AFC West: Wes Welker

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos showed how their offense would operate without wide receiver Wes Welker in the win over the Indianapolis Colts.

And while the Broncos continue to be optimistic about the chances of getting Welker back before Week 6 if a new drug policy is put in place -- so much so they cleared a roster spot and are carrying 52 players -- their work against the Colts is worth a look for what it all means with, or without, Welker in the lineup.

First, if anyone doubted the Broncos could simply put Emmanuel Sanders into the offense in place of Eric Decker and roll on, they should put those doubts aside. Decker was second on the team in targets (137), catches (87) and receiving touchdowns (11) last season -- a productive, proven quality option.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Emmanuel Sanders
Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesEmmanuel Sanders caught six passes for 77 yards, including this one for 40 against the Colts.
But Sanders, with his ability to play on the outside and in the slot, will squarely be in the No. 2 role behind Demaryius Thomas. It’s what the Broncos signed him to be and what he showed he will be in his first regular-season outing. His ability to stretch the field from anywhere in the formation will create big plays for him and room for others to work.

"I thought it was a good start for him," quarterback Peyton Manning said.

With no Welker, the Broncos played their two-tight end set one snap more than they did their three-wide receiver set. While some said Andre Caldwell would start against the Colts in place of Welker, the Broncos actually opened the game in a two tight end look with Demaryius Thomas and Sanders as the wide receivers.

Virgil Green played 42 snaps as the second tight end and Caldwell played 40 snaps as the third wide receiver. Those numbers figure to shift whenever Welker returns and by what the Broncos believe the opposing defense has to offer week to week.

But their work in camp as well as the opener shows the two tight end look will likely be a bigger part of things than in 2013, when the Broncos had five games when they played out of a three-wide look for at least 69 snaps -- including penalty plays.

And then there’s the matter of how Julius Thomas fits moving forward. The Broncos saw, and enjoyed, his breakout year in 2013, but start charting how things could go in this offense and the most likely scenario is where Thomas is the third target rather than the third wide receiver.

He figures to get more attention moving forward, especially after what he did to the Colts linebackers and safeties. Sunday he was targeted eight times by Manning, just below Demaryius Thomas’ 11 targets and Sanders’ nine.

"When you’re on defense you have to pick your poison," Broncos coach John Fox said. "You can’t double everybody or you’d run out of numbers. I think part of what makes our offense successful is we do have those weapons and we have the trigger guy (in Manning). He can decipher exactly what is taking place in an instant and feed the ball to the guy the defense might be light on."

Rookie Cody Latimer also figures to enter the picture at some point. The Broncos have Latimer, as they do all of their receivers, learning all of the receiver spots in their scheme.

In their offense that means not only knowing all of the assignments at all of the outside spots and in the slot positions, it means being able to handle Manning checking out of a play into another play the team has either run in a game or practiced at any point since offseason workouts began.

When Latimer, who admits his head "is spinning sometimes, but you work," has a handle on those audibles, his size and speed will be too much to keep on the bench.

All in all, it means options against a schedule full of defenses that figure to dot the league’s top 10 when all is said and done.

Broncos await new drug policy

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will have a keen eye on negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Players Association on a new drug policy because the team hopes it means wide receiver Wes Welker could return sooner than his current four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

Welker served the first game of the suspension Sunday, but Broncos officials believe a new policy would change the criteria of Welker’s suspension and allow for re-instatement.

ESPN NFL Insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen reported Monday the NFLPA will take a vote Tuesday afternoon among its 32 player representatives on a revised drug policy after a daylong face-to-face negotiation with the league in New York.

There are still details to be worked out, but sources told Schefter and Mortensen the proposal being voted upon includes human growth hormone testing for the first time, significant changes that raise limits for marijuana testing, and expand neutral arbitration.

In an interview Friday with 106.7 The Fan in Washington D.C.,, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith expressed the possibility a deal on a new drug policy could lead to the re-instatement for Welker and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon. In the interview Smith said players who were recently suspended under the current rules should have their punishments revised and revoked.

“If we get a deal done that covers players in this league year, I don't like that we punish players under a deal active in the old league year," Smith said in the interview. “We don't want players to suffer because the union and the league couldn't get it done before the league year."

All of this comes to light for the Broncos and Welker because Welker's suspension, though for amphetamines, fell under the league’s policy for performance-enhancing drugs. Under the guidelines for PEDs players are suspended for the first flagged positive test. Team sources believe under the proposed new drug policy those stimulants would be characterized under the league’s policy for substance abuse.

Broncos officials, including head coach John Fox, had expressed some frustration about the timing of Welker's suspension, formally announced by the league the Tuesday night before the regular-season opener and three days after rosters had to be cut to 53 players.

Under those guidelines a player enters the treatment program with the first positive test, a program that includes meeting with counselors, and the player is subject to increased testing each month. It takes multiple positive tests under the substance-abuse policy before the suspension phase is reached.

Broncos officials, including head coach John Fox, had expressed some frustration about the timing of Welker's suspension, formally announced by the league the Tuesday night before the regular-season opener and three days after rosters had to be cut to 53 players.

“Ideally, me personally, obviously it wasn’t great timing because we’d picked our roster," Fox said last week. “ ... I would have preferred maybe it was last week, if you’re asking me my preference. But I don’t know that that matters too much. It is what it is, we’ll move on without him."

