AFC West: Adam Gase

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In the written record that is the play-by-play from Super Bowl XLVIII, it’s listed simply as; “P.Manning pass short middle to D. Thomas to DEN 40 for 2 yards (K. Chancellor)."

But for many, including Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor and linebacker Bobby Wagner, Chancellor’s hit on Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas just over five minutes into the title game set the tone for what was to come. Wagner went as far, in an offseason TV appearance, to say the Broncos wide receivers were intimidated after the hit.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas and Kam Chancellor
AP Photo/Bill KostrounDenver receiver Demaryius Thomas took a hard hit from Seattle's Kam Chancellor early in Super Bowl XLVIII.
At the time, Wagner said: “That first hit [Chancellor] came across the middle and smacked him … they were very timid."

With the rematch of the Broncos 43-8 loss in the title game set for Sunday in Seattle, Thomas offered some thoughts all these months later. Asked if the hit had the impact on him, as well as the other Broncos, that many have said it did, Thomas said:

“Nah, it’s just a hit. You play football, you’re gonna get hit. It didn’t bother me; I got up and kept playing."

Asked if it was the game’s turning point, Thomas added:

“I think about it, and now that the game is over, I laugh about getting hit. It doesn’t bother me. They came out that day and played better football than us and all I can say is give them their props and try to come back Sunday and try to do better."

Thomas suffered a shoulder injury on the play and, after a trip to the sideline, returned to finish with 13 receptions for 118 yards and the Broncos' only touchdown on a day that was largely a struggle for the Broncos' offense. In general, Thomas, who has had back-to-back 1,300-yard, 10-touchdown seasons to go with two Pro Bowl trips, had high praise for the Seahawks secondary. He called cornerback Richard Sherman “one of the best … I think he’s one of the smarter guys in the game."

And on the Seahawks safeties, Thomas said “Kam Chancellor, big hitter, Earl [Thomas] is all over the field, very good at what they do"

On the Seahawks defense, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase put Seattle’s group among some fast company.

“You’re talking about three teams in the history of football – the ’85 Bears, the 2000 Ravens and these guys, that’s where these guys rank in defensive football," Gase said following Thursday's practice. “These guys are one of the best teams to ever play and they are trying to show it again this year."
DENVER -- Two halves don’t add up to the whole story right now for the Denver Broncos. At least not the story their offense wants to tell.

In two games, both wins, the Broncos' high-powered offense has had the ball for nine possessions in the first halves of their two games combined, excluding one kneel-down play for quarterback Peyton Manning to close out the opening half against the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Jack DempseyPeyton Manning and the Broncos are 2-0 despite their second-half woes on offense.
On those nine possessions the Broncos have scored six touchdowns, a field goal and had two punts. The Broncos also have scored on their opening drive in each game.

"It feels good to go down and score on the opening drive," Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "It gives everyone confidence that we can seriously do it over and over and over again."

But in back-to-back games the Broncos have left the offensive mojo in the locker room. In eight second-half possessions that haven’t included Manning taking a knee to end both games, the Broncos have scored just one touchdown and one field goal to go with six punts with offensive coordinator Adam Gase working out of the same playbook.

Broncos head coach John Fox, sitting at 2-0 after Sunday's 24-17 win over Kansas City, bristled at least some following the game with questions about discipline and offensive flow.

"We’re not going to beat everybody 58-to-nothing," Fox said.

For his part, Manning took a bit of a big-picture look following Sunday’s win.

"We’re playing a lot of good football teams," Manning said. "We played two really good teams, two playoff teams off the bat. Feel fortunate to win those games; have another tough game next week as well. So it’s still kind of the goals that you set on the offensive philosophies that you have, if you can achieve those goals those usually can lead to positive results. So we’re hitting some of those goals and some things we can do a little better job of."

Yes, Manning did finish his day with the NFL lead in touchdown passes, with six in two games. He has been particularly willing to find the best matchup in the scoring zone with four of those scoring passes having gone to tight ends Julius Thomas (three) and Jacob Tamme (one).

But the second-half numbers are troubling given the Broncos have been forced to hang on in each game, having to make a fourth-down play on defense in the game’s closing moments to preserve the win in each of the first two weeks.

Against the Colts, the Broncos didn’t make the most of their chances -- three three-and-outs in the second half -- while the Broncos simply didn’t get many chances against the Chiefs.

"If the other team has it, we can’t score," running back Montee Ball said.

The Broncos had just two possessions, other than Manning’s kneel down to end the game, in the second half against Kansas City. They turned one into a field goal, but were penalized for almost as many yards (17) as they netted on the drive (27).

The Chiefs opened up the first 10 minutes of the third quarter with a 19-play drive (23 plays with penalties included). They did not score after all that work when Cairo Santos missed a 37-yard field goal, but they got the next best thing by keeping Manning & Co. on the sideline for most of the third quarter.

"That’s ball-possession defense, all 10 minutes with no points," Fox said with tongue in cheek. "In all seriousness, that team struggled last week on third down. I’d say it’s fair to say, like any very competitive people, they worked very hard at it. Hat's off to them."

But the Broncos exited their 2-0 start knowing the team next on the docket is the one that derailed their offense in the Super Bowl just over seven months ago -- the Seattle Seahawks -- and that status quo won't be enough.

"We’ve got some work to do," Ball said. "We’re getting better every week. … It’s part of the game. The tide is going to turn, momentum is going to swing. Once we get momentum, we want to keep the momentum."

Broncos vs. Chiefs preview

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
8:00
AM ET

The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs don't have to wait long to open up AFC West play as they jump into a Week 2 matchup. The Broncos had one glorious half before they had to hang on in their season-opening 31-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

The Chiefs struggled in a 26-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium and will be without two regulars in defensive tackle Mike DeVito and linebacker Derrick Johnson, who both suffered season-ending Achilles injuries in the loss.

ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.

Legwold: Adam, every training camp for every team ends with such high hopes and plenty of optimism. What is the Chiefs' mindset after such a tough opening week?

Teicher: There's not a lot for the Chiefs to be optimistic about right now. Since their 9-0 start last season they've gone 2-7, including their collapse in the playoffs against Indianapolis. Their offensive line is in tatters, quarterback Alex Smith is throwing interceptions in uncharacteristically high numbers, running back Jamaal Charles didn’t get the ball much against Tennessee, some of their best young players aren't contributing much, they lost two of their best defensive players for the season with injuries last week and their defense got pushed around by Jake Locker and the Titans. Then there's the upcoming schedule, which has the Chiefs playing road games against the Broncos, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers and a home game against the New England Patriots in the next five weeks. Otherwise, all is good with the Chiefs.

