Denver Broncos: Knowshon Moreno

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In the end, the goal is likely somewhere between better and much better.

The Denver Broncos aren’t on a quest to take what was the league’s highest scoring offense in history and remake it into something it’s not. In these pass-happy times, the Broncos can chuck it around with the best of them.

Even after the Broncos scored 31 points in a season-opening victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the team has spent a lot of the past week discussing missed opportunities, dropped passes – they had five – and lost touchdowns – they said there were a few. And the Broncos also still want to run the ball better.

They don’t want to be a running team, but a passing team that runs it better when they want to.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Elsa/Getty ImagesMontee Ball rushed for 67 yards on 23 carries in the Broncos' season-opening victory over the Colts.
“The run game is a focus for us," said tight end Julius Thomas. “We have to run the ball efficiently, but if you’re running the ball well on third-and-short, it’s going to extend drives, so we’ll take that. But we’ll keep working."

After the Broncos cleared away the debris from a 35-point Super Bowl loss, they went into the offseason with adjustments to their run-game scheme/personnel on their minds. Knowshon Moreno was allowed to leave in free agency, Montee Ball was named the starter at running back, they moved one of their most physical linemen, Orlando Franklin, from right tackle to left guard and they tweaked some things they were doing on handoffs.

In Sunday’s opening act of the new season, Manning threw for three touchdowns, all in the first half. At times, the Broncos' passing attack looked every bit as dominant as last season, with Thomas having taken the next step as a player and Emmanuel Sanders fitting in quite nicely.

But as the Broncos now consistently talk about “efficiency" in the run game, they weren’t always able to reach their desired output. On first down, they had eight of their 18 carries gain one or fewer yards – four for no gain, one of 1 yard and one for minus-1 yard, all by Ball.

As a result of those runs and the down-and-distance situations they created, the Broncos then had just five second-down carries in the game and just three third-down carries. They did convert all three of those third-down carries for first downs, but all but eight of their rushing attempts in the game came on first down, and from a defensive standpoint, there is some predictability there.

“You have to focus on the plays that didn’t go so well," Ball said. “We’re going to carry the good plays to the next game. But from an individual standpoint, you want to focus on the bad plays where if you made a mistake, you can correct it and become better for the next team. For me, there are some holes out there that I missed. I’m looking forward to correcting them and getting better."

Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said Ball is “being a little hard on himself. He did a pretty job hitting them … A lot of times he’s doing what the scheme allows him to do."

It all presents an odd sort of riddle. The Broncos want to run better, but they score plenty already. The Broncos have scored at least 31 points in 24 of Manning’s 33 regular-season starts with the team.

They’ve also been committed enough to the running game to have run the ball at least 25 times in 23 of those games, including Sunday.

So they don’t necessarily want more, as in more carries; they still want, and need, better carries. They want it because they’re thinking big-picture, that they’re going to need it to get another shot at the title, to slam the door against a physical opponent, to win on a bad-weather day without surrendering who they believe they are.

“I think our history speaks for itself as far as we’re not one to pull off [the accelerator]," Gase said. “Are we working on some things, trying to run the ball a little bit? Yeah. We were still trying to throw it [Sunday]. We figured if we finished a few of those plays a little differently -- we had a third-and-3, had a drop. The guy falls down -- we catch that, that might be a 30-yard gain. So some things that didn’t go our way in that second half, but in no means will we ever pull off the gas. We’re going to try to score as many points until the clock is at zero."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning gets asked a lot about a lot of things.

He gets asked about his arm strength – he won’t go there, really -- but folks ask anyway. He gets asked about his neck, wobbly passes, touchdowns, all-time records, legacy, guys on his team, guys who used to be on his team, guys on other teams, guys who used to be on other teams, his brother(s), his dad, his family, New Orleans and if he considers himself a rapper.

And he’s asked about chemistry a lot. Not so much the carbon and life kind, but football. So when folks wonder where the Broncos can go on offense from the single-season record of 606 point the team set last year. The answer for Manning, at least in part, is in chemistry.

[+] EnlargeManning
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning is working on developing chemistry with the Broncos' new receivers in training camp.
“I think there is two kinds," Manning said. “I think there is after-the-snap chemistry where you’re understanding where (tight end) Julius (Thomas) is going to be on a certain route, and then there is before the snap, being sure that everybody knows the signals, knows the code words and all the pre-snap changes that we constantly make."

Those who know him say this is why people have never really heard Manning publicly bemoan practice, criticize the time spent in an offseason workout or rarely fail to stay after practices in this, his 17th NFL season. Because his deal, as the Broncos continue to plow through training camp with Manning having thrown in every practice, is chemistry.

“You want to be able to make adjustments as quickly as you can, have everybody be on the same page, because your main advantage on offense is you know where you’re going," Manning said. “So, it’s always going to be better if everybody knows where they’re going … I tell the story, but with Marvin (Harrison) we got to a point where we could change something when he came by me in motion and we could run it the way we had practiced it. That’s the chemistry that makes you productive because the goal is to score touchdowns and win games."

So while many personnel executives in the league look at a Broncos offense that could be more explosive, with Montee Ball at running back and Emmanuel Sanders to go with rookie Cody Latimer in the rotation at wide receiver, Manning sees chemistry as what will make the difference.

It’s why Latimer and Sanders have spent so much time with the quarterback after training camp practices, when most of the other players have already gone to the locker room. It’s why at times Ball will find himself standing next to Manning during practice and Manning will be diagramming some part of a play with his hands slicing through the air.

The Broncos work fast on offense, don’t huddle all that much and Manning has complete freedom to change plays, or parts of plays, as often as the play clock allows before the snap, often with a simple code word.

“That’s the part you adjust to," Ball said. “The football part -- running, catching -- you can do that. But with Peyton, in this offense, you have to be ready to adjust and you have to be where you’re supposed to be to make it work."

It’s also why, at times, folks on the outside might look at who’s playing and who isn’t and wonder why if the football trinity of height, weight and speed are the only considerations.

“It is not an easy offense to learn if you’re a receiver and for a young player or a veteran free agent, like Emmanuel here," Manning said. “ … It is not easy to learn, so the more we can rep it out here in practice, I think the better it gives them chances to see … let’s face it, the cerebral part of the game, to me, is just as important as the physical part of the game. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it is hard to put you in there.”

Last season Knowshon Moreno went from shaky roster spot to starting running back in a matter of weeks because he knew what he was doing more consistently than the other guys. When Ball showed he too could consistently make the adjustments and be where he was supposed to be down the stretch last season, the Broncos promoted him to the starter in offseason workouts and did not attempt to sign Moreno in free agency.

When the Broncos scouted receivers for this past May’s draft, they wanted size, speed and the ability to make a contested catch, but they also needed a receiver who could handle being a receiver in their offense, a player who could handle what Manning and the offense throw at him. The Broncos believe Latimer was that guy, so they took him in the second round.

“I know there is a time when their heads are swimming, I mean, mine was swimming right after I signed when I got the playbook," Manning said. “Nobody really wants to keep hearing it, but it takes time and repetition, and the payoff is having success in games. You get to see the work you did pay off and if it you didn’t put in the work, put in the time, you see that, too."

Or as former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley put it; “It’s not always the fastest, the strongest, or whatever -- it’s the guys who get themselves in the right place. You have to be athletic enough to play in the league, but to be everything you can be with Peyton, you have to be in the right spot every time. You do that and you’ll get the ball and do things everybody in this league wants to do."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When former Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno had scratched and clawed his way out of the depth chart doghouse to post his best season as a professional in 2013 (1,038 yards rushing and 60 receptions), running backs coach Eric Studesville said this:

Hillman
"I hope guys, young guys, older guys, anybody, look at what Knowshon did for himself, how he worked, how he carried himself to go from where he was to do what he did, and see that's exactly how you handle football adversity."

Well, consider the point taken. In a meeting room where no running back has played more than two seasons worth of games in the NFL, Ronnie Hillman was apparently paying attention.

While Montee Ball is this team's starter and the guy who will lug the rock much of the time, Hillman has the most potential to be a home-run hitter in the run game. Hillman's potential, though, has far outweighed his accomplishments.

Last year he was handed the first crack at the starting job in offseason workouts, but by the time the Broncos rolled into the regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens Hillman had just four carries in that game. By the eighth game of the season, Hillman was a game day inactive and eventually did not play in any of the Broncos' postseason games.

So it could be easy to be jaded about any uptick the Broncos say they see in Hillman's play because last season is still fresh in many people's minds. They've heard about potential before, heard what he could give to the offense.

"But I love what Ronnie has done," Studesville said. "From when we started this spring in April forward, he has been unbelievable. He's a completely different guy in the best possible way and I'm just excited about what he's doing, how he's approaching it, how he's making plays on the field. It's been great. It's been there the whole time, but we're finally seeing the maximum side of it. ... I didn't do a good job of bringing it out, but now we are, he's bringing it out."

During offseason workouts, offensive coordinator Adam Gase said the depth chart behind Ball was "wide open." Since the start of training camp, however, Hillman has been solidly No. 2 in the rotation. C.J. Anderson has nudged himself back into the No. 3 spot, for now, after losing about 20 pounds and rebounding from a sluggish performance in OTAs and minicamp. Rookies Juwan Thompson, Brennan Clay and Kapri Bibbs have also gotten some select carries in the No. 3 spot, while Thompson has had a few with the No. 2 offense in short-yardage work.

But it is an odd twist of fate and roster building that Hillman, who is entering his third season in the league after being a third-round pick by the Broncos in 2012, is the most experienced back on the team. Hillman has flashed his speed to the corner in the run game, the acceleration with a screen pass in his hands and far more willingness to dig in and take on a rusher in pass protection.

"Give a lot of credit to him," Studesville said. "For ... sitting back and looking at two years in the NFL, a talented guy who should be here, who's demonstrated he's got the ability to be here and wasn't playing for whatever reason. And he found a way to turn that around and turn our eyes around ... and we love what we're seeing."

Asked what he's learned along the way and Hillman has been quick to say "that you have to be accountable ... that I probably relaxed a little bit last year when maybe I shouldn't have. It won't happen again ... I come in here every day with a chip on my shoulder."

Hillman has also been savvy enough to add "you have to show it in how you practice and what you do in games. I want to make plays in games that help us do good things."
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.
Montee BallAP Photo/Jack DempseyMontee Ball enters training camp atop the running back depth chart.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- You can’t blame a guy with the football résumé Montee Ball has for feeling the way he does.

But Ball, who has been promoted to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart at running back for the Denver Broncos, thinks the ever-increasing reports of the demise of the NFL running back are premature. He believes there is plenty of room for some grind-it-out work, even in a fast-paced, throw-it-around, pass-first attack like the Broncos have.

“I’ve said it before, but I think it’s still a premier job -- to play running back in the NFL," Ball said. "I think there’s a role there, a job to be done that can impact the offense. It's needed."

The Broncos certainly agree, even with all they did with the ball in the air last season, and did not hesitate to clear the way to make Ball the starter this offseason. But the rest of the position group remains among the biggest questions on the Super Bowl hopefuls' depth chart.

And over the next week, we'll take a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.

Today: Running backs.

How many coming to camp: 7

How many the Broncos will keep: After dabbling with the idea of a fullback in recent seasons -- the Broncos even traded for one (Chris Gronkowski) in 2012 -- they did not carry one on the roster last season.

And while they have tinkered with the idea of Virgil Green lining up in the backfield as both a blocker and ball carrier, they do not have a true fullback on this roster either. They kept five running backs in 2011 and four in both ’12 and ’13.

It is a youthful group overall, with Ronnie Hillman, who is entering his third season, the most experienced player at the position. The Broncos figure to keep four when all is said and done in the preseason, but they don’t have much size -- just two of the seven backs in camp are heavier than 215 pounds -- so Green could become the de facto fourth back if they feel they need a roster spot elsewhere.

The guy to watch: Ball showed every reason the Broncos have promoted him into the lead role during offseason workouts. While the proof will always be in how things go when the pads are on, he showed good vision in the noncontact work, a comfort level as a receiver that showed he's moved past the limited work he did at Wisconsin in that part of an offense and an improved sense of where to be in pass protection.

He projects to have a big year. But the guy who could help the Broncos’ cause, as well, is the last guy to earn the offseason promotion to the top spot, and that’s Hillman, who didn’t keep the job until the end of training camp last year.

Hillman -- who came into the league as one of the youngest players in the 2012 draft, having played just two college seasons, including as a true freshman at San Diego State -- has plenty of talent. And from the Broncos’ perspective, he is their best home run threat at the position.

But plenty of folks don't always make the most of talent, and he didn’t approach things the way the Broncos had hoped last season. It showed in both his play and playing time, as he was even a game-day inactive at times last season. However, Hillman said all the right things this offseason and looked better on the field, as well, in recent months.

The Broncos need the potential pop he can give the offense, and if he doesn’t give it to them, that would be a hefty third-round pick who didn’t work out.

Break it down: The bottom line is the Broncos, because of the way they play offense out of a three-wide-receiver look much of the time, consistently see lighter formations with as few as six players in the box.

They didn’t always take advantage of that in the run game last season, especially in the red zone, and would like to this time around. That takes an offense that is already the highest scoring in league history and gives it an unnerving ability to close out games or score touchdowns when there isn’t much room for receivers to work. Knowshon Moreno had the best season of his career in 2013, but the Broncos came away believing they left a lot of rushing yardage on the table because they either didn't block those smaller formations well enough or run well enough if there was room to work.

Also, there is the matter of pass protection, and the guy who shows he’s the most consistent -- it’s how Moreno got, and kept, the top job last year on the way to 1,000 yards rushing and 60 receptions -- will be the guy who gets the third-down snaps or the second-and-long plays as well.

“Protecting Peyton Manning is huge, just huge," Ball said. “We all know that."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Perhaps it all boils down to the difference between more and better.

Because any rational person would have a difficult time saying the Denver Broncos' offense could do more in the coming season than it did in the last one. At least when it comes to touchdowns, league records and whoa-look-at-that explosiveness that were all in the Broncos’ jet wash last season.

The Broncos became the league’s first-ever 600-point team in 2013, had five different players score at least 10 touchdowns -- no other team in history had more than three -- and quarterback Peyton Manning set single-season records for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477). So to say more is in the offing in ’14, even with all the Broncos have done in the offseason, is borderline nuts.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Franklin
AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Broncos are hoping that Orlando Franklin's move to left guard will help improve the team's run game.
But better? Now that’s another matter.

"Oh yeah, we can be better. We can do some things better, we can make better calls, I can make better calls, I can get us in better situations," Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. "There are some things we’ve got our eyes on."

And one of those is a simple matter of physics. That when the defense gets smaller to defend the Broncos’ high-wire passing game, the Broncos have to find a way to pound away better, more efficiently, in the run game.

No, the Broncos aren't moving toward some outdated idea, at least in these pass-happy times, that balance on offense means some kind of 50-50 split between run and pass. The Broncos were about at a 58-42 split in pass plays to runs last season, and with Gase a 60-40 split will likely be the starting point to any discussion about "balance."

But the Broncos do want, when the opportunity presents itself, to run the ball better against the vast array of smaller defensive personnel groupings in front of them. It’s not complicated -- the Broncos play out of a three-wide receiver set much of the time, about three-quarters of the time this past regular season, closer to 90 percent in the postseason.

That means they face defenses' specialty packages, with primarily with five or six defensive backs, most of the time. Formations that also include smaller, quicker defensive fronts as well.

So much so that last season when the Broncos handed the ball to their No. 1 back, Knowshon Moreno, he was running against six or fewer players in the box on 80 percent of his carries. Moreno finished the year with his first 1,000-yard campaign, but at 4.3 yards per carry against those lighter defensive groupings, the Broncos saw room for improvement as the team's yards-per-carry average overall was 4.1.

And that’s why when it came time to make decisions, the Broncos didn’t offer Moreno a deal in free agency -- he signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins and will miss the next month or so after arthroscopic surgery. Instead they moved Montee Ball into the starting role and shifted Orlando Franklin to left guard, a move that gives Denver perhaps the biggest guard tandem in the league.

Even when they were thinking about their passing game, like when they used a second-round pick on wide receiver Cody Latimer, as the Broncos lauded Latimer’s combination of size and speed, they still had some visions of the run game dancing in their heads, as John Elway also called Latimer the "best blocking wide receiver in the draft."

A big part of the foundation of Manning’s play in an offense has always been the play-action passing game, but the run game must be a threat for that to work as defenses must believe the ball will actually end up with the running back. And when Gase talks about the touchdowns the Broncos left unscored last season, it’s often because they couldn’t find a way to get the ball into the end zone from inside the 5-yard line.

For example, Broncos kicker Matt Prater made three 19-yard field goals in 2013 -- two in the regular season, one in the AFC Championship Game. In all three cases the Broncos had failed to convert third-and-goal plays from their opponents’ 1-yard line, and in all three cases the field goal followed an incomplete pass.

The Broncos don’t want to be anything close to a run-first team, but they want to be a run-when-they-need-to team to close out games and to help keep the offense’s biggest asset -- Manning -- out of harm’s way by slowing down opposing pass-rushers.

"Any time an offense is balanced, it means they’re running the ball pretty well," guard Louis Vasquez said. "And that’s a focus for us this year."

"We’re always going to try to get the best look, to do the best thing in each situation for the offense to be successful," Gase said. "The more things we can do, the more options we have. We want to be able to execute the plays we want in those situations. If that’s throwing, that’s throwing the ball, if it’s running, then we want that available, too."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever John Elway describes the developmental process, the Denver Broncos’ chief football decision-maker will routinely offer, “We don’t draft All-Pros, we have to make them.’’

Over the course of the next week, we’ll take a glimpse at a few key players on the Broncos' depth chart 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 and 2013 ended with an injury for others.

But what they all have in common: More is expected of them than they could give, for a variety of reasons, in last season’s run to the Super Bowl.

Today: Running back Montee Ball

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsMontee Ball emerged in the second half of his rookie season.
There is no place on the roster where the Broncos have put the fate, and faith, of a position group into the hands of young, homegrown players any more than they have at running back.

Sure, they could still take a look at a high-odometer veteran later this summer if they don't like what they see in training camp, but right now it’s Ball leading a group of youngsters that includes three players who were undrafted rookies and one, C.J. Anderson, who made the roster last year as an undrafted rookie. Ronnie Hillman, who is entering his third season, is the most experienced player in the group.

But the starting job is Ball’s to keep, which is exactly what the plan was when the Broncos selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft. They saw a potential lead back with the smarts and toughness to learn the rest of what’s needed in their offense.

For the Broncos, it isn’t enough to simply run the ball and look good doing it. That helps, but a back has to be savvy enough to understand pass protection and willing to put himself between a charging linebacker or defensive end and quarterback Peyton Manning. That's because the Broncos open up the formation the majority of the time, so that can leave a running back to clean up a mess from time to time if a rusher gets free.

Ball missed one such block in the preseason, against the Seattle Seahawks, and linebacker Bobby Wagner leveled Manning. At that point, Knowshon Moreno went from a veteran with a potentially shaky roster spot to the No. 1 back, a guy who finished the season with 1,000 yards rushing and 60 receptions. Moreno was the most reliable in pass protection, so Moreno got the most opportunity to, in turn, run with the ball.

But Ball didn’t protect much at Wisconsin and didn’t catch the ball much, either -- as he put it recently, “We threw the ball like every three weeks’’ -- and the Broncos knew it was going to be a work in progress. However, Ball is smart and has consistently worked with Manning to fill in the gaps.

He showed quality hands in recent workouts, even making some over-the-shoulder catches in red-zone team drills, and Manning consistently showed he was willing to throw to Ball in a variety of down-and-distance situations, a key hurdle of trust for any player in the team’s offense.

As far as running the ball, the Broncos didn’t make Moreno any sort of offer to stay in free agency -- Elway said the team would look to bring Moreno back if Moreno didn’t find anything in the opening weeks of free agency -- because of what they saw from Ball as the 2013 season progressed.

Take fumbles. Ball lost the ball three times in the team’s first 11 games, including a fumble in the overtime loss in New England in the 11th game, but did not lose it again down the stretch or in the Broncos’ three postseason games.

And after pounding Moreno at the Patriots defense 37 times to the tune of a career-best 224 yards in that overtime loss, the Broncos split the carries much of the rest of the way. In the last eight games, Ball had 73 carries and Moreno had 96.

Ball also became more efficient in the running game as the season wore on and, as he got more carries, he produced more big runs. In the first eight games of the season, he had just two carries that gained more than 10 yards -- or 3.6 percent of his 55 carries over the first eight games. In the season’s second half, he had 11 of his 65 carries -- 16.9 percent -- gain more than 10 yards.

While the Broncos didn’t create much room in the postseason for the big-play run as they lined up almost exclusively in their three-wide receiver set and Moreno had all four of the team’s postseason carries that gained more than 10 yards. The team liked the way Ball was trending in the second half of the season. They will believe that will be the norm moving forward, rather than the exception.

And while they aren’t looking for some 300-carry running back to lug it around as the lead guy, they want to run the clock when they need to and close things out when they have the chance. That’s Ball, with one or two of the other youngsters spelling Ball and playing the change-of-pace role.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –- When John Elway was asked in recent weeks what he believed the most important part of his job was as the Denver Broncos’ chief football decision-maker, he said it was the salary cap.

And the draft. And the team’s depth chart. And free agency.

Basically he lumped it all together, filed it all under one heading when he said, "I think it’s about trying to stay two steps ahead … to see what we need to do now and how it affects us down the road. To be prepared to do what it takes to keep the Denver Broncos competitive and operated the way [owner] Mr. [Pat] Bowlen wants the team to operate."

Which is exactly why the Broncos have at least started the wheels in motion on new contracts for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas. Both are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents after whatever becomes of the 2014 season, which makes them two of the most important steps the team will try to take on the contract front.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Tim Rasmussen/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDemaryius Thomas has emerged as one of the NFL's elite receivers since Peyton Manning's arrival in Denver, finishing each of the past two seasons with over 1,400 receiving yards and double-digit TDs.
That certainly isn’t a surprise given it’s exactly what Elway said in the days that followed the Broncos’ loss in Super Bowl XLVIII that the team planned to do and what he reaffirmed at the league meetings in March. But since the start of their offseason program, they have begun to start talking at least in general parameters for Julius Thomas and have advanced at least far enough in talks with representatives for Demaryius Thomas that an initial five-year offer has been placed on the table.

The Broncos, as well as the players, are likely looking at roughly a six-week window to finish any deals. Neither side is looking to do anything once training camp starts the clock on what all involved hope is another Super Bowl season. The Broncos' players will report on July 23, and the team will have its first practice on July 24.

To sign either Thomas now, however, the Broncos would have to put enough on the table to entice each to skip a potentially lucrative trip into the open market. But these two are high-priority players on the Broncos’ docket, so much so that the team, at least in part, didn’t make an offer to its own free agents earlier this year, including guard Zane Beadles, running back Knowshon Moreno and wide receiver Eric Decker, simply to be in a position to work toward deals for the two Thomases.

There is no reason to believe the Broncos won’t have to make Demaryius Thomas one of the highest-paid receivers in the league to keep him off the open market. That neighborhood is just north of $12 million per year, given the deals Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin and Mike Wallace have signed.

And there is the fact Thomas is the only wide receiver in the league to have finished this past season with at least 1,400 yards, 90 catches and a 15 yards per catch average. He’s physical enough to run through tackles, makes catches in a crowd and is fast enough to, as defensive coordinators say, take the lid off a defense deep.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsTight end Julius Thomas averaged 12.1 yards per catch last season.
Thomas also led all NFL receivers last season with almost 700 yards' worth of yardage after the catch. At the moment, Thomas carries the eighth-highest salary-cap figure on the team for ’14 at $4.7 million; Wes Welker has the biggest cap figure at receiver for the upcoming season at $8 million. A new deal certainly would move Thomas up the ladder, possibly past everybody else except quarterback Peyton Manning.

The Broncos, who are still under the cap with their top 51 salaries, would have to adjust some to squeeze a new deal for Demaryius Thomas under the $133 million bar. Their top 51 salaries -- teams don’t have to be under with all 53 contracts until final roster cuts just before the start of the regular season -- come in at just over $132 million at the moment.

So, to do deals for Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas would require some legitimate salary-cap work to get it all done.

The Broncos do have the option -- one that certainly has been discussed extensively internally -- to sign one of the players before the 2014 season and then use the franchise player tag on the other one just before free agency begins next offseason.

The franchise tag for a wide receiver for 2014 was $12.312 million, and at tight end it was $7.035 million -- those deals would be for one year and are guaranteed from the moment the player signs them. But given as much as Julius Thomas is lined up in the slot and out wide, it’s likely he would take the same stance New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has taken, that he should be considered as a wide receiver when it comes to salary and not a tight end.

In the end, though, when it comes to the players the Broncos want to keep or sign from elsewhere, Elway and the Broncos' salary-cap guru, Mike Sullivan, have set players’ values and stuck to those numbers, whether it was by handing those players a deal or letting them move on to try to get more elsewhere. But to this point in his tenure, Elway has routinely closed the deals he wants to close.

And he said he wants to close these two, but it just might have to be one offseason at a time to get them both.
No team in NFL history scored more points in a season than the Denver Broncos did in 2013. The 606 points made them the first offense in the league to top the 600-point barrier.

And in an unheard of distribution they had five players who scored at least 10 touchdowns. No team had ever had more than three players reach the 10 touchdown barrier.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Lyons/Getty ImagesProtecting Peyton Manning -- and cutting down on his fumbles lost -- was emphasized in the offseason.
In short, the Broncos were ruthlessly efficient when they had a chance to score touchdowns. Yet as they take the field this week for their first full on-field team workouts of a new season, they are still left to wonder what could have been.

Had they taken care of the ball better, the numbers would have been even more staggering. Sure they could have run the ball more efficiently and protected their prized quarterback better.

But the bottom line is the Broncos need to go back to the most basic of basics: They need to hold onto the ball.

"We have to do a better job as a group with that," said Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "That was a big downfall for us early, where the ball was on the ground way too much. It's almost two seasons in a row and we have to address that right away. We've got to be so much better as far as holding onto the ball as a group."

Those numbers are almost just as startling from last season. The Broncos led the NFL in lost fumbles in 2013 with 16 in a year when no other playoff team had more than 10.

Quarterback Peyton Manning, whose grip was somewhat affected by his spinal fusion surgery, led the team with six lost fumbles. But Manning only had two lost fumbles in 2012, his first season with the Broncos, and Denver has tried to address protection issues up front this offseason.

Left tackle Ryan Clady will return to the lineup after missing all but two games with a foot injury and Orlando Franklin has been moved from right tackle to left guard to try and bolster the Broncos' protection schemes on Manning's doorstep. If they can limit the clean hits in the pocket on Manning, his fumble total should be closer, the Broncos hope, to his 2012 work.

Gase has said ball security will be addressed right from the start with the team's running backs -- the running backs had four lost fumbles last season, three by Montee Ball. Ball did not lose a fumble following the Nov. 24 loss in New England. But the Broncos need Ball to get close to Knowshon Moreno's performance.

Moreno, who was allowed to leave in free agency, did not lose a fumble last season in 241 carries as well as 60 receptions.

The Broncos' wide receivers can do their part as well. Despite all of the quality work the Broncos did in the passing game last season, their top receivers dropped more than their share of passes as well.

Granted, the Broncos were second in pass attempts last season -- the Cleveland Browns were first -- so more opportunity certainly could lead to more drops. But their top three receivers -- Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker dropped a combined 20 passes.

Video review showed Welker was near the top of the league with nine drops, while Decker had six drops on in-frame passes -- another drop could have been added if a more liberal approach was taken -- and Thomas had five drops. Decker and Welker each had games with three drops and overall the Broncos had two games with at least six dropped passes in the regular season -- six against Tennessee and seven against New England.

Emmanuel Sanders will replace Decker in the team's three-wide look this year and the Broncos used a second-round pick on wide receiver Cody Latimer in the draft earlier this month. And most teams had Latimer as one of the most reliable receivers catching the ball in this year's draft class -- one of Latimer's coaches at Indiana was quoted as saying Latimer may have had just one drop last season in practice or in a game.

"That's always one of my emphases, just to catch the ball, that's why I play receiver," Latimer said. "You don't want to waste any passes. That's the emphasis we had. My coach, we kept track of drops and he always let me know, 'You didn't have any drops,' or, 'You dropped this,' but it wasn't many. So it was just something we focused on as receivers."

"I think you're always going to feel like you left some points out there sometimes, even with what we did," is how Thomas put it. "We can always be better."

In the end, with Manning back at quarterback, with Sanders adding some elusiveness and athleticism in the offense, with an offseason to tinker with all that they did last season, there is no reason to believe the Broncos should be one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league once again.

But if they take care of the ball better than they did last season, they'll pick up some of the points they left behind.

Broncos offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
May 23
10:00
AM ET
» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Denver Broncos' offseason moves.

Ware
Best move: The Broncos dove into free agency with purpose and handled their draft board with discipline, but the best move was a Canton repeat of sorts for football boss John Elway. When Elway signed quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012, he said: “I like to get Hall of Fame players with a chip on their shoulders."

Elway repeated that phrase this past March, when the team signed defensive end DeMarcus Ware. The former Cowboy, set to enter his 10th season, is coming off an injury-marred year in which he finished with a career-low six sacks.

But this is a 100-sack player over his career who has missed just three games in the past nine years. The Broncos' defense -- in addition to their locker room -- is far better with him in it.

Riskiest move: First, the Broncos let their leading rusher, Knowshon Moreno, test the market. Frankly, any offer Moreno would get from another team was going to be more than anything the Broncos would have considered.

Ball
Then, Denver let seven rounds of the draft pass without selecting a running back. And while the Broncos still have Manning at quarterback, their running back depth chart has a significant dropoff after Montee Ball. Especially if Ronnie Hillman can’t regain his momentum -- at least at the moment -- as the team's primary backup. It’s also why running backs Kapri Bibbs and Juwan Thompson -- both undrafted rookies -- have a legit chance to make the roster.

Most surprising move: The Broncos had worked toward getting an agreement with free-agent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as the offseason got underway. Proposals and counter-proposals were made, and at one point the Broncos put forth an offer they thought was as high as they were willing to go -- $54 million over six years. The deal was really more like three years, $24 million, with Rodgers-Cromartie unlikely to see the final $30 million unless he was on the roster.

Talib
Talib
Rodgers-Cromartie balked and the Broncos moved on. The team moved so quickly that in the space of roughly four hours, Aqib Talib went from not hearing from the Broncos to agreeing to terms on a six-year deal with the team.

Get ready: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was the last of the top-tier free agents to sign with the Broncos in the initial wave of spending in March.

But Sanders, who can play on the outside or in the slot and is explosive after the catch, projects for a career year in this offense. Already in workouts, Manning has commented on Sanders' explosiveness and how the Broncos will be creative to get their newest wideout the ball.
The fine folks at ESPN's Stats & Information group have confirmed what many have long thought about the 2009 NFL draft.

There were many scouts and personnel folks in the league who didn't like what they saw on that draft board in the weeks and month before they had to make those picks and they've all tried to dig out of it over the five drafts since.

Turns out their instincts were right with the benefit of some quality hindsight.

Of the 256 players selected that year, there are almost as many out of the league -- 122 -- as there are still on one of the 32 teams -- 134. However, just 38 of 256, or a not-so-sizzling 14.8 percent, remain on their original teams.

For the Broncos, the grand total of 2009 players selected in the 10-player draft class who still has a spot on the depth chart is one. As in safety David Bruton, the first of two fourth-round selections that year.

And while that was clearly a difficult draft board for the entire league to figure out, it was a dismal year for the Broncos since they had more premium picks in it than they've had in any draft since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

The Broncos had five selections in the draft's top 64 picks that year, two first-round picks and three second-round picks. Handled the right way, it should have been the foundation of what they have now, but none of those five top 64 picks remain with the team and of those five only running back Knowshon Moreno started more than 10 games in multiple seasons.

Moreno just had his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2013 to go with 60 receptions in the Broncos' high-flying offense. It was easily his best overall season with the team, but concerns over his long-term health -- he had multiple knee procedures, including to repair a torn ACL, to go several other soft-tissue injuries in his time in Denver -- led to the Broncos to decide not to re-sign him in free agency. Moreno signed a one-year deal in Miami.

Robert Ayers, taken at No. 18 overall that year, had the same number of sacks in 2013 -- 5.5 -- as he had in his first four seasons combined, including none as a rookie when the Broncos tried to fit him into their 3-4 defense under Josh McDaniels. The Broncos let Ayers sign elsewhere, too, and he signed with the New York Giants earlier this year.

McDaniels used a second-round pick (No. 64 overall) on Richard Quinn, a tight end who had all of 12 receptions in his career at North Carolina. McDaniels' hope Quinn would be a factor as an on-the-line blocking tight end simply never materialized at any point after Quinn arrived.

McDaniels also traded a first-round pick, in 2010, to move up in the second round to select cornerback Alphonso Smith and then traded Smith, to the Detroit Lions, a year later. And safety Darcel McBath (No. 48 overall) showed some potential, but had injury issues with the Broncos and ended up playing in a Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers with just one career start in the league.

It is a draft that has left a substantial hole in the Broncos' developmental plans to be sure, but the Broncos can take heart there. They were obviously not alone.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Montee Ball is a smart young man. With level-headed consideration, he fully understands his place on the Denver Broncos’ depth chart and in the offensive plans at the moment.

But then again, with running back Knowshon Moreno now in Miami, and Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson the only other backs on the roster with an NFL carry on their resumes, it doesn’t exactly take mind-bending calculus to do the math. And that’s fine with the Broncos, who selected him in the second round of last April’s draft to be a starting running back.

"I know for a fact they're not going to hand it to me, they're going to make sure we all get our opportunities throughout camp and throughout OTAs … but it’s going to be who’s the most productive," Ball said. "But for me, my mentality is that it is my job."

Ball also said Moreno’s departure was "a great opportunity for me and the other running backs to step up to the plate."

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsMontee Ball's Denver teammates say that they were impressed with the running back's development in 2013.
That said, however, Ball already knows first-hand what being tabbed a starter in April really means in the framework of how things go when the games actually get played. Last season the Broncos spent most of their offseason work with Hillman, a third-round pick in the 2012 draft, installed as the starter at running back, with plenty of plans built for Hillman's big-play potential.

But even as training camp opened, the Broncos had not seen all they wanted from Hillman. They thought he got a little too comfortable with the idea, so they were giving a long look to Ball in the lead role, as well. But when Ball missed a blitz pickup in a preseason loss in Seattle and quarterback Peyton Manning took a vicious hit from linebacker Bobby Wagner, it was Moreno who started to get more and more work in the offense.

And that’s the way it stayed as Moreno topped 1,000 yards rushing to go with 60 receptions. For his part, Ball, after some early fumble troubles -- he lost three fumbles in the team’s first 10 games -- settled in nicely in his rookie year.

He didn't lose the ball the remainder of the season and finished with 559 yards rushing and four touchdowns. His 4.7 yards per carry was the best among the team’s top three ball carriers, as well. All a big enough taste for Ball to want more.

"I don't want them to bring another running back in," Ball said. "I want it to be my job and that’s how I'm approaching it, in the most humble way possible. Like I said, I understand they're not going to hand it to me, but I'm going to work really, really hard to contribute."

Ball has already received a key vote of confidence, as Manning has already endorsed Ball’s readiness for the job, having said earlier this month that Ball has “the work ethic" and “mental capabilities to handle the workload."

And in the Broncos’ offense, there's a lot more on the to-do list than simply lugging the rock. There’s protecting Manning from those extra rushers, working as a receiver, and there is the ability to adjust to the inevitable changes at the line of scrimmage when Manning has the pedal to the metal in the team’s no-huddle look.

Ball’s ability to adjust and grow quickly last season didn't escape his teammates.

"How well he learned," said tight end Julius Thomas on Wednesday when he was asked what he noticed most about Ball as a rookie. "… He picked it up well, he focused on what his job was."

While the Broncos will give a long look to the running backs on the draft board next weekend in the second round and beyond, Ball’s emergence is the most important part of the Broncos’ efforts to find more efficiency in the run game. With Manning behind center and new arrival Emmanuel Sanders expected to add some pop in a passing attack that already includes Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas, as well as Wes Welker –- all three have been Pro Bowl selections in their careers –- the Broncos aren’t looking to make their offense some kind of grind-it-out affair.

But depending on the run shouldn't be an issue for the Broncos, either. With the move of right tackle Orlando Franklin inside to left guard, and with All-Pro Louis Vasquez already at right guard, Denver should be able to create more space in the middle of the field against defenses deployed in lighter nickel and dime packages to combat the Broncos’ three-wide receiver look. Last season, about eight of every 10 carries for Moreno went against formations with six or fewer players in the box, something Ball and the Broncos would expect again.

"[I've] got to take what the defense gives you every play," Ball said. "It’s not going to be a 30-yard run, a 20-yard run every play like it was at Wisconsin. Sometimes it’s going to be a 2-yard, 3-yard run …

"A lot more patience, a lot more patience. You can’t be greedy … You’ve got to trust your blocks, allow the play to develop and trust the scheme."
When Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball arrives Monday morning for the start of the team’s offseason conditioning program, he can expect to carry the expectations of being a starter as he goes about his business.

A task the guy who will hand him the ball in the coming season -- quarterback Peyton Manning -- says Ball is ready to handle. Manning said Wednesday morning, before he made an appearance as the keynote speaker at a fundraising breakfast for the Boy Scouts in Denver, he believes Ball has prepared himself for the job.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Jack DempseyBroncos running back Montee Ball returned to practice Tuesday, participating in individual drills in his first on-field workout since undergoing an appendectomy Aug. 4.
"There is no question with the loss of Knowshon [Moreno] -- who was just nothing short of awesome for us this past year and was a great teammate -- that Montee is going to have more responsibilities, and I think he will answer that challenge," Manning said. "I think he has the work ethic, I think he has the mental capabilities to handle the workload and I look forward to having a full offseason with him."

Ball, who finished his rookie season with 559 yards rushing and 20 receptions, will be asked to fill the significant role Moreno played in the offense last season. Moreno led the team with 1,038 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, to go with 60 receptions.

Moreno, who signed a one-year deal in Miami, was also the most consistent player in pass protection the Broncos had and that was ultimately why Moreno moved into the starting role last season. The Broncos had used Ronnie Hillman (a third-round pick in 2012) as the No. 1 back through their offseason work last spring and summer, and had begun to take a look at Ball (a second-round pick last April) during training camp for that role as well.

But then Ball missed a blitz pickup in the Broncos’ preseason loss in Seattle, and Bobby Wagner blasted Manning in what was one of the biggest hits Manning has taken in his tenure in Denver. Moreno’s snap count kept increasing following that game and neither Ball nor Hillman could unseat Moreno once the regular season began.

Ball also lost three fumbles in the first 11 games, but showed steady improvement. He didn’t fumble the rest of the way, and the Broncos had slotted him in as the potential starter since season’s end.

"I thought Montee had a great year, I thought he learned a lot in his first year," Manning said. "In my past, I’ve seen a lot of development in guys from their first year to their second year … I look forward to getting even closer with him as far as being on the same page."
The gap in the Denver Broncos roster attributable to the poor 2009 and 2010 drafts got a little bigger in recent weeks and continues to impact how the team is constructed.

It's tough to "stack the drafts" -- John Elway's description of what the foundation of the Broncos' roster must look like – when a couple of the bricks are missing. And a couple of the bricks are still decidedly missing on this Broncos' roster. By the virtue of cuts even before the Elway/John Fox regime came on the job in 2011 and the decisions made since, just two players remain from those drafts of the combined 19 players selected.

And just one of the two -- wide receiver Demaryius Thomas -- is a full-time starter with a Pro Bowl or two on his resume. Safety David Bruton, the special teams captain in 2013, is the other.

The rest? They either didn't make it out of their first camp -- Blake Schlueter -- even before the Broncos were again a playoff team, didn't become starters (players like Richard Quinn, Seth Olsen, Eric Olsen and Jammie Kirlew) or are players the Broncos elected not to pursue when they hit free agency like this year's group of Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno and Zane Beadles.

Even this past season Thomas, Decker and Beadles were the only players among the 19 selected in those two drafts who were also starters from start to finish.

Players from the 2009 draft would have just completed their fifth season and would be entering their sixth year. Players from 2010 would be headed for their fifth season. These players should be the homegrown foundation of the current Broncos roster and should have been for the last two seasons.

Granted, there is always plenty of turnover after a regime change. One set of players may no longer fit what's needed on one side, or both sides of the ball. But the group of 19 was sorely lacking in star power even before 2011 when Elway and Fox were hired.

Time will tell if the Broncos have stacked the drafts any better over the last three years. But their aggressive dive into free agency in recent weeks that included a cornerback, a defensive end, a wide receiver and a safety, can be traced in part to the state of the cupboard after the 2009 and 2010 drafts played out.

That is especially true in the secondary where the Broncos took three cornerbacks and two safeties in those two drafts combined. Only Bruton remains from that total and not one of the five players was a full-time starter with the Broncos.

Sure, it gets tougher for draft picks to make a roster if the team is annually in the playoffs. But in order to survive in the salary cap era without having to crater the roster to re-calibrate things, the draft has to be the hub of the wheel. And if a roster is essentially missing two years' worth picks over a five-year span, then well, they have to spend money, a lot of money, to try and fix those mistakes.

Just ask Broncos owner Pat Bowlen.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Denver Broncos aren't in a rush to sign any more checks in free agency.

But they do have their eyes, and minds, open when it comes to players still on the market. John Elway, the team's executive vice president of football operations and general manager, wouldn't rule out the return of some of the team's free agents. In particular, he said he would be willing to consider running back Knowshon Moreno and defensive end Shaun Phillips.

Both veterans are unsigned and would have to accept their roles with the Broncos if they came back.

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
Aaron Ontiveroz/Getty ImagesWould Knowshon Moreno be willing to return to Denver in a reserve role?
"I'm still open to that," Elway said at the NFL owners meetings. "You look at the impact from a lot of different ways as in what role they would have on our team, but it is something I would consider in both those cases."

Moreno, who led the Broncos last season with 1,038 yards rushing to go with 13 total touchdowns and 60 receptions, would have the most significant adjustment in any potential return. He just finished his fifth season with the Broncos and was the team's No. 1 back.

But the Broncos have moved Montee Ball to the top of the depth chart as they work to improve their run game. If Moreno returns, it would be with the understanding, barring an injury, that it would be in a reserve role.

"With a guy like Knowshon, who was the starter and would have to come back in a different role, we would look at how he would handle that," Elway said.

On the other hand, the Broncos signed Phillips as a rotational option in their pass rush. He received a one-year deal during the weekend of last April's draft with the idea that he could give them some pop on pass-rush downs.

But then Phillips was forced to play far more than originally intended because of injuries and suspensions up front. Von Miller was suspended six games to open the season before suffering a season-ending ACL injury in December. And Derek Wolfe had an illness that put him on injured reserve.

Phillips played 770 snaps on defense in the regular season, or 68 percent of the team's plays. If Phillips is still on the market later in the offseason, Elway said he would want to know whether Phillips would return to the Broncos in a situational role.

"Shaun was really signed as a rotational-type guy last year, and we'd be looking to see if he would play that same role," Elway said. "The thought process with Shaun is we'll see how things go, but I'd like to have him back. But it's a matter of who's out there and what opportunities he has, too."

The Broncos have added DeMarcus Ware at defensive end in free agency and have 2013 draft pick Quanterus Smith coming off injured reserve. The Broncos will look at this year's draft class for edge rushers, too.

The Broncos have about $5.9 million in salary-cap space remaining after signing Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and Andre Caldwell. They need to leave some room for players who eventually end up on injured reserve as well as the draft class and any potential moves they want to make during the season.

"We're still in good shape with the cap, we just know it's too early," Elway said. "There's going to be bumps in the road as we go ahead, and I just want to be able to be prepared for any type of thing that would come up . ... We've got a cushion right now, and it's early to eat that cushion up."

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider