Friday, March 21, 2014
Some Broncos will have to grow up quickly
By Jeff Legwold
The Denver Broncos showed what they thought of their projected depth chart by where, and how quickly, they spent their significant pile of money in the hours after free agency began.
They went defense, defense and defense in T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware before they then signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. But even given those four marquee efforts, the Broncos said a lot about their plans by what they didn't do in free agency.
In short, as general manager John Elway put it, "some of these young guys have to step up and be ready to contribute ... that's the way it has to be."
Among those who will have to be more than they've been:
A lot will be expected of Broncos running back Montee Ball this upcoming season.
Few, if any, of the players from the Broncos' past two draft classes will have more expected of him this season than Ball. The Broncos let Knowshon Moreno go into the market -- after a 1,000-yard rushing season that included 60 receptions and being the most consistent blocker in pass protection at the position -- because they think Ball is ready.
Ball will have to be the primary runner, function well in pass protection and produce as a receiver. He has shown he has the work ethic, the skills and the approach to be The Guy, but this is one the Broncos have to get right.
Draft classes are often judged in the public domain by the player at the top, but in reality the draft classes that consistently keep a team competitive and out of salary-cap trouble are made by the starters found in the later rounds. And Jackson, a fifth-round pick in 2012, is just the kind of player who helps lift a class.
Jackson keeps earning more playing time on the defensive line because of his ability to make things happen at both end and defensive tackle. He played in just 52 percent of the defensive snaps this past season, but was still seventh on the team in tackles (42) and second on the team in sacks (six).
That kind of production in limited time should earn him more opportunities.
Talib was signed to be a starter, and the Broncos believe Chris Harris Jr. is on track to return from ACL surgery. But they need productive cornerbacks in the nickel and dime.
The Broncos figure to take a long look at them in the draft, but Webster has to be ready to contribute. He's aggressive, has the skill set to function well in man coverage and he seems to bounce back well from mistakes, something former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has said would serve Webster well over the long haul on the way to the starting lineup.
Webster played 42 percent of the snaps on defense before he fractured his right thumb in two places in mid-December. If camp goes the way the Broncos hope, that total could be closer to 70 percent in '14.
Williams will be expected to play like the first-round pick he was last April. After Kevin Vickerson went on injured reserve in November, Williams played 22, 20, 44, 32 and 42 snaps in the final five games of the regular season, and he played 54 percent of the defensive snaps in the three postseason games.
Before Vickerson was hurt, Williams had five games of fewer than 10 snaps. He got more opportunities by necessity, and the light started to go on for him with the increased playing time. This fall, the Broncos will need him to earn that role from the start.