What about the Broncos in this regard? The losing team in the Super Bowl often has a season-long hangover afterward, but the Broncos don't seem to be affected.

Legwold: When the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said he wanted not only Manning's play on the field, but also a player "who raises all boats." Manning and the other Broncos veterans attacked the offseason and a fairly young team overall has taken its cues from those hard-driving older players. When they brought in veteran players such as DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, those guys saw this as a chance at a Super Bowl, so they have been no nonsense as they've gone about their business. That has kept things on the tracks. The suspensions handed down to wide receiver Wes Welker and kicker Matt Prater ended what had been a quiet summer for the team. But, overall, it's a locked-in group that needs to avoid injuries to key players to be in the title mix again.

In terms of offseason work, the Chiefs locked up Smith with a contract extension. What was the organization's plan and is there even more pressure on Smith now to lift them into the postseason?

Teicher: The plan with Smith all along, from the time they acquired him in the trade with the 49ers, was to lock him up for the long term. At no time did they consider him a stopgap or the bridge to the next quarterback. Those plans could have changed had they not been satisfied with Smith's play last season. But Smith last season was the guy the Chiefs thought they were getting. This new contract certainly increases the pressure on Smith to deliver. The Chiefs have committed to him in a big way, and he will be consuming a significant portion of the team's salary cap. Smith is by no means solely responsible for last Sunday's loss, but he didn't play well. He threw three interceptions, and two were bad decisions on his part, the kind of choices he doesn't usually make. The Chiefs are paying him a lot of money to make better decisions.

You mentioned Denver's offseason signings of defensive players in Ware, Talib and Ward. How has their presence changed the complexion of the Broncos' defense?

Legwold: Elway spends a lot of time talking about "the mindset" and "the mentality to win a world championship," and when he was waving the team's checkbook around in free agency, he went looking for players with the mindset to remake the defense. There are just six players on the roster who started on defense in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Broncos players voted Ware a captain and his straightforward, no-nonsense approach has made him an almost instant team leader. He also had 1.5 sacks in the opener, and while some in the league had labeled Ware a declining player in his 10th season, the Broncos think they can manage his snaps to get the most out of him. Ward and Talib bring an edge the Broncos wanted, and both were all over the field this past Sunday night. Toss in the first-round pick, cornerback Bradley Roby, and the Broncos will play with more aggressiveness and a bigger variety in personnel groupings than they did in last season's two games against the Chiefs.

Defensively, how will the Chiefs adjust to the injuries to DeVito and Johnson? Will it alter their approach dramatically, especially given what Johnson means to the group?

Teicher: I don't think the Chiefs will change their approach dramatically, but there's no question they will feel the loss of both players. Johnson will be replaced by James-Michael Johnson. The Chiefs went out in free agency and signed veteran Joe Mays, a former Broncos player, to fill one of their inside linebacker spots, an indication they didn't think Johnson was ready to be a full-time player. He got a long look in passing situations during the preseason, and the Chiefs are more comfortable with him playing in coverage than against the run. That said, he's no Derrick Johnson, who is superb against the run and versatile against the pass. DeVito was one of the Chiefs' better run defenders and was improving as a pass-rusher. His main replacement will be Jaye Howard, who had a promising preseason. Former Oakland Raider Vance Walker, and even the newly signed Kevin Vickerson, could get some playing time as well.

The Chiefs tried to sign wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency before he joined the Broncos. He looked like a good fit for the Broncos in the opener against Indianapolis. What are their expectations for him? And give us a little scouting report on Vickerson, a former Bronco.

Legwold: In terms of players on offense who were available in free agency, Sanders was the team's top target. The Broncos' offensive coaches, particularly offensive coordinator Adam Gase, like Sanders' versatility in that he can line up in the outside spots and in the slot to go with the fact he has quality short-area quickness to beat press coverage off the snap and top-end speed to run away from defenders in the open. Manning has worked extensively with him -- the two stayed after practice, often with rookie receiver Cody Latimer -- every day of offseason workouts, as well as in training camp. The work helped, and Sanders projects to a big season in this offense. Vickerson was likely the 54th player on this roster when the Broncos cut to 53. The Broncos liked his work on run downs and the physicality and ability take on double-teams. They did have some long-term concern about his hip -- Vickerson was kept on a limited schedule throughout much of training camp -- but they needed a little cap space and kept only eight defensive linemen, so Vickerson got caught in the squeeze.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In the end, the goal is likely somewhere between better and much better.

The Denver Broncos aren’t on a quest to take what was the league’s highest scoring offense in history and remake it into something it’s not. In these pass-happy times, the Broncos can chuck it around with the best of them.

Even after the Broncos scored 31 points in a season-opening victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the team has spent a lot of the past week discussing missed opportunities, dropped passes – they had five – and lost touchdowns – they said there were a few. And the Broncos also still want to run the ball better.

They don’t want to be a running team, but a passing team that runs it better when they want to.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Elsa/Getty ImagesMontee Ball rushed for 67 yards on 23 carries in the Broncos' season-opening victory over the Colts.
“The run game is a focus for us," said tight end Julius Thomas. “We have to run the ball efficiently, but if you’re running the ball well on third-and-short, it’s going to extend drives, so we’ll take that. But we’ll keep working."

After the Broncos cleared away the debris from a 35-point Super Bowl loss, they went into the offseason with adjustments to their run-game scheme/personnel on their minds. Knowshon Moreno was allowed to leave in free agency, Montee Ball was named the starter at running back, they moved one of their most physical linemen, Orlando Franklin, from right tackle to left guard and they tweaked some things they were doing on handoffs.

In Sunday’s opening act of the new season, Manning threw for three touchdowns, all in the first half. At times, the Broncos' passing attack looked every bit as dominant as last season, with Thomas having taken the next step as a player and Emmanuel Sanders fitting in quite nicely.

But as the Broncos now consistently talk about “efficiency" in the run game, they weren’t always able to reach their desired output. On first down, they had eight of their 18 carries gain one or fewer yards – four for no gain, one of 1 yard and one for minus-1 yard, all by Ball.

As a result of those runs and the down-and-distance situations they created, the Broncos then had just five second-down carries in the game and just three third-down carries. They did convert all three of those third-down carries for first downs, but all but eight of their rushing attempts in the game came on first down, and from a defensive standpoint, there is some predictability there.

