Denver Broncos: Chris Clark

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's easy to forget at times, lost somewhere in the record 606 points the Denver Broncos piled on the NFL last season.

Lost in quarterback Peyton Manning's 55 touchdown passes, the team's 13 wins and a Super Bowl trip. The fact that one of the team's elite players -- a "blue" as some longtime personnel executives refer to those at the top of any list -- played in only two games.

"That's an important part of our offense," Manning said. "We had guys, Chris Clark, step in and do a great job, but that's an important position and Ryan Clady is a great player."

[+] EnlargeClady
AP Photo/Ric Tapia"I always felt like if you knew the back side wasn't going to be a problem, as a quarterback you could have more confidence about your ability to get some things done back there," John Elway said. "Ryan gives us that kind of player."
That he is. And in plenty of conversations about where the Broncos can go from last season's remember-when performance on offense, Manning's precision in the preseason, Emmanuel Sanders' signing, the potential of rookie Cody Latimer, the development of tight end Julius Thomas and even the move of Orlando Franklin to left guard are all on the list things that will impact it all.

Clady's return from a foot injury suffered in Week 2 last season is the most significant difference between how the Broncos will line up on offense in the opener and how they lined up in the Super Bowl.

It's a big enough difference that the Broncos' football boss, John Elway, will routinely end a rundown about the changes on offense with "and we get Ryan Clady back."

"I think I definitely can make a difference," Clady said. "That's why I'm here -- to help the team out and make this a better team than we were last year."

Other than Manning's otherworldly 13 Pro Bowl selections, no other player in the Broncos offense has been named to more than Clady's three. In 2012, the left tackle was simply one of the league's best, surrendering just one sack all season as the Broncos made the transition from their read-option look in '11 to Manning's first season with the team.

The Broncos then signed Clady to a five-year, $52.5 million deal before the 2013 season, a deal worthy of the cornerstone player he is in the team's plans, only to see him play just two games. And while Clark filled in admirably, the Broncos' choices in terms of protections and their ability to send help elsewhere in the formation increase with Clady's ability to go solo against the league's best rushers.

When Elway has been asked about "foundation players" in roster building, quarterback and left tackle are still often the first two on the list.

"I always felt like if you knew the back side wasn't going to be a problem, as a quarterback you could have more confidence about your ability to get some things done back there," Elway said. "Ryan gives us that kind of player."

And much like Clady's practice battles with Elvis Dumervil were often highlights -- Dumervil has often credited Clady "with getting me to the Pro Bowl, working with him every day" -- Clady's battles with DeMarcus Ware have been good for both players.

As Mike Shanahan's final No. 1 pick in his Broncos tenure -- Clady was the 12th pick of the '08 draft -- Clady was in the Broncos lineup the last time the team practiced against another team in training camp. The Dallas Cowboys came to Denver with Ware, who was on the doorstep of what would be the third of his seven Pro Bowl seasons in Dallas, often lined up across from the then-rookie.

"It was kind of a wake-up call for me because I was like, ‘I don't know how long I'm going to last in the league going against guys like this every week.' It was definitely a challenge, for sure.”

Clady said his surgically repaired foot continues to feel better each week and he has not missed any practice time in the preseason.

"I don't think I'm quite there, but I'm getting there," Clady said. "It's close. It's just something you have to work into. It's the National Football League with the best athletes in the world. You can't just jump in off an injury and expect to be great. It takes some work, and I still have a little bit of time."

Broncos Camp Report: Day 23

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
8:05
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Denver Broncos training camp:

  • The Broncos "broke" camp after their walk-through late Friday afternoon, though things will look largely the same for players Tuesday when they return to the practice field. Because of construction at their complex, including that of a new indoor practice facility, fans have not been able to attend training camp practices that have routinely been open to the public in previous years. As a result Friday's two practices had much the same setting as Tuesday's will. That's when the Broncos begin three days of work against the Houston Texans. As of Friday, however, the Broncos' veterans no longer have to stay at the nearby hotel and can commute from home the rest of the way. "Camp's over, but we're still in camp mode because we're not in the regular season yet," safety T.J. Ward said. "We get to get out of the hotel and it's not as long of a day, but we're still preparing in that mindset. I'm just glad I get to go home and sleep in my own bed."
  • Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was held out of Friday's morning practice with a thigh injury that has limited him over the last two weeks. Sanders had practiced Tuesday and Thursday but was also held out of Monday's practice. He did participate in the evening walk-through, which forced the Broncos to adjust things with the starting offense earlier in the day as they went through red-zone work and end-of-game scenarios. The biggest beneficiary was Jordan Norwood, who got a selection of snaps with the regulars, including back-to-back receptions from Peyton Manning in a two-minute drill. Norwood, who is also getting a long look as the team's punt returner, would solidify his ability to gain a roster spot if he can consistently show he can give the team something at receiver. The fifth-year player has just four career starts -- all in 2011 with the Cleveland Browns.
  • Rookie running back Juwan Thompson got additional work with the starting offense and also continues to show he's up to the mental challenge. "You just want to be prepared at any given time when Peyton throws anything at you. At the end of the day, I can just ask him, so that I can feel 100 percent guaranteed about what I'm doing out there." Thompson figures to get plenty of work Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers since Montee Ball won't play (appendectomy) and C.J. Anderson just returned to practice Thursday after suffering a concussion. The Broncos believe Ball will return to practice on at least a limited basis next week, possibly as early as Tuesday's practice.
  • Von Miller's mother, Gloria, has been a regular visitor to training camp practices. After Friday's morning workout, Von took defensive end DeMarcus Ware over the meet her. "That's the first time she's met DeMarcus," Miller said. "DeMarcus is her second favorite player in the league, and she wanted to meet him ... She's a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, too." As Miller does more and more in practices in his return from ACL surgery, he and Ware have shown more of their potential in the pass rush. Friday, with Manning under center on one play, Miller launched himself around right tackle Chris Clark and got to Manning before Manning had even finished his dropback.
  • Odd and ends: Aqib Talib intercepted Manning in the end zone in a red-zone drill, a pass intended for Andre Caldwell ... Backup quarterback Brock Osweiler had a difficult sequence in end-of-game work against the second-team defense with what would have been a sack/fumble if defenders were allowed to hit the quarterbacks, to go with an interception by rookie linebacker Lamin Barrow on the next snap.

