Denver Broncos: AFC West
Justin Houston and Tamba Hali couldn’t just come after Manning because they had to honor play-action, play with discipline and defend the edge.
And the combination of 45 rushing attempts as compared to Manning’s 34 pass attempts Sunday night is well worth attention. In Manning’s tenure, the Broncos’ commitment to the run game, because of what the scoreboard said or the team’s supreme confidence in its historical gifts in the passing game, has wavered between ornamental at times to cursory in others.
But when they get serious about it and when their defense keeps getting them the ball back to do it, they have a reliable formula. In the Broncos’ 11 losses since Manning was signed in 2012 -- playoffs included -- they have run the ball 20 or fewer times and thrown at least 49 passes in six of those losses, including all three losses this year.
Also, in the too-much-of-a-good-thing department: Throughout his career, Manning is 2-16 (playoffs included) in games where he throws at least 49 passes. So for the Broncos, good "balance" for them and Manning is to keep the quarterback from throwing 49 or more times.
Their opening first down run of the season went for no gain. The second time they ran the ball on first down, it went for no gain. The fourth time? No gain.
But Manning is a man of precision behind center, and he often speaks of the best offenses being “on schedule,’’ and on schedule means “you get first down after first down, string them together, or give yourself a second-and-short, to put yourself in a position to call most anything.’’
And the Broncos, after three games, are not on schedule. Yes, they have scored 31, 24 and 20 points in three games against three teams that won at least 11 games last season, one of which just happens to be the defending Super Bowl champ. But it doesn’t feel right at the moment, and a big part of the reason is the imbalance the Broncos have on first-down plays.
Too often first-and-10 is becoming second-and-long and as the Broncos try to add a little more punch in their run game, they have become lopsided on offense. And usually, the bad news starts with a handoff.
“We have to be better, for sure,’’ said Broncos running back Montee Ball. “There are a lot of things there, but I know I have to be better because we need to be able to run the ball when we need to.’’
At its best, on the “schedule’’ Manning likes to keep, the Broncos offense is a first-down factory. A 75-yard touchdown drive in the Week 2 win over the Kansas City Chiefs had a sequence of four consecutive plays on first down. On the seven-play drive, the Broncos were in a first-and-10 on five of the plays and first-and-goal on the touchdown play.
“When you’re stringing them together, there’s a rhythm,’’ Manning said. “You’re going, moving the ball.’’
And while Manning’s passing numbers are other-worldly on first down -- 27-of-41 for 349 yards and five touchdown passes -- the Broncos are decidedly lopsided. Take out Manning’s kneel-down plays and the Broncos are rushing for just 2.8 yards per carry on first down.
Overall, they’ve had five first-down run plays go for no gain and seven have gone for negative yardage. In short, Ball and the Broncos offensive front have not been able to consistently make room to run the ball against defenses with more size in the formation in those down and distances.
In the days leading up to the loss to the Seattle Seahawks, offensive coordinator Adam Gase referenced the “negative plays’’ in the run game.
“I think the tackles for losses were a little much for me, and we put ourselves in bad positions with some of those penalties and it’s hard -- you try to stick with it as far as when you’re getting those second-and-20s but you want to try to help the quarterback get back to a third-and-10 or third-and-5 area,’’ Gase said.
In the end, an efficient run game is also the best way to slow down opposing pass rushers, keep them away from Manning and keep play-action passing -- what Manning has called “a big part of the offense.’’ But the Broncos’ blocking schemes up front have left gaps in the run game, especially inside around the guards and center, and Ball hasn’t always been as quick to the hole as he needs to be.
The game video shows, over and over again, defensive linemen attacking the gaps on the interior when the Broncos guards move down the line of scrimmage in the run game.
“We have things to work on, things to get better at,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox. “We’ve played three games, we all can be better at a lot of things, and we’ll work at it.’’
Trevathan had his most extensive work in practice since he suffered a fracture to the top of his tibia Aug. 12 in a training camp practice. Trevathan took part in Friday’s practice on a limited basis -- after taking part in some individual drills on Thursday.
“He’s made really good progress,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox. “It was good to see him out there, he was excited to be out there. We’ll continue to work with him.’’
The Broncos believe Trevathan could be ready for a full return when the Broncos are back on the field after next week’s bye. And he could be available for the team’s Week 5 game against the Arizona Cardinals. Trevathan will travel with the team to Seattle on Saturday but is not expected to play.
Trevathan was the team’s leading tackler last season and an every-down player on defense. Though he did not take part in the Broncos' practice Wednesday -- he stretched with the team -- it was his first appearance on the field in a practice jersey since the injury.
Also Friday, kicker Brandon McManus took part in a full practice for the second consecutive day and will kick in Sunday’s game. McManus was limited in Wednesday’s practice with a groin strain. Linebacker Lerentee McCray (knee) has not practiced this week and was the only player held out of the team's practice Friday because of injury.
“You get a parking spot by the way, player of the week, don’t know if y’all noticed that,’’ Manning said. “ … Right there the first three spots … if you get Broncos player of the week.’’
