AFC West: Zane Beadles

Analyzing Kiper's Mock 4.0: Broncos 

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
When it comes to where the Denver Broncos are pointing in next month's draft, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has consistently said the team will keep working to upgrade its defense.

To that end Kiper has pointed the team to that side of the ball much of the time in his mock drafts thus far, and stays with that theme in his latest as well.

When the Denver Broncos played offense last season, they were often driving toward history.

Their 606 points were a new NFL single-season record, as were quarterback Peyton Manning's 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards. They worked fast, stayed aggressive and piled up the points, wins, and some did-you-see-that highlights week after week.

And why not? The league has constructed an environment to get the points it wants, and it’s easier to throw now, given the wording and enforcement of the rules, than it has ever been. Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is a co-chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, which reviews any potential rules changes before they go before the owners for a vote each year, said Wednesday that the 47.682 total points per game and 697 combined yards per game last season were league records.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesMontee Ball and Denver's running backs might handle a bigger workload in 2014.
Also, 18 times a team overcame at least a 14-point deficit last season to win. That tied a league record, set in 2011. So, this is unquestionably the era of throw to score. Yet, the Broncos’ ability to be one win better in February in the coming season might rest on how well they do on offense when Manning isn’t throwing the ball.

“No question, we have to be better in the run game," said Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “... To keep our personality, our approach on offense, but to do better when we do run the ball."

By necessity, design, and just the simple fact it was working so historically well, the Broncos became a one-trick pony for the most part on offense. Oh, it was an awesome trick all right, the best ever, a never-before seen combination of speed, precision and grand design.

However, the trophy didn’t come with it. There will be the same number of Lombardi trophies in the Broncos’ newly renovated complex this September as there was last year in the now demolished lobby.

And after 606 points, 55 passing touchdowns, and six 40-point games, it’s simply bad football business to really expect the passing game to do any more of the heavy lifting to finish the unfinished business. So, with the ball in their hands, that leaves special teams -- and the Broncos need to be exponentially better on both their coverage and return units there -- and the running game.

Start with running back Montee Ball. In a support role last season, his 4.7 yards per carry led the three backs -- Knowshon Moreno, Ball, and Ronnie Hillman -- who had at least 50 carries last season, and his 45-yard run was the team’s longest rushing play of the season.

He’s the starter and also the reason the Broncos haven’t made much of a move to bring Moreno back. But with guard Zane Beadles' departure in free agency, the Broncos do have some decisions up front. Protecting Manning in the middle of the formation is always Job 1.

The Broncos are looking to be bigger, more powerful on the offensive front. And looking at the video from last season’s work, looking at some of the video from the available free agents in the offensive line, and in discussions with several personnel people around the league, their best move right now is still to bump Orlando Franklin down inside to left guard and play Chris Clark at right tackle.

There are plenty of scouts who have always believed Franklin came into the league with the potential to be a better guard than tackle after he had started games at both positions at the University of Miami.

And the feeling among those personnel folks is Manny Ramirez played better at center last season than he did at guard the season before, so a move back to guard wouldn’t seem to make the Broncos better overall. But there are some plug-and-play centers in this draft, including USC’s Marcus Martin and Colorado State’s Weston Richburg (a four-year starter who once had to snap with his left hand in a game because he had broken his right one), that will be worth a long look in the second round.

The Broncos were able to get by with the throw first, second and sometimes third, approach in the regular season if 13 wins and a big slice of scoring history could ever be called just getting by. However, in the playoffs their inability to move the line of scrimmage in the run game was a factor, particularly to the weak side when you’re largely running behind offensive linemen and no tight end.

The Broncos averaged just 1.6 yards per carry in runs over the left tackle in the three postseason games, just 2.43 yards per carry inside over the left guard. The figures were far better to the right -- 5.2 yards per carry over the right tackle in the postseason, and 4.4 over the right guard.

For a team that opens up the formation in three-wide receiver sets as much as the Broncos do (more than 70 percent of the time, and more than 90 percent down the stretch) with the tight end also in the slot or out wide, they have to be far more efficient on weak-side runs. Because they all look like weak-side runs with just the center, guard and tackle moving defenders and everybody else in the pattern.

No, they don’t have to box up a historical fast-break no-huddle attack, but in those times they need to do something besides throw, they have to be far better at it, far more committed to it. This includes Manning, because if you can't win a Super Bowl after the first-ever 606-point season, it might a good idea to consider another way.

Top free-agent roundup: AFC West

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
The AFC West produced three playoff teams and the eventual AFC title winner in the Denver Broncos, so it should come as no surprise that many top free agents come from the division. Oakland Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez, Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold, Kansas City Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and San Diego Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams break down the top 15:

1. Branden Albert, Chiefs offensive tackle: Kansas City won’t franchise him this year. Albert will get a nice contract elsewhere.

2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Broncos cornerback: He’s not yet 30 and still a top-tier athlete.

3. Eric Decker, Broncos wide receiver: Productive in scoring zone, will be one of the biggest wide receivers on open market, but rarely faced opponents’ top cornerback in Broncos offense.

4. Lamarr Houston, Raiders defensive end: Better suited to the left side because he’s not the prototypical speed-rusher.

5. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos running back: Has had multiple knee surgeries, including one on a torn ACL in 2011, but he runs with passion, is solid in pass protection and a productive receiver.

6. Jared Veldheer, Raiders offensive tackle: Didn’t have a very good season in 2013 but would attract some attention as a free agent.

7. Geoff Schwartz, Chiefs guard: Was a free-agent find for Kansas City last season. Can play right tackle if needed.

8. Jon Asamoah, Chiefs guard: A better pass-protector than run-blocker. He will be only 26 in July.

9. Shaun Phillips, Broncos linebacker: He’ll be 33 in May but showed last season that he can still be an effective situational pass-rusher.

10. Zane Beadles, Broncos guard: For a movement-based front, he’s a smart, durable option who played in every game while with Denver.

11. Dexter McCluster, Chiefs wide receiver/punt returner: Hasn’t had a huge impact on the offense in Kansas City, but he will be only 26 in August.

12. Robert Ayers, Broncos defensive end: Had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s a late bloomer.

13. Tyson Jackson, Chiefs defensive end: Like Ayers, he had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s figuring it out as well.

14. Tracy Porter, Raiders cornerback: He’s versatile enough to cover the slot receiver, and he had one of his better seasons in 2013.

15. Kendrick Lewis, Chiefs safety: He’s only 25 but was a better player earlier in his career. He hasn’t been the same since a shoulder injury in 2012.

Free-agency primer: Chiefs

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: T Branden Albert, G Jon Asamoah, DE Tyson Jackson, LB Akeem Jordan, FS Kendrick Lewis, WR/PR Dexter McCluster, G Geoff Schwartz

Where they stand: The Chiefs need help at wide receiver but may prefer to do their shopping at this position through the draft after having made a sizable financial commitment to Dwayne Bowe last year. The Chiefs have the depth at tackle to withstand the likely loss of Albert, but they'll need to do some shopping if Asamoah and Schwartz, who split time as the starter at right guard last season, depart. On defense, the Chiefs could use another big body for their defensive line, particularly if Jackson leaves as a free agent. A replacement who can be an upgrade over Lewis is another priority. Sanders Commings, a rookie last season, could potentially fill that spot. Whether the Chiefs actively pursue a veteran there could depend on how they feel about Commings' ability to handle the position.

What to expect: The Chiefs should have about $9.6 million in salary-cap space, which is one of the lowest totals in the league and probably won't allow them to win many bidding wars. Even if the Chiefs had the cap room and were so inclined, this isn't a great crop of free-agent wide receivers. Seattle's Golden Tate might make sense for the Chiefs, but only if the price doesn't get out of hand. The Chiefs could look to division rival Denver for guard Zane Beadles if they need a starter to replace Asamoah and Schwartz. Seattle's Red Bryant could be a fit at defensive end if the Chiefs don't re-sign Jackson. Buffalo's Jairus Byrd is exactly what Kansas City is looking for at free safety, but he will likely be out of its price range. If the Chiefs go safety shopping, they might go for a lower-priced option, like Miami's Chris Clemons.

Free-agency primer: Broncos

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

 Key free agents: WR Eric Decker, RB Knowshon Moreno, LB Wesley Woodyard, G Zane Beadles, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DE Robert Ayers, DE Shaun Phillips, S Mike Adams, LB Paris Lenon, CB Quentin Jammer.

Where they stand: The Broncos have significant issues on defense. They have six defensive backs who are unrestricted or restricted free agents; they have told Champ Bailey, who had a year left on his deal, they will release him; they don’t have a middle linebacker who started any games in 2013 on the roster; and two of their top three players in sacks in 2013 (Phillips and Ayers) are free agents. That’s an awful of uncertainty on the depth chart with starters at defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and safety now on the open market. They also have two of the four wide receivers who were on the 53-man roster last season -- Decker and Andre Caldwell -- as free agents.

What to expect: Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said he believes that free agency is where a team should target “glaring needs," so the draft can be a best-player-available affair. So, with some cap room to work with, the Broncos will be aggressive with a few targeted deals -- as they have done in both 2012 and 2013 with Elway calling the shots -- before they back out and then wait for the first waves to pass. But they lean defense early in the checkbook frenzy because they need pass-rush help, have already worked out linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu -- Jackson eventually signed in Indianapolis -- and likely will sign a veteran receiver as well. The Broncos are selling a potential Super Bowl shot with Peyton Manning back at quarterback, so they figure to be a popular stop for players looking for a run at a ring.
During the league's scouting combine this past week, Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway gave a clear, unvarnished opinion of how the team will approach its own group of soon-to-be free agents.

That is, the team won't approach them. At least not out of the gate. At least not before those players can see if the bank accounts are greener on the other side of the fence.

"I think they have to hit the market, the market sets those," Elway said. "Especially where you look where we are and what we have coming up."

[+] EnlargeOrlando Franklin
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos may turn to Orlando Franklin if left guard Zane Beadles leaves in free agency.
The Broncos have Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Von Miller also poised for free agency following the 2014 season, so that will impact how the Broncos divvy up the checks this time around as well. It also means the Broncos aren't interested in starting the bidding for guys like wide receiver Eric Decker, running back Knowshon Moreno and guard Zane Beadles. And it means, unless the three don't draw much interest in the open market the Broncos have given some consideration to what they would do if they move on.

Beadles' departure would force changes in the offensive line that the Broncos are expected to take on in house. With so many needs on defense, any significant dollars spent in free agency will address issues there. The coming draft class is expected to have a heavy defensive flavor as well.

Up front Beadles has started the last 62 regular season games for the Broncos and has played in every game -- 64 in the regular season as well as six playoff games -- of his career. If he leaves as expected, the Broncos would be inclined to take another look at Orlando Franklin at guard.

While Franklin has spent his time with the Broncos at right tackle, many teams believed he would be a better guard in the NFL when he was drafted in 2011. The Broncos have worked him occasionally on the inside during practice with the idea a move would be in his future.

Franklin is a power player and with Louis Vasquez at right guard, a move to the left guard spot for Franklin would give the Broncos the kind of bulk on the inside they want in front of quarterback Peyton Manning. If the Broncos are going to play as much in three-wide receiver sets as they have in Manning's two seasons behind center they have to be able to stone-wall defenses in the middle of the field.

