AFC West: Elvis Dumervil

The Denver Broncos' decisions on how to repair last season's defense essentially come down to a faith in healing, a calendar and a stopwatch.

Because the Broncos are certainly hoping for the best when it comes to the return of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Von Miller, two of the Broncos' six defensive starters who finished the 2013 season on injured reserve, from their ACL surgeries. And when they opened owner Pat Bowlen's checkbook in free agency they had a clear goal in mind.

"We were aging some," head coach John Fox said this week. "We wanted to get younger, we wanted to get faster -- you know, like you do every year. We're a much younger defense at this point. We needed to retool that side of the ball."

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellThe Broncos are counting on DeMarcus Ware to give them the pass-rushing presence they missed at times last season.
The Broncos took at least some salary-cap risk with DeMarcus Ware's three-year, $30 million deal, but he was also the only 30-something free agent they added. Cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, their other high-profile signings on defense, are 28 and 27 years old, respectively.

The Broncos will also take a long look at defensive backs in the draft, and perhaps edge rushers and inside linebackers as well. Speed and youth are priorities, so their depth chart should have a decidedly younger feel when they finish training camp this season.

But Ware fills an important role in the blueprint. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway put Ware in the same category as quarterback Peyton Manning in terms of why the team believed signing him was good business.

"I like getting Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders," Elway said, which was the same thing he said when the Broncos signed Manning in 2012 after the quarterback had had four neck surgeries and missed the 2011 season.

Ware missed the only three games of his career this past season when he tried to play through elbow and leg injuries. He had surgery to repair the elbow immediately following the season and pronounced himself healthy upon his arrival in Denver.

"I am ready to go," Ware said. "It was something I took care of. I'm healthy, my body feels great."

"He was the most veteran guy that we signed in free agency," Fox said. "He has a lot of skins on the wall -- one of the highest sack guys currently. I remember when he came out [of college]. He played injured. That says something about a guy. He had surgery the minute the season was over. It was something he did in training camp."

Fox also sees Ware as the solution to the question the Broncos' defense simply could not answer last season. Though Shaun Phillips did finish with 10 sacks after signing a one-year deal on draft weekend last April.

But it was still not everything the Broncos needed or wanted on defense after Elvis Dumervil was released following the fax fiasco and he elected to spurn the Broncos' attempt to re-sign him and join the Baltimore Ravens.

"And we put a guy in there, but we never really replaced [Dumervil], we didn't rejuvenate so to speak," Fox said.

Fox said when the Broncos evaluated Ware and took into account his elbow is now repaired, they saw potential for Ware to regain the form he has shown for much of his nine previous seasons. He had 19.5 sacks just three seasons ago and 11.5 sacks two seasons ago.

"It's hard to play this game with one arm," Fox said. " … We looked at it a little more glass half full."

Asked if he thought Ware could be an every-down player in 2014, Fox added: "I got asked that the other day. I don't try to define guys. I tell them, ‘Don't let me define you. Don't let any coach define you.' A lot of that stuff is different. Each year is new whether you're an old player or a young player. He'll determine that by his performance in practice and during the evaluation process … But when we see what he's done we expect there is more of the same there."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the end, the Denver Broncos and Shaun Phillips find themselves in a need-need situation.

Now, more than ever.

The defense continues to be a question mark, sometimes a small one, sometimes not so small, in any outside assessment of the team’s Super Bowl chances. Now, the players on that side of the ball, in a season that has been filled with varying “narratives," about the team are certainly sick of that one.

But the three other teams that remain in the AFC’s playoff field accounted for the Broncos’ three losses this season, and they did it, in large part, by finding a way to slow the Broncos’ next-level offense. And they did it by rushing for at least 118 yards in each of those games (including 177 by the Chargers on Dec. 12), and they did it with three-touchdown outings by quarterbacks Tom Brady (Patriots) and Andrew Luck (Colts).

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesWith Von Miller out of the lineup, the Broncos need Shaun Phillips, 90, to regain the pass-rushing form he showed early in the season.
“We’re just looking forward to playing good football," said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “What was, and whether it was good or bad really doesn’t matter going forward. We need to play well and help our football team win, that’s all it comes down to.”

With the list of marquee quarterbacks left in the postseason -- Brady, Luck and Philip Rivers in the AFC, and Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick in the NFC -- the Broncos have to find a way to make the opposing uber-thrower uncomfortable.

Enter Phillips, who led the Broncos in sacks this season after the team’s original plans up front on defense took a few hits along the way. There was the fax fiasco with Elvis Dumervil, there was Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy to open the season, and there was Miller’s season-ending right knee injury in Houston last month.

Phillips closed out the regular season with 10 sacks, the third time he has hit the double-digit mark. He certainly delivered every bit the Broncos could have hoped for when they signed him to a one-year, $1 million deal during draft weekend last April.

Phillips facing his former team, the Chargers, adds a little spice for him in the Broncos’ playoff opener, and Denver needs him to regain his early season pace no matter what team is in front of him if their pass rush is going to be what they need it to be.

“For me, it doesn’t matter what team it is, it just happens that it’s the Chargers on the schedule," Phillips said. “But of course I’m excited -- it’s your old team. You always want to play against them. And they’re playing good football right now, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us, and it’s going to be a great challenge for them.”

Phillips, with an average of 48.3 snaps per game over the season’s first 10 games, had nine sacks in those games, including 2.5 in the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens and two in the win in Dallas. But the sacks didn’t come in the stretch drive, even with Miller in the lineup some of the time.

Phillips averaged 47.8 snaps per game over the final six games, and Phillips had one sack, against Rivers Dec. 12, in those six games.

Without Miller the Broncos might have to be a little more creative in their rush schemes, add a cornerback here, a safety there as they often choose to rush out of six- and seven-defensive back looks. And they certainly need players like Robert Ayers (5.5 sacks for the season, 4.5 of those in the first five games) and Malik Jackson (6.0 sacks) to be in the mix.

But many personnel executives believe Phillips will be the key moving forward, especially if the Broncos do move on past Phillips' former team.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a chip on my shoulder,’’ Phillips said. “I think I’ve had good games both times we played them. I always want to play well every game. Again, for me, it’s no hard feelings, because they’re a great organization. They brought me in, they drafted me and they treated me well. So I’m not saying anything negative at all. But of course, anytime you play against your old team, you always have a little chip on your shoulder, a little extra edge to get after them. And that is what’s going to happen .. It’s all about who wins now, who plays better now. We’re up for the challenge. We’re looking forward to it.”

Upon Further Review: Broncos Week 11

November, 18, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – An examination for four hot issues from the Denver Broncos27-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeQuentin Jammer
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesQuentin Jammer's playing time has been on the rise, and on Sunday night he recovered a fumble.
Jammer jammin’: In the first seven games of this season, Broncos cornerback Quentin Jammer played all of one play on defense -- one snap against the Eagles in Week 4. But interim coach/defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has said he will try to find a place for those he believes can contribute on game day, and the Broncos like the veteran Jammer’s savvy and physical play. Jammer was on the field for 19 plays against the Redskins in Week 8 and 33 plays against the Chargers last week, and he was in a regular rotation Sunday night, often appearing in the Broncos’ big nickel look when they went with five defensive backs.

Decker on the spot: With Wes Welker having suffered a concussion Sunday night, Eric Decker might need to show a little more versatility. Welker has worked almost exclusively out of the slot this season, save for an occasional snap when he has lined up out wide or in the backfield, and Decker would have to fill that role if Welker misses some time. It means Decker, who has struggled at times with drops, is going to have to be reliable in the high-traffic areas in the middle of the field. The Broncos will still want to run their three-wide-receiver set plenty, and that means Decker has to be up to the task on the inside and Andre Caldwell will have to produce in an outside spot.