 
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos haven’t had the usual throngs of their faithful waiting for them when they arrive at the practice field.

They've had no roars of approval for long passes completed or the customary oohs and aahs for interceptions, forced fumbles and Peyton Manning being Manning.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesMontee Ball seems to have Denver's starting tailback job wrapped up, but who will back him up?
As Manning put it, “It’s kind of going to be on us to keep ourselves going."

The Broncos, who will hold the second of three open-to-the-public practices at Sports Authority Field at Mile High as the $35 million makeover continues at their complex, are a deep team with very few roster spots truly in play. Still, after the first week of training camp, there are some questions they still need to answer in the coming weeks, including:

Depth chart at running back: Montee Ball was handed the starting job in the offseason, much like Ronnie Hillman was a year ago. Hillman didn’t keep the job, but Ball clearly will.

He’s shown vision in the run game, decisiveness in his cuts and consistent, quality work in the passing game. He’s poised for a big season and perhaps even the first 250-carry season for the Broncos since Reuben Droughns had 275 carries in 2004. Knowshon Moreno had 247 in 2009 and 241 last season, while Willis McGahee had 249 in 2011.

Hillman has also responded after a listless 2013. He’s been a little grittier in pass protection and seems to have learned the sometimes painful lesson that he has to stay on his toes to have a chance to stay in the lineup.

C.J. Anderson, Juwan Thompson and Brennan Clay will hash it out for the other spots. Anderson was sluggish in OTAs and minicamp at 234 pounds. After his performance in those offseason workouts, there were plenty of folks with the team who were not confident he would keep a roster spot at that weight.

He’s now about 215 pounds in camp and looks more like the guy who made the roster last season as an undrafted rookie. But all three of those backs should be camped out at special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers’ door because the No. 3 running back got all of 55 carries a year ago and might not get anywhere close to that this time around.

Right tackle: Chris Clark has worked with the starters thus far, but the decision hasn’t been made. He has struggled at times with some of the power moves from the Broncos’ defensive linemen in pass-rush drills and hasn't always gotten his hands in the right spots on initial contact. He played well in place of an injured Ryan Clady at left tackle last season, but the strong side is a different deal, and he hasn't yet slammed the door on the competition for the job.

The Broncos can help the right tackle with a tight end if they need to but would prefer not to have to. So, consider auditions still open, and the position will bear watching in preseason games.

Returner(s): There are some candidates who have flashed some explosiveness such as Hillman, rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer, undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse, Omar Bolden and Andre Caldwell, among others. But none of them has consistently caught the ball well enough in practice so far to be considered the front-runner.

At least one of them has to step forward in the coming weeks in the return game and handle the ball consistently. Otherwise the Broncos will be faced with eschewing the idea of an impact returner in lieu of simply fielding the ball without a bobble.

That would be an awful lot of field position left unsecured before the Broncos' offense takes the field.

Broncos Camp Report: Day 3

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
9:15
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Denver Broncos training camp:
  • Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who is slated to return to practice Monday after spending the first four days of training camp in Georgia after the death of his grandmother, will be eased into drills upon his return. Or as offensive coordinator Adam Gase put it; “He has got a great grasp of our offense. There is no concern with me. Once he gets back, he will just jump right in. We will probably be smart with him, make sure that we don’t do anything crazy. He is not going to come out here and just run all go routes -- none of that on the first day. We will work him back in, we will be smart, make sure he gets caught up to speed with his conditioning, but then he will slide right in.’’
  • Another day, another reason the Broncos signed Aqib Talib. The Broncos practiced in full gear for the first time in this camp Saturday morning. As a result, they did plenty of work in the run game, including some one-on-one drills when the team’s wide receivers were asked to block the cornerbacks as if it were a running play. Talib was easily the toughest cornerback to block in the group as he repeatedly tossed aside the receiver who had tried to block him. The Broncos believe safety T.J. Ward and Talib will significantly improve the Broncos’ ability to pressure the line of scrimmage in run defense behind the team’s front seven.
  • In the usual ebb and flow of training camp, the defense tipped the scales its way much of the time Saturday. That figures to change a bit as the offense continues to dial in over the coming days and weeks. But as the offense went through some of its offerings in the run game, but Broncos' defensive front was stout and aggressive, particularly in the middle of the field. Ward also was easy to find, arriving first on many run plays outside the tackles. “I like what I’ve seen in the meetings. I like the way he conducts himself,’’ defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “He’s going to bring some toughness to our defense, and we’ve got some tough guys on our defense so he’ll fit right in with that. A welcomed addition.’’
  • During Elvis Dumervil’s time with the Broncos, he routinely credited his work against Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady on a day-to-day basis as a big reason Dumervil became a Pro Bowl player. And while those battles were always of high quality, Saturday gave a quality glimpse into one that could be even better as Clady and DeMarcus Ware went at it both in one-on-ones and when the Broncos' starting offense went against the starting defense. Ware, who said he has dropped some weight this season, was consistently quick off the ball and repeatedly tested Clady’s ability to get into his pass sets. The work will certainly benefit both players.
  • Chris Clark, who is getting the first look at right tackle with the starters, had some tough moments in the one-on-ones as well as on some two-on-twos, when the Broncos offensive linemen were working on their footwork against a variety of stunts. Guard Louis Vasquez spent some time off to the side with Clark, going over hand placement to maximize the first contact on the opposing rusher.
  • Odds and ends: Ward forced a fumble on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the morning practice … Ben Garland, who has spent two years on the Broncos’ practice squad as both an offensive and defensive lineman after completing his service commitment in the U.S. Air Force, has been at the left guard spot with the second-team offense. … Paul Cornick, who was on the Broncos’ practice squad last year, has worked as the No. 2 right tackle, behind Clark in the early going … Quote of the day fromlinebacker Danny Trevathan on Ward and Ware: “Those guys are savages.’’ ... The Broncos moved their second practice of the day indoors because of lightning in the area. They held a walk-through on an undersized field adjacent to the team's weight room.

