Denver Broncos: Steve Vallos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Defensive end Derek Wolfe continues to be the only player on the Broncos’ 53-man roster to be held out of practice, and even with several players receiving treatment, the Broncos remain a healthy group overall as they work toward Sunday’s divisional-round playoff game against the San Diego Chargers.

Wolfe has practiced just twice since Nov. 29 when he suffered “seizure-like symptoms’’ on the team’s bus ride to the airport for a trip to Kansas City. He took part in the Broncos’ Christmas Day practice, missed the next day with the flu and then practiced on a limited basis Dec. 27.

He has not practiced since.

The Broncos issued their first injury report of the week Wednesday and the only slight surprise was cornerback Champ Bailey's appearance with a shoulder injury. Bailey was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice and expected to play Sunday against the Chargers, but he has been getting treatment this week for a left shoulder injury.

Safety Duke Ihenacho and center Steve Vallos, who suffered concussions in the final weeks of the regular season, were cleared to fully take part in Wednesday’s practice and both should be available for Sunday’s game.

Defensive end Shaun Phillips, who was sent home Monday because he had arrived to work feeling ill and with a fever, practiced fully on Wednesday as well.

Broncos rookies forced to work fast

August, 31, 2013
The Broncos will take a look at what the waiver wire has to offer Sunday and decide if there are any names on it they’d like to see on their roster. But for the most part they’ve made the big decisions in the move to 53 players Saturday.

And given that there were some things of note:
  • There’s a chance the compressed offseason that came with the current collective bargaining agreement has also compressed the time allowed for rookies outside the first two rounds of the draft to show what they can do. The Broncos cut three players --Philip Blake, Tavarres King and Vinston Painter -- from their last two draft classes combined. Certainly the Broncos are a far better team than what they were in early 2011 when John Elway and John Fox started on the job, but it does show rookies have to move faster than ever to get acclimated, even if players like King and Painter are certainly practice-squad possibilities. “The rookies these days they have to get on board, get there fast, mature fast, which is tough to do for some,’’ said Elway. “Our goal is always to keep them, but that’s why you have competition too,’’ Elway said.
  • Because they kept three quarterbacks and 11 defensive backs the Broncos ended up light at the two positions most affected by Von Miller’s suspension over the first six weeks of the season. The Broncos kept six linebackers, compared to seven to open both the ’11 and ’12 seasons, and kept seven defensive linemen, compared to 10 in ’11, and nine in ’12. Shaun Phillips, who has lined up far more at defensive end than he has at linebacker so far for the team, is listed among the six linebackers, but not among the seven defensive linemen. That puts the onus on Robert Ayers and even more on Derek Wolfe, to play, and play well, in a variety of down-and-distance situations. Wolfe, especially, will have to be a do-it-all guy.
  • The late arrivals in the offensive line, center Steve Vallos and guard/center John Moffitt, showed enough in a short time to make the roster. Vallos was signed July 29, just after Dan Koppen went on injured reserve, and Moffitt was acquired in a trade on Aug. 21. But both proved to be quick studies and Vallos, especially, quickly played his way up the depth chart. The two were kept over C.J. Davis, who played seven games for the Broncos last season and spent 2009 and 2010 in Carolina with Fox, and Ryan Lilja. Lilja, too, was a late arrival, having been signed out of retirement Aug. 1, but struggled with his surgically-repaired knee throughout the preseason. The Broncos had given a $100,000 signing bonus to Lilja to lure him into training camp, but the veteran’s $1 million base salary would have also been guaranteed if he was on the roster for Thursday’s opener given Lilja is a vested player. “Steve won that job, I think he played well enough to win it.’’
  • Just two days after playing 52 plays in the preseason finale against the Cardinals, the Broncos elected to put rookie defensive end Quanterus Smith on injured reserve for the season. Smith suffered a torn ACL last November in his senior season at Western Kentucky. He was taken out of just one practice in training camp because of the knee and played in all four preseason games. Still, the Broncos say they didn't see what they wanted to see. “The knee just never came back, we didn’t think he was 100 percent,’’ Elway said. “He was favoring it the whole training camp and really even in (the Cardinals) game you could tell he was favoring it. We just didn’t think he was ready – nor was the knee really … he just needs more time and more work on it.’’
  • Linebacker Lerentee McCray, signed as an undrafted rookie this year, would have likely made the team roster had he not suffered a high ankle sprain in Tnursday night’s preseason finale. Elway said he was put on IR because he was “six to 10 weeks’’ away from being ready to play.
  • Asked about the team’s pass rush given Von Miller’s suspension to open the season and Smith’s move to injured reserve, Elway said with a laugh; “We’re not going to rush, we’re dropping 11.’’
  • Linebacker Paris Lenon was signed Aug. 20 and the 35-year-old made the roster because, as Elway said; “he’s come in and played very well, showed he’s been in shape.’’ The Broncos will have to make another roster move, possibly in that position group when Miller returns to the team in Week 7.
The Denver Broncos, like the rest of the league, will tie a bow on the preseason Thursday night. Most of the team’s regulars will get the night off against the visiting Arizona Cardinals, but decisions still need to be made at a few spots at the back end of the roster.

With that in mind, some things to keep an eye on:

One of the most difficult spots for the Broncos to make cuts ahead of Saturday's deadline to pare the roster to 53 players -- the bulk of which will come Friday -- will be in the secondary.

The Broncos kept nine defensive backs on the opening-weekend roster in 2011 and 10 last season -- five cornerbacks and five safeties. The issue this year is that Denver has two young, homegrown cornerback prospects in Omar Bolden and rookie Kayvon Webster, who have shown themselves to be worthy of the roster and would raise the overall athleticism at the position.

With Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Rahim Moore, Duke Ihenacho, Chris Harris, David Bruton and Tony Carter having worked in the top seven slots all through the preseason, that doesn’t leave room for Webster, Bolden, Mike Adams and Quentin Jammer to all make it.

If the Broncos stick with nine players in the secondary, they are essentially choosing between youth and experience for those final two spots. If they keep an extra cornerback, however, it may be an indication they feel they need to open the season with some insurance for Bailey’s foot injury.

Unless Denver takes the uncharacteristic step and keeps 11 defensive backs, Bolden and Webster both figure to play plenty against the Cardinals to state their cases.

  • Brock Osweiler is slated to get the start at quarterback behind what is largely a backup line. That has been a tough combination thus far in the preseason for Osweiler, who has been sacked eight times in the three previous games behind the reserves. It makes it difficult for the Broncos to work out of the three-wide look as much as they’d like given that they haven’t consistently protected the quarterback in it -- even when the starters have been in the game -- this preseason. If things get dicey they might have to go big again, as they did last weekend against the Rams. After opening the game with three wide receivers and allowing too many rushers to get too close to Peyton Manning, the Broncos went to a two-tight-end look. They lined up in a two-tight-end look on 29 of the next 35 plays after the opening three-and-out, including all 12 in a drive that ended with a blocked field goal. The Broncos might feel like they need to give Osweiler a little more beef up front.
  • The last few rosters spots will be decided on special teams, and the Broncos could use a good showing there. In the past two games they have surrendered a 107-yard kickoff return for a score, a 33-yard punt return, an 81-yard punt return and seen a field goal blocked. Many of the Broncos' youngest players will have a chance to help their causes against Arizona, with Denver special-teams coach Jeff Rodgers looking for those who display speed and smarts.
  • [+] EnlargeKayvon Webster
    AP Photo/Eric BakkeCornerback Kayvon Webster, a third-round pick, gets a last chance tonight to show he deserves a roster spot.
    The Broncos have lost five fumbles in three preseason games -- two by Osweiler, two by Ronnie Hillman and one by Julius Thomas. Hillman is not expected to play Thursday, but things need to be cleaned up. Lance Ball and Jacob Hester figure to get some work as the Broncos face some tough decisions at running back as well. Hester has not had a carry in the preseason and is the only back that has lined up at fullback thus far.
  • The Broncos have to sort things out in the offensive line, where they kept nine players in both 2011 and last season. After the starting five -- Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin -- the Broncos need a swing tackle, likely Chris Clark, and a swing guard/center or two, with Ryan Lilja, Steve Vallos and Philip Blake in the mix. Blake, a fourth-round pick in 2012, has been headed the wrong way on the depth chart -- the Broncos didn’t even work him much at center in the preseason, a position he played in college and one they originally drafted him for. Blake is decidedly on the bubble -- a long way down for a player some believed was pushing to start before a thumb injury ended his rookie season. He has regressed since that point, so he's either not getting the message about the changes in the offense or is not reacting well to the coaching he's getting. Rookie tackle Vinston Painter has shown the kind of athleticism that deserves a roster spot, but the Broncos may be in a position where they have to hope he makes it through waivers so they can sign him to their practice squad. Lilja is a tough call, too. Denver certainly likes him in the offense, but he had microfracture surgery on his knee just a few months ago and has missed significant amount of practice time of late because of the knee.
  • Rookie quarterback Zac Dysert will likely get his most significant work of the preseason. Dysert has shown some quality scrambling skills in practice, so he could have an entertaining down or two if he gets loose. He projects to the practice squad, but the Broncos would like to see some better accuracy from the pocket, especially in the shorter and intermediate routes.
  • Linebacker Lerentee McCray and wide receiver Lamaar Thomas are the undrafted rookies with the best chance to make the final 53 -- especially McCray. If the Broncos don’t keep McCray, there are at least two other teams that would consider signing him. He’s a big-bodied linebacker who, while not always showing good instincts, has the ability to disrupt an offense and closes to the ball with speed and intent.
The list of guys who have started at quarterback in the final Broncos’ preseason game in recent summers, a list that includes Caleb Hanie, Tom Brandstater, Darrell Hackney (twice) and Alex Van Pelt, is not one filled with long-term starters for the team, but it’s one Brock Osweiler is still happy to join these days.