And with three touchdown receptions in the Broncos’ regular-season opener, Thomas certainly earned not only the team’s player-of-the-week honor, but he was the league’s AFC Player of the Week. But what Thomas may also be is another shining example of why draft classes can’t, and shouldn’t, always be judged quickly and why a player’s makeup will often be as important as the scouting trinity of height, weight and speed.
Because after two NFL seasons, Thomas, a guy who is now one of the league's most difficult matchups for any defensive coordinator, had all of one catch, a five-yarder against Cincinnati on Sept. 18, 2011 when he suffered an ankle injury. And for the remainder of that season and the season that followed Thomas was a fourth-round draft with potential the Broncos simply hoped to eventually see healthy.
Then they saw last year’s 65-catch, 12-touchdown season. Then they saw Sunday night’s opener when Thomas had three touchdowns in the season's first 30 minutes.
“I think he’ll be a better player this year than he was last year,’’ Manning said.
And beyond Thomas’ obvious physical attributes for his job -- the ex-Portland State basketball player is fluid in is movements, has soft hands and top-tier body control to go with rare speed for a player his size -- it was his approach during his one-catch period that always caught the eye on the Broncos’ decision-makers.
And that includes Manning after he signed in 2012. Because of the collective bargaining agreement, Manning wanted to gather some of the offensive players before the Broncos’ official offseason workouts began. Thomas was one of the team's few first- or second-year players to find his way to, and faithfully attend those workouts.
“But Julius was one of the guys, he and [Eric] Decker, that I was throwing with,’’ Manning said. “And I remember … 6-4 tight end, those guys just don’t come around very often, that can really run, just seems like next, you know, he had a previous injury that kind of flared up again … [I] definitely had a great early appreciation of his talent and his ability.’’
Thomas never lost confidence in himself. “I always believed, had the confidence, if I kept working through it, good things would happen. My approach has always been to be as good as I can be over my career, not just one year here, one year there, so always looking down the road to make sure I’m doing things that keep me successful in the long haul.’’
Thomas is in the last year of his original rookie deal, and the Broncos have had discussions about a new one for him, as well as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. And the price goes up a bit every time Julius Thomas befuddles another linebacker or safety for another touchdown.
But it will be easy for executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway to see how it’s all going. He can simply count the touchdown on gameday and then, after Elways pull into his spot the next morning, he can see where Julius Thomas is parked as well.
Following Friday’s practice, Broncos head coach John Fox said, “It’s part of the game, [injuries do] happen. I don’t like talking about it much for obvious reasons, but we feel good where we are right now.’’
Linebacker Danny Trevathan, who suffered a fracture on top of his tibia in training camp, will be the only projected starter who will miss Sunday night’s game because of injury. Prater and Welker have been suspended by the NFL for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy and policy on performance enhancing drugs respectively.
Friday afternoon Trevathan said “I feel great, working my way back.’’
Trevathan and guard Ben Garland (ankle) were the only players on the roster formally ruled out Friday for Sunday night’s game. Defensive end Malik Jackson, who was excused from practice Thursday, practiced Friday and will play against the Colts.
In the rankings, 85 voters turned in ballots on defense, 90 on offense.
Today, players ranked No. 20 down to 11 are featured. Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas comes in at No. 17, a spot certainly worthy of his status as the unquestioned No. 1 target on the highest-scoring offense in league history. It may even be an undersell of what he really does on the field and where he's headed in Denver's points factory.
And he is also part of a quirky football fact in these pass-happy times. The one where two of the biggest, most athletic, game-busting pass catchers the NFL has to offer – Thomas and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson – both emerged from the run-based option offense of Georgia Tech.
The Broncos made Thomas the 22nd pick of the 2010 draft while the Lions selected Johnson with the second pick of the 2007 draft.
“I don’t know why that happened,’’ Thomas said. “We felt like we had good players who could compete … We just played in a different kind of offense from some other guys.’’
Thomas has had back-to-back 90-catch, 1,400-yard seasons since being unleashed in earnest in the transition from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning. And in what figures to again be one of the league’s most high-powered offenses, Thomas is poised for another mark-it-down season.
He’s also poised for a rather tidy payday. Thomas is in the final year of his rookie deal -- he has a $3.275 million base salary this season, a $4.7 million cap charge for the Broncos -- and the two sides haven’t yet hammered out the extension they had hoped to before the season starts.
John Elway has said he “most certainly’’ wants to get Thomas dialed in on a new deal. Thomas has been named to two Pro Bowls, and if he remains healthy, he will pile on some more before his career is done.
The Broncos will certainly have to pay for the privilege to keep him.
“We know what we have here as receivers,’’ Thomas said. “We have Peyton at quarterback with a scheme that allows us to make plays if we get ourseleves to the right spot. I’m just worried about this season and doing what I can to help us do what we want to do and get where we want to go. We want to win the last game of the year.’’
Zac Dysert to keep him despite a long list of injuries on defense that eventually saw five starters on injured reserve. It continues to look like two is going to be the number here with Dysert set to get a spot on the practice squad.
