AFC West: Denver Broncos

Broncos got Ware to lead defense

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
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DeMarcus WareJohn Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesIn DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos have Peyton Manning's counterpart on defense.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In his time as the Denver Broncos' chief football decision-maker, John Elway has exercised age restraint in free agency. He's willing to get aggressive in the annual auction, but he's also looking for younger players -- in their 20s -- on their first trek into free agency.

However, Elway has made two very large exceptions. He signed quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012 and linebacker DeMarcus Ware this past March.

"I like getting Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders," Elway said. "That's a different set of circumstances, I think."

Manning was coming off a missed season in 2011 after his fourth neck surgery and certainly carried a large question mark regarding the rest of his career. But after a 26-6 mark in his 32 regular-season starts for the Broncos, it might go down as the greatest free-agency play in franchise history.

Elway hopes the Ware signing will work out in similar fashion. The seven-time Pro Bowl selection signed for three years and $30 million, $20 million of which is guaranteed. And in a free-agency binge that still largely insulated the team from salary-cap risk beyond the first year of the deals, Ware's contract, like Manning's, is the one that carries some risk.

But when Elway looked across the desk at Ware during his March visit, he saw a player in the league's 100-sack club, and as he put it: "I thought he had plenty of football, good football, left in him and a guy who was ready to go after that world championship the way we want to go after a world championship."

After the Broncos' lopsided loss in the Super Bowl, Elway was searching for ways to bring a game-day attitude -- not misplaced swagger, but real, bring-it-down-to-down edge -- to the defense. He wanted a unit with confidence that would show pride in its work.

Elway believes he will get all of it and more in Ware, a proven, lead-by-example, been-there-done-that player. Ware simply goes about the business of being great without feeling the need to remind people he's doing it.

"He's like that guy who's seen it all, done it all, and he's calm, you know?” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. "But he's fiery inside, he works every day to be better, he's got huge pride. Huge pride."

Ware's pride may be part of the reason he shrugs off the conventional wisdom, that he's what NFL personnel men often call 30-somethings a "declining player," or that he's injury prone.

"I've heard that," said Ware, who was voted one of the team's five captains on Monday. "I've heard a lot of people say that. I would say I've been healthy for a long time, I've missed three games my whole career. I hurt my hamstring and I blew my labrum out one year, hurt my elbow. But I missed three games ever. Right now, I feel like I'm healthy as I've ever been.”

The Broncos are betting on Ware's past and what they see in his future. The lure of a Super Bowl ring is a powerful one. Ware said, deep down, he didn't think the Dallas Cowboys would release him -- "didn't think they would do it, until about a week before they did" -- when he wouldn't redo his deal.

"I would say, I'm not that different from anybody else in that you want to feel wanted; I think everybody is like that," Ware said. "I was surprised, very surprised when [the Cowboys] told me. It took me like three months to really get over it, sort of take that ethical hat off and put that business hat on and say it is a business and you have to pick up and move, because that stuff happens. So at the end of the day, it's how you handle that change. It can make you or break you. I won't let it break me."

With the Broncos and Manning, Ware has found just the spot he was looking for to dial it in again.

"As a person you want to always quiet the critics, but you're not going to quiet all of them; some won't admit you proved them wrong, anyway.” Ware said. "But I know they say, ‘you're not as elastic, you're older.' I say come watch me play, come watch me practice, come watch what we do. That's just how I look at it.”

Ware hasn't played in a playoff game since the 2009 season -- which can seem like early geologic time in the NFL. Once the Cowboys sent him to the open market, getting back to the postseason became his focus. The Broncos put on the hard sell and ponied up the cash, and Ware already has the look of a captain who's been in the team's complex far longer than five months or so.

When CEO Joe Ellis elected to inform three players before the announcement that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen would be stepping away from day-to-day operations because of Alzherimer's disease, Ellis told Manning, special teams captain David Bruton and Ware, who hadn't even worn a Broncos' game-day uniform to that point.

"When you come in, it's your résumé," Ware said. "But people have to find out what kind of person you are, what you mean to the team and what you bring to the team. My approach is to be a building block to the defense."

The Broncos see the power of Ware's knowledge of the pass rush. They see the speed-to-power transition scouts will forever mark in their notebooks. They see a mentor for Miller. Ware, who has dropped his playing weight 10 pounds to 255, is working with the team's young players in between drills and carrying himself like a veteran in the building.

"He's very good with his hands," said Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady, a three-time Pro Bowl selection. "He's taught me a few things over the past few months about working hands. That's one thing he's definitely an expert on."

"He just knows," Miller said. "He's seen it, done it. He's got all those little things that make you do big things."

If the Broncos are right, if Elway has won another push-the-chips-in bet in free agency, the league's most high-powered offense will have an equal partner on defense. The proof will come on the field, starting with the Broncos' season opener Sunday night against Indianapolis.

"You come here, you feel like they have people who know what it takes, who've been there and know what it takes to get back," Ware said. "Right from John Elway down, they want to win, not just this year, not just next year -- every year. The clock is always ticking here. I think I can help, they think I can help. That's enough for me."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Things could still change if the Denver Broncos look at the hundreds of players who were sent into the open market in recent days and see a name or two they like.

But when the clock struck the 4 p.m. ET roster deadline on Saturday, the roster in place wasn’t exactly the one some folks might have thought it would be.

First off, after their substantial plunge into free agency last March -- almost unprecedented for a Super Bowl team -- the Broncos have routinely been tabbed as “all in" or “win now."

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway, Peyton Manning
AP Photo/ Eric BakkePeyton Manning is the oldest player on the roster assembled by John Elway and the Broncos' front office. But the team as a whole has plenty of youth.
The career clock for quarterback Peyton Manning, at 38 years old, is certainly ticking, and they make no secret of their Super-Bowl-or-bust intentions. But the current Broncos roster has 13 players who are 23 years old or younger (24.5 percent) and seven rookies made a team in the Super Bowl conversation, including five members of a six-player draft class and two undrafted rookies.

Overall, there are 39 players entering their fifth NFL season or younger on this roster (73.6 percent). The Broncos will have three high-profile players start the season-opener next Sunday night -- Manning, DeMarcus Ware and center Manny Ramirez -- who are older than 30 and possibly a fourth if Wes Welker, who suffered a concussion in the preseason game against the Houston Texans, is in the lineup.

Some of the team's moves were motivated by the salary cap, to be sure. The Broncos have been nudged up against it since the free agency binge. But general manager John Elway has consistently maintained, even with the checkbook in hand at times, that he has more of a long-term approach than many believe he does. In fact, if you'd like to see the Hall of Fame quarterback get his hackles up, just ask him about a win-now approach.

“We were happy with the draft when we went through it in May and then they just proceeded to work hard and get better so, especially when you get deeper into this, as active as we were in free agency, to be able to keep our draft picks is something we want to do and continue to have that be our base," Elway said when discussing this year’s cuts. “We’re excited with the guys and they are, at this point in time, everything we hoped they would be.”

Among that youth is what is likely one of the youngest position groups in the league at running back. The four Broncos running backs include a rookie (Juwan Thompson), two players entering their second seasons (Montee Ball, C.J. Anderson) and a player entering his third season (Ronnie Hillman).

“I like them. I’ve said that all along," Elway said. “We feel good where we are at the running back position -- good, young guys that we feel are going to continue to get better."

Some other roster nuggets:

  • Of all the football-playing colleges and universities in the country, Kansas, Tennessee and Texas Tech lead the way on the Broncos' roster with three players each.
  • Manning is the oldest current Broncos player at 38. rookie receiver Cody Laitmer is the youngest, at 21. Hillman, at 22 and starting his third season, is the same age as four of the Broncos’ rookies and younger than two of the Broncos rookies. Michael Schofield and Lamin Barrow, who are both 23.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After a whirlwind arrival to the Denver Broncos, which saw Brandon McManus kicking field goals for the team just two days after being acquired by the team, the Broncos have decided to keep McManus around for a bit.

The Broncos worked out another kicker Saturday -- former Washington State kicker Andrew Furney -- but when the initial cut to 53 players was made, McManus was still the kicker tabbed to fill in for Matt Prater. Prater is suspended for the first four games of the season for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy.

Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway was asked Saturday evening if he was still confident in McManus, who was 2-of-4 in the Broncos' preseason finale against the Dallas Cowboys Thursday night with misses from 52 and 54 yards -- both kicks were wide right -- to go with field goals from 20 and 40 yards.

“I am now," Elway said. “He’s going to be our guy now. He got in here late last week, he’s got a tremendously strong leg and he’s got a lot of upside. I’ve got a lot of confidence once he gets working with the center and [holder Brandon] Colquitt, get used to that, he’ll be much better off. I think Brandon will be fine for us."

The Broncos sent a conditional seventh-round draft pick to the New York Giants on Tuesday, brought McManus on the trip to Texas on Wednesday, and he kicked Thursday night in AT&T Stadium. The Broncos like McManus’ overall leg strength, and he had touchbacks on all five of his kickoffs against the Cowboys.

The Broncos will face the Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals during Prater’s suspension. Because of a Week 4 bye for the Broncos, Prater will not be eligible to return to practice until Oct. 6 and cannot be reinstated to play in a game until the Broncos’ Week 6 game against the New York Jets on Oct. 12.

McManus was 2-of-2 in field goal attempts for the Giants in the preseason.

Denver Broncos cut-down analysis

August, 30, 2014
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Most significant move: There were not many roster spots to be had when the Denver Broncos opened training camp, but right from the start it was clear their depth on the defensive line was far better than it was in 2013 and that a player who was previously a starter could certainly get caught in the squeeze. That player was Kevin Vickerson, who started 11 games last season for the Broncos and 41 games in his four seasons with the team. But the Broncos had at least some salary-cap concerns this time around and Vickerson’s $2.266 million cap figure to go with the play of Mitch Unrein, Marvin Austin and youngster Quanterus Smith cost Vickerson his spot. Unrein also played some at defensive end in the preseason, showing a little more versatility and the Broncos will save about $1.766 million against the cap with Vickerson’s release. The Broncos also had at least some long-term concerns about Vickerson’s hip, which he injured last Nov. 24 before going to injured reserve.

