Denver Broncos: Omar Bolden

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's been a bit of a bumpy ride for the Denver Broncos' special teams units so far this season.

Kicker Matt Prater was suspended for four games to start the regular season. The Colts recovered an on-side kick in the season opener. The Patriots' Julian Edelman returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown. They've been decidedly so-so in the return game for much of the season. Brandon McManus missed four kicks as Prater's replacement.

So, Sunday night's performance was a much-needed one in the kicking game for the Broncos.

[+] EnlargeDenver's David Bruton Jr.
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelPunt protector David Bruton Jr. has the green light to audible into a running play if he sees the right alignment. Against the Chiefs, it resulted in a 13-yard gain.
"It's great because we've been striving for a game like that all season," said safety David Bruton Jr., the Broncos special teams captain. "That all three units are clicking, not just the defense clicking and holding opponents to 17 points or less, or the offense putting up 30 to 40 points and special teams just being out there in the mix."

Connor Barth made five field goals in his first game as McManus' replacement and cornerback Omar Bolden recovered a Broncos punt that deflected off the Chiefs' Marcus Cooper. But it was Bruton Jr. who really kick-started the evening with an audible to a fake punt early in the second quarter.

After a Britton Colquitt punt had pinned the Chiefs at their own 9-yard line, Denver's Andre Caldwell was flagged for running out of bounds during punt coverage and not returning to the playing field quickly enough. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid elected to accept and penalty, move the Broncos back 5 yards, to the Denver 36-yard line, and force the Broncos to kick again.

But Bruton Jr. has the freedom to audible to a fake punt if he gets the right alignment from the opposing return team. And he got just that from the Chiefs, who had just one player wide to the left.

"After the penalty, we were actually supposed to kick it," Bruton Jr. said. "I just knew that they were going to give us a look, so I made the audible myself to make the play. It's just been a thing a lot of teams practice, and that we have practiced for a while, and no better time than on "Sunday Night Football" against a division rival and you get the right look for that situation. I definitely felt it provided some form of boost for the team. And then our special teams entirely played lights out for the most part. It led to some points."

Bruton Jr., who is the punt protector, made the call, took the direct snap from Aaron Brewer and went around the left end for 13 yards and a first down. Eleven plays later Barth kicked a 22-yard field goal.

"David is a very smart player that takes a lot of pride in his whole (game), not just as a defensive player but as a special teams player," said Broncos head coach John Fox. " … With that experience and with us and our staff, there is a lot of trust there. It's an audible that can occur and we trust him enough to add that responsibility. He chose wisely."

Asked if there are any constraints on when Bruton Jr. could use the audible, Fox said: "We have parameters, I would say. … He's a very trustworthy player."

Bruton took a fake punt around the left side in the 2013 season as well, a 35-yard run against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If you were to make a list of the conditions the Denver Broncos didn't want in a football game, Sunday night included most of them.

The game was:
  • A. On the road.
  • B. Windy.
  • C. Frigid.
  • D. And quarterback Peyton Manning simply wasn't going to be in a position to carry them to the win.

Yet, in a rather tidy show of what Denver is going to need to be in the postseason, the Broncos flashed their playoff profile with a power-run game fueled by C.J. Anderson, a dominant defense and a variety of game-tilting special teams plays in a 29-16 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

"It has to be like that," defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. "Defensively, we have to stop the run. Offensively, they've got to come with that tenacity where they run the ball when we need to and like they did. The last two weeks, what, they rushed 200-some yards? That's very big. We have to play like that every week, and we showed people we can have that look."

The Chiefs, at least on paper, completed Job 1 against the Broncos. They kept Manning from beating them.

Manning finished with a season-low 179 yards passing, a season-low 17 completions and a season-low 50 percent completion percentage in a game that started with a windchill of 14 degrees and only got colder and windier as the night went on. Yet, the Broncos won by 13 points.

They did it with Anderson growing into a No. 1 running back right before the Broncos' eyes. Anderson, who suddenly finds himself as the team's workhorse back after injuries to Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, finished with 168 yards on 32 carries.

