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Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders #10 of the Denver Broncos stands on the sideline before a game against the Houston Texans at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on November 4, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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Emmanuel Sanders is the key to the Broncos 2019 season

(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

While there are a lot of new faces at Dove Valley these days – from the head coach to the quarterback – it’s the return of a familiar one that will be the key to the Broncos season. How well Denver fares in 2019 will largely be dependent on the health of a player who has called the Mile High City home since 2014 – Emmanuel Sanders.

With the wide receiver in the lineup, it’s easy to be optimistic about the Broncos outlook. Take him off the field, however, and it’s not a stretch to see things goes awry.

For evidence of his impact, one only has to go back to last season.

Through 12 games, Sanders had hauled in 71 passes for 868 yards and four touchdowns. More importantly, Denver had scratched their way into the playoff race at 6-6.

Then, the wideout tore his Achilles tendon during a practice leading up to a Week 13 matchup in San Francisco. The Broncos lost their remaining four games, averaging just 13.25 points per outing without their best offensive weapon in the lineup, to finish the season a disappointing 6-10.

Exit Vance Joseph. Exit Case Keenum. Exit a host of other coaches and players.

Enter Vic Fangio. Enter Joe Flacco. Enter draft picks, free agents, new coordinators and more.

On paper, these changes appear to have made the Broncos a better team. In each instance, they seem like an upgrade over someone who was in over his head a year ago.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still major questions marks in Denver this season, especially on the offensive side of the ball. While Fangio is expected to return a talented defense to its previous glory, Rich Scangarello has a bigger repair job in front of him. And the Broncos new offensive coordinator needs Sanders healthy in order to make that project a success.

Flacco will be a big improvement over the quarterbacks who’ve been behind center in Denver since Peyton Manning retired, but he’s not a player who can do it alone. He needs help, given that he’s a relatively immobile, pocket passer.

The players tasked with giving the new QB support have potential, but are far from known commodities.

Phillip Lindsay is a great story, the hometown kid who goes from undrafted to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. But there’s still a chance he turns out to be a one-hit wonder. Yes, he rushed for 1,037 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018, averaging a whopping 5.4 yards per game on the ground. But he’s far from established as an every-down running back in the NFL; he’s not in the class of players like Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott or even Saquon Barkley. Plus, he’s returning from injury and has yet to participate fully in practice.

Behind Lindsay are even bigger question marks. Royce Freeman had a disappointing first season, rushing for 521 yards and four touchdowns while starting eight games. More important than the numbers, however, was the running back’s inability to show any game-breaking ability; he looked like nothing more than a plodder for most of the season. That’s the same word that could be used to describe Devontae Booker, who’s largely regressed in each of his three seasons in Denver.

If the Broncos aren’t able to run the ball effectively, something that figures to be a linchpin on Scangerello’s offense, that puts more pressure on Flacco and the passing game. And outside of Sanders, the quarterback’s targets are far from sure things.

Courtland Sutton wowed everyone during training camp last season, making circus catches and putting his incredible God-given abilities to use. But when it counted, he wasn’t able to translate that playmaking to the field. During his rookie season, Sutton had just 42 receptions for 704 yards and four touchdowns. Most disappointing, however, was the fact that he didn’t emerge as the Broncos go-to receiver after the team traded away Demaryius Thomas in November. Despite starting the final eight games of the year, Sutton didn’t post a single 100-yard game and only scored twice during that time.

Fellow rookie DaeSean Hamilton would’ve killed for those numbers, however. On the year, he caught just 30 passes for 243 yards and a pair of touchdowns. On the bright side, 25 of those grabs did come in the final four games of the season, when the rookie filled in for Sanders as the starter opposite of Sutton. But catching dink-and-dunk passes isn’t what the Broncos need from the wideout position; they also need big-play ability, which Hamilton didn’t show a season ago.

At tight end, the Broncos have a lot of potential, but it’s definitely unproven. Rookie Noah Fant promises to be a stretch-the-field type of player, but he’ll have to make the transition from Iowa to the NFL in a hurry if he’s going to provide Flacco with a security blanket in the passing game. And the oft-injured trio of Jake Butt, Troy Fumagalli and Jeff Heuerman can’t be counted on; they’re all talented, but they have to prove that they can stay on the field, something that each has been unable to do during their career.

And in the trenches, Denver also has a lot of questions to answer. While most are counting on new offensive line coach Mike Munchak to solve all that ails the Broncos upfront, he won’t be the cure-all.

Garett Bolles will have to take to coaching if he’s to shed the “bust” label at left tackle. Connor McGovern is going to have to prove that he’s actually a center and not a guard moonlighting at a new position. Ron Leary has to stay healthy, given that he’s only played 34 games in the past four seasons. Ja’Wuan James is going to have to live up to the big money the Broncos game him, something his previous team, the Dolphins, weren’t willing to do. And Dalton Risner, another great story with a local angle, has to be ready to go Week 1 as a rookie.

In other words, every position on the field is a question mark for the Broncos offense. Granted, some are bigger than others, but that’s still a lot of unknowns.

With Sanders in the lineup, however, the answers start to look a lot better.

Sutton as the No. 2 receiver on the team, with Hamilton as the third guy, appears to be a dynamic trio. With a big-play threat on the outside, one of the four tight ends will surely emerge to dominate the middle of the field. A viable passing game will keep defenses from stacking the box, opening things up for Lindsay and Company. And with a reliable option at wideout, Flacco will have a go-to guy in key situations.

On the other hand, with Sanders not at full strength, things look gloomy.

Sutton and Hamilton as the starters is arguably the weakest wideout combo in the league. Without a home-run hitter, defenses will stack the line of scrimmage and blanket the middle of the field, making it tough sledding for the Broncos running game and negate a lot of short passes. And the pressure will be on Flacco to make plays himself, something he’s not adept at doing.

One player makes all the difference.

Put him in Denver’s lineup in 2019 and things look pretty good. Take him out of starting 11 and it’s an entirely different picture.

That’s why Emmanuel Sanders is the key to the season. And why every Broncos fan should keep checking his Instagram account for updates on his recovery.

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To hear how Sanders is recovering from his Achilles injury, tune into “The Drive” today at 5:00 pm, as the wide receiver joins DMac and Tom Nalen live in studio.