Denver Broncos: John Elway

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The last word rings the loudest, and when it comes to all the Denver Broncos accomplished last season, the Seattle Seahawks got the last word.

It came in the form of a 43-8 victory over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

For many, that nationally televised cave-in wiped away all of the touchdowns, league records and remember-when plays that the Broncos had assembled along the way. Because of that, the Broncos have moved through the offseason with questions about their mettle swirling around them.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware, Von Miller
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesAdding DeMarcus Ware, left, and getting Von Miller, right, back from injury has the Broncos excited.
Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner went on ESPN and dropped the words "scared" and "timid" when asked about the Broncos and the title game. Others around the league have done the same in private -- asked the same questions, wondered the same things. How can the Broncos navigate a tougher schedule than they had last season and do it as they try to bounce back from the kind of high-profile loss that is often difficult to shake?

That's what everyone wants to know, and it's a burden the Broncos carried as they took the field Thursday for their first training camp practice.

Make no mistake -- the Broncos like the team they have. And why not? Peyton Manning is back, as are the coaching staff and the guts of a roster that has gone 13-3 in back-to-back seasons.

As cornerback Chris Harris Jr. put it, "Guys know what kind of team we have."

John Elway, the Broncos' general manager and executive vice president of football operations, was busy this offseason, signing high-profile free agents DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders.

"Are we a better football team on paper?" Elway asked. "I think we are. I feel good about the fact that we're a better football team with free agents that we signed, as well as the draft, as well as the young guys taking steps from last season."

Ware arrived from Dallas with 117 career sacks. Talib and Ward were named to the Pro Bowl last season.

"DeMarcus came in and walked in like he'd been here for 10 years, because that's the kind of guy that he is," Elway said. "You know the way that Aqib practices and the competitive nature that he has, and the mentality, the toughness that he brings."

The Broncos also have the likes of Harris Jr., Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson and Rahim Moore -- defensive players who finished the season on injured reserve -- back on the practice field. They've seen Manning look as good as ever, with his receivers saying the future Hall of Famer has had a little more on his fastball this spring.

They see a deep team with impact players they believe is tougher, a little more calloused by what has happened. But training camp is the season of sunshine and rainbows in the NFL. Always has been, always will be. Everyone arrives to camp happy and optimistic, touting the offseason changes in players or attitude, the new day or new era.

"I'm never getting too optimistic, because this thing changes so fast, and things can change on a dime," Elway said. "But I am excited about the team that we have on the field, I'm excited about the coaching staff that we have.

"So we're excited about getting started -- plus we can put last year behind us. As tremendous as last year was, obviously there's always a bitter taste in your mouth when it ends the way it ended. When we get out on the field, that officially ends the 2013 season. We can now get going on the 2014 season."

It's a season where the Broncos hope they can be the team that hands out the exclamation point.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said this season was "Super Bowl or bust" earlier this month, that was one thing.

After all, folks all over the region are thinking the same thing as they look over the Broncos' depth chart that still includes Peyton Manning at quarterback with a fairly young roster around him and one of the league's biggest hauls in free agency as well.

But now new arrival DeMarcus Ware has brought another goal into the conversation. Asked about the expectations of the team's defense, Ware said he hopes the Broncos go to uncharted ground when it comes to the franchise's history.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDeMarcus Ware says the Broncos want their defense to play as well as their offense.
"We are trying to be a force to be reckoned with this year and you already talked about us being an offensive team, but at the end of the day, we are trying to be [No.] 1 and [No.] 1," Ware said. "The best offense in the league and the best defense in the league."

That's not just a lofty goal, but something the team has never done in five-plus decades worth of football business. The team has been to seven Super Bowls -- six of those on Pat Bowlen's watch -- and won two title games. But the Broncos have never finished a season with the No. 1 defense in yards allowed per game, which is what the NFL uses to statistically rank defenses each year.

The Broncos' best season in scoring defense -- when they allowed a franchise low 148 points in a 14-game season -- was 1977. They finished ninth in yards allowed and were third in scoring defense, behind the Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons. Former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan routinely has said a team will almost certainly be in the Super Bowl conversation with a top-five offense to go with a top-five defense.

Then, Shanahan has said, it comes down to playing your best when the lights are brightest. But even that will be no small chore for these Broncos. Overall the Broncos have had only four seasons when they even finished in the league's top five in yards gained per game on offense and yards allowed per game on defense -- again that's how the league ranks them each year.

In those four seasons -- 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2012 -- the Broncos won the Super Bowl only to close out the 1997 season. They were upset in the playoffs, at home, to close out both 1996 and 2012 and were thumped by Manning in the wild-card game to close out 2004.

But Ware has again raised the issue many of the Broncos defensive players, most notably defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, have touched on throughout this offseason. That it's great Manning and the offense can pile up the touchdowns, but the Broncos want, and need, to be known for something on the other side of the ball.