Manning's post-surgery throwing motion is very pronounced in the lower body and he needs a well-constructed pocket to get the ball away with his best available velocity on the throw.

Any move to guard for Franklin would mean the Broncos would also need a right tackle to replace him. And they believe that, too, can be done with the players already in their locker room. Especially with left tackle Ryan Clady on schedule to be full speed by training camp -- he recently had the pins and screws removed from his surgically-repaired foot -- the Broncos will have their best lineman back in his customary spot.

"Ryan's doing well," Elway said. "We feel very good about where he is."

Clady's return alone is the balm the Broncos need to address much of the pass protection issues they had at times. This was especially true against the more physical four-man fronts they faced this past seaosn, including in their loss in Super Bowl XLVIII. Clady's return would free them to move Chris Clark, who started for Clady after he was lost for the year in Week 2, to right tackle. The Broncos also feel optimistic enough about Vinston Painter's development to have projected him as a potential starter at right tackle in the future.

Painter, who has spent plenty of post-practice time working with offensive line consultant Alex Gibbs, was a sixth-round pick in last April's draft. The Broncos had to promote him from their own practice squad to the 53-man roster in January when the San Francisco 49ers were set to sign him.

So, the Broncos will still take a look at some guards in the draft, perhaps even a right tackle, but overall with Beadles expected to get his best offer elsewhere, they will be set to quickly respond to that departure with players already on the roster.
With the NFL's scouting combine opening Wednesday and free agency to follow on March 11, today marks the fifth 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: Offensive line

Wednesday: Defensive line

The Broncos find themselves in a quirky place at this position. On one hand, quarterback Peyton Manning was the least-sacked passer in the league with at least 181 pass attempts this past season.

Manning was sacked just 18 times and threw the ball a league-leading 659 times, winning a fifth MVP award to go with several single-season passing records. Oh, and the Broncos scored more points (606) than any team in history.

So, none of that can be accomplished without an offensive line that's playing at a high level.

On the other hand, the Broncos' front was overwhelmed by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. And when the Broncos tried to run out of a three-wide-receiver set, they couldn't always block the way they needed to.

Certainly most teams on the Broncos' schedule can't line up and play the way the Seattle Seahawks do on defense, but the Seahawks certainly showed what a physical front -- the kind the Broncos would have to handle, say, in most any playoff game -- can do to the Broncos' offense. Especially if that front consistently gets to Manning.

The Alpha: Left tackle Ryan Clady is a three-time Pro Bowl selection who played just two games this past season because of a foot injury suffered in the team's Week 2 win against the New York Giants. And certainly the Broncos would have had more versatility to do some things up front had he played the entire season. Personnel executives around the league consider Clady one of the Broncos' best and while last season was the first time he had missed any games in his career, he has now had major knee, shoulder and foot surgeries over a five-year span. The Broncos do like his progress from the foot surgery, and he is expected to be in his usual spot in 2014.

Salary cap: The Broncos have four of their five projected starters under contract for 2014. On the heels of his five-year, $52.5 million deal he signed last summer, Clady leads the way with an $8.6 million salary-cap figure for '14, third highest on the team. His $8 million base salary is also guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year, March 15. Guard Louis Vasquez, one of the Broncos' top priorities in free agency last March, is next with a $7.25 million cap figure for '14 -- fifth highest on the team -- while Manny Ramirez has a $2.42 million cap figure and right tackle Orlando Franklin is at $1.386 million.

Chris Kuper, who played in just four games this past season with one start, continues to struggle from his surgically repaired ankle. Kuper, who the team asked to take a pay cut this past season, also carries a $5.92 million cap figure for '14, seventh highest on the team.

[+] EnlargeZane Beadles
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsZane Beadles is the only one of the Broncos' starting five offensive lineman who's slated to be a free agent this offseason.
Pending free agents: The Broncos signed Ramirez and backup tackle Chris Clark to two-year extensions this past season. Vasquez and Clady signed long-term deals this past year and Franklin is still on his rookie deal. That leaves left guard Zane Beadles as the only starter from this past season pointed toward unrestricted free agency in the coming weeks. Reserve tackle Winston Justice, signed when Clady went to injured reserve, and reserve center Steve Vallos are unrestricted free agents.

Who could stay: Other than Beadles, the Broncos expect to have the other four starters on the roster for the 2014 season. Franklin will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season and there is still a scenario where the Broncos take another look at him inside at guard.

Who could go: Beadles has been a fixture at left guard since the initial attempt to play him at tackle didn't go so well after he arrived in the 2010 draft. He's played in 64 regular-season games, starting 62. But the Broncos may be looking to get more physical up front just as they were trying to do when they signed Vasquez last year. Opposing defensive coaches believe they can push Beadles off the spot in pass protection.

What they like/want: If the Broncos are going to continue to do things the way they have with Manning behind center the past two seasons, they need disciplined, smart and physical players who can meet the demands of a fast-paced, complex attack and the physical challenges that come with blocking in a three-wide-receiver set much of the time.

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

They'll have most of their starters back, but the depth chart needs attention with guys who were the main backups this year -- Kuper, Justice and Vallos -- facing the possibility of moving on.

Despite tackle Vinston Painter's progress as a '13 draft pick who the Broncos promoted from the practice squad to the active roster when the San Francisco 49ers were hoping to sign him, they'll still have to give a long look in the draft.

And if the right player at guard or right tackle comes along in free agency, they would have to consider making that investment.

Franchise/transition tags: Broncos

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
In each of the previous two years, the Denver Broncos used the franchise tag on an impending free agent they hoped to lock up to a long-term deal but just needed a little more time to cross all the T's and dot all the I's in the contract.

