Denver Broncos: Britton Colquitt

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It wasn’t alone on the list of things that weren’t quite what the Denver Broncos hoped they would be this past season, but the team’s special teams units never did quite rise to the level of expectations.

And Friday you could find a little more proof of that. Longtime NFL writer and current Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin has annually ranks the special teams units for every team in the league.

Those rankings are always worth a look.

Gosselin's work is based a wide-ranging collection of categories that he tracks week to week through the season. The rankings are also coveted as required reading for many special teams coaches throughout the NFL.

Barth
Gosselin’s evaluations for this past season were published Friday, and the Broncos found themselves at 19th, just behind the Cleveland Browns and Seattle Seahawks who were tied at 17th and just in front of the New York Jets.

Overall the AFC West didn’t fare well with the Oakland Raiders at No. 22 and the San Diego Chargers at No. 29. The Kansas City Chiefs, with Knile Davis third in the league in kickoff returns at 28.6 yards per return and De'Anthony Thomas fourth in the league in punt returns (11.9 yards per return), checked in at No. 8.

The Broncos’ plan at special teams was wobbled even before they exited the preseason with kicker Matt Prater’s four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

Prater was eventually released, in a move rooted in the suspension, his inconsistent training camp and some concern over Prater’s contract on future salary cap issues. His replacement, Brandon McManus, missed a handful of field goals over the course of the first 11 games, and that resulted in a loss of confidence in McManus from the coaching staff.

McManus was eventually released in late November and Connor Barth was signed. For the year the Broncos attempted just two field goals of at least 50 yards this past season as compared to six such attempts in Prater’s Pro Bowl season in 2013.

Barth’s signing did repair the field goal portion of the problem – he was 17-of-18, including 2-of-2 in the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Colts – but could not be a factor on kickoffs so the Broncos brought McManus back for that down the stretch.

Britton Colquitt, who carries a $3.75 million cap charge in ’15, had was his lowest showing in net punt yardage since 2010. The Broncos didn’t have much impact in the return game other than Omar Bolden’s work down the stretch, and their coverage units were inconsistent as well, including an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown by the Patriots’ Julian Edelman and two returns of at least 46 yards by the Bengals in December.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Over 17 games, five months and more than a few bumps, injuries and dilemmas along the way, the Denver Broncos discovered some things about themselves and why they didn’t earn the return trip to the Super Bowl they openly coveted since last February.

This is the fifth installment of a weeklong look at those lessons, both good and bad as they began with such high hopes in September only to be so cruelly disappointed in January.

And when the Broncos’ quiet summer of 2014 was interrupted by kicker Matt Prater’s four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, the team’s plan in the kicking game was dented significantly. And the group never really fully recovered, across the board, in the season that followed.

[+] EnlargeConnor Barth
Joe Mahoney/AP PhotoConnor Barth converted 17 of 18 field goal attempts after signing with the Broncos.
The Broncos traded a conditional draft pick – a seventh rounder – for Brandon McManus just before the regular season began and just after they were informed of Prater’s suspension.

McManus immediately showed a powerful leg, enough so the Broncos released Prater after his suspension ended. But four missed field goals over the course of the first 11 games resulted in a loss of confidence in McManus from the coaching staff. So much so that in the Broncos’ Nov. 16 loss to the St. Louis Rams inside the Edward Jones Dome, the Broncos passed up chances at 54- and 55-yard field goal attempts.

The Rams led 3-0 when the Broncos passed on the 54-yard attempt, led 13-7 when the Broncos passed on the 55-yard attempt. And in what was kind of the story for the season after they passed on the 55-yarder, Britton Colquitt’s punt when just 28 yards to the Rams’ 15-yard line.

One game later, and another miss Nov. 23 against Miami, McManus was released and Connor Barth was signed. Barth’s signing repaired the field goal portion of the problem – he was 17-of-18, including 2-of-2 in the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Colts – but could not be a factor on kickoffs so the Broncos brought McManus back for that down the stretch.

It gave the Broncos four specialists on the roster – two placekickers, Colquitt and long snapper Aaron Brewer. And that is something that will get a look in the coming months.

For the year the Broncos attempted just two field goals of at least 50 yards this past season as compared to six such attempts in Prater’s Pro Bowl season in 2013.

“Overall, the whole team, it seemed like sometimes we just weren’t consistent on things,’’ cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “Especially in the games we lost. We did things in those games we don’t normally do, that you can’t do.’’

The Broncos also failed to recover an onside kick in the season opener against the Indianapolis Colts and things were simply inconsistent the rest of the way – including an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown by the Patriots’ Julian Edelman and two returns of at least 46 yards by the Bengals in December -- as the Broncos worked through plenty of lineup changes in the coverage groups as some injuries mounted at linebacker.

