Denver Broncos: Champ Bailey

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Pro Football Hall of Fame has always been a bit of a touchy subject in and around the Denver Broncos.

That's because a franchise that has been to seven Super Bowls, winning two of them, has just four players enshrined in the Hall who played a significant portion of their careers with the team -- John Elway, Floyd Little, Gary Zimmerman and Shannon Sharpe. A total that's far less than many franchises who don't quite have the same kind of trophy case or pile of winning seasons over the last three decades or so.

Tuesday, the organization said its formal thank you to cornerback Champ Bailey, who played 10 of his 15 seasons with the Broncos and was named to eight of his 12 Pro Bowls with the team as well. And by almost any standard, Bailey figures to join the four other Broncos in Canton, Ohio, almost as soon as he becomes eligible five years from now.

Or as Elway put it at Bailey's gathering in the team's complex Thursday: "(We) also look forward to the next big party, whether it be the Ring of Fame or Canton, Ohio, when you go into the Hall of Fame."

The Hall released its 25 modern-era semifinalists Tuesday for the Class of 2015 and four former Broncos were on the list -- running back Terrell Davis, safety Steve Atwater, safety John Lynch and Karl Mecklenburg. That list will be trimmed to 15 modern-era finalists who will be discussed and voted upon the day before the Super Bowl. Up to five-modern era finalists can be enshrined in the Class of '15.

For Bailey's part, his 12 Pro Bowl selections were the most ever for a cornerback and tied, with Hall of Famer Ken Houston, for the most ever by a defensive back. Bailey's 52 career interceptions are tied for 26th all-time with the likes of Hall of Famers Jack Butler, Mel Renfro and Larry Wilson.

Bailey, now having formally retired, does not hide his hope to claim a coveted gold jacket. He was asked Tuesday what he believed his place in the league's history would be and with his usual wit, Bailey offered Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders were his favorites and added simply:

"The work is done, it's not in my hands, but just looking at it objectively I would vote for me. ... If I'm mentioned in the top 10 that's great, every time I look at a list like that I see seven or eight guys who could be No. 1, I mean I have my favorites … it's just great to be in the discussion."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If folks can get past the who’s-the-best argument or the which-career-would-you-rather-have discussions, there is so much to appreciate when Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots face each other on a football field.

They have each won piles of game, thrown buckets of touchdowns, baffled defensive coordinators, punished mistakes in coverage and been accurate enough to construct touchdowns even when defenses don’t make a mistake.

"That’s what the best of the best do," said Champ Bailey, who announced his retirement this week after a 15-year career that saw him named to 12 Pro Bowls at cornerback. "Those two, they know what you’re doing, they punish your mistakes, every time, they don’t miss it. Some guys you make a mistake and they don’t find it, [Manning and Brady] find it every time. And then even if you do everything right, they still can punish you. And they’re doing it now, maybe even better than they’ve ever done it. They might just keep going."

Manning is already on uncharted ground, having thrown a single-season record 55 touchdowns at age 37 and is on a staggering 50-touchdown pace at age 38.

Brady, who turned 37 this past August and is coming off a five-touchdown effort last Sunday -- his 17th game with at least four touchdowns without an interception, has said he would like to play into his 40s.

That means, like so much of what they have done to this point, what they do in the months and years to come will separate them from most who have ever played the position.

Consider there are 10 modern-era quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who did not play beyond their 36th birthday. That list includes Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, Bob Griese and Joe Namath.

Of the 13 other modern-era quarterbacks enshrined, only John Elway, Manning’s current boss with the Broncos, Fran Tarkenton and Warren Moon threw more than 20 touchdown passes in a season at 38 or older.

Moon, who didn’t reach the NFL until he was 28, threw 33 touchdown passes when he was 39 and 25 touchdown passes when he was 41 -- in the 1997 season.

So, as folks in football celebrate what the Brady-Manning rivalry has been through the years, it’s worth a pause to consider what it can still be.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The 100-yard interception return against the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional round game following the 2005 season is a play Champ Bailey said people still ask him about.

The Patriots were the defending Super Bowl champs, Bailey was coming off a eight-interception regular season and the touchdown that followed the interception one play later essentially closed the deal for the Broncos as they moved on to the AFC Championship Game.

“So, I can see why people talk about it with me," Bailey said this week.

Wednesday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick recalled Bailey’s career. Bailey formally announced his retirement from the NFL on Tuesday.

“Champ was great and unique in the fact he could match up with pretty much anybody -– fast guys, quick guys, big guys, physical receivers," Belichick said. “He had the skill set, anticipation and awareness to play inside in the slot and could play outside on the perimeter. Really a complete player that matched up well against pretty much whoever he covered."

Bailey had two career interceptions – one in the regular season to go with the one in the playoffs – against Belichick-coached teams.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Champ Bailey is just over seven months removed from his release by the Denver Broncos.

But that was still more than enough time to heal those vocational wounds. Because Bailey, who formally announced his retirement Tuesday, is an NFL fan these days and one who has thrown his support squarely behind his former team.

“They’re just fantastic, man. I’m cheering them every weekend,’’ Bailey said. “I’m still a Broncos fan, I’m not going to lie. Regardless of how it went down, I’m always going to be a Bronco. They had a lot of faith in me, I hope they win it all, and they look good enough to do it. I still talk to a lot of those guys and want them to have it all.’’

