AFC West: Stewart Bradley

INDIANAPOLIS -- With the NFL's scouting combine officially underway and free agency to follow March 11, Thursday marks the seventh installment of a position-a-day look at where the Denver Broncos stand at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Linebackers

Friday: Defensive backs

Miller
Woodyard
Things happen in football life. Plans, from time to time, get shoved off the drawing board and shatter into pieces.

And what the Broncos plan was at linebacker, a position that was going to be among -- if not the -- deepest and most talented on the roster, pretty much imploded when Von Miller was suspended for six games to open the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

When Miller returned, he never reached his 2012 level of impact and was then lost for the season when he tore his ACL against the Texans in December. Wesley Woodyard also suffered a neck injury and eventually lost his starting spot along the way when he returned to the lineup.

So, two of the three expected starters weren't for roughly half the season.

Also, with Miller in just the beginning stages of his knee rehab and Woodyard an unrestricted free agent, the Broncos have a lot of uncertainty in the middle of the defense, uncertainty that will need attention.

The Alpha: It should be Miller, but it's not. If things don't change, it will be intriguing to see what kind of momentum the Broncos have toward a long-term deal given Miller's maturity issues that now come with a major knee injury. Miller becomes an unrestricted free agent following the 2014 season. Woodyard has been a team captain for six seasons, but if he moves on it leaves a large leadership hole behind. But Danny Trevathan's next step as a player will come in this regard. He was the team's best at the position this past season and is on track to be a foundation player in the defense.

He's young, entering just his third season, but he is an every-down player who can play in a variety of situations.

Salary cap: Miller, on the basis of being the No. 2 pick of the 2011 draft, leads the way among the linebackers under contract for 2014. His cap figure for '14 is $6.682 million, the sixth highest on the team at the moment. He's also the only linebacker right now with a cap figure of over $1 million. Nate Irving is at $818,750 for the coming season, Trevathan at $596,018, Steven Johnson at $574,000 and Lerentee McCray, who was set to make the roster as an undrafted free agent in training camp last summer before suffering a season-ending injury, is at $425,666.

Pending free agents: Woodyard, who has been with the Broncos since making Mike Shanahan's last Broncos team as an undrafted free agent in 2008, is slated to hit the open market in the coming weeks. The player who replaced him in the starting base defense, Paris Lenon, is also an unrestricted free agent.

Stewart Bradley, who was given a look as the starting middle linebacker in the preseason, is also an unrestricted free agent. Reserve linebacker Brandon Marshall, who the Broncos promoted to the active roster late in the season, is a restricted free agent.

Who could stay: The spot where the "help wanted" sign is out at the moment is at middle linebacker. The Broncos' attempts to play Irving there haven't gone all that well over the last two seasons and he has performed far better on the strong side when in the lineup, so he figures to get penciled in there as Miller tries to return. Trevathan is the unquestioned weak-side guy right now and plays in all of the specialty packages as well.

So there won't be much turnover at the other spots with those players already under contract. The movement will come in the middle because that is where the deals are up.

Who could go: Given the Broncos already moved Woodyard out of the starting middle linebacker spot this past season, it's unlikely they would consider him an option there this time around. And Lenon was signed to a one-year deal in August as a depth player who ended up being moved into the starting lineup when Woodyard injured his neck. The Broncos didn't see him as a potential starter when he signed and won't see him as one in free agency.

Woodyard is a high-character player who knows the team's scheme and always played with passion no matter where they lined him up, but this time around he may be able to secure a better offer elsewhere -- his last deal with the Broncos was a two-year, $5 million contract he signed in 2012. The Broncos would certainly consider to have him back, but at their price.

What they like/want: They like speed overall at the position and versatility as well. That's because, like many defenses in this pass-first era, the Broncos "base" defense isn't their base defense at all.

They had just two games in the regular-season -- wins over Washington and Tennessee -- in which they were in their base defense for more snaps than they were in their specialty looks (five, six or seven defensive backs). And they had four games in the regular season in which they were in their base defense for 12 or fewer snaps in a game, three games in which they were in the base 4-3 for 9 or fewer snaps in the game.