Money well spent: After the Broncos lost Elvis Dumervil in free agency following the fax disaster, there was at least some concern in the organization over whether they would be able to fill the gap. But a one-year, $1 million deal with Shaun Phillips signed during the weekend of the NFL draft has worked out quite nicely for all involved. Phillips leads the team with nine sacks after he recorded 1.5 Sunday night (along with 10 tackles). He has already earned a $400,000 bonus for getting eight sacks, and he has another waiting if he reaches 10.

Lucky six: When the Broncos selected linebacker Danny Trevathan in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, they hoped they would have a player who could find a role in the team’s speed-first defense. Trevathan, who forced a game-changing fumble in the first quarter Sunday, now leads the Broncos in tackles (81) and is tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) and forced fumbles (two). That’s the kind of late-round value that draft-built playoff teams routinely enjoy, and the kind the Broncos will need to stay in the postseason hunt as they move forward under the current regime.

What to watch for: Broncos-Ravens

September, 5, 2013
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It’s been months of waiting and hand-wringing for many in the Rocky Mountain empire, but Thursday night the Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens will open the NFL’s regular season.

And the Broncos will take the first step toward trying to regain all they let slip away last January when the Ravens shredded the Broncos' postseason plans and scattered them across Sports Authority Field at Mile High as if they were confetti. So, when things get down to football business this evening, here are some things to consider:

  • A certain right arm. Broncos receivers, right from Peyton Manning’s workouts at Duke University early in the offseason, have said Manning’s arm strength is noticeably better, and Manning has flashed the improvement throughout training camp and the preseason. But this will be the first under-the-bright-lights exam. There were personnel executives in the league last season who felt Denver's passing game was limited at times because Manning wasn't pushing the ball downfield. Teams usually decide coverage is the way to defend Manning -- to drop seven players and take their chances in the passing lanes -- because blitzing him is often a waste of time and a potential touchdown waiting to happen. But given the Broncos didn't always consistently protect Manning in the preseason, there is the chance the Ravens take a few risks in the pass rush, and the opportunities for Manning to put the ball up the sideline would be there. Also, the Broncos will finally show what the real plans are for Wes Welker, who will have a greater variety of routes in the Broncos' offense than he did with New England.

  • No Champ, no Elvis, no Von. For one reason or another the Broncos' defense will be missing 29.5 sacks from last season and 17 career Pro Bowl appearances. That’s a lot of star power somewhere besides in the Broncos' defensive huddle. Champ Bailey is out with a foot injury, Von Miller is suspended for six games and Elvis Dumervil will be working for the Ravens this evening. That puts players such as Derek Wolfe, Robert Ayers and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie under the magnifying glass. Wolfe is essential to the defensive front because of his versatility, even when Miller’s in the lineup. He is all the more important now. Look for the Broncos to move him all along the line of scrimmage to find him some room to work. Ayers has consistently said he could do far more in the rush than his 6.5 career sacks in four seasons. He’s never going to have a better chance to prove it than in these next six games, and he's in a contract year. The Broncos signed Rodgers-Cromartie because they believe he still possesses the skills to play like a No. 1 corner if he would commit to it and take care of the details. He will often line up in Bailey’s left cornerback spot in this game, and his athleticism makes him the best matchup against Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith.
    [+] EnlargeVon Miller and Elvis Dumervil
    Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos' defense will be without the departed Elvis Dumervil (left), the suspended Von Miller (right) and the injured Champ Bailey.

  • Play big. The Broncos’ starting defense struggled at times in the preseason when its base formation matched up with a heavier look on offense. But the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks plowed through the Broncos’ regulars with extended scoring drives. The 49ers put together a 13-play scoring drive in the preseason opener against the Broncos starters, with nine of those plays against the Broncos’ base defense. The Seahawks put together a 10-play touchdown drive against the starters, with nine of the plays against the Broncos’ base defense. Granted those two figure to be among the NFC elite this season, but the Ravens can -- and have -- played out of those heavy two-tight end, two-back looks with plenty of success in the past. The Broncos are going to have to muscle up a bit at times in this one. Wesley Woodyard certainly has the skills, the savvy and the physical edge to play at middle linebacker in the Broncos' defense. But he is 233 pounds, and the Ravens figure to test him early in this one.

  • Mix and match. Broncos coach John Fox has said the team intends to use all hands on deck at running back, and this will be the first regular-season glimpse at the plan. They all bring a little something different to the mix: Montee Ball is a more traditional early-down back, Ronnie Hillman has speed and big-play potential and Knowshon Moreno is still more comfortable than the other two as a receiver out of the backfield and as a blocker in pass protection. But no matter who has the ball, the Broncos want more impact in the ground game and hope to stress defenses outside the numbers more than they did last season.

  • Rahim Moore. The safety had a far better season in 2012 than the only play anyone wants to talk about would indicate, and some of his teammates owe him plenty for taking the heat after the playoff loss when mistakes were made all over the formation that night, including Tony Carter giving Jacoby Jones a free release off the line of scrimmage on the fateful play. But some offensive coordinators believe Moore is a little too overzealous in his pursuit of the ball at times and can be reeled in with play-action. The Ravens will test him, and Moore, who had a quality preseason, will have to play with discipline.

  • Trindon Holliday. Say you had perhaps the greatest playoff performance of any kick returner in league history and nobody -- as in nobody -- really talks much about it. That’s Holliday after he became the only player in NFL postseason annals to take a kickoff and a punt back for touchdowns in the same game last January. If the Broncos get one more first down on offense in the final minutes of regulation or make one more tackle on defense, Holliday's efforts are the stuff of remember-when discussions for decades. Instead, those efforts were forgotten in the wake of the double-overtime loss. The Ravens have had some bobbles on special teams in the preseason -- a 74-yard punt return by Ted Ginn being the biggest -- and have plenty of new faces in the units after their post-Super Bowl makeover.

It was 236 days ago when Joe Flacco threw that fateful, 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a double-overtime playoff win at the Denver Broncos. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and the Broncos were left to think of what might have been. Flacco and the Ravens return to Denver's Sports Authority Stadium on Thursday night to kick off the 2013 season in a rematch of two of the top teams in the AFC.

The stakes are different, and so are the teams. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin from the Ravens. Baltimore is expected to have 10 different starters from the team that hoisted up the Lombardi trophy, and that doesn't include former Broncos defensive standout Elvis Dumervil, who is expected to play in passing situations.

The Broncos won't have Dumervil or Von Miller, who has been suspended for six games, rushing after Flacco this time. But Peyton Manning is back, along with the addition of Wes Welker to an already dangerous wide receiver group.

Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss whether the opener will be a repeat of that memorable AFC divisional playoff game.

Hensley: Much has been made of the 50-foot Flacco banner hanging at the Broncos' stadium. Flacco has embraced the hate, saying it's not a bad thing for opposing fans to dislike you. The Ravens' focus, as it has been all offseason, has been to move forward. It's the start of a different era in many ways for the Ravens in their first game without Lewis and Reed. But it's easier to move forward when you're the ones sitting on top of the football world. How much will the "revenge factor" play into this game for the Broncos?

Legwold: Broncos coach John Fox, much like John Harbaugh with his "What's Important Now" mantra to leave the championship season behind, has tried to leave the past in the past. But questions about the kneel-down in the waning seconds despite Manning at quarterback and two timeouts in hand, as well as a third-and-7 running play late in the game, have trailed him all through the offseason. A lot of the Broncos players are willing to say memories of the playoff loss pushed them through the tedium of May and June. But over the past two weeks, they've stuck to the script -- that it's a new year, a new team -- but deep down they all know they let a potential Super Bowl trip, home-field advantage and a seven-point lead with less than a minute to play get away. And Dumervil's departure does add a little spice as well. How has Dumervil fit in and what kind of year do you think he'll have?

