AFC West: Denver Broncos

This has always been a critical year in the relationship between Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller and the Denver Broncos.

With Miller still recovering from ACL surgery and slated to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2014 season, team officials face their first major decision about Miller's contract. The team has until May 3 to exercise an option year in Miller's rookie deal that would put him under contract for 2015. With 15 days before the deadline, the Broncos had not yet reached a decision as Friday's business day drew to a close.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesDenver has two weeks to decide whether it will exercise an option on Von Miller's rookie contract.
In 2011, the first year of the current collective bargaining agreement, teams were given the option of a fifth year for first-round draft picks as part of the transition to the new rookie wage scale.

The "fifth-year option" must be engaged by May 3 and the option-year salary doesn't become guaranteed until March of 2015. So, it is possible for teams to engage the option year and potentially release the player at a later date before the base salary is guaranteed.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Friday that the San Francisco 49ers did not plan to engage the fifth-year option on defensive end Aldon Smith, who was the No. 7 pick of that draft, but several players have been informed their teams would pick up the option. This includes Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (the No. 11 pick), Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (No. 5) and San Diego Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget (No. 18).

The Broncos made Miller the No. 2 pick of that draft, behind Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. With 30 sacks over his first two seasons, including 18.5 in 2012, Miller looked to be on the fast track to elite status in the league.

Miller then opened the 2013 season with a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy -- a violation that now subjects him to testing up to 10 times a month for the rest of his career. Several off-the-field issues, including an arrest last summer on a failure-to-appear warrant and several traffic violations, also dogged him last year.

He then tore his ACL against the Texans' in December and again raised some eyebrows with the team when he tried to attend a Seattle Seahawks victory party following the Broncos' 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.

For the first 10 picks of the 2011 draft, the salary for the option is this year's transition tag salary in free agency at their respective positions. The figure is calculated as an average of the top 10 salaries at those spots. For Miller that would mean a $9.754 million salary if he's on the roster when the new league year begins next March.

If the Broncos decline the option and Miller returns from his injury and shows his former speed and explosiveness and more maturity off the field, the team could still use the franchise tag to keep him.

That scenario would cost slightly more since the franchise tag salary for linebackers was $11.455 million this year and could be higher next season. A franchise player's salary is guaranteed the moment the player signs the tender. Some players sign them as soon as they receive them to guarantee the money, and some wait until training camp, hoping a long-term deal is worked out instead.

The Broncos and Miller could, if both sides found some common ground, still negotiate a long-term extension.

Miller said at an appearance for his foundation Monday that he continues to work hard to return from his knee injury, and that he wants to return "a better player" than he was. The Broncos open their offseason conditioning program Monday, but Miller will not participate. He will continue with his knee rehab with the team's trainers and strength and conditioning staff.
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher often tells veteran players they will have to expend 10 percent more effort in an upcoming offseason than they did in the one before, if they plan to maintain their ability to compete for the same amount of playing time.

Essentially, the message is that the status quo can't be on the agenda, that every time you roll over and hit the snooze button, the guy who wants your job already is out of bed and has put the proverbial nose to the grindstone.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Hyoung Chang//The Denver Post/Getty Images"Just because you were there last year in the [Super Bowl], it doesn't guarantee you anything," Peyton Manning said.
And this week, sprinkled through Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's first public comments in Colorado since the 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, it was fairly easy to discern Manning's theme for the coming weeks and months.

Manning has been known to rattle the cage of a teammate a time or two about what needs to be done, or surprise someone with a pop quiz in the hallway about their responsibilities on a third-and-long. He dropped the word “work" 10 times into his comments in the span of just a few minutes, and that included a couple of references to both “hard work" and “good work."

It was a preview of sorts, because the Broncos will open their offseason conditioning program Monday and the vast majority, if not all, of their healthy players are expected to take part. These are technically “voluntary" gatherings; the Broncos can only declare offseason workouts mandatory for a three-day minicamp in June. But this is "voluntary" -- as in, you "voluntarily waive your right to play any significant snaps when training camp rolls around."

Last season, the Broncos worked off the premise that the double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round would be the fuel for the offseason in 2013. That worked, at least until the season's last game, when the Broncos arrived at the Super Bowl seemingly without their mojo in their luggage.

They're hoping disappointment can once again help power them through spring and into summer.

“Just because you were there last year in the game, it doesn't guarantee you anything," Manning said. “It does take a lot of hard work and sacrifice."

Manning, certainly the analytical type when it comes to the game, is also still a big believer in the elusive power of football chemistry -- that somehow teammates who have invested time together will eventually also play better together, particularly when the ride gets bumpy.

“I think forming that chemistry takes time," Manning said. “Certainly working together in the weight room is part of it. [Aqib] Talib getting to know Chris Harris; DeMarcus [Ware] getting to know [Kevin] Vickerson and [Derek] Wolfe and Von [Miller] -- the guys he's going to be rushing with; for me, getting to know [Emmanuel] Sanders. It's not an overnight process. That's something that we have done in the past. I think that's been a big part of some of the wins we've had -- is our offseason work and how guys have spent time together and put the time in together."

In the post-spinal-fusion portion of his career, Manning has always said he would keep playing if he believed he could still compete at the level he wants, and as long as he still enjoyed the preparation as well as the effort it takes physically to get ready to play.