Couple those issues with a ho-hum season from Colquitt – his 37.6 net yards per punt was his lowest showing in net yardage since 2010 – and a lack of an overall impact, save for Omar Bolden’s work late in the season, in the return game, and new special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis has a big to-do list. Moving forward Colquitt is scheduled to earn a $3 million base salary in 2015 – a $3.75 million charge to the salary cap – while McManus is under contract for ’15, and Barth is under contract for ’15 and ’16.

Neither McManus nor Barth received a signing bonus, so the Broncos would face no "dead money'' charges against the salary cap if they chose to release either player.

In the end Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway promised “to look at everything we do’’ following the season, and the so-called “third phase’’ of the game should get one of the longest looks of all.

Broncos Rewind: Defense, special teams

November, 5, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Ordinarily, if a defense held an offense to 2.6 yards per carry in the run game and forced the quarterback to throw 20 incompletions, a defense would have had a little more to show for that than the Broncos did in the loss to the New England Patriots.

But then, again, Tom Brady is a galaxy away from an ordinary quarterback, and the Patriots consistently found the match-ups Sunday that stung the most.

With that in mind, and after a long look at the game video, here are some thoughts on the Broncos defense and special teams:
  • Beyond his next-level athleticism and power -- see: one-hand grab, ridiculous (with 14 minutes, 38 seconds to play in Sunday's game) -- Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski's feel for the soft spots in the coverage and the precision in this routes make him the toughest of covers. Sure, he's more physical at the top of the route than most -- he's not opposed to a chicken-wing shove with the elbow as he comes out of his break -- but he doesn't lose momentum in his cut, keeps his weight over his feet so he is consistently in position to receive the ball when finds his spot.
  • And when Gronkowski gets the mistake he consistently cashes in, an underappreciated trait of the successful. Following his one-handed snare to get the ball to the Broncos 1-yard line, the Patriots lined him up wide, where he was singled up on linebacker Von Miller with no help in sight. Miller is a top-end athlete as well, but in that situation Gronkowski holds all the cards. Tendencies would offer Gronkowski would have run the fade there if he had a safety on him, where he would have walled off the defender and reeled in the pass. But against an isolated Miller, Gronskowski simply ran a slant to the open area for the too-easy touchdown. “Actually there was another thing that should have happened in that situation that we didn't execute, something that we've seen a couple times,'' said Broncos head coach John Fox.
  • The game video showed the Patriots used a second blocker on DeMarcus Ware more often than they did on Miller -- Ware had the Broncos' only sack and Miller led the team with three hits on Brady. But the Patriots were aware of Miller's spin to the inside and at times a guard was ready and waiting to meet him even if Miller beat the tackle. When the Broncos flipped Miller from the defensive left to the right at times, he made things difficult for Patriots left tackle Nate Solder.
  • The Broncos surrendered their first punt return for a touchdown since Dec. 24, 2011 -- the Buffalo Bills' Leodis McKelvin brought one back 80 yards in Buffalo's 40-14 win that day -- when Julian Edelman took one back 84 yards Sunday. The play got off to a bad start when Britton Colquitt dropped the snap before getting the punt away. It didn't have the usual hang time because of the bobble and when Omar Bolden, the first coverage player to arrive, closed in he found himself off Edelman's right shoulder instead of squared up to Edelman. That's all the room Edelman needed to move up to field the ball on the run. The Broncos then lost containment along the Patriots' sideline and even if a potential block in the back by Tim Wright on Corey Nelson had been called, the Broncos' had surrendered far too much room on that side of the field.
  • It will bear watching if the Broncos change how they call things on offense with a potential field goal from 40 yards on out on the table given kicker Brandon McManus has three misses since the Broncos released Matt Prater. McManus clearly has an NFL leg, having shown rare power. But making field goals is a quirky business that gets done in a variety of conditions. Kicking into the jet stream that is the open end of Gillette Stadium is not for the faint of heart or faint of leg. And while McManus hit 10 in a row from a variety of distances into the wind in warm-ups Sunday before his first miss in pregame came from 47 yards on the right hashmark, he may have dented the right upright with his 41-yarder into the wind that bounced away in the second quarter, a live-and-learn moment for the young kicker. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski later powered a 45-yarder through the uprights, into the same wind, in the third quarter, showing local knowledge and experience still count. But McManus has also missed two 53-yarders in Denver since the news he would stay and Prater would go. Those aren't chip shots, but kicks the Broncos expected him to make at altitude on good weather days. It's a confidence game from this point forward and the Broncos will need McManus to keep his, because history says they're going to all need a kick with the game on the line at some point.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are times when John Elway the football executive looks every bit like the go-for-it, take-the-risk-to-get-the-reward guy he was as a Hall of Fame quarterback.

And Friday, when the Denver Broncos released their Pro Bowl kicker, Matt Prater, was one of those times. Prater, who had served three games of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, was poised to be reinstated on Monday.