Welker, who cannot attend meetings or work out at the Broncos complex under the guidelines of a PED suspension, is currently eligible for reinstatement to return to the team Oct. 6, and would then play in the Oct. 12 game against the New York Jets.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- An examination of what the Denver Broncos must to after their win over the Indianapolis Colts:

When a game gets a little frayed around the edges before it eventually ends a victory, quarterback Peyton Manning will often quote his first NFL head coach -- Jim Mora.

"(Mora) used to say 'don't take winning for granted,'" Manning said after a game got a little frayed around the edges as the Broncos still came away with a 31-24 victory over the Colts in their season opener. "And sometimes people do it, we'll learn from it."

Some things to consider:
  • Too many drops: Routinely "it's the opener," is often the response for some things that aren't quite as they should be in the opener. But by the time the Broncos had finished three quarters of play Sunday night, Demaryius Thomas had three drops, Andre Caldwell had two (one a tough call, but he would say he should have reeled it in) and Emmanuel Sanders had one. This isn't new. Even in the never-before-seen 606-point season the Broncos put up in 2013, they Broncos simply dropped too many passes. Last season, the top three wideouts -- Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker all dropped at least five passes with Welker's team-leading nine, including two three-drop games. The Broncos escaped, but with the schedule they have, those are potential first downs/big plays they don't want to leave on the table.
  • Not happy: It's certain the Broncos will send the video clip to the league office for a review, but the team's coaches and players were not happy about how special teams captain David Bruton Jr. suffered a left shoulder injury on what was a touchback on a Broncos' kickoff late in the second quarter. Some used the words "cheap shot." Broncos coach John Fox reacted angrily on the sideline following the hit on Bruton Jr. by Indianapolis safety Colt Anderson on what was clearly going to be a touchback with the kicked ball out of play from the moment Brandon McManus launched the kick. Bruton Jr. is expected to miss some time and his would be a big loss on the team's specialty units. Tight end Jacob Tamme would be asked to lead a little more, do a little more if Bruton Jr. is sidelined.
  • Work in progress: The Broncos' run game, which the team hopes will be more efficient this season than last, especially, let's say, when trying to protect a big lead against a team with a clutch playmaker at quarterback. Oh, like the Colts. The Broncos had a good thing going in the first half with 75 yards rushing on their 18 carries. Simple, efficient, just what they are looking for. But in the second half, the Broncos rushed 14 times for 27 yards, and in the fourth quarter when they couldn't slam the door until the Colts' final possession, they ran for all of nine yards on nine carries. That is still too one dimensional.
  • Work them in: The recoveries of Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. from ACL surgeries in January and February respectively, have been remarkable. But the Broncos are going to be careful with the two starters and the defense should get more consistent as the two regain their conditioning as they continue to work into the lineup. But the Colts' comeback was indeed rooted in Andrew Luck's immense ability under pressure, but also in the fact the Broncos were rotating Harris Jr., Miller and DeMarcus Ware (he had elbow surgery in the offseason and leg injuries last year) in and out of the lineup. When all was said and done Harris Jr. played 39 of the defense's 74 snaps, Miller played 56 and Ware played 50. The Broncos will continue to play it safe and they do like their depth, but that play time should increase as they go, especially Harris Jr.'s.

Broncos planned for Welker's absence

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Though the revelation of Wes Welker's suspension closed out a headline-filled day in the NFL -- Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended, Michael Sam planned to visit the Dallas Cowboys and J.J. Watt discussed his $100 million contract -- it's clear now the Denver Broncos have been preparing for Welker's four-game absence for some time.

After he suffered two concussions last season, on Nov. 17 and Dec. 8, the Broncos were in a position to consider what they would do if Welker missed time in the future. So the suspension was simply another issue for the Broncos to consider with regards to Welker's availability.

Early on in their offseason planning, the threat of another Welker concussion was a big enough issue, coupled with Eric Decker's departure in free agency, that the Broncos considered Emmanuel Sanders their top target offensive free agent target. Executive vice president and general manager John Elway called Sanders "our No. 1 guy at the position we wanted to bring in. He fits what we do and what we wanted."

The Broncos then used a second-round draft pick on wide receiver Cody Latimer because they considered him a tough, fast, physical receiver, who could play immediately in the team's red zone packages, and steadily earn more playing time as he grew into the offense. Latimer then sped his development with extra sessions with quarterback Peyton Manning. Latimer was already poised for premium snaps before Tuesday's Welker announcement.

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJohn Elway has called Emmanuel Sanders "our No. 1 guy at the position we wanted to bring in. He fits what we do and what we wanted."
As they moved through their offseason work and Welker's flagged test in the performance-enhancing drug policy became an issue, the Broncos made plans. They knew he could miss time. Whether that missed time would be caused by a concussion, which Welker suffered Aug. 23 against the Houston Texans, or the threat of a suspension remained to be seen.

So when they cut the roster to 53, a team that wanted to keep five wide receivers kept six.

Granted, rookie Isaiah Burse was kept largely for his potential as a returner. The coaches said all along any player kept as a returner would have to show enough to contribute at another position. And just after the Broncos made the cuts, Elway said of Burse: "He's a bright kid. He's a kid that can play all positions, too. When it comes to that, he's a guy that can come in and help us on the offensive side, too."

The Broncos also kept two more wide receivers on the practice squad -- Bennie Fowler and Nathan Palmer -- who had been through training camp and know the offense. Palmer also spent time on the Broncos' practice squad during the 2013 season.

The Broncos had also worked a heavy rotation in training camp, giving a variety of receivers at least some snaps with the first- and second-team offenses.

Welker was excused from practice Aug. 20-21 for his appeal hearing, and that offers a glimpse into the timetable the team had as it prepared for the suspension. When a player is notified of a suspension -- a written "notice of discipline" -- he has five days to request an appeal hearing, according to the league policy on PEDs.

That appeal hearing is to take place within 20 days of the request, excluding extenuating circumstances for either league officials or the player. Within two days of the scheduled hearing, the two sides exchange documents and/or any evidence that will be presented.

The policy states a decision on the appeal will then be rendered within "five calendar days" of the hearing. It is likely the Broncos and Welker were well aware of the suspension as players reported for training camp July 23.

When asked about Welker's absence from practice last month, Broncos coach John Fox said, "We need to get him back and see what state of mind he's in and where he is in our game plan and just go from there."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For the second time in less than a week, the Denver Broncos have a starter facing league discipline to open the season. A team that had coveted a quiet summer has had anything but that as the regular-season opener approaches.

Tuesday, it was revealed Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker is facing a four-game suspension for violation of the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy, according to my sources and sources for ESPN's Adam Schefter. Last week Broncos kicker Matt Prater was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Unlike the substance abuse policy, which requires multiple tests to reach the level of a four-game suspension, the league's policy on PEDs goes immediately to the four-game suspension on the first positive test if the player's appeal is not successful.

Welker's appeal was heard by league officials Aug. 20-21 when Welker was excused from practice for what the team publicly described as "personal reasons." The Broncos were practicing against the Houston Texans on both of those days and Welker suffered a concussion in the Aug. 23 preseason game against the Texans. But for a team that wanted what cornerback Chris Harris Jr. called "the no-news approach" preseason after the DUI arrests of two front-office executives and linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating the substance abuse policy overwhelmed the conversation a year ago, the team is now back to dealing-with-adversity swirl it thought it had escaped.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
AP Photo/Jack DempseyWes Welker, who caught 73 passes for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, is facing a four-game suspension.
On the field, the Broncos had been optimistic Welker, who has had three concussions in the past 10 months, would be available for at least partial duty in Sunday night's regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts. Welker returned to practice, on a limited basis, Monday for the first time since his injury and the Broncos were hoping he would clear enough benchmarks in the league's concussion protocol to be cleared for full participation by the end of the week.

The Broncos were preparing for the Colts with the possibility Welker would be in the lineup. Welker's suspension means the Broncos will implement the plan they had been developing had he been sidelined because of the concussion.

And, now a team that has touted its single-minded focus of getting back to the Super Bowl -- to as John Elway said, "win that last game of the year and get that world championship" -- has had two veteran starters disciplined by the league in a week's time.

To that end, they can go a little bigger and line up in a two-tight end look where Jacob Tamme is essentially a slot receiver. In Manning's first season with the Broncos, the year before Welker was signed, Tamme was the third-most targeted receiver on the team (85 targets), behind only Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

Given Emmanuel Sanders' ability to line up in the slot, as well as tight end Julius Thomas', they can create matchup issues in the middle of the field, even if they surrendered some speed overall.

They can also maintain their proclivity to keep things three wide as they did almost 75 percent of the time last season, a total that hovered near 90 percent of the time in the postseason.

And that's why Sanders was signed, why Cody Latimer was selected in the second round of the draft and why Andre Caldwell was the first player the team re-signed, just before free agency opened this past March.

Against the Colts, the Broncos could mix and match more with this group of receivers than they would have last season when Welker missed the final three games of the regular season. In those three games, Decker was targeted 27 times, Demaryius Thomas was targeted 24 times, Julius Thomas was targeted 21 times and Caldwell 10 times.

In the three games Welker missed, Tamme played nine, 52 and 49 snaps (two of the three games he played more than 30 snaps all season), but was targeted by Manning two, three and four times.

In the end, a team Elway has said is built to face "the bumps in the road that will come our way, and you're always going to have bumps in the road" will now have to prove it once again.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Things could still change if the Denver Broncos look at the hundreds of players who were sent into the open market in recent days and see a name or two they like.

But when the clock struck the 4 p.m. ET roster deadline on Saturday, the roster in place wasn’t exactly the one some folks might have thought it would be.

First off, after their substantial plunge into free agency last March -- almost unprecedented for a Super Bowl team -- the Broncos have routinely been tabbed as “all in" or “win now."

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway, Peyton Manning
AP Photo/ Eric BakkePeyton Manning is the oldest player on the roster assembled by John Elway and the Broncos' front office. But the team as a whole has plenty of youth.
The career clock for quarterback Peyton Manning, at 38 years old, is certainly ticking, and they make no secret of their Super-Bowl-or-bust intentions. But the current Broncos roster has 13 players who are 23 years old or younger (24.5 percent) and seven rookies made a team in the Super Bowl conversation, including five members of a six-player draft class and two undrafted rookies.

Overall, there are 39 players entering their fifth NFL season or younger on this roster (73.6 percent). The Broncos will have three high-profile players start the season-opener next Sunday night -- Manning, DeMarcus Ware and center Manny Ramirez -- who are older than 30 and possibly a fourth if Wes Welker, who suffered a concussion in the preseason game against the Houston Texans, is in the lineup.

Some of the team's moves were motivated by the salary cap, to be sure. The Broncos have been nudged up against it since the free agency binge. But general manager John Elway has consistently maintained, even with the checkbook in hand at times, that he has more of a long-term approach than many believe he does. In fact, if you'd like to see the Hall of Fame quarterback get his hackles up, just ask him about a win-now approach.