So while the regular season is still a long way off, Manning, having already worked with the team's pass-catchers while at Duke, has made it pretty clear he's ready to get back to business -- and that the expectation is everyone else will be, too.
When it comes to where the Denver Broncos are pointing in next month's draft, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has consistently said the team will keep working to upgrade its defense.

To that end Kiper has pointed the team to that side of the ball much of the time in his mock drafts thus far, and stays with that theme in his latest as well.


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SteelersAP Photo/David RichardDenver hopes Emmanuel Sanders can not only replace, but also exceed Eric Decker's production.
When the Denver Broncos prepared themselves for free agency, they did what any team in the supply and demand business of roster spots would do: The decision-makers looked at their free agents and assigned each a value.

Then executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said those free agents would be allowed to test the market. And what that often really means is the team believes those players will get more in the open market than it would be willing to pay to keep them.

That turned out to be true for guard Zane Beadles as well as running back Knowshon Moreno and it really turned out to be true for wide receiver Eric Decker. Decker got a five-year, $36.25 million deal from the New York Jets that includes $15 million guaranteed.

The Broncos then signed Emmanuel Sanders, the player who at the moment is Decker's replacement, to a three-year, $15 million deal. The Broncos see Sanders as a more versatile, more athletic player overall than Decker, one who can play both outside and in the slot.

Decker did play in the slot at times in his tenure with the Broncos, but the current regime saw him as an outside receiver only. Sanders has quick-twitch ability with the ball and creates missed tackles with the hope of more catch-and-run yardage.

Both he and Decker have had difficulties at times with drops. But the coming season may, or may not, show how much of Decker's emergence as a receiver with back-to-back 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown seasons had to do with playing in an offense with Manning.

And for his part Sanders will have the chance to show if he can go from a guy whose top two seasons have been 626 yards in 2012 and 740 yards in 2013 to something more.

Manning got his first up-close look at Sanders in recent workouts at Duke University -- where Manning's long-time friend and former offensive coordinator at Tennessee, David Cutcliffe, is head coach. By all accounts Manning came away feeling good about Sanders' potential in the offense.

Or as Manning put it Wednesday morning, before he spoke at a fundraising breakfast for the Boy Scouts at the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver: "I had a chance to throw with Sanders down there in North Carolina and I'm excited about playing with him."

At first blush unless the Broncos add a bigger receiver in next month's draft, they are smaller, as a group, with the Sanders-for-Decker swap. Decker is 6-foot-3, 214 pounds as compared to Sanders' 5-11, 180 pounds.

Since Manning's arrival two years ago, defensive coordinators routinely talked about the difficulty in matching up with Decker, Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229) and tight end Julius Thomas (6-5, 250) in the red zone where Manning can put the ball up for his guys to go get it. That was particularly true from the doorstep with five of Decker's 11 touchdown catches this past season were for three or fewer yards.

The Broncos hope, however, Sanders can win some of those battles with quickness to give Manning the room/opportunity to throw to him in the more confined spaces once the Broncos' offense is inside the opponents' 15-yard line.

Whether he was running across the formation or worked to the side where he lined up, Decker's catches were fairly well dispersed all over the field this past season. He made 34.5 percent of his catches to the offensive right, 41.4 percent to the offensive left and 20.7 percent in the middle of the field.

Sanders, too, would project a similar dispersal given his ability to line up anywhere the Broncos want him to in their three-wide look. The Broncos, though, believe Sanders can do even more after the catch even as the Broncos receivers led the NFL in that category overall last season.

Decker had 47 percent of his catches go for 10 or fewer yards last season, 69 percent for 15 or fewer yards. The Broncos hope Sanders can push a higher percentage of his catch-and-runs toward bigger yardage totals, but for Sanders' part he will have to be ready to play more snaps than he has in the past.

Decker was in the 1,000-snap club last season -- 1,050, or 87 percent of the Broncos plays -- and had 15 games when he played at least 50 snaps. Only Thomas played more than Decker (1,106 snaps) among the Broncos' pass-catchers.

Wes Welker played 770 snaps, or 63.8 percent of the plays, before missing games down the stretch with a concussion and Julius Thomas checked in at 901 snaps (74.6 percent).

The Broncos threw more than the Steelers did in '13, 675 pass attempts as compared to the Steelers' 586, and Sanders played at least 50 snaps in nine of 16 games last season. When the Steelers still had Mike Wallace in 2012, Sanders played at least 50 snaps in five games.

Sanders has played in 16 games in each of the last two seasons, but has never started more than 10 games in any season of his career.

But if things go as the Broncos want, and need them to go, he'll certainly have the chance to change that this time around.
When Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball arrives Monday morning for the start of the team’s offseason conditioning program, he can expect to carry the expectations of being a starter as he goes about his business.

A task the guy who will hand him the ball in the coming season -- quarterback Peyton Manning -- says Ball is ready to handle. Manning said Wednesday morning, before he made an appearance as the keynote speaker at a fundraising breakfast for the Boy Scouts in Denver, he believes Ball has prepared himself for the job.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey"I thought Montee had a great year, I thought he learned a lot in his first year," Peyton Manning said of Montee Ball.
"There is no question with the loss of Knowshon [Moreno] -- who was just nothing short of awesome for us this past year and was a great teammate -- that Montee is going to have more responsibilities, and I think he will answer that challenge," Manning said. "I think he has the work ethic, I think he has the mental capabilities to handle the workload and I look forward to having a full offseason with him."