That means right now the premium is on movement and the ability to drop into coverage. Which makes a player like Trevathan, who can do that and play with a physical edge on the line of scrimmage as well, all the more valuable.

Need index (1 is lowest priority, 5 the highest): 4

Miller is coming back from an ACL surgery and most guys not named Adrian Peterson need more than a season to return to the level of play they could reach before the injury. And with Woodyard and Lenon both free agents, the Broncos need a middle linebacker.

It means the Broncos will need pass rush help at the position as well as a potential starter in the base defense.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Broncos saw what they were looking for in Derek Wolfe Tuesday.

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.

[+] EnlargeDerek Wolfe
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeDenver will likely have versatile defensive lineman Derek Wolfe in the lineup for Week 1.
But the Broncos have been hopeful he would be ready for the opener.

“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.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos surprised no one Sunday as they took a step toward getting the roster to 75 players by Tuesday's deadline, and it was clear their decisions were influenced by who's hurt and who isn't.

The toughest choices are still to come, of course, with the deadline to get down to 53 players arriving Saturday at 4 p.m. MT. The Broncos will start the clock for the regular season sooner than most teams because they're playing in the league's kickoff game Sept. 5, and so the team will likely make the majority of their cuts this Friday -- the day after the preseason finale against Arizona -- because they will practice on the weekend in preparation for the opener against Baltimore.

Sunday's cuts put the Broncos roster at 77 players, including center J.D. Walton, who is on the physically unable to perform list. Walton, who had ankle surgery before training camp, is expected to be ready by late October or early November.

The Broncos can designate only one player to return from injured reserve when the cut goes to 53 players, and they have at least two candidates in Walton and linebacker Stewart Bradley (wrist surgery) to go with Chris Kuper, who is still trying to return from offseason ankle surgery and has been limited since returning to the practice field. Kuper was not in uniform for Saturday night's game against the Rams.

Among Sunday's decisions, the release of wide receiver Greg Orton was notable given he was pushing for the fifth receiver spot. He faced an uphill climb, with Andre Caldwell having worked so much with the starters as the No. 4 receiver, both in the slot and on the outside, and rookie Tavarres King having shown more athleticism with the ability to play in the slot or outside as well as on special teams. Undrafted rookie Lamaar Thomas has also caught the eye of the Broncos' coaches and is a quality candidate for the practice squad.

Orton's ill-timed ankle injury didn't help his cause. The Broncos formally waived him injured Sunday, meaning he'll have to clear waivers before moving to injured reserve, but the Broncos are expected to reach an injury settlement with him in the coming days.

Of the 11 players cut, seven did not play against the Rams, so the Broncos' DNP list provided plenty of hints about who would not make the cut.

To that end, Jacob Tamme's return to the field from a thigh injury that cost him several practices made tight end Deangelo Peterson, a late signee after camp opened, an extra player at the position and he was released. Tight end Joel Dreessen, who is returning from knee surgery, is expected to be ready for the opener.

Undrafted rookie wide receiver Quincy McDuffie flashed some special-teams ability but suffered two hamstring injuries that affected his ability to stay on the field and state his case. McDuffie was also waived/injured. Other players released were wide receiver Kemonte' Bateman, cornerback Mario Butler, tackle Manase Foketi, quarterback Ryan Katz, linebacker Uona Kaveinga, cornerback Nigel Malone, guard/center Quentin Saulsberry and defensive end Lanston Tanyi.

Saulsberry had a troubled time with the Broncos, with a suspension last season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs while he was on the practice squad to go with an offseason drunken-driving arrest. Saulsberry served three games of a four-game suspension, and would have to sit out one more game if he were to sign with anyone for the active roster or practice squad.

What to watch for: Broncos vs. Rams

August, 24, 2013
8/24/13
7:00
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tonight’s preseason game figures to be the last action for most of the Denver Broncos' front-line players until the Sept. 5 regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens. Most, or all, of the Broncos starters are expected to play through halftime.

That, at least, is coach John Fox’s goal, but say quarterback Peyton Manning takes as big a hit in the first half against the St. Louis Rams as he did against the Seattle Seahawks last Saturday, and his exit come could earlier than that.