“We were happy with the draft when we went through it in May and then they just proceeded to work hard and get better so, especially when you get deeper into this, as active as we were in free agency, to be able to keep our draft picks is something we want to do and continue to have that be our base," Elway said when discussing this year’s cuts. “We’re excited with the guys and they are, at this point in time, everything we hoped they would be.”

Among that youth is what is likely one of the youngest position groups in the league at running back. The four Broncos running backs include a rookie (Juwan Thompson), two players entering their second seasons (Montee Ball, C.J. Anderson) and a player entering his third season (Ronnie Hillman).

“I like them. I’ve said that all along," Elway said. “We feel good where we are at the running back position -- good, young guys that we feel are going to continue to get better."

Some other roster nuggets:

  • Of all the football-playing colleges and universities in the country, Kansas, Tennessee and Texas Tech lead the way on the Broncos' roster with three players each.
  • Manning is the oldest current Broncos player at 38. rookie receiver Cody Laitmer is the youngest, at 21. Hillman, at 22 and starting his third season, is the same age as four of the Broncos’ rookies and younger than two of the Broncos rookies. Michael Schofield and Lamin Barrow, who are both 23.
Wes Welker, D.J. Swearinger, Jeff TarpinianAP Photo/Jack DempseyWes Welker suffered yet another concussion after taking this hit from D.J. Swearinger.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For most of Emmanuel Sanders' NFL career, he has done his business as a wide receiver in that high-impact, high-traffic area where slot receivers roam.

So he knows what Wes Welker goes through in the Denver Broncos' high-powered offense and knows what it will take to adjust if Welker misses time in the regular season because of a concussion suffered just before halftime in this past Saturday's preseason loss to the Houston Texans.

"It's different," Sanders said. "I've played slot every year that I've played football except last year was my first year on the outside. It's a different game. On the outside, you just have to beat one man, really, and that's because they play man-to-man. Whereas in the slot, it's more zone. You have to avoid linebackers, you have to avoid safeties, you have to sit down in the zone and that's where the big hits can come from. Whereas on the outside, they'll come, but they're not going to come as much as in the slot."

Welker, who also suffered concussions Nov. 17 against the Kansas City Chiefs and Dec. 8 against the Tennessee Titans last season, is currently under the guidelines of the league's concussion protocol. The Broncos don't have a timetable for his return, but under those guidelines to return to full participation in a practice by next Friday -- two days before the Sept. 7 regular-season opener -- Welker would have to be symptom free by Monday.

Welker would also have to be cleared for a return to the field by an independent physician, designated by both the NFL and NFL Players Association.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesWes Welker had 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns with the Broncos last season.
"He's doing fantastic in the process," said Broncos head coach John Fox, following Tuesday's practice. "We'll take it one day (at a time), and another positive day today."

In their offense, much like how the Indianapolis Colts' offense looked with Peyton Manning behind center, the Broncos' bread-and-butter plays are the crossing routes, both shallow and deeper down the field, to go with the big-play shots that come down the seam.

With Welker having suffered three concussions in 10 months in the Broncos' offense, offensive coordinator Adam Gase said he would look at how the team is using its slot receivers to see if they are being put in harm's way more often. But Gase also said he didn't believe that to be the case on the play when Welker was injured.

"I think we'll take a look at our route concepts and see what we need to tinker with and maybe why something like that happened," Gase said. "If we have to make an adjustment, we will. If he came to me and said something about a certain route he didn't feel comfortable (with), we would make an adjustment. For right now, I feel like our scheme is pretty good. What happened, like Coach Fox said, it's a football play, and those things happen sometimes."

In their three-wide receiver set, their base formation, they'll line various receivers in the inside slot positions on either side of the formation. But players such as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, Sanders and tight end Julius Thomas will line up plenty on the outside, as well.

By contrast Welker will line up on a smattering of snaps on the outside, but he works almost exclusively from the slot. Last season, for example, seven of Welker's 10 scoring receptions came on plays in which he started in the slot. And a look at the game video shows just over 50 of Welker's 73 receptions last season as well as almost 700 of his 778 receiving yards came on plays in which he was lined up in the slot. So, if Welker misses any significant time, it will take some adjustment in the team's offense.

"We're able to move pieces around and still do a lot of the same things that we've done," Gase said. "We don't really teach by position, so everybody can move in and out."

Sanders would certainly get more work as a slot receiver, as would tight end Jacob Tamme, but at varying points in training camp the Broncos have given all of their receivers some routes from the slot. Tamme gives the Broncos the option of sticking to a three-wide concept with a little more size in the formation. It's a formation that, at times, forces defenses to go a little bigger because the Broncos are in a two-tight end look.

The Broncos will also use rookie Cody Latimer, especially in some of their red zone packages, because of Latimer's size and ability to win the ball in contested situations -- "I felt like that was a strength of mine in college and want it to be in the NFL," he said. Whatever the personnel, the Broncos won't dial back how much, or where, they throw the ball. They'd certainly like to have Welker in the lineup, but believe they have insurance for the loss if they don't.

"If he's not there Week 1, then guess what? Other guys have to come in and step up," Sanders said. "Guys like myself, Demaryius Thomas, everyone has to come together and make this team better and it really doesn't matter who's on the field. ... We work our butt off and we have Peyton Manning as our quarterback, so everything is looking really good. Wes will be back and strong."

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos take to the practice field Monday, wide receiver Wes Welker will not be among those players in uniform.