Undrafted not unwanted: Running back Juwan Thompson made it 11 years in a row the Broncos have had an undrafted rookie make the cut to 53 players. Thompson, part of a platoon system at Duke, consistently showed the well-rounded game the Broncos want from their backs throughout offseason workouts and training camp. At 225 pounds, he is the team’s biggest back, has lined up at both fullback and running back, shown good instincts in pass protection and catches the ball. He's just the kind of guy the Broncos want at the position, and he gives them quality special teams ability as well.

Stick to it: Ben Garland, after two years on the Broncos’ practice squad, a two-year active duty stint in the Air Force and a position switch from defensive tackle to the offensive line this past offseason, made the Broncos’ initial cut to 53. Garland is always the first volunteer for off-the-field community appearances and routinely has lined up on both sides of the ball for the scout team. He steadily worked his way up the depth chart to second-team guard by the end of the preseason. He played every offensive snap in the Broncos’ preseason finale against the Dallas Cowboys.

What’s next: Because of their Super Bowl appearance, the Broncos sit at No. 31 in the waiver claim order. It means, save for a cursory look at a returner or a kicker -- they worked out Andrew Furney on Satuday -- they will likely go with what they have.

Broncos moves: K Matt Prater placed on reserve/suspended. DE Kenny Anunike placed on injured reserve. LB Shaquil Barrett, RB Kapri Bibbs, S John Boyett, QB Zac Dysert, LB L.J. Fort, WR Bennie Fowler, DT Sione Fua, S Duke Ihenacho, TE Jameson Konz, G Ryan Miller, TE Cameron Morrah, CB Jerome Murphy, T Vinston Painter, WR Nathan Palmer, C Matt Paradis, TE Gerell Robinson, DE Brian Sanford, DB Jordan Sullen, DT Vickerson and CB Lou Young were waived or released, depending on their experience level.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos wrapped up their preseason Thursday night with the same major revelation they opened it with – that there isn’t much room on the depth chart for surprises and the land of opportunity is actually just a sliver of ground with room for a new backup or two to go with some special-teams players.

The Broncos are likely deeper than the team that lost Super Bowl XLVIII by 35 points as well as, front to back, top to bottom, more athletic as well.

Whether or not that translates into another shot at the title remains to be seen, but here are some final takeaways from the Broncos' summer work:

  • [+] EnlargeBradley Roby
    Jack Dempsey/AP PhotoThe Broncos threw a lot at rookie cornerback Bradley Roby, and his mental toughness showed in training camp.
    It’s often difficult for rookie to carve out meaningful snaps on a team like the Broncos, but if the preseason is an indication the Broncos are going to get quality time from cornerback Bradley Roby (first round), wide receiver Cody Latimer (second round) and linebacker Lamin Barrow (fifth round) while Michael Schofield (third round) nudged his way into a backup tackle spot. Roby will get plenty of work in the team’s specialty packages and perhaps his best attribute beyond his obvious height/weight/speed numbers has been when the Broncos offense picked on him in practice, he kept his head, kept lining up and battling. The fruits of those labors will be in his playing time, because he showed the kind of mental toughness some had openly wondered he had before the draft. And Latimer will, and should, get some premium work in the offense. His routes still need some polish, but put him in a contested situation, as in the red zone, and he fights for the ball with tenacity. Barrow’s athleticism will get him on the field in some of the Broncos’ specialty work, especially until Danny Trevathan returns from a fracture at the top of his tibia.
  • No shock, but the Broncos are going to put up the points. The starting offense scored on six of 10 possessions in the preseason and against the Houston Texans, the group put up two touchdowns in the span of 62 seconds. It is unreasonable to believe they’ll reach the 600-point mark again – after all, the 2013 Broncos are the only team to reach that milestone in the league’s history – but early returns say they’ll have a few surprises, especially in the run game, that they haven’t shown in a game just yet. They showed some heavy formations – three- and four-tight-end looks – and in the preseason finale, even trotted out backup guard Ryan Miller, at 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds. In the passing game, new additions Emmanuel Sanders and Latimer give the Broncos the ability to create more difficult matchups in more places in the formation. They can run more players out of slot positions in the formations, out of a bunch look, and it will make it more difficult for defensive backs to disrupt their routes.
  • When the Broncos held plenty of folks out of Thursday night’s game, some of those “DNPs’’ are worth noting simply because it was an indication of their standing on this roster. Ronnie Hillman, who has clawed his way back into good graces after last season’s trek from starter to game-day inactive, did not play and is solidly in the No. 2 running back spot behind Montee Ball. Roby was also held out, as was cornerback Kayvon Webster, so your top four corners will be Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., Roby and Webster, which is how the team has practiced in recent weeks since Harris returned to full participation. Also worth noting, in what has been the tightest position battle on the roster, the Broncos played defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson 39 snaps and Mitch Unrein 30 snaps in the fourth preseason game. Both players often worked with the starting defense last season.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The stories are almost football tall tales. They're like the one about walking uphill both ways to school while the snow was piled high. It will be told and retold, perhaps getting a little more far-fetched and drastic each time.