But some things to keep an eye on:

  • The Broncos' offensive front hasn’t consistently carved out running room or consistently protected the quarterbacks, and that is a worrisome 0-for-2 for the group. Things will improve when left tackle Ryan Clady rejoins the lineup in the regular season, but the group has to pick up the pace. If it doesn’t, the ripple effect will be that some of the favorite items in the Denver playbook will be left behind, like the drop-back passing game. The Broncos have averaged just 3.0 yards per carry in two preseason games; now-injured rookie C.J. Anderson is the only back who has averaged more than 3.8. The injuries up front have made life tougher for other backups -- Nos. 2 and 3 quarterbacks Brock Osweiler and Zac Dysert have 35 combined completions and have been sacked a whopping eight times combined. That’s not the kind of ratio the Broncos want, or need. The Rams tied the Broncos for the league lead in sacks last season (52), so it will bear watching how the Broncos protect overall Saturday, but especially out of their three-wide receiver set -- because it can’t be their base formation, as they’d like it to be, if they can’t protect Manning when they play it.

  • [+] EnlargeBrock Osweiler
    AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonBackup QB Brock Osweiler has borne some of the brunt of the trouble Denver's offensive line is having.
    After a wafer-thin game plan and limited work in the first two preseason games, the Broncos' starting offense has one touchdown to its credit and no runs longer than 8 yards. Turnovers crushed them in Seattle -- they put up 209 yards on 40 offensive plays in the first half against the Seahawks -- but given that this is the unit's last work of the preseason, it needs to show it can close the deal on a couple drives.

  • Linebacker Von Miller, who has been suspended for the first six games of the regular season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, will play, but the Broncos are expected to play him later in the game than he is used to. If they stick to the practice plan they showed after the suspension, the two-time Pro Bowl selection could be chasing a Rams backup quarterback against backup linemen. The Broncos want to get Miller some work tonight and in the preseason finale Thursday, but they also have to get Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan ready to play with the starters at strongside and weakside linebacker, respectively, over the first six weeks of the season.

  • With Champ Bailey (left foot) still a question mark for the regular-season opener and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie having left Thursday’s practice after being hit in the lower back, the Broncos aren’t yet at full speed in the secondary. With Miller’s suspension also taking an elite rusher out of the mix, the Broncos need to find that right coverage/rush mix. The best defenses in the league are the ones that can get to opposing quarterbacks with four rushers -- pick any four in the formation, but just four if you want to be among the best -- and can put seven players into coverage. That will be a tough balance to walk without Miller, but it means Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips have to find a way to consistently disrupt plays. The Broncos need to take a look at some rush combinations in this one against an accurate pocket passer like Sam Bradford. The Rams played their starters for 15 and 25 plays, respectively, in the first two preseason games and are expected to go to the 30- to 35-play mark in this one.

  • This will be the Broncos' first home game -- they did have a scrimmage that drew just more than 44,000 in training camp in a driving rain -- since their off-the-field drama overtook football matters in the offseason. The folks in the seats might be a little edgy if things don’t go well early.

  • Eric Decker has one catch in the preseason for 10 yards. He is going to be a far bigger part of the offense than that.

  • This will be Wesley Woodyard’s first game action at middle linebacker since he was formally moved there this past week in practice. The Broncos did not stop the power running of either the 49ers or Seahawks in the first two preseason games. The problem was big enough that Fox said Woodyard was going to move to the middle even if Stewart Bradley had not had wrist surgery this past week. It’s a drastic decision, given that the Broncos worked Irving there the entire offseason and worked Bradley there through most of training camp. If Woodyard doesn’t work out, they’re out of options in the base defense.

  • The final roster decisions, particularly if an undrafted rookie or two like linebacker Lerentee McCray is going to make the last cut, will be made by what gets done in the kicking game. A play or two in the final preseason games can be the difference for a host of bubble players.
The list of bumps and bruises left behind by Saturday’s preseason loss in Seattle just keeps getting longer for the Denver Broncos.

Starters like Champ Bailey, Wes Welker, Derek Wolfe and Louis Vasquez were already in the training room, and now middle linebacker Stewart Bradley is scheduled to have surgery on his left wrist in the coming days. He will miss at least three to four weeks. Bradley had been classified as simply “day-to-day" by team officials as recently as Sunday, but a full examination after the team returned from Seattle revealed the extent of the damage.