If the team can't win the Super Bowl in a year that they scored more points in a season (606) than any team in history, then it's clear the Broncos need to bring a little something more than offensive pizzazz to the table.

But the difference in saying you want a top defense to go with the top offense and actually doing it is galactic in size. Especially in the salary cap era, when many teams find themselves picking sides when they're doling out the contract cash. And that was something John Elway was trying to avoid this past offseason when he was waving Bowlen's checkbook around in free agency, securing players such as Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward for the team's defense.

"I think that we've got to get to be where we're a complete football team," Elway said Wednesday. "We can't rely on [No.] 18 to win it because he can't win it by himself."

The 2013 season will always have its place in the team's lore as Manning threw for more touchdowns on his own (55) than the 31 other teams each scored. But the team never, whether it was because of injuries, mistakes or simply a lack of personnel, showed it had a Plan B for the days when the offense and Manning couldn't pull the team through -- like the day Super Bowl XLVIII was played, for example.

The Broncos didn't run the ball well enough not to have to throw it all the time and they didn't play defense consistently well enough to close the deal. Although the Broncos defense may have actually had one of its better days against the Seahawks in February until things got out of hand.

"To win a world championship, you have to be a great football team and you have to be well rounded," Elway said. "I think we've moved closer to that. Seattle was a tremendous football team. But this is a new year and we've got to go out and we've got to play the best football that we can play, and do what we do best. And how the coordinators put our guys in the best situations to be successful and we'll create our own identity. I think if we continue to do that with the people that we have, we're going to be able to compete for a world championship."

"I think this is going to be a night and day defense from last year," Ware said. "You had guys that were hurt [last year], and have the opportunity to not have any holes in your defense … So I think the sky is the limit for us."
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Often folks look at John Elway and talk about steely resolve. They talk about competitive fire. They talk about the unblinking ability to turn pressure into football diamonds.

And Wednesday, Elway showed his heart -- showed it with tears welling in his eyes as he tried to talk about Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen's, and Bowlen's family's, decision to step down from the day-to-day work of running the team. Bowlen turned over control of the team to a family trust with team president/CEO Joe Ellis making decisions that were previously Bowlen’s to make and Elway running the team's football operations.

Both Elway and Ellis were emotional as they attempted to talk Wednesday about Bowlen's impact on them, the community and the NFL. Both have spent the better part of three decades working for Bowlen, as well as spending time around the Broncos owner and his family away from the team complex.

For some, it was the kind of emotion they hadn’t seen from Elway, in particular, since he retired from the NFL after the 1998 season. The tears welled in Elway’s eyes as he spoke Wednesday, as he took several pauses and a heavy sigh or two to try to gather himself.

“I’ve worked for him for 30 years ... it’s, uh, going to be very hard not to see him walk through that door every day," Elway said. “He’s given me so much. As a player to be able to play for him, and as I’ve said when I retired, I said as a player all you want is an opportunity to be the best and to be able to compete for world championships and ... that’s what Pat has given us."

Elway also said Bowlen’s tenure as a day-to-day presence in the building “will never be matched, he will never be replaced." In the end, Elway called it a “sad, sad day."

Later, after matters turned to football as Elway walked to return inside the Broncos’ complex, he said “it really just hit me when I sat down to talk about him" that he had not expected to feel so much emotion when he sat down in front of the cameras and digital recorders.
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Every person who works inside the Denver Broncos' suburban complex knew this day was coming.

Pat Bowlen would ask the same questions in a meeting that he had just asked a few minutes before.

He stepped away from the tireless work he did on some of the NFL’s most powerful committees, including negotiating some of the groundbreaking television contracts that fuel teams' economic engines.

He started driving less, choosing to ride with the team’s now-retired security director, Dave Abrams, or Broncos general counsel Rick Slivka, or team president Joe Ellis as they routinely went to lunch at a restaurant that overlooks an executive airport.

He was in his office less, too. Former coach Mike Shanahan once said: "[Pat] was an owner you could always find, his office was right next to mine, so some coaches can’t find their owners, don’t talk to their owners. I saw Pat every day at work."

Then for the first time, Bowlen -- who once competed in the Ironman Triathlon -- didn’t go to the league meetings in March.

[+] EnlargePat Bowlen and John Elway
AP Photo/ Ed AndrieskiThe Broncos have enjoyed their greatest moments under the leadership of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and owner Pat Bowlen, left.
Through it all, those in and around the Broncos have always said Bowlen was "stepping away," choosing to let the people he has in place run the team in the way he hoped it would be operated.

On Tuesday, the Broncos formally announced Bowlen had surrendered control of the team as he battles Alzheimer’s disease. Ellis, who now will add the title and duties of chief executive officer to his duties as team president, will assume control of the team and represent the Broncos on all league matters.

A team statement said: "The Broncos are very saddened that Mr. Bowlen is no longer able to be part of the team’s daily operations due to his condition. We continue to offer our full support, compassion and respect to 'Mr. B,' who has faced Alzheimer’s disease with such dignity and strength."