Bailey played 135 of his 215 career regular-season games with the Broncos, 10 of his 15 seasons after the 2004 trade that shipped him from the Washington Redskins to Denver, a tenure that ended this past March when the Broncos released the 12-time Pro Bowl selection. The Broncos didn’t offer Bailey the opportunity to renegotiate the final year of his deal or ask him to switch positions.

Bailey said Tuesday the New Orleans Saints, where Bailey spent training camp, didn’t ask him to switch to safety, either.

“No team ever asked me to play safety, nobody ever asked me to,’’ Bailey said. “I made it a point to be clear I was open to it if I thought it was time … and maybe it was time. But people saw me as a corner, so I took it as a compliment.’’

And Bailey also reserved the highest of praise for a former teammate, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who eight months following ACL surgery is having his best all-around season as a pro. Harris has consistently credited Bailey’s mentoring as part of the reason why he has gone from undrafted rookie in 2011 to one of the best players at his position in the league.

“Chris is probably the closest guy to taking the techniques that I used and putting it on the field,’’ Bailey said. “He’s probably the closest thing I’ve seen, he just understood it … he worked it and took it to another level. I’m really proud of him.’’

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a career filled with signature plays, of double-take athleticism combined with preparation and instincts, the one that may stand alone, because of the context, wasn’t one of Champ Bailey’s 52 career interceptions.

It wasn’t one of the times he baited a quarterback down the hash in an effort to get somebody, anybody, to throw the ball his way, only to flash a little more make-up speed to snare the ball as his own.

It wasn’t one of the innumerable battles with the best the league had to offer at wide receiver.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesChamp Bailey's preparation skills and aggressiveness helped him become one of the NFL's elite cornerbacks.
It was a tackle. Because while the world of shutdown corners is one often played out in the open spaces where unshakable confidence and 4.3 speed are requirements for survival, Bailey, who retired on Tuesday, at his best was more than that.

Yes, in his prime he was on the short list in coverage with flexibility, speed, an eye for details and the willingness to study. He had no island or T-shirts or signature strut into the end zone.

Broncos Ring of Fame wide receiver Rod Smith once said, “Champ doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t have to. He knows you know you already didn’t get the ball."

But what separated Bailey from most who have played the position at its highest level, was that to go with all of those skills in coverage, Bailey would roll up his sleeves and get dirty in the run game. Former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, having made the trade to bring Bailey to Denver for what became a 10-year run, called Bailey the “best tackling cornerback I’ve ever seen and one of the best players in coverage I’ve ever seen. Just a no-doubt Hall of Famer."

So, the tackle, on a sweltering September day -- 89 degrees at kickoff with 64 percent worth of energy-sapping humidity -- in Miami. It was the 2005 season opener, a game the Broncos would eventually lose, before winning enough games to go on to the AFC Championship Game four months later.

And on the first play of the second half, in a game in which Bailey already had seven tackles, an interception and a forced fumble, on a first-and-10 for the Dolphins from the Miami 35-yard line, running back Ronnie Brown, then a 223-pound rookie, rumbled around the right end into what was on other days also a dirt infield for the Marlins with no other Broncos defenders within range to stop him.

Bailey charged the line of scrimmage, stopping Brown in the dirt for a 5-yard gain with no yardage after contact as Bailey dislocated his shoulder doing it. It’s not that Bailey, a top-shelf cornerback, made the play. It’s that he was willing to make the play.

Bailey, who wore a brace on his shoulder for years after that tackle and many more just like it, always seemed to be at the center of discussions between what football people said and what those with analytics in hand had to offer. The football people saw an all-time player with instincts, athleticism and a quarterback’s recall for situations and personnel.

And at times those who have opened the window to analytics in the game saw a player who got beat deep and was challenged more in coverage than was often presented in the mainstream.

In the end perhaps everybody has a point. From my perspective I often fall back on the words of a man who essentially had the patience and willingness to unwrap the game in many ways for me -- longtime scout C.O. Brocato -- who has always said to trust your eyes.

I’ve seen lots of cornerbacks play, lots of cornerbacks folks have stuck the "shutdown" label to, both with and without numbers or game video in hand to make the case. I don’t profess to have THE list and respectfully acknowledge opinions of others that were gleaned from hard work.

But the two most complete cornerbacks I have seen are Rod Woodson and Champ Bailey. And I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s going to stay for quite some time.

Thomas' standing clear with teammates

September, 1, 2014
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a vote that smacked of substance over style, the Denver Broncos were clear about wide receiver Demaryius Thomas' standing in the team's locker room.

Thomas -- usually short on bombast and long on performance -- was voted Monday by his teammates as one of five captains for the season.

The other offensive captain is Peyton Manning. So, given that kind of company, even Thomas was a little surprised when the votes were counted.

"I don't know if you all really know but I don't really talk much in front of the team, I like to lead by example," Thomas said with a smile. "But now I feel like I've got a bigger role, so now I've got to figure out what I'm going to do, but I think it'll be fine. ... I'm really honored and to tell you the truth ... I didn't think I was going to be a captain."

The Broncos players showed the strongest voices among them don't always have to be the loudest. The team selected DeMarcus Ware, along with Terrance Knighton, as the captains on defense with David Bruton Jr. the special teams captain for the second consecutive year.

Knighton and Thomas are first-time captains.

"It's just humbling and it's just a good feeling walking around the locker room and knowing you're respected a certain type of way by your teammates being that you're a captain of the best organization in the NFL," Knighton said. "Everybody feeds off you and once you know you have that ‘C' on your jersey, you're almost obligated to do things right and you want to do things right because guys are going to follow and that is not a problem for me. Like I said, I am the same guy every day and guys know what they're going to get from me every day so it's easy for me."

