AFC West: John Elway

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's easy to forget at times, lost somewhere in the record 606 points the Denver Broncos piled on the NFL last season.

Lost in quarterback Peyton Manning's 55 touchdown passes, the team's 13 wins and a Super Bowl trip. The fact that one of the team's elite players -- a "blue" as some longtime personnel executives refer to those at the top of any list -- played in only two games.

"That's an important part of our offense," Manning said. "We had guys, Chris Clark, step in and do a great job, but that's an important position and Ryan Clady is a great player."

[+] EnlargeClady
AP Photo/Ric Tapia"I always felt like if you knew the back side wasn't going to be a problem, as a quarterback you could have more confidence about your ability to get some things done back there," John Elway said. "Ryan gives us that kind of player."
That he is. And in plenty of conversations about where the Broncos can go from last season's remember-when performance on offense, Manning's precision in the preseason, Emmanuel Sanders' signing, the potential of rookie Cody Latimer, the development of tight end Julius Thomas and even the move of Orlando Franklin to left guard are all on the list things that will impact it all.

Clady's return from a foot injury suffered in Week 2 last season is the most significant difference between how the Broncos will line up on offense in the opener and how they lined up in the Super Bowl.

It's a big enough difference that the Broncos' football boss, John Elway, will routinely end a rundown about the changes on offense with "and we get Ryan Clady back."

"I think I definitely can make a difference," Clady said. "That's why I'm here -- to help the team out and make this a better team than we were last year."

Other than Manning's otherworldly 13 Pro Bowl selections, no other player in the Broncos offense has been named to more than Clady's three. In 2012, the left tackle was simply one of the league's best, surrendering just one sack all season as the Broncos made the transition from their read-option look in '11 to Manning's first season with the team.

The Broncos then signed Clady to a five-year, $52.5 million deal before the 2013 season, a deal worthy of the cornerstone player he is in the team's plans, only to see him play just two games. And while Clark filled in admirably, the Broncos' choices in terms of protections and their ability to send help elsewhere in the formation increase with Clady's ability to go solo against the league's best rushers.

When Elway has been asked about "foundation players" in roster building, quarterback and left tackle are still often the first two on the list.

"I always felt like if you knew the back side wasn't going to be a problem, as a quarterback you could have more confidence about your ability to get some things done back there," Elway said. "Ryan gives us that kind of player."

And much like Clady's practice battles with Elvis Dumervil were often highlights -- Dumervil has often credited Clady "with getting me to the Pro Bowl, working with him every day" -- Clady's battles with DeMarcus Ware have been good for both players.

As Mike Shanahan's final No. 1 pick in his Broncos tenure -- Clady was the 12th pick of the '08 draft -- Clady was in the Broncos lineup the last time the team practiced against another team in training camp. The Dallas Cowboys came to Denver with Ware, who was on the doorstep of what would be the third of his seven Pro Bowl seasons in Dallas, often lined up across from the then-rookie.

"It was kind of a wake-up call for me because I was like, ‘I don't know how long I'm going to last in the league going against guys like this every week.' It was definitely a challenge, for sure.”

Clady said his surgically repaired foot continues to feel better each week and he has not missed any practice time in the preseason.

"I don't think I'm quite there, but I'm getting there," Clady said. "It's close. It's just something you have to work into. It's the National Football League with the best athletes in the world. You can't just jump in off an injury and expect to be great. It takes some work, and I still have a little bit of time."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos know the flags are coming. They got the memo, they get it.

The NFL has sent their officials to each training camp, Broncos' included, to remind the players that defensive holding and illegal contact by defenders on receivers are both "points of emphasis" this season and will be called to the letter of the rules. The Broncos got their first taste of that tightened enforcement during a 25-penalty preseason opener with the Seattle Seahawks.

It's safe to say a team that went out of its way to get more physical in the secondary this past offseason, is now trying to figure out where the line will be drawn by the officials once the regular season begins.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports"We can adjust, everybody can adjust," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. of stricter rules in the secondary. "The big thing is consistency, you just want to know what it's going to look like week-to-week."
"We can adjust, everybody can adjust," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "The big thing is consistency, you just want to know what it's going to look like week-to-week. It's when there such a big difference between what one crew calls and the what another one calls the next week. No matter how tight it is, if you know what to expect, you can adjust."

It does matter to the Broncos since they spent plenty of money from the team's coffers to sign cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in free agency as well as use a first-round draft pick on cornerback Bradley Roby. All three payers are well-versed in man coverage, all three play with a physical edge and all three were what Broncos' football boss John Elway was looking for to help a team that surrendered far too many big plays through the air last season.

The Broncos surrendered 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards last season after giving up just 39 pass plays of at least 20 yards in 2012. They want to affect the ability of opposing receivers to get into their routes, they want to reduce the number of free releases those opposing pass catchers get at the line of scrimmage.

