Denver Broncos: Zane Beadles

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Beyond the big-ticket items like, say, managing the salary cap and finding players to power a championship team, few things give your average NFL decision-maker a dull ache between the eyebrows quite like trying to predict how many compensatory draft picks will be awarded to his team each year.

In short, they almost never get as many of the added picks as they think they deserve when the league crunches the numbers. Or as Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said, “We always have a number in mind, and then you see if they agree with your number, but I’m not sure anybody really feels like they have it locked down."

But as the Broncos go through their offseason work in the coming weeks, including next week’s scouting combine, they could well be looking at receiving at least three compensatory picks this time around. And when the Broncos took their own swing at the math, that seems to be the total they’re working with as well.

“We’re going to have eight or nine picks in the draft next year," is how Elway put it last month.

Tracking their picks, it looks like, after a seventh-round pick was shipped to the New York Giants for Brandon McManus, the Broncos have six picks at the moment in the 2015 NFL draft -- one pick in the first (28th overall), second, third and sixth rounds to go with two fifth-round picks.

It’s important to remember compensatory picks awarded for the 2015 draft are a result of free agents lost, and signed, from the previous season. So, the Broncos' spending spree from a year ago has significant bearing on how things will go. But DeMarcus Ware was released by the Dallas Cowboys, much like Peyton Manning was released in 2012, and those players do not count in the compensatory math because the player wasn’t "lost" in free agency but rather forcibly sent into the market by his former team.

The NFL has always kept the compensatory equation behind the curtain, but in talking to many general managers and salary-cap experts from around the league, they say the biggest factors are the contracts signed by the free agents a team acquired, in terms of average dollars per year, compared to the contracts of those free agents a team lost.

Playing time also figures in heavily, as do postseason awards, etc.

Given all that, if the Broncos have six picks in the draft at the moment and Elway believes they will have "eight or nine" by the time the draft rolls around, he’s working off a template of at least two or three compensatory picks.

Because Ware’s contract isn’t in the math -- he was released by the Cowboys last March 11 -- cornerback Aqib Talib’s deal, at an average of $9.5 million per year, is the biggest acquisition in terms of compensatory comparisons. Wide receiver Eric Decker ($7.25 million per year average) and defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ($7 million per year average) were the Broncos’ biggest losses.

In my simpleton compensatory math, wobbly at times to be sure, Rodgers-Cromartie played in one more game this past regular season than Talib did at the same position, but Talib made the Pro Bowl. Those two are largely a wash in the gain/loss of compensatory picks, or at least that profile has been a wash in previous seasons, with a slight lean toward Talib being a bigger gain than Rodgers-Cromartie was a loss.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, safety T.J. Ward and center Will Montgomery, all starters, would largely constitute the remainder of the "gains" in free agency. And when it comes to the Broncos' "losses" when the picks get awarded, Decker, guard Zane Beadles, running back Knowshon Moreno, defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive end Shaun Phillips will be the key contracts.

Especially Beadles’ ($6 million per year average) and Decker’s ($7.25 million per year) contracts because both were 16-game starters and both signed deals elsewhere that were larger, on average, than Ward’s ($5.625 million per year) and Sanders’ ($5 million per year) contracts. After those two, Ayers’ five-sack season for the Giants will likely help land the Broncos a compensatory pick as well -- he played 12 games -- while Phillips played 11 games for the Titans to go with five games for the Colts. Moreno played in three games for the Dolphins before elbow and knee (ACL) troubles ended his season.

I surveyed a smattering of folks in front offices around the league in recent weeks about what it all could mean for the Broncos when the extra picks are formally awarded in March. The highest number offered, after just a quick discussion, was four picks and the lowest was two.

In looking at similar lists over the years, I think it all looks like three compensatory picks for the Broncos, with the caveat being that I usually now subtract one as the sort of never-get-it-right penalty. So, three picks on just the numbers, two if tradition holds true that teams simply always get fewer than they think they deserve.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever the Denver Broncos' chief decision-maker, John Elway, describes the developmental process, he will routinely offer "we don't draft All Pros, we have to make them."

And over the course of the next week we'll take a glimpse at a few key players who are at various stages of the developmental process. Some have been named to the Pro Bowl, some will be starters for the first time in the coming season.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Franklin
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos have moved Orlando Franklin inside, and the move could pay off for a team that aims to up its running attack in 2014.
But what they all have in common is more is expected of them than they could give, for a variety of reasons, in last season's run to the Super Bowl.

Today: Left guard Orlando Franklin

When Franklin was set to enter the 2011 NFL draft, he had started 25 games at left guard for the University of Miami, 13 at left tackle. And while most scouts believed he could be a valuable swing player in most any offense, a guy who could play inside at guard as well as the more power-oriented right tackle in the pro game, many of those evaluators believed he was a far more natural guard prospect over the long term.

The Broncos had guards -- Zane Beadles and Chris Kuper -- when Franklin arrived in the second round of that draft and they put Franklin where the job opening was along the front, at right tackle where Franklin started 47 games over the last three seasons. But with Beadles having left in free agency and the Broncos' desire to beef up on the interior, Franklin has moved to the inside.

And in the recent organized training activities and minicamp, it already looks like the move will have the desired effect. Franklin will be a powerful force in the run game, and on the inside any issues he had in pass protection will lessen on the interior.

A look at game video has consistently shown when Franklin got in trouble in pass protection on the edge. It showed how Franklin was concerned about surrendering the corner to a speed rusher when he would spread his arms out, almost to hook an outside rusher, rather than getting himself in position for the sturdy first contact from a more stable set.

As a result, Franklin was the most penalized player in the Broncos' lineup last season having been flagged 11 times overall, seven of those for holding. Chris Clark, who was filling in for the injured Ryan Clady, was next among the offensive lineman, with seven penalties overall.

And with the Broncos set to, again, run most of their offense out of a three-wide -- they worked out of the three-wide set 73.6 percent of the time overall last season and were close to 90 percent in the postseason -- their tackles are going to have work alone much of the time in pass protection.

Also, a move inside puts Franklin -- a savvy, hard-working player -- where his strengths will help a Broncos' running attack, usually facing lighter nickel and dime formations lined up to slow down the Broncos' offense.

Their run-game numbers on the inside were middle of the road during the regular season -- 18th in the league in runs over left tackle, 7th in runs over left guard (they had just 38 carries behind Beadles last season, however, so sample size a little smaller) and 15th over the center. Those weak-side runs were often against those smaller formations with fronts built for speed. So, the troubling numbers came in the postseason when the Broncos couldn't make any room in the run game against formations built to stop their passing game.

The Broncos averaged fewer than 2.5 yards per carry in three postseason games on runs over either the left tackle or left guard. And while they are not a running team in either word or deed, they will have to be one at times to close out the coming season the way they hope to.

And they believe Franklin's move will help them do it.
The home stretch is finally in sight as the, say it with me, May draft is, thankfully for many scouts, just a day away. And in the final countdown before everybody is really on the clock, it’s time to take a one-a-day look at some specific players who could find their way into the Broncos' draft class by the time the seven rounds come to a close.

Today: Guards Gabe Jackson and Xavier Su'a-Filo

The Broncos have said they feel comfortable in their ability to deal with left guard Zane Beadles’ departure in free agency with some in-house moves. Most notably would be the move of right tackle Orlando Franklin, a starter since he was selected in the 2011 draft, to left guard, a move Franklin has been told will be made when the team has full-team workouts in OTAs.

Chris Clark would then move to right tackle with Ryan Clady’s return to left tackle after spending much of the 2013 season on injured reserve with a foot injury. The Broncos will try several other combination as well as they work toward head coach John Fox's promise to put "the best five'' players in front of quarterback Peyton Manning.

But as they continue to look to shore up things in the middle of the formation, the Broncos will give a long look to a fairly deep group of linemen on the board, including a center, a potential right tackle and inside at guard. Jackson and Su’a-Filo are among the best guards in this draft class and both would bring a skill set to the Broncos that would make each a quality fit as a potential starter.

Su’a-Filo was the first true freshman in UCLA history to start a season opener in 2009 and is an athletic player who also played some left tackle in his time with the Bruins. He projects to be a guard in the NFL – he struggled working in the open spaces at tackle at times, especially with recovery skills if knocked off balance some by opposing defensive ends.

But inside Su’a-Filo is quick off the ball and is effective at moving people in the run game and keeping rushers off the quarterback. He does need some work in an NFL strength program and play with a little more upper-body power to fend off defensive tackles.

If you want power, then Jackson is your guy. Also in all of the indicators about a prospect’s potential NFL success, few are more reliable to gauge the future than 50-game starters in the offensive line. Those players have obviously been durable over their college careers and they just seem to understand how to get to work as well as what it takes to succeed game in, game out, season after season.

To that end, Jackson started all 52 games of his career at Mississippi State. He has an enormous reach, befitting his 6-foot-3 ¼, 336-pound frame, and in pass protection there is no place to go. When he slams the door on an opposing defensive tackle, it stays closed.

Consider a potential Jackson-Louis Vasquez pairing at guard for the Broncos -- it would give them one of the biggest tandems in the league -- and Manning would be difficult to see from across the line of scrimmage let alone find for opposing rushers.

Jackson plays with the savvy of the coach’s son that he is and consistently makes good decisions in blitz situations and projects as a player with the skills to start as a rookie with the football character of a two-time team captain. Jackson did tie for the slowest 40-yard dash among the linemen at the scouting combine – 5.63 seconds – but this is a quality interior line prospect who clearly understands the game and should be in somebody’s lineup for a long time.

Analyzing Kiper's Mock 4.0: Broncos 

April, 17, 2014
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When it comes to where the Denver Broncos are pointing in next month's draft, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has consistently said the team will keep working to upgrade its defense.

