AFC West: Ryan Lilja
With that in mind, some things to keep an eye on:
One of the most difficult spots for the Broncos to make cuts ahead of Saturday's deadline to pare the roster to 53 players -- the bulk of which will come Friday -- will be in the secondary.
The Broncos kept nine defensive backs on the opening-weekend roster in 2011 and 10 last season -- five cornerbacks and five safeties. The issue this year is that Denver has two young, homegrown cornerback prospects in Omar Bolden and rookie Kayvon Webster, who have shown themselves to be worthy of the roster and would raise the overall athleticism at the position.
With Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Rahim Moore, Duke Ihenacho, Chris Harris, David Bruton and Tony Carter having worked in the top seven slots all through the preseason, that doesn’t leave room for Webster, Bolden, Mike Adams and Quentin Jammer to all make it.
If the Broncos stick with nine players in the secondary, they are essentially choosing between youth and experience for those final two spots. If they keep an extra cornerback, however, it may be an indication they feel they need to open the season with some insurance for Bailey’s foot injury.
Unless Denver takes the uncharacteristic step and keeps 11 defensive backs, Bolden and Webster both figure to play plenty against the Cardinals to state their cases.
- Brock Osweiler is slated to get the start at quarterback behind what is largely a backup line. That has been a tough combination thus far in the preseason for Osweiler, who has been sacked eight times in the three previous games behind the reserves. It makes it difficult for the Broncos to work out of the three-wide look as much as they’d like given that they haven’t consistently protected the quarterback in it -- even when the starters have been in the game -- this preseason. If things get dicey they might have to go big again, as they did last weekend against the Rams. After opening the game with three wide receivers and allowing too many rushers to get too close to Peyton Manning, the Broncos went to a two-tight-end look. They lined up in a two-tight-end look on 29 of the next 35 plays after the opening three-and-out, including all 12 in a drive that ended with a blocked field goal. The Broncos might feel like they need to give Osweiler a little more beef up front.
- The last few rosters spots will be decided on special teams, and the Broncos could use a good showing there. In the past two games they have surrendered a 107-yard kickoff return for a score, a 33-yard punt return, an 81-yard punt return and seen a field goal blocked. Many of the Broncos' youngest players will have a chance to help their causes against Arizona, with Denver special-teams coach Jeff Rodgers looking for those who display speed and smarts.
- The Broncos have lost five fumbles in three preseason games -- two by Osweiler, two by Ronnie Hillman and one by Julius Thomas. Hillman is not expected to play Thursday, but things need to be cleaned up. Lance Ball and Jacob Hester figure to get some work as the Broncos face some tough decisions at running back as well. Hester has not had a carry in the preseason and is the only back that has lined up at fullback thus far.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Eric BakkeCornerback Kayvon Webster, a third-round pick, gets a last chance tonight to show he deserves a roster spot.
- The Broncos have to sort things out in the offensive line, where they kept nine players in both 2011 and last season. After the starting five -- Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin -- the Broncos need a swing tackle, likely Chris Clark, and a swing guard/center or two, with Ryan Lilja, Steve Vallos and Philip Blake in the mix. Blake, a fourth-round pick in 2012, has been headed the wrong way on the depth chart -- the Broncos didn’t even work him much at center in the preseason, a position he played in college and one they originally drafted him for. Blake is decidedly on the bubble -- a long way down for a player some believed was pushing to start before a thumb injury ended his rookie season. He has regressed since that point, so he's either not getting the message about the changes in the offense or is not reacting well to the coaching he's getting. Rookie tackle Vinston Painter has shown the kind of athleticism that deserves a roster spot, but the Broncos may be in a position where they have to hope he makes it through waivers so they can sign him to their practice squad. Lilja is a tough call, too. Denver certainly likes him in the offense, but he had microfracture surgery on his knee just a few months ago and has missed significant amount of practice time of late because of the knee.
- Rookie quarterback Zac Dysert will likely get his most significant work of the preseason. Dysert has shown some quality scrambling skills in practice, so he could have an entertaining down or two if he gets loose. He projects to the practice squad, but the Broncos would like to see some better accuracy from the pocket, especially in the shorter and intermediate routes.
- Linebacker Lerentee McCray and wide receiver Lamaar Thomas are the undrafted rookies with the best chance to make the final 53 -- especially McCray. If the Broncos don’t keep McCray, there are at least two other teams that would consider signing him. He’s a big-bodied linebacker who, while not always showing good instincts, has the ability to disrupt an offense and closes to the ball with speed and intent.
That’s because it means he’s expected to be behind center to open Thursday night’s game with the Arizona Cardinals. And that means some significant playing time, another chance to run the show, and another chance to see where he is on the developmental curve.
“There’s no replacement for game reps,’’ Osweiler said following Wednesday’s practice. “So, I’m really looking forward to getting more (Thursday) night and trying to make the most of my opportunity.’’
Peyton Manning and most of the other Broncos regulars won’t see the field against the Cardinals, so it will give some of the other folks on the depth chart the chance to dive into a game situation. Zac Dysert, a seventh-round draft pick in this past April’s draft, is also expected to get his first significant game action of the preseason when he follows Osweiler into the game.
Dysert, who projects to the Broncos' practice squad during the season, played briefly in the preseason opener in San Francisco.
“(I’m) very excited for the opportunity to get out there with the guys in a game-like environment and just show people what I can do,’’ Dysert said.
For their part, the Broncos like what Osweiler's done with his game over the past year, but they want to see him manage the offense Thursday night, work through some pre-snap audibles and make good decisions with the ball. He has been under siege at times, having been sacked eight times in just three preseason games behind some shaky line play, but the Broncos want to see him work through things without fumbling a snap as he did last week against the Rams, or throwing an interception when he forced a ball against St. Louis as well.
“The interception, we can put that on both of those guys (quarterback and receiver),’’ said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “ … But he has to protect the ball, he knows that’s his number one priority.”
- Center Manny Ramirez has been the starter since offseason workouts opened. And since he has seen the team sign three centers -- Dan Koppen, Ryan Lilja and Steve Vallos -- and Broncos coach John Fox has been asked almost daily if Ramirez is still the center. But Ramirez is still on the job and plans to keep it that way when the Broncos' offense opens against the Ravens and beyond. “That happens, even without injuries, you never wish injuries upon anybody, especially here where the offensive line is so close, but they're always going to bring guys in, no matter what,’’ Ramirez said. “So, even without the injuries they might have brought some centers in, I’m always here for competition and put my best foot forward, and if the other person beats me out, he beats me out, but I’m going to give it all I got. And right now it’s my position to lose, and I don’t see myself letting that go, no matter what people say.’’ Ramirez has not started a regular-season game at center in his career, but he is a powerful player in man-on-man blocking situations. He has struggled at times in passing situations if he loses his base and gets caught leaning a bit. He had a holding penalty early on in the preseason when he didn’t beat the defender to the spot in the zone run game. “But I’ll keep working, keep my head down and continue to work and grind it out,’’ Ramirez said. “That’s my approach."
- Osweiler got the opportunity to run the starting offense during team drills in Wednesday’s practice. Manning was given the day off essentially as the Broncos face a quick turnaround after Thursday night’s game. The Broncos, because they play in the Sept. 5 regular-season opener, will begin their formal game-week preparations for the coaches on Friday, to go with the bulk of the roster cuts to get to 53 players, while the players will come in Saturday to start their game week.