Running backs (4)
The Broncos kept five at this spot as recently as 2012, but with tight end Virgil Green's ability to play in a fullback role, four is the most logical total. Thompson continues to show he's a potential keeper. He played just 11 snaps on offense Saturday night against the Houston Texans, as the Broncos took a look at some of the other backs on the roster.
Jordan Norwood was going to make this team as the sixth receiver, but he suffered a torn left ACL in practice this past week and will miss the season. After initial cuts bring this total to five, the Broncos will scan the waiver wire for a potential sixth given Welker suffered his third concussion since Nov. 17 in Saturday's game.
Tight ends (3)
The Broncos kept four last season -- they kept three in 2011 and three in 2012 -- but keeping three, with perhaps another on the practice squad continues to be the most likely scenario at this point.
Offensive line (10)
- Ryan Clady
- Orlando Franklin
- Manny Ramirez
- Louis Vasquez
- Chris Clark
- Will Montgomery
- Michael Schofield
- Vinston Painter
- Ben Garland
- Paul Cornick
The Broncos have kept nine players at this position for the opening-week roster in all three previous seasons of the John Fox/John Elway regime so this is where a difficult decision awaits if they don't elect to keep 10. Their rotations in preseason suggest, however, 10 just might be the number this time around. Garland has done enough to earn a spot, and Cornick continues to work as Clady's backup at left tackle. Sunday's release of veteran tackle Winston Justice helps pave the way for the above to happen.
Defensive line (9)
- DeMarcus Ware
- Terrance Knighton
- Sylvester Williams
- Malik Jackson
- Derek Wolfe
- Kevin Vickerson
- Quanterus Smith
- Marvin Austin
- Mitch Unrein
The Broncos kept eight on the initial roster here last season and could gain a spot for someplace else if they did it again. With their salary cap concerns -- they're right up against it -- it's still a very likely scenario they keep just eight here and a veteran, like Vickerson, could be released.
There is still room here for a wild card, but this group looks like it's settling in. Marshall is going to play for Trevathan for at least the first three games of the regular season, and he showed in the preseason win over the 49ers he's up to the challenge. Miller continues to make progress in his return from ACL surgery and made his first appearance of the preseason Saturday with nine snaps worth of work against the Texans.
Last season, the Broncos kept seven cornerbacks on the opening-night roster, including the injured Champ Bailey, but it's now looking like six here with Bolden lining up at corner much of the time. Bolden is also decidedly in the mix as the team's kickoff returner. Chris Harris Jr. is still on track to play in the regular-season opener.
Watch the rotations in practice as well as the preseason games, and Duke Ihenacho figures into the equation here as the fifth safety, which would put the Broncos at 11 defensive backs -- what they kept last season -- but that would likely cause them to keep one fewer defensive lineman. If a player like Vickerson is released, this is where the roster spot would be used.
Three will be the number here, but for the first four weeks of the season, it will be another kicker instead of Prater, who will open the season on reserve/suspended. Prater has been suspended four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Running backs (4)
The Broncos kept five at this spot as recently as 2012, but this position still shapes up to be a quality battle. Thompson continues to show he's a potential keeper. He's astute in pass protection, runs with power, catches the ball and has shown more speed than the Broncos may have thought he had when they signed him as an undrafted rookie. Anderson suffered a concussion in the preseason opener and will miss some practice time.
This is one of the spots where a roster spot currently being used elsewhere in this projection could go when the formal cuts do come. The Broncos have several undrafted rookie receivers who have shown enough that keeping six here will be consideration. Jordan Norwood, who had a touchdown catch in the preseason opener, and Isaiah Burse continue to work in the return game, primarily as punt returners. Norwood has shown more impact at receiver and will bear watching in the coming weeks.
Tight ends (3)
The Broncos kept four last season -- they kept three in 2011 and three in 2012 -- but keeping three, with perhaps another on the practice squad still looks to be the most likely scenario at this point.
Offensive line (9)
- Ryan Clady
- Orlando Franklin
- Manny Ramirez
- Louis Vasquez
- Chris Clark
- Will Montgomery
- Michael Schofield
- Vinston Painter
- Winston Justice
The Broncos have kept nine players at this position for the opening-week roster in all three previous seasons of the John Fox/John Elway regime so this is where a difficult decision awaits if they don't elect to keep 10. Ben Garland has worked with the second-team offense throughout training camp and played there in the preseason opener. But Garland doesn't play center so he's not a swing player in that regard. Despite the fact he deserves a long look to make it, it may take a tough call for the Broncos to do it.
Defensive line (9)
- DeMarcus Ware
- Terrance Knighton
- Sylvester Williams
- Malik Jackson
- Derek Wolfe
- Kevin Vickerson
- Quanterus Smith
- Marvin Austin
- Mitch Unrein
The Broncos kept eight on the initial roster here last season and could gain a spot for someplace else if they did it again. Austin continues to become a bigger part of the rotation, almost with each passing practice and the Broncos like what they have seen from Smith as well. They consistently created pressure up front against the Seahawks in the preseason opener.