Bradley was not at the team's practice Monday. He said he felt rejuvenated after signing in Denver, offering he “felt healthy, ready to go," but he has battled injuries previously in his career. Bradley missed three games with a dislocated elbow in 2010 and missed the 2009 season after ACL surgery.

Bradley rolled the dice some to sign with Denver because of what he said were the team's postseason opportunities. He signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal that included a $200,000 signing bonus. Bradley had been elevated into the starting job in the days leading up to the Broncos' preseason opener in San Francisco.

With his surgery, in addition to a possible six-game suspension looming for Von Miller, the Broncos face some depth-chart moves at linebacker. And the issue, moving forward, is they get a little smaller in the base defense with the adjustments they'll have to make if Miller and Bradley are both out of the lineup. At Monday’s practice Wesley Woodyard, a do-it-all player for the Broncos, moved into the middle linebacker spot, a 233-pounder compared to Bradley’s 244 pounds.

Danny Trevathan, who is playing at 240 pounds compared to 233 last season, would be at the weakside linebacker spot, while Nate Irving, who worked as the starting middle linebacker all through the offseason workouts and the opening of training camp, would play on the strong side.

“We’ve got to take care of our business and Von has to take care of his business, on and off the field," Woodyard said. “... I had my opportunity last year when guys were hurt, so hopefully someone will step up and make big plays too."

The Broncos have struggled at least some, albeit with a wafer-thin preseason game plan, in the past two weekends against two of the best power offenses in the league in San Francisco and Seattle. In the preseason opener, the 49ers took the first possession for a field goal in what was a 12-play cameo for the Broncos' starting defense, repeatedly running against the base 4-3 look.

In Seattle on Saturday night, the Seahawks took their opening possession 65 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown, the entire drive coming against the Broncos' base defense.

Overall the Broncos played predominantly nickel last season -- more than 60 percent of their defensive snaps by season's end -- so it remains to be seen just how often teams put them in their base defense in the weeks to come. But all the depth-chart juggling suddenly makes Woodyard, who plays in the base and the majority of the specialty packages, one of the most indispensable players on the roster.

“All I want to do is do my job, whatever that is," Woodyard said. “We all need to just get it done."
Even with the threat of a suspension hanging over them when training camp opened, the Denver Broncos and Von Miller had put on the bravest of faces as July turned to August.

Miller
Some wondered whether the bravado, the public confidence meant they knew something everyone else didn't, that they had a trump card no one else could see. Miller said he knew he had “done nothing wrong," and the Broncos said they would proceed through practices as though there was no suspension until they heard otherwise.

But with Monday morning's revelation from ESPN NFL Insiders Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter that Miller faces a six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, the Broncos will now have to grapple with the idea of opening the season without their ultratalented linebacker. In fact, the Broncos’ thoughts on the likelihood and severity of the suspension may be previewed by how they use Miller in practice this week.

On the field it means Nate Irving, Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips will have to find a way to be all the Broncos hope they can be. And the Broncos might have to finally adjust how they conduct practice on the defensive side of the ball given Miller has taken virtually all of his usual snaps with the starting defense to this point in the preseason, including starting both preseason games -- in San Francisco and Seattle -- thus far.

Unlike last year, when the Broncos held D.J. Williams out of any work with the starting defense because Williams was facing nine games' worth of suspension, coach John Fox has kept Miller in with the starters throughout training camp and the team’s first two preseason games.

As Fox put it when camp opened, “As of right now, he’s not suspended." And with 30 sacks over the past two seasons, including 18.5 in 2012, Miller's absence would leave a significant hole in Jack Del Rio's defensive plan. And it will take a variety of players used in a variety of ways to cover for that loss.

In the base defense, when Miller lines up as the strongside linebacker, Bradley would remain in the middle, where he has moved in as the starter over the past three weeks. Irving, who spent the offseason workouts as the starter in the middle, would play on the strong side. Irving was Miller's backup on the strong side last season.

In passing situations, situations when Miller would move into a defensive end spot in the nickel or dime packages, it’s Phillips who would then be called upon. Phillips scored the Broncos' only touchdown in the preseason opener in San Francisco with a 9-yard return of a fumble caused by Irving on a blitz from an outside linebacker position.