In 2012, it was kicker Matt Prater, who got the tag before he signed a new multiyear deal with the team. Last year it was left tackle Ryan Clady, who was still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery when the Broncos placed the tag on him.

Clady, who would have earned $9.828 million on that one-year deal had the tag remained in place, eventually worked out a five-year, $52.5 million contract with the team just before training camp.

But don’t look for the Broncos to use either of the tags this time around. Their most prominent free agents -- most notably running back Knowshon Moreno, wide receiver Eric Decker, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and linebacker Wesley Woodyard -- have been productive starters with the team, but none are so deep in the team’s plans that the Broncos would use the tags to have them guaranteed of being on the roster next season.

Decker has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons since the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, but the franchise-tag salary on a one-year deal at wide receiver was $10.537 million last year and is expected to be slightly higher this time around.

At running back, the franchise tag was $8.219 million last season, and at linebacker, it was $9.619 million.

The Broncos will make offers to most of their impending free agents, but it’s likely all of their more high-profile unrestricted free agents could get better offers, in terms of overall money, elsewhere.

Decker, Moreno, guard Zane Beadles and defensive end Robert Ayers are among the team’s free agents who, next month, will complete deals they signed with the Broncos as rookies. It will be their first opportunity in the open market. Woodyard, who has been a team captain in each of his six seasons with the Broncos, just finished his second contract with the team, while other unrestricted free agents, like Rodgers-Cromartie, safety Mike Adams, linebacker Paris Lenon and defensive end Shaun Phillips, came from elsewhere.

Part of the issue for the Broncos this time around is securing the players who are set to become free agents following the 2014 season, a group that includes wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.
 Julius ThomasAP Photo/Jack DempseyJulius Thomas has come a long way since living with Brady Quinn to learn the Broncos playbook.

NEWARK, N.J. -- It was the spring of discontent in the NFL. The lockout was on, two sides dug in for a nasty corporate spat over money, benefits with each trying to find the public relations high ground.

And Julius Thomas, with all of one season’s worth of college football experience on his résumé, had just been selected in the fourth round of the 2011 draft by the Denver Broncos. But Thomas was a Broncos player in name only. He had no contract, no contact with his new coaches beyond a short post-draft how-do-you-do? session, no access to the team’s weight room and no way to use anything the Broncos had inside of their complex that could help him.

"At that point, the lockout was kind of frustrating for a guy like me," Thomas said. "I needed the OTAs [organized team activities], I needed practice, I needed meetings, I needed to be around it. I didn’t know what my role was going to be in the NFL or what kind of player I could be. I just knew I thought I had a lot of work to do and wanted to get started."

Now, Thomas is a Pro Bowl tight end, a key piece in an offense that set an NFL scoring record this season with 606 points. But in April, May and June of 2011, he was a Broncos draft pick adrift, with more questions than answers with just one season of football at Portland State after his four-year basketball career has concluded.

Thomas was raw, bristling with potential and in search of help.

Enter Brady Quinn, a Broncos backup quarterback at the time who hoped to compete for the starting job if and when the labor posturing ended. Quinn was one of many Broncos players who took part in on-their-own workouts during the lockout, a group that included several current Broncos such as Zane Beadles, Chris Kuper, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, as well as former Broncos safety Brian Dawkins.

And Quinn, the guy with the best grasp of the team's playbook in those workouts -- having never met Thomas before, having been introduced to the then-rookie by a friend -- offered Thomas a place to stay as well as a seat in a Football 101 classroom of sorts. Thomas gladly accepted, paid his own way -- before he even had an NFL paycheck -- and got to work.

"But just to go live with someone he didn’t even know, to sacrifice whatever he was doing in his life right to start a career you’re just beginning, all during a lockout, I think it took a lot for a young guy," said Quinn, currently a St. Louis Rams quarterback recovering from back surgery in California. "But you just saw that desire, that work ethic."

Quinn also saw what the Broncos saw in pre-draft workouts, what the team saw in Thomas’ first two seasons in the NFL despite struggles with ankle issues, including surgery following the 2011 season. But even through those first two seasons -- when Thomas had just one catch -- the Broncos believed in the potential Quinn saw from almost the first pass he threw to the kid.

The veteran quarterback set things up like Thomas would see once he was allowed to join the team. The two had installation sessions with the team’s playbook, then they would discuss what Thomas had just been shown and head to the field to see if Thomas could turn the information into action.

"And the thing that struck you right away was his ability, that wow factor, just watching him move. You’re like, 'holy crap,'" Quinn said. "And I know it’s going to sound crazy, but to me, it was like if LeBron [James] played football. I really thought to myself, even in those first workouts, this is what it might look like if LeBron James played football. You saw that size, running like a wide receiver. That wingspan, the way he ran routes with power and agility and to look so smooth and effortless to go with the way he just snatched the ball when he caught it."

"I think about it from time to time, for sure, but I’ve always appreciated what Brady did for me," Thomas said this week. "Here I am, a young guy, coming out of college, lockout is going on, and Brady opened up his home to me. And he didn’t just open his home to me, he sat down every day and worked with me on the playbook. He was my first real introduction into the NFL, my first real glimpse of being a pro."

Quinn said after he would throw to Thomas and some of the others in the on-field work, he would quiz Thomas about things in the playbook they had discussed or worked on that day "just to see what he retained."

Coaches often say good habits, developed early in a career, will serve a player well, maybe even help beat the league's short-term odds. Two years after his work with Quinn, Thomas was also one of the first of the Broncos' youthful group of players on offense to find his way into workouts with Peyton Manning after the quarterback signed in March 2012.