Hensley: Terrell Suggs has talked about Dumervil having the right mentality to play for the Ravens, and Harbaugh commented how Dumervil is already taking a leadership role. He really is a perfect fit for the Ravens on the field, too, where they have never had an elite pass-rusher to pair with Suggs. Over the past six seasons, Suggs has had only one teammate record more than seven sacks in a season. And being a pass-rusher is Dumervil's primary role. The Ravens will use Courtney Upshaw on early downs to set the edge against the run, which should keep Dumervil's legs fresh in pass-rushing situations. The Ravens have a familiarity with Dumervil because inside linebackers coach Don Martindale was Denver's defensive coordinator in 2010 and was Dumervil's position coach in 2009, when the linebacker-end led the NFL with 17 sacks. Baltimore is catching a break Thursday night with Dumervil now wearing purple and Miller serving his suspension. How are the Broncos going to generate a pass rush on Flacco?

[+] EnlargeElvis Dumervil
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyPass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was one of the Ravens' high-profile offseason acquisitions, and has become a leader on the field and off for Baltimore.
Legwold: That is the $380,687.50 question, which is how much of Miller's base salary he'll surrender during the six-game suspension. But without Miller (18.5 sacks in '12) and Dumervil (11.0 last season), the Broncos will mix and match on a variety of down-and-distances. Derek Wolfe is a key player, because of his ability to play inside and outside along the defensive line and still create matchup problems. Jack Del Rio believes Wolfe is ready to take an enormous step in his development, and among the defensive linemen only Dumervil played more snaps up front than Wolfe did as a rookie last year. The Broncos will ask Shaun Phillips, who they think has plenty left to give after 9.5 sacks for the struggling Chargers last season, to be a spot rusher. And Robert Ayers, who was a first-round pick in 2009, has always said he could put up the sack numbers if given the chance. He's played through four different coordinators -- Del Rio is his first to be on the job for two consecutive seasons -- but has just 6.5 career sacks. Now is his time. On Flacco, how has he dealt with all that comes with a Lombardi trophy and a nine-digit contract?

Hensley: The money and increased notoriety haven't really affected Flacco. If anything, he's become more vocal. There was a playful trash-talking exchange during training camp between Flacco and Suggs, who told his quarterback that the defense's "swag is on a thousand million." Flacco responded: "Then what's my swag at? I get paid more than you. A lot more!" What has really changed is the wide receiver group around Flacco. This unfamiliarity led to four interceptions in six quarters of work this preseason. His top two receivers from a year ago won't be there Thursday. Boldin was traded to San Francisco, and tight end Dennis Pitta is out indefinitely with a dislocated hip. They accounted for 36 receptions in the postseason, which was nearly half of Flacco's completions. That being said, it was Torrey Smith and Jones who did the most damage in the playoff game in Denver. The Ravens are hoping wide receiver Brandon Stokley can move the chains on third downs and tight end Ed Dickson (hamstring) can contribute in the season opener. There has to be more confidence in the Broncos' passing attack with Manning and his bunch of talented receivers.

Legwold: There is plenty of confidence in what the potential can be with Welker in the mix. The Broncos loved Stokley as a slot receiver, but Welker is younger and offers a bigger upside in terms of production. Welker will also have the best receivers to his outside shoulders in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the best combo he's had since the Patriots decided they didn't want Randy Moss around any longer. The 229-pound Thomas and the 214-pound Decker make the Broncos a tough matchup for any secondary. In the preseason, teams simply backed off into coverage and took their chances they could allow the catch and make the tackle before too much damage was done. The pace, especially at altitude, is a little something new as well. The Broncos ran 49 plays, excluding penalties, in the first half alone against the Rams in the preseason. They won't always go that fast, but if they get the look they want from a defense, they'll put the pedal to the floor and not allow a substitution. The key issue will be protection: Left tackle Ryan Clady missed plenty of the preseason after offseason surgery, and Denver has surrendered pressure in the middle of the field at times. The three-wide look is what the Broncos want their base formation to be on offense, but they can't do it if they can't protect Manning. It has to be a strange thing for a Baltimore defense that has been the franchise's signature for so long to have so many changes.

Hensley: There were a lot of changes to the Ravens' defense, but there were necessary changes. The Ravens weren't a top-10 defense for the first time since 2002. This defense had slumped to No. 17 in the NFL. It's never easy to part ways with the likes of Lewis and Reed. But the Ravens aren't replacing two Hall of Fame players in their prime. Baltimore had to replace two aging players who weren't the same playmakers from a few years ago. The additions of Dumervil, defensive lineman Chris Canty, linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff have made this a stronger and more athletic defense. The Ravens' defense is going to be significantly better in two areas: stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. The biggest concern, especially when you're starting two new safeties, is the communication in the secondary. One mistake there and Manning will burn you for a touchdown. How is the Broncos' secondary holding up this summer?

Legwold: The Broncos would feel better if Bailey felt better. Bailey did not practice Sunday or Monday because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason loss in Seattle and is still a major question mark for Thursday's game. Bailey has been on the field for practice, but has not participated in any of the drills. The end result means Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would likely line up much of the time in Bailey's left cornerback spot. Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the more athletic sidekicks the Broncos have had for Bailey since Bailey arrived in 2004. Chris Harris and Tony Carter, the player who gave Jones a free release off the line of scrimmage on the game-tying bomb last January, will play in the nickel and dime as well. But overall the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs -- six corners, five safeties -- and can mix and match for almost every situation. They have flexibility and use it, so every defensive back in uniform Thursday night could see some action in the defense.

Broncos need Wolfe to take a big leap

September, 4, 2013
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Way back in 2012, when Derek Wolfe was a rookie, the Denver Broncos gave him a pretty extensive to-do list for a first-year guy.

Or, as defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio puts it, “We’re always looking to find roles in the defense for people, ways for people to use their strengths. We ask them to do what they can do, try to do whatever you can as coaches to put them in a position to succeed. Do that enough and we feel like everybody will succeed.

"If you can do a lot of things, we'll ask you to do a lot of things.’’

Which is exactly what the Broncos did after Wolfe arrived last season and they quickly confirmed what was in their pre-draft reports. Wolfe could indeed create match-up problems for an offense no matter where he lined up on the defensive line, whether on the interior, at tackle or on the end.

When the dust settled on last season, Wolfe had played 903 snaps as a rookie -- 84.4 percent of the Broncos’ defensive plays. Only Elvis Dumervil, at 922, played more on the defensive line. Now, after Dumervil’s departure via free agency and with Von Miller suspended six games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, the Broncos may need Wolfe to do even more. And he’s just fine with that.

[+] EnlargeDerek Wolfe
Ric Tapia/Icon SMISecond-year player Derek Wolfe will get the chance to lead Denver's defensive line with Von Miller out.
“Yeah, (last season) I just did my job,’’ Wolfe said. “I made sure I did my job, because Elvis and those guys were kind of like, ‘Hey, just do your job and you’ll be fine.' So this year I get to take more of a leadership role, more of that guy who can make some plays.’’

The Broncos did sign Shaun Phillips during draft weekend to add some pop to the pass rush, and Del Rio has talked of the opportunity, even need, for former first-round pick Robert Ayers to finally show himself to be an impact rusher (he has just 6.5 career sacks in his four seasons, spent under four different defensive coordinators). But it is Wolfe who just might be the key piece against the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night and beyond as the Broncos navigate life without Miller on defense.

For a guy who pushed himself into the top 40 on draft boards around the league -- the Broncos took him 36th overall -- because he could line up at nose tackle and rush end and make things happen, this is exactly the kind of job description Wolfe said he was looking for in Year 2.