The Broncos would like to use rookie Quanterus Smith as well in the pass-rush groupings. Smith, however, is still trying work his way back from a torn ACL he suffered last November in his final season at Western Kentucky. Smith has participated in every training camp practice thus far but was pulled out of practice Aug. 1 because of knee pain.

He has practiced since.

“I’m better every day," Smith said. “I’m working through it, I had a couple bad days, but that’s natural. I’ll be there."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is at the intersection of the lure a Super Bowl hopeful and salary cap reality.

But when three players take up 33.2 percent of your salary cap space, as quarterback Peyton Manning, left tackle Ryan Clady and cornerback Champ Bailey do for the Broncos, a team is going to need some one-year wonders to make it all work.

Last season, on the way to a 13-3 mark that included an 11-game win streak, the Broncos signed safety Jim Leonhard, defensive tackle Justin Bannan, linebacker Keith Brooking, center Dan Koppen and wide receiver Brandon Stokley to one-year deals.

Of those players only Leonhard got a signing bonus ($65,000).

And when all was said and done Brooking, Bannan and Koppen were starters while Leonhard and Stokley were key backups. Brooking started 14 games in the regular season and finished with 54 tackles, Bannan started 15 with 42 tackles while Koppen started 12 games. Toss in Stokley’s 45 receptions and five touchdowns to go with Leonhard’s two interceptions as he played 24.3 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, that’s a lot of high-end value on short-term deals.

“It’s all part of how you put your team together,’’ said Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway. “We always want to stack those drafts, but if we think there is a veteran out there who can help us, we’re always going to take a look.’’

And take a look at this year’s Broncos roster and it’s clear the team will need that scenario to play out once again. When they did their work in free agency the Broncos signed wide receiver Wes Welker and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton to two-year deals after they had signed guard Louis Vasquez to the longest deal this time around -- four years.

But Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips signed one-year contracts, and while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie signed what is a two-year deal on paper, the second year voids five days after the Super Bowl.

“When you’re out there, you want a spot where you fit, but where you can win,’’ Rodgers-Cromartie said. “Here it was both to me. I knew this was the spot for me. Do what you’re supposed to do on a team that wins and the rest takes care of itself. That was my thinking.’’

Bradley signed a one-year contract with a $200,000 signing bonus while Phillips signed for one-year with no signing bonus, but with some incentives for sacks. Rodgers-Cromartie’s deal was almost universally reported as a one-year deal because that's how it was framed by folks on both sides of the negotiations, but a look at the Broncos contract figures after all the paperwork was filed shows the deal actually has a second year written into it, with a $5 million base salary for 2014.

But the second year won’t kick in since the deal voids five days after the league’s title game.

A title game the Broncos have a far better chance of playing in if those one-year players come through for them once again. Because when they line up against the Ravens in the regular-season opener, Bradley figures to be the starting middle linebacker, Rodgers-Cromartie the starter at right cornerback and Phillips could be the defensive end in the team’s pass-rush packages in place of Von Miller if Miller doesn’t win his appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

If Miller does win his appeal, Phillips is still slotted to be a key part of the situational rotation defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio wants to use.

“It’s all about fit,’’ Phillips said. “I know it was a no-brainer for me. I want to win at this point in my career, they want what I can bring to the table and when I came on my visit I knew right away that was the case. One year, two years, whatever, it's all about the fit. I was looking for what they have.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos wrapped up the public portion of training camp Thursday morning and quarterback Peyton Manning finished his day on the field by tossing a pass or two to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

In all the Broncos set an attendance record at their practice complex with 41,925 fans over the 15 open workouts held at their Dove Valley complex. The total surpassed the previous record of 41,304 over the 15 open workouts in last summer’s training camp, which was also Manning’s first year in Denver.

The Broncos do not have bleachers next to the main practice fields, so fans simply sit on a grassy hillside to view the action. The Broncos also drew a crowd of 44,439 to a rain-soaked scrimmage Aug. 3 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

“[The fans] are unbelievable,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox. “The epitome of that was our practice down at the stadium when it poured rain and they stuck around to see us play.’’