The soft-spoken Thomas has progressed from first-round draft pick with enormous potential in 2010 to marquee receiver in a record-setting offense in this his fifth season.

Thomas has now had back-to-back seasons of at least 90 receptions, 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's also set to enter the final year of his original contract with the Broncos. The team and his representatives have exchanged proposals in recent weeks to try to hammer out a long-term extension.

Asked Monday what kind of leader he wanted to be, Thomas ran the gamut of those he has seen in the locker room in his time with the Broncos, starting with the Alpha Dog of leaders.

"To tell you the truth, I kind of want to be like Peyton," Thomas said. "I feel like it's going to be hard for me to say stuff, because he's always saying, ‘This is what we need to do to make it better,' or whatever. But I always watched Peyton since he's been here. Before Peyton, I watched a couple other guys. I used to watch Kyle Orton when I first got here because he was my first quarterback. That was about it. You know, Brian Dawkins, Champ Bailey. Champ was quiet, but I felt like he was a leader. Everybody paid attention to him."

Roby ready for 'dream come true'

August, 6, 2014
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Bradley Roby was an NFL hopeful last February, plowing through his final preparations for the league's scouting combine.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Jack Dempsey/AP PhotoBradley Roby's first chance to show how he's progressed in the offseason comes against the team that dashed the Broncos' title hopes.
He wasn't with the Denver Broncos when the team had its title dreams shattered into little pieces in Super Bowl XLVIII. He didn't even know the Broncos could be the next stop in his football life. But that doesn't mean the Broncos' first-round pick can't understand what that meant to his new team, or what the home stadium will feel like Thursday night when they open the preseason against the team that dashed their hopes six months ago -- the Seattle Seahawks.

"Yeah, definitely, I feel like that's obvious," Roby said earlier this week. "Any time something like that happens in the Super Bowl, you know that's going to happen the next year. Especially opening up that next year with the same team, you know it's going to be a little here and there. It's going to be exciting. It's going to be worth watching, so I'm just excited to be a part of it."

In some ways, the Broncos' 43-8 loss to the Seahawks is a big reason why Roby is currently in the Broncos' locker room. It's why the Broncos tried so hard to do their due diligence on Roby and some mild off-the-field concerns that pushed what many league personnel executives felt was the best cover cornerback in the draft so deep into the first round.

The Broncos were looking to get bigger and more athletic in the secondary, to find players with bigger reach to match up against the bigger receivers that now dot the landscape. Roby, with his high-end speed (4.34 in the 40-yard dash at the combine) to go with his 5-foot-11 1/4, 194-pound frame, is just what the Broncos wanted.

Thursday night, Roby will get is first real chance to show how he's progressed in the team's offseason workouts. He figures to first step on the field with the starters if they go to the nickel in the Seahawks' first 10 to 12 plays on offense. That's an important item since the nickel is essentially the Broncos' base defense now, a formation they play well over 60 percent of the time.

"He's a bright guy," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "Athletically he has all of the things you like to see and now it's just a matter of getting him ready to see the multiplicity you see in this league, the looks, with all of the quarterbacks and receivers who know what to do."

As you would expect if there is a future Hall of Fame quarterback across from you in a training camp practice, Roby has felt the sting of Peyton Manning and the Broncos' high-powered offense. A double move here, a perfectly thrown fade there -- "That's going to happen, Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning" -- and Roby has seen what the learning curve looks like for him.

But Roby has also shown the ability to bounce back quickly, to get what Champ Bailey has called "corner amnesia," and line up on the next play with the confidence it takes to survive.

"These young cats have to know you have to come right back and line up," said fellow corner Chris Harris Jr. said. "Quarterbacks and receivers in this league are going to get you sometimes, you can do everything right and they're still going to make a play sometimes. But you have to come right back and [Roby] has done that. You can't lose that faith in yourself and if you get down, don't bounce back, those quarterbacks will keep coming after you."

As for Roby, he confessed to feeling jitters but is also eager to show what he can do.

"There's always going to be nerves any time you suit up for a game," he said. "I'm not going to sit here and say I'm not, but it's not going to be a big thing for me. You always get nervous, but I'm just excited to just go out there and go against somebody else and just really let it all out and show Broncos Country how I play, just familiarize myself with them. Get the crowd real hyped, playing against the Seahawks, it's going to be fun for me. Dream come true.”
DENVER -- Menacing skies and a constant downpour could not dampen an all-smiles day for Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr.

That’s because a rain-soaked practice at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Wednesday was the first time Harris had worn a pair of shoulder pads since suffering a partially torn left ACL in the Broncos’ Jan. 12 victory over the San Diego Chargers in the AFC divisional playoffs.

And the perpetually-smiling Harris couldn’t have been any happier to be caught out in the rain.

“I know everyone always talks about Adrian Peterson’s comeback, but you all need to talk about my comeback because I came back a lot faster than Adrian Peterson did," Harris said with a laugh. Harris Jr. called it “an emotional day for me."

[+] EnlargeChris Harris, Jr.
AP Photo/Jack DempseyChris Harris Jr., shown during organized team activities in May, is on track in his rehabilitation from ACL surgery.
The fourth-year cornerback has been one of the most significant finds for the current Broncos regime. Harris was one of the last undrafted rookies the team signed following the 2011 draft. He quickly turned heads in his first training camp with his competitiveness and ability to play all over the formation -- none other than Champ Bailey said then Harris was going to stick “for a long time." Harris has grown into one of the defense’s most versatile and most important players.