And while the Broncos, after some testing in recent days, don't initially believe Welker's concussion is as serious as the two he suffered last season, he is still under the league's concussion protocol.

That means even if Welker was symptom free on Sunday -- and according to some with the team he was not -- he cannot resume full duties in practice until five days after the hit that caused the injury. Welker left Saturday's preseason game with nine seconds remaining in the first half after taking a blow to the helmet from Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger. Welker got up and walked, next to a member of the Broncos training staff, off the field and straight into the locker room.

This makes the third time Welker has been under the guidelines of the league's concussion protocol since Nov. 17. He left a game on that date against the Kansas City Chiefs, was reported by the team to have a concussion when he left a Dec. 8 game against the Tennessee Titans and then Saturday's game. Broncos head coach John Fox seemed to dispute the number of concussions Welker has suffered immediately following the game.

When asked if the league's concussion protocol changes for a player who has had multiple concussion, Fox answered: "I don't know about multiple ones a year ago but, again, not being a doctor, I will leave that to the medical people and he won't come back until he's ready to come back."

Fox will speak publicly about Welker's status Monday afternoon, following the team's practice. Welker was held out of the final three games of the regular season in 2013, but did return last season to play in the Broncos' three postseason games, including Super Bowl XLVIII. He wore a helmet with extra padding in those games, and he has continued to wear the helmet this preseason.

To play in the Sept. 7 regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts, Welker would likely have to be symptom free by Monday.

According to the league's concussion protocol, even if a player is symptom-free the day following his concussion, he can return only to light exercise three days after the hit and only in non-contact portions of practice four days after the hit.

The quickest a player, who is symptom free the day after suffering the concussion, can return to a full contact practice is five days after the hit, which is Friday in a normal game week.

Also per the policy, once a team doctor has signed off on a player's return to the field, a doctor unaffiliated with the team and approved by both the NFL and NFL Players Association must also clear the player to return. One of the factors considered, in addition to the cognitive tests, is a player's concussion history.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos haven’t been all that thrilled with what summer has had to offer over the past 15 months or so.

First dial it back to last summer. The Broncos had two front office executives arrested for DUIs in separate incidents. Both were suspended by the team.

Then as 2013's training camp opened, news broke that linebacker Von Miller was going to be suspended for the first six games of the season because of a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Miller then had a couple of other legal items pop up before camp was over from some traffic violations as well as a missed court date.

All in all, it was not the kind of summer the team’s decision-makers had hoped for. At one point, Broncos executive John Elway said, "We need to get ourselves into the season, deal with what's happened and get going." As they moved into the regular season and kicked their record-setting offense into gear, the tumultuous offseason got tossed into the ubiquitous “adversity" pile, the list of things the Broncos had to overcome to get to the Super Bowl.

And when training camp opened this time around, the Broncos (fingers-crossed) relished the relative peace and quiet surrounding their day-to-day activities. So much so that in early July cornerback Chris Harris said things looked fine on all fronts and that everybody had to “just stay in shape and stay out of news."

Well, it was good while it lasted for the Broncos. Saturday night they went from a smooth ride to a couple significant bumps along the way in the span of one football night.

First, wide receiver Wes Welker took a hit to the helmet from Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger with just nine seconds remaining in the first half. Welker suffered his third concussion since Nov. 17 and is once again under the guidelines of the league's concussion protocol.

Then, as Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, Broncos officials confirmed kicker Matt Prater, the league’s most accurate kicker last season as well as the guy who booted the record 64-yarder in 2013, faces a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Prater had a DUI arrest during 2011's training camp that put him into the suspension stage of discipline this time around. The Broncos could let Prater kick in the preseason finale Thursday night in Dallas, but he won’t be with the team in the regular season until the Monday before the Week 6 game against the New York Jets.

From a football standpoint, Prater’s a proven, game-tested player at a position that can decide a game as the clock runs out. And with games against the Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals in their first four games -- all teams that won at least 10 games last season -- there is a good chance somebody is going to be asked to make a kick that matters for the Broncos.

So, as September creeps over the horizon, the Broncos are once again simply hoping for summer to be over.
DENVER -- Just a week ago the Denver Broncos looked at their depth chart and were considering the idea they could keep six wide receivers when they cut the roster to 53 players.

Now they have some question marks. Wes Welker suffered a concussion in Saturday night’s preseason game, and the timeline for his availability for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener and beyond is now in the hands of the Broncos’ medical staff.

Wes Welker, D.J. Swearinger
Jack Dempsey/Associated PressD.J. Swearinger's hit on Wes Welker late in the first half Saturday knocked Welker out of the game with a concussion.
This past week the Broncos also lost Jordan Norwood for the season after Norwood, who was on track to make the roster as a depth player at wide receiver as well as a punt returner, tore his left ACL in Tuesday’s practice with the Houston Texans. Welker, because of his concussion history, will bear watching in the coming days and weeks.

He left the game with 9 seconds remaining in the first half after taking a blow to the helmet from Texans safety D.J. Swearinger. Welker got up and walked, next to a member of the Broncos' training staff, off the field and straight into the locker room.

Asked following the game about Welker’s potential recovery time, Broncos head coach John Fox said: “We’ll leave that to the medical people and he won’t come back until he’s ready to come back."

The injury occurred on a first-and-10 from the Broncos’ 47-yard line. Peyton Manning hit Welker again in the middle of the field and Swearinger hit Welker in the head as Welker lunged forward. Replays appeared to show Welker’s head dropping as he began to slide, and Swearinger hit him with a combination of forearm and shoulder. Welker got up on his own, but immediately waved to the Broncos trainers to come on to the field.

Swearinger was assessed a personal foul on the play for a blow to the head. Manning was bothered enough by the hit that, following a touchdown throw to Emmanuel Sanders on the following play, Manning ran all the way into the end zone to confront Swearinger.

“Obviously concerned about Wes," Manning said. “I just didn’t like seeing him come out of the game, a potential blow to the head, that kept out a while last year, so obviously concerned about him."

“Definitely it made me mad," Sanders said. “The fact that Peyton was addressing the situation, that means it was a bad situation. [Swearinger is] a competitor all week in practice he’s been getting into it sometimes, he lets attitude get the [best] of him."

Manning was assessed a taunting penalty after confronting Swearinger.

“Fifteen yards with five seconds left in the half doesn’t hurt you that much, I think if you’re going to get one that’s a good time to get one," Manning said.

Then asked if he could repeat what he said to Swearinger and what Swearinger said back to him, Manning said:

"I can’t. He said, 'Thanks, appreciate it, good luck to you as well.'"

Welker’s concussion in Saturday's game is the third time he has been under the league’s protocol since November. He suffered two concussions last season four games apart, and missed the last three games of the regular season.

Welker did return to play in the Broncos’ three postseason games, including Super Bowl XLVIII, wearing a helmet with extra padding. Welker has continued to wear the helmet this season as well.

According to the league's concussion protocol, even if a player is symptom-free the day following his concussion, he can return only to light exercise three days after the hit and only in non-contact portions of practice four days after the hit. The quickest a player, who is symptom-free the day after suffering the concussion, can return to a full contact practice is five days after the hit and the player has to show no symptoms compared to his base-line testing the day after the hit to even be on that timetable.

Also per the policy, once a team doctor has signed off on a player's return to the field, a doctor unaffiliated with the team and approved by both the NFL and NFL Players Association must also clear the player to return. One of the factors considered, in addition to the cognitive tests, is a player's concussion history.

Welker left the Broncos' Nov. 17 home win over the Kansas City Chiefs last season with a concussion but played the following week at New England. He suffered another concussion when he went low for a pass Dec. 8 against the Tennessee Titans.

Observation Deck: Denver Broncos

August, 24, 2014
Aug 24

DENVER -- After a testy week with the Houston Texans when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning went as far as to say the Broncos’ offense “stunk," the Broncos starters rebounded enough by Saturday night to show their expected quick-strike explosiveness on offense in a 18-17 preseason loss in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Manning threw for 243 yards in a half of work as the Broncos regulars scored their two touchdowns in the final 1:07 of the first half. Manning threw both of his scoring passes to Emmanuel Sanders, who finished with 128 yards receiving on five catches.

All in all the Broncos starters have scored on six of their 10 possessions in the preseason.

Here are some other thoughts on the Broncos’ third preseason game of the season:
  • Not sure if these two teams will be looking to hook up for preseason practice any time soon. After two days worth of pushing, shoving, and even a few punches in practice, things got testy in the game as well. Texans safety D.J. Swearinger knocked Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker out of the game with a hit to Welker’s helmet late in the first half. On the next play Manning hit Sanders for a 29-yard touchdown. After making the throw, Manning ran all the way down the field into the end zone to confront Swearinger and the quarterback was flagged for possibly his first career taunting penalty.
  • Welker left the game under his own power following Swearinger’s hit. However, he was taken immediately to the locker room and did not play for the rest of the evening. The starters likely wouldn’t have played into the second half anyway, but it’s a concern any time Welker takes any impact to his helmet. Welker, who dealt with concussions during his time with the New England Patriots, suffered two last season and missed the Broncos’ last three games of the regular season before returning to play in all three playoff games. At minimum Welker will certainly miss some practice time in the coming days. Welker’s concussion history did play at least a part in the Broncos using a second-round draft pick on Cody Latimer in this past May’s draft.
  • Anyone curious what kind of impact Sanders would have in this offense should wonder no more. Sanders had been a limited participant in practice and over the course of the first two preseason games because of a thigh injury. He did not play against the San Francisco 49ers last week and didn’t practice this past Tuesday or Wednesday. Manning said he hoped Sanders would be ready to go Saturday night -- Sanders said Manning texted him at one point last week with the hope he would be back in practice by Thursday -- and Sanders showed he was. Sanders notched his first five catches of the preseason, and his two scoring catches came just 62 seconds apart. Given Sanders has the versatility to line up on either side of the formation and in the slot, this may have been a small preview of the kind of production he could have in this offense.
  • As expected the Broncos, after three days’ worth of practice with the Texans, dialed back the usual work for the starters. Usually the Broncos will play their starters well into the third quarter of the third preseason game. However, the Broncos’ starters called it a night at halftime. Given that they won’t play Thursday night in Dallas, the regulars are done until the Sept. 7 regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts.
  • Running back Montee Ball, who had an appendectomy Aug. 4, got his first preseason work in the Broncos’ opening series. The Broncos wanted to get Ball some work in the game and get him out quickly. Ball had eight touches -- four rushes and four receptions -- in the Broncos’ 13 plays from scrimmage. Ball was then removed from the game. Ball looked ready to go, and it’s clear he’s going to have a role in the passing game as well.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos' depth at wide receiver has been tested thus far in the preseason.

Emmanuel Sanders was back in practice Thursday after being held out of both Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s workout. He has missed several days of practice since suffering a thigh injury shortly after training camp opened.

Jordan Norwood suffered a season-ending knee injury in Wednesday’s practice, and Wes Welker was excused, for personal reasons, Thursday, which was also the third and last day of the Broncos’ combined practices with the Houston Texans. It meant Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, Andre Caldwell and rookie Cody Latimer got plenty of work with the starters.

And depending on how many snaps the Broncos elect to give Thomas and Sanders in Saturday’s preseason game with the Texans, Caldwell and Latimer could get some premium playing time.

“We’ll meet [Friday] night. … We’ve already talked about coming into this week, it’s more reps, more intense reps this week might affect a little less playing time with the starters,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said.

The Broncos will have to consider some additional options at the position as well because of Norwood’s injury. Norwood, who tore his left ACL in Wednesday’s practice and will miss the season, had positioned himself to make the final 53 as the team’s sixth receiver as well as a punt returner.

The fifth-year pro, who has started just four career games, was also poised to get a smattering of snaps with one of the league 's most high-powered offense, or as he said earlier in camp “everything you could ask for as a receiver.’’

The Broncos are expected to move him to injured reserve in the coming days, but had not yet done so as of Thursday afternoon. It also means the team is still on the hunt for a punt returner where Norwood had distanced himself from most of the others who have auditioned for the job.

“Very disappointed for him, very disappointed for us selfishly," Fox said. "Jordan has worked very hard, had a very good opportunity to make our football team, make us better. So, I know he’s very disappointed, as we are.’’

As far as Saturday’s game, the Broncos might tread lightly with Sanders. After missing some practice time before the team’s preseason opener, Sanders played 20 snaps against the Seattle Seahawks only to miss practice time the following week as well as the preseason game in San Francisco last weekend. Thursday marked the first time he has been on the practice field this week, and the Broncos will have a light practice Friday morning.

Welker, too, is expected to be back with the team this weekend, but he might he held out as well.

“Get [Welker] back, see what state of mind he’s in, see where he’s at in the gameplan and go from there,’’ Fox said.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There's a learning curve and then there is the twisting, turning, work-fast riddle that is the Denver Broncos' offensive playbook.

And that is what receiver Cody Latimer must navigate to go from draft pick with piles of potential to draft pick with a productive place in a fast-paced touchdown factory.

"Our code words have code words, our signals have signals," said Broncos wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert. "To be able to put that together, to know what's the real deal. Is it an audible? Is it a dummy call? It takes a while to get all that running smoothly. ... And that's the major hurdle for any young guy in our offense, just to know all there is to know as fast as we need you to know it.''

[+] EnlargeDenver's Cody Latimer
John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesCody Latimer hauls in a 33-yard touchdown catch against the 49ers.
And then Tolbert added with a smile: "but I'd venture to say he's picking it up fairly well ... for a rookie."

A rookie that is looking more and more like he can be, despite the Broncos' obvious firepower and depth on offense, a contributor when the Broncos close in on the end zone. Sunday, in the Broncos' 34-0 preseason win over the San Francisco 49ers, Latimer caught his first scoring pass in a game for the Broncos.

He showed his top-tier speed up the right sideline and backup quarterback Brock Osweiler tossed a 33-yard scoring pass that he dove to catch.

"I just saw a one-on-one matchup there," Osweiler said following the game. " ... Cody just did a tremendous job by running by the corner and making a great catch in the end zone."

The starting jobs in the Broncos' three-wide receiver look are largely spoken for with Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders set to get the bulk of the plays. But when the May draft rolled around, the Broncos were still on the hunt for a little more size at the position, and when the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Latimer was still on the board when their second-round pick rolled around they grabbed him.

Latimer had fractured his foot in a pre-draft workout so the Broncos knew he would initially be limited in their offseason work. But just as Latimer showed the initiative to seek out special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers to see if he could return kickoffs, Latimer has also been a willing post-practice student with quarterback Peyton Manning, sweating the details along the way.

"You just want to learn as much as possible," Latimer said. "You have to know where you need to be all the time. You have to know the plays, the variations, just all of things that need to be done."

Latimer also fits another job description the team was looking to fill when they sifted through the rubble that was Super Bowl XLVIII. The defenses that did give the Broncos' record-setting offense at least some trouble last season, including the Seattle Seahawks' D in the title game, often did so by re-routing the Broncos receivers off the line of scrimmage, preventing them from getting a free release and disrupting the timing of an offense that lives on timing.

So when the Broncos looked at Latimer, in almost everything he did at Indiana, they saw a pass-catcher who was also one of the most physically aggressive receivers on the board.

"Absolutely, that was one thing that stood out, his aggressive play in general, not necessarily just to the ball," Tolbert said. "In the run game, he was a rusher on the punt team, on the kickoff team he would run down there and make tackles. Just a tough guy all the way around, rare for a receiver of his caliber to play special teams in the non-traditional roles of a wide receiver."

And when the ball was in the air, Tolbert said, "he was a guy who would get the ball and go win the ball."

All of that, when the Broncos crank things up for real, figures to put Latimer in some kind of rotation when the Broncos move into the red zone. That is if he can master the right-place, right-time technicalities of the team's offense.

"You want to be a guy Peyton Manning can trust," Latimer said. "He knows where (Thomas), Wes and Emmanuel are going to be. I just want to keep working so he always feels like he knows where I'll be and that I'll fight for that ball if it comes my way."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' annual summer scrimmage is a good time to gauge where things are with the team’s depth chart. The first of four preseason games is closing in on the horizon and choices will soon be made.