[+] EnlargeC.J. Anderson
AP Photo/Eric BakkeC.J. Anderson, who has had an impressive training camp, could now be out for as much as six weeks.
• Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, an undrafted rookie who led the team with 69 yards rushing in the preseason opener in San Francisco last week, severely sprained his right MCL during Thursday morning’s practice.

Anderson, who was taking snaps with the second-team offense because Knowshon Moreno is currently sidelined with a bruised right knee, was helped to the locker room with just more than 20 minutes remaining in the workout.

Depending on swelling and how Anderson’s rehab goes in the coming days he could miss as much as six weeks in all. The Broncos must cut to 75 players on Aug. 27 and to 53 players on Aug. 31.

"It's awful, just awful," Manning said. “ … It surely did not look good. You could hear him out there grimacing, which is not a sound any player likes to hear."

“He’s having such a great camp,’’ said cornerback Champ Bailey. “ … I just hope he can bounce back faster than normal.’’

With Moreno not expected to play in Saturday’s preseason game in Seattle after being held out of practices Wednesday and Thursday, Lance Ball figures to get plenty of work in the second half of the game against the Seahawks.

Anderson has made a significant jump on the depth chart with his work thus far in camp. At 224 pounds he is also the team’s biggest back and has looked like a potential fit for one of the reserve spots when the roster choices get made.

Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball have split work with the starters all the way through camp -- Hillman has been the No. 1 -- with Moreno working as the No. 3 and Jacob Hester the No. 4. Hester can play at running back when needed and at fullback when the team uses a two-back set. He is also one of the team’s most consistent pass protectors at the position and has a full docket of special teams work.

MCL sprains as severe as Anderson’s routinely take a minimum of four weeks to heal and players, particularly skill position players, usually are not ready for a full return until six weeks have passed.

The Broncos will likely have to consider Anderson’s progress when they make their roster decisions.

• Linebacker Von Miller was excused from practice for personal reasons -- he was in Washinton D.C. meeting with officials from the NFL Players Association -- so the Broncos offered a glimpse of how the defense would look to open the regular season if the All-Pro selection does not win his appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

As they have shown in recent days, Stewart Bradley would play the middle in the base defense while Nate Irving, who was the starting middle linebacker through all of the offseason program, lined up on the strong side. When the Broncos went to some of their specialty packages in passing down work, times when Miller moves to defensive end or another rush position, Shaun Phillips played in Miller’s usual spots.

“Shaun Phillips was in there playing linebacker and playing defensive end some on third downs and you had Nate Irving in there as well with Stewart Bradley,’’ Manning said. “Any time you have a player injured or a player that is not able to go, somebody else has to step up and that’s what teams have to be able to do.”

Miller is expected to start and play in Saturday’s game in Seattle.

• Broncos director of pro personnel Tom Heckert, who had been suspended without pay for a month in the wake of a drunk driving arrest in June, returned to the team Thursday. Heckert will travel to Seattle with the team Friday and has resumed his normal duties. He was arrested June 11 in Parker, Colo., just 36 days after he had been hired by the team.

“I walked by his office and he was all smiles,’’ Fox said. “It was good to see him back and we support him.’’

With Broncos’ director of player personnel Matt Russell also suspended indefinitely for a separate drunk driving arrest, Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway had not elected to hire an outside consultant or former general manager to help with player evaluations during the suspensions. Instead the duties were divided among other members of the Broncos' personnel department such as Lenny McGill, the team’s assistant college scouting director, and assistant pro personnel director Anthony “Champ” Kelly.

• Odds and ends:

With just more than 2,000 fans on hand Thursday, the Broncos still used a speaker system to simulate crowd noise when the offense had the ball in team drills … The starters are expected to play most, or all, of the first half Saturday night against the Seahawks … Bailey intercepted Manning in the endzone during team drills. When asked if he will enjoy watching it later on the practice video, Bailey said; “Oh yeah, love watching that. When Peyton throws it, it’s even more meaningful.’’