Thomas quickly developed the on-field chemistry with Manning, and it could be seen in his 65-catch, 12-touchdown season.

"It showed [Thomas] didn’t have much of a football background at that point. He knew some of the things he was going to have to do to be in this business to be a pro," Broncos tight end coach Clancy Barone said. "He was living on Brady’s couch basically. That was his first step. I’ll be honest, he’s still got a great upside to go, still plenty of work to do, and that’s a great thing, to have that kind of skill set now and still have some room to grow. I think it shows what he could be if he continues to do those things."

"He’s just smart. He picks things up easily. He understood football right away even though he didn't have much of a history with the game," Quinn said. "It was almost innate. You just didn't have to teach him too much about the routes. He seemed to just understand how to do it. It was almost like he had a feel of how to set up a guy who was covering him."

So here’s Thomas now, a star in waiting and a matchup nightmare who is being described as an X factor in a Super Bowl. An unlikely road traveled, in at least some way, right from Brady Quinn’s house.

"I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what he did for me," Thomas said. "I’ll always appreciate it, I’ll always be grateful for it and I’ll always remember it."

The next big thing: Broncos

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos still have one game to play -- Super Bowl XLVIII -- and virtually all of the organization's energy is pointed in that direction at the moment.

But the Broncos still have to think about life after the Big Game and had a full contingent at the East-West Game last week to go with one at Senior Bowl practices this week. And when all is said and done in MetLife Stadium Feb. 2, the Broncos will be left to their offseason duties in a far more compressed timeframe.

One of their first items, and executive vice president of football operations John Elway touched on it last week in a sit-down in the days leading up to the AFC Championship Game, will be to address head coach John Fox's future.

The 2014 season is the last year on Fox's current contract and no coach wants to go into the final year of his deal and try to direct a team. Elway said the two sides will sit down when the season is over and talk about what's next. The Broncos will also be awaiting the results of an end-of-season medical exam for quarterback Peyton Manning.

Win or lose in the Super Bowl, Broncos officials expect Manning to return for the 2014 season if the doctors give him the thumbs-up to keep playing. Elway said last week that he still considers Manning "young" and at the top of the his game.

On the roster the Broncos will face a decision in Eric Decker, who is poised for unrestricted free agency, as is cornerback Chris Harris Jr., linebacker Wesley Woodyard, guard Zane Beadles, defensive end Robert Ayers, safety Mike Adams and running back Knowshon Moreno. The Broncos will also have to decide on the veterans they signed to short-term deals last offseason: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips and Paris Lenon (all are set to be free agents).

The choices they make will dictate where they look in the draft, but they'll be looking at the defensive line, inside linebacker, the interior of the offensive line, and cornerback to start.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In his time as the Denver Broncos' chief football decision-maker, John Elway has routinely offered what he believed the first step was to get from the 4-12 team he joined in January of 2011 and the one that will play in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

As a player, Elway spent over two decades in locker rooms, either at Stanford or with the Broncos, and he didn't like the one he saw a floor below when he moved into his office three seasons ago.

"I think, No. 1, we had to clean up the locker room," Elway said. "We had to get the locker room right … and get the right mentality in that locker room because that is really life bread of what the organization is all about. How that locker room fits is the most important thing. If that doesn't fit -- what we're all doing really is not that important because you can't make it work."

[+] EnlargeBroncos
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyWhile the Broncos made some high-profile additions via free agency, most of their playmakers were drafted by the team, like Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
The foundation principle, Elway says, is to "stack those drafts, get the guys, right from the start, we want as Denver Broncos, to build our mentality, our culture, from within." During a sitdown with several folks Thursday Elway added, "I've always said if we can find somebody better than we have, we have to find them. And if they're out there then we'll sign them."

And that is the story, in particular, of the Broncos' record-setting offense. Start with Peyton Manning, not just a signing in free agency, but the signing of the free-agency era. By anyone.

He has been every bit the raise-all-boats guy, a future Hall of Famer who changed everything the minute he walked through the door at the Broncos' suburban complex.

Add in Wes Welker and right guard Louis Vasquez, who signed as free agents last March. They have been everything the Broncos had hoped they would be. Vasquez (6-foot-5, 335 pounds) signaled a transition in personnel philosophy up front; he's 60 pounds heavier than some of the Broncos' linemen were a decade ago. He helped lock down the middle of the Broncos' offensive line.

But the rest of the Broncos' 606-point touchdown factory is largely a homegrown affair. And that's likely the only way it could happen.

"I enjoyed coaching this group," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "They come to work, they're accountable and they care about each other … and you can get some things done like that."

A team couldn't buy five players in free agency who were good enough to finish with at least 10 touchdowns each. A team couldn't buy five players to have at least 60 receptions, no matter who the quarterback is. And the Broncos didn't.

Demaryius Thomas (2010), Eric Decker (2010), Julius Thomas (2011) and Knowshon Moreno (2009) are all Broncos draft picks. Ryan Clady, the Broncos' Pro Bowl left tackle on injured reserve, was Mike Shanahan's last first-rounder in 2008. Orlando Franklin (2011) and Zane Beadles (2010) are Broncos' draft picks as is Montee Ball (2013).

Center Manny Ramirez was signed to a futures contract in 2011 -- the NFL's version of an NBA 10-day deal -- and signed an extension this season after becoming a starter. And Chris Clark, who has filled in for Clady, was claimed off waivers by the Broncos in 2010.

"People say it's about win now, it's about now on," Elway said. " … Then you get a guy like Peyton Manning. Now it's about trying to find all the pieces together and obviously I said now on, but we're not just trying to find young guys. We're going to find guys that fit, young and old guys, that fit together."