Commissioner Roger Goodell said to the Denver Post: "This is a sad day for the NFL."

Bowlen publicly had said he suffered some short-term memory loss in recent years, even as far back as 2009, when he fired Shanahan. With tears in his eyes, Bowlen said: "This is as tough as it gets." He then hired Josh McDaniels, but fired him with four games remaining in the 2010 season, with the franchise reeling from on-field losses and its own Spygate scandal.

Early in 2011, Bowlen performed what might have been one of his last great acts as the franchise’s most successful owner. He convinced John Elway to return as the team’s chief football decision-maker.

The Broncos, it seems, always have been at their best with Elway and Bowlen together in some way. Bowlen raised the team’s first Super Bowl trophy, saying: "This one’s for John." There is little doubt if Elway could raise one as an executive, he would say: "This one’s for Pat."

Player and owner. Friend and friend. Boss and employee.

There are those around the league who believe the $35 million expansion of the team’s complex, including an indoor practice facility, was in part a spruce-up, a value-added item, if the team were to be sold. But Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, said in a statement Tuesday: "Long-term, I fully support Pat’s hope of keeping the Denver Broncos in the Bowlen family."

Ellis has been with the team for most of Bowlen’s ownership tenure in Denver. Ellis was the team’s marketing director from 1983 to 1985 -- Bowlen purchased the Broncos in 1984 -- and Ellis returned to the team in 1998 and has been with the Broncos since. Ellis was promoted to COO in 2008 and named team president in 2011.

Together, it now will be Ellis and Elway who will try to maintain what Bowlen always wanted for the Broncos: to be in the Super Bowl hunt.

Bowlen would always enthusiastically and without hesitation pick the Broncos to win the title game in the coming year in what used to be annual postseason sit-downs. Bowlen liked star power. He liked success. He liked the Broncos to be at the front of the line.

The Broncos will hold their first training camp practice Thursday, the 31st training camp since Bowlen became the team’s owner. As Bowlen battles Alzheimer’s, those he put in place -- Ellis and Elway -- to run his team when he no longer could, might have assembled his best team, at least on paper, with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback in Peyton Manning.

Whether this team closes the deal like Elway did in 1998 and 1999 remains to be seen. But you can see Bowlen knew what the future held, and knew what he wanted his franchise to be.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Soon after John Elway was hired as the Denver Broncos' chief football decision maker, he used some of owner Pat Bowlen's money to demonstrate the importance the team would place on special teams.

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

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

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

Today: Specialists

How many coming to camp: Three.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that's exactly what the Broncos paid for.

Countdown to camp: Linebackers

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Von Miller was the first player drafted by the Denver Broncos in John Elway's tenure as the team's chief football decision-maker. Miller, at his best, has shown the potential to be in the conversation as the league's Defensive Player of the Year every year.

But Miller has also shown some immaturity, accumulating some off-the-field baggage along the way.

And while Miller says he has shed the troubles of last season and is re-committed to becoming one of the league's chief on-field disrupters again, it is Danny Trevathan who just may best represent Elway's vision of the Broncos' developmental curve over the long haul.

"I hope he feels that way, I hope he sees me as a success," Trevathan said. "I have big dreams. I had them coming in and I have them now and I feel like I can do the work to make them be and help this team win big games."

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsA sixth-round pick in 2012, Danny Trevathan has the look and work ethic of a future captain.
Despite the free-agency shopping spree of this past March, Elway has consistently said his plan for the Broncos in the long term is a draft-built team with the depth to survive a spate of injuries. He wants a team that can put itself in the title conversation "year after year" with an occasional free agent added to the mix "when we feel like there is a guy out there who can really add to what we build in the draft."

The Broncos certainly feature that approach at linebacker with Trevathan looking exactly like the home-grown gem that separates the teams that know what to do in the draft and those that don't. The sixth-round pick in 2012 was the defense's most consistent player last season with 129 tackles with 3 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and 2 sacks.

Trevathan looks poised for more this season and then some. Because of his get-after-it approach to go with his production, I believe he has the look of a future team captain. But overall the Broncos will likely feature three starting linebackers who were all drafted by the team in Miller, Trevathan and whoever wins the job in the middle between Nate Irving (third round, 2011) and rookie Lamin Barrow (fifth round, 2014).

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

Today: Linebackers.

How many coming to camp: 13.

How many will the Broncos keep: The 2013 season signaled a bit of a change from the two previous seasons. Last year the Broncos kept six linebackers as they exited the preseason with Miller having begun the year on a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

But when Miller returned to the lineup in Week 7 the Broncos kept the total at six linebackers. That was after they had kept seven linebackers in the initial cut to 53 players in 2012 and seven in 2011.

This year the Broncos seem intent on searching for depth, having invited 13 linebackers to camp. It's the same as the number of combined defensive linemen they have invited at two positions. Miller is still working his way back from ACL surgery and it's still a question as to whether or not he will be ready for his usual allotment of snaps when the regular season begins.

Miller is on track in his return and says he's dropped weight from last season, but the Broncos will play it safe with their Pro Bowl linebacker as they move through training camp and the preseason.

That may impact how many they keep here in the cut to 53, but the number almost certainly comes down at six or seven.

Break it down: The Broncos like their potential depth here and the battle for the final spots on the depth chart will be fierce. As will the potential battle for middle linebacker.

The Broncos have consistently lauded Nate Irving's work in the offseason, he worked as the middle linebacker with the starters in organized team activities and minicamp, but they have tried him in the middle before only to move on to other options. Irving has performed well as Miller's backup on the strong-side, but to stay in the middle he simply has to show he can consistently square up blockers in the run fits, shed and move to the ball.

In the past, including in college, he has tried to run around blocks and left running lanes in his wake that offenses have taken advantage of.

The Broncos will take a look at the athletic Barrow in the middle as well. Barrow was under-rated by many on this year's draft board for his ability to take on blocks and work toward to the ball. If Barrow shows the ability to play mistake-free, assignment football, he will make a significant push for the job. It will take Irving's best to hold him off when the decision is made.

In the end the Broncos want to find the guy who can man the middle in the base, which isn't the primary formation any longer, but also play along-side Trevathan in the nickel when Miller bumps down to defensive end. At minimum Barrow looks primed for that job, an important decision since the nickel is the formation the Broncos played the most last season.

But the scrap for the final spots with the likes of Steven Johnson, a quality special teamer, and Lerentee McCray, who was set to make the roster last season as undrafted rookie before an injury ended his season, as well as Shaquil Barrett, Jamar Chaney and Brandon Marshall, will bear watching.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is, publicly anyway, a rather understated guy when he talks about the players around him.

A “solid player’’ is a guy headed to the Pro Bowl. A “really, really solid player’’ is a guy who already has been to several Pro Bowls.

So when he says the Broncos’ defensive front “has some options we feel good about,’’ it really means if the Broncos have the good fortune of good health -- they certainly didn’t on defense in 2013 -- then Del Rio sees something a lot closer to the top five defense the Broncos sported in ’12 rather than last year’s middle-of-the-pack group.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Terrance Knighton
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)Terrance Knighton had sacks in three consecutive games last season.
“I think so, we’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of things,’’ defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “ … You always have to wait and see for sure when we all put the pads on and go at it. But I think there’s a lot of versatility in the group.’’

So much so, the position will feature some of the fiercest battles, not for starting jobs, but rather to simply carve out some playing time as Del Rio will routinely mix and match to fit a variety of down-and-distance situations.

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

Saturday: Defensive line.

How many coming to camp: 13.

How many will the Broncos keep: This position, and its place in the final roster count, has evolved at least some over the last three seasons. The Broncos kept 10 defensive lineman in 2011, the first season of the John Elway/John Fox regime as well as Dennis Allen’s only season as the team’s defensive coordinator.

Then in 2012, Del Rio’s first year with the team, they kept nine defensive linemen as they moved into the opening week of the regular season. Last season they kept eight on the roster.

They could get themselves to eight this time around as well, but to do that they would leave somebody behind who can contribute, if not for them, somebody else. Knighton and Sylvester Williams project as the starters at tackle, with Kevin Vickerson in the rotation. Mitch Unrein is a productive tackle who sees some spot duty on offense from time to time and played 148 special teams snaps last season.

The Broncos also see potential in Marvin Austin as well, a former second-round pick whose career has been derailed some by injuries. That’s five interior players right there.

DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe and Quanterus Smith will divide the snaps at end. Linebacker Von Miller has often dropped down to end in the team’s nickel and dime packages, so that impacts this group as well.

Jackson, who is one of the most efficient players in the league in terms of production in snaps played, and Wolfe move inside to tackle in some of the specialty packages as well. All in all, it projects to some tough calls when the cut to 53 players comes.

Break it down: Ware says he feels better than he has in more than two season and as a member of the league's 100-sack club, he certainly fits the profile Elway talks about when he says "I like to sign future Hall of Famers with chips on their shoulders.'' The Broncos will be creative with Ware. He figures to show up all over the formation, sometimes on the same side as Miller, something Del Rio did when he paired Miller and Elvis Dumervil.

Because Wolfe and Vickerson spent so much of the 2013 season out of the lineup because of injuries, the Broncos got extended looks at Jackson and Williams last season. Williams has shown the athleticism the Broncos hoped for when they made him the first-round pick in ’13, and he appears poised for a significant jump in production this time around.

Jackson has simply forced the team to find a place for him in the lineup. He consistently gets to the quarterback when he’s on the field.