• In addition to Moreno, running back Jeremiah Johnson (knee), wide receiver Quincy McDuffie (hamstring), wide receiver Greg Orton (ankle), wide receiver Lamaar Thomas (concussion) and safety Quinton Carter (knee) were held out of practice. None are expected to play against the Seahawks unless they show significant improvement in Friday’s short workout before the team leaves. Tight end Joel Dreessen (knee) is still expected to miss the preseason.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was asked Saturday if he had given much thought to what losing Von Miller for four games would do to his defensive game plan. Del Rio paused only slightly, and replied that he hadn't, that "right now we're just preparing the team we have.''

It could soon be time.

Miller's appeal of his suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy will be heard today by league officials. And while throughout the process Miller has expressed confidence he would not miss the first four games of the regular season, the Broncos have considered the possibility that some or all of the suspension will stand.

[+] EnlargeNate Irving
AP Photo/Ben MargotIf Von Miller's suspension is upheld, the Broncos would look to Nate Irving (above) to help shoulder some of the defensive load.
But they have taken a different tact with the potential loss of Miller than they did with the potential loss of starting linebacker D.J. Williams last season.

Broncos coach John Fox, when faced with the prospect of Williams' suspension to open the 2012 season -- nine games in all for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and the personal-conduct policy as well -- did not let Williams practice with the starting defense or even the No. 2 defense in last year's training camp.

However, this time around Fox has left Miller in with the starting defense for most of the work in team drills.

"He's our starter, and as of right now he's not suspended,'' Fox said last week. "We're just going to let the process play out.''

With 30 sacks over the last two seasons, including 18.5 in 2012, Miller would leave a significant hole in Del Rio's defensive plan. But a look at how the Broncos have done things thus far in camp shows what the contingency plan would most likely be.

In the base defense, when Miller lines up as the strong-side linebacker, Stewart Bradley would remain in the middle, where he has moved in as the starter over the last two weeks. Nate Irving, who spent the offseason workouts as the starter in the middle, would play on the strong side. Irving was Miller's backup on the strong side last season.

"He's got strong hands at the point of attack and has that ability get rid of the blocker and get to the ball,'' Del Rio said of Irving. "And he's played there quite a bit, he knows what the job is.''

In passing situations, situations when Miller would move into a defensive end spot in the nickel or dime packages, Shaun Phillips would move into that role. Phillips scored the Broncos' only touchdown in the preseason opener in San Francisco with a 9-yard return of a fumble caused by Irving on a blitz from an outside linebacker position.

"[Phillips has] some natural rush ability, was around the quarterback, hitting the quarterback the other night,'' Del Rio said.

The Broncos would like rookie Quanterus Smith in the pass-rush mix as well, with or without Miller in the lineup, but he's still trying work his way back from a torn ACL he suffered last November in his final season at Western Kentucky. Smith has participated in every training-camp practice thus far, but was pulled out of practice Aug. 1 because of knee pain.

He has practiced each day since, although at times he has not looked to be at full speed.

"I'll be ready for whatever they want me to do,'' Smith said. "I want to be out there for whatever they give me to do."

"We're trying to get all the guys ready to go,'' Fox said. "You're always going to have things come up, that's the way this league is. You prepare and make adjustments. So we'll always make the adjustments we need to and go play.''

Camp Confidential: Denver Broncos

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Live on Colorado's front range long enough, and you live with an unshakable, that's-the-way-it-is truth. That most days, as in 300 or so a year, the sun shines brightly and the skies are blue.

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

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

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

Yep, football sunshine and blue skies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

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

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

Denver Broncos camp notes

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
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Here are some from Monday's training camp;

• 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.

What to watch: Broncos-49ers

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
6:00
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The Broncos have given the requisite it-will-be-good-to-hit-somebody-else nuggets this week as the usual on-field grumpiness that comes with the third week of training camp has arrived.

But as they head into tonight's preseason opener in San Francisco here are a few things of note:

Position battles

The most heated in a starting lineup that is already largely spoken for are at running back, safety and middle linebacker.

At running back in-game performance and the ability to digest the long list of audibles in the offense -- as well as handle the business of pass protection -- will tip the scales.

But fantasy football owners dive in at your own risk because whether Ronnie Hillman or Montee Ball is the first back into the game during the regular season, every indication on the practice field right now is they're both going to get plenty of work in a variety of down-and-distance situations.