[+] EnlargeManning
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning has achieved what many consider unprecedented work -- returning to the game and succeeding at it following several surgeries.
The ones where Peyton Manning couldn't throw a football.

Seems almost funny now, a little odd, really. The Denver Broncos quarterback has thrown 92 touchdown passes in two seasons on the Front Range, he's won his fifth MVP award, been behind center for 26 regular-season wins and helped power the Broncos to Super Bowl XLVIII. And heading into his 17th season -- and his third with the Broncos -- he's No. 3 in our 2014 #NFLRank survey, up two spots from No. 5 a year ago.

All after he couldn't throw a football.

"It's been a lot of work, I will say that," Manning said. "A lot of time with help from an awful lot of people to get where things are. But I've had to make some adjustments, I think, in how I do things. The goal has always been to help your team win games, to be reliable for your teammates. People always kind of ask me did I think I could come all the way back. I don't always know how to answer that, I knew I wanted to play if I could get to the point where I could compete at the level you need to compete."

Consider it done. It may be appreciated far more when Manning's career is over, when he's thrown his last competitive pass and the league's record book has his name next to the most significant passing records.

But coming back from four neck surgeries, the fourth being a spinal fusion surgery, as a professional football player who had already left his 35th birthday in the rear-view mirror, to where he is now is rare in his vocation, perhaps unprecedented.

"I don't know how many people could have done it," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. "It just shows what kind of guy Peyton is, how much work he's willing to put in to get to this point. And we feel like he's got a lot of good football in him and we're certainly glad he's here."

The post-surgery Manning has made his "adjustments" to be sure. Sometimes he wears a glove on his throwing hand in practice, sometimes in games, sometimes in any weather, wet or dry, hot or cold. But the nerves affected by the herniated disc in his neck that was repaired were in his right arm, which also happens to be his throwing arm.

They affected his triceps as well as his grip on the ball. Those nerves, in the early stages of healing were also the reason Manning bounced the first passes of his recovery, thrown in private, to trusted friends and family that included former Rockies first baseman Todd Helton and Manning's father, Archie.

Put video of his throwing motion now next to some early in his career and his current motion is a little more lower body driven, his stride a little longer, all to generate the power he needs to throw to NFL receivers in his post-fusion career.

Technology has helped him some as well. He doesn't have to divide his day into study and treatment. He can now take his iPad, with all of the game video he wishes to watch, wherever he happens to be in the Broncos' complex, whether it be the cold tub or with the trainers. It takes longer for him to get ready to play, longer to get ready for practice, but he continues to progress, to show more.

"All I know is it seems like his arm keeps getting strong," Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "I think this year he's stronger than last year and last year he was stronger than the first year. He's Peyton, he just does what he does."

Observation Deck: Denver Broncos

August, 28, 2014
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Before the Denver Broncos took the field for Saturday's preseason finale in AT&T Stadium, head coach John Fox publicly offered the Broncos would "basically play 43 guys" in the game. While those 43 or so didn't include any of the team's starters, the Broncos showed the depth of a Super Bowl hopeful as the reserves closed out the team's August work with a convincing 27-3 win over the Dallas Cowboys in their final try to answer the last remaining questions on a deep roster of a Super Bowl hopeful. Here are some other thoughts on the Broncos' preseason finale in Arlington, Texas:
  • If the Broncos do keep just eight defensive linemen in the final cutdown, they are going to send a defensive lineman, or two, or maybe even three, into the open market who will end up with playing time for somebody else. To that end the Broncos took a particularly long look at defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Mitch Unrein. Both played well into the fourth quarter and played with the passion fitting of their predicament. Those two players may have been playing for one roster spot. Both performed well, but if the decision includes salary cap concerns -- and the Broncos have at least some -- as well as concern over Vickerson's hip, the pick will be Unrein. In the last two preseason games Unrein, who had a sack in the third quarter, was lined up for a few snaps at defensive end as well.
  • The Broncos handed Brock Osweiler the keys to the offense for the first three quarters Saturday night. The Broncos scored in the two-minute drill to end the first half -- Osweiler took a huge hit from Keith Smith and Kenneth Boatright to deliver a pass to rookie Isaiah Burse on the key play in the drive -- and Osweiler showed some additional patience in the pocket overall to go with a well-timed 26-yard run late in the third quarter.
  • Broncos showed they have some depth at running back. With Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman both getting the night off, C.J. Anderson, Juwan Thompson and Kapri Bibbs all showed what they would have to offer. Anderson and Thompson are likely the No. 3 and No. 4 backs when the roster gets picked. For his part Bibbs, who scored twice against the Cowboys, is a proficient runner with good vision, but he has a long way to go in pass protection and as a receiver so that makes him almost a specialist in a way as the backs on the Broncos roster have to do far more than just lug the rock. But with a 10-player practice squad, the Broncos figure to want to keep Bibbs there if they stick with just four backs on the roster. The Broncos did flash a two-back set, with Anderson and Thompson together in the backfield and Thompson at fullback, in the first half. The Broncos have also used the formation previously with tight end Virgil Green.
  • The Broncos offense did get things moving as the game wore on, including a 14-point third quarter, but the second-team offensive line was a little wobbly at times along the way. Rookie right tackle Michael Schofield, who has been good enough so far after the Broncos elected to cut veteran tackle Winston Justice earlier this week, had some rough spots. He was driven into the backfield early in the game by Cowboys' Dartwan Bush and was flagged later in the same possession for illegal hands to the face. In the second quarter Zach Minter beat Schofield to the inside on a zone run play to keep Anderson from getting a first down. Schofield also flashed some good footwork at times and good instincts in pass protection. He has starter potential, but is squarely on the learning curve.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- ESPN used over seven dozen voters from the network’s many NFL platforms as well as Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus to rank the league’s Top 100 players on offense and Top 100 players on defense.