[+] EnlargeMatt Prater
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesThe Denver Broncos released Matt Prater on Friday.
But Elway looked at the team’s salary-cap situation, the Broncos' long list of impending free agents, Prater's off-the-field trouble and the performance of Brandon McManus and made the call. The Broncos released a proven late-game performer at a position where late-game performers can decide the biggest games.

"I think part of it is evaluating Brandon," Broncos coach John Fox said following Friday's practice. "… But you take the leap of faith and a lot of personnel decisions. It's no different than any one we've made up to this point in our tenure."

It is a leap of faith for a team that considers itself in the Super Bowl conversation. Prater was a proven player, a guy who made 25 of 26 field goal attempts in the Broncos' 13-3 finish in 2013 and had made 51 of his career 54 attempts in the fourth quarter or overtime.

But Elway is a financial conservative, at least -- for the most part -- when it comes to the salary cap, yet he's a football daredevil as well. Elways doesn't like the Broncos dancing on the salary cap's edge, has consistently talked of keeping the roster stocked with youth and athleticism and that "I like to have the room to deal with all of the things that come along and keep us competitive over the long haul. I see a big part of my job as making sure we're two and three steps ahead in what we do."

But Elway is also the guy who, after signing a still-recovering Peyton Manning, said, "There is no Plan B."

The Broncos' actions show Friday's move has been in at least the back of their collective mind for some time. They didn't just sign any kicker to deal with Prater's suspension. No, they traded a conditional draft pick to the New York Giants in August to acquire McManus.

Given that McManus is now on the Broncos' roster in Week 5 of the season, the conditions of the pick kick in, and the Giants will now get a seventh-rounder from the Broncos in the 2015 draft.

For his part, McManus, at least given he hasn't yet faced a late-game situation with a win or a loss in the balance in the regular season or playoffs, believes he has essentially kicked with his job on the line with the Colts, Giants and Broncos over the past two seasons. It has prepared him for kicks when the clock nears 0:00.

"Going into the preseason the past two years, I wanted go in and compete and earn that job, so I knew I couldn’t miss any kicks," McManus said. "So I have full confidence with myself with the game on the line."

There is no question -- physically, McManus fits the job profile. His right leg is nuclear, and he has consistently made 59-yard field goals in warm-ups. Several Broncos players, including punter/holder Britton Colquitt, said Friday that McManus has had many days when he hasn't missed in practice. But practice is practice and a far different endeavor than kicking into the wind/rain/snow/knee-buckling pressure for a regular-season win, a playoff spot or title on the line.

Privately, the Broncos believed Prater was not at his best in training camp with the suspension hanging over him. Given that, as well as the fact he is subject to increased testing in the league's substance-abuse policy because of the suspension and a 2011 DUI charge that could result in an indefinite suspension with another positive test, the Broncos have taken a chance.

There is also the matter of money, as is always the case in any football decision or otherwise. Prater's cap figure was originally $3.107 million for this season, but the Broncos will save $2.294 million off the cap this year and $3.25 million off their 2015 salary cap.

The list of impending free agents for the Broncos is also a who's who on the depth chart. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, wide receiver Wes Welker, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, tackle Orlando Franklin and safety Rahim Moore are just some of the players poised for the open market following whatever becomes of the season.

Colquitt said McManus has "big shoes to fill," but just as the Broncos once didn't really know what they had in Prater -- who had been cut by three different teams before he was signed by the Broncos in 2007 -- the Broncos hope they have again made the right call on an unproven kicker with potential.

Broncos Rewind: Preseason Game 3

August, 24, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the end the Denver Broncos played their starters until halftime Saturday night, or just about what they had planned to do against the Houston Texans after three days’ worth of work against the Texans leading up to the game.

That will also do it for virtually all of the regulars since they will not play in Thursday night's preseason finale in Dallas.