Broncos camp report: Day 1

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
9:30
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A daily review of the hot topics coming out of training camp:
  • When the Broncos selected wide receiver Cody Latimer in the second round of the draft in May, they did it knowing full well Latimer had suffered a fracture in his left foot in a pre-draft workout, much like Demaryius Thomas had before the Broncos made him a first-round pick in 2010. "I think they're like experts when it comes to that because it's worked out for them before," Latimer said. The Broncos dialed Latimer back for much of the offseason -- he did some limited team work in the team's three-day minicamp in June and the final set of organized team activities -- but looked just fine Thursday as he consistently flashed top-tier speed throughout the practice. He will get some premium snaps this season.
  • With Demaryius Thomas excused until Monday, Andre Caldwell took plenty of reps with the offensive starters. Caldwell, who signed a two-year deal to stay with the Broncos just before free agency opened in March, watched the team draft Latimer and sign Emmanuel Sanders. But quarterback Peyton Manning trusts Caldwell and showed even in Caldwell's limited playing time last season he was willing to throw to Caldwell in tight situations. And Thursday Manning made it clear people shouldn't be quick to dismiss Caldwell just yet in the wide receiver rotation, offering, "Caldwell will have a more significant role this season."
  • In the wake of the team's announcement that Pat Bowlen was stepping down as the team's owner this week, team president and CEO Joe Ellis met one-on-one with three players -- Manning, special teams captain David Bruton and defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Ware just signed in March, but this, as well as how Ware has conducted himself in offseason workouts, shows his standing in the locker room already. He spent time with almost every pass-rusher on the practice field Thursday, offering tips during drills, including to Derek Wolfe, Von Miller and Quanterus Smith. It will be absolutely stunning if Ware is not one of this team's five season-long captains.
  • The issue is a long way from being decided, but, as expected, Chris Clark is getting the first look with the starters at right tackle. The Broncos figure to do at least some mix-and-match at the position over the next couple of weeks with Clark and Winston Justice having received the bulk of the work in minicamp and OTAs. But if they stick to the plan to take a look at all of the possibilities, rookie Michael Schofield has shown enough in offseason work to get a look as well.
  • The Broncos lost 16 fumbles last season, the most in the league, and lost three more fumbles in the playoffs. So, safe to say ball security has been a front-burner issue for the Broncos all through the offseason with the appearance of a green ball that has been carried around by the likes of Manning and Thomas. But the fumble reminder is blue for training camp and Manning was toting it around Thursday. Things still need attention as the Broncos put the ball on the ground twice in team drills, both on strip plays by the defense.
  • Some odd and ends: With Chris Harris Jr. on the physically unable to perform list, Kayvon Webster got some work in the base defense in the two practices. ... Linebacker Von Miller, who isn't expected to be cleared for full contact until the Broncos' third preseason game, took part individual drills with the linebackers and some 7-on-7 drills. Asked about his knee he said "it feels good for today."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Ever since Ryan Clady stepped awkwardly and left the field inside MetLife Stadium with a foot injury in Week 2 of the 2013 season, the Denver Broncos have, in many ways, been on the hunt for answers in the offensive line.

Not only were they trying to replace a player they consider to be among the league’s elite at his position, but they have continued to try to find the can't-miss combination that works for them throughout whatever becomes of Peyton Manning’s career with the team.

Part of the issue is the breadth of the job description. They need speed and athleticism given they spend so much time in their three-wide receiver set, they are often blocking five on whatever the defense brings in the passing game. That puts all of them on their own at times, when the pass rusher has plenty of room to work. The Broncos also want enough power from the group to run the ball out of those open formations, and they have to be capable of keeping up with all of the changes Manning makes at the line of scrimmage and do so without mistakes.

[+] EnlargeRyan Clady
Rich Kane/Icon SMIRyan Clady's return from a season-ending injury in 2013 allows the Denver offensive line some flexibility.
Other than that, it's a piece of cake.

“There’s a lot going on there sometimes,’’ center Manny Ramirez said. “You have to keep up, but that’s the way we all want to play. We know what this offense can do if we do our job up front.’’

It’s also why the Broncos went through the offseason searching for what coach John Fox has called “the best five,’’ and why they hope they find those five before the opener.

It’s all part of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.

Friday: Offensive line

How many coming to camp: 14

How many the Broncos will keep: As much as offensive line coach Dave Magazu hopes he might get an extra player or two in his meeting room when the final roster decisions get made, the Broncos have been unfailingly consistent in the numbers game in the offensive front over the last three seasons.

They have kept nine offensive linemen following the cut to 53 in each of Fox’s previous seasons as head coach. If the Broncos keep one fewer tight end or one fewer defensive back than last season this time around, this is where the extra spot could be added as the Broncos continue to search for the combinations they like the best on the depth chart.

Orlando Franklin’s move inside to left guard was the most major move of the offseason. Franklin played well in the OTAs and minicamp so all that remains is for him to show the confirmation in the preseason games. He’s powerful on the inside and should help the Broncos’ run game. It also helps him in pass protection since he no longer has to fight speed rushers on the edge.

Franklin was the team’s most penalized player last season, with seven of his 11 penalties for holding. Franklin is smart, tough and will help the Broncos’ offense. He probably now is at the position where many scouts believed he would be at his best in the league.