Ball, who finished his rookie season with 559 yards rushing and 20 receptions, will be asked to fill the significant role Moreno played in the offense last season. Moreno led the team with 1,038 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, to go with 60 receptions.

Moreno, who signed a one-year deal in Miami, was also the most consistent player in pass protection the Broncos had and that was ultimately why Moreno moved into the starting role last season. The Broncos had used Ronnie Hillman (a third-round pick in 2012) as the No. 1 back through their offseason work last spring and summer, and had begun to take a look at Ball (a second-round pick last April) during training camp for that role as well.

But then Ball missed a blitz pickup in the Broncos’ preseason loss in Seattle, and Bobby Wagner blasted Manning in what was one of the biggest hits Manning has taken in his tenure in Denver. Moreno’s snap count kept increasing following that game and neither Ball nor Hillman could unseat Moreno once the regular season began.

Ball also lost three fumbles in the first 11 games, but showed steady improvement. He didn’t fumble the rest of the way, and the Broncos had slotted him in as the potential starter since season’s end.

"I thought Montee had a great year, I thought he learned a lot in his first year," Manning said. "In my past, I’ve seen a lot of development in guys from their first year to their second year … I look forward to getting even closer with him as far as being on the same page."
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DENVER -- Standing behind a podium perched atop what will be playoff ice for the Colorado Avalanche in the coming days and surrounded by a crowd of Eagle Scouts and those hoping to be, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning offered his thoughts Wednesday on leadership, work ethic and community service.

He told a football story or two, including one about his first trip into a game-day huddle as the University of Tennessee quarterback. And within all those words was also a clear-eyed glimpse into Manning as a professional quarterback, into what the Broncos face in 2014.

When, in making a point about wrestling with, and ultimately overcoming, adversity, Manning told those assembled we must all "learn to thrive on discomfort."

Ah, discomfort. Maybe something on the order of a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, perhaps, or a double-overtime loss in the divisional round a season before. Maybe two playoff trips with home-field advantage, two 13-3 finishes, a pile of team and league passing and scoring records, and no Super Bowl ring to show for them.

Yeah, that’s some professional football discomfort, all right.

The Broncos thrived in the discomfort left from the shocking playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens in January 2013. They went on to win the division again and, this time, played their way into Super Bowl XLVIII after a season during which Manning hit career marks in almost every offensive statistical category, including NFL records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). The Broncos also became the first team in league history to top 600 points in a season.

That was before the Super Sunday cave-in, a football sinkhole in which the Broncos watched all their title hopes and dreams cascade into the abyss. Most troubling to those in and around the team was the fact after a bad snap on their first offensive play of the game, the Broncos didn’t respond, and one bad play became another and another until they were on the short list of most lopsided Super Bowl losses.

That they didn't rise up and put up a good scrap, make a game of it. The Seattle Seahawks simply looked more prepared, more talented, more motivated -- just more of everything.

Two Januarys ago, when the Broncos lost to the Ravens, John Elway, the team’s chief football decision-maker, said the Broncos should remember 2012 was a good season, but that those with the team couldn’t be "afraid to be honest with ourselves."

Manning even said last season Elway had tried to create "an uncomfortable atmosphere" as the team moved into the 2013 season to make sure all involved remembered the sting of the loss. An atmosphere that seemed to suit the Broncos last season as they piled up the wins and touchdowns.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/John MinchilloThe Broncos stayed busy this offseason, adding key players in free agency to help Peyton Manning and Denver push for another postseason run.
It wasn’t always easy for those in the locker room -- expectations can be heavy when your boss is a Hall of Fame quarterback whom friends describe as the most competitive person to walk the planet, and the starting quarterback isn't far behind, if at all, in that department -- but, as Broncos coach John Fox routinely says, "if it were easy, everybody would be doing it." Winning is hard, an item Elway and Manning always want on the front burner. The burden of expectations gets a little heavier if opportunities to win the season's final game are lost, squandered or both.

Wednesday, in what was his first significant public appearance in Denver since the Super Bowl loss, Manning was in statesman mode, trying to help raise funds for the Boy Scouts in Colorado. His appearance filled the seats on the arena floor of the Pepsi Center.

Before he addressed the gathering, he lauded the Broncos' additions made in free agency -- players like Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward -- and lamented the departures of Champ Bailey, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno as he tried to leave at least some of the Super Bowl aftermath in the rearview mirror.

"First off, we lost many players and some great friends," Manning said. "It’s been a real pleasure to play the last two years with Champ, Knowshon, Eric, [linebacker] Wesley Woodyard, Chris Kuper retiring … I’m probably leaving a name or two out. That's the worst part about football. When you form some friendships with these guys and really put a lot of hard work in -- the business side comes into play.

"You have to move forward," Manning later added. "You have to kind of re-establish your identity of the 2014 team. The 2013 team -- it was a good season in a lot of ways. There is no question it did not end the way we wanted it to, but we have to find a way to build off that and take a step further -- try to finish."

This is where the Broncos will begin their trek into 2014: as a team trying to finish what it started, in many ways, when Elway, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Fox enticed Manning to sign in Denver.

They are a talented team with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. They were one of the most active and successful teams in filling needs in free agency. They have worked the draft well in the past three years and once again will carry the label as one of the Super Bowl favorites.