In the rankings, 85 voters turned in ballots on defense, 90 on offense.

  Today, players ranked No. 20 down to 11 are featured. Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas comes in at No. 17, a spot certainly worthy of his status as the unquestioned No. 1 target on the highest-scoring offense in league history. It may even be an undersell of what he really does on the field and where he's headed in Denver's points factory.

And he is also part of a quirky football fact in these pass-happy times. The one where two of the biggest, most athletic, game-busting pass catchers the NFL has to offer – Thomas and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson – both emerged from the run-based option offense of Georgia Tech.

The Broncos made Thomas the 22nd pick of the 2010 draft while the Lions selected Johnson with the second pick of the 2007 draft.

“I don’t know why that happened,’’ Thomas said. “We felt like we had good players who could compete … We just played in a different kind of offense from some other guys.’’

Thomas has had back-to-back 90-catch, 1,400-yard seasons since being unleashed in earnest in the transition from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning. And in what figures to again be one of the league’s most high-powered offenses, Thomas is poised for another mark-it-down season.

He’s also poised for a rather tidy payday. Thomas is in the final year of his rookie deal -- he has a $3.275 million base salary this season, a $4.7 million cap charge for the Broncos -- and the two sides haven’t yet hammered out the extension they had hoped to before the season starts.

John Elway has said he “most certainly’’ wants to get Thomas dialed in on a new deal. Thomas has been named to two Pro Bowls, and if he remains healthy, he will pile on some more before his career is done.

The Broncos will certainly have to pay for the privilege to keep him.

“We know what we have here as receivers,’’ Thomas said. “We have Peyton at quarterback with a scheme that allows us to make plays if we get ourseleves to the right spot. I’m just worried about this season and doing what I can to help us do what we want to do and get where we want to go. We want to win the last game of the year.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Often when Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is offering up something for public consumption, he will turn down the volume on the compliments.

Things are “fine.’’ Players do a “nice job." And if, out from behind the closed doors of the defensive meeting room, he really wants to lay it on thick, a player is “quality."

But when Del Rio talks about Von Miller’s return, the coach is emphatic.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesVon Miller is close to his playing weight from his All-Pro season in 2012.
“I have no doubt, and I’ve said this before, no doubt Von is going to come back and be the player he was (in 2012)," Del Rio said. “He’s a player of unique characteristics and we like what we’ve seen out on the practice field, like how he’s gone about his work, and that’s why I say no doubt."

Miller, a first-team All-Pro in 2012, is looking to bounce back from a turbulent 2013 season that included a six-game suspension to open it and a torn ACL to close it. He feels the same way about his outlook for 2014.

“Things happen and you have to deal with things, but I know I’ve said it about 100 times, but I’m in a great place right now, mentally, physically, everything," Miller said. "I go one day at a time right now, but I want to be the player they think I can be and the player I know I can be."

ESPN used 85 voters from across its many NFL platforms, as well as Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus, to rank the league’s top 100 players on offense and top 100 players on defense, and Miller checked in at No. 11. That's still plenty of respect after what Miller called “not the kind of season I want,’’ but not what his standing would have been following an 18.5-sack season in 2012 when Miller was so disruptive, so game-changing, he was in the same top-shelf conversations as Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

And after all of the off-the-field issues last season, to go with Miller having made the decision to come back from his suspension far heavier -- he said about 270 pounds -- than when he was at his best, there were at least some questions inside the Broncos’ organization about Miller’s future as well as his maturity to handle both what he had done and what was ahead.

But by all accounts, Miller attacked his injury rehab and the structure of that rehab in his offseason seemed to suit him. He remained in Denver for much of the offseason, and when the rest of the Broncos opened their offseason workouts on the field, Miller was far closer to 255 pounds, when he was at his best.

The Broncos also signed DeMarcus Ware in the offseason and Ware has been a quality mentor for Miller, a member of the league's 100-sack club and someone Miller looked up to even before Ware arrived in Denver.

