Denver Broncos: Willis McGahee

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Rank the roster, rank the offseason moves, check the strength of schedule. Do whatever you think needs doing, but along the way, in all of predictions of what’s to come, just mark this down:

At least one of the Denver Broncos free-agent signings will be named to the Pro Bowl in the upcoming season.

Yes, it's way early, but June is usually a swirl of optimism league-wide and DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders, T.J. Ward or Aqib Talib will be named to the Pro Bowl as the 2014 regular season draws to a close. At least that’s the path that has been carved out over the last three seasons by at least one of the unrestricted free agents the Broncos have signed.

Running back Willis McGahee, signed to bolster the backfield in the first year of the John Elway/John Fox regime, finished with 1,199 yards rushing in the Year of Tim Tebow when the Broncos led the league in rushing with 2,632 yards and dropped the read-option into the NFL’s lap.

McGahee went to the 2012 Pro Bowl that January as an injury replacement on the AFC team.

In the 2012 season, just when folks wondered if there could be any more hysteria along the Front Range after the 8-8 season with Tebow that included an overtime playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Broncos jumped into free agency with both feet and a big check. They signed quarterback Peyton Manning.

And Manning was named to the 2013 Pro Bowl after the Broncos finished 13-3 on the way to the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Manning threw for 4,659 yards that year with 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The 37 touchdowns stood as the franchise record for all of 11 months or so, or right up until the time Manning threw his 38th touchdown pass of the 2013 season Dec. 1 against Kansas City.

Then in 2013, the Broncos signed guard Louis Vasquez in free agency, giving Vasquez the longest deal (four years) and the most money on paper ($23.5 million) of any unrestricted free agent they signed that March. Blocking in the highest-scoring offense in league history, Vasquez was dominant last season, was penalized just three times -- none after Week 7 -- and went on to be named to the Pro Bowl as well as the far more difficult first-team All Pro.

Ware has been named to seven Pro Bowls in his 117-sack career. Talib and Ware have each been named to one Pro Bowl while Sanders has not been named to a Pro Bowl.

And while none of the Broncos would actually want to play in the Pro Bowl, preferring to get the Super Bowl waiver because the team is in the title game, the recent odds say at least one of the newest arrivals will get to add the selection to his résumé.
After center Will Montgomery's contract was filed with the NFL last week, the Denver Broncos used up most of what had been allotted to spend in these initial weeks of free agency. And they intend to stick to the budget.

"You know you're going to have some bumps in the road and we don't want to get so close [to the limit] you can't adjust," is how Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has put it. "We'll ease back after our initial work and keep our eyes open."

Montgomery signed a one-year deal last week that carries a salary cap hit of just more than $1.5 million. Montgomery will get a $50,000 roster bonus in August to go with another $75,000 bonus in Week 1 of the regular season.

Before the signing the Broncos had just under $6 million worth of workable salary cap space, so that total is close to $4 million at the moment. That figure includes just the top 51 players and with the May draft still on the docket. The Broncos will need to keep enough room to count all 53 players on the roster when final roster cuts are made this summer and to cover the potential of players on injured reserve.

The Broncos currently have seven picks in next month's draft and have allotted room for that.

So unless they want to release a player, they're largely done signing any free agent beyond a no-bonus, one-year minimum deal. Because they have spent most of the cash they had on hand in recent weeks, the Broncos have even tweaked the last two deals they've done -- Montgomery and Emmanuel Sanders -- to pay the bonuses later.

Sanders gets the actual payment of the bulk of his "up front" money in a bonus payment next year.

Before free agency started the Broncos were among the teams in the best shape in terms of "dead" money -- salary cap charges for players no longer on the roster -- but did add a bit in recent weeks. They are still among the 11 teams with fewer than $6 million in dead money charges, but they added the bulk of theirs since the end of the season and the start of free agency.

They took a $2.1 million hit when the second year of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's original contract voided five days after the Super Bowl. They also took a $1.83 million dead money charge when Chris Kuper retired last month.

Those two players account for 67.8 percent of the Broncos' current dead money total. The charge for the player who has been gone the longest is $500,000 for running back Willis McGahee, who was released last spring.
Victor Cruz AP Photo/LM OteroThe Broncos will likely deploy more defensive backs when taking on the Giants and Victor Cruz.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Fresh off the feel-good season opener the Denver Broncos' secondary will get an entirely different kind of test Sunday against the New York Giants.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had limited options on the outside -- once Jacoby Jones left with a knee injury on a second-quarter punt return. Brandon Stokley is 37 years old and was signed after training camp opened; Dallas Clark is 34, has struggled with injuries in recent seasons and was signed after training camp open; Marlon Brown is a rookie; and Ed Dickson struggled mightily in a receiving role last Thursday night. So, despite not having either Champ Bailey (left foot injury) or Von Miller (suspension) in the lineup, the Broncos did not surrender a pass play longer than 34 yards in the game.

The Giants, however, present a different set of troubles. In their turnover-marred loss in Dallas, New York still had three wide receivers finish with at least 100 yards in the game -- Victor Cruz with 118 yards on five catches, Hakeem Nicks with 115 yards on five catches and Rueben Randle with 101 yards on, yes, five catches. Cruz finished with three touchdowns in the game.

“Their receivers are dynamic,'' said Broncos safety Rahim Moore. “ … They have so many targets.''

“Honestly, Cruz is getting the bulk of the attention, but they have weapons all over the place,'' said safety Duke Ihenacho.

The challenge will be how the Broncos matchup with the size the Giants have on the outside, especially if Bailey isn't ready to return to the lineup this week. Randle is 6-foot-2, Nicks is 6-foot-1 and Cruz comes in at 6-0. The Broncos can counter with 6-2 Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and the 6-0 Bailey, if the 12-time Pro Bowl selection is ready to return to the lineup.

Cornerback Chris Harris, an aggressive player who consistently fends off the challenges, is 5-foot-10 and cornerback Tony Carter, who has routinely come in when the Broncos go to the nickel in games Bailey doesn't play and the dime when Bailey is in the lineup, is 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds. When Carter plays in the nickel, he lines up in one of the outside positions and Harris goes inside to the slot.

Flacco sought Carter out in coverage on several occasions in last January's playoff win as well as last Thursday night. This is especially true if Carter allows the receiver to get a free release off the line of scrimmage, and Eli Manning would likely do the same.

The Broncos will also use rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster at times in some of their specialty looks and if they get into some of the longer down-and-distance situations, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will use a seven defensive back package. The Broncos used it for two snaps against the Ravens, but figure to use it more against the Giants' attack.

  • Giants coach Tom Coughlin's peers in the league have long considered him one of the more aggressive coaches in the NFL, whether it be during his tenure in Jacksonville or now with the Giants. He signs players who once worked for an upcoming opponent in the days before his team plays that opponent. And if things go well for former Broncos running back Willis McGahee Tuesday, he could join the list. Per ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, McGahee will be one of three backs -- Brandon Jacobs and Joe McKnight are the others, who will work out for the Giants Tuesday. The Broncos released McGahee in June after McGahee had skipped the majority of the team's offseason workouts. The running back cited “family reasons.'' McGahee will turn 32 next month and hasn't played in a game since tearing an MCL on Nov. 18 against the Chargers on a hit from now-Broncos cornerback Quentin Jammer. McGahee had two years left on his deal when the Broncos let him go with a scheduled $2.5 million base salary this season and $2 million base salary in 2014. But with the Broncos having used a third-round pick on Ronnie Hillman in the 2012 draft to go with the second-round pick they used on Montee Ball in April's draft, the combination of McGahee's injury and contract pushed the Broncos toward the young guys at the position. So much so, the Broncos were willing to take a $1 million dead money hit against the salary cap to release McGahee. The Broncos had some concern about McGahee's ability to stay healthy over the long term and after he took part in the team's mandatory minicamp in mid-June, they released him. The Giants benched running back David Wilson Sunday after two fumbles and some bobbles in pass protection.
  • Wide receiver/kick return Trindon Holliday (left lower leg), cornerback Omar Bolden (left shoulder) and linebacker Wesley Woodyard (right ankle) were not on the field for the Broncos' workout Monday. The practice was essentially an extra opportunity for some on-field work for the Broncos -- what coach John Fox calls “a Broncos on Broncos practice.'' Wide receiver Eric Decker, who suffered a right shoulder injury in last Thursday's game, did participate in the practice. Bailey (left foot) did not take part. Tight end Joel Dreessen, who had two arthroscopic surgeries on his left knee since May, is closing in on returning to practice on at least a limited basis. Dreessen worked with strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson. Rookie running back C.J. Anderson also did drills alongside Dreessen, work that included some short sprints.
  • The final Manning tally for the season's opening week: 912 passing yards -- both finished 27-of-42 passing in their respective games -- and 11 touchdowns. Peyton Manning was 27-of-42 for 462 yards with seven touchdowns without an interception in the Broncos' 49-27 victory over the Ravens on Thursday night. Eli Manning was 27-of-42 for 450 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions in the Giants' loss to Dallas Sunday. The two brothers will face each other Sunday at MetLife Stadium -- it's the third time they have played each other in the NFL.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Fumbles dropped Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman down the depth chart a bit Monday as rookie Montee Ball took most of the work with the starting offense during practice.

Ball
Hillman
Hillman got a smattering of snaps with the starters in specific situations, but he has lost a fumble that has been returned for a touchdown in each of the past two games -- 106 yards by the Seahawks’ Brandon Browner and 13 yards by the Rams’ Alec Ogletree this past Saturday. The Broncos have often used backs in the No. 1 and No. 1A slots in recent seasons, so coach John Fox wasn’t ready to name Ball the unquestioned starter.

“I wouldn’t read too much into that, whoever we keep, we’re going to lean on and play, and I think our track record says that,’’ Fox said.

Ball himself lost a fumble midway through the practice when linebacker Wesley Woodyard ripped the ball free. Much like when Hillman had turned his back on the Rams defenders to push for an extra yard or two even as he exposed the ball Saturday night, Ball did the same in Monday’s practice when Woodyard ripped the ball out. And the jury is most decidedly still out on how all this will look in the regular season.

Running backs coach Eric Studesville and offensive coordinator Adam Gase have consistently said pass protection, handling the audibles in the offense without mistakes and hanging on to the ball will rank more highly than actually running with the football when the team makes the rotation at running back. And in reality Monday’s move should not, at this point, cause fantasy football owners to jump on Ball’s stock. The Broncos are certainly trying to get Hillman’s attention at this point, but he is also the lone breakaway back in the offense and can produce the kind of impact plays in the run game Gase has said are a must.

There is also the matter that since the start of the 1999 season, nine different running backs have led the Broncos in carries for at least one season. Over that 14-year span Denver has not had a running back lead the team in carries in three consecutive seasons. And the Broncos have had just one running back in the past six years -- Willis McGahee in 2011 when the Broncos went to a read-option offense -- finish a season with at least 1,000 yards.

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