“You have to focus on the plays that didn’t go so well," Ball said. “We’re going to carry the good plays to the next game. But from an individual standpoint, you want to focus on the bad plays where if you made a mistake, you can correct it and become better for the next team. For me, there are some holes out there that I missed. I’m looking forward to correcting them and getting better."

Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said Ball is “being a little hard on himself. He did a pretty job hitting them … A lot of times he’s doing what the scheme allows him to do."

It all presents an odd sort of riddle. The Broncos want to run better, but they score plenty already. The Broncos have scored at least 31 points in 24 of Manning’s 33 regular-season starts with the team.

They’ve also been committed enough to the running game to have run the ball at least 25 times in 23 of those games, including Sunday.

So they don’t necessarily want more, as in more carries; they still want, and need, better carries. They want it because they’re thinking big-picture, that they’re going to need it to get another shot at the title, to slam the door against a physical opponent, to win on a bad-weather day without surrendering who they believe they are.

“I think our history speaks for itself as far as we’re not one to pull off [the accelerator]," Gase said. “Are we working on some things, trying to run the ball a little bit? Yeah. We were still trying to throw it [Sunday]. We figured if we finished a few of those plays a little differently -- we had a third-and-3, had a drop. The guy falls down -- we catch that, that might be a 30-yard gain. So some things that didn’t go our way in that second half, but in no means will we ever pull off the gas. We’re going to try to score as many points until the clock is at zero."
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.”

Broncos Rewind: Preseason Game 3

August, 24, 2014
Aug 24
5:30
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the end the Denver Broncos played their starters until halftime Saturday night, or just about what they had planned to do against the Houston Texans after three days’ worth of work against the Texans leading up to the game.

That will also do it for virtually all of the regulars since they will not play in Thursday night's preseason finale in Dallas.

But after a look at the game video from the 18-17 loss to the Texans, here are some items of note:
  • With just three tight ends in uniform due to injuries, offensive coordinator Adam Gase still went to work some in a two-tight-end look with mixed results. With the starters in the game, the Broncos used it for nine snaps before halftime with Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas in the formation, including all seven snaps on a second-quarter possession that ended with a Peyton Manning interception. The Broncos had five called runs in the look and Manning was sacked once. The Broncos will consistently work the three-wide-receiver look as their base formation much of the time this season -- 35 snaps in all for the starters Saturday, including penalty snaps. But unless something unexpected happens when the roster gets cut to 53 players next week, the Broncos will most likely have three tight ends on the roster during the season, so Saturday was a rather tidy dress rehearsal for that. Green's return will allow them to muscle up a bit more when they're in it and some additional game-planning should help. But it has to be an effective option for them against some of the sturdier defensive fronts they'll face.
  • One of the more effective looks for the Broncos defense last season was their dime (six defensive backs) and it should be an even more reliable option this season with the addition of safety T.J. Ward to go with some additional depth at the position. The Broncos didn’t play cornerback Chris Harris or cornerback Kayvon Webster in the game, but still fared well in the look against the Texans’ starters. Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was 2-of-4 passing against the Broncos’ dime package with Ward, Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter, Omar Bolden, Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby in the lineup. The completions went for 12 and 5 yards on the Texans' first scoring drive. The Texans eventually converted a fourth-and-1 on a 4-yard run by Alfred Blue, also against the dime look. The Broncos will mostly use the formation in passing situations, but their ability to stay in it could depend on how they do when offenses try to run on it because it's a lighter look in terms of personnel. Ward helps, with his ability to drop down to the weak-ide linebacker spot as he can play along the line of scrimmage in a run fit or drop into coverage.
  • Some of the most difficult roster decisions for the Broncos will come in the defensive line, especially if they keep just eight at a deep position. In a scenario where they keep eight, they are going to lose more than one defensive lineman who could play elsewhere. Saturday night Kevin Vickerson, who was on injured reserve during the second half of last season with a hip injury, got his first action of the preseason. Vickerson carries a $2.266 million salary-cap figure for the upcoming season and given the Broncos’ current cap situation contracts are going to be a bigger consideration in cuts than in the previous three seasons. They would take a $500,000 hit for “dead’’ money if Vickerson is released, so ultimately the Broncos would see a $1.766 million cap savings. It's not huge but perhaps necessary. Vickerson played 24 snaps with the second-team defense in the game.
  • For the optimism surrounding a still-high-powered offense and a revamped defense, the Broncos' special teams didn’t have the kind of night you would expect in the third preseason outing. Matt Prater, now facing a four-game suspension to open the season, missed a field goal and took a chunk of sod out of the ground even as he made his other attempt in the game. Britton Colquitt shanked a punt in the first half -- a 27-yarder with plenty of field to work with -- and rookie Mitch Ewald missed a 36-yard field goal attempt. Couple that with the up-and-down work they’ve had in the return game throughout the preseason and there’s plenty of work to be done.
  • The snap leaders for the night on offense were Manning and the starting offensive line, with 43 plays in the game (all in the first half). On defense Bolden led the way with 39 snaps in a variety of packages with linebackers Corey Nelson and Lerentee McCray checking in at 37 plays each.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Emmanuel Sanders’ first training camp with the Denver Broncos hasn’t exactly gone the way he hoped it would.

The wide receiver, one of the marquee signings the team made in free agency, has had an on-again, off-again type of camp schedule because of a thigh injury he suffered in an Aug. 4 practice. He has missed several practices since, including just before and just after playing 20 plays on offense in the preseason opener, and his status is still questionable for Saturday’s preseason game against the Houston Texans.

Thursday, the third of three practices against the Houston Texans this week, was Sanders’ first day back on the practice field since Aug. 14.

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsEmmanuel Sanders is hoping to get some more work with Peyton Manning in a preseason game setting.
“The quad injury feels good,’’ Sanders said. “Felt really good (Thursday). I didn’t have a problem with it, so I’m extremely happy about that, of course. Good to be out here with my guys practicing, just getting better, and gaining chemistry with Peyton (Manning). It’s looking good right now. Hopefully I’ll be playing on Saturday, but I’m not going to give it 100 percent right now. I’m going to go talk to the trainers and we’re going to take it day by day.’’

Whether or not Sanders plays Saturday will be decided at a Friday night staff meeting. Sanders’ status, as well as all of the playing-time decisions, will be outlined at that meeting.

