ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After months of offseason work, training camp and the initial cut to 53 players on the roster, the Denver Broncos make the transition this week.
They go from "on paper," to the scoreboard as Sunday night's regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts approaches.
"I think we're further along than maybe we have been in other years, but on paper doesn't mean anything," said Broncos head coach John Fox following Monday's practice. "How we come together, how we go about our work on and off the field -- there's still a lot of variations -- if we stay healthy. … Last year doesn't mean anything for anybody. It's what you do now."
But as the Broncos are poised to see if the theory is true, this has all been the undercurrent of the Broncos' spring and summer. That this version, this roster, is better than the one that finished 13-3 in the 2013 season and advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII before the horrible-no-good-very-bad-day meltdown in the title game ended the run.
Much of the offseason energy was spent on a defensive makeover that included free agent signings DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talilb to go with a first-round pick in the May draft used to select cornerback Bradley Roby. But even an offense that scored a single-season record 606 points -- that features a new primary runner in Montee Ball and a new starter at wide receiver in Emmanuel Sanders -- may have more to offer when attacking defenses.
But overall the team's chief football decision-maker, John Elway, said his biggest mission was to add some youth, more speed overall and find a way, if the inevitable spate of injuries arrives to have enough athleticism on hand that special teams units wouldn't suffer when the roster dominoes fall. The Broncos had five defensive starters on injured reserve when they arrived at the Super Bowl this past February.
"We've got more depth," Elway said. " … We've got more speed, especially in the backup positions and that can help us on special teams so I think speed-wise we're much better on special teams. We've got some young guys that came in and competed and overall our team's speed's better but again with the guys that we've signed this offseason, we've talked several times about it, it is a different mentality and confidence level on the defensive side."
The difference in where the Broncos are now and where they were in 2011 when Elway and Fox began their current tenures -- aside from the Peyton Manning signing -- is what happened when the Broncos released players this time around.
This time, several personnel executives from around the league said in recent days, the players the Broncos released got far more looks than they have in the previous three seasons. Safety Duke Ihenacho was claimed off waivers by the Washington Redskins. Head coach Jay Gruden said he expects Ihenacho to contribute on special teams immediately and that Ihenacho has a chance to play in the team's defense as well.
Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, who started 11 games last season and was released when the Broncos kept just eight defensive linemen, has drawn interest from several teams, including the San Diego Chargers. With a more difficult schedule, at least in the early examination before any games are played, another Super Bowl trip remains to be seen.
"It's a situation that you want to be in having to make a lot of tough decisions like we had to make," Elway said. "This is by far the deepest team since I've been here and the toughest decisions we've had since I've been here … health is going to be a big part of it. We were one game short of where we wanted to be last year. I think we feel good about where we are right now, but we also know that you don't win it on paper. Now this group has to come together, work together and continue to grow. It's a good roster. We're excited where we are. Now we have to see it come together."