His absence in both the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XLVIII forced the Broncos to mix and match in the secondary and deprived the defense of not only one of the starters at cornerback, but their best slot cornerback as well. Since his injury, Harris has plowed through his rehab and consistently said he would be cleared to practice shortly after training camp began, would be cleared for full contact by the third preseason game and ready for the Broncos’ Sept. 7 regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts.

“I’ve put in a lot of work these past couple of months," Harris said. “I'm just thankful and blessed to be back out here."

Said Broncos coach John Fox: “It was good to have him back out there; I know he was excited."

Harris had his knee repaired Feb. 6, three days after the Broncos’ 45-8 loss in Super Bowl XLVIII. So in just under six months, Harris has worked his way back onto the practice field. The cornerback visited Dr. James Andrews on Monday and was cleared to practice.

The Broncos only let him do limited work Wednesday in slippery conditions -- “they had to slow me down a couple of times, even in walk-through," Harris said -- and he will likely do individual drills and 7-on-7 work in the near future.

Harris is not expected to play in the first two preseason games – against the Seahawks and 49ers – and says he still hopes to play in the third preseason game on Aug. 23 against the Houston Texans. Harris has spent much of the offseason working alongside linebacker Von Miller, who tore his ACL in the Dec. 22 game against the Houston Texans.

“Just competing with him and him being ahead of me helped push me to get where he was faster," Harris Jr. said. “Actually I came back faster because he came back at seven months and I came back at six months. It’s not even six months yet for me, so for me to be back out here this quick is really incredible. Dr. Andrews was ecstatic about my recovery and I am just going to keep taking it slow so I will be ready to go."

Kayvon Webster has lined up at right cornerback in Harris' absence and Aqib Talib has played in the left cornerback spot. Rookie Bradley Roby has come in for the team’s nickel packages, with Webster often moving into the slot.

Harris' return will eventually adjust that rotation with Harris and Talib as the starters, with the hope Roby will be ready to play on the outside in the nickel by the start of the season, when Harris would move into the slot in the specialty packages.

“Just the first step, but it was huge for me," Harris said. “I’ll be back; I’ll be ready for the season, no doubt about it. Just write my name in there."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For the first time in a decade, players will exit one of two doors to the Denver Broncos' training room that feed into the locker room and cornerback Champ Bailey won't be the guy whose locker is directly in front of them.

That's because after 10 seasons since the blockbuster trade that sent Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins and brought Bailey and second-round draft pick (eventually running back Tatum Bell) to the Broncos, Bailey won't be in Broncos' gear. After an injury-marred 2013 season for Bailey, the Broncos released the 12-time Pro Bowl selection without an offer to take a pay cut and stay.

Bailey signed with the New Orleans Saints, and while he didn't play much in the Broncos' run to the Super Bowl last season -- 188 snaps on defense over the course of five games in the regular season -- he has been the foundation at the position for the team, a sort of cornerback Google for any and all queries.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris, Jr.
AP Photo/Jack DempseyChris Harris Jr., who is returning following ACL surgery, figures to start alongside Aqib Talib in the Broncos' base defense.
"I think we all went to Champ when we had questions about anything," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "People always talk about how Champ played and all that, but he saw everything on the field, he knew what offenses were going to do, what receivers were going to do. And he would always help. We all were better for that."

Bailey's departure marked the beginning of the makeover in the team's secondary and the position got plenty of high-dollar attention in free agency when the Broncos signed cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. Both are physical players who the Broncos believe will improve the athleticism of their secondary overall.

They should also improve the tackling behind the front seven as well, a significant problem last season with Bailey ailing since Bailey had been a top-tier tackler for the team. Talib and Ward will have to help a young group overall, but Harris Jr., in just his third season, is suddenly the sounding board for many because of his experience in the defense, having played both outside and in the slot.

"Maybe, a lot of people don't know my face because I didn't come in with first-round hype or anything like that, maybe any hype," Harris Jr. said. "Maybe people are just starting to get know me. But here I want to help the guys, I'm ready to be there."

It's all part of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team as training camp approaches.

Today: Defensive backs.

How many coming to camp: 17.

How many will the Broncos keep: When Bailey was injured in the preseason loss in Seattle last August, it set in motion a mix-and-match kind of year for the Broncos. In the end, the Broncos also elected to carry Bailey on the roster rather than place him on injured reserve as he continued to try to work his way back for most of the season.

As a result the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs in their initial cut to 53 -- six cornerbacks and five safeties, including Omar Bolden who was moved from cornerback to safety. That was up from the 10 they kept in 2012 and nine in 2011.

They figure to come down at either nine or 10 this season, depending on how the special teams duties get sorted out. Harris Jr., who is coming off ACL surgery will see Dr. James Andrews in the coming days to see when he will be cleared for full duty in training camp and into the regular season.

Harris Jr. said his timetable is still a return to full practice participation by the halfway mark of the preseason and that he still expects to be in the starting lineup for the regular-season opener. The Broncos figure to start Harris Jr. and Talib in the base defense and want rookie Bradley Roby to come in for the nickel at Harris Jr.'s outside spot so Harris Jr. can then move down into the slot.

The battle for the fifth cornerback spot and Tony Carter will have a tall order to hold off a group of bigger cornerbacks the Broncos brought in to try to find at least one to stick on the depth chart.

Safety is crowded with Ward, Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter having gotten plenty of work with the regulars in offseason workouts while David Bruton was the team's special teams captain last season. Bolden could help his own cause if he can show some value in the return game as well.

Break it down: If Harris Jr.'s knee holds up and Roby shows himself to be ready for plenty of work in the nickel -- the Broncos played nickel on 66 percent of their snaps on defense last season -- they will have a physical, athletic secondary to stand up against opposing passing attacks even with yet another crackdown expected on defensive holding and pass interference from the league officials.

Talib hasn't played 16 games in a season in his career and any player returning from ACL surgery will always have a few question marks in tow, so the Broncos do have some hurdles to clear. For his part, Ward will almost certainly prove to fit what the Broncos do on defense. And he should compete for a Pro Bowl spot given the Broncos will move him all over the field to get him around the ball, including some work at weak-side linebacker in some of their specialty packages.

All in all, opposing quarterbacks should find a Broncos defense more able to disrupt the timing of an offense and a better ability to limit plays down the field than it did last season.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was easy to see as free agency opened this past March that the Denver Broncos -- even with a Super Bowl trip this past February and three consecutive AFC West titles in tow -- were going to be a team in transition in the locker room.

Not just the usual player turnover that coach John Fox says he prepares for each season -- "a third of your team is going to be new looking back at you in that meeting room, that's what I expect almost every year" -- but at the foundation, at the core. It's also turnover among the guys who keep an eye on things, the guys who keep the peace, the guys who give the needed pats on the back or deliver the kicks a little south of there.

The guys who run the room, who help keep the little problems from becoming big ones.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Michael Ciaglo/MCT/Icon SMIChris Harris has the potential to be a leader on defense, but injuries have kept him separated from his teammates.
"A lot of it is the players you bring in," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said. "I just believe you have to get that locker room right, your leaders have to lead in what they say and what they do."

This offseason, including this week's mandatory minicamp, has been as much about getting their leadership secured as it has been about X's and O's. None of the five captains who strode to midfield to take the pregame coin flip as recently as the 2011 season are still with the team. The last three -- all significant contributors -- were lost this offseason.

Champ Bailey was released before he signed with the New Orleans Saints, Wesley Woodyard was not offered a contract, so he signed with the Tennessee Titans, and Chris Kuper retired.

Quarterback Peyton Manning and tackle Ryan Clady were voted captains on offense by their teammates last season -- Wes Welker was voted a captain after Clady went to injured reserve -- and there's no reason to believe Manning and Clady wouldn't get the votes again. Manning sets the agenda, in many ways for the entire team, by his approach and presence, but he's also a decade older than many of his teammates, and separated by standing and life experiences, so other voices will be needed on offense. That's where Clady comes in; he's a quiet, talented leader who has the respect of those around him.

Welker, too, has the savvy, veteran chops to get the attention of teammates, but some younger players such as Demaryius Thomas, Louis Vasquez and even second-year running back Montee Ball can emerge.

Defensively, however, it still bears watching given that two of the team's most talented defenders -- linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris -- are both on the mend from ACL surgery. Players going through injury rehab often spend much of their day away from their teammates. They are held out of most of the on-field work, which limits contact with their teammates at times.

"It's just so hard to lead right now when I'm not actually involved with a lot of things," Harris said. "That's the only thing that I would say hurts right now on the leadership part is that it's kind of like I'm on IR still. So everybody else does their thing and I kind of do my own thing. So I'm still in that situation. But film room, meeting room, off the field, I'm definitely going to lead, and once I get on the field that leadership is going to come right back."

Harris has the potential to act like a captain, with or without the actual C on his jersey -- Bailey often said as much during his time with the Broncos. So does linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the team in tackles last season and has been pushing for more in offseason workouts.

"I'm sure that's in my picture, or at least I hope it is," Trevathan said of his potential to be a captain. "Right now I just need to get better, help others get better, help this team get better."

Broncos players say defensive end DeMarcus Ware, with a no-nonsense work ethic to go with 117 career sacks, has already earned the respect of his new teammates. Ware, simply because of his standing in the league and how he carries himself, has the potential to be an important voice among the Broncos.

Those who know him say he is a lead-by-example type who picks his spots carefully to speak. Often that works far better given that so few players have any patience for the rah-rah, in-your-face guys who don't practice anything close to what they preach.

In the end, this type of thing always gets sorted out. Talent will always be the biggest component in success, but talent is also the most wasted commodity in the league when it isn't accompanied by the ability to work in a group or some roll-up-your-sleeves attitude.

The Broncos are talented. They just need the right people keeping everyone involved and on the right track.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There is the meal and there is the parsley that simply rides along on the plate.

Whatever becomes of the 2014 season for the Denver Broncos, the team's offense, coming off the highest-scoring season in the league's history, will fuel much of the discussion as well as the team's fortunes along the way.

But as the Broncos get down to some of their offseason business this week, the team's defensive players have decided they don't want to just be ornamental. They want to have an impact.

"We just don't want to be that defense that does enough to get by and the offense is putting up 40 points," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "We just want to be that defense that goes out there and dominates and be talked about."

[+] EnlargeDenver's Terrance Knighton
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)"We just don't want to be that defense that does enough to get by and the offense is putting up 40 points," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
On the way to their second 13-3 season in a row, their third consecutive AFC West title and a Super Bowl appearance, the Broncos offense scored a record 606 points and quarterback Peyton Manning set NFL single-season records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). And the defense? Well, five starters finished the year on injured reserve as the unit finished 19th in the league in yards allowed per game (356.0) and 22nd in points allowed per game (24.9).