- At least publicly, Broncos coach John Fox only ruled out linebacker Stewart Bradley (wrist), cornerback Champ Bailey (foot), tight end Joel Dreessen (knee) and running back C.J. Anderson (knee) for Thursday’s game because of injuries. It remains to be seen how much somebody like Lilja, who missed several practices with knee pain/swelling, or running back Jeremiah Johnson, who missed an extended time because of a knee injury, play against the Cardinals. Johnson, who is out of practice squad eligibility, is in a bit of a squeeze on the depth chart at running back.
- Fox on telling a player he’s been cut; “Most everybody, whether you’re in NFL football or just a fan, you’ve either been fired or had to fire somebody. It’s not easy. It’s an annual thing, this cut … it’s hard on the players, it’s hard on the coaching staff."
As in the versatile defensive lineman was back in practice and on track to play in the regular-season opener Sept. 5 against the Ravens. Wolfe was sidelined since Aug. 17 after being taken from the field by ambulance after a helmet-to-helmet collision with Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson during a preseason game in Seattle.
“I was just waiting for the pain to go away,’’ Wolfe said following the workout. “Zero pain, zero weakness, so that’s all good.’’
Wolfe may not be the first name off people's tongues when they talk about the Broncos elsewhere, but he is a key piece of the defensive game plan for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. That's because Wolfe is strong enough to play on the interior in the defensive line and athletic enough to play at end, as well. The Broncos list him as an end, but Del Rio has estimated that he asks Wolfe to do things defensive tackles do about “80 percent of the time.’’
And while Del Rio is constantly using different sets of players for a variety of situations in games, Wolfe is one of the innings eaters as it were. He plays in them all and if he isn’t in the lineup against the Ravens, it would affect how the Broncos do things.
Wolfe played 903 defensive snaps last season as a rookie -- 84.4 percent of the defensive plays -- and the only defensive lineman who played more in 2012 was Elvis Dumervil with 922. Wolfe is expected to play even a little higher percentage of snaps this time around if things go the way the Broncos hope they will.
Coming into the 2012 draft, Wolfe was a rarity among the defensive line prospects that year in that he won matchups all across the defensive front, including at nose tackle and at rush end. Del Rio has been quick to ask him to do many things including as a stand-up rusher when the Broncos go to a sort of whirlpool look with one player in a three-point stance and the other defenders moving around the formation.
“He can do a lot of things, so we’re going to ask him to do a lot of things,’’ Del Rio said.
In other Broncos news:
- When the Broncos make the bulk of their roster cuts Friday to get to the league-mandated 53 players by Saturday afternoon’s deadline, some of their most difficult decisions will come with players who aren’t quite healthy enough to practice yet but may not be injured enough for injured reserve. The Broncos can only designate one player for return from injured reserve when those final decisions are made. But they also can’t afford to take up three, four or even five roster spots with players who may, or may not, be available any time soon. Guard Chris Kuper isn’t full speed after almost two years of dealing with multiple ankle surgeries and an infection, linebacker Stewart Bradley has not returned to practice because of wrist surgery following the preseason game in Seattle, tight end Joel Dreessen is still coming back from an offseason with two arthroscopic surgeries on his knee and guard/center Ryan Lilja had offseason knee and toe surgeries and was recently held out of several practices because of knee pain/swelling. The Broncos still hope Dreessen will be ready by the opener. That’s all in addition to cornerback Champ Bailey (foot), who is still a question mark for the opener. Bailey is not yet practicing, and he needs a roster spot as well. Suddenly the Broncos are poised to use almost 10 percent of their roster space on players who may or may not be at full speed if they keep all of those players. It’s a calculated risk and could cost the team a young, developmental player along the way.
- Safety Quinton Carter, who started 10 games as a rookie in 2011, was placed on injured reserve Tuesday because of knee troubles, ending his season. Carter played in just three games last season, having spent the remainder of 2012 on injured reserve as well. He’s had multiple surgeries on his left knee, including a microfracture procedure in the days following his third of three games he played last season. The Broncos still believe the former fourth-round pick can get back on the field or they wouldn’t have kept him on injured reserve again. Carter last played Sept. 23 last season against Houston, but did not have a tackle. “It’s an unfortunate injury,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said. “It’s really nobody’s fault. … We think with time he can come back completely.’’
- The Broncos are expected to start QB Brock Osweiler in Thursday night’s preseason finale, but Osweiler is expected to start behind the second-team offensive line. He has been sacked eight times this preseason behind that group.
- Center J.D. Walton, who battled an infection in his surgically-repaired ankle this offseason and had another procedure to repair the joint as well before training camp opened, was moved to reserve/PUP. It means Walton can return to practice in Week 6 and the Broncos would then have three weeks to watch him work in practice before having to make a decision to add him to the active roster or place him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. If he moved to the roster, it would be for Week 10 -- Nov. 10 at San Diego.
“Well, I work out a lot," Lenon said. “I train a lot ... I feel good."
The Broncos obviously agreed. They worked out Lenon in the morning to potentially help their depth chart at linebacker, then signed him just before practice and he was back on the field as soon as they could fit him for shoulder pads.
At 240 pounds the Broncos will give Lenon a look at the middle linebacker position in their 4-3 -- he has played on the inside of a 3-4 defense -- but he could also get a look at one of the outside spots. With Miller now out until Week 7 and if Bradley takes several weeks to recover from his surgery the Broncos are down two starters at the position.
At the moment the Broncos have moved Wesley Woodyard into the middle with Danny Trevathan on the weak side and Nate Irving expected to fill in at Miller’s strong side spot in the base defense.
“What’s important for me right now is getting the playbook and really learning it,’’ Lenon said. “That’s No. 1. It’s hard to go out there and do anything when you don’t know what you’re doing. The No. 1 objective is to learn what they do.’’
- Center/guard Ryan Lilja, who had knee and toe surgeries earlier in the offseason, has been held out of practice the last two days with a knee issue and Chris Kuper is still working his way back from offseason ankle surgery as well as treatment for an infection in the joint. And the Broncos felt enough uncertainty there to make a trade Tuesday. Even as Von Miller’s suspension was being handed down, the Broncos sent defensive tackle Sealver Siliga to the Seahawks in exchange for guard/center John Moffitt. Both teams got an up-close look at the respective players this past Saturday when Moffitt played 21 snaps on offense for Seattle in the Seahawks’ 40-10 preseason win over Denver. Siliga played 30 snaps on defense for the Broncos in the game. It is an indication the Broncos have enough concerns about Lilja and Kuper over the long haul to have traded a player they’ve invested the ast two years developing. Siliga was going to have a difficult time making the Broncos’ final 53, but he did spent the 2011 season on the Broncos’ practice squad and spent last season on the team’s roster -- he was a game day inactive in 15 regular-season games and the playoff loss to Baltimore. Moffitt was a third-round pick in the 2011 draft by the Seahawks. Seattle had tried to trade Moffitt to the Browns earlier Tuesday, but the deal was voided when the Browns had concerns about a knee injury Moffitt had suffered as a rookie in ’11. “We had an opportunity to get a good football player, a guy that was a third-round pick,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said. “A guy that we are familiar with. (He) played in a good college offense. He’s got some versatility. He‘s played primarily guard but he has had some center versatility in his past. He’s a guy our scouting people liked -- both pro and college and we think it helps our football team.’’
- With Champ Bailey expected to miss the remainder of the preseason with a left foot injury, the Broncos continued to work through the combinations in the secondary in Tuesday’s practice. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who worked some at Bailey’s left cornerback spot Monday, was back at his right cornerback spot Tuesday. Chris Harris worked at the left corner with the starters in the base defense.
