AFC West: Sylvester Williams

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- During this past week's minicamp workouts, you could see plenty of the Denver Broncos' top draft picks on display on offense.

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and left tackle Ryan Clady are former first-round picks by the team. Guard Orlando Franklin, running back Montee Ball and rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer are former second-round picks. Rookie tackle Michael Schofield, who will need a remember-when training camp to earn the starting right tackle job but is slated to get a long look, was a third-round pick last month.

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos have gotten critical production from late-round picks such as sixth-rounder Danny Trevathan.
Of the players who project in the top tier of the rotation on offense, tight end Julius Thomas -- a fourth-round selection in 2011 -- is the lowest draft pick among the players originally selected by the Broncos.

The defense, however, is a bit of a different matter, at least the top of the performance food chain.

"I think we've got some guys who prove it doesn't matter how you got here," said linebacker Danny Trevathan. "It matters what you do when you get here. I don't know if it's like that everywhere, but it's like that here."

So much so that an argument could easily be made that, as the Broncos closed out the regular season in 2013, the three players on defense not named Terrance Knighton who were playing the best were Trevathan, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive tackle/end Malik Jackson. Harris, who went to injured reserve with a partially torn ACL in January, was an undrafted rookie who made the roster in 2011. Jackson was a fifth-round pick in 2012, and Trevathan was a sixth-round pick in '12.

That's a lot of top-shelf production from players taken on the draft's third day and just the kind of performance a team has to have in the annual selection event if it's going to compete over the long haul and avoid the anchor of "dead" money on the salary cap from free agents no longer on the roster who essentially were signed to repair draft mistakes in previous years.

Among the projected starters on defense, the Broncos have committed some early picks on defense in the John Elway/John Fox era. Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Von Miller are former first-round picks, and this year's top Denver pick, cornerback Bradley Roby, is slated to play in the nickel. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe is a former second-round pick.

Nate Irving, a former third-round pick, sits atop the depth chart at middle linebacker, but he will have to hold off this year's fifth-round pick, Lamin Barrow, to keep the job. Barrow is a third-day pick who already has the look of a guy who's going to push early and often for playing time.

It is what Elway, as the team's chief decision-maker, needs to happen if he's going to be able to stick to his mantra that the Broncos are trying "to win [from] now on." Because, although the first- and second-day picks get the biggest headlines, it takes the third-day guys added into the equation to get any team into the biggest games.
If things were like they have been in recent years, the Denver Broncos would have wrapped up their 2014 draft last weekend.

But things are not that way, and in the NFL’s attempt to invade every page on the calendar, the Broncos are only in the homestretch of their preparation for the May 8-10 draft.

The Broncos are slated to pick 31st in the opening round. Their current regime of decision-makers, chiefly John Elway, has looked to trade out of that spot in the previous three drafts. But it all depends on how things go above that pick.

Often the thinking is to trade out of the lower end of the first round, get an extra pick or two and take a similarly graded player in the upper half of the second round. This draft, in particular, is considered deep throughout, so there are plenty of teams already looking to move in the opening round.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Paul SancyaWhile it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of draft day, John Elway and the rest of the Broncos' decision-makers would be better off exercising patience and waiting for a quality player to fall.
Sitting among the last eight picks of the opening round, Elway has lived in both schools of the stay-or-trade thought in the previous two drafts and ended up selecting players in the same position group each time -- defensive line.

In 2012, the Broncos made two trades to get all the way out of the first round. They initially moved from No. 25 to No. 31 in a trade with New England and picked up an extra fourth-rounder along the way. The Patriots selected Dont'a Hightower with the 25th pick, and he has started 27 games over the past two seasons, including a 97-tackle year in ’13.

The Broncos then torpedoed the local draft party scene when they traded that No. 31 pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the fourth-rounder they got in the Patriots trade, for the No. 36 and No. 101 picks.

The Buccaneers took running back Doug Martin, who the Broncos also liked in the weeks leading up to that draft. When Martin plowed his way to 1,454 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie, the trade looked fairly lopsided against the Broncos right out of the gate.

But in reality, the jury is still out with the major players each recovering from a stint on injured reserve. The Broncos selected Derek Wolfe at No. 36 that year. As a rookie, Wolfe had the look of a longtime starter. Last year at this time, many with the Broncos, including some of his teammates, were saying Wolfe had both the look and demeanor of a future captain.

Martin tore the labrum in his left shoulder last season -- rushing for 456 yards in six games before the injury -- and had surgery to repair it. Wolfe ended up on injured reserve after seizure-like symptoms on the team’s bus just before a late November road trip.

With the 101st pick in 2012, the Broncos selected Omar Bolden. He has already been moved from cornerback to safety and is still looking to find his niche in the defense.

Last year, with the No. 28 pick, the Broncos dabbled with the idea of making a move but in the end stayed put and selected defensive tackle Sylvester Williams. He was a starter down the stretch as a rookie last season after Kevin Vickerson’s injury, and the Broncos see Williams as a potential impact player in the defensive line rotation this season.

In the end, many of the better personnel executives in the league -- the ones more proficient in the draft -- believe patience is indeed a draft virtue at the bottom of the opening round. They believe staying put, trusting their board and picking the guy they want will reap the best rewards. They don’t let the desire to get extra picks overshadow the ability to get a premium player.

Teams will make mistakes above you. A reach or two will be taken as the runs happen at one position or another. Some rush to fill needs they fear they won't find later. The result is often a highly graded player falling.

The Baltimore Ravens may have lived this life, with general manager Ozzie Newsome, better than most.

They selected linebacker Ray Lewis at No. 26 in the 1996 draft -- side note: they selected Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden at No. 4 that year, so the team’s first-round effort will have a nice slice of Canton in a few more years -- and picked tight end Todd Heap at No. 31 in 2001, safety Ed Reed at No. 24 in ’02, guard Ben Grubbs (one Pro Bowl) at No. 29 in '07 and safety Matt Elam (15 starts as a rookie in ’13) at No. 31 last year.

At the moment, the Broncos have seven picks in this draft, one in each round. The depth of the draft board would suggest their best play is sit, stay at 31 and take the highest-graded player on their board as the first round winds down.

Because that player is often one somebody else should, and could, have taken sooner.

Broncos draft rewind: 2013

April, 14, 2014
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As the guy at the top of the football flow chart for the Denver Broncos for the last three seasons, John Elway has now overseen three drafts for the team.

The Broncos have made 23 picks in those three drafts and found seven full-time starters. Denver hopes to be add to that total this season if things go as planned in May.

But let’s go inside each of those three drafts to see how things have gone and where they are headed.

Today: 2013.

First pick: Sylvester Williams, 28th overall. When the Broncos selected him last April they saw an every-down option, a potentially disruptive interior pass rusher and a player also strong enough to play with power in run defense as well.

Given Williams’ personal history -- a stint working on an assembly line in a factory before deciding to walk on to play football in junior college -- the Broncos also saw a player with plenty of room to grow on the developmental curve to go with the work ethic that put him in the a position to be a first-round pick.

With Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson both having ended up on injured reserve last season, Williams went from being inactive on game day three times in the season’s first nine games to starting the team’s last four games of the regular season and three playoff games.

Starters: 1.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Jack DempseyBroncos running back Montee Ball wasn't technically a starter last season, but that should change in 2014.
With those seven starts in 2013, Williams was the only Broncos player from last April’s draft class to open that many games. He is the only "starter" in the group by the letter of the law at the moment.

But running back Montee Ball (second round) will be the second starter as soon as the Broncos open their offseason workouts. Ball, with 312 snaps this past season, actually played more overall than Williams (296 snaps) and finished as the team’s second-leading rusher with 559 yards.

Williams and Ball will continue to lead this draft class. With the Broncos expected to add some wrinkles -- and attention -- to the run game, Ball will have the potential for a breakout season.

Best value pick: At the moment it’s Ball. As the 58th player selected in the 2013 draft, Ball was the classic example of production over measurables in the pre-draft process.

He didn’t run as well as many of the other running backs on the board, but he plays faster, and showed good instincts with the ball. A lot of players talk about what needs to be done. Ball actually put in the time and effort to do those things. Ball improved in pass protection, boding well for the future. Despite few opportunities as a receiver in the run-first Wisconsin offense, he will function just fine catching the ball in the league.

Now’s the time: The Broncos expect and need Williams to take a significant jump this season. There are few positions -- other than quarterback -- where it is more difficult to move quickly into the lineup and have an impact as an NFL rookie.

NFL offensive guards are far stronger, move better and play smarter so the transition for the defensive tackle can be tough because there isn’t much room to work in the middle of the field. So once a defensive tackle is shut out of the play it is difficult for him to win the advantage back.

Williams flashed the ability to consistently win position off the snap down the stretch. If he takes the usual step between a rookie and second season, he should be one of the starters on the interior.

Gone: WR Tavarres King. The Broncos believed King, who had played in a school-record 56 games at Georgia, had the physical skills to go with some on-field maturity to get into their rotation as a rookie.

And King flashed those skills in camp, but he also showed a little too much ego and attitude for the Broncos’ liking at times, so they put him on the practice squad. But after a one-week move to the active roster last October, the Broncos tried to get him through waivers and back on the practice squad to bring Von Miller back from his six-game suspension.

King was signed by the Carolina Panthers, but did not play in any games last season. That hole in the draft class means the Broncos will be inclined to take a receiver out of this draft's exceptionally deep class.

More to come? Though the Broncos will give a long look to the cornerbacks in this year’s draft, cornerback Kayvon Webster (third round) will have the opportunity to earn plenty of playing time in the nickel and dime packages moving into the season.

With Champ Bailey's departure and Chris Harris Jr. still coming back from ACL surgery, Webster will have to be in the mix.

Also, defensive end Quanterus Smith (fifth round) did not play as a rookie after the Broncos placed him on injured reserve as training camp drew to a close. Smith, who had a three-sack game against an Alabama offensive line loaded with NFL draft picks in his senior season at Western Kentucky, had torn his ACL in his last collegiate season.

The Broncos tried him in the rotation in camp, but decided to move him to the IR in an attempt to bring him back at full speed this year. With Miller still working through his return from December ACL surgery, the Broncos could use Smith to come out of the gate strong.

Smith, at 255 pounds, is slightly undersized to play the power left end spot, but could have some opportunities to play there as Miller works his way back.

Analyzing McShay mock 4.0: Broncos 

April, 10, 2014
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Over the course of his work on this year’s draft, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has kept the Denver Broncos focused on defense, including last month’s mock draft when McShay had the Broncos selecting Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy with the 31st pick.

And in his latest effort -- a two-round mock -- McShay again has the Broncos opening their draft with a defensive player

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Denver Broncos' depth chart comes together for the 2014 season, some of their homegrown players will need to germinate into homegrown starters.

The model this past season was linebacker Danny Trevathan. A sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft, Trevathan was the defense's most consistently impactful player last season, a 129-tackle guy that some personnel executives believe could have a chance to make a Pro Bowl someday if he takes the next step.

And even after the rather substantial checks the Broncos wrote in free agency, even with the draft just around the corner, three names in particular kept coming up this week at the NFL meetings when the Broncos' roster builders talked about what's to come.

Montee Ball. Kayvon Webster. Sylvester Williams.

A running back, a cornerback and a defensive tackle. All Broncos draft picks last April, and all guys if the Broncos offseason plan is to work to its fullest, who have to make the jump from potential to production.

"That's the plan, that's the hope," said Broncos head coach John Fox. " ... They're young players and it's time to take the leap of faith."

"We have some young guys who will have the opportunity to play a lot of football for us," said executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway.

Ball
Elway said this week he would consider bringing back Knowshon Moreno at running back if Moreno remains unsigned in the coming weeks and if Moreno would accept what his "role" would be. The plan for that role is as a backup, because the Broncos believe Ball's 4.7 yards per carry last season mean he's ready to be the starter.

"It's a young man's game and every year you take leaps of faith with young players," Fox said. " ... He grew up as a player as far as being dependable, being accountable assignment-wise, all the things young players struggle with or have the opportunity to. We'll see what this year brings."

Fox added, "He's a tremendous young player. He improved a lot -- we needed him to a year ago. I thought he turned into a pro. He understands how to prepare. Sometimes that may take a while. It didn't take him as long. We're looking for him to make good leaps."

Webster
You may remember Webster as the guy with the target on his jersey with San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throwing at him play after play last December. But Webster played much of that game with a fractured thumb that needed surgery to repair.

Overall, his body of work as a rookie was solid. He played with confidence, bounced back from mistakes and was willing to press receivers up close while many cornerbacks his age are uncomfortable with that task. Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, said those traits make Wesbter a starter in waiting if the kid can hold up his end of the bargain.

"He was really playing well for a young player until he broke his thumb," Fox said. "He showed good development, he earned all those reps and I've seen great growth. We kind of missed him a little bit toward the end when the thumb went bad."

Williams
And Williams struggled some on the learning curve early last season when he was a game day inactive three times in the first nine games of the season and played 19 or fewer snaps in the other six games during that stretch. But necessity dictated more playing time for Williams last season when Kevin Vickerson suffered a season-ending hip injury Nov. 24 against the New England Patriots.

He played 36 snaps on defense against the Patriots in the wake of Vickerson's injury and played as a starter down the stretch and into the postseason, topping 40 snaps in two of the final three games of the regular season.

"He grew tremendously, he earned that," Fox said. " ... I thought he had a very good rookie year ... and his track record has shown he's going to be a good player."

So, there it is, three examples why the draft will continue to be the most important roster-building exercise the Broncos do each and every year no matter how much confetti folks toss at their free-agency performance. In the end, they simply would not have been in position to spend what they did in free agency without the salary cap room created by the younger draft picks that populated most of the roster.

And their ability to move from one season to the next, with success in mind rather than trying to figure out how to escape salary cap woes, with or without Peyton Manning at quarterback down the road, will depend on them being right more than they are wrong on their draft picks.

On players like Ball, Webster and Williams.
The Denver Broncos showed what they thought of their projected depth chart by where, and how quickly, they spent their significant pile of money in the hours after free agency began.

They went defense, defense and defense in T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware before they then signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. But even given those four marquee efforts, the Broncos said a lot about their plans by what they didn't do in free agency.

In short, as general manager John Elway put it, "some of these young guys have to step up and be ready to contribute ... that's the way it has to be."

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With the NFL's scouting combine set to open Wednesday and free agency to follow on March 11, today marks the sixth 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: Defensive line
Thursday: Linebackers

In the Broncos' defensive fronts there are certainly more questions than answers right now. Beyond Terrance Knighton, Malik Jackson and Sylvester Williams, the Broncos have plenty to cross their fingers about and plenty of medical reports and possible options to consider.

[+] EnlargeDerek Wolfe
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeThe Broncos can't be sure what they are going to get from their defensive linemen coming back from injuries, including Derek Wolfe.
If things work out, if the medical staff sees the recoveries the team expects and things go well, they will have a versatile, deep group that can adjust to almost any situation -- especially if Knighton, whose representatives have already asked for a new deal, picks up where he left off down the stretch in 2013 and into the postseason.

Jackson is an emerging player who has the ability to play with impact at both end and tackle. Williams was likely the team's most improved player from September to February and projects to be a starter in '14.

But the rub will be how Derek Wolfe (illness), Kevin Vickerson (hip) and Quanterus Smith (knee) emerge from their time on injured reserve. Because of Von Miller's knee surgery and Shaun Phillips' entry into free agency, Smith is going to have to be every bit of the pass-rush force the Broncos hope he can be.

If any of those three isn't up to full speed when the season opens, the Broncos will have a significant hole in their rotation.

The Alpha: At one time, Wolfe looked to be growing into this role, both on the field and off, but after he suffered seizure-like symptoms on a team bus ride to the airport in late November, he didn't play for the remainder of the season. So, it fell to Vickerson and Knighton to be at the front of the line at this position group. If Wolfe returns through the offseason workouts and into training camp at his former level of activity -- and that was the Broncos' expectation as this past season drew to a close -- he figures to step to the forefront again. But Wolfe was struggling at times even before he went on injured reserve after suffering a neck injury in the preseason, a scary incident when he was taken from the field by ambulance.

Salary cap: The Broncos have seven defensive linemen who finished the 2013 season on the team's 53-man roster or on injured reserve under contract for '14. Knighton's $2.75 million cap figure leads the way among the group with Vickerson's $2.266 million figure just behind. Williams, at $1.723 million and Wolfe, at $1.42 million, are followed by Sione Fua ($645,000), Jackson ($623,000) and Smith ($468,000).

Knighton had a $1 million roster bonus as well.

[+] EnlargeBryant McKinnie
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRobert Ayers is slated to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time.
Pending free agents: Two of the Broncos' top three players in sacks this past season are unrestricted free agents: Phillips (10 sacks) and defensive end Robert Ayers (5.5 sacks, third on the team). Phillips signed a one-year deal on draft weekend last year and while the extra workload that came with all of the Broncos' injuries in the defensive front seemed to affect his play at times, he was one of best price/production signings in the league. Ayers has now finished his original rookie deal, signed when the Broncos made him the 18th pick of the 2009 draft -- the second draft pick of Josh McDaniels' tenure.

Who could stay: The Broncos have no significant cap issues to address at the position and while Knighton would like to cash in on his play over the last two months of the season, the Broncos are not expected to address his contract this year. Knighton and Vickerson are slated to be unrestricted free agents after the 2014 season.

Who could go: Ayers likely will have to look elsewhere to get his best deal. The Broncos would bring him back at their price because he is familiar with the defense. Phillips will be entering his 11th NFL season in '14 and while he helped the Broncos overcome plenty of injuries, they'll be looking to get a little younger up front. But if he's unsigned after the initial wave of free agency, the Broncos could look to sign him to a deal similar to the one he had this past season -- a $1 million base with some incentives at several sack totals.

What they like/want: Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes big guys in the middle such as Knighton, Vickerson and Williams to eat up blockers, but he also needs some versatile inside-outside types like Jackson to make it all work when the Broncos move from their base look to some of their specialty packages with five, six or seven defensive backs.

Denver likes Smith's potential -- take a look at his three-sack game against an Alabama offensive line loaded with NFL prospects as a senior at Western Kentucky to see what's there -- and he will be looked at hard as the team goes through its offseason paces. The Broncos have bigger needs at other places and with Miller recovering from ACL surgery, the to-do list for Smith as an edge player figures to be a healthy one.

Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 3

They need some attention up front given the number of players coming off injured reserve with heavy workloads in their rotation. If all of them return without incident to the form that is expected, the Broncos are fine.

But history has repeatedly shown that's not something the team should count on. As a result, they'll have to give defensive tackles and edge rushers some looks heading into the draft.

There's enough uncertainty here to warrant a move or two as insurance.

Denver Broncos season wrap-up

February, 5, 2014
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 2
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

Biggest surprise: It took 19 games, a pile of league records and a few slices of history along the way, but by far the biggest shock for an organization that believed it had the moxie to win a title was its Super Bowl meltdown. Broncos head coach John Fox had said his team was “calloused" by all it had to overcome this season, including linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension, five defensive starters eventually landing on injured reserve and Fox's open-heart surgery. But on the biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line, the Broncos had a night when they didn't respond to any of the adversity they faced.

Biggest disappointment: Other than losing in the title game -- “I'm not sure you ever get over that," said quarterback Peyton Manning -- it would have to be the way Miller's season dissolved. After his 18.5-sack season in 2012, the Broncos expected even more this time around. Instead, he was out for the first six games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He came back heavier after the suspension and often looked less explosive according to many personnel executives in the league. He then suffered a season-ending torn right ACL in December. He won't be ready for training camp and may not be full speed by the start of the regular season.

Biggest need: In their past three playoff losses, the Broncos have had a combined one sack against Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson. Miller has played in two of those games, albeit with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb to close out the 2011 season against the New England Patriots. They have used their opening pick in each of John Elway's three drafts as the team's top football executive on a pass-rusher -- Miller, Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams. It still needs some attention, as does the team's secondary; the Broncos will need to address cornerback and safety as well.

Team MVP: Manning, with 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards passing for an offense that set an NFL record with 606 points, was the league MVP and was the Broncos' as well. Manning's drive, preparation and no-nonsense approach pushed the team past every bump it faced during the regular season, and he powered the franchise into its seventh Super Bowl. But cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Danny Trevathan deserve special mention for being the defense's most versatile and productive players outside the glare of the team's offensive fireworks in the regular season. Trevathan and Harris were consistently the guys asked to do more in Jack Del Rio's defense.

 
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will spend the rest of their postseason bye week cleaning up loose ends with some football self-examination. But they will also have to work through what-if scenarios along the way.

Overall, the Broncos were 3-3 this season against teams in the AFC's playoff field, with losses to the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers.

With that in mind, here's a look at how they match up with each of their three possible divisional round opponents. Next up: The Chiefs.

How it happens: Chiefs beat the Colts on Saturday and the Cincinnati Bengals defeat the Chargers on Sunday.

Match game: Certainly NFL life is always about the matchups, but winning individual matchups, those 1-on-1 battles, has been a big part of both of the Broncos' wins against the Chiefs this season.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsA three-wide receiver set helped the Broncos' Montee Ball to his first 100-yard rushing game in the second meeting with the Chiefs.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has taken an aggressive approach against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. But along the way the Broncos were able to create the matchups they wanted because of the way Sutton used his personnel in the secondary. Sutton chose to play it straight and did not flip his cornerbacks to keep the bigger Sean Smith on the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas.

That's fine, plenty of team choose not to flip their cornerbacks against the Broncos' high-end passing attack with the thought that Manning will just send the ball elsewhere even if they did move people around. But against the Chiefs it meant Manning and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase could essentially create the matchup they wanted exactly when they wanted it by lining up Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker plenty over rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper.

Sutton also chose to double Wes Welker plenty in the middle of the field to try to take that avenue away from Manning, especially in the Dec. 1 game. The difference in the divisional round matchup would be tight end Julius Thomas.

Julius Thomas did not play in the December win in Kansas City so the Chiefs were able to limit Welker's impact to three catches for 38 yards. So, Thomas' presence changes things, especially as the Broncos continue to expand his role -- he has raised his level of consistency in recent weeks. It's the reason why Thomas will be an intriguing player to watch in any of the potential divisional round matchups for the Broncos, but his impact potential just might be the greatest against the Chiefs.

Make some room: Against the Broncos, the Chiefs played plenty of specialty looks on defense, usually the dime (six defensive backs). And that usually puts safety Eric Berry down toward the line of scrimmage lined up essentially as the Chiefs' weak side inside linebacker.

And there is a spot the Broncos would need to attack in the run game, but to do that they have to find a way to get Chiefs nose tackle Donatri Poe out of the way. It's why the Broncos' ability to run from the weak side, behind center Manny Ramirez and Zane Beadles, would help matters -- especially when they are in the five-man front in a three-wide receiver look with the tight end in the slot.

A two-tight end look could help matters with one down next to the tackle and the other lined up in the slot. It would potentially pull a linebacker out of the middle of the field, or at least a safety like Berry. But if an offense doesn't move Poe, it doesn't really matter what potential gaps are behind them because the ballcarrier doesn't get that far anyway.

The Broncos were cartainly committed to the idea as they ran the ball 36 and 31 times, respectively, against the Chiefs this season with rookie Montee Ball finishing out his first career 100-yard game in December. The majority of those carries came out of the three-wide receiver set for the Broncos, which put them in a position to run the ball against the Chiefs' dime look much of the time.

The Chiefs have made that work throughout the season against a variety of offensive sets because of the play in the defensive front, but if the Broncos carve out some space up front, there will usually be just one linebacker waiting at the second level with a host of defensive backs.

Keep the lid on: The Broncos have struggled with penalties for much of the season, but it was a particular problem against the Chiefs, with 13 and 10 penalties in the two meetings this season.

The 13-penalty outing Nov. 17 was particularly glaring because it included several non-contact penalties, including a misplaced taunting penalty from safety Duke Ihenacho after an incomplete pass on a second-and-8 play from the Broncos' 12-yard line in the second quarter. Not only did Ihenacho taunt Charles with the official nearby, he turned what would have been a third-and-8 at the 12 into first-and-goal at the Broncos' 6-yard line. The Chiefs scored a touchdown three plays later.

In that game the Broncos also had an encroachment penalty on defensive end Robert Ayers, a delay of game on rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster and a neutral zone infraction on Ayers. The games with the Chiefs were physical, hard-nosed affairs and the Broncos would have to play with a little more discipline in a third meeting than they showed in the first two.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesBroncos tight end Julius Thomas, who did not play against the Chiefs in December, has raised his level of consistency in recent weeks.
Stay in your lane: When the Chiefs made some running room against the Broncos defense this season, it was largely because Denver didn't quite get their run fits and they left a lane behind. And while it didn't always result in an issue against many offenses, the Chiefs don't need much room to get Jamaal Charles free so it usually only takes one stumble to do it.

There was the attempted spin move by rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams that left the gap for a 35-yard carry by Charles in the November game, or quarterback Alex Smith escaping for 46 rushing yards in December when the Broncos got a little too deep in the rush and allowed Smith an escape route.

Charles is always Job 1 against the Chiefs, but overall the Broncos simply can't afford mistakes in gap coverage that allow Charles or Smith to keep drives alive.

Stay in your lane II: Over the course of the season's second half the Broncos have had some uncharacteristic special teams bobbles. Whether it be Trindon Holliday mishandling a kick or lapses in coverage, the Broncos have not been themselves for much of the last two months.

That was no more evident than against the Chiefs. Kansas City's Dexter McCluster is likely the best punt returner, along with the Patriots' Julian Edelman, the Broncos faced this season. And while the Broncos kept McCluster in check in each meeting, Chiefs running back Knile Davis is the guy who dropped a 108-yard kickoff return on the Broncos in December.

The Broncos' coverage players are simply losing containment as they approach the returners and missing too many tackles once they get there.

Broncos-Chiefs matchup of the day

November, 28, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It isn't really much of a question or mystery, not with Sunday being the second time in three weeks the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs will face each other. Not even Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles sees reason to believe otherwise.

“[The] key is to stop me … if you stop me, you can stop the whole team,’’ Charles said.

Charles
Charles has gained 37.4 percent of the Chiefs' yards on offense in their first 11 games – 918 yards rushing and 425 yards receiving – and his 253 touches represent 34.8 percent the plays the Chiefs have run. But that’s just the way first-year Chiefs coach Andy Reid wanted it. When Reid looked over the Chiefs' personnel both before and after he accepted the job, it was clear to him that Charles was just the kind of running-and-receiving threat he wanted in the offense.

“I thought he was a heck of a football player that can do a lot of things,’’ Reid said. “I looked back at the 2010 season, I believe it was, and Charlie Weis was here and he kind of flexed him out and moved him around a little bit and threw him the ball. You saw him run the ball quite a bit the last couple years, and then from the backfield when Charlie was here he moved him around a bit more and still ran the ball with him. You can see his flexibility there.''

And Reid saw in Charles another in a line of multitasking running backs he's had in his version of the West Coast offense. Reid has played Charles all over the formation, including out wide as a receiver and in the slot, along with everything Charles is asked to do when lined up in the backfield.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have that,’’ Reid said. “When I got to Philadelphia it started with Duce Staley, then [Brian] Westbrook, and [LeSean] McCoy. I’ve been blessed with versatile running backs.’’

The Broncos kept Charles largely under wraps in the first meeting earlier this month, even flashing a 3-4 look on defense at times to do it. Charles finished with 78 yards rushing and minus-6 yards receiving. Those 72 total yards represent Charles’ lowest output of the season.

The Broncos will be without defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, who went on injured reserve Wednesday with a right hip injury. Vickerson was a key piece of the Broncos’ run defense, and the Chiefs figure to test the middle of the formation to see if the Broncos’ are up to the task with either Mitch Unrein or rookie Sylvester Williams playing in Vickerson’s spot.