When all was said and done, 10 opponents scored at least 21 points and the Broncos surrendered 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards.

"I think last year we made a mistake of just having the guys we had thinking that was enough and not putting in the effort to be great," Knighton said. "That's something we're not talking about this year, the talent we have. We just want to go out there and put out the work. Like I said, just be a top defense and not be dominant in certain spots."

The Broncos lost three defensive starters in free agency -- linebacker Wesley Woodyard, cornerback Champ Bailey and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- but they responded with urgency, signing cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward. They used a first-round pick on cornerback Bradley Roby. And the players themselves, the new arrivals and the holdovers, have kicked around the idea of being more than some high-profile passengers on the Broncos express.

So much so that when the Broncos' strength and conditioning coach, Luke Richesson, gave the players a day off Tuesday from the usual conditioning sessions, the defensive players all showed up for work any way.

"Everybody has that mindset," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "We thought we had better talent than how we played sometimes last season and we think we have a lot of talent this year."

"It's always exciting to start over," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "When you have a collection of guys coming back like we do -- a very talented group returning from injury, we also have a very talented group that we brought in -- free agency and draft picks. So getting all of those guys back out on the field, it's an exciting time of year."

When the Broncos sifted through what went wrong with the defense, the injuries to linebacker Von Miller, Harris, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe certainly played a part. But executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has also consistently referenced a hole in last year's roster-building.

"We never really replaced Elvis [Dumervil]," Elway said.

Dumervil, who led the NFL in sacks in 2009 with 17 and had 63.5 sacks in six seasons with the Broncos, signed with the Baltimore Ravens last season after a fax fiasco forced the Broncos to release him to avoid paying him a bonus. It's why the Broncos were so persistent in their pursuit of Ware, who got a three-year deal worth $30 million, because they wanted the same kind of pressure package Dumervil and Miller provided when the Broncos were a top-five defense -- second in yards allowed per game and third in scoring defense.

They believe a nickel package with Ware and Miller rushing the passer -- in which offenses have to decide where and how to slide their protection plans -- with Talib, Harris and Roby at cornerback is faster and more athletic than last season's defense. The defensive players have already shown more edge as they work through the non-contact portions of the offseason program.

"The biggest way is as coaches, we provide a blueprint, we provide kind of a map for them," Del Rio said. "But then [the players] have to take it and make it their own. So the interaction they have, the time they spend lifting weights and running, different guys emerge. Guys earn the respect of their peers and I think as you play and you're here and as you show you're a guy that can be counted on, then your voice becomes a little more important. So that's how I think you kind of grow into it. Very rarely does a guy just plug himself and say, 'Hey I'm the leader.' So as coaches that's something that we encourage obviously, for guys to step up and take charge and be accountable and take responsibility for each other ... I feel good about our group."
There is football. There is life. And then there is life in football.

And when the Denver Broncos look at this year’s rookie class, they see players like cornerback Bradley Roby, wide receiver Cody Latimer, tackle Michael Schofield and linebacker Lamin Barrow, players who are expected to contribute plenty to the 2014 season. The are potential starters on that list, or if the Broncos have good fortune, there could be others among the first-year players overall who earn their way on to the depth chart.

But to get those contributions on the field, those players will not only have to digest a far beefier playbook than ever before, but they will have to find a way to acclimate quickly to football as a job.

Asked what was more difficult for rookies, to adapt on the field or off of it, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who made the Broncos as an undrafted rookie in 2011, answered without hesitation.

“I would say life, just making sure everything is straight,’’ Harris Jr. said. “It’s like a totally different adventure that you’re going on, people blowing you up all the time, friends and family. The football, this is what you want to do, where you kind of hoped you’d be, it kind of gets you away from the rest for a little bit. Life distractions can’t get you on the field, or you can’t let them. But the key is to limit those life distractions. I’ve always kind of kept my circle small.’’

That thought is straight out of the Book of Bailey, as in Champ Bailey. The former Broncos cornerback, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection who signed with the New Orleans Saints after the Broncos released him, routinely talked about how he limited access to his affairs to a small group.

Or as former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith has said; “The guys who have too much going outside these walls find themselves on the outside real quick, looking in on the guys who took care of their business. Some guys just don’t figure that out fast enough.’’

“These younger guys, they come in and a lot of times they’ve got a big circle,’’ Harris Jr. “That can be tough. Champ, he had a small circle, real small. So small it almost wasn’t a circle, but I watched, I learned and I never really had the kind of issues some guys had.’’

The team’s rookies did their first on-field work on their own last week, but this week the full team will gather on the field for the first set of organized team activities (OTAs). The rookies have spent some of the last two weeks participating in meetings with the team’s veteran players, so they have had a taste of the football side of things.

The Broncos have also tried to show the team’s newest players how to prepare for some of the other issues they will face.

“You approach it like your children,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox. “You try to give them wisdom in all areas: Off the field, the dos and don’ts in our city, where to go and not to go. Jerry Butler, our player development guy and our chaplain, our coaches. They’re just great resources. [Team owner] Pat Bowlen does a great job as far as getting people and resources here to help these young men, really in all areas.”