- Guard Louis Vasquez, who was treated for a knee injury after the preseason loss in Seattle, was back in the lineup Tuesday after being held out of Monday’s workout.
- Fox said Tuesday the Broncos were considering moving Woodyard into the middle linebacker spot even before Bradley’s injury. When asked after practice if Woodyard had been moved because Bradley injured his left wrist, Fox said; “That was going to be a move we made regardless.’’
The starters on both sides of the ball are expected to play most, or all, of the first half.
Some things to look for:
- The first real appearance of the offense: Peyton Manning and most of the first-team skill guys were on the field for just seven snaps against the 49ers, just long enough to go all of 22 yards before Britton Colquitt trotted on to punt. Manning lobbied head coach John Fox a bit for a little more action after being removed from the game, but tonight’s outing will give them multiple drives to show how the summer has gone so far.
- The men in the middle: The Broncos consistently, from the first-team offense to the third, allowed too much pressure on their quarterbacks in the middle of the field against the 49ers. They certainly like backup quarterback Brock Osweiler's ability to throw on the move but saw a little too much of it in the Bay Area. Center Manny Ramirez has worked with the starting offense through the week and is expected to get the start against the Seahawks. The Broncos have worked Ryan Lilja with the second-team offense, but Manning did take some snaps from Lilja in some individual drills this past week. How this shakes out for the regular season will be about choices because neither player really gives the Broncos everything they want. Ramirez is a powerful blocker in the man-on-man run game, but he struggles to get to the spot in the run game if he has to move out left or right to get his man -- he had a holding penalty among his 12 plays against the 49ers when he didn’t beat the defender to the spot. Ramirez also has some difficulty pivoting in pass protection at times to pick up a player to his left or right if somebody comes free after he initially blocks on the defensive tackle in front of him. Lilja is not as powerful straight ahead and can get moved off the spot by some of the bigger nose tackles. He moves better in the zone run game and makes some quicker decisions in pass protection. He was also signed out of retirement, however, after knee and toe surgeries in the offseason, and his durability over the long haul is still in question.
- A little defensive moxie: Granted, it was the first preseason game, but the Broncos surrendered 5, 5, 6 and 9 yards on the 49ers' first four run plays of the game last weekend -- all to LaMichael James. When James went to the sideline after the 9-yarder, the Broncos locked in a little better, but it is a group that will be tested in the run game early in most games. Opposing coaches aren’t going to want to hand the ball over to Manning and the Denver offense more than they have to, so as long as the scoreboard cooperates, opposing offensive coordinators figure to try to grind it out against the Broncos in their first-half possessions. Most telling in the brief outing is that the 49ers worked both sides of the formation, as well as the middle, in those four runs, and all four came against the Broncos' base defense as well.
- Julius Thomas: The Broncos tight end, vexed by an ankle injury for virtually all of his first two seasons in the league, has certainly flashed potential on the practice field before. But this past week, with Jacob Tamme still coming back from a thigh injury and Joel Dreessen expected to miss the preseason after arthroscopic surgery on his knee, Thomas got plenty of premium snaps with the starters. And it’s clear, after that work, Manning trusts him in the scoring zone, and the sight of the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Thomas running away from defensive backs has to intrigue offensive coordinator Adam Gase. An underappreciated part of Thomas' development is that he was one of the only young players who went to the workouts Manning had with some of the team's receivers at a Denver-area high school just after Manning signed with the Broncos in March of 2011. Those things matter to Manning, and as Thomas' health has improved this offseason, he has shown a comfort level with Manning that has aided his playing-time cause in the offense.
- Von Miller: Miller spent Thursday in Washington, D.C. with NFL Players Association officials regarding, at least in part, his appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. His appeal hearing has been rescheduled for Tuesday. He was also arrested this past Sunday on an outstanding warrant stemming from three traffic violations he was cited for last October. Former Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil said last season Miller is a young player whose on-field play can be affected by what’s going on off the field. Miller is expected to play in Seattle, and it will bear watching how he handles the latest bumps in what has been a bumpy summer.
- Position battles: The Broncos don’t have many, but the rotation at running back and how things go at wide receiver after Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker hit the sideline. At wideout, Andre Caldwell has gotten plenty of work as the No. 4 and offers plenty of speed. But rookie Tavarres King continues to show his game is ready for the league and is a willing blocker in the run game. Caldwell has flashed in practice/offseason workouts before, only to slowly fade into the background once the regular season begins. He was a game-day inactive eight times last season and finished the season with just one catch after an offseason in which he looked to have built the quickest chemistry with Manning after Manning had signed with the Broncos. King has more on his special teams docket, and that could tip the scales when the 46-player game-day roster is chosen in the regular season. At running back, expect Lance Ball to get his best opportunity to show the Broncos why they should keep him. He was getting buried on the depth chart, but then Knowshon Moreno suffered a bruised right knee and rookie C.J. Anderson suffered a severely sprained knee. With Jeremiah Johnson sporting a sore knee as well, that puts Ball in line for plenty of second-half work Saturday.
- Muscle up: In a preseason that looks scripted to test their physical side, the Broncos opened with the 49ers, get the Seahawks tonight and will face the Rams next week. All three NFC West teams play with power leanings on both sides of the ball and feature defensive fronts that make things tough up front. And nowhere have the Broncos had more questions in this preseason thus far than on the offensive front. So, the Seahawks will present yet another gauge of where things stand.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Live on Colorado's front range long enough, and you live with an unshakable, that's-the-way-it-is truth. That most days, as in 300 or so a year, the sun shines brightly and the skies are blue.
But when the storm clouds come rolling down the mountains, it's an ambush -- they come fast and with menacing intent. And that, really, is the story of the Broncos' offseason.
"Hey, you have to deal with all kinds of things along the way," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, now entering his 10th season with the team. "And we've had plenty of things to deal with around here over the years; sometimes we've done a good job with it, sometimes we haven't. I tell the young guys all the time, we'll see how we handle things. We can be good, but we have to get to work, because thinking you're good and being good are always two different things."
The Broncos entered free agency as Super Bowl favorites, then they signed Wes Welker to a Peyton Manning-led offense that had already been good enough to be No. 2 in scoring in 2012. They drafted well, and filled some other needs with veteran signees Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips.
Yep, football sunshine and blue skies.
Then there was Faxgate and Elvis Dumervil's rather messy exit from the team that drafted him in 2006.
Then two high-ranking front-office executives -- director of pro personnel Tom Heckert and director of player personnel Matt Russell -- were arrested on drunken driving charges a month apart. Heckert was eventually suspended a month without pay -- he's due to return to the team Thursday -- and Russell was suspended indefinitely.
Then defensive playmaker Von Miller was slapped with a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, a revelation that came with the rather troubling fact that Miller had previously violated the policy to get to the suspension phase.
Miller's appeal will be heard Thursday by league officials, and a decision is expected before the regular-season opener against the Ravens.
Toss in a pile of injuries, especially to the offensive line, and it's clear coach John Fox's task will be to keep a talented team on track as it wrestles with the expectations around it, as well as the pothole-filled road it has already traveled.
"It's been my experience if you don't expect a lot, you don't get a lot," Fox said. "Keep the bar low, and that's where people go. We're going to keep the bar high -- I don't mind expectations -- and I think the guys have had good focus. They know the work that has to be done, and I know they'll do it."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Deal with it. Former Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams might have said it best. Williams said the Broncos are the only team in the league "with 20 preseason games."