Whatever becomes of this season, whether the Broncos move on to the Super Bowl or not, they will face some decisions in the coming weeks about some of those home-grown players. Decker, Beadles and Moreno are all pending free agents this year with Demaryius Thomas set to be up after the 2014 season. But those are all topics for other days.

In the end the Broncos didn't get what they wanted on the field until they shored up the team off of it.

W2W4: Broncos-Chargers

January, 11, 2014
Jan 11
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have said many things this week as they moved toward Sunday's divisional round game against the San Diego Chargers. And they've tried not to say some things as well.

Words like "playoffs" or "postseason" have been replaced in and around the team's suburban Denver complex. Those words have been dumped, from head coach John Fox on down, in favor of something they believe fits the situation a little better.

The Broncos simply call it "the tournament."

"Because once you lose, you're out," running back Knowshon Moreno said. "It's a tournament. Once you lose, you're going home. No one wants to be that team to go home so you have to do everything you have to do throughout the week to make sure those things don't happen -- and see what happens on Sunday."

The Broncos' three losses this season have come to the three other teams remaining in the AFC bracket. That includes a Dec. 12 loss to the Chargers, the Broncos only loss in Sports Authority Field at Mile High this season. But to survive and advance in the tournament format, the Broncos will have to deal with important matchups.

First and everything: Last season's double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens came on Jan. 12, 2013, so the Broncos will have waited a year to the day for a second chance, an opportunity to make things right. For months, they have been asked to discuss, analyze, characterize and sift through that crushing loss.

And quarterback Peyton Manning's 9-11 playoff record has been the topic of the week, both near and far, as has the weather, the wind, the Chargers' defense and anything else that has caused the Broncos' faithful to commence the hand-wringing.

That all certainly brings a lot of pressure to bear over the course of a year. How the Broncos gather themselves and execute early on could have a lot to say about how things go.

If the Broncos are tight and feeling the heat, the Chargers will have an easier time getting the tempo they want. When the Broncos have been at their best this season, they have jumped all over opposing defenses and given their own defense the luxury of playing with the lead. They have to find a way to lock in and get it done in front of a crowd that will have last season's loss in front of its collective mind, at least until the Broncos get another postseason win to push it out.

Left has to be right: Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget repeatedly created problems against the left side of the Broncos' offensive line -- tackle Chris Clark and guard Zane Beadles -- in the Dec. 12 game, including hitting Manning's arm on an interception.

The Chargers used a variety of looks in the rush in that game, bringing defensive backs from off the ball and dropping front seven players into coverage, but in the end Liuget was the disruptive player in the San Diego front and made it all work. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano created enough uncertainty with the variety that the Broncos had uncharacteristic assignment mistakes.

Linebackers in the forefront: Yes, both of Chargers rookie Keenan Allen's catches Dec. 1 against the Broncos went for touchdowns, but for the Broncos defense to have the kind of night they want linebackers Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard will each need a quality day in coverage.

Allen is the only wide receiver among Rivers' top three targets this year. Tight end Antonio Gates was targeted 113 times by Rivers in the regular season -- the most on the team -- and running back Danny Woodhead was third, having been targeted 87 times.

But when Rivers throws to Woodhead, he gets a high percentage of completion with a double-take worthy 87.4 percent of those targets being caught. When the Broncos go to their nickel look -- and they played the nickel more than any other personnel grouping in the Dec. 12 game (34 snaps) -- that often puts Woodyard and Trevathan on duty in the intermediate routes.

To keep the Chargers from grinding out drives they have to keep the ball out of the hands of Gates and Woodhead.

Play big when small(er): When the Broncos are in those smaller personnel groupings, they also have to defend the run with an edge. In the Chargers win, San Diego held the ball for 38 minutes, 49 seconds, and limited the Broncos' offense to a season-low 54 plays, including penalty snaps.

And they did it, at times, by finding just enough room to convert third downs against the Broncos' specialty packages when they had to, including Ryan Mathews' 23-yard run for a touchdown in the third quarter when the Broncos were in the dime. Champ Bailey's return to the lineup as the Broncos' nickel cornerback gives the Broncos a far more versatile look, especially with Bailey's sure tackling around the line of scrimmage.

Knowledge is power: Certainly plenty has been made of Chargers head coach Mike McCoy's familiarity with Manning's game, offensive coordinator Adam Gase's philosophy and the Broncos' playbook as a whole because of McCoy's time in Denver.

But the Broncos know McCoy just as well and in the end these two division rivals won't have many secrets unless they break out something they haven't done much, or at all, already this season.

So how things get done will matter far more than who knew what before kickoff.

But the Broncos may need a little curveball to shake things loose and Gase has shown some precedent already this season to break out a little something new.

When Gase had the Broncos open the Dec. 22 win over the Houston Texans in a three-wide receiver, two tight end set -- no running back in the formation -- it was a look Denver had played for just once previously this season. The Broncos played the first six snaps of the game out of the look and effectively moved the ball against the Texans' base 3-4 defense.

With Wes Welker back in the lineup -- he did not play in the Dec. 12 game -- the Chargers will face more difficult choices in coverage and the Broncos will have more options, particularly with Welker and tight end Julius Thomas in the slot. The Chargers can't double both, and San Diego can't play safety Eric Weddle everywhere. So look for Pagano to try to muddy the water in coverage, dropping seven or even eight players into the passing lanes and look for the Broncos to turn up the heat on the Chargers cornerbacks, especially in the middle of the field.

When the 2013 season began, the AFC West didn't really come up when the national conversation turned toward divisions that would provide the most playoff teams or Super Bowl potential from top to bottom.

Yet with four teams left in the AFC's postseason bracket, two of them call the division home, with the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos and the No. 6 San Diego Chargers set for the season’s third meeting on Sunday. They split the two games in the regular season, with each team winning on the road -- the Broncos by eight in San Diego and the Chargers by seven in Denver.

It will be the first time the Chargers and Broncos have met in the postseason, but San Diego is 2-0 in playoff games against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning with wins in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons. Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup.

Jeff Legwold: Eric, there were some who questioned the Chargers’ playoff worthiness when all of the dominoes fell in the regular season’s final week and they earned the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But with the win in Cincinnati, how do they see themselves at the moment -- playoff underdog or a team with a chance for more?

Eric Williams: Veteran players emphasized this week that playoff opportunities are precious, noting the fact that the Chargers have not made the playoffs since 2009. So guys like Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle want to see how far they can take it. Both mentioned the Chargers are only eight quarters away from the Super Bowl -- unbelievable when six weeks ago this team was 5-7 and an afterthought at making the postseason. Giving players more confidence is the fact that San Diego beat the Broncos in Denver just a month ago. The Chargers understand the deck is stacked against them facing a well-rested Manning. But they are playing with house money, and I suspect they will play with a lot of confidence and urgency on Sunday.

How is Manning handling all of the questions concerning his so-so record in the playoffs? And will that serve as motivation on Sunday?

Legwold: If you had to make a list of questions that cause Manning to put up the verbal deflector shields the fastest, the glove, anything that includes the phrase “all the way back," cold weather and the playoff record would be among the top items. He handles most everything in the public domain with a professional mixture of grace and the ability to move the conversation on -- he’s got plenty of experience in front of people to be sure. But in the end, Manning is a driven player -- one of the most driven players to have worn a helmet -- and everything is motivation. He doesn’t often let people on the outside see all that, but offered a glimpse after his 400-yard day against the Titans this season on a frigid afternoon when he told the team’s flagship radio station people could take the Manning-struggles-in-the-cold narrative and “stick it where the sun don't shine." So, the lure of the Super Bowl is always powerful for him, but he certainly uses plenty of things to maintain his focus, and any sort of criticism is in that pile somewhere.

Rivers has always been a thorn for the Broncos, but he attempted only 20 passes -- completing 12 -- in the Chargers’ win in Denver on Dec. 12, and he went 12-for-16 passing in the Chargers’ win over the Bengals last week. Is relying on the run the best thing for the Chargers’ offense, and would you expect a similar approach Sunday?

Williams: It all depends on the health of Ryan Mathews. The Fresno State product probably does not get enough credit for San Diego’s resurgence this season. But the Chargers have morphed into a running team the second half of the year. San Diego is 7-1 when Mathews rushes at least 19 times in a game. His ability to get to the edge of a defense with his speed, along with his physicality, has created a nice balance to San Diego’s offense so that Rivers doesn’t have to make all the plays. Mathews has a lingering ankle injury. He’s expected to play on Sunday, but how effective Mathews will be remains to be seen. If Mathews can’t play, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will pick up the slack. San Diego coach Mike McCoy has confidence his team can win in a shootout if they have to open the offense up.

You’ve talked about Denver’s inconsistencies on defense, which has been a problem all season. Will Champ Bailey play in this game? And if so, how will that help the secondary?

Legwold: Bailey played, essentially as the nickel corner, in the Broncos’ final two games of the regular season and will be in the lineup on Sunday. He played 35 snaps against the Houston Texans and 22 snaps against the Oakland Raiders. While those offenses had their fair share of struggles this season, the Broncos had two of their best outings of the year, surrendering 13 and 14 points to go with 240 and 255 yards, respectively, in those two games. Bailey hasn’t played out of the slot a great deal in his time with the Broncos, save for when the receiver he was matched with would line up there, but he has all the tools to be very good in there -- smart, plays with anticipation and has the ability, even in his 15th season, to change directions quickly and react on the ball. It has made the Broncos' secondary much better than what the Chargers have seen in the two meetings this year -- Bailey didn’t play in either game. The Broncos just have more options in how they deploy people in coverage and it gives them a top three at the position of Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. That’s a quality trio that enables the Broncos to do a few more things to try to affect Rivers.

Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has, for the most part, taken a page from the Bill Belichick manual for facing Manning -- coverage over pressure. How would you expect the Chargers to defend Manning and the Broncos’ offense? And how aggressive do you think they will be doing it?

Williams: I expect going in that Pagano will try a similar approach to what his defense executed so effectively in the last matchup: a mix of pressures and looks that force Manning to get the ball out quickly to underneath routes, and then rallying to the football. San Diego wants to limit big plays, keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. But one thing the Chargers have had success with is making in-game adjustments when things are not going well. The wild card here again is McCoy. Because he’s worked with Manning in the past, McCoy understands his strengths and weaknesses, and what he likes to go to in certain situations. And that will be used in Pagano’s game planning for Sunday.

San Diego surprised the Broncos a month ago by winning in Denver. What did the Broncos learn from that setback? And what are a couple key things Denver needs to accomplish in order to defeat the pesky Chargers and move on?

Legwold: That game came on a short week and you could see the table getting set for a Broncos' loss in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 win for the Chargers. Many of the Broncos players spent a great deal of time talking about how much they didn’t like playing on Thursday nights, how good the rest would be in the weekend that followed. And then they played like a team more concerned about just getting through a game than winning it. There have been no such issues this week. The Broncos will be focused on the task at hand this time. On the field, they have to keep the Chargers from converting third downs and putting drives together. San Diego repeatedly pounded away in the run game at the Broncos' lighter personnel groupings, particularly in the nickel, and the Broncos can’t allow that to happen again. The Chargers' defense was effective rushing Manning over the left side -- especially between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles. This time, if the Broncos keep Manning cleaner on his blind side, they will move the ball.

All-AFC West: Denver Broncos

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
» NFC Teams: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Stack records and touchdowns like the Denver Broncos did this season and people notice.

The Broncos finished with a single-season record for points scored -- 606 –- as quarterback Peyton Manning threw 55 touchdown passes, also a single-season league record. The Broncos also became the first team in league history to have five players score at least 10 touchdowns; no other team in league history has had more than three.

As a result, there are plenty of Broncos' names dotting the All-AFC West team's offense, selected by the division’s NFL Nation reporters. Manning was selected along with wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, guards Zane Beadles and Louis Vasquez and right tackle Orlando Franklin. Manning was the least sacked starting quarterback in the league of those who threw at least 320 passes -- 18 times.

“We always say with team success comes personal rewards,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said.

Running back Knowshon Moreno deserved a look as well with 1,038 rushing yards and 10 rushing TDs to go with 60 receptions, but Jamaal Charles did even a little more in the Chiefs’ offense with 1,287 rushing yards to go with 70 catches.

San Diego Chargers rookie Keenan Allen beat out Wes Welker for the third wide receiver slot. Welker, who missed three games because of a concussion, finished with 73 catches, 778 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Center Manny Ramirez, in his first year at the position, has consistently drawn praise from Manning throughout the season, and some personnel executives have said he deserves consideration as an All-Pro. But Chargers veteran Nick Hardwick was the choice in the middle of the line.

Defensively, the Broncos have had their struggles, but the NFL Nation reporters acknowledged some of their best -- especially cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who is the team’s most versatile player at the position. The Broncos moved Harris all over the formation with a variety of duties, and while Harris was inexplicably passed over by his peers in the league as even a Pro Bowl alternate, he was an All-AFC West pick here.

Defensive end Shaun Phillips, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and linebacker Danny Trevathan also got the nod.

Where the Broncos took a hit came on special teams. Matt Prater, despite an NFL-record 64-yarder this season to go with a 25-of-26 showing on field goals, including 6-of-7 from at least 50 yards, did not make the cut. Prater also set an NFL record for touchbacks on kickoffs this season.

And Britton Colquitt, with 44.5 gross and 38.5 net averages this season, lost out to his brother, Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt. Dustin Colquitt has a gross average of 46.0 and a net average of 40.2 and punted 22 more times than Britton did this season.

Pro Bowl selections: Denver Broncos

December, 27, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Touchdowns have their privileges.

In a historical season that has seen Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning build on records here and set new records there, another Pro Bowl selection was added to the list Friday with several of his offensive teammates in tow.

Manning was named to his 13th Pro Bowl team, increasing the record for quarterbacks he already held as of last season, when he was named to his 12th. The 37-year-old was joined by wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas and guard Louis Vasquez, teammates from the league’s highest-scoring offense, as well as kicker Matt Prater, who booted an NFL record 64-yard field goal this season. The Broncos offense needs just 18 points Sunday in the regular-season finale to set the NFL single-season scoring record.

Hall of Fame guard Bruce Matthews holds the record with 14 career Pro Bowl selections

Manning leads the NFL with 51 touchdowns and 5,211 passing yards after 15 games. Manning has had at least 300 yards passing in 12 games this season and at least 400 yards passing in four. Manning has also had at least four touchdown passes in eight games.

Head coach John Fox, who said following Denver practice Friday he looked forward to seeing which Broncos made the Pro Bowl cut, was then asked if Manning had a chance.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Fox said, “I’d say he’s a strong candidate.’’

Demaryius Thomas was named to last year’s Pro Bowl as an injury replacement. It was Julius Thomas’ first Pro Bowl selection, as it was for Vasquez.

Vasquez's selection was a testament to the Broncos’ personnel department, which made him one of the team’s first targets in free agency this past offseason. Indeed, Denver thought so highly of Vasquez it signed him for four years, the longest deal offered to this year’s crop of free agents.

The Broncos made Julius Thomas a fourth-round draft pick in 2011 despite the fact he had played just one season of football at Portland State after concluding his basketball career. Thomas’ first two NFL seasons were largely derailed by an ankle injury he suffered on his first career catch in 2011 and the surgery he had following his rookie season.

Friday's announcement is a bit of a snub for wide receiver Eric Decker, who has 83 catches to Demaryius Thomas’ 86 and 1,261 yards to Thomas’ 1,317. But receiver is routinely one of the most competitive positions in the voting -- and some 19 currently have at least 1,000 yards receiving, with seven more players with at least 900 heading into the regular season’s final week.

Decker, guard Zane Beadles, running back Knowshon Moreno, wide receiver Wes Welker, center Manny Ramirez, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, linebacker Von Miller and special-teams captain David Bruton are all alternates at varying levels.

Welker would have likely earned more consideration had he not been held out of the past two games. Teams conducted their Pro Bowl voting among the players and coaches this past week, Broncos included.

Of course, the Broncos would rather have to beg off the Jan. 26 all-star game, given that players headed to the Super Bowl the following weekend will not be in Hawaii.

No players from the Broncos defense got the Pro Bowl nod, which means cornerback Champ Bailey, who has been named 12 times previously in his career, didn’t make the cut for the first time since 2008, when he missed seven games because of a groin injury.

Bailey has played in just four games this season -- Sunday in Oakland will be his fifth -- because of a left-foot injury he suffered in the preseason.

Miller, who suffered a season-ending right knee injury this past Sunday in Houston, had been selected to the past two Pro Bowls. But after starting the season with a six-game suspension, Miller had five sacks in his nine games.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.