“I’m smarter,’’ Wolfe said. “I’m more willing to go outside of the box and do things I’m not comfortable doing to make plays. To not be so stiff and not be like a robot. I’m more open to doing new things and trying new moves.”

Even in the whirlpool of optimism that offseason workouts traditionally are, whenever Broncos coaches and players were asked about who was showing himself to be ready for something more in 2013, Wolfe’s name was almost universally the first to arise. Whether it was Kevin Vickerson talking about Wolfe’s willingness to step forward into a leadership role despite being one of the youngest players in his position group, or his coaches talking about how much better he knew the game, expectations have swirled around Wolfe for much of the spring and summer.

Asked this week if he thought Wolfe was ready for a significant leap this year, Del Rio said, “I think he expects to. We talked about that, the way he came in in camp, he was kind of on a mission. He had a very, very fine rookie year and wants to build on that and be even better.

"Look, anything is possible. I think the way he works at it, his approach, he obviously has some ability -- and I wouldn’t count him out.’’

For Del Rio, who typically keeps such compliments in his pocket, that is tantamount to predicting Pro Bowls. As the suggestions flew that Miller's absence could give Wolfe a breakout opportunity on a Super Bowl contender, Wolfe's response afforded a glimpse into why the Broncos like him so much.

“Sometimes that can make you better, sometimes that can make you worse,’’ Wolfe said. “It just depends on how people handle the pressure.’’
No Von Miller. No Elvis Dumervil. The Broncos know their two top pass-rushers from a year ago, from 2011 too for that matter, won't be in the lineup Thursday night.

Dumervil will be across the field, in a Ravens uniform, having departed Denver after a messy fax machine fiasco that caused the Broncos to release him to avoid paying him a pile of guaranteed money ($12 million). For his part Miller will be serving the first of a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

That's a combined 29.5 sacks from last season. They face a quarterback -- Joe Flacco -- the Broncos sacked just once in last January's playoff loss even with both Miller and Dumervil in the lineup.

"There were times when we'd say 'OK, Von will get there'," said Broncos defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. "Now, all of us have to get there."

And to do that the Broncos will have use a little more variety in how they go about things. Last season they made the transition from run downs to passing downs with three constants in the rush packages when it was time to get after the quarterback -- Dumervil, Miller and Wolfe.

Dumervil played 922 snaps last season, Miller 961 and Wolfe came in at 903.

Take that kind of playing time out of the mix and the Broncos will use people more situationally. Wolfe will still be a constant, but Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers and Malik Jackson will be used in a variety of ways up front. To make it all work Phillips has to be what he was with his 9.5 sacks last season and perhaps even a little more. Ayers, who has just 6.5 career sacks, has to have the breakout season he's been waiting to have.

The Broncos figure to get linebacker Wesley Woodyard, five sacks in 2012, into the mix as well given Woodyard, too, is an every-down stalwart in the defense.

"We have to win on first and second down so we can get after it on third down," Wolfe said. " … Just like every game."
  • The Broncos voted for five team captains -- Peyton Manning and Ryan Clady on offense, Woodyard and Champ Bailey on defense to go with David Bruton on special teams. League rules allow six captains per game and the Broncos coaches vote for the sixth on a game-by-game basis. But of the names Clady's selection is notable. It is the first time in Clady's six seasons with the team he has been voted as a captain by his teammates, a sign of his growing statue in the locker room. "It's an honor for sure," Clady said. " … I plan on doing what I've been doing since I got in the league, just leading by example on the field. Not big on vocal leadership, but I'll do my best." Clady, who had offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, said he's ready to go physically for Thursday's opener. Clady has practiced through the week. "I feel like I'm in really good shape," Clady said. " … I'm just around 100 percent, I wouldn't say 100, but good enough to play ball."
  • Last season the Broncos were the best second-half team in the league, which was a good thing because they were often over-coming sluggish starts, none filled with more stumbles than a trip to San Diego when they trailed 24-0 at halftime before going on to a 35-24 victory. But by season's end no team in the league sported a bigger second-half point differential with their opponents than the Broncos -- a plus-161 points (299 second-half points scored, 138 allowed). The plus-161 was the third-highest total in the post-merger era. But in an effort to build the mindset of a quicker start, Broncos coach John Fox adjusted practice throughout training camp and the preseason and had the Broncos go right to a high-speed team, 11-on-11, practice period right after the stretch instead of individual drills. "That's one of the things we tried to do during training camp was work on coming out here and having better tempo coming out of the gates instead of waiting until that second play of the second period of practice," said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. " … We had no choice but to try to start fast."
  • The Broncos filled out the last spot on their practice squad Monday with linebacker Brandon Marshall. Marshall was a fifth-round pick by the Jaguars in the 2012 draft and played in five games for the team last season.
  • Bailey, who has not practiced since injuring his left foot on Aug. 17 in the preseason loss in Seattle, said Monday he's "very close" to being ready to play. The Broncos will balance having Bailey for the long haul with his desire to play in the opener when they make the call. He has not taken part in a team workout since the injury.
  • Woodyard on Dumervil being gone; "He was like a big brother to me, but just like little brothers get a chance to face their big brothers, they're ready to fight, put up a fight and get a victory."

Broncos-Ravens matchup of the day

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
10:48
AM ET
Time to take a football vitamin, a once-a-day look through the season at a key matchup in the upcoming Broncos game.

Today's is:

Dumervil
Franklin
Ravens OLB Elvis Dumervil vs. Broncos RT Orlando Franklin.

Dumervil spent seven years as, for the most part, a weakside rusher in the Broncos defense whether he was down in a three-point stance in the years Denver played a 4-3 look in his tenure with the team or whether he stood up as an outside linebacker in the two years Josh McDaniels ran the team.

But that’s Terrell Suggs’ job in the Ravens defense and Suggs is a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2011). Suggs also has 84.5 career sacks, compared to Dumervil’s 63.5, but Suggs missed eight games last season as he returned from a torn Achilles to go with a biceps injury later in the season.

The Ravens have played Dumervil as the strongside outside linebacker in their defense thus far -- where Von Miller usually plays for the Broncos -- and he's split time with Courtney Upshaw there. It’s still uncertain exactly how the Ravens will use Dumervil during the regular season given he played just 36 defensive snaps in the entire preseason and the Ravens didn't show much in those 36 snaps, but he figures to be a specialist of sorts on long-yardage downs.

That would put him, if the Ravens stick with a traditional alignment in some of their pass-rush packages, against Franklin. Dumervil spent much of his practice time in Denver through the years going against Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady and has traditionally credited the athletic Clady with helping him reach Pro Bowl status with battles that were routinely entertaining and the highlight of 1-on-1 drills in training camp.

Franklin is a different kind of player, a power-first guy. Personnel executives around the league say he doesn’t have the flexibility in his hips that Clady does so getting the proper bend and leverage point against the 5-foot-11 Dumervil will be difficult at times for him. And leverage on bigger players is Dumervil’s game, it’s always been his trump card in the rush.

Dumervil routinely gets the corner on bigger, stronger tackles because he dips his shoulder under the tackle and Dumervil also has a big reach and upper-tier lower-body power, so he can knock far bigger players out of their pass sets. And once he gets the wobble from the opposing tackle, he's getting to the quarterback because when he sees his chance, he closes the deal. The Broncos have seen it plenty for themselves.

And the Broncos’ ability to play their preferred three-wide set, especially in longer down-and-distances, will hinge plenty on how Franklin, who dealt with a hip injury in training camp, handles his former teammate. The Broncos will have to consider leaving the tight end out of the pass pattern at times as well if they can’t keep Dumervil off Peyton Manning’s doorstep.