Break it down: With Franklin’s move to guard, it does leave the Broncos likely their biggest unanswered question as they roll into training camp. They need somebody to step forward and be the team’s right tackle.

Clady’s return does allow them more versatility overall in terms of sending help elsewhere along the front as Clady locks down Manning’s blind side. So, that helps.

In the team’s OTAs and minicamp the Broncos appeared to be leaning toward a veteran, either Chris Clark or Winston Justice, to play the position. Clark, now entering his sixth season, played well in place of Clady last season as the Broncos set a single-season scoring record and Manning was one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the league.

But on a developmental curve, personnel executives believe Clark has likely plateaued as a player and on the strong side the Broncos might need more pop in the run game. Clark has improved as a run blocker in his time in Denver, but as the team runs out of a five-man front they have to be able to make room for the backs to work, even in a pass-first offense. Clark, though, is the team's most qualified swing tackle in that he is the best option behind Clady to play left tackle if needed.

Overall there is also some concern Justice would have the durability to hold up over an 1,100-play season (the Broncos ran 1,156 plays last season, 1,090 in 2012). So, there may be room for rookie Michael Schofield to squeeze into the discussion if he can flash quickly in camp.

The Broncos selected Schofield with the idea he would be the team’s right tackle at some point. But can Schofield do what Franklin did as a rookie and convince Fox, Magazu and the rest of the staff he’s ready to play now?
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever the Denver Broncos' chief decision-maker, John Elway, describes the developmental process, he will routinely offer "we don't draft All Pros, we have to make them."

And over the course of the next week we'll take a glimpse at a few key players who are at various stages of the developmental process. Some have been named to the Pro Bowl, some will be starters for the first time in the coming season.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Franklin
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos have moved Orlando Franklin inside, and the move could pay off for a team that aims to up its running attack in 2014.
But what they all have in common is more is expected of them than they could give, for a variety of reasons, in last season's run to the Super Bowl.

Today: Left guard Orlando Franklin

When Franklin was set to enter the 2011 NFL draft, he had started 25 games at left guard for the University of Miami, 13 at left tackle. And while most scouts believed he could be a valuable swing player in most any offense, a guy who could play inside at guard as well as the more power-oriented right tackle in the pro game, many of those evaluators believed he was a far more natural guard prospect over the long term.

The Broncos had guards -- Zane Beadles and Chris Kuper -- when Franklin arrived in the second round of that draft and they put Franklin where the job opening was along the front, at right tackle where Franklin started 47 games over the last three seasons. But with Beadles having left in free agency and the Broncos' desire to beef up on the interior, Franklin has moved to the inside.

And in the recent organized training activities and minicamp, it already looks like the move will have the desired effect. Franklin will be a powerful force in the run game, and on the inside any issues he had in pass protection will lessen on the interior.

A look at game video has consistently shown when Franklin got in trouble in pass protection on the edge. It showed how Franklin was concerned about surrendering the corner to a speed rusher when he would spread his arms out, almost to hook an outside rusher, rather than getting himself in position for the sturdy first contact from a more stable set.

As a result, Franklin was the most penalized player in the Broncos' lineup last season having been flagged 11 times overall, seven of those for holding. Chris Clark, who was filling in for the injured Ryan Clady, was next among the offensive lineman, with seven penalties overall.

And with the Broncos set to, again, run most of their offense out of a three-wide -- they worked out of the three-wide set 73.6 percent of the time overall last season and were close to 90 percent in the postseason -- their tackles are going to have work alone much of the time in pass protection.

Also, a move inside puts Franklin -- a savvy, hard-working player -- where his strengths will help a Broncos' running attack, usually facing lighter nickel and dime formations lined up to slow down the Broncos' offense.

Their run-game numbers on the inside were middle of the road during the regular season -- 18th in the league in runs over left tackle, 7th in runs over left guard (they had just 38 carries behind Beadles last season, however, so sample size a little smaller) and 15th over the center. Those weak-side runs were often against those smaller formations with fronts built for speed. So, the troubling numbers came in the postseason when the Broncos couldn't make any room in the run game against formations built to stop their passing game.

The Broncos averaged fewer than 2.5 yards per carry in three postseason games on runs over either the left tackle or left guard. And while they are not a running team in either word or deed, they will have to be one at times to close out the coming season the way they hope to.

And they believe Franklin's move will help them do it.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have now wrapped up their offseason program, worked through their OTAs and even had everybody in the house for their mandatory minicamp -- or as head coach John Fox put it, "we've had 100 percent attendance all the way through, so that's not a surprise.''

In short, they now cross their fingers and hope they can avoid the non-stop off-the-field drama that had arrived with summer last year, a rattle-the-franchise list that included two personnel executives arrested for DUIs and linebacker Von Miller’s six-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on substance abuse.

No, so far all has been fairly quiet on the defending AFC champion’s front.

On the field the Broncos, even in the offseason’s low-impact work, showed themselves to be a deeper, faster and committed team plenty worthy of being in any Super Bowl discussion. And in the end here are some takeaways from the past few weeks:

Still looking for right choice at RT: They have answered one major question in the offensive line, but still have a significant one remaining.

Orlando Franklin will be a powerful presence at left guard and it will be a surprise if the Broncos are not a more efficient running team on the inside this season, especially in the scoring zone. And if they can force defenses to commit more resources to defend the middle of the field, quarterback Peyton Manning will have more room to pick away on the outside in the play-action game.

Sanders
But the right tackle job still looks plenty open. Veterans Winston Justice and Chris Clark got most of the looks with the regulars in the open sessions of the OTAs and minicamp. It still remains to be seen if the Broncos are going to give the rookie a shot – third-round pick Michael Schofield – once training camp begins.

Think big with Sanders: The Broncos, in both player evaluation and in finding him a spot in the offense, were right about wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. He fits what the Broncos do in their scheme, has the versatility to line up all over the formation and has held up his end of the bargain by putting in the extra time with Manning.

If he stays healthy and in the lineup, he’s a quality bet to have his first 1,000-yard season.

Ball looks the part: Running back Montee Ball is ready for a starring role in the run game. And the part of his game that showed the most improvement in recent weeks was as a receiver.

Ball
He has consistently shown he’s ready to participate in long-yardage situations as a receiver, even having snared an over-the-shoulder scoring grab or two in red zone drills. And while the jury remains out in pass protection until they put the full gear on, he’s shown better footwork in the workouts and has positioned himself where he needs to be.

Learn on the job: First-round pick Bradley Roby has shown plenty of athleticism in workouts, but he has plenty of learning curve to travel. In the weeks and months leading up to the draft, some scouts were concerned about Roby’s concentration and focus in coverage at times.

And granted there’s getting your feet wet and then there’s diving in against a Manning-led offense that constantly pushes the envelope and the pace, even in practice. But Roby was caught trailing the play at times, especially down the field.

For his part, however, he continued to battle and showed himself to be more aggressive in red zone work when the offense didn’t have quite as many angles or as much room to disperse the receivers. He's got the goods to be sure, but he's got to hit the books -- and video -- in the coming weeks. The Broncos want, and need, him to be ready play in the nickel at minimum.

Do a deal: It would be good for the Broncos' front office to hand out some home cooking. While certainly every player has enjoyed the fruits of signing Manning in 2012 and they certainly like their chances to be in the title mix when they sign free agents like Sanders, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib.

But in terms of locker room chemistry and the message it would send, it would be a good thing for the Broncos to lock up either Demaryius Thomas or Julius Thomas to a long-term deal before training camp. Both players are two of the team’s draft picks who have gone on to be named to the Pro Bowl and Demaryius Thomas is on the league’s short list at his position.

Miller
The Broncos don’t have the salary cap wherewithal at the moment to get both done long term, but to sign one in the coming weeks would work with the possibility of using the franchise tag on the other in 2015 to allow some time to clear some cap room off the books. But to sign one of their own homegrown players with the same aggressiveness they signed their unrestricted free agents, much like they did with left tackle Ryan Clady in 2013, would be met with approval among their rank and file.

Miller Lite is better: Miller has shown, in word and deed so far, he intends on returning to the lineup far closer to the 255-pound mark, where he has said he was during his 18.5-sack season in 2012, than the 270-plus pound mark, where he was when he returned from his suspension last season.

Miller, who is working to return from ACL surgery, has looked like he did when he was at his best. The Broncos are confident he could, at minimum, be ready for spot duty in the pass rush by the start of the regular season and perhaps more if things go well in the coming weeks.

But a lighter, leaner Miller is what they want to see back in the lineup and that will only help him in his quest to return to his former level of play. Miller has responded to the veteran Ware's presence and the two should give the Broncos the kind of pass rush they were missing at times last season, even before Miller suffered his season-ending injury in Houston.


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos grind their way through their offseason work as a team in the oh-so-early Super Bowl conversations, they have unfinished business.

There is the depth chart at running back, some uncertainty at middle linebacker and making sure the players they signed in their free-agency binge enter the fold smoothly. Oh, there is also a little one-in-a-million shot they need to come through.

Not the Wes Welker make-it-rain-at-the-Kentucky Derby one-in-a-million shot, but an important choice about what might be the most important number when it comes to what the Broncos’ offense does for an encore after its record-setting, 606-point season in 2013. Their magic number is five, as in the five starting offensive linemen charged with protecting quarterback Peyton Manning: the five guys charged with protecting the franchise’s fortunes.

"We feel good about our options," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. "We feel like we have the guys on the roster to do what we need to do."

Broncos coach John Fox wants to address lineup options about as much as he wants to talk about injuries. So on more than one occasion, Fox, in his eternal quest to move on to the next question, has said the Broncos will try "a million" combinations on the offensive line through OTAs, this week’s minicamp and training camp.

So far they are a little short of a million, but they have tried some things here and there. And it really boils down to two, perhaps three, combinations.

Orlando Franklin's move from right tackle to left guard was made to maximize Franklin’s abilities; many scouts in the league believed that Franklin would be a better guard than tackle when the Broncos selected him in the 2011 draft. The move also helps Denver adjust to life without guard Zane Beadles, who signed with Jacksonville after the Broncos didn't offer him a chance to stay.

Franklin also gives the Broncos more bulk on the interior, more power, more options in dispersing the inside rush that any defense will believe is key to getting to Manning. So far in team workouts, that move looks to be one that will stick.

The Broncos, even in non-contact work, have flashed some power looks on the interior and will potentially have a better inside run game at their disposal. Although running the ball more efficiently has a spot fairly high on the team’s offseason agenda, the bottom line up front in a Manning-centered offense will always be keeping the man with four neck surgeries in his medical history out of harm’s way.

[+] EnlargeRyan Clady
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe return of starting left tackle Ryan Clady should improve Denver's pass protection.
And the Broncos prefer to do that by blocking five-on-whatever much of the time. Last season the team played out of the three-wide-receiver set at just over 70 percent of its snaps in the regular season, and that total hovered closer to 90 percent in its three playoff games.

Much of that time was spent with a catch-first tight end in Julius Thomas in the formation as well. So their own Five Guys franchise has to get it done.

Franklin’s move inside, with All-Pro Louis Vasquez already working on the right side, gives the Broncos one of the bigger, perhaps biggest, guard tandems in the league. The Broncos would be comfortable with either Manny Ramirez, who started at center last season, or free-agent addition Will Montgomery in the middle of things. Ryan Clady, as he returns from last season’s foot injury, appears ready to reclaim his spot as one of the league’s best at left tackle.

So that leaves right tackle, a position that defenses repeatedly attacked with the pass rush last season, especially down the stretch into the playoffs. Chris Clark, who's more proficient as a pass-blocker than he is in the run game, has spent most of the time with the starters in the offseason workouts.

Clark filled in for Clady after Week 2 last season and got the job done for the most part. Rookie Michael Schofield, a third-round pick, should get a look as well, but given that Franklin is the last rookie this coaching staff has started up front on offense, Schofield would need to not just be as good as Clark but win the job handily in camp.

Veteran Winston Justice has taken a spin or two on the right side as well, but at the moment it looks like Clark or Schofield. Either way, defensive coordinators see what the Broncos have done in free agency and the draft, adding receivers, adding speed, and they saw what the Seattle Seahawks did to the Broncos' offensive line in the Super Bowl.

Plenty of those defensive coaches say although it’s scary to aggressively come after Manning with the rush, they might do it more in an effort to disrupt Denver's timing.

"We’re going to look at a lot of things," Fox said. "We’ve got some time, and that’s what the offseason is for. We’re going to use the time we have and make the decisions we think are best."

Manning is Manning, which is to say he won’t get sacked much no matter who is in front of him. He has been sacked fewer than 20 times in nine of his seasons as a starter, and last season he was sacked 18 times in 659 pass attempts -- or just once for every 27.3 attempts.

But for the Broncos and Manning the question isn’t sacks -- it’s damage and getting him through one week into the next. The Broncos have to limit the hits on their 38-year-old quarterback, who has had a spinal fusion. Two low hits in particular in a four-sack game by Robert Mathis last season almost derailed the Broncos' plans and put Manning in an ankle brace for the rest of the season.

So as folks crunch all the numbers to sum up the Broncos’ potential in the coming season, one still stands out as they prepare to adjourn until training camp.

It’s five. As in the right five.
The Denver Broncos will bring their draft class into their Dove Valley complex this coming weekend for a three-day, welcome-to-the-show rookie minicamp.

All of the first-year players will get their indoctrination into the Broncos' way on all things football. So, at Step 1 in their quest to earn a roster spot to go with some playing time in the regular season, it's a good time to look at the prospects for each of those players in the six-player draft class.

Today: Third-round pick Michael Schofield.

What does he bring to the table: Talk to scouts and personnel executives around the league and when they see “Michigan," and "50 games" and "offensive lineman" on a guy's resume, they're most likely going to take a long look.

Traditionally, Michigan's long-time starters are well-schooled and those who have that much experience usually find a way to become productive players on an NFL roster. Schofield, who was the 12th tackle selected in this year's draft, played in 52 games overall with 36 starts for the Wolverines.

He has a huge frame at 6-foot-6 1/2-inches tall, and the Broncos believe he can easily add weight. Schofield, who was 301 pounds at the combine, said this past weekend he believes he could still add 10 to 15 pounds and maintain his current movement skills.

Schofield is a technically sound player who gets his hands in the right spot and consistently anchors well in pass protection. He also projects as a right tackle in the Broncos' offense with the possibility of filling in at guard if needed.

Prospects for playing time: The Broncos would like to try Orlando Franklin at left guard because they believe, over the long haul, it will improve the team's play in the offensive front if they can be more physical in the middle of the formation.

But to make it work, they will need to replace Franklin at right tackle, where he has been a starter since his rookie season in 2011. They would be comfortable with Chris Clark, who filled in for Ryan Clady after Clady's season-ending foot injury in Week 2, on the right side.

But when the Broncos drafted Schofield with the 95th pick, it was with the idea he had the make-up to offer a potential option at right tackle. The Broncos had gone into the draft hoping to have a shot at one of the tackles on their board who they believed could step in and play on the right side.

Schofield was one of those guys, but he had a bit an uphill battle. Franklin is one of just three offensive linemen selected in John Elway's three previous drafts and he's also the only one to have convinced the coaching staff, with his play, he should be in the lineup as a rookie.

"I see myself more of an offensive tackle just because that is what I've played most of my career throughout high school and throughout college," Schofield said. “One thing I was trying to prove through this whole draft process was that I can play multiple positions. Wherever the Broncos will need me, I can play for them.”

Biggest hurdle to playing time: He has the frame for the job and his game video shows a savvy blocker with good awareness of what's going on around him. He plays with toughness and flashed some edginess in his game in that when he locks on to a defender he stays with it until the play is over.

The bridge for him to cross will be to handle outside speed from the rushers across from him, particularly when the Broncos are in a three-wide receiver set with the tight end out wide in the formation as well. Sometimes when the end across from him goes hard to the corner in the pass rush and then counters quickly to the inside, he has gotten himself out of sorts.

The bottom line: Overall, this is a player with the chops to challenge for a starting job. If he can adapt quickly to the team's playbook and show the Broncos he can anchor in pass protection and move people in the run game, he could be a legitimate option to start on the right side.
videoENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The pick: Michael Schofield, OT, Michigan

My take: The Broncos, having already told Orlando Franklin he will move from right tackle to left guard, were on the hunt for a right tackle prospect in the draft’s first two days. The Broncos saw the prospect they wanted in Michigan’s Michael Schofield. He has the potential to play both guard and tackle, which is the kind of flexibility the Broncos hoped to find. Schofield started 10 games at left guard in 2011 to go with 26 starts at right tackle in 2012 and 2013 combined. He’s a gritty player who showed himself to already be proficient in the run game. Schofield is a good enough athlete to have run the 110 hurdles for his high school’s track team in suburban Chicago. He should get the chance to compete for the right tackle spot right away.

Spin the wheel: This pick adds another player to the mix as the Broncos work through the combinations in the offensive front. Coach John Fox said earlier this offseason the team would try “a million" groupings in the offensive line during offseason workouts. With Franklin’s move to guard, the Broncos probably will work Schofield and Chris Clark at right tackle. Newly-signed center Will Montgomery was signed in free agency with the idea he could be a starting center, where he will battle Manny Ramirez.