Which means they are going to have to figure out what works and what doesn't and they're going to have to figure it out quickly. The Broncos face Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Colin Kaepernick, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady among their first eight games of the season.

"We know it's coming," Talib said. "We've seen the video from the league, we've had (the officials) in practice."

Thursday night Ward, Talib and backup safety Duke Ihenacho were each flagged for defensive holding, linebacker Nate Irving was flagged for illegal contact and linebacker Danny Trevathan was flagged in the end zone for pass interference. And while Trevathan's penalty may be worthy of an argument -- it looked equal parts offensive pass interference or a potential no-call -- it was the kind of outing the Broncos had planned to see.

"We knew there was going to be an emphasis, we practiced hard against it," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "It was some good, some bad, not getting into detail, but pretty much how I thought it would go and some things we can definitely correct.”

It's why the Broncos have beefed up the pass rush as well. Because while the flags are expected to fly in the secondary, the Broncos see their best option for easing the pressure on the secondary as adding heat on the quarterback so he is unable to find a receiver in the first place.

The Broncos see getting to the quarterback as a loophole of sorts, with DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and Quanterus Smith swirling in rush situations as the Broncos line up with five, six or seven defensive backs.

"No question," Ware said. "We can make things easier on our DBs if we consistently get to the quarterback. We can keep the ball from getting out, or force the quarterback to have to throw it away, then those calls aren't an issue."

"We feel like we can play it however it needs to be played," Harris Jr. "If it's called tight, it's called tight. On defense you know the league is always looking for more points and more passing and more excitement. So it's not a surprise or anything like that. I just hope it's the same week-to-week, game-to-game, so we know what to expect."

Smith, McCray earn second chances

August, 10, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – They were a part of the Denver Broncos’ rookie class last season, but Quanterus Smith and Lerentee McCray didn't get to run in the offense, as Montee Ball did, or start on defense, as Sylvester Williams did. Smith and McCray were relegated to interested bystander status as the team went about the business of a Super Bowl trip, spending the season on injured reserve.

But the Broncos believed time would heal the two, and in a defensive makeover where Smith and McCray aren’t often listed as two of the “new" faces, they have each shown they’ll make some impact in the defense as the Broncos try to add a little production on that side of the ball.

“You hope so," McCray said. “I just know it feels great to be out there, try to show what I can do."

Smith tore an ACL in the 11th game of his senior season at Western Kentucky. He was leading the nation in sacks at the time with 12.5, including three sacks against an Alabama offensive line that was stocked with NFL draft picks.

[+] EnlargeLerentee McCray
AP Photo/Jack DempseyLerentee McCray was on target to make the Denver Broncos roster last year before an ankle injury put him on injured reserve.
The Broncos saw enough to take him with the first of their fifth-round picks in the 2013 draft, and even as Smith kept saying he would “be full go" by the time the 2013 regular season rolled around, the Broncos weren’t convinced. After watching Smith work through training camp and the preseason last year, the place him on injured reserve when they cut the roster to 53 players.

“He just needed more time," said Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “You could kind of see that as he went through camp and as we’ve gone through offseason, you can see it helped him."

For his part McCray, who had been signed as an undrafted rookie following the 2013 draft, was on track to make the roster and keep a decade-long streak of at least one undrafted rookie advancing past the final cut. Then he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the preseason finale against the Arizona Cardinals.

“Not being out there last year, it just hurt me," McCray said. “So I bring that energy and that attitude and that emotion out there to the field when I go play.”

And while Elway’s high-profile maneuvers to repair the team’s defense – signing DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward in free agency – have led most any discussion about the team’s makeover on that side of the ball. The Broncos also want, and need, some of the other “additions" to work out as well.

Those include the five starters who finished the season on injured reserve in 2013, players such as cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive end Derek Wolfe and linebacker Von Miller, as well as fit-and-play players such as Smith and McCray.

Smith, who has spent training camp as Ware’s backup, played 31 plays against the Seahawks on Thursday and consistently forced the issue in the pass rush. McCray, who has played with the starting defense at strong-side linebacker as Miller continues to work back from ACL surgery, finished out with 32 plays in the preseason opener.

McCray had a tackle for loss against the Seahawks.

“It felt good to be out there," Smith said. “ … I just want to keep building on it, learn from DeMarcus and produce whenever they put me out there."

McCray has similar motivation.

“I’ve just grown as a better player, just a better football player overall — special teams to defense, anything I’m asked to do," McCray said. “I have an understanding of what I have to do to get my job done and all I have to do is go out there and get it done. Not being out last year, it just hurt me. So I bring that energy and that attitude and that emotion out there to the field when I go play.”
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.--– Score another one for the Denver Broncos' pro personnel department. Or at least get ready to score another one if defensive tackle Marvin Austin can keep his current training camp momentum through the preseason games to the roster cut down to 53 players.