With Joel Dreessen still coming back from two arthroscopic procedures on his knee since minicamp, that could give Virgil Green some snaps at tight end in this one because of his power as a blocker and could force the Broncos to go a little beefier at times in a two-tight end look, with Jacob Tamme working as the slot receiver.

Broncos practice report: LB added

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
6:21
PM ET
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has assembled an all-time football resume, piles of 4,000-yard seasons, four MVP awards and a Super Bowl win.

And yet, as he approaches his 16th season opener, he said he remains as excited as ever at what a new season might bring. Asked Sunday if he still gets butterflies before the opener, Manning said:

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesHe might appear calm under center, but Broncos QB Peyton Manning admitted that he'll be a bit nervous before Thursday night's season opener.
“I do, I do. I think if you don’t you probably ought to be doing something else. Sixteenth opening day, having played in this opening game three times. It’s got a little something extra to it … Healthy butterflies, it’s a good thing.’’

Some things to consider as the Broncos formally kicked off their practice week Sunday for Thursday night’s affair:

  • With a night to sleep on it, the Broncos came to the conclusion – as expected, perhaps -- that six linebackers wasn’t enough on the roster after the initial cutdown to 53 players. That was especially true since one of the players they formally list at linebacker – Shaun Phillips – lines up at defensive end for the majority of his snaps. So, the Broncos claimed second-year linebacker Adrian Robinson off waivers Sunday and he’s expected to practice with the team Tuesday. Robinson is a 250-pounder who made the Steelers roster last season as an undrafted rookie largely because of his special teams play. The Broncos are also his third team since Aug. 23. That’s when he was traded to the Eagles, for running back Felix Jones and the Eagles then waived him Saturday. He played at inside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4 look and the Eagles tried them there in their new 3-4 as well. The Broncos use plenty of 3-4 principles in their defense, though their base look is technically a 4-3, but if his game video is any indication Robinson will have a chance to contribute quickly on special teams. To make room for Robinson, running back Jacob Hester was released.
  • The Broncos have obviously had their turn-the-page meeting leading up to Thursday’s season opener. Any and all questions about the crushing double-overtime loss last January, when the Broncos let the home-field advantage slip away, were met with some kind of what’s past is past response. That is Gameweek 101, to be sure, but those in the seats at Sports Authority Field at Mile High may be a different matter entirely. Football fans in the region have done little else but re-hash the playoff loss, the kneel-down the Broncos took just before the end of regulation with two timeouts in hand and the Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones touchdown to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. Should the Broncos start slowly Thursday, it will be curious to see how those on hand respond. Asked Sunday if revenge played any part in the discussion about the game, from his perspective Manning said: “If people need that as extra incentive that’s fine. But I think there’s plenty, just with the schedule and the timing of when we’re playing.’’ Some players said thinking about the loss may have helped push them through offseason workouts at times, but that Thursday’s game is the fresh start for the 2013 season.
  • Hester’s release unquestionably makes Knowshon Moreno the most accomplished back in pass protection for the Broncos. Because of that, Moreno could see plenty of work in some longer down-and-distance situations in place of rookie Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. Hester was signed last season, in large part, because the Broncos believed they needed help in pass protection at the position. Hester had spent most of this year's training camp and the preseason at fullback. And the Broncos will run the offense with three wide receivers or two tight ends in the formation far more than they will out of a traditional two-back look, so Hester’s spot became somewhat expendable given the numbers at linebacker. Tight end Virgil Green would line up in the backfield much of the time if the Broncos wanted a lead blocker in front of the running back. It also confirms how determined the Broncos are to keeping rookie quarterback Zac Dysert on the roster at the moment.
  • A look at the starting lineups for the playoff game last Jan. 12 does show how change arrives in the league. Nine players who started for the Ravens in that game are not on this year’s roster, including seven on defense. The Broncos weren't hit quite as hard by full-blown departures, but some things have changed. The Broncos had four starters in the game who are no longer with the team – Justin Bannan, Brandon Stokley, Keith Brooking and Elvis Dumervil. Also, Dan Koppen is now on injured reserve, Von Miller is suspended for the first six games of the season and neither Chris Kuper nor Joel Dreessen are expected to start Thursday. "Both teams have a lot of new guys,'' said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "They were other places for that game.''
  • Broncos safety Rahim Moore, when asked if he had won back the fans after last year’s playoff loss: “Camp is camp, there is nothing you can really tell by just practice. You can go out there and just show your hard work, but you’re judged by your games. What you’re doing week in, week out is how people judge you.’’
  • The Broncos signed seven players to their practice squad Sunday, including two draft picks from this past April they had released in tackle Vinston Painter and wide receiver Tavarres King, who were the team's sixth- and fifth-round picks, respectively. Also signed to the practice squad were wide receiver Gerell Robinson, running back Edwin Baker, defensive tackle Ben Garland, tackle Paul Cornick and defensive end John Youboty. Baker is the only player of the seven who was not in training camp with the Broncos. The 200-pound second-year back rushed for 1,201 yards as a sophomore at Michigan State in 2010.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Broncos fumbled four times in the first half of Saturday’s preseason loss to the Seahawks. They lost three of those, including Ronnie Hillman's into the end zone on what should have been a 1-yard scoring run to cap a quality drive. Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner returned that fumble 106 yards for a Seattle touchdown.

And it’s fairly clear where first-year offensive coordinator Adam Gase comes down on the issue.

“What happened the other day? Unacceptable,’’ Gase said. “ ... We’re not going to put the ball on the ground or else they’re not going to carry it.’’

It has also been on the Broncos front burner all through the preseason, especially in drills with the running backs given it was such a glaring a problem when they opened 3-3 in 2012. Over those first six games the Broncos lost nine of the 14 fumbles they lost all season, including three lost fumbles in a loss to New England and two lost fumbles in a win over San Diego, a game the Broncos trailed 24-0 at halftime.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Ronnie Hillman
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonRonnie Hillman's fumble into the end zone was returned 106 yards for a touchdown by Seattle's Brandon Browner.
Over the year running backs lost seven fumbles overall, including four by Willis McGahee, which tied the Broncos with the Buffalo Bills for most in the league from that position group.

“(Fumbles) have been a huge point of emphasis for us this offseason,’’ Gase said. “Because the fumbles we had early in the season last year -- that was one of the main factors why we started off as slowly as we did.’’

The turnovers clouded the fact the Broncos put up 209 yards worth of offense on the Seahawks defensive starters in the first half Saturday and they ran 40 plays from scrimmage in the half to do it, yet by halftime the game had fully blossomed into a blowout with Seattle holding a 33-7 lead at the end of the second quarter.

“But the statistics always show, with every turnover your chances of winning go down big," Broncos coach John Fox said. “And three turnovers? That’s about a 10 percent chance of winning."

  • Left tackle Ryan Clady continues to increase his practice workload and is still on track to start the regular-season opener. Clady, who had offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, worked some with the starting offense in Wednesday’s practice. Clady went in for a selection of plays in team drills before giving way to Chris Clark for the remainder of those practice periods. Clark has filled in at left tackle all through the offseason workouts, training camp and in the first two preseason games. “(Clady) was doing as couple reps a period here and there,’’ Gase said. “But just to know that he’s out there ... it’s really good to see him out there.’’

  • With Elvis Dumervil having left in free agency and Von Miller suspended for the first six games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, Shaun Phillips will be the team’s most accomplished pass-rusher in uniform against the Ravens. Phillips, who had 9.5 sacks for the 7-9 Chargers last season and has 69.5 career sacks, will have to find the groove quickly if the Broncos are going to generate a consistent pass rush. Phillips will line up at defensive end plenty in rush situation much like Miller does for the team. “We’ve got guys who can get after it a little bit,’’ Phillips said. “Unfortunately we lose our best pass-rusher for a couple of games, but it is what it is. You have hiccups in life ... we’ll be OK.’’ Malik Jackson, a Broncos fifth-round pick in the 2012 draft, will also have plenty of opportunities in pass rush situations in the season’s early going. Jackson, who plays inside at defensive tackle in some of the specialty packages, took some snaps Wednesday at right defensive end because Robert Ayers was held out with a foot injury.