Miller
Knighton is in a contract year and if he plays wire to wire like he did over last season’s stretch run, after Vickerson went to injured reserve, he’ll be a popular player on the open market. The Broncos believe Miller will be full-speed -- he’s coming back from ACL surgery -- before the season is too old so he will be in the mix on passing downs in the defensive front. The Broncos thought Smith showed himself to be ready for some snaps as well.

Del Rio believes the potential of playing time is a powerful lure, and he has consistently used a variety of players in a variety of specialty roles to get people on the field and allow the Broncos to adjust to what an offense is doing.

"I think the guys know if they show us the can help, we'll get them on the field," Del Rio said. "That keeps everybody engaged.''

So, he’ll use plenty of folks in the front this time around, and the battle to get on the field should keep things lively for these guys all through the season.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Former Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said the most difficult wide receiver corps to handle are those with the ability to move players around to go with that "no-doubt No. 1 guy."

The Broncos have that. The team’s football brain trust has given quarterback Peyton Manning plenty to work with, starting with that no-doubt No. 1 guy in Demaryius Thomas. Thomas leads a group that gives the Broncos versatility in their passing game to go with the ability to win one-on-one matchups all over the field.

If things go how the Broncos hope this season, folks could be hard pressed to find a better gathering, top to bottom on the positional depth chart, than the one in Denver.

As the days wind down before training camp opens, we continue our position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.

Today: Wide receivers

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos bolstered their receiver corps this offseason by signing Emmanuel Sanders to a three-year deal.
How many coming to camp? 11

How many will the Broncos keep? The Broncos have been consistent in this spot during the John Elway/John Fox era. They have had five after the roster cuts to 53 each of the past three seasons.

Though last year’s five may need some kind of asterisk since the fifth player at the position was returner Trindon Holliday. It was largely a four-player affair as Holliday played just four snaps on offense last season and finished the year with one rushing attempt for 7 yards.

This time around the Broncos can get to five receivers with players who each have capabilities and expectations to play regularly in the rotation on offense given the attention the position received in the offseason. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and free-agent signee Emmanuel Sanders will be the top three.

The Broncos re-signed Andre Caldwell just before the start of free agency and then used a second-round pick on Cody Latimer. Latimer, who is on schedule to be ready for the regular-season opener after fracturing a bone in his foot in a pre-draft workout in January, is squarely in the team's plans and Manning has already shown he has no qualms about throwing Caldwell the ball.

Latimer, in particular, was limited in the organized team activities (OTAs) as well as minicamp as he recovered, but he did offer glimpses of how adept he is at winning the ball in contested situations.

The question becomes whether the Broncos will keep a sixth receiver or a player at another position to be a returner. Undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse has potential but will have to show some significant pop in the preseason games to get the job.

Sanders can do it, but considering he's expected to play significant snaps on offense, the Broncos would prefer not to use him in that role, especially on kickoff returns. Ditto for Welker, who has fielded plenty of punts in his time in the league, but now carries some concerns over previous concussions.

Break it down: The defense got plenty of attention during the Broncos' free-agent signing binge with the additions of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. But one of the team's best free-agent signings might be Sanders.

The Broncos get a fast-twitch receiver who makes defenders miss once he has the ball. He can play outside or in the slot in a creative three-wide-receiver look. Sanders gets the opportunity to show what he can do in an offense that was the highest scoring in league history last season.

Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase has big plans for Sanders and there is plenty of draw-it-up potential to work the middle of the field with players like Sanders, Welker and tight end Julius Thomas working out of the slot. Sanders gets himself away from bump coverage well and the Broncos, after getting pushed around at times at the line of scrimmage last season by some of the more aggressive secondaries, want to make teams pay more for pressing the issue this time around.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In just more than a week, the Denver Broncos players will report to training camp to formally begin an arduous déjà vu trek from the most painful of lost football opportunities through a new season.

Last season the Broncos turned the crushing disappointment of a double-overtime playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season into a Super Bowl trip this past February. This time they have tried to excavate themselves from a 35-point Super Bowl loss and emerged from free agency and the draft in the on-paper discussion about title contenders.

“Every guy on this team knows what kind of team we have," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “Everybody knows what it will take to get where we want to go. If they don’t, they won’t be here."

So, now the plan becomes action. And over the next week we’ll take a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesThere's little doubt who'll be directing the Broncos offense this season, but the quarterbacks behind Peyton Manning are the real question marks.
Today: Quarterbacks.

How many coming to camp: 4

How many will the Broncos keep: In two of the previous three years of the John Elway/John Fox regime, the Broncos have had three quarterbacks on the opening-week roster -- 2011 and 2013.

Last season they kept rookie Zac Dysert on the roster for the entire season as well as the playoffs. Dysert, a seventh-round pick in in the 2013 draft, spent the season as what quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp calls "a young 'un" in the room with Peyton Manning. And in the end, if the Broncos saw enough from Dysert last season -- even through a pile of injuries on defense that saw five starters eventually go to injured reserve -- to keep him on the roster all year, it would seem to take a rather large change of heart this time around for the team not to keep three passers once again.