And the fact Knowshon Moreno and Jacob Hester are still more reliable than the youngsters in pass protection at the moment, makes the prospect of a running back-by-committee approach, and a large committee at that, a very distinct possibility unless Hillman or Ball simply puts the hammer down over the next four weeks.

And they know the score.

"We have a lot of guys,'' Hillman said. "Sure, I want to be the guy in there, but I know with Peyton Manning at quarterback, the guys who keep him from getting hit are going to play.''

"I think we all know where pass protection fits,'' Ball said. "I want to be the primary runner, I can't lie about that, but I also know we have the a lot of guys who want the same thing.''

At safety there will be a rotation of sorts as well when the team moves into the nickel and dime formations. But in the base defense Duke Ihenacho has made the long climb from undrafted free agent/practice squad guy in 2012 to working with the starters for much of the past two weeks.

The Broncos like Ihenacho's aggressiveness when he has a chance to make a play combined with good assignment discipline to get himself in the right spots. He now has to show that in games, because simply doing it in practice won't allow him to keep the job.

And at middle linebacker Stewart Bradley has made it a tight race with Nate Irving, perhaps tighter than many realize. Irving had the job all the way through offseason workouts, but Bradley has taken some snaps with the starters of late and it would be no surprise to see him get some work early against the 49ers, perhaps even get the start.

When Irving has had a bobble it usually is when he doesn't take on blocks head up in the run fits. When he tries to move around the block, he leaves a running lane.

The Broncos want consistent run fits and the guy who gives it to them will get the job.

The offensive line

It will bear watching how the Broncos line up in the offensive front and how long they leave Manning in the game if they are using multiple backups in the first group.

Right tackle Orlando Franklin (hip) won't play and left tackle Ryan Clady (shoulder) won't play. And given Ryan Lilja was signed out of retirement just a week ago after having both knee and toe surgeries earlier in the offseason, it would be a risk to play him too much against the 49ers.

That's despite the fact the Broncos rushed Lilja into the starting lineup -- at left guard one day and right guard the next -- this week following Franklin's injury. It all could leave things unsettled in front of Manning. Manning is scheduled to play a quarter at most, but the coaches have said Manning and other starters could depart earlier than that.

Offensive flow

It will be Adam Gase's first in-game run as offensive coordinator. Gase said he will call the game from the sideline instead of the pressbox to save a few seconds on the play clock with each play call.

Quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp will be in the booth.

Manning has said he believes Gase will be an efficient play-caller "who thinks ahead."

Gase has called plays in parts of games previously in his career, but this will be his first full game.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Some relatives already in Denver, a future Hall of Famer at quarterback and chance to be a part of a "specal team'' was enough to lure Ryan Lilja out of what he thought was to be the first season of his retirement from the NFL.

Lilja
But there was Lilja on Thursday night, in a No. 57 jersey, a newly minted Broncos center. Lilja will go through his first full workout with the team Friday morning, and it's clear the Broncos have designs on getting the veteran up to speed as quickly as possible.

"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."
As Denver star linebacker Von Miller appeals a four-game NFL suspension, the Denver Broncos released another veteran linebacker.

The team announced Tuesday morning it has cut Joe Mays. The inside linebacker was a popular, tough player, but his ability was limited. It has long been expected that the team may move away from Mays. He started 21 games in the past three seasons in Denver.

The team is turning to Nate Irving, Stewart Bradley and Steve Johnson at middle linebacker with Irving getting the first crack at winning the job. Denver reportedly saves $3.5 million in salary-cap room by cutting Mays.

In other AFC West notes:
  • The Football Outsiders think San Diego cornerback Shareece Wright is primed to have a breakout year .
  • The Football Outsiders think the Oakland Raiders have the worst collection of young talent in the league . I think that can change in the next couple of years if the current young talent develops and the team drafts well.
  • The Bengals cut veteran offensive tackle Travelle Wharton. He is versatile, and with most of the AFC West teams needing depth on the offensive line, he could be a name to keep an eye on if he can stay healthy. He is visiting Carolina on Tuesday.
  • Oft-injured Kansas City tight end Tony Moeaki has been cleared to begin training camp.

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