Broncos head coach John Fox said the work this week against the Texans, because of the intensity, will have an impact on how much the starters play Saturday night. Starters typically play into the third quarter of the third preseason game, but Fox has said he might adjust that, given all of the competitive snaps the two teams had this week in team drills.

Saturday's game will also represent the last preseason playing time for most of the regulars, as they are routinely held out of the last preseason game. On Sanders, Fox said the Broncos liked what they saw Thursday, and despite Sanders’ hope that he will play, the decision won’t be made until Friday evening.

“Yeah we will … evaluate him (Friday),’’ Fox said. “We just have a short workout in the morning and we will meet (Friday) night and determine whether he goes or not.’’

The Broncos will take into account the fact that Sanders played in those 20 plays against the Seattle Seahawks and then missed practice time the following week.

“It’s been frustrating, but at the same time, it’s not anything major,’’ Sanders said. “I’m blessed to play this game and I had a minor setback. … What I’ve been talking to (Manning) about is -- and he’s been talking to me about it -- is that the starters usually don’t play in the fourth preseason game and this is important because I haven’t caught a pass in a game from him. We don’t want to go into the regular season with me not catching a pass from him in a game. So this game is extremely pivotal, and hopefully I’ll be out there playing.’’

For the Broncos, keeping Sanders on the field for practice in the next two weeks, as they gear up for the regular season, will be more important than sending him out for a smattering of plays Saturday night. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase said this week that Sanders’ work in the offseason, including a trip with Manning and the other front-line Broncos pass catchers to Duke for workouts, should keep the timing between Sanders and Manning where it needs to be.

Sanders said Manning did text him Wednesday night to say “he would like me to be out here practicing.’’

“At the end of the day, if I feel good, I’m going to play,’’ Sanders said. “ … Right now I don’t feel like I’m putting myself at any kind of risk of any kind of injury. It feels really good and I’m optimistic that I’ll be playing Saturday.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos opened training camp with a team that was good enough to have played in the Super Bowl six months before and as one of the league’s most active teams in free agency, a rare combination as they try to repair the damage from February’s 35-point loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

The Broncos wanted a little more nastiness on defense, more athleticism across the board and to keep their edge after back-to-back 13-3 seasons that have ended in postseason disappointment.

They wanted what John Elway calls “the right mentality."

So far in this training camp they have shown they should certainly be in the Super Bowl discussion if they simply keep the train on the tracks in the months to come.

“We will get what we work for," coach John Fox said.

Without many starting jobs open, or even roster spots for that matter, the camp has been about getting the new faces acclimated and smoothing any rough edges before things get going for real.

“I think we all understand what they’ve got going here and why they brought some of us in," said safety T.J. Ward, a free-agent signee. “We all know it’s time to get to work and get ready."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM


1. It’s clear already the offense is going to score plenty -- again. Peyton Manning, who needs just 18 touchdown passes to set the league career record, has looked as sharp as ever and may actually have more options to throw to than he did in last year's record-setting 606-point performance. Orlando Franklin’s move inside to guard means the Broncos should pass protect better in the middle of the formation, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders should have a career year in this offense, especially given his versatility to play all over the formation. The Broncos also didn’t sit on the laurels of last season’s record-setting effort as Manning and offensive coordinator Adam Gase were each aggressive and honest, with plenty of attention to detail when looking at what could be better.

[+] EnlargeWare
AP Photo/Jack DempseyDeMarcus Ware has made his presence felt since signing with the Broncos.
2. In cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and Ward, the Broncos got exactly what they wanted in free agency. Ware has commanded respect with his no-nonsense, quiet work ethic and leadership from his first day in the building. Talib is the physical corner who can match up anywhere in the formation the Broncos need him, and Ward is a guy defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will move all over the field. The Talib-Demaryius Thomas battles have created some of the highlights of practice. Ware has mentored, in some way, virtually all of the pass-rushers, especially linebacker Von Miller.

3. Continuity helps. The team’s playcallers on offense and defense -- Gase and Del Rio -- are back. Last season, as Gase raced to put in some changes to the offense when Mike McCoy moved on to become the Chargers' coach, the Broncos were working through the new stuff. This year, Gase has tweaked the offense in spots, but there looks to be a greater comfort level across the board. The groups have played fairly cleanly in practice, with only a smattering of penalties and a minimum of repeats as they have worked through things.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Until they square up in a game that counts, there is at least some question if a slightly revamped offensive line is going to make it happen in the run game. The Broncos don’t want to be some outdated, 50-50 run-pass affair, but they do want to be able to pound the ball to close out games and keep the heat off Manning when needed. Thus far, in limited full-contact work, it’s been a spotty effort with flashes of potential. It will be a key piece in keeping opposing defenses honest and giving the Broncos some other options in the scoring zone.

2. Somebody, anybody, has to step up in the return game. As camp has rolled on, the Broncos have simply mishandled too many kickoffs and punts. They would prefer to not have to use starters if they don’t have to, and wide receiver Andre Caldwell and defensive back Omar Bolden have been the most consistent in kickoff returns so far. At punt return, however, things are still open with Wes Welker, who suffered two concussions last season, currently listed at the top of the team’s depth chart. Because of the concussion risk, Welker is not the player the Broncos want catching punts beyond any deep-in-their-own-territory fair catches. So it is a chance for a young player such as wide receiver Jordan Norwood or rookie Isaiah Burse.

3. The blue ball is in play -- a football with a blue covering -- to emphasize ball security after the team led the league in lost fumbles last season. The Broncos also dropped their fair share of passes in 2013, including a seven-drop game against the New England Patriots and a six-drop game against the Tennessee Titans. It has been a front-burner issue all through camp, but they have still put the ball on the ground on occasion in workouts, especially on special teams. It will bear watching as they move through the preseason and into the regular season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • With the additions of Sanders and rookie Cody Latimer to an offense that already includes Demaryius Thomas, Welker and Julius Thomas, the Broncos feature an array of pass-catchers who can all play, with equal comfort, on the outside or in the slot. It gives them plenty of size to create some matchup problems against more aggressive defenses. Even the most aggressive defensive backs are going to have a difficult time manhandling them all as the Broncos have spent plenty of time considering how to consistently get their pass-catchers the free release they need off the line.
  • Manning, and his receivers have said as much, has shown a little more pop in his arm through offseason workouts and camp and has pushed the ball down the field with ease.
  • Of the team’s draft class, cornerback Bradley Roby is, at minimum, going to play in the nickel and dime, Latimer will be in the rotation on offense, and Lamin Barrow figures to get special-teams work and could work his way into some of the specialty packages on defense.
  • In recent seasons, the Broncos have consistently had a late free-agent signing, a veteran who signs a one-year deal, come in and contribute in a big way. This year it looks like that guy is going to be defensive tackle Marvin Austin. He had back surgery in the past year, and the former second-round pick by the Giants has caught the Broncos’ eye.
  • It’s early with plenty of road to be traveled, but the most improved players from a year ago look to be running back Ronnie Hillman and guard Ben Garland, who was switched from defensive tackle in the offseason and is pushing hard for one of the final roster spots allotted for the offensive line. Hillman has shown the big-play potential the offense needs at the position, especially as it looks to improve its impact on runs between the tackles against the bevy of nickel and dime formations used to stop the Broncos' passing game.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There is a lot to dislike about the preseason.