There is still room here for a wild card, but this group looks like it's settling in. The Broncos played Barrow and Marshall at the two linebacker spots when they went to the second-team nickel against the Seahawks. McCray has worked with the starters in Miller's strong-side linebacker spot, as the Broncos continue to work Miller back into team drills.
Last season, the Broncos kept seven cornerbacks on the opening-night roster, including the injured Champ Bailey, but it's still looking like five here. Carter is getting plenty of work with the second unit in practice and still could be on the bubble, especially if one of the young, bigger defensive backs like Jerome Murphy show some special teams value.
They've played Bolden at cornerback a lot in camp so he present himself as a swing player who could play both corner and safety. He will also be one of the top options as a kickoff returner. How that impacts the Broncos' final total at defensive back remains to be seen. If they keep him and Carter, that's six players who get regular time at cornerback. So, to also keep Duke Ihenacho (Ihenacho played a team-leading 40 snaps, tied with Roby, in the preseason opener) at safety would push them to 11 defensive backs, which is what they kept last season. But it takes a roster spot from elsewhere.
The only question that still remains here, and it's still fairly large one, is at returner, where both the punt return and kickoff return jobs remain open.
The Broncos wanted a little more nastiness on defense, more athleticism across the board and to keep their edge after back-to-back 13-3 seasons that have ended in postseason disappointment.
They wanted what John Elway calls “the right mentality."
So far in this training camp they have shown they should certainly be in the Super Bowl discussion if they simply keep the train on the tracks in the months to come.
“We will get what we work for," coach John Fox said.
Without many starting jobs open, or even roster spots for that matter, the camp has been about getting the new faces acclimated and smoothing any rough edges before things get going for real.
“I think we all understand what they’ve got going here and why they brought some of us in," said safety T.J. Ward, a free-agent signee. “We all know it’s time to get to work and get ready."
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. It’s clear already the offense is going to score plenty -- again. Peyton Manning, who needs just 18 touchdown passes to set the league career record, has looked as sharp as ever and may actually have more options to throw to than he did in last year's record-setting 606-point performance. Orlando Franklin’s move inside to guard means the Broncos should pass protect better in the middle of the formation, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders should have a career year in this offense, especially given his versatility to play all over the formation. The Broncos also didn’t sit on the laurels of last season’s record-setting effort as Manning and offensive coordinator Adam Gase were each aggressive and honest, with plenty of attention to detail when looking at what could be better.
3. Continuity helps. The team’s playcallers on offense and defense -- Gase and Del Rio -- are back. Last season, as Gase raced to put in some changes to the offense when Mike McCoy moved on to become the Chargers' coach, the Broncos were working through the new stuff. This year, Gase has tweaked the offense in spots, but there looks to be a greater comfort level across the board. The groups have played fairly cleanly in practice, with only a smattering of penalties and a minimum of repeats as they have worked through things.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Until they square up in a game that counts, there is at least some question if a slightly revamped offensive line is going to make it happen in the run game. The Broncos don’t want to be some outdated, 50-50 run-pass affair, but they do want to be able to pound the ball to close out games and keep the heat off Manning when needed. Thus far, in limited full-contact work, it’s been a spotty effort with flashes of potential. It will be a key piece in keeping opposing defenses honest and giving the Broncos some other options in the scoring zone.
2. Somebody, anybody, has to step up in the return game. As camp has rolled on, the Broncos have simply mishandled too many kickoffs and punts. They would prefer to not have to use starters if they don’t have to, and wide receiver Andre Caldwell and defensive back Omar Bolden have been the most consistent in kickoff returns so far. At punt return, however, things are still open with Wes Welker, who suffered two concussions last season, currently listed at the top of the team’s depth chart. Because of the concussion risk, Welker is not the player the Broncos want catching punts beyond any deep-in-their-own-territory fair catches. So it is a chance for a young player such as wide receiver Jordan Norwood or rookie Isaiah Burse.
3. The blue ball is in play -- a football with a blue covering -- to emphasize ball security after the team led the league in lost fumbles last season. The Broncos also dropped their fair share of passes in 2013, including a seven-drop game against the New England Patriots and a six-drop game against the Tennessee Titans. It has been a front-burner issue all through camp, but they have still put the ball on the ground on occasion in workouts, especially on special teams. It will bear watching as they move through the preseason and into the regular season.
- With the additions of Sanders and rookie Cody Latimer to an offense that already includes Demaryius Thomas, Welker and Julius Thomas, the Broncos feature an array of pass-catchers who can all play, with equal comfort, on the outside or in the slot. It gives them plenty of size to create some matchup problems against more aggressive defenses. Even the most aggressive defensive backs are going to have a difficult time manhandling them all as the Broncos have spent plenty of time considering how to consistently get their pass-catchers the free release they need off the line.
- Manning, and his receivers have said as much, has shown a little more pop in his arm through offseason workouts and camp and has pushed the ball down the field with ease.
- Of the team’s draft class, cornerback Bradley Roby is, at minimum, going to play in the nickel and dime, Latimer will be in the rotation on offense, and Lamin Barrow figures to get special-teams work and could work his way into some of the specialty packages on defense.
- In recent seasons, the Broncos have consistently had a late free-agent signing, a veteran who signs a one-year deal, come in and contribute in a big way. This year it looks like that guy is going to be defensive tackle Marvin Austin. He had back surgery in the past year, and the former second-round pick by the Giants has caught the Broncos’ eye.
- It’s early with plenty of road to be traveled, but the most improved players from a year ago look to be running back Ronnie Hillman and guard Ben Garland, who was switched from defensive tackle in the offseason and is pushing hard for one of the final roster spots allotted for the offensive line. Hillman has shown the big-play potential the offense needs at the position, especially as it looks to improve its impact on runs between the tackles against the bevy of nickel and dime formations used to stop the Broncos' passing game.
It seems like a football eon ago that then-Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels sized up the potential AFC West race and called the San Diego Chargers “kind of the measuring stick.”
That statement came before the 2010 season as the Chargers had won the previous four division titles. It’s also right about the time the winds of change began to roar in earnest in the division, when the foundation was set for what has happened since.
The Kansas City Chiefs won the division in '10. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen fired McDaniels after a 4-12 season marred by Spygate and hired John Elway as the Broncos’ top football executive.
Since then, the Broncos have won three consecutive division titles, one featuring the national phenomenon that was a Tim Tebow-led read-option offense, and two with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. And the Broncos' crushing February Super Bowl loss notwithstanding, they are coming off a record-setting 2013 with Manning returning and a free-agency haul that included pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos are poised to be in the league’s championship conversation again.
The Chiefs think they are ready for more, the Chargers were the only team in the division to beat the Broncos last season, and the Oakland Raiders, after a flurry of offseason moves, believe -- at least LaMarr Woodley believes -- they can be a playoff team.
NFL Nation reporters Jeff Legwold (Broncos), Eric D. Williams (Chargers), Adam Teicher (Chiefs) and Paul Gutierrez (Raiders) look at how the AFC West division race will shake out this season.
What will the Broncos' record be and why?
Jeff Legwold: Look at the Broncos' depth chart, and on paper -- yes, the dreaded "on paper" distinction -- they are better than they were when they finished 13-3 and played their way into Super Bowl XLVIII last season. After the crushing loss in the title game, they didn't go quietly into the offseason. They put together a solid draft class with two potential immediate contributors in cornerback Bradley Roby and wide receiver Cody Latimer. They were also one of the most aggressive teams in free agency, reeling in Ware, Talib, Ward and Sanders. If Ware and Talib, in particular stay healthy (Talib has never played 16 games in a season), Denver's defense will be vastly improved alongside a record-breaking offense that figures to again pile up points. The Broncos finished with five defensive starters on injured reserve last season, and many of the players who were starting on defense down the stretch will be backups this season. Their trek through the NFC West to go with road games against the Patriots, Jets and Bengals gives them a potentially brutal schedule. They could be better than they were last season and not have the record to show for it. That is why 12-4 would be a quality piece of work.
Adam Teicher: 12-4. It's a bit much to expect the Broncos to match their 13-3 record of last season. A schedule that includes two games against the Chiefs and Chargers and singles against all teams from the NFC West plus New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati almost guarantees that Denver won't get to 13 wins. But a slightly diminished regular-season record doesn't mean the Broncos won't win the AFC or play in the Super Bowl again. From this vantage point, it's an upset if any team but the Broncos represents the AFC in the Super Bowl this season.
Paul Gutierrez: Sure, no one takes a Super Bowl beating like the Denver Broncos, whose five losses on Super Sunday are by a combined score of 206-58. But in the modern world of the rich getting richer, the defending AFC champs simply got better. Adding a trio of big-name free agents in Ware, Talib and Ward will only make the defense more sound. And the addition of Sanders, who will replace the departed Eric Decker, should help the Broncos' record-setting offense continue to hum along under the direction of Manning. The Broncos are primed for another division title with a 12-4 record, with tough games at Kansas City, at San Diego (the Chargers won in Denver last season), at New England (the Patriots won in OT last season) and at Seattle (remember that 43-8 pasting the Seahawks put on the Broncos in the Super Bowl?).
What will the Chiefs' record be and why?
Legwold: There is an air about this team; the Chiefs seem comfortable with where the roster was at the end of the 2013 season going into 2014. They were not all that active in free agency, though they took some swings at a wide receiver or two, including Emmanuel Sanders. If they are the team that went 9-0 before the bye last season, then standing pat is just fine, but if they are the group that went 2-5 down the stretch, then they are not catching the Broncos. They have shuffled the offensive line and seem likely to lean on running back Jamaal Charles again on offense, but they lack pop on the outside, especially if receiver A.J. Jenkins can't lift his game. The defense is solid in the front seven, but in a division with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, cornerback Brandon Flowers' release might be the move that eventually stings the most, especially if young cornerback Marcus Cooper, a player Manning targeted repeatedly last season, is not up to the challenge. It all has the look of a step back from last season's 11-5 to 9-7 with the NFC West on everybody's schedule in the division.
Teicher: 8-8. Kansas City faltered down the stretch last season, winning two of its final eight games. The Chiefs then watched several significant regulars leave through free agency. The Chiefs have holes at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield that they failed to adequately address. That doesn't mean they won't be playoff contenders. Despite the lousy record, the Chiefs quietly finished last season as one of the NFL's better offensive teams. They might be able to score enough points to overcome a shaky defense that couldn't hold a 28-point lead in last season's playoff loss against Indianapolis.
Gutierrez: Are the Kansas City Chiefs the team that made history by becoming the first in NFL modern annals to follow up a two-victory season by winning its first nine games the following season, or are they the club that lost six of its last eight, including a heartbreaking 45-44 wild-card loss to the Indianapolis Colts? Momentum being what it is, and with the Chiefs having a so-so draft coupled with departures of the likes of Albert, defensive end Tyson Jackson and receiver/returner Dexter McCluster, plus a tough schedule, they seem to be on the way back down. As in a 7-9 record. Tough stretches that include games at Denver, against New England, at San Francisco and at San Diego early, and against Seattle, at Oakland, against Denver, at Arizona and at Pittsburgh late will truly tell the Chiefs' tale, even as Charles continues his ascent as one of the game's best all-around backs.
@adamteicher 9-7 would be a great accomplishment. Schedule is nails, but if OL gels and backend D is in place, it's doable. O will score— Lou Montagna (@LouMontagna) July 21, 2014
What will the Chargers' record be and why?
Legwold: In his first year as Chargers coach, Mike McCoy helped get quarterback Philip Rivers back on track -- though Rivers never really conceded to being off track -- and the Chargers were able to fight through injuries, hand the Broncos their only home loss of the season, and earn a playoff spot. McCoy figures to try to keep Rivers cocooned in a low-risk approach on offense -- their leading receivers in terms of catches last season were a tight end (Antonio Gates) and a running back (Danny Woodhead) -- with a heavy dose of starting running back Ryan Mathews if he can stay healthy. Defensively, new cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers should help the secondary. As they continue their makeover in the second year of the current regime, most personnel people in the league believe the Chargers are still lacking enough athleticism, especially on defense, to make a significant push in the division race. Add up four games against the NFC West to go with New England and Baltimore and it looks like a 7-9 campaign.
Teicher: 8-8. The Chargers might be the division's most interesting team. San Diego is the team most capable of catching the first-place Broncos, but also has the best chance of getting caught by the last-place Raiders. If Rivers plays as well as he did last season, it's not out of the question that San Diego wins the AFC West. Like Denver, San Diego might have a better team than it did last season. Signing Flowers filled a big need. But a tougher schedule will keep the Chargers out of the playoffs this time.
Gutierrez: San Diego, under a rookie head coach in the offensive-minded Mike McCoy, won four straight games to end the regular season and sneak into the playoffs at 9-7, and another 9-7 campaign seems to be in the works, even if the Chargers look to be better in 2014. Some of McCoy's moves did have many fans scratching their heads, but there is no debating he was instrumental in Rivers' NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award-winning season. The Chargers added bruising running back Donald Brown to join lightning-quick Ryan Mathews and are excited to see what their receiving corps, highlighted by second-year wideout Keenan Allen, can do if Malcom Floyd is healthy. No, it's not the halcyon and high-flying days of Air Coryell, but with tough games at Arizona, Oakland, Denver, Baltimore and San Francisco, and with New England coming to San Diego, the Chargers will take it.
@eric_d_williams 11-5 & make the playoffs if we stay healthy, 9-7 & miss the playoffs if we don't. And we'll beat Denver.— Shea Duggan (@SDsportskid86) July 22, 2014
What will the Raiders' record be and why?
Legwold: Rookie linebacker Khalil Mack has the look of a potential foundation player in the Raiders defense. If things go as the Raiders hope, he should be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year because he's going to get plenty of snaps. But overall this team has put its immediate fate in the hands of veterans with far less of their career in front of them than in their past, led by quarterback Matt Schaub. Raiders coach Dennis Allen keeps saying Schaub is a top-10 passer in the league, but Schaub has always seemed to lack that kind of confidence in himself. But front-seven additions LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew are certainly risk-reward moves the Raiders need to work. Tuck is 30, Woodley is 29 and Jones-Drew, who has missed 11 games combined in the past two seasons, just turned 29. The depth chart is still thin, particularly on defense, and an injury or two will have a ripple effect. The schedule's second half also includes two games against the Broncos, two against the Chiefs, and games against the 49ers and the Rams. It all looks like a potential 5-11.
Teicher: 6-10. The days of hopeless desperation are coming to an end in Oakland. The Raiders won't be the pushovers they were last season. But they are still not ready to compete with their AFC West rivals. Schaub won't be the answer at quarterback. Instead, he will be another in a long line of failures. Going to rookie quarterback Derek Carr won't solve their problems, at least not this season. By 2015, the Raiders will be a factor in the AFC West race. But despite a major free-agent spending spree, they will still drag the bottom in 2014.
Gutierrez: In the immediate aftermath of the NFL schedule being released back in April, I saw a 5-11 season for the Raiders. Now, after the draft, organized team activities and minicamps? I'll go 6-10. Doesn't sound all that impressive, I know, but it would, technically, be improvement for third-year coach Dennis Allen after consecutive 4-12 seasons. Yes, the Raiders did rebuild both lines with talent and, on the defensive side of the ball, championship pedigree. And they are going with a new quarterback in the battle-tested Schaub. Plus, the veterans Oakland brought in via free agency all have chips on their shoulders. Truly, this is the most talent Allen has had at his disposal. Still, Oakland has the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL, and until it proves differently, it's hard to imagine the Raiders winning more than six games. Where might they scratch out six victories? Let's start with home games against Houston, Miami (in London), San Diego, Arizona, Kansas City and Buffalo and go from there.
@PGutierrezESPN 8-8 because they have a tough schedule and with the talent they have will improve a bit..DA gets fired & Gruden in 2015— AK (@AaronK510) July 21, 2014
This is the second of three nominations for the most memorable play in Denver Broncos history. On Monday, we featured Tom Jackson's 73-yard interception return for a touchdown in 1977 to power the Broncos to their first Super Bowl trip and tomorrow we’ll feature Hall of Famer John Elway’s scramble in Super Bowl XXXII, known simply as the “helicopter play" to most of the team’s faithful.
Please vote for your choice as the Broncos’ most memorable play.
Score: Broncos 24, Steelers 21
Date: Jan. 11, 1998 Site: Three Rivers Stadium
They arrived to the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh having already thumped the Jaguars 42-17 in the wild-card round to go with a survival-of-the-fittest 14-10 victory over the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round, a game former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has always called “the hardest-hitting game I’ve ever been a part of in the National Football League."
And with the clock on Elway’s career starting to tick loudly at this point, the Broncos certainly had their eyes on the prize.
After a 17-point second quarter gave the Broncos a 24-14 lead, the Steelers had narrowed the gap to 24-21 with just under three minutes to play -– the only score of the second half for either team -– and the Broncos needed a quality possession to wind the clock and close things out.
However, following the Pittsburgh score, the Broncos took over on their own 11-yard line with 2:46 to play. Elway hit Ed McCaffrey for a 6-yard gain on first down to move the ball to the Broncos' 17. Running back Terrell Davis was then thrown a for 2-yard loss on second down, which left the Broncos facing a third-and-6 from their own 15-yard line and the all-too-real prospect of handing the Steelers' quality field position if they did not convert.
Shanahan sent in a play the Broncos, according to Shannon Sharpe, had not practiced in weeks and was not part of the game plan the team had made to prepare for the Steelers. And Sharpe has said after Elway called the play in the huddle, Sharpe said to the quarterback, “We don’t have that play in."
Sharpe then asked Elway, “What do you want me to do?" Sharpe said Elway responded with words now in the team’s championship lore -- “Go get open."
Sharpe did, to the tune of a 18-yard gain before the Steelers’ Lee Flowers made the tackle. The Broncos ran four more plays to run out the clock and keep the opportunity of the franchise’s first Super Bowl win in their grasp.
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Denver Broncos history. In the next two days, we’ll also feature: Hall of Famer John Elway’s 18-yard completion on a third-and-6 with two minutes to play in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 11, 1998 in Pittsburgh as the Broncos went on to earn the franchise’s first Super Bowl win two weeks later; and Elway’s scramble in Super Bowl XXXII, known simply as the "helicopter play" to most of the team’s faithful.
Please vote for your choice as the Broncos’ most memorable play.
Score: Broncos 27, Colts 13
Date: Nov. 27, 1977 Site: Mile High Stadium
But the bottom line is the plays had to have some symbolism, the historical context that makes them important. And while Elway’s Hall of Fame career is an enormous presence in all the Broncos have done since their inception in 1960, Tom Jackson’s play has plenty of meaning, particularly for the Broncos of the Orange Crush era and even those who came before.
When the Baltimore Colts arrived in Denver for a Week 11 matchup between two 9-1 teams, the Broncos were a team that had never been to the postseason, in position for the franchise's first trip. The Broncos took a quick 14-0 lead on two touchdown passes from Craig Morton, only to see the Colts battle back to 14-13 on a Bert Jones to Bobby Mitchell touchdown pass with 11 minutes, 24 seconds remaining.
With Jones driving the Colts toward another potential score midway through the fourth quarter, the Colts quarterback tried to squeeze a pass to running back Don McCauley -- McCauley had 11 catches for 112 yards in the game -- but Jackson snatched the ball from the air and raced 73 yards for a touchdown. He tossed the ball into the stands after he had crossed into the end zone to extend the Broncos' lead with 7:20 to play.
Fellow Ring of Fame member Louis Wright added an interception later in the fourth quarter that led to another Broncos touchdown on the way to a 27-13 win. The victory went a long way toward giving the Broncos home-field advantage in the playoffs, and they went on to defeat the Steelers and Raiders in back-to-back weeks to earn a trip to Super Bowl XII.
It was the first of what is now seven trips to the league’s title game for the Broncos, including Super Bowl XLVIII to close the 2013 season.
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.
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.
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.
Welker has not practiced with the team since, though he has begun light physical activity in recent days.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe (illness) and cornerback Kayvon Webster (right thumb), who like Welker have not practiced this week, were also ruled out of Sunday's game.
Webster, who had surgery to repair a fracture last Friday, is expected to practice at least on a limited basis next week with a cast on his right hand. He is also expected to play with the cast against the Raiders and into the postseason.
“Everything's good," Broncos head coach John Fox said of Webster following Friday's practice. "... He missed this week because he is recovering from an actual surgery, don't want to risk any infection ... but I think next week there is more of an opportunity in a cast he could be able to play."
The Broncos are optimistic on Wolfe, who has not practiced since suffering seizure-like symptoms Nov. 29. He will return for the postseason as well. Like Welker, Wolfe has done work with the team's strength and conditioning staff in recent days.
Everyone else listed on the Broncos injury report this week, including cornerback Champ Bailey (left foot), was designated as probable and is expected to play Sunday against the Texans.
Bailey has said he's "ready to go."
A party of one. He is the only player remaining who was in a Broncos uniform for a remember-when game against Michael Vick. At the time, Vick’s jersey sales were off the chart and he was the next level of athleticism with a power arm. Vick represented what the future of the position just might be.
“At that time, no question, there wasn’t anybody really like him," Bailey said. “That’s how we looked at it that week. We put on the tape and you watched him and he just did things other guys weren’t doing, with speed nobody else had, really. That game, I still look at that even now like that’s still probably one of his best games of his career. We had no answer for what he brought that day."
On that day, Vick was 18-of-24 passing for 252 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-28 Falcons win that saw any memory of Jake Plummer's franchise-record 499 yards passing disappear in Vick's jetwash. Vick did not throw an interception and the Broncos sacked him just once. Vick also ran for 115 yards on 12 carries, including a 44-yard, double-take worthy effort on a third-and-3 play during the Falcons’ first possession of the day.
That was all before Vick’s arrest, his incarceration, his life’s rebound and his career resurrection in Philadelphia. Vick returns to Denver Sunday, his first trip back as a starting quarterback since the ’04 affair and he returns as a slightly different player, almost a decade older and once again on the cutting edge of whatever becomes of Chip Kelly’s offense in the NFL. Asked this week if he could recall the ’04 trip to Denver, Vick said; “I think Jake Plummer was the quarterback, Mike Shanahan was the coach ... and it’s not an easy place to play."
Reminded he had rushed for more than 100 yards in the game, Vick said with a laugh; “Well, I was a lot younger back then."
“He was a bigger threat running the ball back then, I believe," Bailey said. “But he’s still a threat, a great threat running the ball. But he was just on point that day. He didn’t show all that on tape in previous games. That was one of his best games of his career. I know it because he probably ran for 100 and threw for two-something ... I look back and I think that was a big moment for him, because I don't think I had seen him put a whole game together like that, running, throwing, in the pocket, on the move, until that day."
And there have certainly been times in Vick’s career when his NFL peers perhaps appreciated his athletic gifts more than the public at large. In Vick’s time in Atlanta, players often responded to any question that included “most dynamic" or “most athletic" or “toughest to defend" in it with Vick’s name.
“I think that’s true," said Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, an eighth-year veteran. “Guys I knew would always be talking about how (Vick) played, what he did. And then I would talk to friends who weren't in the league or something like that and they would say they didn't see it, or whatever, but I think guys in this league have known what (Vick) can do."
And also in Kelly’s read-option attack Vick, who is suddenly the oldest player on the Eagles’ roster. Another sort of remake for the only quarterback in league history to have thrown for at least 20,000 yards and rushed for at least 5,000 yards in a career. He has a 400-yard passing game already this season -- 428 yards in the loss to the Chargers earlier this month -- and he’s also been sacked six times, by the Chiefs last week, as the Eagles try to settle in to a new way of doing things in a 1-2 start.
“But I just look at it now, he’s still doing those things, he’s still breaking off those big runs, escaping, all those things," Vickerson said. “It all looks the same to me."
Vick has been battered at times in his three previous seasons as the Eagles' starter. He missed three games each in the 2010 and 2011 seasons with rib injuries and missed six games last season after suffering a concussion against the Cowboys last Nov. 11. And questions have swirled about whether Vick is the long-term answer at quarterback as for Kelly's offense, or as a long-term an answer as a 33-year-old quarterback who is his team’s second-leading rusher can be. But as far as the Broncos are concerned those are decisions for another day by other people.
They see only Vick now, for the most part, as he was back in 2004.
“Michael Vick has been a talented football player as long as he’s been in the league," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “He’s been a guy that can beat you with his feet and beat you with his arm … I kind of feel like that’s always been the case and in particular when he’s healthy and part of a good team."