“For all the chatter that they talk about Von not being the guy they want him to be, when I first got here, he was one of the first guys in the treatment room, working out really hard, over and beyond," Ware said. “You can see how he’s rehabilitated himself to be an even better player than he was. That comes with mental toughness. He’s doing really well. I was very surprised with how athletic he was. He’s very fast and agile. He’s a really quick guy. I thought I was quick, but he’s actually quicker than I am. … When you see a guy that uses the offseason to get himself right … I think that really shows he’s really focused this season."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In those opening weeks of training camp, which coincidentally were the opening weeks of Bradley Roby's first NFL summer, Roby learned quickly, somewhat painfully, that things were going to be different.

“I'm not going to lie; it opened my eyes,” Roby said. “But I knew I was going to have struggles early, you have to kind of accept that. It's all about fixing your mistakes. It's all about once you mess up, ‘OK, what happened?' Deciding what you can do to fix it and repping it so you don't do it again. Then you're good, eventually your game will show it, but at first you get a look at how far you have to go.”

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Jack Dempsey/AP PhotoAfter a rough start to training camp, Bradley Roby has earned a spot in the defensive back rotation.
And there's a good reason for that. It is the age-old math of play calling: Next-level quarterback plus aggressive offensive coordinator equals problems for the rookie cornerback across the line of scrimmage. So, Mr. Roby, meet Mr. Manning.

“And early on, we were probably picking on him a bit to let him know -- a ‘welcome-to-the-NFL'- type deal,” Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “He's done a good job, and he's really matched up well against our older guys. It seemed like last week, he did a really good job.”

When the Broncos did their pre-draft due diligence on Roby and checked out off-the-field issues and maturity questions, they came away with their profile. And their assessment was that, like a lot of gifted college players, Roby had been coddled some, needed to grow up some and that he was well worth the 31st pick of the first round.

The Broncos took him there because they saw what John Elway has called “maybe the best cover corner in the draft” and saw a player with the physical capabilities to play right now in a defense that could use players with Roby's size, speed and physicality.

But a fresh start in the NFL isn't always what a newly minted rookie expects. And the Broncos' clean slate for Roby came with some opening remarks from defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

“Right away, first day,” Del Rio said. “First day I met with him, I let him know that I don't want you to be frustrated come November or October if you spend the first part of the season not playing much, because that could happen because we've got a good group. So if you want to play, earn your way. You're going to have to come out here and fight every day; you're behind because these guys have been here and they know what it takes. But I don't think he was fazed by it; I think he appreciated that and he went about his work and continues to go about his work. My message to him is you still have a long way to go, so keep grinding.”

Not exactly hugging it out, but it's why as the Broncos prepare to close out the preseason Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys, Roby has earned his way into the rotation in the secondary. Roby, especially over the past two weeks, has shown aggressiveness in coverage and the athleticism to maintain his footwork and play the ball.
With Chris Harris on schedule to start the Sept. 7 opener against the Indianapolis Colts to go with Aqib Talib, Kayvon Webster and Roby, Del Rio has the ability to play a dime package (six defensive backs) that has four cornerbacks physical enough to play along the line of scrimmage if needed and athletic enough to play in coverage.

That's not always been the case over the past two seasons, when the Broncos at times have used a dime look that included three safeties and three cornerbacks. But Roby's presence overall gives Del Rio more options and the ability to have size/speed players on the outside, with Talib, when Harris moves inside to work in the slot.

And while some scouts questioned Roby's maturity and effort, especially in his final season at Ohio State, the Broncos have seen, at least so far, what Champ Bailey has always said separates the ability of some young cornerbacks to make it from the ones who don't. And that's the ability to show some vocational backbone and bounce back from the inevitable tough play in these pass-happy times.

“Being a rookie at this position, in this league, going against these players, you've got to expect you're kind of going to have a little rough beginning, and I'm not going to say it's not going to be rough sometime later on. I just want to make sure when something happens I learn from it,” Roby said. “I don't see it as me messing up, you know ‘OK, that sucks,' and maybe in college I would have beat myself up about it. I'm realizing one play is one play, you have to bounce back from that and make another one. Just win a lot more plays that you lose, and hopefully that gets me a role with this team where when we win, they feel like I helped in some way.”
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- ESPN used over seven dozen voters from the network's many NFL platforms, as well as Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus, to rank the league's top 100 players on offense and top 100 players on defense.

Talib
Talib
Ware
In the end, 85 voters turned in ballots on defense, 90 on offense.

Today, players ranked No. 30 down to 21 are featured, and in this segment, the voters certainly believe the Denver Broncos made a significant defensive upgrade for the coming season.

Cornerback Aqib Talib checks in at No. 30 while defensive end DeMarcus Ware is at No. 23 -- both players were signed in this past offseason's free-agency binge by the Broncos. Safety T.J. Ward, who was also in the shopping spree this past March, was earlier ranked No. 59.

"I think there's no question, players like Aqib, DeMarcus and T.J. change what your defense is," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "They're all good players, proven guys who have shown what they can do in this league. You bring them in because you think they have things to offer to help what you do. No question, we believe they'll help what we do."

Thus far, ESPN's ranking project has shown the Broncos' current regime is a little light on homegrown players on the defensive side when it comes to the upper crust in personnel. Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway, who just completed his fourth draft with the team in May and has consistently stated his long-term goal for the team is "to compete for world championships every year and we know the draft is a key part of that. We know that's our core."

And their hope is they see the fruits of those labors in the seasons to come. But in this year's rankings, between No. 100 and No. 31, the Broncos have had four players ranked with Terrance Knighton at No. 78 to go with Ward, Talib and Ware. All four of those players were signed in free agency -- Knighton last year to go with the three this past March.

One would expect linebacker Von Miller's name to appear in the coming days somewhere in the top 20 rankings, and as a whole the voters likely short-changed linebacker Danny Trevathan as well. Lead a 13-3 Super Bowl team in tackles with equal effectiveness along the line of scrimmage or in coverage and you are likely a top-100 player.

Both Trevathan and Miller are Elway draft picks and the team believes in the futures of players such as cornerback Bradley Roby and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, who were the team's last two first-round picks.

But it does show when the Broncos wanted to repair their defense this time around, they had to use their checkbook -- and not their depth chart -- to do it.
Wes Welker, D.J. Swearinger, Jeff TarpinianAP Photo/Jack DempseyWes Welker suffered yet another concussion after taking this hit from D.J. Swearinger.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For most of Emmanuel Sanders' NFL career, he has done his business as a wide receiver in that high-impact, high-traffic area where slot receivers roam.

So he knows what Wes Welker goes through in the Denver Broncos' high-powered offense and knows what it will take to adjust if Welker misses time in the regular season because of a concussion suffered just before halftime in this past Saturday's preseason loss to the Houston Texans.

"It's different," Sanders said. "I've played slot every year that I've played football except last year was my first year on the outside. It's a different game. On the outside, you just have to beat one man, really, and that's because they play man-to-man. Whereas in the slot, it's more zone. You have to avoid linebackers, you have to avoid safeties, you have to sit down in the zone and that's where the big hits can come from. Whereas on the outside, they'll come, but they're not going to come as much as in the slot."

Welker, who also suffered concussions Nov. 17 against the Kansas City Chiefs and Dec. 8 against the Tennessee Titans last season, is currently under the guidelines of the league's concussion protocol. The Broncos don't have a timetable for his return, but under those guidelines to return to full participation in a practice by next Friday -- two days before the Sept. 7 regular-season opener -- Welker would have to be symptom free by Monday.

Welker would also have to be cleared for a return to the field by an independent physician, designated by both the NFL and NFL Players Association.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesWes Welker had 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns with the Broncos last season.
"He's doing fantastic in the process," said Broncos head coach John Fox, following Tuesday's practice. "We'll take it one day (at a time), and another positive day today."

In their offense, much like how the Indianapolis Colts' offense looked with Peyton Manning behind center, the Broncos' bread-and-butter plays are the crossing routes, both shallow and deeper down the field, to go with the big-play shots that come down the seam.

With Welker having suffered three concussions in 10 months in the Broncos' offense, offensive coordinator Adam Gase said he would look at how the team is using its slot receivers to see if they are being put in harm's way more often. But Gase also said he didn't believe that to be the case on the play when Welker was injured.

"I think we'll take a look at our route concepts and see what we need to tinker with and maybe why something like that happened," Gase said. "If we have to make an adjustment, we will. If he came to me and said something about a certain route he didn't feel comfortable (with), we would make an adjustment. For right now, I feel like our scheme is pretty good. What happened, like Coach Fox said, it's a football play, and those things happen sometimes."

In their three-wide receiver set, their base formation, they'll line various receivers in the inside slot positions on either side of the formation. But players such as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, Sanders and tight end Julius Thomas will line up plenty on the outside, as well.

By contrast Welker will line up on a smattering of snaps on the outside, but he works almost exclusively from the slot. Last season, for example, seven of Welker's 10 scoring receptions came on plays in which he started in the slot. And a look at the game video shows just over 50 of Welker's 73 receptions last season as well as almost 700 of his 778 receiving yards came on plays in which he was lined up in the slot. So, if Welker misses any significant time, it will take some adjustment in the team's offense.

"We're able to move pieces around and still do a lot of the same things that we've done," Gase said. "We don't really teach by position, so everybody can move in and out."

Sanders would certainly get more work as a slot receiver, as would tight end Jacob Tamme, but at varying points in training camp the Broncos have given all of their receivers some routes from the slot. Tamme gives the Broncos the option of sticking to a three-wide concept with a little more size in the formation. It's a formation that, at times, forces defenses to go a little bigger because the Broncos are in a two-tight end look.

The Broncos will also use rookie Cody Latimer, especially in some of their red zone packages, because of Latimer's size and ability to win the ball in contested situations -- "I felt like that was a strength of mine in college and want it to be in the NFL," he said. Whatever the personnel, the Broncos won't dial back how much, or where, they throw the ball. They'd certainly like to have Welker in the lineup, but believe they have insurance for the loss if they don't.

"If he's not there Week 1, then guess what? Other guys have to come in and step up," Sanders said. "Guys like myself, Demaryius Thomas, everyone has to come together and make this team better and it really doesn't matter who's on the field. ... We work our butt off and we have Peyton Manning as our quarterback, so everything is looking really good. Wes will be back and strong."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater admitted to his four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy on Monday and the NFL made it official on Tuesday.

The league released a statement on Prater’s suspension, which will begin Monday.

“Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos has been suspended without pay for the first four games of the 2014 regular season for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. Prater will be eligible to return to the Broncos’ active roster on Monday, October 6 following the team’s October 5 game against the Arizona Cardinals. Prater is eligible to participate in all offseason and preseason practices and games.’’

Prater
Prater has practiced with the team since being informed of his suspension just before the Broncos’ 18-17 preseason loss to the Houston Texans Saturday night. He made a 32-yard field goal and missed a 49-yarder.

The Broncos have a Week 4 bye, which is why Prater will not return to the field until the Monday before their Oct. 12 game against the New York Jets. During his suspension, as was the case when Von Miller was suspended for the first six games of the 2013 season for violations of the substance-abuse policy, Prater can attend team functions in the Broncos’ complex and use the team’s training facilities.

But he can do no work on the field, and he cannot attend practice. He will have to kick on his own off premises.

Monday, a contrite Prater took responsibility for his actions, which include multiple violations of the program’s guidelines to get to the suspension phase, including a 2011 DUI arrest.

“I’m really sorry, I’ve made mistakes, hope to regain everyone’s trust, and I’m going to work my tail off to try and win a championship this year,’’ Prater said. “I take full responsibility for what’s happened, I’m accountable for it. It’s no one’s fault by my own, I’m dealing with it, hopefully learn from it, improve as a person and a football player.’’

Prater also said he would no longer drink alcohol for “as long as I’m in this program.’’

Clady, Thomas appear in #NFLRank

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- ESPN used 85 voters from the network’s many NFL platforms as well as Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus to rank the league’s top 100 players on offense and top 100 players on defense.

Players ranked No. 40 to 31 are featured on Tuesday. And for the Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas checked in at No. 38 as an ascending player while left tackle Ryan Clady came in at No. 35.

Thomas
Clady
Thomas, who had one career catch in his first two seasons with the Broncos because of first, an ankle injury and then eventually ankle surgery. Thomas had 65 receptions last season to go with 12 touchdowns in the league’s highest-scoring offense.

The Broncos see potential for more and are poised to pay for it as well as Thomas enters into the last year of his original contract. He has Peyton Manning’s trust and that always means the opportunities for catches and touchdowns will follow.

“I don’t want to have just one good year,’’ Thomas said. “I want to make a career.’’

For Clady’s part, he is still working his way back from foot surgery last season that kept him out of all but two games. Other than Manning, no player in the team’s offensive huddle has been to more than Clady’s three Pro Bowls.

Should Clady play as expected, and he hasn’t missed any practice time in the preseason, he is likely to add a fourth Pro Bowl to his resume.

“I don’t think I’m quite there, but I’m getting there, it’s close,’’ Clady said of his recovery. “It’s just something you have to work into. It’s the National Football League with the best athletes in the world. You can’t just jump in off an injury and expect to be great. It takes some work, and I still have a little bit of time. I think I’m definitely improving. It’s definitely feeling better. Soreness is at a minimum right now, so that’s a good thing.’’

Denver Broncos cut-down analysis

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Most significant move: There may be no more difficult place on the roster for a young player to earn the trust of the coaching staff than on the offensive line. So much so that Orlando Franklin is the last Broncos' offensive linemen to start as a rookie, and he did it in 2011 -- John Fox's first season as the team's coach. But rookie Michael Schofield, a third-round pick in the May draft, and Paul Cornick, who spent the 2013 season on the team's practice squad, have shown enough to convince the Broncos to part ways with Winston Justice in the first round of cuts. Justice went through much of the early work in offseason workouts as Ryan Clady's backup at left tackle and got plenty of snaps in an audition as the starting right tackle as well. But the Broncos chose youth, and Justice, who is headed into his ninth season, was sent on his way.

Wild card: Often when the Broncos make this first round of roster cuts, there are actually players they want to bring back for the practice squad on the list. But to do that, the players must clear waivers, so sometimes the thinking is with rosters still at 75 around the league, teams may be less inclined to claim one of those players on waivers. Running back Brennan Clay, wide receiver Greg Wilson, wide receiver Greg Hardin and defensive tackle Will Pericak certainly fit that profile. Clay's play tapered off slightly as camp wore on, but during offseason work there were some with the Broncos who believed he had the best hands as a pass-catcher of anyone at the position. But he wasn't always assignment sound in recent days and wasn't going to get past fellow undrafted rookie Juwan Thompson on the depth chart.

Broncos' cuts: LB Jamar Chaney (moved to injured reserve), RB Brennan Clay, WR Greg Hardin, LB Jerrell Harris, T Winston Justice, defensive tackle Cody Larsen, S Charles Mitchell, WR Jordan Norwood, DT Will Pericak, quarterback Bryn Renner, DE Chase Vaughn (waived injured), RB Jerodis Williams and WR Greg Wilson. Norwood was a good bet to make the roster as a sixth receiver and punt returner until he tore his left ACL last week.

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