The Broncos, however, didn’t have many available spots on the depth chart when training camp began. Like many teams with the pieces in place to be in the postseason conversation, their personnel folks could have likely quickly listed 46 or 47 names of what will eventually be a 53-player roster even as camp opened.

So, this isn’t some scrape-it-to-the-foundation effort. This is a team that’s gone 26-6 in the last two regular seasons, with a Super Bowl appearance. The Broncos don’t have what-to-do questions in tow. They have is-it-enough questions. And after their first real live tackling effort this weekend, there are a few things for them to consider.
  • Running back is one of the few places where multiple spots on the depth chart are still in play. C.J. Anderson, who made the team as an undrafted rookie last summer, was on the shakiest of ground when OTAs and minicamp ended and his weight was up over 230 pounds. He was sluggish and lacked the spark he had shown in his 2013 training camp. The team’s decision-makers loaded up on undrafted rookies at the position and Anderson had been moved from good-depth-player status to may-not-make-it status. But after he lost almost 20 pounds before camp, he has shown a little more pop and has consistently worked as the No. 3 back so far behind Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. He needs some quality preseason work to keep that spot. Juwan Thompson has clawed his way to the front of the line among the undrafted rookie runners. But other than Ball and Hillman, things are still undecided there, especially if the Broncos see a name on the waiver wire that intrigues them in the coming weeks.
  • Somebody in the return game is going to have to catch the ball with some consistency -- rookie Isaiah Burse mishandled a punt in Saturday’s scrimmage, and overall the team has bobbled far too many kicks and punts so far. The Broncos have fallback options at kickoff returner and punt returner, most of which involve using a starter like Emmanuel Sanders or Wes Welker in some way. Omar Bolden and Andre Caldwell could offer workable options as a kickoff returner, but the Broncos need a player to latch on to the punt return role. Otherwise, the Broncos project to pile up fair catches as they reluctantly accept whatever field position comes with them.
  • It is to be expected, at least some, given how training camp and offseason workouts are structured now, but the Broncos' tackling in many of the 43 plays (including penalties) they ran in Saturday’s scrimmage was choppy at times. Now, nobody should advocate a return to football cave painting and put teams in full pads for six hours every day. Those days are done and aren’t coming back. But several defensive players acknowledged things need to be better in the coming weeks -- an honest assessment about something that needs attention. Or as safety Rahim Moore put it, “We’re holding each other accountable. We understand our system, too, and what Coach (Jack) Del Rio preaches and where we fit in the run, where we are in the pass, how we challenge the throws. Our defense can be very special, but you don’t play defense on paper. You’ve got to go out there and make plays on the field."
  • They’re working at crowded spots, but among the team’s undrafted rookies, Thompson, defensive end Kenny Anunike and linebacker Shaquil Barrett have made the most of their time with the team. All three are getting quality snaps and are just the kind of players to keep an eye on through the preseason games to keep the Broncos' streak of an undrafted rookie making the roster alive.
DENVER -- As he stays late each day to wrestle with the Denver Broncos’ voluminous playbook, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has consistently said a little more of everything the team can do on offense becomes clearer with each passing practice.

After all, he saw what the Broncos’ record setting 606-point offense looked like from the outside last season. And when he signed with the Broncos in free agency he called it “wide receiver heaven,’’ as he prepared to see it up close and personel.

So with OTAs, with minicamp and the start of training camp, Sanders has had a little more revealed with each step. And Saturday, in the team’s annual summer scrimmage at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Sanders said the curtain was pulled back even a little more.

“When I was out there, I finally got a glimpse of how this offense is,’’ Sanders said. “Up-tempo, you’re moving the ball. It’s fun, you’re making guys miss. I was like, ‘Wow, this is fun.’’’

The starting offense worked for 14 plays against the team’s No. 2 defense. And while offensive coordinator Adam Gase didn’t crank things up all the way to warp speed, the Broncos’ regulars played with their characteristically high tempo with Peyton Manning throwing on 10 of the 14 plays.

Sanders had two catches for 23 yards in the scrimmage, and Manning narrowly over-threw a diving Sanders for what would have been a touchdown if Sanders would have been able to reel it in on the starting offense’s last play from scrimmage of the day.

“Today was a great day offensively,’’ Sanders said.

Sanders has consistently worked with Manning after practice each day, in OTAs, minicamp and through training camp thus far, often with rookie Cody Latimer alongside. With his ability to play both outside and in the slot with proficiency, the Broncos want Sanders up to speed to be able to work at any speed the team’s offense wants to go.

On Saturday, Sanders was the starter on the outside with Demaryius Thomas, when the team had two wide receivers in the formation. And when the Broncos went three wide it was Sanders, Thomas and Wes Welker. But with Sanders, Welker and tight end Julius Thomas in the lineup, the Broncos can work impact pass-catchers out of the slot on both sides of the formation.

And they can limit the defensive backs’ ability to jam their receivers at the line of scrimmage by bunching them together. It was Sanders’ versatility as well as his ability to get away from bump coverage that intrigued the Broncos' decision-makers in the first place.

“Emmanuel has come in and worked really hard," Manning said. "He is a guy that stays after practice every day, he is trying to improve his craft and he’s trying to help the young guys. … A veteran player with that kind of work ethic, I am excited about playing with him this year.’’

On the day Manning was 7-of-10 for 107 yards with a scoring pass to tight end Jacob Tamme.