  • Guard/center John Moffitt, who was acquired by the Broncos Tuesday in a trade with Seattle, was on the practice field Wednesday. But after the Broncos went through some early individual work, Moffitt went inside the team’s complex to go through the playbook with center J.D. Walton. Walton is currently on the team’s physically unable to perform (PUP) list as he recovers from offseason ankle surgery.

  • With Ryan Lilja still out with a knee issue (he offseason knee and toe surgeries) Steve Vallos has steadily moved up the depth chart center. Vallos was signed by the Broncos just after Dan Koppen suffered a season-ending knee injury and before Lilja was then signed as well. Wednesday Vallos, a sixth-year veteran, was snapping with the second-team offense.

  • There was a moment in Wednesday’s practice that showed why Wesley Woodyard has risen so far with the Broncos since making the roster as an undrafted rookie in 2008. Woodyard, a special teams captain for most of his career and now a starting linebacker, was playing on field-goal defense, when just before the snap he noticed the kicking team had switched holders from the No. 1 holder -- punter Britton Colquitt -- to the backup holder tight end Jacob Tamme. Before the ball was snapped, Woodyard shouted “new holder,’’ which brought some kudos from Fox following the kick.

  • Cornerback Champ Bailey is still wearing a walking boot on his injured left foot and using crutches to get around. The Broncos remain hopeful he can play at least some to open regular season, but it is still a question mark at this point.

  • Linebacker Stewart Bradley has had the surgery on his left wrist and the Broncos will now monitor his recovery as they make their roster decisions over the next two weeks. Bradley’s injury and Miller’s suspension will certainly affect how the initial roster looks at the position and could give undrafted rookie Lerentee McCray. Miller will start the regular season on reserve/suspended and the Broncos would have to make a roster move when he returns in Week 7.

  • Gase on the Broncos’ running backs responsibilities in pass protection: “Their job is to make sure 18 doesn’t get touched."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Just before free agency opened the Denver Broncos were cruising along in good salary-cap standing, with less than $100,000 worth of dead money -- charges for players no long on the roster -- against their 2013 salary cap.

That was just before Elvis Dumervil couldn't find a fax machine and the Broncos had to release him to avoid paying a $12 million salary guarantee. Boom for Doom, and not only was Dumervil gone, but a $4.869 million dead-money charge was on the Broncos' books immediately after his departure.

Then the Broncos released linebacker D.J. Williams, who was already carrying a $500,000 dead-money charge for '13 because of some earlier business. And with that, another $1.832 million in dead money went on the books.

After they released running back Willis McGahee in June -- he remains unsigned -- another $500,000 in dead money was added. The release in July of linebacker Joe Mays created $3.5 million in cap space the Broncos used to help sign Ryan Clady to a long-term deal, but also added a $666,667 dead-money charge.

So, the Broncos went from having less than $100,000 in dead money to deal with on this year's cap, a remarkable piece of work given where things were two years ago, to $7.868 million in dead money. That's still not in the OMG territory some teams are operating in, but it will impact at least a few of the choices the Broncos will soon make.

It also had at least some impact on why the Broncos renegotiated guard Chris Kuper's contract -- his base salary went from $4.5 million to $1.05 million -- at the same time he was set to move off of the physically unable to perform (PUP) list Tuesday to return to practice on a limited basis.

Certainly Williams' release was a given after his off-field issues began to far outweigh his on-field production. The Broncos had significant concerns about McGahee's knee after he stayed away for much of the offseason program. And the Broncos needed cap space to sign Clady and Britton Colquitt even as Mays was going to have a difficult time making the roster when all was said and done.

But Dumervil's flip-flop from no to yes on a renegotiated deal that led to the fax snafu certainly stung when it happened. And it will sting, at least some, once again when the Broncos cut the roster to 53 players next month.

Camp Confidential: Denver Broncos

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
12:00
PM ET

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Live on Colorado's front range long enough, and you live with an unshakable, that's-the-way-it-is truth. That most days, as in 300 or so a year, the sun shines brightly and the skies are blue.

But when the storm clouds come rolling down the mountains, it's an ambush -- they come fast and with menacing intent. And that, really, is the story of the Broncos' offseason.

"Hey, you have to deal with all kinds of things along the way," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, now entering his 10th season with the team. "And we've had plenty of things to deal with around here over the years; sometimes we've done a good job with it, sometimes we haven't. I tell the young guys all the time, we'll see how we handle things. We can be good, but we have to get to work, because thinking you're good and being good are always two different things."

The Broncos entered free agency as Super Bowl favorites, then they signed Wes Welker to a Peyton Manning-led offense that had already been good enough to be No. 2 in scoring in 2012. They drafted well, and filled some other needs with veteran signees Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips.

Yep, football sunshine and blue skies.

Then there was Faxgate and Elvis Dumervil's rather messy exit from the team that drafted him in 2006.

Then two high-ranking front-office executives -- director of pro personnel Tom Heckert and director of player personnel Matt Russell -- were arrested on drunken driving charges a month apart. Heckert was eventually suspended a month without pay -- he's due to return to the team Thursday -- and Russell was suspended indefinitely.

Then defensive playmaker Von Miller was slapped with a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, a revelation that came with the rather troubling fact that Miller had previously violated the policy to get to the suspension phase.

Miller's appeal will be heard Thursday by league officials, and a decision is expected before the regular-season opener against the Ravens.

Toss in a pile of injuries, especially to the offensive line, and it's clear coach John Fox's task will be to keep a talented team on track as it wrestles with the expectations around it, as well as the pothole-filled road it has already traveled.

"It's been my experience if you don't expect a lot, you don't get a lot," Fox said. "Keep the bar low, and that's where people go. We're going to keep the bar high -- I don't mind expectations -- and I think the guys have had good focus. They know the work that has to be done, and I know they'll do it."

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Deal with it. Former Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams might have said it best. Williams said the Broncos are the only team in the league "with 20 preseason games."

So true. After a 13-3 finish that included an 11-game winning streak dissolved into a crushing playoff loss to the Ravens, the team's fan base essentially sees the coming regular season as little more than an inconvenience before another postseason chance.

That can be a lot to handle for a team, especially if players and coaches get too focused on the potential lack of appreciation from the outside world for anything that happens along the way. More than one person inside the team's Dove Valley complex has expressed frustration in the past six months over the fact that few folks bring up the 13-3 record, the win streak or the division title, and that it is all Ravens, all the time in any discussion about the 2012 season.

Frustrating indeed, but the Broncos have to find some peace of mind somewhere as they move through the next four months.

[+] EnlargeRyan Clady
Harry How/Getty ImagesWhile the Broncos wait for star left tackle Ryan Clady to return from shoulder surgery, the team has many questions on the offensive line.
2. Front-line issues. Left tackle Ryan Clady, a newly minted five-year, $52.5 million contract in hand, is still working back from offseason shoulder surgery and is not yet 100 percent.

Center J.D. Walton had ankle surgery just before minicamp and isn't expected back in the lineup until late October or early November at the earliest. He was just seen at the Broncos' complex this past week without a walking boot on for the first time since the operation.

Walton's backup, Dan Koppen, tore his ACL in the first week of training camp and is done for the year.

It leaves Manny Ramirez, who just started his first career game at center in the Broncos' preseason opener in San Francisco, and 31-year-old Ryan Lilja, who was signed out of retirement after two surgeries (knee, toe) earlier in the offseason, as the options in the middle.

Given that defensive coordinators routinely believe the best way to pressure Manning is through the middle of the formation, the Broncos will need an answer to protect him.

3. Defense will tell the tale. We get it, it's a quarterback league. The rulebook essentially begs/demands that people put the ball in the air almost nonstop in any situation. Offense puts people in the seats.

Whatever. Remind me, but wasn't the Super Bowl -- a Super Bowl played by the two teams that ran the ball the most during the playoffs -- won on a goal-line stand when an offense couldn't/wouldn't punch it in from the doorstep?

The Broncos put up 35 points this past January and were sent home to the collective couch. And when you get right down to it, in back-to-back playoff losses, the Broncos have surrendered 694 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns with just one interception and one sack combined against Tom Brady to close out the 2011 season and Joe Flacco to close out 2012.

So, Manning to Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker looks nice on a magazine cover, but how the guys on the other side of the ball do will have plenty to say about how far this team goes.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

It's a talented roster with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time behind center and a remember-when defensive talent bursting with potential in Miller. Denver is a balanced team that finished in the top five in both offense and defense last season with one of the great home-field advantages in the league. Oh, and the guy running the team is a Hall of Fame quarterback who knows a thing or two about what a title-winning locker room should look like.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There are some in the league who looked at the Broncos' drama-filled offseason and said they had the tumultuous profile of a team that had won the Super Bowl instead of losing two rounds before the title game. The Broncos have had the infamous fax issues, the off-the-field troubles, a reality show, a looming suspension of a superstar and more than their share of injuries. Maybe when the games count, none of that will matter, but history is littered with teams that put the championship cart before the horse, content to enjoy the fruits of potential rather than the actual title.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeWes Welker
    Marc Piscotty/Icon SMIThere will be plenty of opportunities for Wes Welker in Denver's offense.
    Welker's signing is going to work out -- barring injuries, of course -- exactly the way everybody wanted it to, including Welker. He fits the offense. Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase will even expand Welker's reach in Denver's playbook compared with what Welker did in New England, and Welker has worked hard to fit in. There has been some hand-wringing both near and far about where the "catches" were going to come from for a guy with five 100-reception seasons. The answer is that the catches are already in the offense. Working mostly out of the slot last season, tight end Jacob Tamme and wide receiver Brandon Stokley combined for 97 receptions, 1,099 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers from Welker would fit quite nicely.
  • The offensive line is an issue to keep an eye on until the Broncos prove it's not. Getting Clady back in the lineup -- he's still on track to start the opener -- will help greatly, but they've struggled to protect the quarterbacks in practice against their own high-end defense, as well as in the preseason opener. If things don't improve, the Broncos will spend an awful lot of time tossing dump-offs to the hot receiver or shallow crosses because they can't protect long enough to go down the field.
  • Miller's potential and ability are almost limitless. Former longtime Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier, the guy who called the shots for the Orange Crush defense, has said Miller has the potential to be the franchise's best-ever defensive player. But Miller, the results of his appeal of his four-game suspension notwithstanding, has to hold up his end of the bargain, both on and off the field, to make that happen. And the Broncos will have to decide over the next season or so -- his contract is up after 2014 -- just how high they'll want to go on an extension and whether the investment will be worth it over the long term.
  • Folks can wish it were different, especially as they wrestle with their fantasy lineups each week, but every indication on the practice field -- as in EVERY indication -- is that Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball are going to share the workload in a variety of down-and-distance situations. And Knowshon Moreno and Jacob Hester figure to at least be in the third-down mix as well at times.
  • Hillman, however, should benefit from Gase's concerted effort to create more impact in the run game outside the hashmarks. The Broncos weren't all that good, or committed, to the outside runs last season. And if Hillman runs with decisiveness and the Broncos can get it done up front -- they brought longtime assistant Alex Gibbs back to help with the zone-run game -- there are some big plays waiting.
  • The games will ultimately be the gauge, but safety Rahim Moore has had a quality camp in an offseason in which many wondered how he would bounce back from the ill-fated leap in the playoff loss to the Ravens. But the bottom line is Moore played more snaps (1,044) than any other player on the defense last season with substantial improvement over his rookie year in 2011, and if everyone else had played their assignments on the Jacoby Jones touchdown, Joe Flacco wouldn't have even thrown the ball that way in the first place. So, those guys should buy Moore a nice dinner for taking the heat and watch him in the starting lineup again.
  • Thomas sported a heady 15.3 yards-per-catch average on the way to 1,434 yards receiving last season. But that per-catch average should go up given the choices defenses are going to have to make with Welker in the formation. If defenses double in the short and intermediate area to deal with Welker, the Broncos' tight ends and Thomas can overpower most defensive backs down the field.
  • Defensive end Robert Ayers has consistently said, since the team made him the 18th pick of the 2009 draft, that he has far more to offer when the opportunity comes. And the opportunity has arrived with Dumervil's departure. Ayers has just 6.5 career sacks in his four seasons and has played for four defensive coordinators along the way, each of whom wanted something a little different from him. But Jack Del Rio is back for a second consecutive year, and Ayers is the starter at rush end. Now's the time.
  • Reports of Bailey's demise are exaggerated, but he is certainly a 35-year-old entering his 15th season. Or as he put it: "I had some plays in the playoff game I should have made, pure and simple. I didn't, but I can let it drag me down or just get back to it. I still think I can play and I think I have shown I can still play at a high level." The Broncos will pick their spots more when they single him up, but he has been top-shelf throughout training camp while running stride for stride with the Broncos' best receivers.
  • The Broncos have an awful lot riding on how Gibbs and offensive line coach Dave Magazu get things worked out on the offensive line. If the Broncos can add some pop out of the play-action run game and consistently protect Manning out of a three-wide receiver set, the points should follow.
  • Some say Welker's presence in the offense means the Broncos will throw more in '13. However, Manning's 400 completions last season amounted to the second-highest total of his career, and his 583 attempts were the third-highest. In a perfect world, the Broncos would like those totals to be slightly lower this time around -- Manning himself has said "we'd like to run it more" -- because it would mean they simply ran the ball to close out games in which they already had the lead.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC West team?

DENVER BRONCOS

Offense: The Wes Welker Factor
Peyton Manning has a new toy. But with the wealth of options in this offense, it seems unlikely Welker will match his production from his days with Tom Brady. Manning will love exploiting the mismatches Welker creates from the slot. Welker’s experience in New England's up-tempo offense should pay off as Denver transitions to a similar pace. It is difficult to find weaknesses in the Broncos’ offense right now.

Defense: Pass-rush issue
Elvis Dumervil is now playing for Baltimore. Von Miller is one of the league’s premier defensive players and pass-rushers, but more is needed. Where will it come from? Derek Wolfe showed some flashes as an inside pass-rusher during his rookie season and on passing downs. Robert Ayers should also be effective when moved inside. Will the edge player opposite Miller -- Ayers on early downs and Shaun Phillips, most likely, on passing downs -- be able to produce? The wild card here is rookie Quanterus Smith.

Wild card: Pass coverage in the middle
Denver had a lot of problems last season covering opposing tight ends in the middle of the field. On paper, it doesn’t look as though the problem has been addressed. Denver’s safety play is average at best, but the middle linebacker spot manned by Joe Mays is the real issue. Look for opposing offenses to keep Denver in base defensive personnel and attack the middle of the field.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Offense: The Alex Smith Factor
Smith needs plenty of resources to be successful. But if he just makes fewer mistakes at the position than Matt Cassel did a year ago -- something that seems highly likely -- then Kansas City will be much more competitive. Smith also has underrated running skills, and the Chiefs should orchestrate plenty of designed quarterback movement and runs.

Defense: Interior pass rush
The Chiefs were among the worst defenses in the NFL last season at creating pressure on the quarterback between the tackles. Although the team made drastic changes across the roster, this area was not addressed. Unless Dontari Poe steps up in his second season -- and pass rush isn’t really his game -- little should change for Kansas City.

Wild card: Secondary receivers
The Chiefs are very light at wide receiver outside of Dwayne Bowe. They have three strong tight ends and could employ plenty of multiple-tight end sets. Jamaal Charles should see plenty of passes thrown his way, but another outside threat needs to step up. Donnie Avery has the speed to open up room for others, but his hands are highly inconsistent. Jon Baldwin and Dexter McCluster have yet to find their place in this league. Keep an eye on Devon Wylie.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Offense: Man-blocking scheme
For some unknown reason, the Raiders switched in 2012 from a predominantly man-blocking scheme, in which Darren McFadden thrived, to a zone-blocking scheme. That was a failed experiment, especially for McFadden, who is entering the final year of his contract. Switching back could allow him to be the foundation of Oakland’s offense.

Defense: No pass rush
I fear the Raiders will be among the worst defenses in the NFL next season at rushing the passer. Lamarr Houston is a very talented player, capable of greatness, but he isn’t a typical edge pass-rushing defensive end. Andre Carter has had success in this area, but his best days are behind him. I like the additions of Pat Sims and Vance Walker at defensive tackle, but both are run-stuffers. Opposing quarterbacks are going to have a lot of unobstructed time in the pocket this season. Calling Jadeveon Clowney ...

Wild card: Building blocks
The Raiders are not going to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they must determine which players are their building blocks. I was impressed by the way the front office, despite many limitations, addressed the team's needs during the offseason. But many of their signings were only one-year deals. Which players do they want to bring back? Many players on Oakland’s roster are auditioning this season.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Offense: Pass protection
Philip Rivers needs to be protected, which San Diego hasn’t been able to do lately. Although the Chargers used a first-round pick on D.J. Fluker, who is a much better run-blocker than pass-blocker, I don’t see noticeable upgrades on the offensive line. I also don’t see much upside or potential star power in the group. Changing the scheme could help by getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, but he could be headed for another punishing season.

Defense: Time to step up
The Chargers have several promising young defensive players who could be ready to break out. Eric Weddle is among the league’s best safeties, and Corey Liuget has already established himself as a real force on San Diego’s defensive line. Kendall Reyes might not be far behind Liuget and should become more of a household name this season. Manti Te’o could have an instant impact in his rookie season and pair with Donald Butler to be one of the better inside linebacker tandems in the league.

Wild card: Receiver situation
Antonio Gates isn’t what he once was, but he still makes plays and Rivers trusts him. The Chargers have many other receiving options now: Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd, Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, John Phillips, Ladarius Green, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown. How will that sort out? My favorites are Allen, Vincent Brown and Green. Getting these young weapons plenty of reps could pay off in the long term for San Diego.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One move each AFC West team needed to make but might regret:

Denver: Letting Elvis Dumervil leave. The Dumervil fiasco was the only real bummer for Denver in the offseason. The Broncos had a tremendous free agency and appear to have added some nice pieces in the draft, but the Dumervil departure looms as a potential issue. We all know the backstory. Denver and Dumervil agreed to a restructured contract, but there was a missed deadline. He ended up in Baltimore. Dumervil was a key complement to star pass-rusher Von Miller. Denver thinks it can give Miller the necessary pass-rush help by committee, led by former Charger Shaun Phillips. But if Phillips and crew can’t replicate Dumervil’s impact, it will hurt the Broncos.

Kansas City: Not signing Desmond Bishop. The Chiefs are another team that did well in the offseason. They added a strong coach in Andy Reid and a strong general manager in John Dorsey and upgraded at quarterback with the addition of Alex Smith. But there is potential for the team to regret the Bishop miss. He chose Minnesota over Kansas City last month after being cut by the Packers. Bishop had a relationship with Dorsey from their Green Bay days, and the Chiefs could have used Bishop’s veteran presence as a 3-4 inside linebacker. The Chiefs are preparing to use fourth-round pick Nico Johnson as a starter. He looked good in the offseason, but he simply can’t match Bishop’s experience. I don’t foresee Johnson being a problem for the Chiefs, but if he is not ready, Kansas City may wish it made a bigger push for Bishop.

Oakland: Not adding a reliable pass-rusher. Oakland was challenged this offseason. It was strapped by salary-cap issues again. It had to cut several players and saw a lot of talented free agents leave. General manager Reggie McKenzie did his best to replenish the roster. Still, there are holes, starting at pass-rusher. The Raiders were badly lacking in that area last year, and no reliable help was added. Oakland hopes an improved secondary and creative schemes will generate a pass-rush burst. Again, Oakland had restrictions in free agency, but it might regret not taking a pass-rusher in the first round of the draft.

San Diego: Not adding a top left tackle. Like Oakland at pass-rusher, San Diego didn’t have a lot of options. It didn’t have a lot of cap room to play with, and the rookie pool at left tackle dried up quickly in the draft. The top three left tackle prospects went in the first four picks of the draft. So San Diego didn’t really have a lot of chances to grab a left tackle. However, it is a premium position, and sometimes you have to do what it takes to fill a problem at a premium position. San Diego finally settled on Max Starks at left tackle. He is decent but not great. He is a short-term answer. The Chargers still have no idea whom their left tackle of the future will be. If Starks fails or gets hurt, it will have a major effect on quarterback Philip Rivers. If that happens, we will all be pointing to San Diego’s inability to get a clear-cut answer at left tackle.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each AFC West team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Denver Broncos: LB Von Miller. Miller is one of the best defensive players in the NFL heading into his third NFL season. He is a complete player who disrupts every facet of the game. He is special. Of course, Miller particularly excels as a pass-rusher. He has 30 sacks in 31 NFL games. Denver’s defense all starts with Miller. The team lost Elvis Dumervil in free agency. He was the complement to Miller. While Dumervil’s departure hurts Denver, the Broncos are still in good shape because they have Miller. If that changes, every aspect of Denver’s defense gets less impressive.

Kansas City Chiefs: WR Dwayne Bowe. There is great hope in Kansas City because the Chiefs think they upgraded at coach with Andy Reid and at quarterback with Alex Smith. Reid is a pass-first coach and is ready to unleash Smith. That means a lot of work for Bowe, who signed a lucrative contract to stay in Kansas City. Bowe is a huge part of the offense. All we’ve heard about in the offseason in Kansas City is the chemistry that is building between Smith and Bowe. This is where the offense is going to start. Behind Bowe at receiver are Donnie Avery and Jon Baldwin. If Bowe goes down, the receiving crew is not nearly as impressive. Thus, Bowe's presence is vital.

Oakland Raiders: DE Lamarr Houston. Houston is one of Oakland’s best all-around players. The versatile defensive lineman likely will play left end. Oakland is pretty inexperienced on the line, so Houston must set the tone. He is expected to be Oakland’s best pass-rusher as well. He must set the tone with the pass rush or Oakland will have to get creative. There is no doubt much is expected from Houston this season. If Oakland were to lose him for an extended period, it would be a crushing blow to a rebuilding defense.

San Diego Chargers: S Eric Weddle. Weddle is the quarterback of San Diego’s defense. He is a tremendous free safety. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers recently said he thinks Weddle might be the best player at his position in the entire league. San Diego has a lot of talented, young players on defense. But none is more valuable than Weddle. He is the unit’s physical, mental and spiritual leader. He gives the Chargers’ defense an identity. He is particularly valuable because the Chargers are pretty young in the secondary. Weddle will be the glue for the unit. Take Weddle out of San Diego’s defense, and there are major holes.

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