But after a look at the game video from the 18-17 loss to the Texans, here are some items of note:
  • With just three tight ends in uniform due to injuries, offensive coordinator Adam Gase still went to work some in a two-tight-end look with mixed results. With the starters in the game, the Broncos used it for nine snaps before halftime with Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas in the formation, including all seven snaps on a second-quarter possession that ended with a Peyton Manning interception. The Broncos had five called runs in the look and Manning was sacked once. The Broncos will consistently work the three-wide-receiver look as their base formation much of the time this season -- 35 snaps in all for the starters Saturday, including penalty snaps. But unless something unexpected happens when the roster gets cut to 53 players next week, the Broncos will most likely have three tight ends on the roster during the season, so Saturday was a rather tidy dress rehearsal for that. Green's return will allow them to muscle up a bit more when they're in it and some additional game-planning should help. But it has to be an effective option for them against some of the sturdier defensive fronts they'll face.
  • One of the more effective looks for the Broncos defense last season was their dime (six defensive backs) and it should be an even more reliable option this season with the addition of safety T.J. Ward to go with some additional depth at the position. The Broncos didn’t play cornerback Chris Harris or cornerback Kayvon Webster in the game, but still fared well in the look against the Texans’ starters. Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was 2-of-4 passing against the Broncos’ dime package with Ward, Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter, Omar Bolden, Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby in the lineup. The completions went for 12 and 5 yards on the Texans' first scoring drive. The Texans eventually converted a fourth-and-1 on a 4-yard run by Alfred Blue, also against the dime look. The Broncos will mostly use the formation in passing situations, but their ability to stay in it could depend on how they do when offenses try to run on it because it's a lighter look in terms of personnel. Ward helps, with his ability to drop down to the weak-ide linebacker spot as he can play along the line of scrimmage in a run fit or drop into coverage.
  • Some of the most difficult roster decisions for the Broncos will come in the defensive line, especially if they keep just eight at a deep position. In a scenario where they keep eight, they are going to lose more than one defensive lineman who could play elsewhere. Saturday night Kevin Vickerson, who was on injured reserve during the second half of last season with a hip injury, got his first action of the preseason. Vickerson carries a $2.266 million salary-cap figure for the upcoming season and given the Broncos’ current cap situation contracts are going to be a bigger consideration in cuts than in the previous three seasons. They would take a $500,000 hit for “dead’’ money if Vickerson is released, so ultimately the Broncos would see a $1.766 million cap savings. It's not huge but perhaps necessary. Vickerson played 24 snaps with the second-team defense in the game.
  • For the optimism surrounding a still-high-powered offense and a revamped defense, the Broncos' special teams didn’t have the kind of night you would expect in the third preseason outing. Matt Prater, now facing a four-game suspension to open the season, missed a field goal and took a chunk of sod out of the ground even as he made his other attempt in the game. Britton Colquitt shanked a punt in the first half -- a 27-yarder with plenty of field to work with -- and rookie Mitch Ewald missed a 36-yard field goal attempt. Couple that with the up-and-down work they’ve had in the return game throughout the preseason and there’s plenty of work to be done.
  • The snap leaders for the night on offense were Manning and the starting offensive line, with 43 plays in the game (all in the first half). On defense Bolden led the way with 39 snaps in a variety of packages with linebackers Corey Nelson and Lerentee McCray checking in at 37 plays each.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Just a few days ago, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said because no fans have been able to attend the team’s training camp practices this year due to construction at the Broncos' complex, that the players might need something to boost them "especially when you get into that third or fourth padded practice and it’s kind of the dog days of training camp."

Well, Monday morning marked the team’s third padded practice of training camp and Manning took it upon himself to give the workout a little kick start. The Broncos routinely play music out of a speaker roughly the size of a Smart Car while the team stretches.

Each day brings a different musical selection from a different player or coach, ranging all over the genre map. Monday’s offering was "Rocky Top," a remember-when country song played at almost every play stoppage and/or touchdown by the University of Tennessee marching band – Manning’s alma mater.

So, as the song played Monday, Manning offered up the dance steps to go along with it. Punter Britton Colquitt, also a former University of Tennessee player, joined in as well.

The video of the five-time NFL MVP is already making the social media rounds.

"I love it," said defensive end Malik Jackson, another former Vol on the Broncos’ roster. "They need to play it every day. ‘Rocky Top’ is awesome. Go Vols."

"It was his day to pick the music so it wasn’t a surprise to me what it was going to be," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said.

Countdown to camp: Special teams

July, 23, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Soon after John Elway was hired as the Denver Broncos' chief football decision maker, he used some of owner Pat Bowlen's money to demonstrate the importance the team would place on special teams.

[+] EnlargeTrindon Holliday
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergTrindon Holliday has become a luxury on special teams, and the Broncos are weighing whether he's worth it.
Elway signed kicker Matt Prater to a four-year, $13 million deal in 2012, then signed punter Britton Colquitt to a three-year, $11.667 million deal in 2013. Both salary cap charges are over $3 million for the upcoming season -- $3.812 million for Prater, $3.25 million for Colquitt -- giving the Broncos one of the biggest 1-2 contracts in the kicking game anywhere in the league.

The two also roll into training camp unchallenged. Head coach John Fox has called them "probably the best two guys together in the league."

It's all part of the last installment of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team as players officially report for training camp Wednesday.

Today: Specialists

How many coming to camp: Three.

How many will the Broncos keep: In the strictest of terms the Broncos kept three specialists last year -- Prater, Colquitt and long snapper Aaron Brewer. But given that returner Trindon Holliday played just four snaps on offense last season to go with his 151 plays on special teams, Holliday could certainly -- and should -- be considered the fourth specialist on the roster.

And a returner who doesn't do anything else is valuable if he is a threat to score on any given return -- which Holliday was. But he also quickly becomes a luxury difficult to make work if the same returner can't consistently put the team in good field position with quality decision-making. When the Broncos went into this offseason they made the choice that Holliday's inconsistencies catching the ball finally outweighed the six touchdowns he scored in just under two years with the team -- four regular-season TDs and two in the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season.

