Justin Bannan and Mario Haggan — have an average age of about 33 years.
Their offense, meanwhile, would be advancing in baby steps. Its future nucleus includes five rookies — Tim Tebow, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, J.D. Walton and Zane Beadles — and six other players who entered this season with two years or less of experience: Ryan Clady, Eddie Royal, Knowshon Moreno, Spencer Larsen, Richard Quinn and Dan Gronkowski.
In this era of NFL parity, teams that hit from year to year usually come together with a core weighted with four- to seven-year players.
The Broncos' roster looks like a broken teeter-totter — heavy in aging veterans on one side, youth on the other, and not much balance in between.
"With the exception of Kyle Orton, (Elvis) Dumervil when healthy and (Brandon) Lloyd, there's no one in their prime," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "They got rid of everything on offense and everything on defense. And in order to do that, you're not going to get anybody in their prime. You're going to get either more established, old guys, or you're going to get young guys who aren't ready yet. And the end result is you're going to lose a lot of games."
Make that 14 losses in 18 games starting with Nov. 1 of last year. Keeping their games to their assigned season, the Broncos are 2-6 at this season's halfway point. The players return from their bye week vacation today for meetings and conditioning and to begin preparing for their next game against the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs.
The Chiefs and Broncos have just enough similarities to compare their contrasts. Both franchises decided to rebuild after the 2008 season by tapping into the remarkable success of the New England Patriots.
The Chiefs hired former Pats GM Scott Pioli to rebuild their roster and change a culture that had been poisoned by a 6-26 record the previous two years.
The Broncos hired former Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to overhaul a program that had been both promising and disappointing — and eventually stuck in mediocrity the previous 10 years.
In some ways, it may have been easier for Pioli to rebuild because the first step of blowing up the old way received no resistance.
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and chief operating officer Joe Ellis brought in McDaniels knowing he would bring the Patriots Way.
The Pats' offense centered around the shotgun and the pass, not the patented West Coast, zone-running that previous coach Mike Shanahan had implemented for 14 seasons.
The Pats' defense did not use the Broncos' 4-3, but the 3-4, where among the most significant transitions was finding bigger outside linebackers from smaller defensive ends.
While Pioli was able to rebuild while enduring a 4-12 first season, McDaniels was asked to overhaul without losing grip of the Broncos' perennial position as playoff contenders.
"In their favor, that staff has only been there two years now," Williamson said. "At least their theory looks like: Let's put some Band-Aids on Dawkins and those type of guys. And then let's build an offense that hopefully peaks in three years or whatever, where these guys will grow up together in the Super Bowl New England offense."
For a while, it worked, as the McDaniels era started 6-0 in 2009. But in time, the gaping hole of players in their prime years was not there to offset the slower legs of veterans or the mental mistakes of the young.
It's perhaps worth noting that one reason the Broncos are devoid of players in their prime — besides Orton, Dumervil and Lloyd, right guard Chris Kuper and linebacker D.J. Williams would have to be included in this group — is because McDaniels let go of Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler, offensive skill players who are all in their fifth seasons.
But McDaniels has more than replaced Cutler with Orton and Marshall with Lloyd. There is no Scheffler, a rare deep-ball threat at tight end, in Denver. Then again, the receiving tight end position doesn't have much of a role in a McDaniels' offense heavy with three-receiver formations.
"I give them credit for their trades of Cutler and Marshall," Williamson said. "You look at all the trades that have happened in the past offseason or so, they got a lot in return. But they didn't do anything with their draft picks. That's the crime there."
As the Broncos move forward, better drafts — and the continued development of recent draft picks such as Thomas, Tebow, Moreno, Robert Ayers, Perrish Cox, Darcel McBath and Syd'Quan Thompson — will be the key to a new direction.
That would be the direction the Chiefs seem to be heading.