There is the limited work for the players the fans know best, the ones they want to see the most. And the four games that don't count in the standings, when most folks in the league believe the regular season could easily get teed up after two August games.

There is the looming threat of injury, the biggest reason training camps now bear little resemblance to those of years gone by.

Then again, there is Brock Osweiler.

[+] EnlargeBrock Osweiler
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyBackup quarterback Brock Osweiler on his progress: "I feel like I'm playing at a much higher level than I did last year, and especially my rookie year."
"I’m excited to go out there and see what I can do," Osweiler said. "You always want to compete, we all signed up to play. That’s what I want to do."

But Osweiler's view is also that of a guy who is now in his third year of one of the most demanding quarterback schools pro football has to offer. He’s Peyton Manning's backup, a second-round pick John Elway plucked off the draft board in 2012 to be the heir apparent to a future Hall of Famer.

A future Hall of Famer who has since had two of the best seasons of his career and is coming off an NFL single-season record 55 touchdown passes. Manning, in his post-spinal fusion football life, is still playing at an elite level.

He also rarely misses games -- the only games he has missed in his career came in 2011, following his surgery -- and rarely misses practice.

As a result Osweiler has thrown all of 20 regular-season passes in his extended watch-and-learn mode. Which is why Thursday’s preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks and the three preseason games that follow, are so important for Osweiler.

With Manning expected to get the shortest of cameos in Thursday’s game and abbreviated outings in the next two, Osweiler will get plenty of work. Some of those snaps will come with the starting offense.

"It’s always a little faster," Osweiler said. "It’s always a little bit different. But that’s one of those things you have to understand. 'Hey, I’m in there with the first group right now, they play a certain way.' And you just need to acclimate to that and adjust and keep the sticks rolling ... There’s no other team I’d rather play, first preseason game. Like I said before, they’re the world champs and they’re the world champs for a reason. I expect their best effort. They have a very talented defense that flies around and gets after it. So I think it’ll be a great challenge for us, but I’m excited for that challenge and I think it’ll be a lot of fun."

Osweiler’s approach during his apprenticeship is one of the reasons Elway liked the big-framed passer so much after just one season as a starter at Arizona State. Elway has consistently talked of Osweiler’s arm strength and mobility as a 6-foot-8, 240-pound player, but Elway also likes the kid's confident swagger and his work ethic.

Osweiler could have taken a more relaxed approach in his day-to-day work with little lure of playing time. Or he could have done what those around him say he has done, show up early (often just before Manning arrives each day) and learn as much as possible.

"He’s put in the work," said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "He has benefited so much from Peyton and I think Peyton likes to have a guy so fired up around him as well. And the big thing for us is we don’t change our offense. Brock is going to be ready to run the offense."

That is something Osweiler has taken pride in, too. Asked this week if the Broncos dialed things back for him when he goes in a game, Osweiler said:

"Last I checked we had the same playbook," Osweiler said. "Given each week, the game plan differs and I pride myself on knowing the entire game plan, the entire playbook, and if something’s ever to happen to [Manning], or whatever the case may be and I’m in the game, we’re not going to have to change what we do because I’m the quarterback."

Osweiler did get a little more room to grow as Manning, who battled with sprained ankles for much of the second half of the 2013 season, made a concession in his practice schedule. Manning took some Wednesdays off last season, giving Osweiler extra time with the starting offense.

Osweiler, the youngest quarterback on the draft board in ’12, won’t turn 24 until November. He says Year 3 already feels a bit different than his first two.

"Absolutely, Year 1, it’s almost like the goal is just learning the playbook, and then Year 2 is apply it to the field, eliminate those mistakes you were making in Year 1," Osweiler said. “And same thing goes from Year 2 to Year 3. So from the way practices have gone from the start of training camp, and even back to OTAs, I feel like a completely different quarterback. I feel like I’m playing at a much higher level than I did last year, and especially my rookie year. I have very high goals for myself and very high expectations, and I expect to play well Thursday."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If you sifted through all of the words both the Denver Broncos’ football decision-makers and players have already said a week into training camp, there are three that have routinely been peppered into the conversations.

Toughness.

Attitude.

Mentality.

If you’re looking for a theme, a mantra, a way of doing things in the 2014 season for the Super Bowl hopeful on the Front Range, there it is.

“No question,’’ safety T.J. Ward said. “They already had a great team here, Peyton Manning, they won a lot of games. Some of us came in new and we just want to help, add a little thump if we can. I know I wanted to be a part of a team like this.’’

The Broncos are a week into training camp, and as we work through the hope-for-the-best stories about better leadership, depth and the luxury of the fresh start each summer gives to every NFL team, they are working to clear their own hurdle to go from last February’s Super Bowl loss to what they hope this season will be.

There was plenty good about what they did last season as the highest-scoring team, with the highest-scoring quarterback in league history. They can’t just abandon that because of one dismal February night. But for all of the records, fireworks on offense and piles of touchdowns, it wasn’t enough to win the title.

So, hence the search for toughness, for attitude and for what the team’s football boss John Elway has consistently called that “championship mentality.’’

Elway has said “it’s hard to win a world championship. Nobody just waves you by so you can walk up and have it handed it to you. You have to go get it.''

A few days into camp and it’s already clear, moving Orlando Franklin to guard should help. In live run-game drills, the Broncos showed the ability to move people in the middle of the field. They still haven’t found a right tackle -- Chris Clark has taken most of the snaps with the regulars -- to play as well as Franklin did.

But the Broncos want, and need, to be tougher on the interior, to run better inside, to protect Manning more consistently from inside rushers. Franklin can aid that cause.