Vickerson, along with defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, kept the blockers off the Broncos linebackers, who are free to then flow to the play.

"It might put a little more on my plate, but that’s OK," Knighton said. "We know Charles is the key, you can’t ever let him get going."

Broncos Rookie Report: Week 12

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' first-year players not only got their first taste of overtime football in the NFL this past Sunday night, but they got it in a playoff setting, in a game played in frigid conditions, oozing with pressure on all sides in New England's 34-31 comeback win.

So, with that in mind here is our weekly look at the Broncos' rookie class:

Ball
Running back Montee Ball: The game proved to be a rather full glimpse into his season thus far. On a night when the Broncos clearly decided to run the ball as a primary option on offense, and with Ball clearly in those plans coming into the game, he lost another fumble -- his third of the season. For a player trying to earn the trust of the coaches, not only did he lose the ball, he lost it deep in Broncos’ territory and helped fuel the Patriots' comeback when they turned the turnover into a touchdown six plays later. As the games get tighter, those mistakes loom larger, and his chances of carrying to ball when it matters most decrease a little bit with each bouncing ball. Overall, though, he played 16 plays on offense, finishing with 40 yards rushing on seven carries. If Knowshon Moreno's ankle injury keeps him out of Sunday’s game or limits Moreno in any way, the Broncos are going to need a big effort from Ball, the kind they selected him in the second round to have.

Quarterback Zac Dysert: Dysert was again a gameday inactive against the Patriots. But the routine is the routine, no matter the weather. And with a howling wind -- gusts of almost 30 miles per hour -- and a wind chill hovering at about 6 degrees, there was a heavily bundled Dysert with an equally bundled quarterbacks coach in Greg Knapp still going through their usual gameday work several hours before kickoff. Dysert showed some quality arm strength in the drills with several tight spirals in the conditions.

Running back C.J. Anderson: Like Ball, Anderson just can’t seem to take full advantage of the fact the Broncos would like to run the ball more at this point in the season and would like to do it at times with somebody other than Moreno taking the pounding. Anderson played 10 snaps on offense against the Patriots and fumbled once -- he recovered it -- and dropped a pass in those 10 plays. He gained 16 yards on his three carries, including a 6-yard run. The opportunity is there for some additional playing time, but ball security continues to be an issue, frigid conditions or not.

Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams: He played a season-high 36 snaps on defense against the Patriots and it was evident early, even before Kevin Vickerson left the game with a right hip injury, that Williams was a bigger part of the rotation than he had been in recent weeks. His previous high this season had been 19 snaps on defense against the Giants and Colts. With Vickerson now out, Williams will be in the mix, and the Broncos need him to be ready for those quality snaps in both the base defense and in the nickel (five defensive backs) at times. He finished with one tackle against New England, and did force the issue in one pass-rush situation late in the game.

Cornerback Kayvon Webster: With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie having left the game at halftime with a shoulder injury and Champ Bailey having missed his ninth game of the season, Webster played in a wide variety of situations against the Patriots. He finished with a season-high 54 snaps (he played 53 against the Colts last month) to go with 14 more snaps on special teams. He had five tackles -– a game-high among the cornerbacks -- and knocked away one pass. With the Broncos playing a heavy dose of man coverage in the game, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady did zero in on Webster at times, with some success, particularly in the second half. But Webster battled hard throughout and continued to show he will bounce back from any mistakes to play the the next play.

Practice squad: Tackle Vinston Painter, a sixth-round pick, was waived in the final cutdown, and defensive end John Youboty, an undrafted free agent who spent training camp with the Broncos, continue to work toward keeping themselves in the plan moving forward. All of the practice squad players have worked in an on-field workout of their own on Mondays as well as some extra time following practice each day.

Broncos now need Williams to grow up fast

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson is certainly comfortable in his football skin and has never had any difficulty working through his job description in the team’s defense.

“Just be kind of that run guy in there, be physical, take on people, get to the ball,’’ Vickerson said. “And if I get a chance to get to the quarterback, get there, you know?’’

Now, and in the weeks to come, somebody else is going to have to do that job since Vickerson suffered a dislocated right hip as the third quarter drew to a close in Sunday night’s overtime loss to the New England Patriots. Vickerson got tangled up in the pile on a 2-yard run by the Patriots’ Shane Vereen with 23 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

[+] EnlargeSylvester Williams
John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesThe Broncos need Sylvester Williams (92) to step up in the absence of Kevin Vickerson.
He limped off the field without much help from the team’s trainers, but an MRI Monday revealed the damage. Vickerson will miss at least six weeks and the Broncos now face a decision about whether to carry him with a roster spot or to put him on injured reserve with just five games remaining in the regular season. The Broncos are leaning toward putting Vickerson on injured reserve and adding a defensive tackle to the roster, but were working through the decision Tuesday.

If they moved Vickerson to injured reserve, that would end the veteran's season as they’ve already used their one available spot on injured reserve for a player they can designate to return in safety Rahim Moore. Moore had surgery on his lower left leg last week.

The Broncos rotate plenty in the defensive front, based on a variety of down-and-distance situations, but Vickerson has been an early-down stalwart in their base defense as well as a nickel package they use often on first or second downs.

Vickerson has played between 29 and 42 snaps on defense in every game this season and overall has been in for 48.4 percent of the defensive plays this season, usually alongside Terrance Knighton in most situations. After Vickerson left Sunday’s game, the Broncos looked to Mitch Unrein and rookie Sylvester Williams to fill the gaps. The Broncos know what they get from Unrein, who they have groomed from a practice squad spot with the team early in his career. But Williams will have to lift his game some.

"Everybody knows, if you're in there, you have to play at the level we need,'' Knighton said. "Where we are in the season, what we want to get accomplished, these are big games, big snaps. We all are going to have to get the job done.''

The Broncos had high hopes in training camp that Williams would be an immediate part of the rotation up front, especially in some pass-rush situations, but that hasn’t materialized. He has struggled at times to hold his ground and not surrender a gap against the bigger, stronger, often quicker guards he has faced at the NFL level.

The Broncos like his progress and he has shown improvement, especially in his hand placement when he engages the blocker, but has been a game-day inactive three times this season, twice in the past four games. But a Broncos run defense that will face Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson in the next two games needs Williams to show that improvement now. The Broncos had used Williams more against New England on Sunday night than they had previously this season, even before Vickerson’s injury.

Williams finished with 36 snaps on defense behind Vickerson’s 38 and Knighton’s 52 among the defensive tackles. It was the first time this season Williams had played more than 19 plays on defense.

Upon Further Review: Broncos Week 12

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
12:00
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An examination of four hot issues from the Denver Broncos’ 34-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaDenver's Knowshon Moreno has been the most reliable running back for the Broncos -- but it's time for someone else to help shoulder the load.
Working overtime: Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno tore an ACL in 2011 and had another knee procedure this past offseason, and the Broncos have consistently talked about watching his workload. But then their other running backs kept fumbling the ball -- both C.J. Anderson and Montee Ball lost the handle against the Patriots on Sunday night -- so Moreno has been left as Mr. Reliable or the one, offensive coordinator Adam Gase said, who has "that trust factor." And after 37 carries as the piece of the team’s offense that could function in the cold Sunday night, Moreno left Gillette Stadium in a walking boot on his right leg. With his 27 carries the week before against the Chiefs, Moreno’s 64 carries in the past two games are more than he had in the previous four games combined before the win over Kansas City. Somebody else in that running backs meeting room must now step forward.

Thinning out: The Broncos kept 11 defensive backs on the roster when they exited the preseason, and at the time it looked like a healthy surplus. But then Champ Bailey aggravated his left foot injury in Indianapolis, and he has played in just two games this season. Then Rahim Moore had surgery on his lower left leg, and on Sunday, two other defensive backs left the game. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie suffered a freakish shoulder injury trying to make a diving catch on a Hail Mary play to end the first half Sunday night, and Omar Bolden suffered a concussion in the second half. It means Quentin Jammer will have to play more on the outside and rookie Kayvon Webster is going to act and play like a starter.

Cold as ice: The Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning continue to say the cold isn’t an issue on offense, that Manning practices in it all the time. But all the rest of the world has to go on is the past two games the team has played in below-freezing temperatures. Against the Ravens in the playoff loss in January when kickoff temperature was 13 degrees (and wind chill was 2 degrees), Manning was 28-of-43 with two interceptions and didn’t push the ball down the field. Sunday night, with a kickoff temperature of 22 degrees (and a 22 mph wind made the wind chill 6 degrees), Manning was 19-of-36 for 150 yards and an interception. For many, the Broncos’ cold-weather postseason prospects will continue to be a question mark until they all show, including Manning, that it isn’t.

It’s time: Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio has said recently he liked rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams’ progress this season, that Williams was ready for far more in the defense. He said that even as Williams was a game-day inactive three times this season, twice in the past four games. Now Williams will have to lift his game with Kevin Vickerson’s right hip injury. Williams will have to play more and be an early-down force, especially in run defense, if the Broncos are to get some momentum going defensively down the stretch.

Broncos Rewind: Defense, special teams

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It took a few weeks and some heavy lifting in a 27-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs this past Sunday night, but the Denver Broncos have clawed their way back to the top of the AFC West.

Quarterback Peyton Manning had his ninth 300-yard passing game and was not sacked. The Broncos defense collected three sacks of its own while keeping the Chiefs from getting running back Jamaal Charles going at his usual pace. Charles finished with 78 yards rushing to go with minus-6 yards receiving.

And after a long look at the video from Sunday night's win, here are some thoughts on the team's defense and special teams:

  • Their 13-penalty evening against the Chiefs was fueled by plenty of defensive miss-steps, including many “non-contact'' penalties. In all, Broncos defenders had nine penalties in the game, including a taunting penalty from safety Duke Ihenacho after an incomplete pass on a second-and-8 plays from the Broncos' 12-yard line in the second quarter. Not only did Ihenacho taunt Charles roughly 24 inches from an official, but he turned what would have been a third-and-8 at the 12 into first-and-goal at the Broncos' 6-yard line. The Chiefs scored a touchdown three plays later. That is just the kind of play an undisciplined team laments when it happens in the squeaky-tight atmosphere of the postseason. Those types of penalties become get-you-beat plays. The Broncos also had an encroachment penalty on defensive end Robert Ayers, a delay of game on rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster and a neutral zone infraction on Ayers to go with Ihenacho's taunting penalty, all in the unforced error category. Overall the Broncos have also been flagged for defensive holding 11 times, which is the most in the league. “We've got to be better,'' said Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio. “There are some -- I call them silly, focus-type issues. ... We want to play smart and tough. Coach Fox talks about that all the time. It's something I believe in very much -- to be smart and tough, to not beat ourselves. There were some situations where we made some mistakes that can really haunt you.”

  • [+] EnlargeKansas City's Alex Smith
    AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Broncos defense sacked Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith three times.
    Del Rio wants to have a couple swing players in the defensive line, those who can play at defensive end on early downs if they have to and then move inside in some of the team's specialty packages. Malik Jackson has played 47 percent of the defensive snaps this season because of his ability to produce when he's on the field, no matter where Del Rio puts him. That total included 34 plays on defense in the win over the Chiefs and in those 34 snaps, Jackson had three tackles, a half of a sack, hit Chiefs quarterback twice and knocked down two passes. That's high-end efficiency and Jackson will get a snap or two more worth of work in the coming weeks.

  • The Broncos liked Webster in the weeks leading up to last April's draft because in a time when few college cornerbacks play press coverage more than just a handful of snaps in a season, let alone in a game, Webster had done far more work in tight, up-on-the-receiver situations. And his transition into the lineup has been quick because of it, so much so Del Rio frequently asks the rookie to hold up in single coverage against some of the better receivers in the league. He knocked a potential scoring pass down Sunday, but also had a touchdown tossed his way when he wasn't prepared for the shove Dwayne Bowe gave him just before the ball arrives. Webster will get better with his hands as time goes on, or he should, but on Bowe's 6-yard touchdown, Bowe waited until he needed the space and got Webster off balance.

  • Rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams lost positioning when he tried a spin move in run defense with just more than eight minutes left in the second quarter. Williams tried to spin to get himself free, but as soon as his back was to the point of attack the Chiefs linemen simply just drove him down toward the middle of the formation. Chiefs tackle Branden Albert then pushed defensive end Robert Ayers up the field as he had taken a wide path to try to get the corner. The combination of Williams having surrendered his gap and Ayers pushed out wide gave Charles the chance to run through the alley left behind for 35 yards, the Chiefs' longest play of the day.

  • The Broncos, as they have done from time to time since Von Miller returned from his suspension and Wesley Woodyard returned from missing two games with a neck injury, flashed a 3-4 look on defense for a few snaps against the Chiefs. After showing it for 20 snaps against the Redskins to help keep Robert Griffin III from getting loose, the Broncos showed it for three snaps against the Chiefs in the first half Sunday. It enables them to use Miller and Shaun Phillips in a stand-up role as edge players.

  • The Broncos rushed three or four players at Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith on 79.6 percent of Smith's dropbacks, including penalty snaps. They got one sack in those rushes. They sent five rushers at Smith on nine dropbacks and got one sack and rushed at least six rushers at Smith on just one snap in the game and got a sack on the play. Two of the Broncos three sacks came when they were in their nickel package (five defensive backs).

  • Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme continues to show high-character play on special teams. Tamme was a 52-catch player last season in the Broncos offense, but has seen most of his playing time gobbled up by Julius Thomas this season. However, Tamme has consistently made plays on special teams and leads the team in special teams tackles with seven. Sunday he came within inches of blocking a punt. Tamme has played just 57 snaps on offense in 10 games, or 7.6 percent of the team's plays, but has already played 221 snaps on special teams (63.7 percent).

Denver Broncos Rookie Report

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
7:00
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the season moves beyond the halfway mark the Denver Broncos' rookie class has had limited impact overall so far.

But with a division race still in play and the teeth of the Broncos' schedule staring the team in the pace with two games against the Chiefs to go with a trip to New England sandwiched in between, the Broncos want some of their younger players to step forward.

And with that in mind here is a weekly look at the Broncos' rookie class:

Running back Montee Ball: With reliability being the top priority, Knowshon Moreno got most of the work in the Broncos' 28-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers Sunday with 41 plays on offense. By contrast Ball played 19 snaps overall, a total the included five carries for 20 yards. Ball had a 12-yard run in the Broncos' first possession of the second half, tied for his second-longest run of the season. Ball did not get a carry in the first half, but when the Broncos opened the second half in a two tight end look, Ball got some work with that group. The Broncos would like to work him in a little more, but he has to be better in the passing game, including as a receiver and in pass protection.

Quarterback Zac Dysert: Dysert got some bonus work in practice this week when Peyton Manning sat out Wednesday's practice. Dysert got some of the snaps that Brock Osweiler would normally take, but Osweiler worked with the starters with Manning having taken the day off. The Broncos continue to like Dysert's progress in his work with quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, especially the time the two put in several hours before each game.

Running back C.J. Anderson: Anderson was in uniform for Sunday's game, but did not get any snaps on offense. The Broncos ran the ball just 22 times, their second-lowest total of the season behind their 20 carries in the loss to the Colts, so after Moreno's and Ball's work in the rotation, there were no carries left for Anderson. Anderson played 12 snaps on special teams in the game.

Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams: Williams was a game day inactive for the third time in the last six games Sunday. The first-round pick has been caught in the squeeze by the Broncos' desire to have plenty of defensive backs in uniform – the Broncos had nine defensive backs in uniform against the Chargers and played them all on defense at some point in the game. Jack Del Rio is still confident Williams will find his way into the rotation up front as the Broncos move forward this season. But at the moment he finds himself behind Kevin Vickerson, Terrance Knighton and Mitch Unrein on the interior. As Del Rio put it this week; “He's going to help us, he's going to be a very good player I have no doubts about that.''

Cornerback Kayvon Webster: Webster continues to lead the way in playing time for the team's Class of '13. The Broncos used a variety of combinations in the secondary against the Chargers, including various nickel packages for 42 defensive snaps in the game. In all Webster played 45 snaps on defense in the win to go with 17 snaps on special teams. Defensively Webster finished with five tackles and knocked away one pass.

Practice squad: Tackle Vinston Painter, a sixth-round pick, was waived in the final cutdown, and defensive end John Youboty, an undrafted free agent who spent training camp with the Broncos, continue to work toward keeping themselves in the plan moving forward. Painter has continued to work with Alex Gibbs, including some extra on-field time on Monday's with the other practice squad players, and projects to work his way into some kind of reserve role by next summer's training camp if he keeps improving at his current pace.

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