The Broncos could be faced with a similar roster decision this time around. In a perfect world, with so many roster needs that come up during a season due to injuries or other reasons, the Broncos would like to use a multi-tasker in the return game.

But to use a position player who has a role on offense or defense means one of them has to show he's ready for the return game, and the Broncos have to show their willingness to use him there. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is the most proven of the Broncos' position players in the return game, in addition to wide receiver Wes Welker. Sanders is going to have such a big role on offense there is little attraction to the injury risk that comes with also using him on kickoff and punt returns.

The same is true with Welker, who suffered two concussions last season.

But the Broncos could use Sanders on punt returns and use another player on the depth chart, like safety Omar Bolden or wide receiver Andre Caldwell, as a kickoff returner.

In terms of potential specialists in the return game, undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse will practice with the team's wide receivers -- he had a 99-catch season in '13 at Fresno State -- but his real ability to make the roster will rest in what he shows as returner in the preseason.

Break it down: While Holliday was a lightning-strike game changer at times, he didn't consistently give the Broncos the kind of field position they wanted.

Like any team, the Broncos would like more opportunities at a short field on offense. With all they did on offense last season to become the league's first 600-point team, the Broncos' average drive start was their own 28-yard line, or exactly the same as their opponents' average drive start against them. They also started 50 drives inside their own 20-yard line, or 12 more than their opponents did.

In the end, Prater gives the Broncos the ability to score from deep in the kicking game -- he has 20 career field goals of at least 50 yards including the league record 64-yarder this past season -- and Colquitt consistently flips the field when the Broncos need him to.

And that's exactly what the Broncos paid for.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos launched themselves into free agency earlier this year, many in the league were quick to compliment the team's salary-cap standing that enabled them to be so aggressive. And John Elway, the team's top football decision-maker, has routinely said he doesn't want to do so many things "that we're right up against the cap. We want to stay competitive, compete for world championships and that means handling ourselves in that arena, too."

But as the Broncos continue to try to get a long-term deal done for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, they are nudging up against their cap restrictions.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDenver will have to adjust its salary-cap number in order to give Demaryius Thomas a contract extension.
Currently, at least until the rosters league wide are cut to 53 players following the fourth preseason game, teams only have to be under with their top 51 salary-cap figures. That puts the Broncos under the cap right now, but with their top 51 coming in at just over $132 million (the cap baseline is $133 million per team) they will have to do at least some work before the end of the preseason -- even with some accounting benefits like rolling over some unused cap space from 2013 -- to sign Thomas, get 53 players under the cap and have enough room to effectively deal with any potential players on injured reserve.

And for a team that had just $24 million worth of salary-cap charges for players on injured reserve by the time they loaded the plane for their Super Bowl trip -- most of that was left tackle Ryan Clady, who signed a new long-term deal with the team last offseason -- that is not something to take lightly.

Overall, the Broncos have about $4.6 million of workable cap space after counting their top 51 contracts, including rollover from last year, as they turn toward training camp. So it’s a good time to take a look at some money matters and where things stand at some of the notable spots on the depth chart.

  • Quarterback Peyton Manning has the team’s highest cap figure, at $17.5 million and the Broncos have the biggest cap gap of any position between starter and backup with No. 2 Brock Osweiler, still on his rookie deal, coming in at $959,094 against the cap.
  • Wide receiver Wes Welker’s $8 million cap figure is highest among the wide receivers and the fourth highest on the team behind only Manning, Clady and defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
  • Decisions are coming at tight end. Of the seven tight ends on the roster at the moment, the top five will be unrestricted free agents following the 2014 season, a list that includes Julius Thomas, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen. Tamme’s $3.5 million cap figure leads the way at the position, just in front of Dreessen’s $3.1 million. Dreessen has not participated in the team’s offseason program because of knee troubles.
  • Of the six Broncos players who currently have cap figures of at least $7 million for '14, four play on offense and two – Clady ($8.6 million) and guard Louis Vasquez ($7.25 million) – are offensive line starters. So, to be Manning, or play nearby in the formation, is where the big money is. Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib – both free agency signings this past March – are the defensive players among the six.
  • The Broncos’ biggest dead-money hit – salary-cap charges for players no longer on the roster – is $2.1 million for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had the second year of his original contract with the Broncos voided five days after the Super Bowl. Other notable dead-money charges are $1.83 million for the retired Chris Kuper and $500,000 for Willis McGahee, who was cut over a year ago.
  • Best value contract for the Broncos has to be linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the team in tackles last season and checks in at a $596,018 cap figure, or behind Von Miller ($6.613 million) and Nate Irving ($848,750). Overall, Miller is the only linebacker on the team’s roster with a cap figure over $1 million, a fact that will change when Trevathan’s deal is up after the 2015 season.
  • Though defensive tackle Terrance Knighton’s representatives had been hoping for a renegotiation after Knighton’s high-quality play down the stretch last season – the Broncos declined the overtures – he still leads the team’s defensive tackles with a $2.75 million cap figure.
  • Both Broncos kicking specialists – kicker Matt Prater and punter Britton Colquitt – have cap figures over $3.6 million for ’14. Prater’s is $3.81 million while Colquitt’s is $3.67 million.
INDIANAPOLIS -- With the NFL's scouting combine now underway and free agency to follow on March 11, today marks the ninth, and final, installment of a series looking at where the Denver Broncos stand at each position group on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Specialists

Over the past two years, Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway has shown his commitment to fill special teams when it comes to how the Broncos' roster has been assembled.

