Mark Sanchez is no stranger to having a solid defense on the opposite side of the ball. While Sanchez was focusing on earning the starting quarterback role for the New York Jets in 2009, the organization was overhauling its defense. The Southern California native won the role after Brett Favre’s retirement and reached two consecutive AFC Championships. It was only his rookie season but Sanchez and the dominating Jets defense began to steer the team towards the most successful two seasons since Broadway Joe Namath led Gang Green to Super Bowl III.
Mark Sanchez Seeks Redemption in AFC West
Sanchez’s 2009 rookie season ended in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship. The Jets would suffer the same fate a year later, as they would lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers a game short of the Super Bowl. Even with disappointing losses to end both seasons, it appeared that the Jets might have found their franchise quarterback.
Since then, Sanchez has not experienced the luxury of job stability that he may have first expected. Images of “the butt fumble” have been etched into the minds of unforgiving Jets fans through the years, replacing the image of hope that Mark Sanchez once brought to the Meadowlands. It was evident that the Jets were going another direction at the quarterback position when they drafted Geno Smith in 2013.
Now, the seventh year quarterback is looking to redeem himself in Denver after two seasons with the Eagles that were surrounded by quarterback controversies between himself, Nick Foles, and Sam Bradford. John Elway’s Broncos acquired Sanchez from the Philadelphia Eagles last March through a trade that landed the former USC standout in Denver. Sanchez is attempting to prove that if anyone can bring the Broncos back to being playoff contenders immediately after losing Manning to retirement, then he is the right man for the job.
If he beats Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian for the starting role this season, he would replace a future Hall of Famer for the second time in his career, and again will have a strong defense and ground game to support him.
The Running Game
Denver also re-signed their two primary running backs. Ronnie Hillman, who averaged 4.2 yards on 207 carries, and C.J. Anderson, who averaged 4.7 yards on 152 carries, will be returning in 2016. The duo combined for 1,583 yards while going through a constant offensive line shuffle and having Peyton Manning orchestrating the offense.
The two backs who carried the load on the ground game for the Super Bowl champs will be a critical piece of Denver’s success on offense, as the pressure to keep their star studded defense off the field will be immense for Sanchez.
The 29-year-old Sanchez is being presented a new opportunity to rewrite his messy ending in New York. He will lean on Von Miller who is guaranteed $70 million over the next six years to help the Broncos defense devastate the likes of Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, and Alex Smith. The Broncos defense will also rely on veteran corner back Aqib Talib, and defensive end Derek Wolfe to produce.
The Broncos weren’t the only team in the AFC West to focus on stabilizing their defense’s future. Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has focused on giving star pass rusher Khalil Mack even more pass rushing help when they signed Bruce Irvin who was a part of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom”.
The Raiders also looked to improve their defense during the draft, signing linebackers Shilique Calhoun from Michigan State and Cory James from Colorado State. Oakland also replaced retired Pro Bowl safety Charles Woodson with the rookie Karl Joseph, who was a ball hawking safety at West Virginia.
The AFC West is becoming a place where pass rushers are at a premium, and quarterbacks like Sanchez need to make decisions under pressure. Unlike his rookie season, when Sanchez threw a career high 20 interceptions on his way to his first AFC championship, the seasoned signal caller has enough game experience to trust his defense and not force the ball.
The division that looked like Denver would easily dominate just a year ago now looks wide open. The Kansas City Chiefs, who went 11-5 in 2015, did not come to an agreement with Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry after they slapped the franchise tag on him. Berry, a cancer survivor, was the team’s emotional lift last season. And now, he and the organization have no formal agreement guaranteeing that Berry will be on the field for the Chiefs in 2016.
If Sanchez wants to reclaim his place as a franchise quarterback, he must prove that he can keep his franchise in the playoffs. He no longer has to face Tom Brady twice a year. But with the Chiefs following close behind last season and a young and talented Raiders team, Sanchez must bridge the gap left by Manning if he wants to overcome his unexpected letdown in New York.