Elway, after all, has made preparing for the team's eventual life after Manning a priority on the depth chart.

However, because of players coming back from injury or switching positions, there will be a lure to keep an extra offensive lineman or defensive lineman and a return specialist this time around. If that is indeed the case, that roster spot may have to come from the luxury that is a No. 3 quarterback.

The guy to watch: Manning is the unquestioned alpha dog in the quarterbacks’ meeting room and the locker room overall. Monitoring his health over the course of the season, including arm strength, will mirror this team’s performance for the most part.

But the guy to keep a particular eye on is No. 2 quarterback Brock Osweiler. Because it’s time, in his third season, for Osweiler to repeatedly show proficiency and efficiency running the team’s offense in both practice and any gameday snaps he might get.

The Broncos like his work, his power arm, his approach and his confidence in the huddle as he has continued to show progress at almost every turn. Now it’s time for Osweiler to show the skills he does in some of the two-minute work he gets in practice on a more consistent basis. It's time for him to look more, well, ready. It will take a rather conflicted mix of patience and aggressiveness for him to keep his edge as he continues to wait for his turn, but that's exactly the line he must walk for a team that wants all its "what ifs" covered in a potential Super Bowl run.

Break it down: Even after hanging a single-season record 606 points on opposing defenses last season, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase did not go quietly into the good night of an offseason status quo.

No, the Broncos tweaked the playbook plenty as they look to be more efficient running the ball, even as they keep their foot to the floor in the passing game. Minicamp practices showed Gase has no intention of reeling things in.

They do, however, need to protect Manning better than they did in '13. He was sacked just 18 times last season, but while his anticipation and knowledge of defenses will always keep the sack totals down, the Broncos have to better limit the premium hits on Manning.

Those are the kind that force him to wear ankle braces, as he did last season, after several of those premium hits from Jacksonville and Indianapolis -- the kind that come when the Broncos can't hold the blind-side edge, but especially when they allow a rusher to warp the pocket in the middle of the field. The post-surgical Manning has a more lower-body-driven throwing motion and he needs slightly more room to step into the throw than he did before his spinal fusion. That makes those precious yards in front of Manning in the pocket the most prized real estate for players on both sides of the ball.

And those protection schemes will get a long look in training camp as the Broncos look to settle in on the lineup in front of Manning.
John ElwayPhoto by Kevin Reece/Getty Images
Score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Date: Jan. 25, 1998
Site: Qualcomm Stadium

We have a winner. The voters and I agree that The Helicopter is the Denver Broncos' most memorable play.

John Elway played quarterback for 16 seasons for the Broncos, started five Super Bowls, and was the winningest starting quarterback in NFL history when he retired following the 1998 season. He went 148-82-1 with 47 game-winning or game-saving drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.

For many, he will always be the face of franchise, now as the team’s top football decision-maker.

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And if Elway says his put-it-all-on-the-line dive for a first down in the Super Bowl is the favorite play of his career, as he has stated on several occasions, it’s probably worth a long look for any list, and it sits at the top of this one.

In terms of franchise context -- the context of Elway’s career before the play and what the play meant on the game’s biggest stage -- it is the most memorable play of all the plays the Broncos have run. It was Elway’s fourth career Super Bowl start, his career was in the homestretch, and a Super Bowl ring had eluded him to that point.

The Broncos -- with a passionate fan base that has produced an ongoing streak of multiple decades worth of sold-out home games -- had done plenty through the years, but had not won a Super Bowl since the team’s inception in 1960.

And with the title on the line and the game tied 17-17, Elway did what Elway had done so many times in so many situations; he turned trouble into football prosperity. But this time he hurled his then-37-year-old body at three Packers defenders to do it.

Tucked in the game’s play-by-play, it reads simply as an 8-yard run for a third-quarter first down. But for the players on the field with Elway, those on the sideline, the coaches who saw it unfold, and thousands of the team’s faithful who simply call it The Helicopter, it will always stand alone.

The late Mike Heimerdinger, the former Titans and Jets offensive coordinator who was a wide receivers coach in Denver at the time, once simply called it "probably the greatest thing I ever saw on a football field. You just knew when he started to run he was going to do it, and when he got up and went back to the huddle you just knew we were going to win that ring."
John ElwayPhoto by Kevin Reece/Getty Images
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This is the third of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. We have already featured Tom Jackson’s 73-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Denver Broncos' quest for the franchise’s first playoff spot in the 1977 seasons, as well as John Elway’s 18-yard completion to Shannon Sharpe on third-and-6 in the final minutes of the AFC Championship Game following the 1997 season.

Please vote for your choice as the Broncos’ most memorable play.

Score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Date: Jan. 25, 1998 Site: Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego

The underdog, wild-card Broncos and the heavily-favored Packers had taken their best swings at each other and were deep into the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXII, tied 17-17. Still in search of the first title of his Hall of Fame career, Elway had the Broncos moving during a possession that had begun at the Broncos' 8-yard line with 7 minutes, 46 seconds left in the third quarter.

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With Elway sprinkling in a well-timed pass or two, including a 36-yarder to Ed McCaffrey that had moved them into Packers' territory, the Broncos had used running back Terrell Davis’ 27 yards on six carries previously on the drive to get the ball to the Packers’ 12-yard line where they faced a third-and-6. The Broncos would have gladly taken a field goal at that point, but Elway knew the Packers had the NFC's top scoring offense in the regular season and a touchdown was needed.

Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan sent in a pass play, and when Elway initially dropped back he was looking for fellow future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. But the Packers had Sharpe, with safeties LeRoy Butler and Eugene Robinson, bracketed nicely with no room for Elway to fit the ball in.

And with the Packers' defensive front closing in, the then 37-year-old Elway had run out of options to do anything but, well, run.

Elway charged into what he has called "the first open space I kind of saw." After eight yards, three Packers -- Butler, Mike Prior and Brian M. Williams -- crashed into a leaping Elway, spinning the quarterback around, before he landed hard on the grass.

The Broncos had their first down, and two plays later they got their touchdown when Davis plowed in from the 1-yard line. And just more than a quarter later, the team and its best-ever player had their first championship.

It was a 13-play, 92-yard drive, pounded out on the game’s biggest stage, punctuated by what Sharpe has called "a 37-year-old quarterback throwing himself at the one thing he didn’t have in his career. You don't forget something like that."
Shannon SharpeTIM CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
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This is the second of three nominations for the most memorable play in Denver Broncos history. On Monday, we featured Tom Jackson's 73-yard interception return for a touchdown in 1977 to power the Broncos to their first Super Bowl trip and tomorrow we’ll feature Hall of Famer John Elway’s scramble in Super Bowl XXXII, known simply as the “helicopter play" to most of the team’s faithful.

Please vote for your choice as the Broncos’ most memorable play.

Score: Broncos 24, Steelers 21
Date: Jan. 11, 1998 Site: Three Rivers Stadium

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After a crushing playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars abruptly ended what was thought to be a Super Bowl run the year before, the Broncos entered the playoffs following the 1997 season as a wild-card team, having finished 12-4 and a game behind the 13-3 Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.

They arrived to the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh having already thumped the Jaguars 42-17 in the wild-card round to go with a survival-of-the-fittest 14-10 victory over the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round, a game former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has always called “the hardest-hitting game I’ve ever been a part of in the National Football League."

And with the clock on Elway’s career starting to tick loudly at this point, the Broncos certainly had their eyes on the prize.

After a 17-point second quarter gave the Broncos a 24-14 lead, the Steelers had narrowed the gap to 24-21 with just under three minutes to play -– the only score of the second half for either team -– and the Broncos needed a quality possession to wind the clock and close things out.

However, following the Pittsburgh score, the Broncos took over on their own 11-yard line with 2:46 to play. Elway hit Ed McCaffrey for a 6-yard gain on first down to move the ball to the Broncos' 17. Running back Terrell Davis was then thrown a for 2-yard loss on second down, which left the Broncos facing a third-and-6 from their own 15-yard line and the all-too-real prospect of handing the Steelers' quality field position if they did not convert.

Shanahan sent in a play the Broncos, according to Shannon Sharpe, had not practiced in weeks and was not part of the game plan the team had made to prepare for the Steelers. And Sharpe has said after Elway called the play in the huddle, Sharpe said to the quarterback, “We don’t have that play in."

Sharpe then asked Elway, “What do you want me to do?" Sharpe said Elway responded with words now in the team’s championship lore -- “Go get open."

Sharpe did, to the tune of a 18-yard gain before the Steelers’ Lee Flowers made the tackle. The Broncos ran four more plays to run out the clock and keep the opportunity of the franchise’s first Super Bowl win in their grasp.
Tom JacksonDenver Post/AP Photos
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Denver Broncos history. In the next two days, we’ll also feature: Hall of Famer John Elway’s 18-yard completion on a third-and-6 with two minutes to play in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 11, 1998 in Pittsburgh as the Broncos went on to earn the franchise’s first Super Bowl win two weeks later; and Elway’s scramble in Super Bowl XXXII, known simply as the "helicopter play" to most of the team’s faithful.

Please vote for your choice as the Broncos’ most memorable play.

Score: Broncos 27, Colts 13
Date: Nov. 27, 1977 Site: Mile High Stadium

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To sift through 53 years of plays to try to find three quality nominations for the most memorable play in Broncos history, some former players were polled, along with a former coach or two as well as the recently retired Jim Saccomano, a team employee of more than three decades. Fans also shared their thoughts on Twitter.