But for a team that has made consistent work of getting quality return on one-year deals to a veteran players to fill roster gaps, Austin looks like he’ll soon be added to the list. Austin signed a one-year, no-bonus, $570,000 deal with the Broncos just before the draft.

Austin
At that time John Elway said simply Austin was “a guy that really had a first-round grade on him three years ago."

But Austin’s NFL career to that point had been filled with injuries, so much so the former second-round pick by the Giants had been on injured reserve as a rookie in 2011, played in just eight games in 2012 and was released by the Giants, Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys in a three-month span last season. But following surgery to repair a disc problem in his back, the Broncos liked what they saw from Austin in a workout and reeled him in. Austin has done enough in training camp so far that he worked some with the starting defense in Tuesday’s practice.

“I was like, ‘I appreciate it.’ I just go out there and perform and work every day at practice and they said that my performance thus far warranted me getting some reps with the (starters)," Austin said. “We are competing ... So I just want to come compete every day and show them I can be a player in this league. I don’t want to be just a guy."

Should Austin maintain the current trajectory and keep himself on the field, he’ll join a rather productive list of one-year signings the Broncos have made over the last three seasons.

Last season it was Shaun Phillips -- who went on to lead the team in sacks with 10 -- who signed a one-year deal. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who signed a two-year deal on paper, but the second year was voided five days after the Super Bowl. Rodgers-Cromartie started 13 games for the Broncos last season and tied for the team lead in interceptions with three.

“You want to bring in guys that fit," Elway said. “Guys who have a chance to make your roster if they can bring what you’ve seen from them in the past."

The Broncos leaned on one-year players even more in 2012.

On the way to a 13-3 mark that included an 11-game win streak, the Broncos signed safety Jim Leonhard, defensive tackle Justin Bannan, linebacker Keith Brooking, center Dan Koppen and wide receiver Brandon Stokley to one-year deals. Of those players, only Leonhard got a signing bonus ($65,000).

By season's end Brooking, Bannan and Koppen were starters, while Leonhard and Stokley were key backups.

So, Austin is in good company, or will be if he keeps on the current path and makes the roster when the cuts for the regular season come.

“It feels great," Austin said. “I have been humble through my career so I know the type of opportunity that I have, so I am just grateful to be here today and grateful to be able to say I can still play football, especially at the professional level."
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 2

July, 25, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Highlights from the Denver Broncos' training camp on Friday.
  • One of the major objectives this offseason was to not only get a little more nasty on defense -- "that championship mentality," John Elway has called it -- but to get bigger in the secondary as well. They signed cornerback Aqib Talib (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) as well as safety T.J. Ward (5-10, 200) and then used a first-round pick on cornerback Bradley Roby (5-11, 192). Just two days into camp and Talib’s reach -- "length" in scouting terms -- and his comfort level in both man and zone looks have been on display plenty. He makes it difficult for quarterbacks, including the ultra accurate Peyton Manning, to fit the ball in, and has forced several over-throws and knocked down more than his share of passes from all of the Broncos' quarterbacks already. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio figures to match Talib on No. 1 receivers throughout the season no matter where those pass-catchers line up. "I definitely checked out the defensive scheme and knew a little about Del Rio’s scheme before I made my decision to come here. It’s perfect for me."
  • The Broncos are approaching a crossroads with tight end Julius Thomas, who is in the last season of his rookie deal. They’d like to sign him long term, but could also use the franchise player tag next season if they do not get a deal done. Either way, Thomas has done his part so far to build on his 65-catch, 12-touchdown season in 2013. Thomas has shown a comfort level in the offense, working on the line, out wide and in the slot. He also spent some time with Tony Gonzalez this past offseason for a little guidance as well. "For me, it was understanding how you continue to play at a high level," Thomas said. "What do you do to prepare for games? What do you do to get the most out of practice? Just some things that only a future Hall of Famer and a 17-year veteran would know."
  • Shortly after Orlando Franklin was moved from right tackle to left guard this offseason, he said he really wouldn’t know how good he could be at his new position in the NFL until "the pads go on." Saturday morning will be the first time the Broncos work in full gear. The Broncos moved Franklin, who started more games at guard than tackle in his college career at Miami, inside to try and beef things up on the interior after Zane Beadles' departure in free agency. The Broncos don’t want to necessarily run the ball more than their 461 carries last season (11th in the league), but they want to be far more productive when they do choose to run. Saturday will be the first of several preseason tests of the plan, including preseason games against San Francisco and Seattle. Or as Talib put it Friday; "That’s when the real football starts. This is like pajamas or whatever you want to call it. It’ll get a little more live [Saturday]."
  • Montee Ball had just 59 receptions in his four seasons combined at Wisconsin and many in the league said working in the passing game would be the most difficult part of his transition to a potential No. 1 back. Last August he did miss a blitz pick-up in Seattle when Manning took a huge hit from Bobby Wagner, a hit that paved the way for Knowshon Moreno to work his way back up the depth chart last fall. But Ball has looked steady catching the ball thus far, including a nice back-shoulder grab in team drills Friday.
  • Odd and ends: Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe briefly left Friday’s practice as trainers worked on his right leg/hip. Wolfe then returned to drills. … Running back Brennan Clay, who did take some snaps with the second-team offense at times Friday, suffered a right thigh bruise, but head coach John Fox said it was "nothing serious." … Best catch of the day went to Greg Wilson, who was on the Broncos practice squad briefly this past January, who reeled in a scoring grab from Brock Osweiler deep up the right sideline in team drills. … Safety David Bruton also picked Osweiler off in team drills, taking it in for a touchdown, adding a flip at the goal-line for good measure.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The last word rings the loudest, and when it comes to all the Denver Broncos accomplished last season, the Seattle Seahawks got the last word.

