- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A veteran Denver Bronco was relaxing after the first training camp practice of a monumental season for the franchise.
He shook his head.
“When was the last time we had something like this here?” he asked. “This is something.”
This is No. 18. This is Peyton Manning.
Everything has changed for the Broncos.
With one phone call from Manning to Denver leader John Elway in March, the landscape of the organization changed. The Broncos are no longer a league curiosity caused by Tim Tebow-mania. They are now relevant because Manning, who missed last season with a neck injury, is the story in the NFL.
The Broncos, though, aren’t consumed by being a popular story. They are focused on the impact Manning, at age 36, will have on the team. In public and in private, the Broncos are not worried about Manning’s health. They are simply in awe that he is on their side.
The organization feels it’s time to make a major push because of Manning.
“It’s very similar to the Super Bowl year we had in New Orleans," said new Denver cornerback Tracy Porter, a former Saint. "We have extremely high expectations on this team, starting with Peyton, all the way down to the last guy on the roster. Our expectations are not just to hopefully get to the playoffs. Our expectations are to get back to New Orleans to play for the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl.”
THREE HOT ISSUES:
1. Manning’s health: The Broncos operate as if Manning will be ready for the Sept. 9 opener against visiting Pittsburgh, but they won’t know if he will be fully healthy until he takes a few hits. Again, all indications are that Manning should be fine. He is throwing well, he hasn’t suffered a setback and he is practicing at a strong tempo. He is on pace to be ready for the season.
2. Defensive readiness: The Broncos’ defense is still a work in progress. It went from No. 32 to No. 20 in the NFL last season under the guidance of head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Allen parlayed the success into the Raiders' head-coaching job. Former Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio, Fox’s defensive coordinator in Carolina in 2002, stepped in to replace Allen. The Fox-Del Rio pairing is strong, but this unit must continue to improve. It will have to play the first six games of the season without weakside linebacker D.J. Williams because of an NFL suspension, and pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil could face a short suspension for a recent gun arrest. So, the team will have to get a lot of players ready during camp as the Broncos try to continue the upward defensive swing.
3. Young receivers: Third-year receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will be in the spotlight throughout camp. Both are talented players who have a lot of promise. Playing with Manning should hasten their learning curve. But there is not a quarterback in the NFL who is as particular about his receivers as Manning, and both must adjust to Manning’s game. The early word is that both players are earning Manning's trust.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Broncos have a terrific head coach in Fox, whose presence and impact should not be discounted. He is an upper-echelon coach who has a firm grip on this program. His players love him and the overall spirit of the franchise is probably as high as it has been since the back-to-back Super Bowl-winning years in the late 1990s. Fox did a wonderful job last season turning a 4-12 weakling into an 8-8 team that won a playoff game. In Fox’s second season in Carolina, he led the team to the Super Bowl. Will it happen again in Denver? We’ll see, but his players fully believe in him, and that’s a huge head start.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
We do not yet know if the Broncos are loaded enough with talent to make a long playoff run. There are a lot of questions.
Will the team be able to run the ball enough to help Manning now that the Broncos aren’t using the Tebow-led option? Are the youngsters on the offensive line ready to protect Manning? Will they be good enough at defensive tackle and safety?
This team is far from a finished product and it faces a brutal schedule. Still, expectations are high because of Manning. But the truth is, Denver must build itself around Manning very quickly -- the chief challenge of training camp.
Players rave about Del Rio. They love his toughness and the fact he is a former NFL player. Many players said Del Rio understands what they are going through and they feel they are on the same page with him already. The word around Denver’s camp is that the Fox-Del Rio relationship has taken up where it left off in Carolina.
Watch for rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, a third-round pick, to get plenty of chances to prove himself. Denver sees him as an explosive threat as a runner and as a receiver out of the backfield.
The Broncos are high on undrafted rookie linebacker Steven Johnson. The Kansas product could get some looks at middle linebacker in the preseason.
The Broncos will look at a lot of punt return options. Having Decker do it may be risky. I think it is an area Denver will look to upgrade on the waiver wire.
While guard Chris Kuper is slowly coming back from a severe ankle injury suffered in Week 17 in 2011, the Broncos expect him to continue to make progress.
Running back Knowshon Moreno, the No. 12 overall pick in 2009, is back after suffering a torn ACL last season. Still, he has an uphill battle to impress this staff.
Keep an eye on fourth-round pick Omar Bolden, a cornerback. He was highly rated out of Arizona State, but he missed all of last season with a knee injury. He looks like a keeper.
The Broncos rave about linebacker Von Miller, the 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year. The pass-rusher is working diligently to improve his overall game. Coaches and teammates laud Miller for his desire to improve.
The Broncos would like to see middle linebacker Joe Mays shore up his tackling in camp. He is a solid player, but he whiffed too many times last season.
The Broncos love what they see in Porter. Because of his talent, experience and confidence, Porter should be able to handle the pressure of playing opposite Champ Bailey, according to the Broncos. Second-year safety Rahim Moore opened with the first-team defense. He will compete with fellow second-year safety Quinton Carter.
Veteran defensive tackle Ty Warren was working with the first-team defense. Before Warren re-committed to the team in June, Sealver Siliga worked with the first team. Mitch Unrein got some work with the first-team defensive line early in camp as Denver looked for the right rotation.
Defensive lineman Ben Garland is making an impression. He is athletic and has great feet and could make the team.
6dEric D. Williams