It has been a front-burner issue for the Broncos on all fronts to be sure. The team had a rocky ride off the field during last year’s offseason when front-office executives Matt Russell and Tom Heckert were each arrested for DUI offenses and All Pro linebacker Von Miller was suspended for six games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy to go with an arrest for a missed court date and some traffic violations.

And this offseason has now already had a bump or two as well. This past week free-agent signee T.J. Ward was charged with misdemeanor assault and disturbing the peace for an incident in a Denver strip club and Russell was sentenced to seven months in jail for last summer’s arrest.

It has all had the Broncos continuing to evaluate the resources they have available for players and other team employees. Fox has described it “as letting guys know what we have available to them and encourage them every chance we get to use those resources. It’s there and we want them to use it.’’

For the team’s rookies it can be as basic as the team’s nutritionist creating meal plans to others helping to locate apartments and finding a bank. All with clearing away enough things so they first-year players can get down to the business of football.

“It’s like 100 percent different,’’ Schofield said. “A lot more complicated It’s all different now.’’

“I plan on getting things in order so I can really get to the football side of things,’’ Barrow said. “I just want to be in the hip pocket of the veteran guys to learn everything I can. I feel like I’ll ask all the questions I can and they’ve said they’ll help with everything.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On his trek from being a guy some folks in the league said was too short and then going undrafted, to one of the most important players on the field and in the locker room for the Denver Broncos, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has always been about jumping life’s hurdles to get where he hopes to go.

So, it really is no surprise, as he heals from surgery to repair his left ACL, he plans on being on the field before this summer’s training camp is over and in the lineup when the Broncos open the regular season Sept. 7 against the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports"I haven't had an offseason, I've been here," Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said on his return since ACL surgery.
"I’m ready, I’ve been working my ass off, excuse my language," Harris Jr. said with a smile. “I haven’t had an offseason, I’ve been here. I went to Dr. Andrews [for surgery], that was my little vacation and I’ve been here. Treatment every day and now I’m pretty much doing two-a-days, I’m here at 6:45, then coming back for the meetings and the lift. I’m feeling great, I'll be ready. I’m building my confidence because I wasn’t down too long. I’m able to test things, I just feel confident about what’s going to happen.’’

“I’m not doing everything until mid-training camp,’’ Harris Jr. continued. “I’ll probably be ready at the beginning of training camp, but I probably won’t do anything until mid-training camp. I’ll continue to do my workouts, watch and coach them up.’’

With Champ Bailey’s release, Harris Jr. is now one of the elder statesmen in the Broncos’ secondary, at least when it comes to the team’s playbook. As he enters his fourth season, he has gone from an undrafted rookie who caught Bailey’s eye in 2011’s training camp -- “that kid competes on every play, doesn’t get rattled,’’ Bailey said then -- to a key part in how the Broncos’ go about things on the field.

So much so, that the Broncos allowed a Total QBR of 43.6 in the 2013 regular season when Harris was on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And in the 81 snaps that he wasn't on the field, opponents had a Total QBR of 93.

Ask defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio about Harris Jr. and the word “competes’’ will often be somewhere in the first sentence, as in “he just competes on every play, in practice, in games, he leaves nothing for granted.’’

He's just the do-it-all guy, who can line up outside against an opponent’s best receiver or move down inside to the slot and win those physical battles in the everything-happens-fast area of the of the field. And it was noticeable when Harris left the Broncos’ divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers in the third quarter this past January as the Broncos had a 17-0 lead when Harris Jr. was in the game and the Chargers scored 17 points in the fourth quarter when he was not.

It was a non-contact play, but an injury Harris Jr. believed was coming even before it happened.

“I was definitely surprised, at least a little bit, that it was a partially torn ACL.’’ Harris Jr. said. “But I wasn’t surprised there was something wrong because I had been having little nagging injuries in my left leg for about two years, then after the (Dec. 1) Chiefs game, I couldn’t walk after that game, I was just so sore. I just figured something in my left leg was just wearing down. After a while, that’s why it happened so easy, it was non-contact, I do those same movements every day. So, it was something that was bound to happen, because I just feeling those little pains before. I was probably playing with it before I really knew.’’

Harris Jr.’s scheduled return would certainly help a re-vamped Broncos’ secondary. The Broncos opened owner Pat Bowlen’s checkbook to sign cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in free agency and then used a first-round pick earlier this month on cornerback Bradley Roby.

Talib and Harris Jr. started together on a Kansas defense that helped the team win an Orange Bowl -- “so we already have that chemistry together,’’ Harris Jr. said -- and thought the Broncos are still in the shorts-and-T-shirts phase of the offseason workouts, Ward continues to draw raves from teammates and coaches alike.

The Broncos hope the plan makes it from the drawing board to the field. Talib and Harris Jr. could be the starters with Roby and Kayvon Webster, a 2013 draft pick, fitting into the specialty packages. If that comes to fruition it would give them a three-cornerback look in the nickel (five defensive backs) and a four-cornerback look in the dime (six defensive backs) that would feature more speed and athleticism than they had last season to match up with three- and four-wide receiver sets.

“Two years ago we finished in the top of the league and last year, we didn’t,’’ Del Rio said. “We like being at the top. So we’ll work our way back. We’ve got good players, good design. We’re going to work hard. And we expect to be good.’’

“This is my third year with Jack now, I feel like I know the defense inside and out,’’ Harris Jr. said. “And we’ve got a lot of new guys, so I try to make it easier on them. But I’m on track to get back out there. I’ve got big plans, so much motivation for this year. This a good team, we expect great things. I'm going to be a part of it, that's for sure, I'm going to be part of it.’’
When the Denver Broncos gathered this week for their first group workouts of the offseason, there were plenty of new faces on the roster.

DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, Aqib Talib and Will Montgomery lead the way in the new arrival department, at least until the draft class arrives next month. But for many on hand this week, the workouts still had an odd feel to them.

The Broncos were missing three former team captains -- three powerful voices in the locker room, three players others often looked to in good times, as well as bad, to show others the way.

Champ Bailey is in New Orleans, having been released by the Broncos after 10 seasons. Chris Kuper retired and Wesley Woodyard signed with the Tennessee Titans.

And while Super Bowls are won with talent on the field, they are also won with how things get handled in the locker room along the way, because ego, the pursuit of credit, fretting over contract status, grousing over playing time and the general human condition has cratered almost as many title hopefuls as the injury report.

Asked this week about the team's identity, quarterback Peyton Manning said what he usually says when things such as identity or chemistry are the topics of the day.

"I don't know if it has to be the same or different," Manning said. "I want it to be an identity that helps us win football games. I think it's hard to say what it is going to be at this point. Our full roster has certainly not been decided. The draft is -- when is the draft now? It's like in September now. ...We still probably need to see who we are based on who the personnel is, I think you form the identity from that. I think it is OTAs, it's definitely training camp and obviously it'd be nice to have it somewhere around the beginning of the season, but even before, I think you can develop it throughout the course of the season -- what really works for you."

It also means players such as Manning and left tackle Ryan Clady, the team's captains on offense last season -- Wes Welker replaced Clady when Clady went on injured reserve -- will again have prominent roles in the locker room.

But defensively, with Bailey and Woodyard gone, there are some players who are going to have to step forward in how they handle themselves as well as how they interact with their teammates. Linebacker Danny Trevathan has the look of a potential captain in how he approaches his job and how he plays on the field. As does cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who is currently working his way back from ACL surgery.

They will be two of the most important voices in the defensive meeting room, kind of a bridge between the new arrivals like Ward, Talib and Ware and the players who have been with the Broncos. But it would be a shock if Ware, whose friends in the league say is one of the hardest workers they have been around, is not elected a team captain by his new teammates when the votes get tallied later this summer.

Ware is a classic lead-by-example guy who has 117 sacks on his playing resume. He will serve an important role in the coming weeks and months, as a veteran presence on that side of the ball. And while Ware's presence will certainly benefit Von Miller, Derek Wolfe is another player who could reap the rewards as well. Wolfe had the look of an impact player as a rookie in 2012 before last season's illness landed him on injured reserve.

The Broncos have some questions to answer on the field as they get started, but they're working through some in the locker room as they move through these opening weeks of their offseason work.

"Everything is all about details when it comes to football," Ware said this week. "When you have everything in place, it really doesn't matter. It comes to the small things of guys really wanting it, the mistakes that you make and it starts this offseason with just working out and guys really giving it their all. That carries over into the season."
Any time the words "best" or "greatest" get tossed into a football sentence, it is usually little more than the starting point to an argument.

And current New York Giants cornerback Walter Thurmond, who played for the Seattle Seahawks last season, certainly cranked up one of those arguments Tuesday. As the Giants opened their offseason workouts this week, Thurmond, who signed a one-year, $3 million deal with New York in free agency, said: "I'm the best slot corner in the league. I'll say that, for sure."

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChris Harris Jr. could be "one of the best in the league," according to former teammate Champ Bailey.
Yes, Thurmond has a Super Bowl ring, courtesy of the Seahawks' 35-point win over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. And, yes, he's a quality nickel cornerback in the fast-paced, high-contact world of a defensive back who's asked to play in the slot.

But best slot cornerback in the league? No.

For that designation let's go to a 12-time Pro Bowl selection to make the call. And this past season when former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey was asked about Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr., Bailey said: "Chris has that ability to play on the outside and be one of the best in the league. He's smart, he studies, he's tough and competes on every play. But in the slot, at the nickel, he's the best in there. He can match up with anybody."

Sure, Bailey was Harris' teammate and mentor for three seasons. But Bailey doesn't say anybody is the best at anything if they're not. That's just not how he's wired.

Harris made the Broncos' roster as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and since has simply become one of the defense's most consistent and versatile players. Last season Harris started games on the outside, playing both sides of the formation. When the Broncos went to the nickel or dime, Harris was often in the slot.

And when Bailey returned from a foot injury last season and the Broncos tried to limit his snaps by using him as a nickel corner in the slot down the stretch, Bailey said Harris was a quality resource, "a guy I can talk to about playing in there, because everything happens fast, you almost have to know what the offense is doing as much as the receivers. I definitely can learn from him about playing in there."

Harris, who is still coming back from surgery to repair his ACL, took to Twitter to state his case Tuesday. After seeing Thurmond's comments, Harris sent:
Harris, who was an unrestricted free agent, signed his one-year, $2.187 million tender and is rehabbing at the Broncos' complex. The Broncos expect him to be ready for the start of the season.

He will be the starter in one of the outside cornerback positions, with Aqib Talib in the other. But when the Broncos go to their specialty packages, Harris is again expected to get most of the reps in the slot. The Broncos hope Kayvon Webster, a 2013 draft pick, is ready for more work in the defense, but Webster would play in an outside spot when the Broncos go to their specialty looks, leaving Harris to bump down inside when offenses go with three or four wide receivers.