Last week, in the win over the Miami Dolphins, Anderson had 167 yards. He is the first back in the league since Adrian Peterson in the 2012 season to have back-to-back games of at least 150 yards rushing. The Broncos' 214 yards rushing yards gave them back-to-back games of at least 200 yards on the ground.

Asked about that balanced, grind-it-out look, Manning said: "I like it, I like it. I like winning games." He then added: "Our offensive line was awesome."

"We knew to give us a chance to win we had to stop the run," Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston said. "And we didn't do it."

The Broncos dove-tailed Anderson's work in the run game with a get-it-done defense, despite having two of their top four cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib (left hamstring) and Kayvon Webster (right shoulder) -- out of the lineup. The Chiefs had minus-10 yards to their credit at the end of the first quarter and wound up with a paltry 151 total yards. They finished with five drives that were three-and-outs, three in the opening quarter.

The Broncos registered six sacks for 43 yards plus 12 hits on Alex Smith. Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr. shadowed Dwayne Bowe all over the formation and held him to two catches for 18 yards.

"It was a good day for us," linebacker Von Miller said. "We knew it was going to a tough kind of game. … We stopped a lot of stuff they were trying to do."

Toss in five field goals from Connor Barth, who has been a Broncos kicker since Tuesday, a fake punt that turned into a fourth-down conversion by safety David Bruton Jr. and Omar Bolden's recovery of a Broncos punt that bounced off Chiefs cornerback Marcus Cooper's left leg, and you have the full everything-but-Manning win many have wondered if Denver could pull off.

Two weeks ago in a dismal 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams, the Broncos had 10 rushing attempts, one of which was a kneel-down by Manning before halftime. In a Nov. 2 loss in New England, the Broncos' defense couldn't get the Patriots off the field, Brandon McManus missed a field goal and Denver looked out of sorts on a cold night.

The Broncos now have run the ball 80 times in their past two games, both wins. They've put themselves back in the conversation about the AFC's top seed, which they can earn if they win out and the Patriots stumble at least once.

"I think you need to be able to win different types of football games," Manning said.

"Sometimes, this is how it looks," Ware said. "You have to play in the cold. You have to win on the road. You have to be physical on both sides of the ball. We can do those things. We've shown we can do those things, and we want to be able to do whatever we need to do to win however we need to win. Those are the best teams."video
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With a rather substantial list of defensive backs dotting the team’s injury report the Denver Broncos may have to adjust some things in Sunday night’s AFC West showdown against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Following Friday's practice Broncos head coach John Fox said cornerback Kayvon Webster (right shoulder) is out for the game while cornerback Aqib Talib (left hamstring) and safety Quinton Carter (knee) are questionable. Webster did not take part in Friday’s practice while Talib and Carter were both limited in the workout.

Talib did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. If Talib and Carter are limited or don’t play, the Broncos will look to Omar Bolden, who has played both safety and cornerback, as well as cornerback Tony Carter.

The question on Talib will be whether or not the Broncos feel like he can make it through the game if they put him in uniform Sunday night. In the win against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, Talib left the game in the first quarter. He tried to return later in the first half, but didn’t play in the second half and the Broncos had made Carter a game-day inactive.

“We’ll decide how exactly it’s going to play out,’’ said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “We’ll just let it unfold. We prepare all our guys.’’

Also Friday, tight end Julius Thomas (left ankle) took part on a limited basis for the second consecutive day. Fox said following the practice that Thomas looked “much better’’ Friday than he did last Friday.

Thomas did not play last week. The Broncos hope Thomas will improve before it leaves for Kansas City.

Linebacker Brandon Marshall, who suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter of the Broncos’ win over the Dolphins last Sunday, was cleared by an independent physician as well as the Broncos’ medical staff to return to practice Friday.

Marshall, who plays in all of the team’s personnel groupings on defense, said he expects to play Sunday night in Arrowhead Stadium and take his “normal’’ number of snaps.

“Big game, everybody wants to win this game, this is the biggest game of our season so far,’’ Marshall said. “I’m just glad the concussion wasn’t too bad. I’ve been studying all week even thought I haven’t been practicing, but I’ve been paying attention. I’m just glad to be back out there.’’

As expected, Fox formally ruled out running backs Montee Ball (right groin) and Ronnie Hillman (left foot) for Sunday’s game.

Defensive end Quanterus Smith (ankle) participated fully in Friday’s practice and is expected to play.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Ordinarily, if a defense held an offense to 2.6 yards per carry in the run game and forced the quarterback to throw 20 incompletions, a defense would have had a little more to show for that than the Broncos did in the loss to the New England Patriots.

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

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

Vasquez
Broncos head coach John Fox said Vasquez was ill.

Vasquez, who has had some back and rib issues this season, had practiced Monday. Vasquez left the Broncos' suburban complex shortly after noon.

Vasquez is the third Broncos' player and second offensive lineman sent home this week because of illness. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe and left guard Orlando Franklin, who were held out of Monday's practice because of illness, were back on the field Wednesday and took their usual snaps.

"This time of year it happens with all NFL teams, our training staff, our medical staff do a great job," Fox said following Wednesday's practice. "We got a couple guys back, lost another one today, but all in all I think we'll be fine."

Hillman
Running back Ronnie Hillman was limited with a shoulder injury he suffered during practice. Hillman stayed on the field and did some work in drills the rest of the way. Hillman is the Broncos' No. 1 back these days with Montee Ball out.

"He just landed funny," Fox said of Hillman.

Defensive back Omar Bolden, who had been under the concussion protocol last week, returned to practice Wednesday. Linebacker Lamin Barrow, who suffered a concussion against the Chargers in last Thursday's win, worked with the team's strength and conditioning coaches during practice, as did Ball and safety Quinton Carter.

Ball, who suffered a right groin injury in the Broncos' Oct. 5 win against the Arizona Cardinals, has not yet returned for practice.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos place-kicker Brandon McManus, who was held out of Tuesday’s practice because of a groin injury, practiced Wednesday and will kick in Thursday night’s game.

McManus’ injury is to his kicking leg and he has appeared on the Broncos’ injury report since Oct. 1. The Broncos had held McManus out of practice one day last week as well.

The Broncos traded a conditional draft pick to the New York Giants just before the regular season opened because Matt Prater was headed for a four-game suspension for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. McManus was 3-of-3 on field goal attempts during Prater’s suspension. Since the injury, as well as since Prater’s release, Mcmanus is 3-of-4 with his miss coming from 53 yards.

On his 37 kickoffs this season, McManus has forced 28 touchbacks, the third most in the league behind only Indianapolis’ Pat McAfee and Baltimore’s Justin Tucker.

Running back Montee Ball (groin) again worked with the strength and conditioning staff, but did not participate in practice and was formally ruled out for Thursday’s game. The Broncos have at least some optimism Ball could practice next week on a limited basis if he continues his current progress.

Defensive back Omar Bolden (concussion) also was ruled out for the game. Linebacker Steven Johnson (ankle), who leads the team in special-teams tackles, was listed as questionable and the Broncos have optimism he’ll be able to play.

"I like the depth of our football team," Broncos coach John Fox said. "So we’ve got options we feel good about, but Stevie is still questionable for the game."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos began their abbreviated practice week with only two new injuries to report as they opened their preparations for Thursday night's game against the San Diego Chargers.

Cornerback Omar Bolden, who had also lined up as the Broncos' kickoff returner at times Sunday, is not expected to be available for Thursday's game. He suffered a concussion in the closing minutes of the win over the San Francisco 49ers and is now under the guidelines of the league's concussion protocol.

Bolden suffered the injury with 1 minute, 19 seconds to play in the game when he collided with 49ers wide receiver Bruce Ellington.

Linebacker Steven Johnson, a special teams regular, suffered what Broncos head coach John Fox called a "mild ankle sprain."

Fox said Monday the Broncos also spent some of their time this past offseason reviewing how to construct the team's schedule in a short week after last season's loss to the Chargers in a Thursday night game. The Chargers' 27-20 victory on Dec. 12 was the Broncos' only home loss last season.

"We've already addressed this long before now," Fox said. "Just preparation and I think we've got a good plan, we'll see how we execute it."

And the Thursday night games have been a target of criticism this season with questions about whether the short week has affected the quality of play in those games. At least publicly, the Broncos offered Monday they were ready to get back to work to keep their current win streak going.

"I like it," said linebacker Von Miller. "I like playing on Monday nights, I like playing on Thursday nights. You hear a lot about it's a short week and all this stuff, but I like it. I enjoy it; it's another prime-time game. They are doing the exact same thing that we're doing. They have a short week also. So I like it. You ... just hop in the ice tub, get stretched, get some body work and you'll be ready to go. I enjoy playing on Thursday nights and I'm looking forward to it."

"You just have to look at the game as a quick turnover, meaning it's a good thing or you check your oil on those type of games ... in saying what type of team are we," said Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware. "I think [the criticism is] overblown. I don't see any guys complaining on our team about having a Thursday game, we're just looking at it as yes, it's a quick turnaround and we have to do what we have to do to get the job done."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For many who currently have lockers inside the Denver Broncos' complex, things get down to the vocational nitty gritty this week.

For months they have shown up to work each day, part of a team. They've worked in the weight room, eaten in the cafeteria and rubbed shoulders with their far more famous teammates.

After this week, the Broncos will send almost half of them on their way.

The Broncos will practice against the Houston Texans this week, play the Texans Saturday night and then cut at least 37 players from their current roster in a span of seven days with a fourth preseason game sandwiched in there somewhere.

And while the Broncos didn't have all that many roster jobs in play when they opened training camp, there are still plenty of tough decisions, especially at a few spots, with some things to consider:

Salary cap: The Broncos were active in free agency this past offseason. But they are squarely up against the salary cap right now -- $133 million per team -- and that is going to impact some of their decisions.

Only the top 51 salary-cap figures count in the preseason, but that luxury ends when rosters go to 53 players the week before the opener. The Broncos top 51 cap salary-cap figures come in at $129.7 million at the moment and the team is carrying $6.43 million worth of “dead'' money as well -- cap figures for players no longer on the team, led by $2.1 million for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and $1.83 million for the retired Chris Kuper.

So, even with the accounting of salary cap rollover and subtracting other expenses that amount to about $3.3 million more available cap space, the Broncos are up against the limit when you consider they still have to leave room for players who end up on injured reserve and for a practice squad.

Right now the Broncos' top 53 salary cap figures come in at $130.761 million, so add in that dead money and it's clear they have work to get done whether that includes a new deal for Demaryius Thomas or an unexpected roster cut or two.

Defensive line: With their offseason work, to go with the recovery of those who were on injured reserve last season, the Broncos turned this from a red-flag position into one of the deepest on the roster.

As a result, the Broncos will likely let a player, or players, go here who will draw some interest from other teams. That hasn't always been the case with their roster in recent seasons, which may be, along with back-to-back 13-3 season, a measure of their progress from 2010's 4-12 finish.

The question really comes down to if the team keeps just eight players here, which is exactly what they did last season. Part of the rationale, from a personnel standpoint, in keeping eight is that linebacker Von Miller is in one of the defensive end spots for most of the team's pass-rush looks.

Start counting and it doesn't take long to find eight that would make a quality rotation. Combine some common sense with the way they've practiced and played the first two preseason games and DeMarcus Ware, Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe are the starters in the base defense.

Malik Jackson, Quanterus Smith and Marvin Austin project as the next three. That could leave, if the number is eight, Mitch Unrein, Kevin Vickerson and others scrapping for a final spot. Vickerson did not play in Sunday's preseason game in Santa Clara, California, as he continues to work all the way back from his hip injury of 2013.

Returner: There are still questions to answer here. Wide receiver Jordan Norwood has shown enough on offense to make a case as the sixth wide receiver and he has shown the most consistency among the punt returners. Wes Welker is a fall-back option, but he had two concussions last season so that's not preferable.

At kickoff returner the Broncos are still inconsistent fielding the ball in practice and haven't had many chances to show much in their games -- no kickoff returns against the 49ers. Defensive back Omar Bolden looks like the safest bet at the moment.

Offensive line: The Broncos have kept nine players in each of the three previous seasons and there is no reason to expect they won't keep nine once again.

So, that means the final spots will come down to youth vs. veteran. The Broncos are looking at the young players here. Guard Ben Garland and rookie tackle Michael Schofield played more Sunday -- 54 snaps each -- than any other Broncos players. Guard Vinston Painter and tackle Paul Cornick, who both were on Broncos practice squad last season (Painter finished the season on active roster), were next in line with 39 snaps each.

W2W4: Denver Broncos

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
12:00
PM ET
The Denver Broncos (1-0) meet the San Francisco 49ers (0-1) on Sunday afternoon (4 ET) at Levi’s Stadium.

Three things to watch:

1. The "other" Brandon Marshall: It will be the first glimpse of the Broncos without linebacker Danny Trevathan in the lineup. Trevathan, who was the team's leading tackler in 2013, is expected to miss up to eight weeks as he recovers from a fracture at the top of his tibia in his left leg. Marshall has worked in Trevathan's weakside spot this week. Trevathan is difficult to replace because of the variety of roles he fills in the defense, playing in the base as well as all of the specialty packages in the nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six) as well. Marshall worked in the base, the nickel and the dime in practice this week, showing good speed to the ball. Against the 49ers he will get to show whether he can hold up against a power offense that also likes to push the ball to the tight ends in the passing game.

2. Return policy: The Broncos are three weeks of practice into the preseason and don't appear much closer to choosing a punt returner or kickoff returner. So consider those jobs still open for a worthy candidate or two to step forward. The fallback choices are not the ones the Broncos would prefer -- Wes Welker returns punts, Emmanuel Sanders kickoffs -- given the injury potential. Welker had two concussions last season alone and Sanders had been limited for much of camp with a thigh injury. Keep an eye on Omar Bolden in the kickoffs return role and Jordan Norwood on punt returns. Rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer has also taken some kickoffs in practice, and the potential kickoff returners have all had some ball security issues at times in practice.

3. Work fast: With the starters set to gobble up the most playing time entering the third quarter of next week's game -- Aug. 23 against the Houston Texans -- this one will be a good opportunity to see those who have pushed themselves up a crowded depth chart get some quality work. Wide receiver Norwood continues to show an understanding of the team's offense and has consistently been in the right place at the right time with catch after catch. Juwan Thompson, as the biggest back on the roster, gives the offense something the other backs can't in the run game. He has also shown good hands as a receiver and even a little more speed carrying the ball than the Broncos may have expected. Also, undrafted rookie linebacker Shaquil Barrett got some snaps with the starting defense this week and figures to get a long look as well.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When it comes to the Denver Broncos' starting lineup there aren't a lot of question marks swirling about. But as the team gets ready to open the preseason Thursday night against the Seattle Seahawks, special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers still has the help wanted sign out.

"There's a role for every type of player in the kicking game," Rodgers said. " ... We want to find those guys in our roster, who have a role on offense or defense where they are a part of the 53 and who can emerge on special teams."

And perhaps topping the list at the moment would be the quest for a kickoff returner and a punt returner. The starting point is the fallback option, in which wide receiver Wes Welker catches some punts and Emmanuel Sanders returns some kickoffs.

Both are proven players in the return role, after all, who have done it when the pressure is on.

However, given Welker's concussion history -- he had two last season -- and his prominent role in the offense, and the fact Sanders is a starter, it's not the most preferable scenario.

Or as Rodgers said wryly: "We're still in evaluation mode. As far as the guys that we have -- pretty likely Wes and Emmanuel are going to make the roster -- so we have those guys who've done it in games in place. What we're looking for in our roster: Can somebody else emerge to take that job?"

The Broncos certainly hope so. Trouble is, so far in training camp no other players have consistently handled the ball the way the Broncos want it done. Even Tuesday, Andre Caldwell bobbled a kickoff in the team's morning practice, but virtually all of the players who have taken a lap as a punt or kickoff returner have bobbled one or two without a defense bearing down.

"We're going to spend the next four weeks evaluating those guys," Rodgers said. "We're definitely going to see what these other guys can do."

Caldwell and defensive back Omar Bolden, who had a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in the 2012 preseason, will get a long look as kickoff returners in the Broncos' four preseason games. Second-round draft pick Cody Latimer has also approached Rodgers about trying to return kickoffs.

Latimer, who will get some snaps on offense in the regular season, didn't return kicks at Indiana, but he did play on kickoff coverage so he's no stranger to special teams work. He also sought out Rodgers to volunteer early on as well. However, Latimer has mishandled a kick or two as he has tried to learn on the job, but physically he had everything Rodgers wants in the job.

"I just feel like the more you can do, the better it is," Latimer said. "I think I can do it with a little work."

"He hit me before I even got to him," Rodgers said. " ... That return thing is unique. But he's big, strong, tough and can run and that's what you'd want to say about your kick returner."

As far as punt returners, rookie wide receiver Isaiah Burse and fifth-year receiver Jordan Norwood will get the first looks. Norwood is currently listed right behind Welker at punt returner on the team's depth chart.

For many of the Broncos who play after the starters put on the baseball caps, Rodgers holds the key for making the roster. Especially for a team with as crowded a depth chart as the Broncos have.

It is special teams that will tip the scales for many players. For some, it may be a job they haven't done before.

"When we go through our draft process as an organization, they allow me to be in there to at least watch the tape and see a guy on tape athletically, you hear the scout's read personality wise and toughness and smarts and all those different things," Rodgers said. "There's a pretty good picture painted of a player as he walks into the building.

"It's about showing them enough things so they can function in the game and then having them kind of learn, the tempo, the speed, the angles," Rodgers added. "There are not a lot of guys who cannot function at all on offense and defense and still make the team on special teams ... You've still got to play a role, but as you start to get down to a game day roster, you have to look at who's going to be ready to play in the regular season and see where they fit on special teams."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' annual summer scrimmage is a good time to gauge where things are with the team’s depth chart. The first of four preseason games is closing in on the horizon and choices will soon be made.

The Broncos, however, didn’t have many available spots on the depth chart when training camp began. Like many teams with the pieces in place to be in the postseason conversation, their personnel folks could have likely quickly listed 46 or 47 names of what will eventually be a 53-player roster even as camp opened.

So, this isn’t some scrape-it-to-the-foundation effort. This is a team that’s gone 26-6 in the last two regular seasons, with a Super Bowl appearance. The Broncos don’t have what-to-do questions in tow. They have is-it-enough questions. And after their first real live tackling effort this weekend, there are a few things for them to consider.
  • Running back is one of the few places where multiple spots on the depth chart are still in play. C.J. Anderson, who made the team as an undrafted rookie last summer, was on the shakiest of ground when OTAs and minicamp ended and his weight was up over 230 pounds. He was sluggish and lacked the spark he had shown in his 2013 training camp. The team’s decision-makers loaded up on undrafted rookies at the position and Anderson had been moved from good-depth-player status to may-not-make-it status. But after he lost almost 20 pounds before camp, he has shown a little more pop and has consistently worked as the No. 3 back so far behind Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. He needs some quality preseason work to keep that spot. Juwan Thompson has clawed his way to the front of the line among the undrafted rookie runners. But other than Ball and Hillman, things are still undecided there, especially if the Broncos see a name on the waiver wire that intrigues them in the coming weeks.
  • Somebody in the return game is going to have to catch the ball with some consistency -- rookie Isaiah Burse mishandled a punt in Saturday’s scrimmage, and overall the team has bobbled far too many kicks and punts so far. The Broncos have fallback options at kickoff returner and punt returner, most of which involve using a starter like Emmanuel Sanders or Wes Welker in some way. Omar Bolden and Andre Caldwell could offer workable options as a kickoff returner, but the Broncos need a player to latch on to the punt return role. Otherwise, the Broncos project to pile up fair catches as they reluctantly accept whatever field position comes with them.
  • It is to be expected, at least some, given how training camp and offseason workouts are structured now, but the Broncos' tackling in many of the 43 plays (including penalties) they ran in Saturday’s scrimmage was choppy at times. Now, nobody should advocate a return to football cave painting and put teams in full pads for six hours every day. Those days are done and aren’t coming back. But several defensive players acknowledged things need to be better in the coming weeks -- an honest assessment about something that needs attention. Or as safety Rahim Moore put it, “We’re holding each other accountable. We understand our system, too, and what Coach (Jack) Del Rio preaches and where we fit in the run, where we are in the pass, how we challenge the throws. Our defense can be very special, but you don’t play defense on paper. You’ve got to go out there and make plays on the field."
  • They’re working at crowded spots, but among the team’s undrafted rookies, Thompson, defensive end Kenny Anunike and linebacker Shaquil Barrett have made the most of their time with the team. All three are getting quality snaps and are just the kind of players to keep an eye on through the preseason games to keep the Broncos' streak of an undrafted rookie making the roster alive.

Broncos Camp Report: Day 8

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
9:45
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Denver Broncos training camp:
  • The Broncos have found some pro personnel gems in recent seasons, veteran players signed to short-term deals with injury or performance questions in tow, who play their way into the rotation in Denver. Last year, Paris Lenon was a training camp signing who eventually started at middle linebacker. In 2012, it was safety Jim Leonhard, Justin Bannan and Brandon Stokley who turned a 1-year deals into premium snaps. This year it just might be defensive Marvin Austin, a former second-round pick by the Giants whose career has been de-railed by injuries, including a back injury with the Dallas Cowboys last season. Austin signed a one-year deal with the Broncos earlier this year, and coming off back surgery has said he's healthy and looking for a rebound. He has consistently flashed in practice thus far and dominated one-on-one drills with the offensive linemen Thursday, though he did have two false starts during one of his turns in the rotation. "He's come off of a fairly significant injury and he looks like he's got that explosiveness and quickness he had when he came out of Chapel Hill," said Broncos head coach John Fox. The Broncos, who kept 10 defensive line after cuts in 2011, nine in 2012 and eight last year, could be faced with keeping nine or 10 because of their depth this time around.
  • No. 2 quarterback Brock Osweiler has had some bobbles in this camp as the Broncos defense has turned up the heat on the offense as a whole -- Peyton Manning has had a far more difficult time against the team's re-vamped defense than he did in drills last summer -- but he continues to show plenty of progress as well. Thursday he showed plenty the scoring touch on the deep ball with two in-stride throws for touchdowns to Cody Latimer and Bennie Fowler, respectively. Latimer's catch was a double-take worthy one-hander in between David Bruton, Omar Bolden and Jerome Murphy as he crossed the goal-line.
  • As the Broncos went through short-yardage work in the run game, the defense got after it. Cornerback Aqib Talib stopped rookie running back Kapri Bibbs short of the goal-line in one set, safety John Boyett cracked rookie Brennan Clay on another and middle linebacker Nate Irving stopped Montee Ball cold in a goal-line drill. “We want to be nasty, we want to be aggressive," said linebacker Danny Trevathan.
  • The Broncos had some of the league's officials on hand for practice as part of the NFL's preseason tour. The players were shown a video outlining this year's rules changes as well as the “points of emphasis," which include downfield contact by defensive players on receivers as well as defensive holding. No flags were thrown on the defenders in coverage in Thursday's practice. The officials will be at Broncos' practices through Saturday's scrimmage at Sports Authority at Mile High.
  • Defensive end Derek Wolfe, who was pulled out of a practice earlier in camp with stiffness in his lower back, was taken out of Thursday's practice as well. Broncos head coach John Fox said; “(He) should be fine, we'll evaluate him day to day." The Broncos also held defensive end Chase Vaughn (right knee), defensive end Greg Latta (right hip) and cornerback Lou Young (groin) out of Thursday's workout. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware (lower right leg) was limited, but did return to the practice field for the first time since Sunday.
  • The Broncos have one practice Friday -- at 10:25 a.m. MT.
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.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Soon after John Elway was hired as the Denver Broncos' chief football decision maker, he used some of owner Pat Bowlen's money to demonstrate the importance the team would place on special teams.

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

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

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

Today: Specialists

How many coming to camp: Three.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that's exactly what the Broncos paid for.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For the first time in a decade, players will exit one of two doors to the Denver Broncos' training room that feed into the locker room and cornerback Champ Bailey won't be the guy whose locker is directly in front of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today: Defensive backs.

How many coming to camp: 17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in all, opposing quarterbacks should find a Broncos defense more able to disrupt the timing of an offense and a better ability to limit plays down the field than it did last season.

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