What’s next: The Broncos have picked as expected thus far with a cornerback, wide receiver and offensive lineman in their first three picks. That leaves them in a position to look at linebackers down the board, especially one who could compete for the middle linebacker job.
The home stretch is finally in sight as the, say it with me, May draft is, thankfully for many scouts, just a day away. And in the final countdown before everybody is really on the clock, it’s time to take a one-a-day look at some specific players who could find their way into the Broncos' draft class by the time the seven rounds come to a close.

Today: Guards Gabe Jackson and Xavier Su'a-Filo

The Broncos have said they feel comfortable in their ability to deal with left guard Zane Beadles’ departure in free agency with some in-house moves. Most notably would be the move of right tackle Orlando Franklin, a starter since he was selected in the 2011 draft, to left guard, a move Franklin has been told will be made when the team has full-team workouts in OTAs.

Chris Clark would then move to right tackle with Ryan Clady’s return to left tackle after spending much of the 2013 season on injured reserve with a foot injury. The Broncos will try several other combination as well as they work toward head coach John Fox's promise to put "the best five'' players in front of quarterback Peyton Manning.

But as they continue to look to shore up things in the middle of the formation, the Broncos will give a long look to a fairly deep group of linemen on the board, including a center, a potential right tackle and inside at guard. Jackson and Su’a-Filo are among the best guards in this draft class and both would bring a skill set to the Broncos that would make each a quality fit as a potential starter.

Su’a-Filo was the first true freshman in UCLA history to start a season opener in 2009 and is an athletic player who also played some left tackle in his time with the Bruins. He projects to be a guard in the NFL – he struggled working in the open spaces at tackle at times, especially with recovery skills if knocked off balance some by opposing defensive ends.

But inside Su’a-Filo is quick off the ball and is effective at moving people in the run game and keeping rushers off the quarterback. He does need some work in an NFL strength program and play with a little more upper-body power to fend off defensive tackles.

If you want power, then Jackson is your guy. Also in all of the indicators about a prospect’s potential NFL success, few are more reliable to gauge the future than 50-game starters in the offensive line. Those players have obviously been durable over their college careers and they just seem to understand how to get to work as well as what it takes to succeed game in, game out, season after season.

To that end, Jackson started all 52 games of his career at Mississippi State. He has an enormous reach, befitting his 6-foot-3 ¼, 336-pound frame, and in pass protection there is no place to go. When he slams the door on an opposing defensive tackle, it stays closed.

Consider a potential Jackson-Louis Vasquez pairing at guard for the Broncos -- it would give them one of the biggest tandems in the league -- and Manning would be difficult to see from across the line of scrimmage let alone find for opposing rushers.

Jackson plays with the savvy of the coach’s son that he is and consistently makes good decisions in blitz situations and projects as a player with the skills to start as a rookie with the football character of a two-time team captain. Jackson did tie for the slowest 40-yard dash among the linemen at the scouting combine – 5.63 seconds – but this is a quality interior line prospect who clearly understands the game and should be in somebody’s lineup for a long time.
With just 14 words fired off over Twitter on the first day of the Denver Broncos' offseason program, Orlando Franklin confirmed a move in the offensive line the team's decision-makers have considered for quite some time.

Franklin, whose Twitter profile begins simply with; "Right Tackle for the Denver Broncos," confirmed his move to left guard Monday, the opening day of the Broncos' team workouts in 2014. Following the team's first full gathering with the team's strength and conditioning coaches since the 35-point loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, Franklin sent:

 

Though Franklin learned of the decision Monday, this is something Broncos officials had considered last spring and were considering once again shortly after the season ended, when they had made the decision to let guard Zane Beadles test the free-agent market. Beadles signed a five-year deal worth $30 million with the Jacksonville Jaguars shortly after free agency opened last month, a deal worth far more than the Broncos would have been willing to spend.

The Broncos made no offer to Beadles' representatives, though Beadles had played in every game and started every game but two in his four years with the team. That departure left a hole in the team's plan up front.

The Broncos, searching for more power in the middle of the offensive line for much of the past two season, had considered moving Franklin to guard during the 2012 offseason. They worked him there at times during training camp, and head coach John Fox has said Franklin took some reps inside during last year's regular season as well.

The Broncos then jumped out a year ago to sign Louis Vasquez to a four-year deal -- the longest free-agent deal the Broncos signed last March -- and in return Vasquez gave the Broncos an All-Pro season at right guard. But the defenses that gave the Broncos the most difficulty, most notably the Seahawks in the title game, often did so with pressure in the middle of the field.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Franklin
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsOrlando Franklin will give the Broncos more pop in the run game at left guard. With his long reach he will be difficult for inside defenders to handle in the pass game as well.
As a result the Broncos are trying to answer lineup questions at left guard and will take a look at center as well.

Franklin has started 47 games at right tackle since he was the second of the Broncos' second-round picks in the 2011 draft (the 46th pick overall). At the league meetings last month, Fox said Franklin "was prepared to play guard last year."

It won't be an unfamiliar position for Franklin, who started 25 games at left guard in his career at the University of Miami before starting at left tackle in his senior season. And there were many scouts who believed when Franklin entered the '11 draft he would be a better guard in the NFL over the long haul.

Franklin is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent following the 2014 season. He will give the Broncos more pop at the point of attack in the run game. His reach -- he is 6-foot-7-inches tall -- will make him tough to handle for opposing defensive tackles on the inside in pass protection. His chief hurdle will be to block on the move in the run game when the Broncos go to more of a zone look, but the Broncos have been of the mind it will help them overall to move him inside.

With Ryan Clady's return at left tackle, Chris Clark will get the first look at right tackle and Will Montgomery, who signed as a free agent, will battle Manny Ramirez in early offseason work for the starting center spot. When the Broncos signed Montgomery in the second week of free agency, they did so with the feeling he would push, and could win, the starting center job.

But make no mistake, the Broncos will still give a long look to potential swing tackles in the draft as well as swing players inside who can play both center and guard. In the latter scenario, the Broncos won't have to look far for a player who could fit the bill in Colorado State's Weston Richburg.

Richburg started 50 consecutive games for the Rams and never missed a game -- a streak that included him snapping with his left hand at times during the 2011 season after he had fractured his right hand. Richburg is athletic, savvy and only added to his quality résumé on the field by performing well at his pro day in Fort Collins, Colo., last month.

The Broncos also believe Vinston Painter, a 2013 draft pick who spent much of last season on the team's practice squad, is a potential fit at right tackle down the road as well.

In the end, Fox has said they will use only one criteria to pick Peyton Manning's personal protectors. Fox said they are "trying to get our best five on the field and there will be a lot of different formulas for that ... we'll work a million combinations."

And on the first day of offseason work Franklin's shift to the left was the opening move.
As he progressed through his offseason work, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning watched with great interest as his team opened free agency in high gear.

Manning is known to quickly call and/or text the team's newest acquisitions, welcoming them aboard. This offseason, Manning quickly reached out to cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders after they signed.

The Broncos are set to open their offseason program Monday, and despite all the new acquisitions, Manning said this past week one of the biggest "additions" to this season's lineup will be the return of Ryan Clady. The left tackle had foot surgery that ended his 2013 season after two games.

[+] EnlargeRyan Clady
Rich Kane/Icon SMI"You always want to have your good players in the lineup. And he's one of our best," Broncos coach John Fox said of Ryan Clady.
“We lost some players and we're getting some players back that were injured last year,'' Manning said. "It's almost like Ryan Clady was a free-agent acquisition. He didn't play last year [after injuring his foot in Week 2]."

Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said in recent weeks the Broncos expect Clady to be at full speed by the time the season rolls around. Clady has progressively stepped up the work in his rehab, even after the Broncos had closed out the season with a loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.

But even as the Broncos blistered the league's single-season record book with Manning's 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards to go with the team's 606 points overall, the Broncos were not always what they could have been if Clady were healthy. The Broncos used a three-wide receiver look as their base offensive set -- with Chris Clark playing in place of Clady -- but Manning didn't always have time to explore all of his options.

Manning was actually sacked fewer times with more pass attempts in 2013 than in 2012 -- he was sacked 18 times this past season with 659 pass attempts as compared to 21 times in 2012 with 583 pass attempts. The Broncos believe Clady's return will enable them to expand some of what they did last season. That includes their ability to run the ball more efficiently out of their open formations and give Manning more time to see more options when he does throw the ball.

Manning's ankle troubles this past season were a result of hits taken from his blind side, from rushers Clady would have been blocking had he been in the lineup. Manning's sack totals don't always tell the story, and the Broncos want to address the hits he took in 2013.

With his preparation, anticipation and pre-snap recognition of what the defense has to offer, Manning has always been able to limit sacks -- almost no matter what the offensive line has looked like in front of him. He has been sacked 20 or fewer times in 10 of his seasons as a starter; fewer than 15 times in five of his seasons. Defenses have never sacked Manning more than the 29 times they got him in 2001, a season the Indianapolis Colts finished 6-10.

But after four neck surgeries and turning 38 years old, every hit on Manning is potential trouble.

Broncos head coach John Fox has said, in the wake of the departure of left guard Zane Beadles in free agency, the team will try plenty of combinations up front during offseason workouts and even into training camp -- "a million," he said -- but that the "best five" will be the starters. And as they get down to business Monday, all of those plans are based on having a healthy Clady at left tackle, handling his business on his own so the Broncos can slide the help elsewhere if necessary.

Or as Fox put it: "You always want to have your good players in the lineup. And he's one of our best. We did a lot of good things when he was out last season, but we'll be able to do even more good things with him back in there."
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Denver Broncos have some rather large items on their to-do list that will depend on how they answer one significant question about the offensive line.

Fox
Fox
They want to protect quarterback Peyton Manning, because, well, protecting Manning is the foundation of what needs to be done every time they snap the ball.

And the Broncos have said, from John Elway to head coach John Fox to offensive coordinator Adam Gase, they want to run the ball better -- "more efficiently," as Fox put it -- because they believe it would help them be a little better than they were last season. As in one win better than losing in the season's last game.

At least that's the goal.

But when left guard Zane Beadles left in free agency because he got far more from the Jacksonville Jaguars (five years, $30 million) than the Broncos would have put on the table, it left Denver with a decision to make on the offensive line. A decision, Fox said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings, that won’t be made without plenty of trial and error along the way.

"We’re trying to get our best five on the field and there will be a lot of different formulas for that," Fox said. "Until we suit them up again and start practicing and evaluated them, they'll define it. And there will be a bunch of combinations ... we'll work a million combinations."

Fox said all the options will be considered, all of the rotations tried as the Broncos go through their offseason work in the coming weeks and months.

But as the Broncos monitor the offensive linemen in free agency and with the draft still on the docket, the two most likely moves they could make are:
  • Move right tackle Orlando Franklin to left guard and with Ryan Clady’s return to left tackle, use that opportunity to move Chris Clark to right tackle. On Franklin, Fox said: “He was prepared to play guard last year." If the Broncos don’t grab a plug-and-play interior lineman in the draft or add a potential starter in the second wave of free agency, this remains the most likely, and effective option, given how well Franklin played as a guard at the University of Miami.
  • Or the Broncos could sign a center or select one in the May draft, but either of those options represents a tall order for the incoming player into an offense that does plenty of work at the line of scrimmage with Manning using the freedom to change plays. But if they added a center, Fox said they could move Manny Ramirez to guard, where he played for the Broncos in the 2012 season.


“But we’ll see," Fox said. "We’re going to try a lot of things and guys are going to work at multiple spots. We want to be ready to do what we need to do, like I’ve said you only take seven guys into a game for five spots, if something happens there is about three different re-coils for that."

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