So true. After a 13-3 finish that included an 11-game winning streak dissolved into a crushing playoff loss to the Ravens, the team's fan base essentially sees the coming regular season as little more than an inconvenience before another postseason chance.
That can be a lot to handle for a team, especially if players and coaches get too focused on the potential lack of appreciation from the outside world for anything that happens along the way. More than one person inside the team's Dove Valley complex has expressed frustration in the past six months over the fact that few folks bring up the 13-3 record, the win streak or the division title, and that it is all Ravens, all the time in any discussion about the 2012 season.
Frustrating indeed, but the Broncos have to find some peace of mind somewhere as they move through the next four months.
Center J.D. Walton had ankle surgery just before minicamp and isn't expected back in the lineup until late October or early November at the earliest. He was just seen at the Broncos' complex this past week without a walking boot on for the first time since the operation.
Walton's backup, Dan Koppen, tore his ACL in the first week of training camp and is done for the year.
It leaves Manny Ramirez, who just started his first career game at center in the Broncos' preseason opener in San Francisco, and 31-year-old Ryan Lilja, who was signed out of retirement after two surgeries (knee, toe) earlier in the offseason, as the options in the middle.
Given that defensive coordinators routinely believe the best way to pressure Manning is through the middle of the formation, the Broncos will need an answer to protect him.
3. Defense will tell the tale. We get it, it's a quarterback league. The rulebook essentially begs/demands that people put the ball in the air almost nonstop in any situation. Offense puts people in the seats.
Whatever. Remind me, but wasn't the Super Bowl -- a Super Bowl played by the two teams that ran the ball the most during the playoffs -- won on a goal-line stand when an offense couldn't/wouldn't punch it in from the doorstep?
The Broncos put up 35 points this past January and were sent home to the collective couch. And when you get right down to it, in back-to-back playoff losses, the Broncos have surrendered 694 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns with just one interception and one sack combined against Tom Brady to close out the 2011 season and Joe Flacco to close out 2012.
So, Manning to Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker looks nice on a magazine cover, but how the guys on the other side of the ball do will have plenty to say about how far this team goes.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
It's a talented roster with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time behind center and a remember-when defensive talent bursting with potential in Miller. Denver is a balanced team that finished in the top five in both offense and defense last season with one of the great home-field advantages in the league. Oh, and the guy running the team is a Hall of Fame quarterback who knows a thing or two about what a title-winning locker room should look like.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
There are some in the league who looked at the Broncos' drama-filled offseason and said they had the tumultuous profile of a team that had won the Super Bowl instead of losing two rounds before the title game. The Broncos have had the infamous fax issues, the off-the-field troubles, a reality show, a looming suspension of a superstar and more than their share of injuries. Maybe when the games count, none of that will matter, but history is littered with teams that put the championship cart before the horse, content to enjoy the fruits of potential rather than the actual title.
- Welker's signing is going to work out -- barring injuries, of course -- exactly the way everybody wanted it to, including Welker. He fits the offense. Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase will even expand Welker's reach in Denver's playbook compared with what Welker did in New England, and Welker has worked hard to fit in. There has been some hand-wringing both near and far about where the "catches" were going to come from for a guy with five 100-reception seasons. The answer is that the catches are already in the offense. Working mostly out of the slot last season, tight end Jacob Tamme and wide receiver Brandon Stokley combined for 97 receptions, 1,099 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers from Welker would fit quite nicely.[+] EnlargeMarc Piscotty/Icon SMIThere will be plenty of opportunities for Wes Welker in Denver's offense.
- The offensive line is an issue to keep an eye on until the Broncos prove it's not. Getting Clady back in the lineup -- he's still on track to start the opener -- will help greatly, but they've struggled to protect the quarterbacks in practice against their own high-end defense, as well as in the preseason opener. If things don't improve, the Broncos will spend an awful lot of time tossing dump-offs to the hot receiver or shallow crosses because they can't protect long enough to go down the field.
- Miller's potential and ability are almost limitless. Former longtime Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier, the guy who called the shots for the Orange Crush defense, has said Miller has the potential to be the franchise's best-ever defensive player. But Miller, the results of his appeal of his four-game suspension notwithstanding, has to hold up his end of the bargain, both on and off the field, to make that happen. And the Broncos will have to decide over the next season or so -- his contract is up after 2014 -- just how high they'll want to go on an extension and whether the investment will be worth it over the long term.
- Folks can wish it were different, especially as they wrestle with their fantasy lineups each week, but every indication on the practice field -- as in EVERY indication -- is that Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball are going to share the workload in a variety of down-and-distance situations. And Knowshon Moreno and Jacob Hester figure to at least be in the third-down mix as well at times.
- Hillman, however, should benefit from Gase's concerted effort to create more impact in the run game outside the hashmarks. The Broncos weren't all that good, or committed, to the outside runs last season. And if Hillman runs with decisiveness and the Broncos can get it done up front -- they brought longtime assistant Alex Gibbs back to help with the zone-run game -- there are some big plays waiting.
- The games will ultimately be the gauge, but safety Rahim Moore has had a quality camp in an offseason in which many wondered how he would bounce back from the ill-fated leap in the playoff loss to the Ravens. But the bottom line is Moore played more snaps (1,044) than any other player on the defense last season with substantial improvement over his rookie year in 2011, and if everyone else had played their assignments on the Jacoby Jones touchdown, Joe Flacco wouldn't have even thrown the ball that way in the first place. So, those guys should buy Moore a nice dinner for taking the heat and watch him in the starting lineup again.
- Thomas sported a heady 15.3 yards-per-catch average on the way to 1,434 yards receiving last season. But that per-catch average should go up given the choices defenses are going to have to make with Welker in the formation. If defenses double in the short and intermediate area to deal with Welker, the Broncos' tight ends and Thomas can overpower most defensive backs down the field.
- Defensive end Robert Ayers has consistently said, since the team made him the 18th pick of the 2009 draft, that he has far more to offer when the opportunity comes. And the opportunity has arrived with Dumervil's departure. Ayers has just 6.5 career sacks in his four seasons and has played for four defensive coordinators along the way, each of whom wanted something a little different from him. But Jack Del Rio is back for a second consecutive year, and Ayers is the starter at rush end. Now's the time.
- Reports of Bailey's demise are exaggerated, but he is certainly a 35-year-old entering his 15th season. Or as he put it: "I had some plays in the playoff game I should have made, pure and simple. I didn't, but I can let it drag me down or just get back to it. I still think I can play and I think I have shown I can still play at a high level." The Broncos will pick their spots more when they single him up, but he has been top-shelf throughout training camp while running stride for stride with the Broncos' best receivers.
- The Broncos have an awful lot riding on how Gibbs and offensive line coach Dave Magazu get things worked out on the offensive line. If the Broncos can add some pop out of the play-action run game and consistently protect Manning out of a three-wide receiver set, the points should follow.
- Some say Welker's presence in the offense means the Broncos will throw more in '13. However, Manning's 400 completions last season amounted to the second-highest total of his career, and his 583 attempts were the third-highest. In a perfect world, the Broncos would like those totals to be slightly lower this time around -- Manning himself has said "we'd like to run it more" -- because it would mean they simply ran the ball to close out games in which they already had the lead.
• When it comes to the Denver Broncos' passing game staying after school, or at least after practice, is a good thing. A very good thing.
And Monday afternoon Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker stayed on the field to do some red zone work with quarterback Peyton Manning. Thomas, in particular, ran routes until Manning was satisfied any wrinkles had been ironed out.
Manning has consistently talked about "doing the work'' to build the kind of chemistry with Thomas, Decker and Wes Welker that he had with his receivers in Indianapolis.
"We had worked together so long that ... there were times Marvin (Harrison) would go in motion and I could change a play when he went past me,'' is how Manning has put it. "We're looking to build that. And the think I'm proud of here is these guys aren't afraid to work.''
Monday Manning spent much of the post-practice time with Thomas working on throws to the back corner of the endzone.
"Guys just trying to get better,'' said Broncos coach John Fox. "Those little things that maybe proved deficient in practice or those types of things ... a lot of guys to clean up stuff they want to improve on.''
• Tight end Jacob Tamme was back in uniform for a padded practice Monday, but took part only on a limited basis. Tamme suffered a thigh injury in an Aug. 1 practice, returned for one practice days later, and had been held out since.
"I'm making progress,'' Tamme said.
With Joel Dreessen expected to miss the preseason after arthroscopic surgery on his knee Julius Thomas has continued to work at tight end with the starting offense. Thomas has also repeatedly flashed his athleticism in team drills, including a touchdown against the No. 1 defense in Monday's practice.
• Center Ryan Lilja, who was signed out of retirement by the Broncos after Dan Koppen went to injured reserve with a season-ending knee injury, did some individual work snapping to Manning as Monday's practice began.
But Manny Ramirez continued to work with the starting offense for the remainder of the day.
In the preseason opener Ramirez, like the rest of the Broncos starters in the offensive line, played 12 snaps -- seven with Manning, five with backup Brock Osweiler. Lilja, in a bit of a surprise, played 41 snaps on the evening.
• Stewart Bradley continued to work at middle linebacker with the defensive starters. Nate Irving, who spent the offseason workouts as well as the early portion of training camp as the starter in the middle, has worked plenty at strong-side linebacker since Bradley was moved into the starting role.
And should Von Miller's appeal fail and he is suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy -- the appeal will be heard by the league Thursday -- it also means the Broncos have worked on their Plan B without really saying so.
Irving would play the strong side on early downs if Miller's suspension is upheld and Shaun Phillips would move into the strong side in pass-rush situations.
• Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had returned to practice Saturday after missing time with an ankle injury, took part in Monday's full-gear practice on a limited basis.
He played in some of the specialty situations with Chris Harris working as the starter at right cornerback.
On a don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-them kind of night, the Denver Broncos rode an opportunistic defense to a 10-6 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park in the preseason opener.
Here is what we learned about the Broncos:
- With some injury issues in the offensive line, the Broncos practiced some risk management as quarterback Peyton Manning played just seven snaps, finishing his night 2-for-4 passing for 13 yards. With left tackle Ryan Clady still out as he continues to work his way back from offseason shoulder surgery, the Broncos got a vivid snapshot as to why they didn't want to leave Manning in too long. On the last of Manning's four drop-backs the 49ers' Aldon Smith overwhelmed Clady's replacement, Chris Clark, to jostle Manning.
- Manny Ramirez started his first NFL game at center Thursday night and Orlando Franklin, who missed most of Monday's practice and all of Tuesday's with a hip injury, made the start at right tackle. Had the Broncos been a little more settled along the offensive front, Franklin might not have started a preseason game just two days after being held out of practice. It is clear, after seven snaps, that when the Broncos are in a three-wide receiver look, the offensive line is still a work in progress.
- Those protection issues -- second-team quarterback Brock Osweiler was routinely chased from the pocket behind a line of backups -- will impact how much the Broncos can work out of their preferred three-wide look. If they can't hold up with just five blockers up front, the Broncos will have to work out of two-tight end and two-back looks offensively. The Broncos did work considerably more out of those bulkier formations when Osweiler was in the game.
- The fact the Broncos' first touchdown of the preseason came on defense was a nice start -- especially for a team that dropped its share of interceptions and saw many forced fumbles recovered by the offense. Linebacker Nate Irving knocked the ball free from 49ers rookie running back D.J. Harper and Shaun Phillips scooped up the loose ball and ran nine yards for the score. That's exactly the kind of play defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has preached to this unit. They simply didn't find themselves with enough of the fumbles they caused -- finishing third in forced fumbles but tied for just 19th in recoveries. "Those kinds of things are momentum changers. We want those," Del Rio has said. The Broncos forced three turnovers in the first half and had a fourth to start the third quarter.
- The Broncos wanted to see how Duke Ihenacho would handle starting at strong safety, and they got their answer. Ihenacho has made a long climb from being an undrafted rookie who spent most of 2012 on the team's practice squad to the starting lineup to start this training camp. He had seven tackles in the first half -- three tackles on the Broncos' first defensive series -- forced a fumble and nearly had an interception. It means a veteran like Mike Adams is going to have to find a way to carve out a role on special teams, because Ihenacho showed he's ready for the job.
- Defensive linemen Malik Jackson, a fifth-round pick by the Broncos in the 2012 draft, showed his versatility by taking snaps at both defensive end and defensive tackle. Despite the fact that the Broncos used their first-round pick on Sylvester Williams and signed Phillips during the draft weekend, Jackson should still carve out a situational role in the defense because he creates pressure from both an edge spot as well as on the interior.
- Stewart Bradley, a 29-year-old who signed a one-year deal in free agency, got the start at middle linebacker. This definitively showed he has created far more competition for the job than some had thought. Irving had been the starter throughout offseason workouts and into the early days of camp, but Bradley has played good assignment football and played his run fits with discipline. Bradley started to appear with the starters earlier this week and opened in the middle Thursday night. Irving was active in a backup role, however, so don't chisel Bradley's name on the depth chart just yet.
- Ryan Lilja might have come out of retirement just a week ago, after having knee and toe surgeries earlier in the offseason, but the Broncos gave him plenty of work Thursday night as the No. 2 center. While Lilja worked with the starters this past week at both left and right guard, the Broncos are hopeful he can quickly move into the No. 2 role at center and push Ramirez for the starting job. Ramirez is bigger and more powerful, but Lilja has more experience with Manning -- having played 2004-2009 in Indianapolis -- and moves better. With the number of zone-run plays the Broncos showed against the 49ers, movement will be a must. Ramirez had a holding penalty on a zone run early in the game when he didn't beat the defensive lineman to the spot.
- With Joel Dreessen expected to miss the remainder of the preseason after arthroscopic knee surgery, his second on his left knee since late May, and Jacob Tamme still working past a thigh injury, Julius Thomas will have a chance to be the go-to tight end in the passing game. He showed his athleticism with four catches against the 49ers. His size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds), speed and reach will make him a tough matchup if he can keep the momentum he's had in camp thus far. Thomas ran away from linebackers Thursday night and towered over the safeties who tried to check him.
- Of the Broncos' undrafted rookies, running back C.J. Anderson made the most of his opportunities, finishing with a team-leading 69 yards on his 15 carries. Anderson has flashed plenty so far in this training camp but has occasionally made assignment errors that will impact his ability to make the roster. If he cleans up the mistakes and avoids concentration lapses, he showed he has something to offer in the run game.
- The Broncos have spent some time in the offseason adding the pistol formation into the offense, which they ran sporadically Thursday with mixed results. They'll have to control the middle of the formation better than they did against the 49ers to make it work.
The Broncos, after a late return to Denver scheduled for the wee hours of Friday morning, will give the players Friday off. Those who need treatment for injuries will make an appearance at the team's Dove Valley complex, but they won't all hit the field again until Saturday morning's practice.
Beadles, who was a three-year starter at Utah as a left tackle, was moved to left tackle Tuesday morning practice as the team continues to try to work around a slew of injuries in the offensive line.
The Broncos continued to kick the tires on different combinations up front in the wake of Orlando Franklin's hip injury.
Tuesday, with Beadles at left tackle, Ryan Lilja moved into Beadles' left guard spot, Louis Vasquez was at right guard and Chris Clark, who had been playing at left tackle in place of Ryan Clady, was moved into Franklin's right tackle spot.
After Franklin left Monday's practice, the Broncos had tried Vasquez at right tackle with Lilja at right guard.
"We're looking at things," said Broncos coach John Fox. " ... that's what this is for."
And the Broncos have been looking almost throughout training camp thus far. Clady (shoulder) and Chris Kuper (ankle) are still coming back from offseason surgeries, center J.D. Walton (ankle) is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and center Dan Koppen suffered a season-ending knee injury last week.
"Well, certainly you think about it because you've got good offensive players, so if they're injured and not in there, then it does make an impact on your team," said quarterback Peyton Manning. "But that's why you have depth. That's why you have guys ready to play at any given moment."
Most scouts believed Beadles, at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, did not have the frame to play at left tackle in the NFL when he entered the league and that he would struggle to hold the edge against the league's top pass-rushers. After a six-game stint at right tackle as a rookie in 2010, Beadles was moved to guard where he has played since.
Beadles was an injury replacement at guard in the Pro Bowl this past season.
It all means the Broncos may have to break out a little more two-tight-end or two-back looks until things get settled down up front. If they open the formation too much because they can't block effectively with just five players, it will invite punishment on their quarterback.
They may also need to pick up the pace, shorten some pass routes and get the ball out quickly.
The Broncos do still expect Clady to be ready for the regular-season opener if he continues to rehab at his current pace.
- Rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, who was the Broncos' first-round pick this past April, said he's treating the preseason opener "like it's a regular game for me.''"I want to show the coaches something,'' Williams said. "They brought me here and I want to show they made the right choice.''
Williams said a pre-draft visit with Hall of Famer Warren Sapp gave him an early read on what his first training camp and first season would be like.
"Just working with him a little bit was great," Williams said. "The biggest thing he said was quick feet, don't waste steps, get up the field, that's what I'm looking to do."
Williams should make his first appearance Thursday night in passing situations. He missed several days of camp with a knee injury, but has practiced this week.
- After participating on a limited basis Monday, tight end Jacob Tamme (thigh) was held out of Tuesday's practice. With tight end Joel Dreessen having arhtroscopic surgery on his left knee Monday, Julius Thomas and Virgil Greenworked with the starters and the two will get plenty of work with the regulars against the 49ers.With Dreessen expected to miss the preseason, the Broncos also signed tight end Deangelo Peterson Tuesday and he joined practice after passing his physical.
Peterson was originally signed by the Rams as an undrafted rookie last year and spent some of the 2012 season on the Redskins' practice squad. Peterson, who had suffered a fractured foot in the Redskins' offseason workouts earlier this year, started his career at LSU as a wide receiver and eventually played 50 games at the school.
He had just 39 career catches at LSU.
- Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartiedid his most extensive work with the team's strength and conditioning staff Tuesday since suffering an ankle sprain last week.Rodgers-Cromartie did some light drills off to the side during practice, but he's still a question mark to play much in the preseason.
- Broncos safety Rahim Moore on the crowds for training camp practices: "I'm quite sure somebody is probably missing work, or calling in late, calling in sick."
Former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, for example, may have set an unofficial league record for the use of the word "or,'' thus negating the actual depth portion of the chart.
The most notable use of "or'' was before Tim Tebow's name when the first depth chart emerged from 2010's training camp.
But Sunday's 2013 model contained no double-take surprises and was representative, save for a couple instances, of how the team has practiced leading up to Saturday night's scrimmage.
But a few things of note were:
- Ryan Lilja, just signed this week, was listed as the fourth-team center. That won't last long. (Quarterback Peyton Manning said as much following Saturday night's scrimmage.)
- Quentin Saulsberry is listed as the second-team left guard. Saulsberry played in that role in Saturday night's scrimmage as well, but he is facing one game remaining on a four-game suspension in 2012 for violating the league's policy on performance enhancing drugs. So if the Broncos intend to keep him on the 53-man roster, they will have to move him to reserve/suspended for a week when the final cuts come and then make a move in Week 2 to add him to the roster. Saulsberry also had a DUI arrest this offseason the league may address as well.
- Rookie wide receiver Tavarres King has caught the coaches' attention with his play-making and his approach to the game. But that's what you get from a draft prospect who played 56 games in the SEC. Also, rookie tackle Vinston Painter, a player who will be a contributor if his technique catches up to his athleticism, is listed as a second-team right tackle.
- Shaun Phillips, who signed a one-year deal with the Broncos during the draft weekend, is listed as the backup at both strong-side linebacker and weak-side defensive end. The Broncos have played him far more at end to this point, but will need him to be an option at linebacker, especially if Von Miller doesn't win his appeal for a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
- Duke Ihenacho has practiced of late as the starting strong safety in early-down situations for the base defense, but was listed at No. 2 Sunday. behind Mike Adams, The Broncos have treated him like the No. 1 on the practice field, but obviously want to see him keep pushing to keep the job.
- Quentin Jammer, who was a late signee in the offseason, is going to need to rally when the preseason games begin. He has practiced later in rotations over the past week as the Broncos put him at third-team free safety. It's going to to be difficult for the Broncos to keep both Adams and Jammer, if neither is a starter or mainstay in any of the specialty packages.
- Undrafted rookie Quincy McDuffie continues to be a special-teamer to watch, having checked in as the No. 2 kickoff returner. He's going to need to show he can contribute elsewhere to stick on the 53-man roster, but he's shown himself to be a quality find by the Broncos scouting department.
- Whether or not he is "all the way back'' from multiple neck surgeries that kept him on the sideline for the 2011 season.
- Much of anything about how his experiences in Denver thus far compared to his storied run in Indianapolis, something that usually falls into Manning's "I don't really like to go down memory lane'' category.
- About wearing a glove on his throwing hand when the weather turns sour.
And this could make the days leading up to the Broncos' Oct. 20 game in Indianapolis, Manning's first trip back for a game since his release by the Colts, a fairly long week for the future Hall of Famer.
His neck injuries and resulting surgeries also affected a nerve that runs into his right triceps. In his long and arduous comeback, the relative strength in that right triceps at different points in his recovery had a lot to do with how he threw as he worked to return to the field. It also has affected his ability to grip the ball.
And the amount of work Manning does, and has done, with the Broncos training staff as well as the stength and conditioning staff to prepare himself to simply practice and play each week is vastly under-appreciated in the public domain in many ways because he simply doesn't talk about it all that much.
But he's continued to put the work in and his teammates say they see the fruits of those labors.
"He's a 100 percent healthy now,'' said Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard. "He's having a lot of fun, enjoying the time with his teammates.''
So, while a fierce summer storm that rolled through Denver Saturday night curtailed what was to be a two-hour practice/scrimmage at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Manning had more than enough time to show his teammates' optimism has been well placed after the rains came.
With the glove on and in conditions that will likely come up in whatever becomes of the 2013 season, Manning was sharp and efficient in his lone full drive of work. He went 4-of-6 on the 10-play drive, finishing things off with a 4-yard scoring pass to Demaryius Thomas on a play that saw him roll to his right and throw back, with power and accuracy, to the middle of the field.
Thomas was the third option on the play and it was just the kind of throw that, last summer, presented a far higher degree of difficulty.
"To be able to go out and play in that, it counts,'' Thomas said. " ... It was good to see what we could do.''
More notes from Broncos camp:
- With the Broncos expected to get plenty of nickel and dime looks from opposing defenses this season, how the team constructs an impact running game against those lighter defensive fronts will likely determine how efficient the offense really is when all is said and done.
Wes Welker, with Thomas and Eric Decker, gives the Broncos as potent a three-wide receiver look as an offense can have and the team's tight ends are, almost top to bottom, tough matchups in the passing game.
But the best way to protect Manning, slow down opposing pass rushes and close out games, especially if the Broncos hold the lead as often as they hope to, will be to grind it out.
San Francisco's and Seattle's defensive front sevens will offer a quality gauge as to where the Broncos are in that regard. If they can't move the chains from time to time by running the ball the offense won't be what they'll need it to be to go deep into the postseason.
- Tight end Julius Thomas will get plenty of opportunities to show what he can do in the starting offense in the coming practices. Jacob Tamme is working back from a thigh injury and Joel Dreessen did not participate in Saturday night's scrimmage after experiencing pain in his surgically-repaired knee.
Dreessen had surgery in June, but had practiced through camp's early going. However, following Friday's practice, Dreessen met with the trainers and was then held out of the scrimmage.
It will give Thomas some premium snaps in a camp when he has continually moved up in the rotation and earned Manning's trust.
- A look at the Broncos' salary cap figures for the just under 90 players they have in camp at the moment, shows a decidedly top-heavy look.
It could also impact future deals for Decker -- up after this season -- and Thomas Von Miller, whose deals will be up following the 2014 season. Woodyard's deal is also up after this season as is guard Zane Beadles'. Both Woodyard and Beadles, like Thomas and Decker, would be scheduled for unrestricted free agency next March.
With three players eating up 33.4 percent of the cap, the Broncos will have some financial issues to wrestle with that won't get any easier with the demand that will be created for their players if they go deep into the postseason. And they are issues they will have to give a great deal of thought to as they move through the next few months.
Manning sports a team-high $20 million salary, but a $17.5 million salary cap figure because the league informed the Broncos following a "re-negotiation'' of the deal earlier this year that included an insurance policy to cover potential injuries, it was changing the way two salary advances in the deal were calculated in the Broncos' cap figure.
That gave the Broncos some $2.5 million worth of relief on Manning's deal against the cap this year. Clady has a $12.6 million cap figure after signing his deal just before camp opened and Bailey has an $11 million cap figure.
The Broncos also have 54 players on the current camp roster with salary cap figures under $1 million, including starters like guard Manny Ramirez ($815,000), linebacker Nate Irving ($728,750), cornerback Chris Harris ($555,668), safety Duke Ihenacho ($480,000) and kickoff/punt returner Trindon Holliday ($480,000).
- Following Saturday night's scrimmage, Manning offered the hope newly-signed center Ryan Lilja gets up to speed quickly in the team's offense.
Asked about starting center Manny Ramirez' performance, Manning said, "I thought Manny did good, we went primarily shotgun the whole night with the weather, the snaps were good. This was a good situation for he and I, and you can't get enough situations probably with a new center in a training camp or in the preseason... we're going to try and get as many as we can and we're going to try to get a lot of work with Lilja as well.''
Asked about his time with Lilja in Indianapolis, Manning said, "Ryan Lilja was the best teammate a quarterback could have ... Tough as nails, always practiced, always played even when he was hurt.''
It's clear Ramirez is still the starter, but they want Lilja in position to be No. 2 on the depth chart sooner rather than later as well as in a position to push Ramirez.
- The Broncos will practice Monday and Tuesday before leaving for San Francisco Wednesday. Their preseason opener is Thursday night against the 49ers.
- Woodyard on Manning's "Bull Durham'' belly flops in the rain Saturday night, "I'm glad he didn't hurt himself, but Peyton likes to have fun.''
In recent years, it has been an eye-opening experience for those on the field as well. There was a crowd of thousands booing a stunned Kyle Orton in 2009 when he threw his third interception of the workout. There was more than 40,000 on hand last August, most of whom lustily booed a third-down draw play.
While a few thousand folks pile into training camp practices each day, the stadium scrimmage is often a young Broncos player's first experience with the depth of knowledge and passion for the team in the region.
Or as former Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil once put it; "It's where you find out what this place is all about.''
And while there will be plenty of eyes on Peyton Manning -- to see if his receivers are right and that his arm really is stronger this time around -- there will be a few others to keep under the microscope as well tonight:
But the backs who play the most when the games count will be the ones who make the fewest mistakes in an audible-heavy offense. And while running with the ball is on the top of the to-do list, it is just part of the equation. Hillman has the speed and explosiveness Ball does not, while Ball is bigger, runs with more vision in tight places and has fared slightly better in pass protection thus far.
They're both going to play plenty in the season, but how much and in what situations is still to be determined.
The safeties: Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has used plenty of combinations in camp thus far and has made it clear he's going to cycle in plenty of players in a variety of ways during the season.
But at the moment Duke Ihenacho has made the improbable jump from practice squad guy for much of 2012 to running with the starters this past week. And Ihenacho has done it by playing the position how Del Rio wants it played, with good "eye discipline'' -- reading the right keys -- and by making a play on the ball when the opportunity is there.
It is the fine line between playing with top-tier discipline and having enough aggressiveness to force a turnover when the chance arrives. And it's why some guys are losing snaps and why Ihenacho has received more.
A tough line to walk, but it's why Del Rio has worked so many players at the position already as he searches for the right combination. In short, too much freelancing or too much robotic behavior will get you moved down the depth chart.
Center: Sure, people don't buy their season tickets in hopes the center will have a big year, but this is a significant issue for the Broncos.
Defensive coordinators routinely say it's tough to get Manning with pressure packages designed to free the rushers on the edge. Manning usually, almost without fail, sees the plan in his pre-snap reads and will deliver the ball before the edge player can cover the extra real estate needed to get to him.
So, pressure up the middle is the preferred way and it was a spot the Broncos had a difficult time covering at times last year. The Broncos have a center on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list in J.D. Walton and one on injured reserve in Dan Koppen with Manny Ramirez, who's never started an NFL game at the position, as the current starter.
Ramirez certainly works at it and is a powerful player who does far better in the run scheme, but loses his leverage in pass protection at times. Some defensive line coaches around the league will say if you get Ramirez leaning a bit in his pass sets, you can get him off the spot because he does not always recover and create a lane.
And though the Broncos did sign Ryan Lilja this past week, Ramirez is still the guy. Lilja was retired when the Broncos called and had largely approached his offseason that way, so he looked rusty in his initial work on the field, as expected, and may need a little time to show if he's going to push for playing time or not.
The Broncos are going to have to decide over the next few weeks if they can still open the formation as much as they'd like in a three-wide receiver set if they can't consistently block the middle of the field. It may push them toward more two tight end or two-back looks at times with an extra player sliding in the protection in the middle of the field.
Safe to say, Davis liked what he saw.
"He's a big back like me, he's also a lot quicker than I was,'' Davis said. "He's got great lateral movement, spin move, great power, nobody's going to bring him down on the first try."
"I don't know who I would pick right now, I don't have that coaches' hat on," Davis said, adding, "They both have shown what they can do with the ball."
In that light, fantasy football players should simply stock up on aspirin now for what will be a weekly headache solving the riddle as to who will get the carries. It's a riddle the Broncos don't much care about, however, because they are looking only at the bottom line.
"We want to be in a situation where anybody we put in can have an impact in the offense and do what we're supposed to do,'' said running backs coach Eric Studesville. "We have a guy in that room in Knowshon who has led this team in rushing."
Knowshon Moreno, who currently sits at No. 3 on the depth chart, did lead the Broncos in rushing in 2009 and 2010.
The Broncos are still looking for more consistency from Ball and Hillman in pass protection, and the player who gets that figured out soonest will get those snaps once the games count. Or as Studesville put it, "If you can't keep up with the quarterback, you can't be in there with him."
It's why Moreno and Jacob Hester, who are the most reliable in those situations at the moment, are still options in some of the specialty packages on offense.
"Most running backs can run, most running backs can catch, but blocking is the key," Davis said. "If you can block, you'll be in the game, you'll be the guy that's that complete back."
In other news:
- Defensive end Derek Wolfe missed Friday's practice because of an illness, and could be a question mark for Saturday's scrimmage at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Malik Jackson, who played sparingly on defense as a rookie in 2012 (113 snaps last season on D, or 7.1 per game), worked in Wolfe's spot at times Friday.
- In Saturday's scrimmage the Broncos will run 36 plays in full-team situations, with 12 plays of first-team offense against second-team defense, 12 plays of second-team offense against first-team defense and 12 plays of the third-team offense against the third-team defense.
- Offensive coordinator Adam Gase said Friday he will call plays from the field this season, with quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp up in the press box. Gase believes the Broncos can save a precious few seconds before each snap by having Gase talking to the quarterback from the sideline instead of simply making the call from the booth that someone else has to send in to Peyton Manning.
- Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (ankle), defensive tackle Sylvester Williams (knee) and tight end Jacob Tamme (thigh) were among the players held out of Friday's practice. Broncos coach John Fox said that Williams, who has not practiced since Monday, "is getting a lot closer."
- Montee Ball on meeting Terrell Davis: "I've been thinking about this moment since I was 7 years old ... it's crazy right now for me."
- Guard/center Ryan Lilja, who signed with the Broncos on Thursday, took part in his first full practice with the team Friday. Lilja had knee and toe surgeries earlier in the offseason. And on his first day in shoulder pads, he had some early bobbles on snaps to backup quarterback Brock Osweiler, as several hit the ground during individual drills. Manny Ramirez worked at center with the starters Friday while C.J. Davis was in as center in the second-team offense.
The Broncos like Jackson, who played some defensive end at the University of Tennessee, as an inside pass rusher. Wolfe often moves into the defensive tackle spot when the Broncos face longer-yardage situations, so they need some of their defensive ends to be able to hold up on the interior when the team goes into the nickel or dime.
It's still waaaaaaaay early, but the rotations to watch will be at safety and running back, where the competition for playing time is the tightest. Also, the receivers after the top three -- Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker -- have to start sorting themselves out as well.
A special teamer to watch will be rookie wide receiver Quincy McDuffie. McDuffie has flashed some explosiveness in practice.
"Instead of me sending it in to somebody else, there is a little bit of a delay when that happens,'' Gase said. "I've been on the other end, as far as having to send it in with somebody else calling it, it gets a little bit dicey when [the play clock] gets down to about 19 seconds and you have to send them in."
"It only took a day mulling it over, talking to my wife,'' Lilja said. " ... I couldn't pass it up.''
Lilja is now the second 30-something center the Broncos have signed in the past four weeks. They agreed with Dan Koppen on a one-year deal July 2 as a veteran presence in the interior of an offensive line whose current starter, Manny Ramirez, has never started an NFL game at the position.
But Koppen tore his left anterior cruciate ligament Sunday and will miss the season.
So, after reaching out to some others, the Broncos decided to take a chance, in Lilja, on another player who had not been in an offseason program. Lilja also had knee and toe surgeries following the 2012 season.
The 31-year-old was Peyton Manning's teammate in Indianpolis for five seasons -- 2004 to 2009 -- and played on two Colts Super Bowl teams, to close out the 2006 and 2009 seasons.
"That was a big part of me coming back, it's a special team, it's a special offense, you picture being in the huddle and it's a cool place to be,'' Lilja said of the Broncos.
Much like Koppen's signing, it's a calculated risk for the Broncos to bring in another player who has not been in an offseason conditioning program, but they felt compelled to make the move since they already have one center on the physically unable to perform list (J.D. Walton) to go with one on injured reserve in Koppen.
They have made it clear that with an audible-heavy offense and a Super Bowl shot, they want some veteran savvy at the position and are once again selling their potential to many veteran free agents, players like linebacker Stewart Bradley, defensive end Shaun Phillips, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Koppen, all on short-term deals for a chance at a deep postseason run.
"This excited me, it kind of gave me new purpose," Lilja said. "I have to be honest with you, it got me going."
- Ryan Lilja, who arrived in Denver on a Thursday morning flight and was set to sign his contract after going through a physical, did not participate in practice, but he was expected to be on the field for a Thursday evening walk-through. Broncos coach John Fox says Lilja is a swing guard/center signed for depth at the moment. But as a former teammate of Peyton Manning's in Indianapolis, Lilja has far more experience with the long list of audibles Manning uses in the offense.If he's healthy -- he had toe and knee surgeries following the 2012 season -- he could find his way into the starting lineup sooner rather than later. The Broncos coaches cited his two quality outings against the Broncos last season when Lilja was with the Chiefs.Lilja started at center last season against the Broncos on Nov. 25 and Dec. 30.
- With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie out for what is expected to be at least two weeks with an ankle sprain, the Broncos took a look at Tony Carter in the right cornerback spot in the base defense during Thursday's workout, keeping Chris Harris as the nickel corner.Harris started 12 games at right corner in 2012, including the playoff loss to Baltimore, but the Broncos prefer his toughness and quickness in the slot. Carter has a bit more speed in the open field and is far more comfortable on the outside.The Broncos signed Rodgers-Cromartie in the offseason, however, because they were looking for more size at the position overall. Rodgers-Cromartie is 6-foot-2 with a big reach, while Harris is 5-foot-10 and Carter is 5-foot-9. The Ravens went after Carter on the game-tying touchdown at the end of regulation in the divisional-round playoff game.Carter missed the jam on the Ravens' Jacoby Jones on the touchdown play.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Jack DempseyWith Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sidelined, the Broncos put Tony Carter back in the starting lineup at right cornerback.
It has potential to be something the Broncos will have to consider moving forward from time to time. Rodgers-Cromartie has had ankle troubles in the past having torn ligaments in the ankle during the 2011 season in Philadelphia.
- Rookie defensive end Quanterus Smith left practice Thursday with a sore knee. That will bear watching in the coming weeks.With the departure of Elvis Dumervil and the possibility Von Millerwill face a four-game suspension for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy -- Miller is expected to have his appeal hearing later this month -- Smith is a big part of the pass-rush plan, especially in the specialty packages.He suffered a torn left ACL during his senior season at Western Kentucky and was limited for much of the offseason workouts. Thursday was the first time he has left a practice in training camp.
- The Broncos continue to work toward a contract extension for punter Britton Colquitt. Colquitt signed a one-year, $1.323 million tender as a restricted free agent in the offseason.But the two sides have had extensive talks and are closing in on a multiyear deal.
- Rookie defensive end Sylvester Williams (knee), tight end Jacob Tamme (thigh) and safety Quinton Carter (knee) were among those held out of practice Thursday. Broncos coach John Fox has characterized all three as "day-to-day."