That’s because it means he’s expected to be behind center to open Thursday night’s game with the Arizona Cardinals. And that means some significant playing time, another chance to run the show, and another chance to see where he is on the developmental curve.

“There’s no replacement for game reps,’’ Osweiler said following Wednesday’s practice. “So, I’m really looking forward to getting more (Thursday) night and trying to make the most of my opportunity.’’

Peyton Manning and most of the other Broncos regulars won’t see the field against the Cardinals, so it will give some of the other folks on the depth chart the chance to dive into a game situation. Zac Dysert, a seventh-round draft pick in this past April’s draft, is also expected to get his first significant game action of the preseason when he follows Osweiler into the game.

Dysert, who projects to the Broncos' practice squad during the season, played briefly in the preseason opener in San Francisco.

“(I’m) very excited for the opportunity to get out there with the guys in a game-like environment and just show people what I can do,’’ Dysert said.

For their part, the Broncos like what Osweiler's done with his game over the past year, but they want to see him manage the offense Thursday night, work through some pre-snap audibles and make good decisions with the ball. He has been under siege at times, having been sacked eight times in just three preseason games behind some shaky line play, but the Broncos want to see him work through things without fumbling a snap as he did last week against the Rams, or throwing an interception when he forced a ball against St. Louis as well.

“The interception, we can put that on both of those guys (quarterback and receiver),’’ said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “ … But he has to protect the ball, he knows that’s his number one priority.”
  • Center Manny Ramirez has been the starter since offseason workouts opened. And since he has seen the team sign three centers -- Dan Koppen, Ryan Lilja and Steve Vallos -- and Broncos coach John Fox has been asked almost daily if Ramirez is still the center. But Ramirez is still on the job and plans to keep it that way when the Broncos' offense opens against the Ravens and beyond. “That happens, even without injuries, you never wish injuries upon anybody, especially here where the offensive line is so close, but they're always going to bring guys in, no matter what,’’ Ramirez said. “So, even without the injuries they might have brought some centers in, I’m always here for competition and put my best foot forward, and if the other person beats me out, he beats me out, but I’m going to give it all I got. And right now it’s my position to lose, and I don’t see myself letting that go, no matter what people say.’’ Ramirez has not started a regular-season game at center in his career, but he is a powerful player in man-on-man blocking situations. He has struggled at times in passing situations if he loses his base and gets caught leaning a bit. He had a holding penalty early on in the preseason when he didn’t beat the defender to the spot in the zone run game. “But I’ll keep working, keep my head down and continue to work and grind it out,’’ Ramirez said. “That’s my approach."
  • Osweiler got the opportunity to run the starting offense during team drills in Wednesday’s practice. Manning was given the day off essentially as the Broncos face a quick turnaround after Thursday night’s game. The Broncos, because they play in the Sept. 5 regular-season opener, will begin their formal game-week preparations for the coaches on Friday, to go with the bulk of the roster cuts to get to 53 players, while the players will come in Saturday to start their game week.
  • At least publicly, Broncos coach John Fox only ruled out linebacker Stewart Bradley (wrist), cornerback Champ Bailey (foot), tight end Joel Dreessen (knee) and running back C.J. Anderson (knee) for Thursday’s game because of injuries. It remains to be seen how much somebody like Lilja, who missed several practices with knee pain/swelling, or running back Jeremiah Johnson, who missed an extended time because of a knee injury, play against the Cardinals. Johnson, who is out of practice squad eligibility, is in a bit of a squeeze on the depth chart at running back.
  • Fox on telling a player he’s been cut; “Most everybody, whether you’re in NFL football or just a fan, you’ve either been fired or had to fire somebody. It’s not easy. It’s an annual thing, this cut … it’s hard on the players, it’s hard on the coaching staff."