Then there’s the defense, which got most of the attention and money in the offseason. And their progress, which includes the return of some players who were on injured reserve last season, can be measured in how much better they have stared down Manning and Adam Gase’s high-flying offense in their own practices so far. It isn't as if there is a more proficient offense waiting on the schedule.

It’s been far more difficult for the Broncos' offensive starters to move the ball on the defensive starters already. And it’s not because the Broncos have lost traction on offense, it’s because to 11 players across from it are better than they were in 2013.

DeMarcus Ware has the look of a team captain a few months into his tenure with Denver, and he physically looks as if he will make a high-profile team to the East feel some regret about losing him. And while the preseason figures to be two scoops of vanilla from Jack Del Rio and his cast, this defense should be top 5 if it’s healthy.

In the end, the games decide how much improvement was really made. Through the years, the league has been littered with team who are happy in the summer only to miss the playoffs when December rolls around. But if people believe they will see a shell-shocked Broncos team, still limping after a 35-point title game loss, they won’t.

They think that one is so last year.

Broncos Camp Report: Day 3

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
9:15
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Denver Broncos training camp:
  • Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who is slated to return to practice Monday after spending the first four days of training camp in Georgia after the death of his grandmother, will be eased into drills upon his return. Or as offensive coordinator Adam Gase put it; “He has got a great grasp of our offense. There is no concern with me. Once he gets back, he will just jump right in. We will probably be smart with him, make sure that we don’t do anything crazy. He is not going to come out here and just run all go routes -- none of that on the first day. We will work him back in, we will be smart, make sure he gets caught up to speed with his conditioning, but then he will slide right in.’’
  • Another day, another reason the Broncos signed Aqib Talib. The Broncos practiced in full gear for the first time in this camp Saturday morning. As a result, they did plenty of work in the run game, including some one-on-one drills when the team’s wide receivers were asked to block the cornerbacks as if it were a running play. Talib was easily the toughest cornerback to block in the group as he repeatedly tossed aside the receiver who had tried to block him. The Broncos believe safety T.J. Ward and Talib will significantly improve the Broncos’ ability to pressure the line of scrimmage in run defense behind the team’s front seven.
  • In the usual ebb and flow of training camp, the defense tipped the scales its way much of the time Saturday. That figures to change a bit as the offense continues to dial in over the coming days and weeks. But as the offense went through some of its offerings in the run game, but Broncos' defensive front was stout and aggressive, particularly in the middle of the field. Ward also was easy to find, arriving first on many run plays outside the tackles. “I like what I’ve seen in the meetings. I like the way he conducts himself,’’ defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “He’s going to bring some toughness to our defense, and we’ve got some tough guys on our defense so he’ll fit right in with that. A welcomed addition.’’
  • During Elvis Dumervil’s time with the Broncos, he routinely credited his work against Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady on a day-to-day basis as a big reason Dumervil became a Pro Bowl player. And while those battles were always of high quality, Saturday gave a quality glimpse into one that could be even better as Clady and DeMarcus Ware went at it both in one-on-ones and when the Broncos' starting offense went against the starting defense. Ware, who said he has dropped some weight this season, was consistently quick off the ball and repeatedly tested Clady’s ability to get into his pass sets. The work will certainly benefit both players.
  • Chris Clark, who is getting the first look at right tackle with the starters, had some tough moments in the one-on-ones as well as on some two-on-twos, when the Broncos offensive linemen were working on their footwork against a variety of stunts. Guard Louis Vasquez spent some time off to the side with Clark, going over hand placement to maximize the first contact on the opposing rusher.
  • Odds and ends: Ward forced a fumble on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the morning practice … Ben Garland, who has spent two years on the Broncos’ practice squad as both an offensive and defensive lineman after completing his service commitment in the U.S. Air Force, has been at the left guard spot with the second-team offense. … Paul Cornick, who was on the Broncos’ practice squad last year, has worked as the No. 2 right tackle, behind Clark in the early going … Quote of the day fromlinebacker Danny Trevathan on Ward and Ware: “Those guys are savages.’’ ... The Broncos moved their second practice of the day indoors because of lightning in the area. They held a walk-through on an undersized field adjacent to the team's weight room.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Perhaps it all boils down to the difference between more and better.

Because any rational person would have a difficult time saying the Denver Broncos' offense could do more in the coming season than it did in the last one. At least when it comes to touchdowns, league records and whoa-look-at-that explosiveness that were all in the Broncos’ jet wash last season.

The Broncos became the league’s first-ever 600-point team in 2013, had five different players score at least 10 touchdowns -- no other team in history had more than three -- and quarterback Peyton Manning set single-season records for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477). So to say more is in the offing in ’14, even with all the Broncos have done in the offseason, is borderline nuts.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Franklin
AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Broncos are hoping that Orlando Franklin's move to left guard will help improve the team's run game.
But better? Now that’s another matter.

"Oh yeah, we can be better. We can do some things better, we can make better calls, I can make better calls, I can get us in better situations," Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. "There are some things we’ve got our eyes on."

And one of those is a simple matter of physics. That when the defense gets smaller to defend the Broncos’ high-wire passing game, the Broncos have to find a way to pound away better, more efficiently, in the run game.

No, the Broncos aren't moving toward some outdated idea, at least in these pass-happy times, that balance on offense means some kind of 50-50 split between run and pass. The Broncos were about at a 58-42 split in pass plays to runs last season, and with Gase a 60-40 split will likely be the starting point to any discussion about "balance."

But the Broncos do want, when the opportunity presents itself, to run the ball better against the vast array of smaller defensive personnel groupings in front of them. It’s not complicated -- the Broncos play out of a three-wide receiver set much of the time, about three-quarters of the time this past regular season, closer to 90 percent in the postseason.

That means they face defenses' specialty packages, with primarily with five or six defensive backs, most of the time. Formations that also include smaller, quicker defensive fronts as well.

So much so that last season when the Broncos handed the ball to their No. 1 back, Knowshon Moreno, he was running against six or fewer players in the box on 80 percent of his carries. Moreno finished the year with his first 1,000-yard campaign, but at 4.3 yards per carry against those lighter defensive groupings, the Broncos saw room for improvement as the team's yards-per-carry average overall was 4.1.

And that’s why when it came time to make decisions, the Broncos didn’t offer Moreno a deal in free agency -- he signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins and will miss the next month or so after arthroscopic surgery. Instead they moved Montee Ball into the starting role and shifted Orlando Franklin to left guard, a move that gives Denver perhaps the biggest guard tandem in the league.