[+] EnlargePrater
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe Broncos are sitting pretty with a consistent kicker in Matt Prater, who still has a couple more years left on his contract with Denver.
Kicker Matt Prater signed a four-year, $13 million deal before the 2012 season while punter Britton Colquitt signed a three-year, $11.677 million deal last summer. That’s plenty of investment in the third phase.

Prater had his best careeer season in 2013 as he led the league in touchbacks on kickoffs -- an NFL single-season record of 81 -- and was 25-of-26 on field goal attempts in the Broncos' 13-3 finish. With his 75-of-75 performance on extra points, he also set a Broncos’ single-season scoring record with 150 points.

As the Broncos went about the business of setting several scoring and passing marks this past season, Colquitt wasn’t all that busy. His 65 punts were 30 fewer than Jacksonville Bryan Anger’s league-leading 95 punts.

Colquitt’s 44.2 gross yards per punt were 24th in the league.

The Alpha: Overall, special teams captain David Bruton sets the tempo of things, just as linebacker Wesley Woodyard did when he filled the role earlier in his career. But Prater’s success rate -- 82.9 percent overall as Broncos’ kicker, 94 percent from 50 yards or more -- makes him the centerpiece of the units right now.

Salary cap: Prater checks in at $3.813 million for 2014, the ninth-highest cap figure on the team right now, while Colquitt has a $3.25 million cap figure, currently 11th-highest on the team for '14. Long snapper Aaron Brewer, who made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2012, is at $571,334.

Pending free agents: Prater and Colquitt are locked up long term while Brewer has one more year remaining on his contract. Tight end Jacob Tamme, who was the leading tackler on special teams this season, has another year on his deal as well, while Bruton has two more years on his deal. Broncos returner Trindon Holliday, who had plenty of peaks and valleys this past season with two touchdown returns in the first month to go with some troubles hanging on to the ball down the stretch, is an exclusive rights free agent. He can only negotiate with the Broncos if the team waives him.

Who could stay: The kickers and Brewer are in place, which puts the Broncos in a good situation there.

Who could go: The changes could come across the coverage units that were affected by all of the team’s injuries this past season -- "backups were starters and the double backups were out there (on special teams)," as head coach John Fox put it.

The Broncos will always look at some returners as well in the draft.

What they like/want: When they missed five tackles on Percy Harvin’s 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half of the Super Bowl loss, it showed the Broncos have the need for more speed, sideline to sideline, in the kicking game.

After a dominant year on special teams in 2012, they struggled at times this past season, having surrendered a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a 94-yard kickoff return, a 51-yard punt return, to go with the first blocked punt of Colquitt's career in the season's second half.

The Chargers also recovered an on-side kick in the Broncos' divisional round win in January to go with Harvin's touchdown in the title game. So, these groups need attention and the Broncos need more athleticism.

Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 2

When all is said and done, the Broncos will need some multi-taskers among their draft class -- players who project to play somewhere on the offensive and defensive depth charts who will also fill some of the speed void.

The best draft-built teams feature young legs on special teams and the Broncos likely leaned a little too hard on their veteran players this time around.
For the second consecutive season the Denver Broncos watched all they had done in a 13-3 season get shoved aside and stuffed out of sight by an stunning end to their football year.

In 2012 it was the shocking double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens and this time it was a mauling at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. After several looks at the video and discussions with NFL pro personnel executives from both conferences, here is a report card for the 2013 team.

There is no grading curve. A's, as always, are far more difficult to earn than a Pro Bowl slot. Grades were awarded to the players on the Broncos' season-ending, 53-man roster and most of the starters who suffered season-ending injuries after playing at least four games.

It is, however, not a Super Bowl grade. The title-game meltdown is in there, but the body of work goes from the season-opener to what transpired in MetLife Stadium.

Today it’s the special teams’ units as well as the starters who finished out the season on injured reserve.

The scale:

A - Consistently dominant. What some personnel executives give a "blue" rating, a nod to veteran personnel evaluator Mike Giddings, a former Broncos assistant coach.

B - Productive starter/key situational player who could fit smoothly into almost any lineup in the league.

C - Did the job asked of him with consistency.

D - Substandard. Salary and playing time didn't match output.

PNP - Practice but not much play.

Specialists

Aaron Brewer: B

In his second season as the long-snapper, he was consistent in both placement and velocity of snaps. He’s never a concern.

Britton Colquitt: B

With a record-setting offense scoring touchdowns most of the time, he punted a career-low 65 times this past season. Still considered around the league as one of the better players at the position, but finished with a career-low 44.5 gross yards per punt and did suffer the first blocked punt of his career in regular-season finale in Oakland after an assignment was missed up front.

Prater
Matt Prater: A-

Led the league in touchbacks on kickoffs, as you would expect from somebody with his leg strength playing half of his games at altitude, missed just one kick all season and set NFL record with 64-yard field goal on frigid day against the Titans.

Trindon Holliday: C-

After a quality start with two touchdown returns in the season’s first four games, his season dissolved into some questionable choices with the ball as well as some issues hanging on to it. He bobbled seven kickoffs or punts over the last 10 games of regular season.

Injured starters

Clady
Ryan Clady: A

He played in just two games, but the Broncos’ issues in pass protection, which cropped up against the more physical fronts they faced, including the Seattle Seahawks’, would have been far easier to deal with had he been in the lineup. His return is significant in what the Broncos should be able to do on offense in ‘14.

Chris Harris: A-

Versatile, hard-nosed, savvy player who simply competes harder than most others on every snap and is unafraid to take on any matchup. Coming off ACL surgery, he’s going to need some time to resume his duties on the team’s defense.

Miller
Von Miller: B-

He simply has to be an A player for this team on the field, in the locker room, and in how he prepares. He showed flashes of his athleticism when he returned from his six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, but many personnel executives believe he simply tried to play too heavy in his return and became more of a bull rusher than a consistently effective edge player. And he’s coming off ACL surgery and some with the team are looking, with a raised eyebrow, at his post-Super Bowl jaunt to try to get into the Seahawks’ victory party.

Rahim Moore: C+

A 10-game starter before a lower leg injury put him on injured reserve. The Broncos had designated him for return in case he would have been available for the playoffs, but he never returned to practice. He was headed for his best overall season at the time of his injury.

Vick
Vickerson
Kevin Vickerson: B-

Suffered season-ending hip injury in 11th game (at New England). When paired with Terrance Knighton in the middle, the two were an effective early-down combination at defensive tackle. Vickerson was also starting to be more disruptive in pass-rush situations at the time of his injury. He was also, however, the team’s most penalized player at the time of injury -- 10 penalties in 11 games, including two for unnecessary roughness and two for unsportsmanlike conduct. Sylvester Williams is going to play more, not less, moving forward, but if Vickerson returns healthy in ’14, the Broncos will have just the kind of interior depth they want.

Derek Wolfe: C

His season ended after he suffered seizure-like symptoms on the team’s bus ride to the airport in late November just before the Dec. 1 game in Kansas City. Before the incident, however, Wolfe often appeared frustrated on the field and did not have more than two tackles in any game. He lost some weight during his absence and the Broncos, after initially bringing him back to practice on Christmas, kept him off the field the rest of the way.

Denver Broncos season wrap-up

February, 5, 2014
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 2
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

Biggest surprise: It took 19 games, a pile of league records and a few slices of history along the way, but by far the biggest shock for an organization that believed it had the moxie to win a title was its Super Bowl meltdown. Broncos head coach John Fox had said his team was “calloused" by all it had to overcome this season, including linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension, five defensive starters eventually landing on injured reserve and Fox's open-heart surgery. But on the biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line, the Broncos had a night when they didn't respond to any of the adversity they faced.

Biggest disappointment: Other than losing in the title game -- “I'm not sure you ever get over that," said quarterback Peyton Manning -- it would have to be the way Miller's season dissolved. After his 18.5-sack season in 2012, the Broncos expected even more this time around. Instead, he was out for the first six games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He came back heavier after the suspension and often looked less explosive according to many personnel executives in the league. He then suffered a season-ending torn right ACL in December. He won't be ready for training camp and may not be full speed by the start of the regular season.

Biggest need: In their past three playoff losses, the Broncos have had a combined one sack against Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson. Miller has played in two of those games, albeit with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb to close out the 2011 season against the New England Patriots. They have used their opening pick in each of John Elway's three drafts as the team's top football executive on a pass-rusher -- Miller, Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams. It still needs some attention, as does the team's secondary; the Broncos will need to address cornerback and safety as well.

Team MVP: Manning, with 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards passing for an offense that set an NFL record with 606 points, was the league MVP and was the Broncos' as well. Manning's drive, preparation and no-nonsense approach pushed the team past every bump it faced during the regular season, and he powered the franchise into its seventh Super Bowl. But cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Danny Trevathan deserve special mention for being the defense's most versatile and productive players outside the glare of the team's offensive fireworks in the regular season. Trevathan and Harris were consistently the guys asked to do more in Jack Del Rio's defense.

 

All-AFC West: Denver Broncos

January, 2, 2014
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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.

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

December, 29, 2013
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OAKLAND, Calif. -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 34-14 win over the Oakland Raiders:

What it means: The win means quarterback Peyton Manning and the Broncos' offense closed out the regular season with every significant scoring and passing record in their possession. Manning finished the regular season with 5,477 passing yards to go with 55 touchdowns while the Broncos had broken the league scoring record by halftime. Denver also earned home-field advantage throughout the AFC postseason.

Stock watch: This past week Manning was asked about the records the Broncos were poised to break and he quickly said winning was most important. Perhaps in the big picture that is certainly true, but Manning's season, at age 37 and after four neck surgeries, was nothing short of remarkable. It was his first 5,000-yard season in his storied career and, with four more touchdown passes against the Raiders, it was his ninth game of the season with at least four scores thrown.

A tad worrisome: Broncos punter Britton Colquitt had a punt blocked for the first time of his career in the third quarter Sunday. That play kept a rather disturbing trend going on special teams, with poor ball security, some big returns allowed and now a block over the past two months. The Broncos will practice several days during their postseason bye week and it's a sure bet special teams will be a big part of those sessions.

Two-man show: The Broncos tried to get Ronnie Hillman involved in the running game Sunday -- he had 12 carries for 30 yards -- but the Broncos' running game is largely a two-man affair headed into the postseason. Rookie Montee Ball had 72 yards on 10 carries as Knowshon Moreno was largely given the day off (six carries, 23 yards). But Ball and Moreno have turned it into split duty because of their work in the passing game. Manning's first four completions of the game went to Moreno and Ball. And by the time the Broncos had finished their first two scoring drives, Moreno had five catches to go with one for Ball.

What's next: The Broncos will get a weekend off with their bye through the wild-card round. They will try to balance enough work to keep their edge with the idea of getting a fairly battered team a little rest. But after last season's double-overtime loss at home in the divisional round, there will be a big push from the team's veterans to make sure everybody stays on track.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater owns the best field goal percentage from 50 yards and beyond of any player in league history who started his career after the league's AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Prater
He's also never missed a kick of at least 50 yards in overtime in his career -- he's 4-of-4.

But on a frigid, blustery night in New England, the Broncos passed on a potential 54-yard game-winning field goal attempt in overtime Sunday night. Facing a fourth-and-8 from the Patriots' 37-yard line with 5:01 remaining in overtime, the Broncos passed on giving Prater a chance and had punter Britton Colquitt punt it away instead.

Prater would have had to kick into the stadium's open end on a night when the wind battered kicks to the ground for both teams. Interim head coach Jack Del Rio said he asked Broncos special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers if it was in Prater's range.

"I asked Jeff ‘Are we in range?' and he said 'No,'" Del Rio said following the 34-31 overtime loss. "I even said, 'Field goal here?' and he said 'No, I really don't think we can make this kick here.' It was tempting, because it was close."

Prater had made a 48-yarder in pre-game warm-ups in the open end of the stadium, but did not attempt any longer kicks before the game, when he routinely kicks 50-yarders and even a 60-yarder or two when the weather is better.

Prater has also been standing out in the elements for several hours by the time overtime was played. He had just one touchback on a kickoff to that end of the stadium in the game -- late in the fourth quarter, after the Broncos had tied the game 31-31, but even that kick didn't go very deep into the end zone.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As one of the wittiest players in the league, Denver Broncos punter Britton Colquitt often has a quality take on the football issues of the day.

With the Broncos set to face the 9-0 Kansas City Chiefs Sunday in Denver and quarterback Peyton Manning's right ankle an issue that has the football nation all abuzz, Colquitt added a little levity to the festivities Wednesday.

With a straight face -- usually -- and the most professional of deliveries, Colquitt calmly told several media members Wednesday he had met with Manning “individually, a lot this week," to pick Manning’s brain on how Peyton had prepared for the matchup with his brother, Eli, in Week 2 this season.

Britton Colquitt’s brother, Dustin, is the Chiefs' punter. Britton Colquitt had been asked a question about Peyton Manning’s work ethic -- Colquitt's locker is next to Manning's -- and pounced on the opportunity for a little fun.

“And now that you mentioned Peyton -- I’ve met with him, individually, a lot this week just to go over the brother-to-brother thing coming up,’’ Colquitt said before a laugh finally escaped. “I wanted to talk to him about he handled dealing with Eli.’’

Asked what “advice’’ Manning had given him, Colquitt calmly added, “Just how to be a professional, we don’t want any media distractions like Peyton and Eli was. The Colquitt-Colquitt thing can become a big distraction in the locker and that’s something we don’t want to happen -- we met, we talked and he’s given me some good advice, I don’t think it’ll mess anything up with the game.’’

After people had then moved away, Colquitt added "you don’t think anybody really thinks I met with Peyton do you?"

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