But the bottom line is the plays had to have some symbolism, the historical context that makes them important. And while Elway’s Hall of Fame career is an enormous presence in all the Broncos have done since their inception in 1960, Tom Jackson’s play has plenty of meaning, particularly for the Broncos of the Orange Crush era and even those who came before.

When the Baltimore Colts arrived in Denver for a Week 11 matchup between two 9-1 teams, the Broncos were a team that had never been to the postseason, in position for the franchise's first trip. The Broncos took a quick 14-0 lead on two touchdown passes from Craig Morton, only to see the Colts battle back to 14-13 on a Bert Jones to Bobby Mitchell touchdown pass with 11 minutes, 24 seconds remaining.

With Jones driving the Colts toward another potential score midway through the fourth quarter, the Colts quarterback tried to squeeze a pass to running back Don McCauley -- McCauley had 11 catches for 112 yards in the game -- but Jackson snatched the ball from the air and raced 73 yards for a touchdown. He tossed the ball into the stands after he had crossed into the end zone to extend the Broncos' lead with 7:20 to play.

Fellow Ring of Fame member Louis Wright added an interception later in the fourth quarter that led to another Broncos touchdown on the way to a 27-13 win. The victory went a long way toward giving the Broncos home-field advantage in the playoffs, and they went on to defeat the Steelers and Raiders in back-to-back weeks to earn a trip to Super Bowl XII.

It was the first of what is now seven trips to the league’s title game for the Broncos, including Super Bowl XLVIII to close the 2013 season.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos launched themselves into free agency earlier this year, many in the league were quick to compliment the team's salary-cap standing that enabled them to be so aggressive. And John Elway, the team's top football decision-maker, has routinely said he doesn't want to do so many things "that we're right up against the cap. We want to stay competitive, compete for world championships and that means handling ourselves in that arena, too."

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

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

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

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

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

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Jack Dempsey/AP PhotoAs Von Miller enters his fourth year in the league, the Broncos linebacker says he's focused on his opportunity to play football.
But what they all have in common is that more is expected of them than they could give, for a variety of reasons, in last season’s run to the Super Bowl.

Today: Linebacker Von Miller.

There is a theory in and around the Broncos about Miller, as the first draft pick of the Elway/John Fox regime gets set to enter his fourth season. And granted, the sample size is fairly small and all, but the bottom line is if folks see less of the 2013 Miller in the season to come, the more they’ll see the 2012 Miller.

And that's a good thing -- a potentially really good thing -- as one of the people with that opinion is Miller.

As he said during the team’s recent offseason workouts, “Last year, my body, I was great. I liked where I was. But it’s just experimentation. That didn’t work as well as I thought it would … It’s just experimenting. I think me being able to be lighter is just better for me."

As Miller returns from last December’s surgery to repair his ACL, the Broncos have seen at least two things that give them hope that Miller can return to his 18.5-sack form of 2012 when, if not for an otherworldly season from Houston defensive tackle J.J. Watt, Miller would have likely been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

First, the arrival of DeMarcus Ware, a steadying presence in both word and deed, has helped Miller. At least some of the other players in the locker room believe that to be the case.

Miller is immensely talented, but he has also wrestled with his immature, it’s-not-my-fault, I-do-what-I-want side, particularly last season with several off-the-field issues, including a six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He respects Ware, and Ware sees the potential in Miller.

Miller, by most accounts, has also been reliable, focused and well-intentioned in his rehab work and appears to understand that, as a player in Stage 3 of the league’s substance abuse program, he has less room for error than most when it comes to his football future.

And secondly, there’s just less of Miller. He’s far closer to the 255 pounds or so he was, as he works through his recovery with the team’s strength and conditioning staff, when he was among the league’s elite. Last season, having made the decision to get bigger as he tried to add more power to his game, Miller checked in following his suspension at about 270 pounds.

While he flashed his potential at times and affected offenses, he was not the explosive, have-to-block-him guy he had been the season before. He had five sacks in nine games in his return from his suspension before suffering his injury against the Texans. Or, as one of his former teammates said, "He went from special, really special, to just pretty good."

“I feel like my confidence has never swayed," Miller said recently. "I definitely have confidence in myself, and it never swayed, and I think that’s what’s gotten me to this point now, going through like the ACL and everything. You definitely question a lot of stuff, and you have to dig deep and realize what really makes you go. For me, it was just being able to have the opportunity to play football and have the opportunity to be the best and that’s what gets me going."

It all means the Broncos are tinkering with all kinds of plans for Ware and Miller in the pass rush, including some with the two on the same side of the formation as they did when they were drawing up ideas to use with Miller and Elvis Dumervil.

In the end, the proof will always be in how Miller conducts himself on and off the field, in whether he lives the words he has spoken about wanting to have more in his football career than he’s had, and that he understands the opportunity he has.

But it’s safe to say, as the Broncos have crossed their collective fingers to this point, they’ve liked what they’ve seen so far.

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