Even when they were thinking about their passing game, like when they used a second-round pick on wide receiver Cody Latimer, as the Broncos lauded Latimer’s combination of size and speed, they still had some visions of the run game dancing in their heads, as John Elway also called Latimer the "best blocking wide receiver in the draft."

A big part of the foundation of Manning’s play in an offense has always been the play-action passing game, but the run game must be a threat for that to work as defenses must believe the ball will actually end up with the running back. And when Gase talks about the touchdowns the Broncos left unscored last season, it’s often because they couldn’t find a way to get the ball into the end zone from inside the 5-yard line.

For example, Broncos kicker Matt Prater made three 19-yard field goals in 2013 -- two in the regular season, one in the AFC Championship Game. In all three cases the Broncos had failed to convert third-and-goal plays from their opponents’ 1-yard line, and in all three cases the field goal followed an incomplete pass.

The Broncos don’t want to be anything close to a run-first team, but they want to be a run-when-they-need-to team to close out games and to help keep the offense’s biggest asset -- Manning -- out of harm’s way by slowing down opposing pass-rushers.

"Any time an offense is balanced, it means they’re running the ball pretty well," guard Louis Vasquez said. "And that’s a focus for us this year."

"We’re always going to try to get the best look, to do the best thing in each situation for the offense to be successful," Gase said. "The more things we can do, the more options we have. We want to be able to execute the plays we want in those situations. If that’s throwing, that’s throwing the ball, if it’s running, then we want that available, too."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When you spend much of your on-field workday going against a quarterback like Peyton Manning operating in a fast-paced, no-huddle attack, you have a pretty good idea of what a big play looks like.

And as the Denver Broncos' defense has moved through its offseason work, taking a bite out of some of those big plays has been on the front burner.

“Too often last year we let people go over the top of us or run through us," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos bolstered their secondary this offseason, signing T.J. Ward (not pictured) and Aqib Talib.
The Broncos allowed 40 run plays of at least 10 yards last season, the 10th highest total in the league. Not bad, but as a guy with a don't-give-an-inch mindset, Del Rio wants that number to go down this season.

But the real trouble came through the air. Logically, it fits. If your offense is on the way to a single-season record of 606 points, if your quarterback is on the way to a single-season record of 55 touchdown passes, you’re playing with the lead much of the time. And usually the leads were big enough that there was plenty of chuck-it-around desperation on the other side.

No matter how it came about, however, the results were ugly. Opponents had 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards against the Broncos last season (27th in the league). By contrast, the Seattle Seahawks led the league in fewest big-play passes allowed with 30.

Eleven opponents in the regular season had at least three pass plays of 20 yards or more against the Broncos, and their three playoff opponents had three pass plays of at least 20 yards, including the Seahawks in their 35-point win in Super Bowl XLVIII.

“[It's] leveraging and tackling," Del Rio said this week. "The biggest thing is the back end. It typically comes from the back end and if you're leveraging properly and then tackling, you can minimize plays and make people go the hard way."

So it's no shock the Broncos devoted most of their free-agency capital to their defense, and the position group that saw the biggest expenditure was defensive back with the signings of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. The Broncos also used their first-round pick on cornerback Bradley Roby.

Talib and Ward are physical players who Del Rio said “will show up and tackle you." Roby, the Broncos believe, showed that same kind of potential during his time at Ohio State. Broncos executive vice president John Elway said he thought Roby was the best man-to-man cover cornerback on the board and was a "top-15 talent" that the team took at No. 31.

“We were a top-five defense two years ago," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “Last year, that wasn’t us, that wasn’t the kind of defense we think we have. When you have an offense like ours, we want to give them the ball back as many times as possible after we hold people to three-and-outs."

The early returns of these latest workouts say Ward will have a variety of roles, given his ability to play with a physical edge down near the line of scrimmage -- Del Rio has often lined a safety up at weakside linebacker in some of the team's specialty looks -- as well as his ability to work in coverage downfield. Talib and Harris can both play as matchup cornerbacks, playing receivers out of the slot and on the outside. They both have proven to be willing tacklers in the run game as well.

As Harris continues to rehab from ACL surgery, Roby has found himself inserted with the starters in workouts. Roby projects to play in the team's nickel package, which was on the field for almost 70 percent of the team's defensive snaps last season.

Del Rio will point out that even with five starters on injured reserve by the time the Broncos earned their way into the Super Bowl, the defense had found itself a bit at the end of the regular season. After four teams had topped the 400-yard mark in the first 12 games, the Broncos held three of their last four regular-season opponents to fewer than 300 yards.

"I would suggest if you go back and review last year, that we were very good down the stretch when it mattered," Del Rio said. "That didn’t help our rank for the regular season but we were effective in the home win against San Diego and we were effective in the home win against the Patriots. And we helped our football team get to the championship game. So we did things that we're very proud of. And we did them short-handed."

During the past few weeks, the Broncos have pushed each other on both sides of the ball as Del Rio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase have their daily battles in team drills, each offering up a little surprise here, something unexpected there, to try to gain an edge. During the team’s mandatory minicamp this week, both sides were emotional when plays were made.

“We look at it like you can’t go against anybody better than Peyton and our offense every day," linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “That can only help us, that can only make us better. Because we're not going to face anyone better, so if we put in the work, play the way we're supposed to, we want to see those results."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It would seem anybody as big as Denver Broncos guard Louis Vasquez -- "he's huge," 290-pound defensive end and teammate Derek Wolfe said -- would have a difficult time squeezing anywhere under the radar.

Sure, when Vasquez signed with the Broncos a little more than a year ago, he had been their top target in free agency. Of all the players they reeled in that offseason, he got the longest deal (four years) and the most money ($23.5 million). Yet in all of the chatter around the league about who signed for what that March, it was barely a ripple in the pond.

But Vasquez is a 6-foot-5, 335-pound shining example of how free agency is supposed to work, for the team and for the player.

[+] EnlargeLouis Vasquez
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeLouis Vasquez was the only unrestricted free agent in 2013 who changed teams and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
"We like the way that has worked out," Broncos executive vice president/general manager John Elway said. "We always want them to work out like that."

In theory, if you play well, you get to the open market and you get paid. If you play really well, you get paid really well.