But they are also a team that let two rare title opportunities get away and are now trying to beat the odds to position themselves for another. They will have to deal, again, with the idea that many folks won’t much care what they do in the regular season if they aren’t the team catching the confetti next February.

They will be asked about the Super Bowl, about the window to win a championship closing and about what happened inside MetLife Stadium until they are sick of answering for it all. Truth be told, they might have been sick of it already, even as they dispersed into the offseason, and the wheel hasn't even really started to spin on all of that yet.

Manning himself might be asked to throw less so the offense can be more. To face the realities of age and four neck surgeries and use his remember-when mind to help diversify the team’s attack, not only to help give it a plan B but endorse it in what he calls at the line scrimmage if things don’t go right on another important football afternoon.

To, well, thrive in the discomfort.
John Elway's pictures -- including the jumbo shot of him celebrating with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after one of his Super Bowl wins -- hang outside the Denver Broncos' locker room and here and there in the team's suburban complex, but he doesn't often tell when-I-played-football stories unless asked.

He'll discuss the importance of team chemistry or the importance of a starting quarterback's ability to manage the role. He will talk about how he wishes he would have run less in his career and thrown more from the pocket. But he does not look for opportunities to say how things were done and how they should always be done.

His experience as a Hall of Fame quarterback and a former No. 1 pick are clear in the way he evaluates players for the draft. It doesn't always make him right. It doesn't even make him more right than those who never played a down in the NFL. But his experience does give him more of an understanding of the process.

Elway was the first pick of what was a gold-star draft. Perhaps the gold-star pick in a draft that had six Hall of Famers selected in the first round and another seven Hall of Famers selected overall in the 12-round affair.

In the weeks and months before the Colts picked him and then traded him to the Broncos, he listened to people break down his game -- the good, the bad and the stuff he never could quite figure out where it came from. He saw the anonymous quotes about his potential as a professional, the threat of a baseball career as some pre-draft leverage and the desire to not play for the Colts at that time in the franchise's history.

Granted, talk radio was not in the same galaxy as it is today and the publicly traveled Internet was still a decade or so away, but you can see Elway's experiences when asked about players in his current role as a talent evaluator.

Ask him if a quarterback should throw at the scouting combine and he routinely says, "I always want to see a guy throw, see him work with some really good receivers, but I understand. Why would you want to look bad? I understand if a guy makes a choice. Again, I always want to see a guy throw, but I do understand their thinking when they don't sometimes."

That's because Elway has a history with being on the other side of the equation. And as far as a relevant Elway draft stat, there is this: 4. That's the number of scouting combines available for players to participate in the year Elway came into the draft.

Scouting combines Elway actually attended: 0.

His reasoning? "I had bad knee, and I just didn't want everybody to see it."

That's right. He didn't go. He didn't throw. He didn't let teams poke, prod and X-ray him. He didn't attend interviews or take a Wonderlic. No one said he slouched, that he didn't make eye contact or that he was lazy.

But the draft interests people. The league's decision to move it down the calendar, to Mother's Day weekend no less, has provided more time for speculation. It's a different media environment than when Elway entered the draft. Quotes from anonymous sources this time of year can range from fib to outright lie as a means of misdirection.

Some teams want guys to fall so they can take them later; some teams want guys to rise so other people will pick them and leave them with the guys they really want. Whether any of it really works -- and plenty of folks who say it doesn't do it anyway -- is up for debate.

And maybe some guys really are lazy, or aren't really certain they want to play football, or are a little too short, a little too slow or can't keep themselves out of trouble. Those factors will all get tossed into the decisions that are made when the picks finally come off the board next month. All of those things -- especially character and chemistry -- matter, and they should matter just as much as talent.

But in the end, it isn't really a player's job to tell, or show, a team why it should, or shouldn't, take him. Because, well, that would be the lazy way out.

Broncos draft rewind: 2013

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As the guy at the top of the football flow chart for the Denver Broncos for the last three seasons, John Elway has now overseen three drafts for the team.

The Broncos have made 23 picks in those three drafts and found seven full-time starters. Denver hopes to be add to that total this season if things go as planned in May.

But let’s go inside each of those three drafts to see how things have gone and where they are headed.

Today: 2013.

First pick: Sylvester Williams, 28th overall. When the Broncos selected him last April they saw an every-down option, a potentially disruptive interior pass rusher and a player also strong enough to play with power in run defense as well.

Given Williams’ personal history -- a stint working on an assembly line in a factory before deciding to walk on to play football in junior college -- the Broncos also saw a player with plenty of room to grow on the developmental curve to go with the work ethic that put him in the a position to be a first-round pick.

With Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson both having ended up on injured reserve last season, Williams went from being inactive on game day three times in the season’s first nine games to starting the team’s last four games of the regular season and three playoff games.

Starters: 1.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Jack DempseyBroncos running back Montee Ball wasn't technically a starter last season, but that should change in 2014.
With those seven starts in 2013, Williams was the only Broncos player from last April’s draft class to open that many games. He is the only "starter" in the group by the letter of the law at the moment.

But running back Montee Ball (second round) will be the second starter as soon as the Broncos open their offseason workouts. Ball, with 312 snaps this past season, actually played more overall than Williams (296 snaps) and finished as the team’s second-leading rusher with 559 yards.

Williams and Ball will continue to lead this draft class. With the Broncos expected to add some wrinkles -- and attention -- to the run game, Ball will have the potential for a breakout season.

Best value pick: At the moment it’s Ball. As the 58th player selected in the 2013 draft, Ball was the classic example of production over measurables in the pre-draft process.

He didn’t run as well as many of the other running backs on the board, but he plays faster, and showed good instincts with the ball. A lot of players talk about what needs to be done. Ball actually put in the time and effort to do those things. Ball improved in pass protection, boding well for the future. Despite few opportunities as a receiver in the run-first Wisconsin offense, he will function just fine catching the ball in the league.

Now’s the time: The Broncos expect and need Williams to take a significant jump this season. There are few positions -- other than quarterback -- where it is more difficult to move quickly into the lineup and have an impact as an NFL rookie.

NFL offensive guards are far stronger, move better and play smarter so the transition for the defensive tackle can be tough because there isn’t much room to work in the middle of the field. So once a defensive tackle is shut out of the play it is difficult for him to win the advantage back.

Williams flashed the ability to consistently win position off the snap down the stretch. If he takes the usual step between a rookie and second season, he should be one of the starters on the interior.

Gone: WR Tavarres King. The Broncos believed King, who had played in a school-record 56 games at Georgia, had the physical skills to go with some on-field maturity to get into their rotation as a rookie.

And King flashed those skills in camp, but he also showed a little too much ego and attitude for the Broncos’ liking at times, so they put him on the practice squad. But after a one-week move to the active roster last October, the Broncos tried to get him through waivers and back on the practice squad to bring Von Miller back from his six-game suspension.

King was signed by the Carolina Panthers, but did not play in any games last season. That hole in the draft class means the Broncos will be inclined to take a receiver out of this draft's exceptionally deep class.

More to come? Though the Broncos will give a long look to the cornerbacks in this year’s draft, cornerback Kayvon Webster (third round) will have the opportunity to earn plenty of playing time in the nickel and dime packages moving into the season.

With Champ Bailey's departure and Chris Harris Jr. still coming back from ACL surgery, Webster will have to be in the mix.

Also, defensive end Quanterus Smith (fifth round) did not play as a rookie after the Broncos placed him on injured reserve as training camp drew to a close. Smith, who had a three-sack game against an Alabama offensive line loaded with NFL draft picks in his senior season at Western Kentucky, had torn his ACL in his last collegiate season.

The Broncos tried him in the rotation in camp, but decided to move him to the IR in an attempt to bring him back at full speed this year. With Miller still working through his return from December ACL surgery, the Broncos could use Smith to come out of the gate strong.

Smith, at 255 pounds, is slightly undersized to play the power left end spot, but could have some opportunities to play there as Miller works his way back.
The Denver Broncos continue to get face-to-face with some of the prospects who have piqued their interest for next month’s draft.

They have been in front of their allotment at the college all-star games, the scouting combine and continue to do their homework as they bring many into their Dove Valley complex to meet with coaches and executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway.

Here is the first of an occasional look at the prospects who have attracted Denver's attention.

Fox
Fox
Combine a quality work ethic with a powerful frame and long arms and you have the kind of cornerback Broncos head coach John Fox, a former defensive backs coach when he entered the NFL, always talks about in Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller.

Fuller, who already has a brother in the NFL and carries a grade worthy of the Broncos’ first-round pick, is 5-foot-11 3/4, 190 pounds and ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at the combine (electronically timed). He has upper-tier ball skills and understands where receivers are trying to go as he consistently plays with good anticipation to get himself to the spot.

He is also a quality tackler. He missed time after surgery this past November for a sports hernia -- he missed five games and the Senior Bowl because of it -- and dealt with shoulder and groin injuries in 2012, but didn’t miss any games that season.

The bigger cornerbacks routinely move up the board once the actual picks get made, so there is plenty of question as to whether Fuller would even be there when the Broncos pick at 31.

Among the other defensive backs on their radar is Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, who sat with the team for the first time at the Senior Bowl. Bucannon ran a 4.49 at 211 pounds at the combine and his 78-inch armspan is among the biggest on the board at the position.

Among the defensive lineman on the board keep an eye on is Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. Hageman, at 6-5 7/8, 310 pounds is a top-tier athlete for a player his size -- he arrived to the Gophers as a tight end -- and carries a grade worthy of a pick in the bottom third of the first round. Connecticut defensive tackle Shamar Stephen is an interior player who, at 6-4 7/8, 309 pounds, will get a look down the board some. Stephen is adept at attacking double teams and very active/effective with his hands to shed blockers.

Elway has also routinely promised to look at quarterbacks in every draft no matter who the team has behind center, and has used a pick in 2012 (Brock Osweiler) and 2013 (Zac Dysert) to grab one with Peyton Manning on the top of the depth chart.

They still project Osweiler as the first starter in the post-Manning era, but Elway simply will not let the cupboard go bare. Among the quarterbacks the Broncos have met with are Miami’s Stephen Morris and Wyoming’s Brett Smith.

Both are down-the-board guys for the Broncos and are slightly undersized. For his part Morris is a two-time team captain who has the head for the game and the fire Elway likes in a passer. Smith is a get-it-done guy who will grind it out to make a play, and was a team captain as a sophomore.
Over the course of his work on this year’s draft, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has kept the Denver Broncos focused on defense, including last month’s mock draft when McShay had the Broncos selecting Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy with the 31st pick.

And in his latest effort -- a two-round mock -- McShay again has the Broncos opening their draft with a defensive player


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After center Will Montgomery's contract was filed with the NFL last week, the Denver Broncos used up most of what had been allotted to spend in these initial weeks of free agency. And they intend to stick to the budget.

"You know you're going to have some bumps in the road and we don't want to get so close [to the limit] you can't adjust," is how Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has put it. "We'll ease back after our initial work and keep our eyes open."

Montgomery signed a one-year deal last week that carries a salary cap hit of just more than $1.5 million. Montgomery will get a $50,000 roster bonus in August to go with another $75,000 bonus in Week 1 of the regular season.

Before the signing the Broncos had just under $6 million worth of workable salary cap space, so that total is close to $4 million at the moment. That figure includes just the top 51 players and with the May draft still on the docket. The Broncos will need to keep enough room to count all 53 players on the roster when final roster cuts are made this summer and to cover the potential of players on injured reserve.

The Broncos currently have seven picks in next month's draft and have allotted room for that.

So unless they want to release a player, they're largely done signing any free agent beyond a no-bonus, one-year minimum deal. Because they have spent most of the cash they had on hand in recent weeks, the Broncos have even tweaked the last two deals they've done -- Montgomery and Emmanuel Sanders -- to pay the bonuses later.

Sanders gets the actual payment of the bulk of his "up front" money in a bonus payment next year.

Before free agency started the Broncos were among the teams in the best shape in terms of "dead" money -- salary cap charges for players no longer on the roster -- but did add a bit in recent weeks. They are still among the 11 teams with fewer than $6 million in dead money charges, but they added the bulk of theirs since the end of the season and the start of free agency.

They took a $2.1 million hit when the second year of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's original contract voided five days after the Super Bowl. They also took a $1.83 million dead money charge when Chris Kuper retired last month.

Those two players account for 67.8 percent of the Broncos' current dead money total. The charge for the player who has been gone the longest is $500,000 for running back Willis McGahee, who was released last spring.
Three consecutive AFC West titles, back-to-back 13-3 finishes and a Super Bowl are certainly cause for pause in a business where getting any of that done is difficult at best.

But the Denver Broncos didn’t re-up head coach John Fox because that was enough. The team slid another contract in front of Fox because they think there’s more to be done and that he understands that.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox, John Elway
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliRecently extended head coach John Fox knows his boss John Elway wants more from the Broncos than just Super Bowl appearances.
“We’ve got work to do,’’ Fox said.

Or as executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway put it; “We like the direction, we like where were are compared to where we were, but we’re here to compete for world championships, this year, next year, every year. People keep telling me we’re acting like we want to win now. I want to win now, but I want to win every year and we’re going to try to make decisions that are the best for the Denver Broncos to make sure we can.’’

When the Broncos and Fox/Fox's agent Bob LaMonte finished the negotiations for Fox’s deal -- which now runs through the 2016 season and puts him in the $5 million a year club -- the message got through. Both sides had a chance to give and take in the give and take.

The message that, despite how folks outside the Broncos’ Dove Valley complex feel, this it isn’t just about this year. The good the Broncos have done since the 4-12 finish in 2010 is, well, good, but not everything they want for owner Pat Bowlen.

“I couldn’t be happier being part of this organization,’’ Fox said this weekend. “We’ve made some strides, but we’re not a finished product by any means. And we talked about winning championships, we’ve won three AFC West championships, one AFC (title), but now the goal, and always has been, bringing a Super Bowl championship back to Denver.’’

So, in the end the Broncos wanted Fox to hear the message that three consecutive division titles is a quality run, but the team’s decision-makers would still like a little more. Especially since the Broncos have let two opportunities to put another Super Bowl trophy in Bowlen’s lobby slip away in the last two seasons.

The kind of opportunities many teams haven’t even seen once, let alone have repeated in a 12-month span.

Fox understands where the Broncos are coming from and conveyed that in his discussions with Elway after the 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII. After all, Fox would like to put a Super Bowl ring on his own finger as well.

And Fox, having lived through a miserable season in his final year in Carolina when he was also in the last year of his deal, wanted a little more stability in his pocket when dealing with the players in his locker room, the meeting rooms and on the practice field. He also got a nice raise and will get a bonus if the Broncos do win a Super Bowl on his watch.

“We’re ready to get to work and happy it worked out, and it worked out for both sides,’’ Fox said. “ … We’ve got things to do now and over the long haul.’’
John FoxJustin Edmonds/Getty ImagesJohn Fox, 59, is 34-14 with three AFC West titles in his three seasons with the Broncos.
At the start of free agency, John Elway was asked about the chances of the Denver Broncos making the effort to bring back some of their players who were set to test the market.

The Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager said:

“The market sets the prices."

When it comes to NFL head coaches, the market has been set in recent weeks. On Friday, Pete Carroll, 62, signed a three-year extension with the Seattle Seahawks that runs through the 2016 season.

Carroll’s deal had been set to expire following the 2014 season.

Like Carroll, Denver coach John Fox’s contract was set to expire following the 2014 season. And like Carroll and the Seahawks, the Broncos and Fox came together on a three-year extension Friday. Despite some who said the fact things had not been wrapped with Fox meant there was potential trouble on the horizon, both Fox and Elway had consistently expressed optimism a deal would get done.

There were talks at the scouting combine in February, and Elway said at the league meetings in Orlando, Fla., last week that Fox’s deal was “the next thing on the agenda."

The only way a deal wouldn't have gotten done is if one side had simply pushed too hard to win. If the Broncos tried to dig in a little too hard on the money, Fox could have ended up coaching the coming season without an extension. And if Fox’s agent, Bob LaMonte, had pushed too much, also on the money or for too many years, the Broncos might have folded their arms to simply wait and see.

Fox signed a four-year deal worth about $3 million per year in 2011, and he would have received a $1 million bonus had the Broncos won Super Bowl XLVIII in February, but Denver was bullied 43-8 by Carroll's team. And this is where Carroll’s deal comes in. Essentially, welcome to the market being set.

After all, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl and looked like a far better prepared team on the way to a 35-point win. Carroll is 38-26 as the Seahawks’ coach and 5-2 in the playoffs.

That is where the fence stands. Win the big trophy as a 60-something head coach, get a three-year extension.

Fox just turned 59 in February, he’s 34-14 with three AFC West titles in his three seasons with the Broncos, and he helped recalibrate the franchise to dig out of the crater that was the 4-12 finish in 2010.

However, the Broncos have also let quality championship opportunities slip through their fingers with a double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to end their 2012 season, to go with February’s title-game rout. Those two games alone, at least from the Broncos’ perspective, could have pushed Fox out of consideration for a three-year extension, and there were rumblings to that effect in and around the team early in the talks. But this is where the Broncos stepped up to get things done.

Again, the market had been set. Seven active head coaches have won Super Bowls, and Fox is not one of them. But Elway has repeatedly said, including last week, he likes the direction the team has gone in the last three years, and that he didn't expect any major hurdles in the negotiations, but also always added he expected the team to take the next step.

To not just play for a title, but to win one. And Fox obviously outlined his plan to get that done to Elway's satisfaction.

Those who know Fox well know he did not enjoy coaching the Carolina Panthers in the last year of his contract there in 2010, when the roster was scraped to the foundation and the Panthers limped to a 2-14 finish. Fox knew for that dismal season that the Panthers had no intention of bringing him back no matter what happened.

But coaching a team coming off back-to-back 13-3 finishes with Peyton Manning at quarterback in the last year of your contract isn't in the same football galaxy of what Fox went through in 2010. And at the league meetings, Fox said the sides were “working on it."

“Really I’m going to coach my rear end off no matter what happens," Fox said. “That’s in people’s hands, and I feel confident something will happen. But either way I’m going to be fine, I’m under contract ... They’re talking and working on it ... Everybody’s got good intentions, we’ll see where it goes."

Where it went is where all involved expected, and they all did what needed to be done to get there.
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The best way to get the best answers is to ask somebody who knows. Not somebody who just says they know, or acts like they know, but those who really know.

My dad worked for the railroad for several decades. Up early, home late, holidays, weekends, whatever, the trains always had to be on time, the boxcars always had places they needed to be.

"People need their groceries," he always used to say.

In the piles of questions I once fired his way in the years gone by because he really knew about so many things, there were always a few about if he liked his job or not, if he hated working Christmas or if he ever got yelled at by anybody.

And one of the items he left me with was, “A job isn’t everything you are or you’re gonna be, but you can tell the people who take pride in their work, right away, no matter what it is.’’

Count Champ Bailey as one of those people.

And after 10 seasons around Bailey in Denver, and a few more years around some others equally as gifted in their own ways, one of the things that is clear is a person simply cannot survive 15 years and beyond as a professional football player without some luck, a pile of talent and pride in their work.

Sure, the money can be great. And for those with some star power, the fame and fortune are life changing.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsWith his experience, the Saints will be looking to Champ Bailey for more than just on-field production.
But when Bailey agreed to a two-year deal with the New Orleans Saints on Friday, it put his 16th season on deck. And 16 seasons for a cornerback puts you on the shortest of lists. Bailey got there because he began his career with immense talent, fluid athleticism, unshakable confidence and a willingness to study.

He has learned the game -- he routinely cites Deion Sanders and Darrell Green, two of his early teammates in Washington as important mentors -- he has adjusted to every tweak of the rulebook and every "point of emphasis" given to the league’s officiating department to take away more and more of what defensive backs could do in coverage. He's worked through injuries and through an almost annual change in his team’s defensive coordinator until he got Jack Del Rio in back-to-back seasons in his last two years in Denver.

Bailey, who has been named to the Pro Bowl 12 times, waited 15 seasons to play in his first Super Bowl to close out this past season, but the foot injury that hounded him for much of 2013 robbed him of some of what he could do to try to get the ring he covets. It was an odd scene, watching the Seahawks pick on Bailey in the Super Bowl.

There were many years when nobody threw his way, ever. So much so he said, "Some games you’re out there just doing sprints."

And while his place in his era, at his position, will be argued, Bailey has not only been one of the best ever in coverage, he has been the best tackler of the "shutdown cornerbacks" of his generation. He has played the run when others wouldn’t, so much so he once blew out his shoulder making a run-play tackle on the dirt of what was then the Florida Marlins’ infield and has worn a brace on the shoulder since.

Former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer once called Bailey "not just a great tackler, but an elite tackler … one of the best I’ve ever seen or anybody else will ever see."

He should have been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006, with 10 interceptions and in his decade on the Front Range he saw the Broncos bobble three spectacular chances to win a Super Bowl in 2005, 2012 and 2013 with losses in the AFC Championship Game, the divisional round and Super Bowl XLVIII, respectively.

The Broncos made the tough call when they released Bailey right before the start of free agency. “Time to move on’’ is how the team put it.

"I can’t thank him enough for what he did for me and our organization," head coach John Fox said last week. "… I’ll miss him, we’ll miss him, it’s a business, it happens."

The Broncos never really postured that they were going to bring Bailey back in any fashion -- Bailey said they didn’t make any sort of offer for a pay cut or a change of position when they released him -- but as long as Bailey was unsigned the door was still cracked a hair in the minds of some of the team’s faithful.

The door is closed all the way now. But five years or so after Bailey retires the Broncos will put his name up in the team’s Ring of Fame and he will be in one of those first-ballot discussions for the Hall of Fame.

But first, Bailey will join the Saints, and how they use him remains to be seen. Will he line up on the outside, feeling healthier than he did this past season, or will Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan find some kind of safety-nickel corner role for him?

No matter the task at hand, there will be pride and there will be work. And everyone else in the defensive backs’ meeting room should be ready to ask a lot of questions.

Because those players likely won't ever have a chance to sit next to a player like Bailey again.
The Denver Broncos watch the recoveries of all of their surgically-repaired players with great interest, but the recovery timetable of one of those players will have the most significant impact on the kind of defense the Broncos will play in the 2014 season.

Is it Von Miller? Well, the Broncos certainly want their Pro Bowl linebacker back to his 2012 production level-self when he returns from ACL surgery because an elite edge rusher is a foundation player in roster building. But, no, it's not him.

Is it Derek Wolfe? The Broncos would like Wolfe, who did not play after suffering seizure-like symptoms in late November, to return to their defensive line rotation and be the impactful player up front they believed he could be when they took him in the second round of the 2012 draft. But, no, it's not him.

It's cornerback Chris Harris Jr. By all accounts Harris Jr. is progressing well from his ACL surgery. Harris signed his one-year tender offer this week. The one-year deal, now guaranteed since Harris Jr. has signed it, is worth $2.187 million in the coming season.

The Broncos had placed a second-round pick on Harris Jr. as compensation had he signed an offer sheet from another team. But the Broncos had the right to match any offer Harris Jr. would have received from another team and would have quickly done so had anybody else tried to sign him.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
John Leyba/Getty ImagesChris Harris Jr.'s ability to play both outside at cornerback and inside in the slot against any receiver makes him a rare player in the league.
But in a pass-happy league, Harris Jr.'s ability to play both outside at cornerback and inside in the slot against any receiver makes him a rare player in the league.

In fact there are some in the league who believe, after a franchise quarterback, the cornerback who can play effectively down inside at the nickel spot may be the most difficult to find. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway says there is only a short list to work from when you look at draft prospects each year.

“And that's where it's really getting difficult, and maybe the most valuable guy right now is the guy who can come down and play in the slot,'' said ESPN's Herm Edwards, a former NFL defensive back who has also coached the secondary and called plays on defense in the league. “When you get that guy he can play a long time. He's got to do everything, a unique, valuable guy, who can cover, blitz, tackle and play outside and inside and do all of that while being technically sound.''

It is how Harris Jr. has gone from inexplicably going undrafted as a rookie in 2012 to such a key role in the Broncos' defense. He's ultra competitive, quick, rebounds from the few mistakes he does make quickly and can cover bigger receivers outside as well as the smaller, fast-twitch quick players on the inside.

Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, said the nickel corner has one of the toughest jobs because things happen quickly in the middle of the field and there is no benefit of a sideline “where you can force a guy to cut him off from the ball. Inside you're always in the open and if you make a mistake the quarterback can pounce fast.''

“When you play outside the boundary is your friend, you're always playing to a boundary,'' Edwards said. “It's there to help you. When you play the nickel you're in the middle of the field, and there's always a void in the defense between the numbers, between the hashes, there's always an empty spot. If a guy beats you there, you're done on defense the guy catches it and now he's running ... And it all happens fast in there.''

It's why Harris Jr. was easily the Broncos' most important restricted free agent and also may have been their most important player from their own roster who was poised for some kind of free agency. Replacing Harris would have likely, in the opinion of many personnel executives around the league, been more difficult for the Broncos than replacing Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Zane Beadles or Shaun Phillips -- all players who signed elsewhere.

Harris Jr. is still on track to return to full speed from ACL surgery -- an injury he suffered in the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers this past January -- and projects as a starter at corner alongside Aqib Talib. And while Talib has played inside at times in his career, Harris Jr. still projects to move into the slot when the Broncos go to the nickel and if they haven't matched Talib on a receiver who has moved into the slot to try and escape him.

Elway said last week at the NFL meetings that the timeframe for Harris Jr. to get back to full speed was not the same as other players who have had ACL surgery because Harris Jr. did not damage any other ligaments or cartilage and the ACL was not completely torn.

“But when you have that guy -- and I've coached guys who it took a year and half to even get comfortable in the nickel role -- and you can rely on that guy to move wherever you need him to, you have to keep him,'' Edwards said. “Because if you don't you're going to have to spend a lot of time trying to get yourself another one.''

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