It came in the form of a 43-8 victory over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

For many, that nationally televised cave-in wiped away all of the touchdowns, league records and remember-when plays that the Broncos had assembled along the way. Because of that, the Broncos have moved through the offseason with questions about their mettle swirling around them.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware, Von Miller
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesAdding DeMarcus Ware, left, and getting Von Miller, right, back from injury has the Broncos excited.
Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner went on ESPN and dropped the words "scared" and "timid" when asked about the Broncos and the title game. Others around the league have done the same in private -- asked the same questions, wondered the same things. How can the Broncos navigate a tougher schedule than they had last season and do it as they try to bounce back from the kind of high-profile loss that is often difficult to shake?

That's what everyone wants to know, and it's a burden the Broncos carried as they took the field Thursday for their first training camp practice.

Make no mistake -- the Broncos like the team they have. And why not? Peyton Manning is back, as are the coaching staff and the guts of a roster that has gone 13-3 in back-to-back seasons.

As cornerback Chris Harris Jr. put it, "Guys know what kind of team we have."

John Elway, the Broncos' general manager and executive vice president of football operations, was busy this offseason, signing high-profile free agents DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders.

"Are we a better football team on paper?" Elway asked. "I think we are. I feel good about the fact that we're a better football team with free agents that we signed, as well as the draft, as well as the young guys taking steps from last season."

Ware arrived from Dallas with 117 career sacks. Talib and Ward were named to the Pro Bowl last season.

"DeMarcus came in and walked in like he'd been here for 10 years, because that's the kind of guy that he is," Elway said. "You know the way that Aqib practices and the competitive nature that he has, and the mentality, the toughness that he brings."

The Broncos also have the likes of Harris Jr., Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson and Rahim Moore -- defensive players who finished the season on injured reserve -- back on the practice field. They've seen Manning look as good as ever, with his receivers saying the future Hall of Famer has had a little more on his fastball this spring.

They see a deep team with impact players they believe is tougher, a little more calloused by what has happened. But training camp is the season of sunshine and rainbows in the NFL. Always has been, always will be. Everyone arrives to camp happy and optimistic, touting the offseason changes in players or attitude, the new day or new era.

"I'm never getting too optimistic, because this thing changes so fast, and things can change on a dime," Elway said. "But I am excited about the team that we have on the field, I'm excited about the coaching staff that we have.

"So we're excited about getting started -- plus we can put last year behind us. As tremendous as last year was, obviously there's always a bitter taste in your mouth when it ends the way it ended. When we get out on the field, that officially ends the 2013 season. We can now get going on the 2014 season."

It's a season where the Broncos hope they can be the team that hands out the exclamation point.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said this season was "Super Bowl or bust" earlier this month, that was one thing.

After all, folks all over the region are thinking the same thing as they look over the Broncos' depth chart that still includes Peyton Manning at quarterback with a fairly young roster around him and one of the league's biggest hauls in free agency as well.

But now new arrival DeMarcus Ware has brought another goal into the conversation. Asked about the expectations of the team's defense, Ware said he hopes the Broncos go to uncharted ground when it comes to the franchise's history.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDeMarcus Ware says the Broncos want their defense to play as well as their offense.
"We are trying to be a force to be reckoned with this year and you already talked about us being an offensive team, but at the end of the day, we are trying to be [No.] 1 and [No.] 1," Ware said. "The best offense in the league and the best defense in the league."

That's not just a lofty goal, but something the team has never done in five-plus decades worth of football business. The team has been to seven Super Bowls -- six of those on Pat Bowlen's watch -- and won two title games. But the Broncos have never finished a season with the No. 1 defense in yards allowed per game, which is what the NFL uses to statistically rank defenses each year.

The Broncos' best season in scoring defense -- when they allowed a franchise low 148 points in a 14-game season -- was 1977. They finished ninth in yards allowed and were third in scoring defense, behind the Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons. Former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan routinely has said a team will almost certainly be in the Super Bowl conversation with a top-five offense to go with a top-five defense.

Then, Shanahan has said, it comes down to playing your best when the lights are brightest. But even that will be no small chore for these Broncos. Overall the Broncos have had only four seasons when they even finished in the league's top five in yards gained per game on offense and yards allowed per game on defense -- again that's how the league ranks them each year.

In those four seasons -- 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2012 -- the Broncos won the Super Bowl only to close out the 1997 season. They were upset in the playoffs, at home, to close out both 1996 and 2012 and were thumped by Manning in the wild-card game to close out 2004.

But Ware has again raised the issue many of the Broncos defensive players, most notably defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, have touched on throughout this offseason. That it's great Manning and the offense can pile up the touchdowns, but the Broncos want, and need, to be known for something on the other side of the ball.

If the team can't win the Super Bowl in a year that they scored more points in a season (606) than any team in history, then it's clear the Broncos need to bring a little something more than offensive pizzazz to the table.

But the difference in saying you want a top defense to go with the top offense and actually doing it is galactic in size. Especially in the salary cap era, when many teams find themselves picking sides when they're doling out the contract cash. And that was something John Elway was trying to avoid this past offseason when he was waving Bowlen's checkbook around in free agency, securing players such as Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward for the team's defense.

"I think that we've got to get to be where we're a complete football team," Elway said Wednesday. "We can't rely on [No.] 18 to win it because he can't win it by himself."

The 2013 season will always have its place in the team's lore as Manning threw for more touchdowns on his own (55) than the 31 other teams each scored. But the team never, whether it was because of injuries, mistakes or simply a lack of personnel, showed it had a Plan B for the days when the offense and Manning couldn't pull the team through -- like the day Super Bowl XLVIII was played, for example.

The Broncos didn't run the ball well enough not to have to throw it all the time and they didn't play defense consistently well enough to close the deal. Although the Broncos defense may have actually had one of its better days against the Seahawks in February until things got out of hand.

"To win a world championship, you have to be a great football team and you have to be well rounded," Elway said. "I think we've moved closer to that. Seattle was a tremendous football team. But this is a new year and we've got to go out and we've got to play the best football that we can play, and do what we do best. And how the coordinators put our guys in the best situations to be successful and we'll create our own identity. I think if we continue to do that with the people that we have, we're going to be able to compete for a world championship."

"I think this is going to be a night and day defense from last year," Ware said. "You had guys that were hurt [last year], and have the opportunity to not have any holes in your defense … So I think the sky is the limit for us."

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Often folks look at John Elway and talk about steely resolve. They talk about competitive fire. They talk about the unblinking ability to turn pressure into football diamonds.

And Wednesday, Elway showed his heart -- showed it with tears welling in his eyes as he tried to talk about Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen's, and Bowlen's family's, decision to step down from the day-to-day work of running the team. Bowlen turned over control of the team to a family trust with team president/CEO Joe Ellis making decisions that were previously Bowlen’s to make and Elway running the team's football operations.

Both Elway and Ellis were emotional as they attempted to talk Wednesday about Bowlen's impact on them, the community and the NFL. Both have spent the better part of three decades working for Bowlen, as well as spending time around the Broncos owner and his family away from the team complex.

For some, it was the kind of emotion they hadn’t seen from Elway, in particular, since he retired from the NFL after the 1998 season. The tears welled in Elway’s eyes as he spoke Wednesday, as he took several pauses and a heavy sigh or two to try to gather himself.

“I’ve worked for him for 30 years ... it’s, uh, going to be very hard not to see him walk through that door every day," Elway said. “He’s given me so much. As a player to be able to play for him, and as I’ve said when I retired, I said as a player all you want is an opportunity to be the best and to be able to compete for world championships and ... that’s what Pat has given us."

Elway also said Bowlen’s tenure as a day-to-day presence in the building “will never be matched, he will never be replaced." In the end, Elway called it a “sad, sad day."

Later, after matters turned to football as Elway walked to return inside the Broncos’ complex, he said “it really just hit me when I sat down to talk about him" that he had not expected to feel so much emotion when he sat down in front of the cameras and digital recorders.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Every person who works inside the Denver Broncos' suburban complex knew this day was coming.

Pat Bowlen would ask the same questions in a meeting that he had just asked a few minutes before.

He stepped away from the tireless work he did on some of the NFL’s most powerful committees, including negotiating some of the groundbreaking television contracts that fuel teams' economic engines.

He started driving less, choosing to ride with the team’s now-retired security director, Dave Abrams, or Broncos general counsel Rick Slivka, or team president Joe Ellis as they routinely went to lunch at a restaurant that overlooks an executive airport.

He was in his office less, too. Former coach Mike Shanahan once said: "[Pat] was an owner you could always find, his office was right next to mine, so some coaches can’t find their owners, don’t talk to their owners. I saw Pat every day at work."

Then for the first time, Bowlen -- who once competed in the Ironman Triathlon -- didn’t go to the league meetings in March.

[+] EnlargePat Bowlen and John Elway
AP Photo/ Ed AndrieskiThe Broncos have enjoyed their greatest moments under the leadership of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and owner Pat Bowlen, left.
Through it all, those in and around the Broncos have always said Bowlen was "stepping away," choosing to let the people he has in place run the team in the way he hoped it would be operated.

On Tuesday, the Broncos formally announced Bowlen had surrendered control of the team as he battles Alzheimer’s disease. Ellis, who now will add the title and duties of chief executive officer to his duties as team president, will assume control of the team and represent the Broncos on all league matters.

A team statement said: "The Broncos are very saddened that Mr. Bowlen is no longer able to be part of the team’s daily operations due to his condition. We continue to offer our full support, compassion and respect to 'Mr. B,' who has faced Alzheimer’s disease with such dignity and strength."

Commissioner Roger Goodell said to the Denver Post: "This is a sad day for the NFL."

Bowlen publicly had said he suffered some short-term memory loss in recent years, even as far back as 2009, when he fired Shanahan. With tears in his eyes, Bowlen said: "This is as tough as it gets." He then hired Josh McDaniels, but fired him with four games remaining in the 2010 season, with the franchise reeling from on-field losses and its own Spygate scandal.

Early in 2011, Bowlen performed what might have been one of his last great acts as the franchise’s most successful owner. He convinced John Elway to return as the team’s chief football decision-maker.

The Broncos, it seems, always have been at their best with Elway and Bowlen together in some way. Bowlen raised the team’s first Super Bowl trophy, saying: "This one’s for John." There is little doubt if Elway could raise one as an executive, he would say: "This one’s for Pat."

Player and owner. Friend and friend. Boss and employee.

There are those around the league who believe the $35 million expansion of the team’s complex, including an indoor practice facility, was in part a spruce-up, a value-added item, if the team were to be sold. But Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, said in a statement Tuesday: "Long-term, I fully support Pat’s hope of keeping the Denver Broncos in the Bowlen family."

Ellis has been with the team for most of Bowlen’s ownership tenure in Denver. Ellis was the team’s marketing director from 1983 to 1985 -- Bowlen purchased the Broncos in 1984 -- and Ellis returned to the team in 1998 and has been with the Broncos since. Ellis was promoted to COO in 2008 and named team president in 2011.

Together, it now will be Ellis and Elway who will try to maintain what Bowlen always wanted for the Broncos: to be in the Super Bowl hunt.

Bowlen would always enthusiastically and without hesitation pick the Broncos to win the title game in the coming year in what used to be annual postseason sit-downs. Bowlen liked star power. He liked success. He liked the Broncos to be at the front of the line.

The Broncos will hold their first training camp practice Thursday, the 31st training camp since Bowlen became the team’s owner. As Bowlen battles Alzheimer’s, those he put in place -- Ellis and Elway -- to run his team when he no longer could, might have assembled his best team, at least on paper, with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback in Peyton Manning.

Whether this team closes the deal like Elway did in 1998 and 1999 remains to be seen. But you can see Bowlen knew what the future held, and knew what he wanted his franchise to be.

Countdown to camp: Linebackers

July, 21, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Von Miller was the first player drafted by the Denver Broncos in John Elway's tenure as the team's chief football decision-maker. Miller, at his best, has shown the potential to be in the conversation as the league's Defensive Player of the Year every year.

But Miller has also shown some immaturity, accumulating some off-the-field baggage along the way.

And while Miller says he has shed the troubles of last season and is re-committed to becoming one of the league's chief on-field disrupters again, it is Danny Trevathan who just may best represent Elway's vision of the Broncos' developmental curve over the long haul.

"I hope he feels that way, I hope he sees me as a success," Trevathan said. "I have big dreams. I had them coming in and I have them now and I feel like I can do the work to make them be and help this team win big games."

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsA sixth-round pick in 2012, Danny Trevathan has the look and work ethic of a future captain.
Despite the free-agency shopping spree of this past March, Elway has consistently said his plan for the Broncos in the long term is a draft-built team with the depth to survive a spate of injuries. He wants a team that can put itself in the title conversation "year after year" with an occasional free agent added to the mix "when we feel like there is a guy out there who can really add to what we build in the draft."

The Broncos certainly feature that approach at linebacker with Trevathan looking exactly like the home-grown gem that separates the teams that know what to do in the draft and those that don't. The sixth-round pick in 2012 was the defense's most consistent player last season with 129 tackles with 3 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and 2 sacks.

Trevathan looks poised for more this season and then some. Because of his get-after-it approach to go with his production, I believe he has the look of a future team captain. But overall the Broncos will likely feature three starting linebackers who were all drafted by the team in Miller, Trevathan and whoever wins the job in the middle between Nate Irving (third round, 2011) and rookie Lamin Barrow (fifth round, 2014).

It's all part of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.

Today: Linebackers.

How many coming to camp: 13.

How many will the Broncos keep: The 2013 season signaled a bit of a change from the two previous seasons. Last year the Broncos kept six linebackers as they exited the preseason with Miller having begun the year on a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

But when Miller returned to the lineup in Week 7 the Broncos kept the total at six linebackers. That was after they had kept seven linebackers in the initial cut to 53 players in 2012 and seven in 2011.

This year the Broncos seem intent on searching for depth, having invited 13 linebackers to camp. It's the same as the number of combined defensive linemen they have invited at two positions. Miller is still working his way back from ACL surgery and it's still a question as to whether or not he will be ready for his usual allotment of snaps when the regular season begins.

Miller is on track in his return and says he's dropped weight from last season, but the Broncos will play it safe with their Pro Bowl linebacker as they move through training camp and the preseason.

That may impact how many they keep here in the cut to 53, but the number almost certainly comes down at six or seven.

Break it down: The Broncos like their potential depth here and the battle for the final spots on the depth chart will be fierce. As will the potential battle for middle linebacker.

The Broncos have consistently lauded Nate Irving's work in the offseason, he worked as the middle linebacker with the starters in organized team activities and minicamp, but they have tried him in the middle before only to move on to other options. Irving has performed well as Miller's backup on the strong-side, but to stay in the middle he simply has to show he can consistently square up blockers in the run fits, shed and move to the ball.

In the past, including in college, he has tried to run around blocks and left running lanes in his wake that offenses have taken advantage of.

The Broncos will take a look at the athletic Barrow in the middle as well. Barrow was under-rated by many on this year's draft board for his ability to take on blocks and work toward to the ball. If Barrow shows the ability to play mistake-free, assignment football, he will make a significant push for the job. It will take Irving's best to hold him off when the decision is made.

In the end the Broncos want to find the guy who can man the middle in the base, which isn't the primary formation any longer, but also play along-side Trevathan in the nickel when Miller bumps down to defensive end. At minimum Barrow looks primed for that job, an important decision since the nickel is the formation the Broncos played the most last season.

But the scrap for the final spots with the likes of Steven Johnson, a quality special teamer, and Lerentee McCray, who was set to make the roster last season as undrafted rookie before an injury ended his season, as well as Shaquil Barrett, Jamar Chaney and Brandon Marshall, will bear watching.
John ElwayPhoto by Kevin Reece/Getty Images
Score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Date: Jan. 25, 1998
Site: Qualcomm Stadium

We have a winner. The voters and I agree that The Helicopter is the Denver Broncos' most memorable play.

John Elway played quarterback for 16 seasons for the Broncos, started five Super Bowls, and was the winningest starting quarterback in NFL history when he retired following the 1998 season. He went 148-82-1 with 47 game-winning or game-saving drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.

For many, he will always be the face of franchise, now as the team’s top football decision-maker.

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And if Elway says his put-it-all-on-the-line dive for a first down in the Super Bowl is the favorite play of his career, as he has stated on several occasions, it’s probably worth a long look for any list, and it sits at the top of this one.

In terms of franchise context -- the context of Elway’s career before the play and what the play meant on the game’s biggest stage -- it is the most memorable play of all the plays the Broncos have run. It was Elway’s fourth career Super Bowl start, his career was in the homestretch, and a Super Bowl ring had eluded him to that point.

The Broncos -- with a passionate fan base that has produced an ongoing streak of multiple decades worth of sold-out home games -- had done plenty through the years, but had not won a Super Bowl since the team’s inception in 1960.

And with the title on the line and the game tied 17-17, Elway did what Elway had done so many times in so many situations; he turned trouble into football prosperity. But this time he hurled his then-37-year-old body at three Packers defenders to do it.

Tucked in the game’s play-by-play, it reads simply as an 8-yard run for a third-quarter first down. But for the players on the field with Elway, those on the sideline, the coaches who saw it unfold, and thousands of the team’s faithful who simply call it The Helicopter, it will always stand alone.

The late Mike Heimerdinger, the former Titans and Jets offensive coordinator who was a wide receivers coach in Denver at the time, once simply called it "probably the greatest thing I ever saw on a football field. You just knew when he started to run he was going to do it, and when he got up and went back to the huddle you just knew we were going to win that ring."
John ElwayPhoto by Kevin Reece/Getty Images
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is the third of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. We have already featured Tom Jackson’s 73-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Denver Broncos' quest for the franchise’s first playoff spot in the 1977 seasons, as well as John Elway’s 18-yard completion to Shannon Sharpe on third-and-6 in the final minutes of the AFC Championship Game following the 1997 season.

Please vote for your choice as the Broncos’ most memorable play.

Score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Date: Jan. 25, 1998 Site: Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego

The underdog, wild-card Broncos and the heavily-favored Packers had taken their best swings at each other and were deep into the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXII, tied 17-17. Still in search of the first title of his Hall of Fame career, Elway had the Broncos moving during a possession that had begun at the Broncos' 8-yard line with 7 minutes, 46 seconds left in the third quarter.

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With Elway sprinkling in a well-timed pass or two, including a 36-yarder to Ed McCaffrey that had moved them into Packers' territory, the Broncos had used running back Terrell Davis’ 27 yards on six carries previously on the drive to get the ball to the Packers’ 12-yard line where they faced a third-and-6. The Broncos would have gladly taken a field goal at that point, but Elway knew the Packers had the NFC's top scoring offense in the regular season and a touchdown was needed.

Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan sent in a pass play, and when Elway initially dropped back he was looking for fellow future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. But the Packers had Sharpe, with safeties LeRoy Butler and Eugene Robinson, bracketed nicely with no room for Elway to fit the ball in.

And with the Packers' defensive front closing in, the then 37-year-old Elway had run out of options to do anything but, well, run.

Elway charged into what he has called "the first open space I kind of saw." After eight yards, three Packers -- Butler, Mike Prior and Brian M. Williams -- crashed into a leaping Elway, spinning the quarterback around, before he landed hard on the grass.

The Broncos had their first down, and two plays later they got their touchdown when Davis plowed in from the 1-yard line. And just more than a quarter later, the team and its best-ever player had their first championship.

It was a 13-play, 92-yard drive, pounded out on the game’s biggest stage, punctuated by what Sharpe has called "a 37-year-old quarterback throwing himself at the one thing he didn’t have in his career. You don't forget something like that."
Shannon SharpeTIM CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is the second of three nominations for the most memorable play in Denver Broncos history. On Monday, we featured Tom Jackson's 73-yard interception return for a touchdown in 1977 to power the Broncos to their first Super Bowl trip and tomorrow we’ll feature Hall of Famer John Elway’s scramble in Super Bowl XXXII, known simply as the “helicopter play" to most of the team’s faithful.

Please vote for your choice as the Broncos’ most memorable play.

Score: Broncos 24, Steelers 21
Date: Jan. 11, 1998 Site: Three Rivers Stadium

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After a crushing playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars abruptly ended what was thought to be a Super Bowl run the year before, the Broncos entered the playoffs following the 1997 season as a wild-card team, having finished 12-4 and a game behind the 13-3 Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.

They arrived to the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh having already thumped the Jaguars 42-17 in the wild-card round to go with a survival-of-the-fittest 14-10 victory over the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round, a game former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has always called “the hardest-hitting game I’ve ever been a part of in the National Football League."

And with the clock on Elway’s career starting to tick loudly at this point, the Broncos certainly had their eyes on the prize.

After a 17-point second quarter gave the Broncos a 24-14 lead, the Steelers had narrowed the gap to 24-21 with just under three minutes to play -– the only score of the second half for either team -– and the Broncos needed a quality possession to wind the clock and close things out.

However, following the Pittsburgh score, the Broncos took over on their own 11-yard line with 2:46 to play. Elway hit Ed McCaffrey for a 6-yard gain on first down to move the ball to the Broncos' 17. Running back Terrell Davis was then thrown a for 2-yard loss on second down, which left the Broncos facing a third-and-6 from their own 15-yard line and the all-too-real prospect of handing the Steelers' quality field position if they did not convert.

Shanahan sent in a play the Broncos, according to Shannon Sharpe, had not practiced in weeks and was not part of the game plan the team had made to prepare for the Steelers. And Sharpe has said after Elway called the play in the huddle, Sharpe said to the quarterback, “We don’t have that play in."

Sharpe then asked Elway, “What do you want me to do?" Sharpe said Elway responded with words now in the team’s championship lore -- “Go get open."

Sharpe did, to the tune of a 18-yard gain before the Steelers’ Lee Flowers made the tackle. The Broncos ran four more plays to run out the clock and keep the opportunity of the franchise’s first Super Bowl win in their grasp.

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