Ideally, you play even better than what you did to draw interest in the first place. And right there is the rub, because the trouble with free agency from a business standpoint is a player who gets signed for big money rarely plays better than he did before he signed the contract.

Think about it. It’s a short list, just a handful of names, of unrestricted free agents who played better after the new deal. Not the same as before. Better.

Take former Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker. The New York Jets didn’t shower a $30-something million deal on him to get the Broncos’ No. 2 receiver. No, they want better. They want a No. 1 receiver.

Vasquez has been better, a win-win for the Broncos. He was the only unrestricted free agent in 2013 who changed teams and was selected to the Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro. He was the first Broncos guard to be named first-team All-Pro since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

In short, the Broncos scouted a player who fit what they wanted and also had the makeup to improve once he arrived. He was young enough to have room on the developmental curve to grow, and the ability to flourish with an expanded role in a more diverse offense than what he was in before he arrived.

Vasquez, who played his first four seasons with the San Diego Chargers, got a top-tier contract for a team in the Super Bowl conversation. Everybody was, and still is, happy.

Asked this week if he believes he truly played better with the opportunity to play in a high-flying, record-setting offense, or if folks simply noticed him more as the Broncos roared toward 606 points, Vasquez was understated, as usual.

"That’s kind of hard for me to say," Vasquez said. "I feel I learn something new every year. I pick up something to add to my game. So every year I like to think I’ve built on the previous year before."

"We were having trouble with teams getting stunts on us, teams were getting penetration, then the loopers were getting to us," Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. "When we watched him on tape in those situations before he got here, he was just snatching those guys and shutting it down right there, and then he could pass a guy off and take over the next guy. Then we saw him in the run game, so powerful. We knew he was going to bring a different element."

Vasquez also holds a rather remarkable distinction of having been flagged just five times in 70 regular-season games, and only four of those penalties were assessed. He was flagged three times last season -- two false starts and a holding penalty -- but none was after Week 7. Before he arrived, he had been flagged just twice -- a false-start penalty on a field goal attempt Oct. 24, 2010, against the Patriots, and a holding call in Week 6 of his rookie season that was declined.

"Just [having] great technique, that’s my biggest focus, is playing with technique, every play, every down," Vasquez said. “The results show for themselves. My only concern is to play with good technique and everything else will follow."

Said Gase: "He’s a hard guy to get around, he does a good job of moving his feet, and when he gets his hands on you, he’s able to keep himself out of trouble. That’s where you get holding calls or just penalties in general, when a guy gets an edge on you and you have to react to recover and drag people down.

"He’s a really good athlete. And I just didn’t realize how big he was. Some guys are listed big, made themselves big, [Vasquez] is just big, physical, he looks the part. Well, really, he's everything you want in the part."
No team in NFL history scored more points in a season than the Denver Broncos did in 2013. The 606 points made them the first offense in the league to top the 600-point barrier.

And in an unheard of distribution they had five players who scored at least 10 touchdowns. No team had ever had more than three players reach the 10 touchdown barrier.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Lyons/Getty ImagesProtecting Peyton Manning -- and cutting down on his fumbles lost -- was emphasized in the offseason.
In short, the Broncos were ruthlessly efficient when they had a chance to score touchdowns. Yet as they take the field this week for their first full on-field team workouts of a new season, they are still left to wonder what could have been.

Had they taken care of the ball better, the numbers would have been even more staggering. Sure they could have run the ball more efficiently and protected their prized quarterback better.

But the bottom line is the Broncos need to go back to the most basic of basics: They need to hold onto the ball.

"We have to do a better job as a group with that," said Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "That was a big downfall for us early, where the ball was on the ground way too much. It's almost two seasons in a row and we have to address that right away. We've got to be so much better as far as holding onto the ball as a group."

Those numbers are almost just as startling from last season. The Broncos led the NFL in lost fumbles in 2013 with 16 in a year when no other playoff team had more than 10.

Quarterback Peyton Manning, whose grip was somewhat affected by his spinal fusion surgery, led the team with six lost fumbles. But Manning only had two lost fumbles in 2012, his first season with the Broncos, and Denver has tried to address protection issues up front this offseason.

Left tackle Ryan Clady will return to the lineup after missing all but two games with a foot injury and Orlando Franklin has been moved from right tackle to left guard to try and bolster the Broncos' protection schemes on Manning's doorstep. If they can limit the clean hits in the pocket on Manning, his fumble total should be closer, the Broncos hope, to his 2012 work.

Gase has said ball security will be addressed right from the start with the team's running backs -- the running backs had four lost fumbles last season, three by Montee Ball. Ball did not lose a fumble following the Nov. 24 loss in New England. But the Broncos need Ball to get close to Knowshon Moreno's performance.

Moreno, who was allowed to leave in free agency, did not lose a fumble last season in 241 carries as well as 60 receptions.

The Broncos' wide receivers can do their part as well. Despite all of the quality work the Broncos did in the passing game last season, their top receivers dropped more than their share of passes as well.

Granted, the Broncos were second in pass attempts last season -- the Cleveland Browns were first -- so more opportunity certainly could lead to more drops. But their top three receivers -- Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker dropped a combined 20 passes.

Video review showed Welker was near the top of the league with nine drops, while Decker had six drops on in-frame passes -- another drop could have been added if a more liberal approach was taken -- and Thomas had five drops. Decker and Welker each had games with three drops and overall the Broncos had two games with at least six dropped passes in the regular season -- six against Tennessee and seven against New England.

Emmanuel Sanders will replace Decker in the team's three-wide look this year and the Broncos used a second-round pick on wide receiver Cody Latimer in the draft earlier this month. And most teams had Latimer as one of the most reliable receivers catching the ball in this year's draft class -- one of Latimer's coaches at Indiana was quoted as saying Latimer may have had just one drop last season in practice or in a game.

"That's always one of my emphases, just to catch the ball, that's why I play receiver," Latimer said. "You don't want to waste any passes. That's the emphasis we had. My coach, we kept track of drops and he always let me know, 'You didn't have any drops,' or, 'You dropped this,' but it wasn't many. So it was just something we focused on as receivers."

"I think you're always going to feel like you left some points out there sometimes, even with what we did," is how Thomas put it. "We can always be better."

In the end, with Manning back at quarterback, with Sanders adding some elusiveness and athleticism in the offense, with an offseason to tinker with all that they did last season, there is no reason to believe the Broncos should be one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league once again.

But if they take care of the ball better than they did last season, they'll pick up some of the points they left behind.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider