AFC West: Peyton Manning

Broncos Camp Report: Day 7

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
7:45
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Denver Broncos training camp:


  • Maybe it was the weather, or that Demaryius Thomas still isn’t in the full rotation at wide receiver after missing the first five days of practices, or just the way Broncos defense was aligned Wednesday, but Wes Welker was quarterback Peyton Manning's favorite target in a downpour. Manning consistently worked the ball to Welker in both 7-on-7 and team drills. On a tough weather day the Broncos were at their catch-and-run best on offense. and it was difficult for the defensive players to keep their footing at times. Rookie linebacker Lamin Barrow slipped and fell chasing tight end Jacob Tamme at one point.
  • The practice was the Broncos’ second open-to-the-public session at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Despite the terrible weather and the fact the practice was a on weekday morning -- it started at 11:30 a.m. MT -- there were still 9,207 brave souls who came through the turnstiles. “I’ve got to give a shout-out to those fans," coach John Fox said. “It was very hard conditions to practice in, I thought our team handled it great ... people who don’t have to be here, those Broncos fans are tremendous, to weather all that for two-and-a-half hours." The last of three stadium practices will be Saturday.
  • The Broncos will get their first taste of what the league’s emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding will mean for defensive players, as referee Scott Helverson and his crew will be in the Broncos’ complex starting Thursday. They will give a presentation to the Broncos players and coaches as well as call penalties in practices through the end of the week. “It will be fun to get them in there to visit with the players, show the videos, not just rules changes, but also the enforcement and how they’re going to attack that in the preseason," Fox said. It’s an important time for a team who wants to be more aggressive on defense, particularly in the secondary, where the Broncos have added Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward this past offseason. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said the Broncos can adjust to how things are called as long as there is consistency. The Broncos were tied for the league lead in combined defensive holding and illegal contact penalties (16) last season.
  • Even with Thomas, Welker and Emmanuel Sanders already in the mix, the Broncos believed second-round pick Cody Latimer could find a way in the rotation when they drafted him in May. Latimer, who consistently won the ball on contested catches during his college career, has shown that aggressiveness already in camp. He made a diving catch on a throw from Manning Wednesday after splitting the Broncos' starting safeties and beating fellow rookie Bradley Roby for a grab up the sideline earlier in the day.
  • Undrafted rookie wide receiver Isaiah Burse has gotten plenty of work in the return game thus far. The Broncos signed him following the draft in hopes he could compete for the punt return or kickoff return job -- he had two punt returns for scores for Fresno State last season. Burse has flashed some of those skills while also bobbling a few in the early going but has also quickly learned a lesson of NFL life. “In college and high school I was able to dance. I would cross the field, stop and come back all across the field. The speed here is different ... Here you have to make a cut and go. You’ll be way more success if you just make a cut instead of dancing.’’
  • Odds and ends: The Broncos held DeMarcus Ware (right lower leg) out of Wednesday’s practice. Ware did some conditioning work off to the side and looks poised to return soon ... Kayvon Webster had a pick six on Manning, cutting in front of Welker to snag Manning’s throw ... Rookie cornerback Lou Young left the practice with a groin strain.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos haven’t had the usual throngs of their faithful waiting for them when they arrive at the practice field.

They've had no roars of approval for long passes completed or the customary oohs and aahs for interceptions, forced fumbles and Peyton Manning being Manning.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesMontee Ball seems to have Denver's starting tailback job wrapped up, but who will back him up?
As Manning put it, “It’s kind of going to be on us to keep ourselves going."

The Broncos, who will hold the second of three open-to-the-public practices at Sports Authority Field at Mile High as the $35 million makeover continues at their complex, are a deep team with very few roster spots truly in play. Still, after the first week of training camp, there are some questions they still need to answer in the coming weeks, including:

Depth chart at running back: Montee Ball was handed the starting job in the offseason, much like Ronnie Hillman was a year ago. Hillman didn’t keep the job, but Ball clearly will.

He’s shown vision in the run game, decisiveness in his cuts and consistent, quality work in the passing game. He’s poised for a big season and perhaps even the first 250-carry season for the Broncos since Reuben Droughns had 275 carries in 2004. Knowshon Moreno had 247 in 2009 and 241 last season, while Willis McGahee had 249 in 2011.

Hillman has also responded after a listless 2013. He’s been a little grittier in pass protection and seems to have learned the sometimes painful lesson that he has to stay on his toes to have a chance to stay in the lineup.

C.J. Anderson, Juwan Thompson and Brennan Clay will hash it out for the other spots. Anderson was sluggish in OTAs and minicamp at 234 pounds. After his performance in those offseason workouts, there were plenty of folks with the team who were not confident he would keep a roster spot at that weight.

He’s now about 215 pounds in camp and looks more like the guy who made the roster last season as an undrafted rookie. But all three of those backs should be camped out at special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers’ door because the No. 3 running back got all of 55 carries a year ago and might not get anywhere close to that this time around.

Right tackle: Chris Clark has worked with the starters thus far, but the decision hasn’t been made. He has struggled at times with some of the power moves from the Broncos’ defensive linemen in pass-rush drills and hasn't always gotten his hands in the right spots on initial contact. He played well in place of an injured Ryan Clady at left tackle last season, but the strong side is a different deal, and he hasn't yet slammed the door on the competition for the job.

The Broncos can help the right tackle with a tight end if they need to but would prefer not to have to. So, consider auditions still open, and the position will bear watching in preseason games.

Returner(s): There are some candidates who have flashed some explosiveness such as Hillman, rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer, undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse, Omar Bolden and Andre Caldwell, among others. But none of them has consistently caught the ball well enough in practice so far to be considered the front-runner.

At least one of them has to step forward in the coming weeks in the return game and handle the ball consistently. Otherwise the Broncos will be faced with eschewing the idea of an impact returner in lieu of simply fielding the ball without a bobble.

That would be an awful lot of field position left unsecured before the Broncos' offense takes the field.
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.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Just a few days ago, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said because no fans have been able to attend the team’s training camp practices this year due to construction at the Broncos' complex, that the players might need something to boost them "especially when you get into that third or fourth padded practice and it’s kind of the dog days of training camp."

Well, Monday morning marked the team’s third padded practice of training camp and Manning took it upon himself to give the workout a little kick start. The Broncos routinely play music out of a speaker roughly the size of a Smart Car while the team stretches.

Each day brings a different musical selection from a different player or coach, ranging all over the genre map. Monday’s offering was "Rocky Top," a remember-when country song played at almost every play stoppage and/or touchdown by the University of Tennessee marching band – Manning’s alma mater.

So, as the song played Monday, Manning offered up the dance steps to go along with it. Punter Britton Colquitt, also a former University of Tennessee player, joined in as well.

The video of the five-time NFL MVP is already making the social media rounds.

"I love it," said defensive end Malik Jackson, another former Vol on the Broncos’ roster. "They need to play it every day. ‘Rocky Top’ is awesome. Go Vols."

"It was his day to pick the music so it wasn’t a surprise to me what it was going to be," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said.

Broncos camp report: Day 1

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
9:30
PM ET
A daily review of the hot topics coming out of training camp:
  • When the Broncos selected wide receiver Cody Latimer in the second round of the draft in May, they did it knowing full well Latimer had suffered a fracture in his left foot in a pre-draft workout, much like Demaryius Thomas had before the Broncos made him a first-round pick in 2010. "I think they're like experts when it comes to that because it's worked out for them before," Latimer said. The Broncos dialed Latimer back for much of the offseason -- he did some limited team work in the team's three-day minicamp in June and the final set of organized team activities -- but looked just fine Thursday as he consistently flashed top-tier speed throughout the practice. He will get some premium snaps this season.
  • With Demaryius Thomas excused until Monday, Andre Caldwell took plenty of reps with the offensive starters. Caldwell, who signed a two-year deal to stay with the Broncos just before free agency opened in March, watched the team draft Latimer and sign Emmanuel Sanders. But quarterback Peyton Manning trusts Caldwell and showed even in Caldwell's limited playing time last season he was willing to throw to Caldwell in tight situations. And Thursday Manning made it clear people shouldn't be quick to dismiss Caldwell just yet in the wide receiver rotation, offering, "Caldwell will have a more significant role this season."
  • In the wake of the team's announcement that Pat Bowlen was stepping down as the team's owner this week, team president and CEO Joe Ellis met one-on-one with three players -- Manning, special teams captain David Bruton and defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Ware just signed in March, but this, as well as how Ware has conducted himself in offseason workouts, shows his standing in the locker room already. He spent time with almost every pass-rusher on the practice field Thursday, offering tips during drills, including to Derek Wolfe, Von Miller and Quanterus Smith. It will be absolutely stunning if Ware is not one of this team's five season-long captains.
  • The issue is a long way from being decided, but, as expected, Chris Clark is getting the first look with the starters at right tackle. The Broncos figure to do at least some mix-and-match at the position over the next couple of weeks with Clark and Winston Justice having received the bulk of the work in minicamp and OTAs. But if they stick to the plan to take a look at all of the possibilities, rookie Michael Schofield has shown enough in offseason work to get a look as well.
  • The Broncos lost 16 fumbles last season, the most in the league, and lost three more fumbles in the playoffs. So, safe to say ball security has been a front-burner issue for the Broncos all through the offseason with the appearance of a green ball that has been carried around by the likes of Manning and Thomas. But the fumble reminder is blue for training camp and Manning was toting it around Thursday. Things still need attention as the Broncos put the ball on the ground twice in team drills, both on strip plays by the defense.
  • Some odd and ends: With Chris Harris Jr. on the physically unable to perform list, Kayvon Webster got some work in the base defense in the two practices. ... Linebacker Von Miller, who isn't expected to be cleared for full contact until the Broncos' third preseason game, took part individual drills with the linebackers and some 7-on-7 drills. Asked about his knee he said "it feels good for today."
Impressionist Frank Caliendo stopped by ESPN.com’s NFL Nation TV Thursday and offered hilarious takes in different voices on the current state of the NFL, joining host Paul Gutierrez (Oakland Raiders reporter), co-host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Kevin Seifert (NFL national reporter).

Caliendo broke out many of his impressions, including his staple of staples, John Madden, and advised life-of-the-party rookie Johnny Manziel to keep on partying, in Madden’s voice, like Madden’s Raiders of the 1970s did as one of the league’s dominant teams of the era, both on and off the field.

Earlier in the day on ESPN Radio’s "Mike and Mike" show, Caliendo read LeBron James’ letter to the fans, his reason for returning to Cleveland, in the voice of Morgan Freeman. Caliendo shared some of it on the Spreecast as well.

Other NFL personalities Caliendo did impressions of included what is now his newest staple, Jon Gruden, while briefly taking the show into a Gruden family reunion and reminiscing on Harry Potter’s school of Hogwarts. He also did Will Ferrell doing Harry Caray.

Caliendo, who has had his own television show in the past, said he stopped counting how many voices he has in his repertoire, though it’s been reported he has at least 120 impressions, from former president George W. Bush to Mike Ditka, which he said is all about chewing gum and putting his index finger above his lip as a mustache. He wants to add a Peyton Manning impression, saying there’s some “Elvis” in the five-time NFL MVP’s voice.

And yes, Caliendo did some Charles Barkley while discussing how he comes up with ideas for impressions. Caliendo was on the show for 20 minutes.

Other topics discussed by Gutierrez, Harvey and Seifert included Ray Rice getting a reported two-game suspension, Tony Dungy’s recent assertion that he would not draft the openly gay Michael Sam because he would be too big a distraction, and a new home for the Raiders.

The show can be watched here:

 
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."

Camp preview: Denver Broncos

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
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NFL Nation’s Jeff Legwold examines the three biggest issues facing the Denver Broncos heading into training camp.

History: Say what you want about what the Broncos did in the offseason -- and there’s plenty of ground to cover because their haul in free agency was almost unprecedented for a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance -- the simple fact remains they are swimming upstream against a powerful current of history. No team since the undefeated Miami Dolphins of 1972 has gone on to win a Super Bowl in the season after a loss in the league’s title game. On paper, the Broncos’ depth chart looks poised to be in the championship conversation again, but for the second consecutive season they carry the significant burden of unfulfilled opportunity along for the ride. A double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens ended their 2012 season and left them empty-handed on the Super Bowl front. That loss followed them throughout the 2013 season, even as they rewrote the record book on offense. For some, the regular season was little more than one long opening act for another Super Bowl chance. This time around, a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVII will mirror their every move. How the Broncos deal with that and how successfully they roll up their sleeves to get to work on the new season will have a lot to say about how things go.

Get rugged: The Broncos’ 2013 season was a study in contrasts. On one hand, they were the highest-scoring team in league history, the first to score 600 points in a season. On the other, they were a drama-filled operation that featured two front-office executives arrested for DUI offenses and Von Miller’s six-game suspension to open the season. Toss in a pile of injuries on defense and the blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the final game, and the Broncos were left staring at the idea that they scored more points than any team that came before them but still didn’t win the title. So, although Peyton Manning and company figure to be fun to watch again, this team will earn its championship chops by what it does when Manning isn’t throwing the ball. By how it grinds it out in the running game from time to time to both protect the quarterback and close out games. And by how defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio implements players who were reeled in by the lure of owner Pat Bowlen’s checkbook and the Manning-led offense, such as DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, with those returning from injury, such as Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson. Scoring touchdowns shouldn't be an issue, but stopping others from scoring them can’t be one either.

Be right on Ball: There is no spot on the roster where the Broncos have put their faith in the most youthful of hands more than at running back. Ronnie Hillman is set to enter his third season, and he is the oldest player in the position group's meeting room. And if you’re looking for a player for whom the Broncos have cleared the way to shine most, it’s Montee Ball. Let’s be clear, though: Ball earned that optimism by how he played down the stretch last season. He was the most effective runner with the ball in his hands over the last six weeks of the season/postseason. He’s smart and has the requisite work ethic, and the Broncos have seen vast improvements in his work as both a receiver and blocker in the passing game. That gives him the gotta-have-it, every-down potential in their offense. The Broncos aren’t looking to run the ball significantly more than they did in ’13, but when they do, they want to move the chains more efficiently. And when it’s time to slam the door on somebody, they’d like Ball to be the guy to do it.
With the countdown to training camp down to its final days for the Denver Broncos, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said there aren't many things on the to-do list for the players before they formally begin the trek toward what they hope is a shot at Super Bowl redemption.

"The main thing right now is everybody has so much time on their hands, so just stay in shape and stay out of the news," Harris said Friday. "That’s just something I’ve been trying to keep tabs on guys, lead by example, just come in with a clean slate and no bad stories before we get there."

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
John Leyba/Getty ImagesChris Harris Jr., who is coming off knee surgery, said he should be back to full strength during training camp.
Since the Broncos adjourned from the last of their OTA workouts last month, they, like every team’s players, have largely been on their own unless they were recovering from injury. The Broncos players will report July 23 for training camp at their suburban Denver complex with the first practice set for July 24.

Broncos strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson handed each player a workout plan for the month they would spend away from the team’s complex before training camp opened, and Harris Jr. said there was plenty of incentive for each player to follow the plan because they should know what is expected when they return.

"Guys know what’s at stake this year, at least they should -- it’s Super Bowl or bust for us," Harris said. "It means a lot for this team for all of us to come back and hit the ground running fast. Especially the young guys, if they weren’t paying attention at OTAs and minicamp, but to make this Broncos team this year, these cats on defense better be working out because Peyton Manning will make you look crazy."

Harris, who has gone from an undrafted rookie who made the roster in 2011, to one of the team’s defensive mainstays, was making the rounds Friday at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, as he appeared on several of the network’s broadcast and digital offerings.

The fourth-year cornerback said he had hoped to attend one of the NFL’s broadcast boot camps this offseason, but that his rehab schedule as he returns from ACL surgery did not allow him the time.

"It’s something I look forward to doing when I retire, definitely," Harris said. "I planned on going this year, but doing the rehab all summer took my whole summer, so next year I’m definitely going to try to do one of those boot camps."

Harris, as he said last month, reaffirmed Friday he expects to be cleared for full participation by roughly the halfway mark of the preseason, but that the decision also will hinge on an upcoming visit to his surgeon, Dr. James Andrews.

"I’m doing everything, there’s really nothing I can’t do right now," Harris said. "I still have to go see Dr. Andrews at the end of the month and get checked up, and he’ll pretty much let us know the plan from there."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos launched themselves into free agency earlier this year, many in the league were quick to compliment the team's salary-cap standing that enabled them to be so aggressive. And John Elway, the team's top football decision-maker, has routinely said he doesn't want to do so many things "that we're right up against the cap. We want to stay competitive, compete for world championships and that means handling ourselves in that arena, too."

But as the Broncos continue to try to get a long-term deal done for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, they are nudging up against their cap restrictions.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDenver will have to adjust its salary-cap number in order to give Demaryius Thomas a contract extension.
Currently, at least until the rosters league wide are cut to 53 players following the fourth preseason game, teams only have to be under with their top 51 salary-cap figures. That puts the Broncos under the cap right now, but with their top 51 coming in at just over $132 million (the cap baseline is $133 million per team) they will have to do at least some work before the end of the preseason -- even with some accounting benefits like rolling over some unused cap space from 2013 -- to sign Thomas, get 53 players under the cap and have enough room to effectively deal with any potential players on injured reserve.

And for a team that had just $24 million worth of salary-cap charges for players on injured reserve by the time they loaded the plane for their Super Bowl trip -- most of that was left tackle Ryan Clady, who signed a new long-term deal with the team last offseason -- that is not something to take lightly.

Overall, the Broncos have about $4.6 million of workable cap space after counting their top 51 contracts, including rollover from last year, as they turn toward training camp. So it’s a good time to take a look at some money matters and where things stand at some of the notable spots on the depth chart.

  • Quarterback Peyton Manning has the team’s highest cap figure, at $17.5 million and the Broncos have the biggest cap gap of any position between starter and backup with No. 2 Brock Osweiler, still on his rookie deal, coming in at $959,094 against the cap.
  • Wide receiver Wes Welker’s $8 million cap figure is highest among the wide receivers and the fourth highest on the team behind only Manning, Clady and defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
  • Decisions are coming at tight end. Of the seven tight ends on the roster at the moment, the top five will be unrestricted free agents following the 2014 season, a list that includes Julius Thomas, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen. Tamme’s $3.5 million cap figure leads the way at the position, just in front of Dreessen’s $3.1 million. Dreessen has not participated in the team’s offseason program because of knee troubles.
  • Of the six Broncos players who currently have cap figures of at least $7 million for '14, four play on offense and two – Clady ($8.6 million) and guard Louis Vasquez ($7.25 million) – are offensive line starters. So, to be Manning, or play nearby in the formation, is where the big money is. Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib – both free agency signings this past March – are the defensive players among the six.
  • The Broncos’ biggest dead-money hit – salary-cap charges for players no longer on the roster – is $2.1 million for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had the second year of his original contract with the Broncos voided five days after the Super Bowl. Other notable dead-money charges are $1.83 million for the retired Chris Kuper and $500,000 for Willis McGahee, who was cut over a year ago.
  • Best value contract for the Broncos has to be linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the team in tackles last season and checks in at a $596,018 cap figure, or behind Von Miller ($6.613 million) and Nate Irving ($848,750). Overall, Miller is the only linebacker on the team’s roster with a cap figure over $1 million, a fact that will change when Trevathan’s deal is up after the 2015 season.
  • Though defensive tackle Terrance Knighton’s representatives had been hoping for a renegotiation after Knighton’s high-quality play down the stretch last season – the Broncos declined the overtures – he still leads the team’s defensive tackles with a $2.75 million cap figure.
  • Both Broncos kicking specialists – kicker Matt Prater and punter Britton Colquitt – have cap figures over $3.6 million for ’14. Prater’s is $3.81 million while Colquitt’s is $3.67 million.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Perhaps it all boils down to the difference between more and better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We’re always going to try to get the best look, to do the best thing in each situation for the offense to be successful," Gase said. "The more things we can do, the more options we have. We want to be able to execute the plays we want in those situations. If that’s throwing, that’s throwing the ball, if it’s running, then we want that available, too."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever the Denver Broncos' chief decision-maker, John Elway, describes the developmental process, he will routinely offer "we don't draft All-Pros, we have to make them."

And over the course of the next week we'll take a glimpse at a few key players who are at various stages of the developmental process. Some have been named to the Pro Bowl, while others will be starters for the first time in the coming season.

But what they all have in common is more is expected of them than they could give, for a variety of reasons, in last season's run to the Super Bowl.

Today: Tight end Julius Thomas

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJulius Thomas averaged 64.4 plays per game in 2013, which could increase this season if the tight end improves as a blocker.
Thomas, who essentially recuperated for two seasons after suffering an ankle injury on his first NFL catch as a rookie, blossomed this past season into most everything the Broncos could have possibly hoped for during those arduous months of physical rehab.

This past season Thomas finished with 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in the highest-scoring offense in league history. He repeatedly created mismatches as a receiver wherever he was in the formation. His touchdown total as well as yards per catch (12.1) put him behind only Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis at his position and in today's NFL that is elite company as a tight end. Thomas' catch total ranked tied for eighth among the league's tight ends in the epically balanced Broncos' attack, and his receiving yards were good for eighth too.

Elway has been clear he wants to find a way to get a long-term deal done with Thomas, even as the team tried to hammer out a long-term deal for Demaryius Thomas. Julius Thomas may be a candidate for the franchise player tag following the 2014 season, depending on what kind of work the team can do against the salary cap.

But the business of business will certainly come later. Right now the Broncos' coaching staff is interested in elevating Thomas' play a little more. Sometimes -- as Thomas shows his athleticism and fluidity in pass routes or when he's winning a contested pass because of an innate ability to get his body in the right spot -- it can be easy to forget Thomas played just one season of college football.

It can be easy to forget Thomas' first two years on the developmental curve as a pro were largely spent with the team's trainers as he worked his way back from ankle surgery. In short, he has room to grow, a thought not all that exciting to some defensive coordinators around the league.

Thomas' options as a receiver will only open up when the Broncos can use him more down in tight in the formation, lined up just outside the tackle. Many defensive coaches believe Thomas is still a weapon as a receiver when he starts his route down inside, but they believe it's easier to gauge what's coming because of the Broncos' reluctance to put Thomas in some situations as a potential blocker.

Look, nobody should want a receiver as gifted as Thomas to be some kind of lock-it-down blocker instead of running a pattern. But the more Thomas can function in a variety of roles, the more places the Broncos can put him and the more Thomas can do from an inside position, especially in the play-action passing game when the linebackers are headed toward the line of scrimmage.

But blocking, as you would expect from a four-year basketball player at Portland State, has been a hurdle for Thomas at times. One of the adjustments the Broncos made last season was to let Thomas line up with his right foot forward when he was on the outside shoulder of either tackle.

That angled Thomas toward the middle of the field, rather than with his right foot back when lined up to the right, as would be customary. It was a fairly significant concession to try to keep him on the field as he worked through his blocking issues. But when Thomas has lined up in a traditional stance to the right, he often took an extra step as he moved into a blocking position which would end up with him off balance and with the improper foot forward as he engaged the defender across from him.

Certainly the Broncos like their depth at tight end with Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen (even as Dreessen works back from knee troubles) and Virgil Green. But there is room for Thomas to get even more playing time if he can attack this part of his game with the same zeal he has everything else so far.

Thomas was one of the few young players the Broncos had who made it a point to attend the player-organized workouts the Broncos offense had shortly after Peyton Manning signed with the team in March of 2012. Thomas never wavered in his effort as he returned from his injury.

"I never really lost my confidence, I knew I had it in me if I just kept working at it and didn't lose sight of the goal, which was to get healthy and get back on the field to show what I could do," Thomas said.

But last season he played 74 percent of the Broncos' snaps on offense, a total that likely would have been higher had he not missed two games with a knee injury. He averaged 64.4 plays per game, just behind Eric Decker's 65.6 plays per game and ahead of Wes Welker's 59.2 plays per game.

But if the Broncos could get Julius Thomas into the same range as Demaryius Thomas, who led the team's pass-catchers with an average of 69.1 plays per game, the tight end could get about 75 more plays over the course of the season. The Broncos believe Julius Thomas is among the most productive tight ends in the league, but they also see an opportunity for him to get even better if they get creative and he does the work.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When you spend much of your on-field workday going against a quarterback like Peyton Manning operating in a fast-paced, no-huddle attack, you have a pretty good idea of what a big play looks like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We look at it like you can’t go against anybody better than Peyton and our offense every day," linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “That can only help us, that can only make us better. Because we're not going to face anyone better, so if we put in the work, play the way we're supposed to, we want to see those results."


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos grind their way through their offseason work as a team in the oh-so-early Super Bowl conversations, they have unfinished business.

There is the depth chart at running back, some uncertainty at middle linebacker and making sure the players they signed in their free-agency binge enter the fold smoothly. Oh, there is also a little one-in-a-million shot they need to come through.

Not the Wes Welker make-it-rain-at-the-Kentucky Derby one-in-a-million shot, but an important choice about what might be the most important number when it comes to what the Broncos’ offense does for an encore after its record-setting, 606-point season in 2013. Their magic number is five, as in the five starting offensive linemen charged with protecting quarterback Peyton Manning: the five guys charged with protecting the franchise’s fortunes.

"We feel good about our options," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. "We feel like we have the guys on the roster to do what we need to do."

Broncos coach John Fox wants to address lineup options about as much as he wants to talk about injuries. So on more than one occasion, Fox, in his eternal quest to move on to the next question, has said the Broncos will try "a million" combinations on the offensive line through OTAs, this week’s minicamp and training camp.

So far they are a little short of a million, but they have tried some things here and there. And it really boils down to two, perhaps three, combinations.

Orlando Franklin's move from right tackle to left guard was made to maximize Franklin’s abilities; many scouts in the league believed that Franklin would be a better guard than tackle when the Broncos selected him in the 2011 draft. The move also helps Denver adjust to life without guard Zane Beadles, who signed with Jacksonville after the Broncos didn't offer him a chance to stay.

Franklin also gives the Broncos more bulk on the interior, more power, more options in dispersing the inside rush that any defense will believe is key to getting to Manning. So far in team workouts, that move looks to be one that will stick.

The Broncos, even in non-contact work, have flashed some power looks on the interior and will potentially have a better inside run game at their disposal. Although running the ball more efficiently has a spot fairly high on the team’s offseason agenda, the bottom line up front in a Manning-centered offense will always be keeping the man with four neck surgeries in his medical history out of harm’s way.

[+] EnlargeRyan Clady
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe return of starting left tackle Ryan Clady should improve Denver's pass protection.
And the Broncos prefer to do that by blocking five-on-whatever much of the time. Last season the team played out of the three-wide-receiver set at just over 70 percent of its snaps in the regular season, and that total hovered closer to 90 percent in its three playoff games.

Much of that time was spent with a catch-first tight end in Julius Thomas in the formation as well. So their own Five Guys franchise has to get it done.

Franklin’s move inside, with All-Pro Louis Vasquez already working on the right side, gives the Broncos one of the bigger, perhaps biggest, guard tandems in the league. The Broncos would be comfortable with either Manny Ramirez, who started at center last season, or free-agent addition Will Montgomery in the middle of things. Ryan Clady, as he returns from last season’s foot injury, appears ready to reclaim his spot as one of the league’s best at left tackle.

So that leaves right tackle, a position that defenses repeatedly attacked with the pass rush last season, especially down the stretch into the playoffs. Chris Clark, who's more proficient as a pass-blocker than he is in the run game, has spent most of the time with the starters in the offseason workouts.

Clark filled in for Clady after Week 2 last season and got the job done for the most part. Rookie Michael Schofield, a third-round pick, should get a look as well, but given that Franklin is the last rookie this coaching staff has started up front on offense, Schofield would need to not just be as good as Clark but win the job handily in camp.

Veteran Winston Justice has taken a spin or two on the right side as well, but at the moment it looks like Clark or Schofield. Either way, defensive coordinators see what the Broncos have done in free agency and the draft, adding receivers, adding speed, and they saw what the Seattle Seahawks did to the Broncos' offensive line in the Super Bowl.

Plenty of those defensive coaches say although it’s scary to aggressively come after Manning with the rush, they might do it more in an effort to disrupt Denver's timing.

"We’re going to look at a lot of things," Fox said. "We’ve got some time, and that’s what the offseason is for. We’re going to use the time we have and make the decisions we think are best."

Manning is Manning, which is to say he won’t get sacked much no matter who is in front of him. He has been sacked fewer than 20 times in nine of his seasons as a starter, and last season he was sacked 18 times in 659 pass attempts -- or just once for every 27.3 attempts.

But for the Broncos and Manning the question isn’t sacks -- it’s damage and getting him through one week into the next. The Broncos have to limit the hits on their 38-year-old quarterback, who has had a spinal fusion. Two low hits in particular in a four-sack game by Robert Mathis last season almost derailed the Broncos' plans and put Manning in an ankle brace for the rest of the season.

So as folks crunch all the numbers to sum up the Broncos’ potential in the coming season, one still stands out as they prepare to adjourn until training camp.

It’s five. As in the right five.

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