To that end Kiper has pointed the team to that side of the ball much of the time in his mock drafts thus far, and stays with that theme in his latest as well.

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.
When the Denver Broncos played offense last season, they were often driving toward history.

Their 606 points were a new NFL single-season record, as were quarterback Peyton Manning's 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards. They worked fast, stayed aggressive and piled up the points, wins, and some did-you-see-that highlights week after week.

And why not? The league has constructed an environment to get the points it wants, and it’s easier to throw now, given the wording and enforcement of the rules, than it has ever been. Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is a co-chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, which reviews any potential rules changes before they go before the owners for a vote each year, said Wednesday that the 47.682 total points per game and 697 combined yards per game last season were league records.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesMontee Ball and Denver's running backs might handle a bigger workload in 2014.
Also, 18 times a team overcame at least a 14-point deficit last season to win. That tied a league record, set in 2011. So, this is unquestionably the era of throw to score. Yet, the Broncos’ ability to be one win better in February in the coming season might rest on how well they do on offense when Manning isn’t throwing the ball.

“No question, we have to be better in the run game," said Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “... To keep our personality, our approach on offense, but to do better when we do run the ball."

By necessity, design, and just the simple fact it was working so historically well, the Broncos became a one-trick pony for the most part on offense. Oh, it was an awesome trick all right, the best ever, a never-before seen combination of speed, precision and grand design.

However, the trophy didn’t come with it. There will be the same number of Lombardi trophies in the Broncos’ newly renovated complex this September as there was last year in the now demolished lobby.

And after 606 points, 55 passing touchdowns, and six 40-point games, it’s simply bad football business to really expect the passing game to do any more of the heavy lifting to finish the unfinished business. So, with the ball in their hands, that leaves special teams -- and the Broncos need to be exponentially better on both their coverage and return units there -- and the running game.

Start with running back Montee Ball. In a support role last season, his 4.7 yards per carry led the three backs -- Knowshon Moreno, Ball, and Ronnie Hillman -- who had at least 50 carries last season, and his 45-yard run was the team’s longest rushing play of the season.

He’s the starter and also the reason the Broncos haven’t made much of a move to bring Moreno back. But with guard Zane Beadles' departure in free agency, the Broncos do have some decisions up front. Protecting Manning in the middle of the formation is always Job 1.

The Broncos are looking to be bigger, more powerful on the offensive front. And looking at the video from last season’s work, looking at some of the video from the available free agents in the offensive line, and in discussions with several personnel people around the league, their best move right now is still to bump Orlando Franklin down inside to left guard and play Chris Clark at right tackle.

There are plenty of scouts who have always believed Franklin came into the league with the potential to be a better guard than tackle after he had started games at both positions at the University of Miami.

And the feeling among those personnel folks is Manny Ramirez played better at center last season than he did at guard the season before, so a move back to guard wouldn’t seem to make the Broncos better overall. But there are some plug-and-play centers in this draft, including USC’s Marcus Martin and Colorado State’s Weston Richburg (a four-year starter who once had to snap with his left hand in a game because he had broken his right one), that will be worth a long look in the second round.

The Broncos were able to get by with the throw first, second and sometimes third, approach in the regular season if 13 wins and a big slice of scoring history could ever be called just getting by. However, in the playoffs their inability to move the line of scrimmage in the run game was a factor, particularly to the weak side when you’re largely running behind offensive linemen and no tight end.

The Broncos averaged just 1.6 yards per carry in runs over the left tackle in the three postseason games, just 2.43 yards per carry inside over the left guard. The figures were far better to the right -- 5.2 yards per carry over the right tackle in the postseason, and 4.4 over the right guard.

For a team that opens up the formation in three-wide receiver sets as much as the Broncos do (more than 70 percent of the time, and more than 90 percent down the stretch) with the tight end also in the slot or out wide, they have to be far more efficient on weak-side runs. Because they all look like weak-side runs with just the center, guard and tackle moving defenders and everybody else in the pattern.

No, they don’t have to box up a historical fast-break no-huddle attack, but in those times they need to do something besides throw, they have to be far better at it, far more committed to it. This includes Manning, because if you can't win a Super Bowl after the first-ever 606-point season, it might a good idea to consider another way.
There were times, especially late in Mike Shanahan’s 14-year tenure as the Denver Broncos' head coach and in Josh McDaniels’ two-year run with the Broncos, the team would release a player or two or five without so much as a ripple of interest from anyone else in the league after the Broncos had cast them into the market.

For the moment, anyway, those days are past.

Due to a variety of reasons, those Broncos players who formally became unrestricted free agents Tuesday were not on the Broncos' to-do list as an organization this time around. But three of the now former Broncos were certainly popular selections elsewhere once the bidding opened.

So as the first week of free agency draws to a close, here’s a scorecard of the major Broncos’ departures thus far, including signings, releases and in one, case, retirement:

G Chris Kuper

Where did he go?: Announced his retirement.

How it happened: Kuper had tried to battle back from a left ankle dislocation in the final game of the 2011 regular season and a serious infection that followed a year later after another procedure on the ankle.

He was a high-character player who was one of the Broncos' best when he was healthy, a physical, technically-sound lineman who always handled his business. Kuper wasn’t part of the lineup very often over the last two seasons -- six starts in last two years combined -- but his leadership, work ethic and day-to-day approach will be missed.

CB Champ Bailey

Where did he go?: Released.

How it happened: It has long been true in the league it can be difficult for a player to return to the locker room where he has been one of the Alpha players for so long when his role, or pay, or both have been reduced. It’s why many guys simply choose to sign elsewhere for a deal that was similar to the one they were offered as a pay cut by their former team.

And Bailey, with a $10 million salary cap figure for the 2014 season, after playing in just five games last season because of a foot injury, was facing that kind of scenario. But the Broncos took even a more severe approach and didn’t offer him an alternative. They simply decided to move on.

Bailey is a future Hall of Famer, a future Broncos Ring of Famer, a Broncos captain for a decade and certainly one of the team’s best-ever players. It was tough on both sides for that to end the way it did, but players rarely get to choose their football fate when their career clocks wind down. NFL personnel executives worry about the condition of Bailey’s foot and watched the Seattle Seahawks repeatedly target him in the Broncos’ Super Bowl loss.

So while Bailey has said he wants to play in 2014, it will bear watching to when a team is ready to offer him the opportunity.

LB Wesley Woodyard

Where did he go?: Signed with Tennessee Titans.

How it happened: The Broncos felt Woodyard, a captain for all six of his seasons in Denver, either on defense or special teams, was not the same player when he returned from a neck injury this past season.

It was a tough contract year for Woodyard. First, the Broncos put him at middle linebacker in the preseason, a tough assignment for the undersized Woodyard and then they benched him in the base defense down the stretch and in the postseason when the Broncos believed he was not holding up in the run game after missing two games with his injury.

The Broncos didn’t really make an attempt to retain him, and even if they had it wouldn’t have been for the kind of contract he got with the Titans -- four years, $16 million overall with a $3 million signing bonus. Woodyard will play one of the inside linebacker spots in the Titans’ 3-4 look and if healthy should have a quality year in Ray Horton's defense.

WR Eric Decker

Where did he go?: Signed with New York Jets.

How it happened: Decker got caught, in a bit of bad timing, in the Broncos' plan for the future. The Broncos face the prospect of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, the team's top wideout, and tight end Julius Thomas, a top-shelf playmaker in waiting, to be poised for free agency after the 2014 season.

To pay Decker big dollars now to go with big dollars to the two Thomas’ next year is to have too much salary cap room taken up by players who have the same job in the offense. Also, the Broncos saw Decker as a No. 2 receiver who had bouts of inconsistency at times, even in his back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with 24 receiving touchdowns in the last two years combined.

Decker had 11 drops in 2012 to go with seven this past season. He had five 100-yard games, but also had games of 32, 50, 42, 5 and 42 yards receiving along the way. In the Broncos’ three postseason games he finished with two catches for 32 yards in the divisional round against the San Diego Chargers and with one catch, for 6 yards, in the Super Bowl.

In the Broncos' minds there had to be more consistency to even consider an offer to Decker and in the end no formal offer was made. And despite the many good things Decker did in the Broncos' record-setting offense, the Jets, and their faithful, will expect more after a five-year, $36.3 million deal with $15 million guaranteed.

G Zane Beadles

Where did he go?: Signed with Jacksonville Jaguars.

How it happened: Beadles played in every game of his time with the Broncos -- 64 in all, with 62 starts. He’s just 27 years old, a home-grown player who was a second-round pick in the 2010 draft.

But the Broncos invested $26 million last March in Louis Vasquez at right guard and signed left tackle Ryan Clady to a five-year, $52.5 million deal in 2013. That’s a lot of investment in back-to-back years in two spots up front.

And Beadles was looking for something on the order of what he got from the Jaguars -- five years, $30 million, with $13 million guaranteed -- more than the Broncos would have been willing to entertain. So while Beadles is smart, assignment sound and performed well much of the time in the multiple schemes the team played in his time in Denver, the Broncos are of the opinion they want to be more physical up front and that Beadles had difficulty at times with the power players across from him. To that end they will consider moving right tackle Orlando Franklin inside into Beadles’ left guard spot.

In that scenario Chris Clark would move to right tackle with Vinston Painter, a 2014 draft pick, a possibility down the road as well. With those in-house options on hand, the Broncos simply chose not to bid because they weren’t going to go nearly as high as somebody else would, and did.

Top free-agent roundup: AFC West

March, 10, 2014
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The AFC West produced three playoff teams and the eventual AFC title winner in the Denver Broncos, so it should come as no surprise that many top free agents come from the division. Oakland Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez, Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold, Kansas City Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and San Diego Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams break down the top 15:

1. Branden Albert, Chiefs offensive tackle: Kansas City won’t franchise him this year. Albert will get a nice contract elsewhere.

2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Broncos cornerback: He’s not yet 30 and still a top-tier athlete.

3. Eric Decker, Broncos wide receiver: Productive in scoring zone, will be one of the biggest wide receivers on open market, but rarely faced opponents’ top cornerback in Broncos offense.

4. Lamarr Houston, Raiders defensive end: Better suited to the left side because he’s not the prototypical speed-rusher.

Moreno
5. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos running back: Has had multiple knee surgeries, including one on a torn ACL in 2011, but he runs with passion, is solid in pass protection and a productive receiver.

6. Jared Veldheer, Raiders offensive tackle: Didn’t have a very good season in 2013 but would attract some attention as a free agent.

7. Geoff Schwartz, Chiefs guard: Was a free-agent find for Kansas City last season. Can play right tackle if needed.

8. Jon Asamoah, Chiefs guard: A better pass-protector than run-blocker. He will be only 26 in July.

9. Shaun Phillips, Broncos linebacker: He’ll be 33 in May but showed last season that he can still be an effective situational pass-rusher.

10. Zane Beadles, Broncos guard: For a movement-based front, he’s a smart, durable option who played in every game while with Denver.

McCluster
McCluster
11. Dexter McCluster, Chiefs wide receiver/punt returner: Hasn’t had a huge impact on the offense in Kansas City, but he will be only 26 in August.

12. Robert Ayers, Broncos defensive end: Had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s a late bloomer.

13. Tyson Jackson, Chiefs defensive end: Like Ayers, he had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s figuring it out as well.

14. Tracy Porter, Raiders cornerback: He’s versatile enough to cover the slot receiver, and he had one of his better seasons in 2013.

15. Kendrick Lewis, Chiefs safety: He’s only 25 but was a better player earlier in his career. He hasn’t been the same since a shoulder injury in 2012.

Free-agency primer: Broncos

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

 Key free agents: WR Eric Decker, RB Knowshon Moreno, LB Wesley Woodyard, G Zane Beadles, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DE Robert Ayers, DE Shaun Phillips, S Mike Adams, LB Paris Lenon, CB Quentin Jammer.

Where they stand: The Broncos have significant issues on defense. They have six defensive backs who are unrestricted or restricted free agents; they have told Champ Bailey, who had a year left on his deal, they will release him; they don’t have a middle linebacker who started any games in 2013 on the roster; and two of their top three players in sacks in 2013 (Phillips and Ayers) are free agents. That’s an awful of uncertainty on the depth chart with starters at defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and safety now on the open market. They also have two of the four wide receivers who were on the 53-man roster last season -- Decker and Andre Caldwell -- as free agents.

What to expect: Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said he believes that free agency is where a team should target “glaring needs," so the draft can be a best-player-available affair. So, with some cap room to work with, the Broncos will be aggressive with a few targeted deals -- as they have done in both 2012 and 2013 with Elway calling the shots -- before they back out and then wait for the first waves to pass. But they lean defense early in the checkbook frenzy because they need pass-rush help, have already worked out linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu -- Jackson eventually signed in Indianapolis -- and likely will sign a veteran receiver as well. The Broncos are selling a potential Super Bowl shot with Peyton Manning back at quarterback, so they figure to be a popular stop for players looking for a run at a ring.
During the league's scouting combine this past week, Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway gave a clear, unvarnished opinion of how the team will approach its own group of soon-to-be free agents.

That is, the team won't approach them. At least not out of the gate. At least not before those players can see if the bank accounts are greener on the other side of the fence.

"I think they have to hit the market, the market sets those," Elway said. "Especially where you look where we are and what we have coming up."

[+] EnlargeOrlando Franklin
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos may turn to Orlando Franklin if left guard Zane Beadles leaves in free agency.
The Broncos have Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Von Miller also poised for free agency following the 2014 season, so that will impact how the Broncos divvy up the checks this time around as well. It also means the Broncos aren't interested in starting the bidding for guys like wide receiver Eric Decker, running back Knowshon Moreno and guard Zane Beadles. And it means, unless the three don't draw much interest in the open market the Broncos have given some consideration to what they would do if they move on.

Beadles' departure would force changes in the offensive line that the Broncos are expected to take on in house. With so many needs on defense, any significant dollars spent in free agency will address issues there. The coming draft class is expected to have a heavy defensive flavor as well.

Up front Beadles has started the last 62 regular season games for the Broncos and has played in every game -- 64 in the regular season as well as six playoff games -- of his career. If he leaves as expected, the Broncos would be inclined to take another look at Orlando Franklin at guard.

While Franklin has spent his time with the Broncos at right tackle, many teams believed he would be a better guard in the NFL when he was drafted in 2011. The Broncos have worked him occasionally on the inside during practice with the idea a move would be in his future.

Franklin is a power player and with Louis Vasquez at right guard, a move to the left guard spot for Franklin would give the Broncos the kind of bulk on the inside they want in front of quarterback Peyton Manning. If the Broncos are going to play as much in three-wide receiver sets as they have in Manning's two seasons behind center they have to be able to stone-wall defenses in the middle of the field.

Manning's post-surgery throwing motion is very pronounced in the lower body and he needs a well-constructed pocket to get the ball away with his best available velocity on the throw.

Any move to guard for Franklin would mean the Broncos would also need a right tackle to replace him. And they believe that, too, can be done with the players already in their locker room. Especially with left tackle Ryan Clady on schedule to be full speed by training camp -- he recently had the pins and screws removed from his surgically-repaired foot -- the Broncos will have their best lineman back in his customary spot.

"Ryan's doing well," Elway said. "We feel very good about where he is."

Clady's return alone is the balm the Broncos need to address much of the pass protection issues they had at times. This was especially true against the more physical four-man fronts they faced this past seaosn, including in their loss in Super Bowl XLVIII. Clady's return would free them to move Chris Clark, who started for Clady after he was lost for the year in Week 2, to right tackle. The Broncos also feel optimistic enough about Vinston Painter's development to have projected him as a potential starter at right tackle in the future.

Painter, who has spent plenty of post-practice time working with offensive line consultant Alex Gibbs, was a sixth-round pick in last April's draft. The Broncos had to promote him from their own practice squad to the 53-man roster in January when the San Francisco 49ers were set to sign him.

So, the Broncos will still take a look at some guards in the draft, perhaps even a right tackle, but overall with Beadles expected to get his best offer elsewhere, they will be set to quickly respond to that departure with players already on the roster.
With the NFL's scouting combine opening Wednesday and free agency to follow on March 11, today marks the fifth installment of a position-a-day look at where the Denver Broncos stand at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Offensive line

Wednesday: Defensive line

The Broncos find themselves in a quirky place at this position. On one hand, quarterback Peyton Manning was the least-sacked passer in the league with at least 181 pass attempts this past season.

Manning was sacked just 18 times and threw the ball a league-leading 659 times, winning a fifth MVP award to go with several single-season passing records. Oh, and the Broncos scored more points (606) than any team in history.

So, none of that can be accomplished without an offensive line that's playing at a high level.

On the other hand, the Broncos' front was overwhelmed by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. And when the Broncos tried to run out of a three-wide-receiver set, they couldn't always block the way they needed to.

Certainly most teams on the Broncos' schedule can't line up and play the way the Seattle Seahawks do on defense, but the Seahawks certainly showed what a physical front -- the kind the Broncos would have to handle, say, in most any playoff game -- can do to the Broncos' offense. Especially if that front consistently gets to Manning.

The Alpha: Left tackle Ryan Clady is a three-time Pro Bowl selection who played just two games this past season because of a foot injury suffered in the team's Week 2 win against the New York Giants. And certainly the Broncos would have had more versatility to do some things up front had he played the entire season. Personnel executives around the league consider Clady one of the Broncos' best and while last season was the first time he had missed any games in his career, he has now had major knee, shoulder and foot surgeries over a five-year span. The Broncos do like his progress from the foot surgery, and he is expected to be in his usual spot in 2014.

Salary cap: The Broncos have four of their five projected starters under contract for 2014. On the heels of his five-year, $52.5 million deal he signed last summer, Clady leads the way with an $8.6 million salary-cap figure for '14, third highest on the team. His $8 million base salary is also guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year, March 15. Guard Louis Vasquez, one of the Broncos' top priorities in free agency last March, is next with a $7.25 million cap figure for '14 -- fifth highest on the team -- while Manny Ramirez has a $2.42 million cap figure and right tackle Orlando Franklin is at $1.386 million.

Chris Kuper, who played in just four games this past season with one start, continues to struggle from his surgically repaired ankle. Kuper, who the team asked to take a pay cut this past season, also carries a $5.92 million cap figure for '14, seventh highest on the team.

[+] EnlargeZane Beadles
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsZane Beadles is the only one of the Broncos' starting five offensive lineman who's slated to be a free agent this offseason.
Pending free agents: The Broncos signed Ramirez and backup tackle Chris Clark to two-year extensions this past season. Vasquez and Clady signed long-term deals this past year and Franklin is still on his rookie deal. That leaves left guard Zane Beadles as the only starter from this past season pointed toward unrestricted free agency in the coming weeks. Reserve tackle Winston Justice, signed when Clady went to injured reserve, and reserve center Steve Vallos are unrestricted free agents.

Who could stay: Other than Beadles, the Broncos expect to have the other four starters on the roster for the 2014 season. Franklin will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season and there is still a scenario where the Broncos take another look at him inside at guard.

Who could go: Beadles has been a fixture at left guard since the initial attempt to play him at tackle didn't go so well after he arrived in the 2010 draft. He's played in 64 regular-season games, starting 62. But the Broncos may be looking to get more physical up front just as they were trying to do when they signed Vasquez last year. Opposing defensive coaches believe they can push Beadles off the spot in pass protection.

What they like/want: If the Broncos are going to continue to do things the way they have with Manning behind center the past two seasons, they need disciplined, smart and physical players who can meet the demands of a fast-paced, complex attack and the physical challenges that come with blocking in a three-wide-receiver set much of the time.

Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 4

They'll have most of their starters back, but the depth chart needs attention with guys who were the main backups this year -- Kuper, Justice and Vallos -- facing the possibility of moving on.

Despite tackle Vinston Painter's progress as a '13 draft pick who the Broncos promoted from the practice squad to the active roster when the San Francisco 49ers were hoping to sign him, they'll still have to give a long look in the draft.

And if the right player at guard or right tackle comes along in free agency, they would have to consider making that investment.

Franchise/transition tags: Broncos

February, 17, 2014
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In each of the previous two years, the Denver Broncos used the franchise tag on an impending free agent they hoped to lock up to a long-term deal but just needed a little more time to cross all the T's and dot all the I's in the contract.

In 2012, it was kicker Matt Prater, who got the tag before he signed a new multiyear deal with the team. Last year it was left tackle Ryan Clady, who was still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery when the Broncos placed the tag on him.

Clady, who would have earned $9.828 million on that one-year deal had the tag remained in place, eventually worked out a five-year, $52.5 million contract with the team just before training camp.

But don’t look for the Broncos to use either of the tags this time around. Their most prominent free agents -- most notably running back Knowshon Moreno, wide receiver Eric Decker, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and linebacker Wesley Woodyard -- have been productive starters with the team, but none are so deep in the team’s plans that the Broncos would use the tags to have them guaranteed of being on the roster next season.

Decker has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons since the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, but the franchise-tag salary on a one-year deal at wide receiver was $10.537 million last year and is expected to be slightly higher this time around.

At running back, the franchise tag was $8.219 million last season, and at linebacker, it was $9.619 million.

The Broncos will make offers to most of their impending free agents, but it’s likely all of their more high-profile unrestricted free agents could get better offers, in terms of overall money, elsewhere.

Decker, Moreno, guard Zane Beadles and defensive end Robert Ayers are among the team’s free agents who, next month, will complete deals they signed with the Broncos as rookies. It will be their first opportunity in the open market. Woodyard, who has been a team captain in each of his six seasons with the Broncos, just finished his second contract with the team, while other unrestricted free agents, like Rodgers-Cromartie, safety Mike Adams, linebacker Paris Lenon and defensive end Shaun Phillips, came from elsewhere.

Part of the issue for the Broncos this time around is securing the players who are set to become free agents following the 2014 season, a group that includes wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.
For the second consecutive season the Denver Broncos watched all they had done in a 13-3 season get shoved aside and stuffed out of sight by an stunning end to their football year.

In 2012, it was the shocking double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens while this time it was a never-in-it mauling at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. And after several looks at the video to go with discussions with NFL pro personnel executives from both conferences, here is a report card for the 2013 team.

There is no grading on a curve. A's, as always, are far more difficult to earn than a Pro Bowl slot. Grades were awarded to the players on the Broncos' season-ending, 53-man roster and starters who suffered season-ending injuries after playing at least four games.

It is, however, not simply a Super Bowl grade. The title-game meltdown is in there, but the body of work goes from the season-opener to what transpired in MetLife Stadium.

Today it’s the offense’s turn, Tuesday will be the defense and Wednesday will bring special teams and injured players.

The scale:

A -- Consistently dominant. What some personnel executives give a "blue" rating, a nod to veteran personnel evaluator Mike Giddings, a former Broncos assistant coach.

B -- Productive starter/key situational player who could fit smoothly into almost any lineup in the league.

C -- Did the job asked of him with consistency.

D -- Substandard. Salary and playing time didn't match output.

PNP -- Practice but not much play.

Quarterbacks

Manning
Peyton Manning: A

The Super Bowl will sting a bit for some time, but the Broncos sported the first 600-point offense in league history and Manning set single-season records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477) to go with 12 300-yard passing games.

Brock Osweiler: PNP

He played 51 snaps this season, 32 of those coming in the regular-season finale in Oakland. The Broncos like his progress and with Manning expected back for ’14 Osweiler needs to find a way to challenge himself and keep his edge until he gets a chance to earn the keys to the offense.

Zac Dysert: PNP

Broncos think enough of him as a prospect to have kept him on the 53-man roster for the season, but he was a gameday inactive in all regular-season and postseason games.

Wide receivers

Andre Caldwell: C

Played in 21.5 percent of the offense’s snaps as the fourth wide receiver in the rotation and caught a TD pass on 18.8 percent of his catches (three in 16 receptions). He’s an unrestricted free agent.

Decker
Eric Decker: B

The pending free agent cut his drops from a team-high 11 last season to six in his second consecutive 1,000-yard campaign with Manning behind center. Had a couple open-field stumbles on potential big plays, but those who make the calls for teams in free agency are looking hard at the fact he simply didn’t consistently get himself free from aggressive bump coverage, including a one-catch Super Bowl performance.

Demaryius Thomas: A

The only wide receiver in the league to finish with at least 90 catches, 1,400 yards and a 15 yards per catch average. Also led all wideouts in touchdown catches (14), trailing only New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. Played through a painful shoulder injury down the stretch.

Wes Welker B-

Yes, his 5.6 receptions per game trailed only Demaryius Thomas (5.75) in the offense and he scored a career-high 10 touchdowns. But he led the team with nine drops in 13 games -- he missed three recovering from two concussions in a four-game span -- including three-drop games against New England and New York.

Tight ends

Joel Dreessen: C

After arthroscopic surgery on his knee in May and again in August he went from playing over 70 percent of the snaps in 2012 to 13.2 percent this season and was a gameday inactive for the team’s three postseason games. He carries a $3.167 million cap figure in ’14 as well, 12th highest on the team at the moment.

Thomas
Julius Thomas: A-

A breakout year with what the Broncos hope is plenty more to come. Still largely a one-dimensional player with limited experience working from an on-the-line position out of a three-point stance. But 65 catches and 12 touchdowns is a pretty good dimension right now.

Virgil Green: C

Green played 26.4 percent of the snaps as the Broncos’ on-the-line option in some of their heavier packages, but didn’t top 13 plays in any of last four games of regular season or in playoffs as Broncos went almost exclusively three-wide down the stretch.

Jacob Tamme: B-

Welker’s arrival ate into his playing time significantly -- 52 catches in 2012 compared to 20 catches in 2013 -- but was productive when on the field and was one of the team’s most consistent performers on special teams. Seventeen of his catches came over last seven games of regular season with Welker having missed three of those.

Running backs

C.J. Anderson: PNP

Showed enough in training camp to earn a roster spot, but was a gameday inactive 11 times in regular season. Finished the year with seven carries.

Ball
Montee Ball: B

Things looked dicey for the rookie when he had his third lost fumble of the season Nov. 24 against the Patriots (game 11 for the Broncos), but he locked it down the rest of the way and became to go-to No. 2 back in the offense. Showed potential as a receiver as well.

Ronnie Hillman: D

Went from essentially being handed the starting job in offseason OTAs and minicamp to moping through a string of games where he was a gameday inactive.

Knowshon Moreno: A

After knee woes, some maturity issues early in his career and a roster spot that was tenuous at best by the time last summer's training camp opened, Moreno had his best season -- 1,038 yards rushing, 60 catches and 13 total touchdowns. The soon-to-be unrestricted free agent was also the most reliable pass protector at the position.

Offensive linemen

Zane Beadles: B

Like most of his Broncos’ brethren at the position, did not handle the Seahawks’ physical front well in season's final game. Still occasionally gets overpowered at the point of attack, but was one three Broncos’ linemen to have played at 99 percent of the team’s snaps on offense.

Chris Clark: B-

Being asked to take over for an All Pro like Ryan Clady in an offense that most often works out of a three-wide receiver set where the Broncos block five-on-everybody much of the time can be daunting. Manning’s quick mind and get-the-ball-out approach helps all of the guys up front, but Clark proved to be just the kind of insurance most teams would like at left tackle.

Franklin
Orlando Franklin: C+

Struggled at times against the speed guys that get flipped to the defensive left at times. Led the team in penalties with 11 (one was declined) in regular season, including seven flags for holding.

Winston Justice: C

After being signed when Clady went to injured reserve, the veteran played eight snaps against Tennessee to go with 10 in regular-season finale in Oakland.

Chris Kuper: PNP

His surgically-repaired left ankle looked to bother him for most of the season -- he played one full game, at Indy Oct. 20 -- and had 15 games, including all three in postseason, when he did not play a snap on offense or special teams as a gameday inactive much of the time.

Vinston Painter: PNP

The Broncos like his progress/potential and so do others. The team had to promote him to the 53-man roster from the practice squad to keep the San Francisco 49ers from signing him.

Ramirez
Manny Ramirez: B

Ramirez believed he would be the starting center when few others on the outside did and until the fly-away snap to open the Super Bowl he had manned the position with consistency in one of the more difficult offenses to play at the position. Got pushed off the spot at times in pass protection by some of the defensive tackles with top-end lower-body strength.

Steve Vallos: C

Veteran was in uniform for 15 games in regular season and all of playoff games and played 107 snaps on special teams.

Louis Vasquez: A

The Broncos dove in early in free agency to sign him and was every bit of what they hoped he would be. He was technically sound, consistently had quality hand placement and was the most physically powerful player in the Broncos front.

Here is Broncos' things-to-do list

February, 5, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Perhaps it was part warning shot across the bow of the locker room as well as the team's scouting and personnel departments or simply a promise about living with what happened to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Either way, John Elway wasn't even 48 hours past the crushing loss to the Seattle Seahawks and he was already dialing in on the 2014 season.

"The bottom line is we're going to work as hard as we worked this year, if not harder," Elway said. "And continue to do that with the mindset that we want to be world champions and we're going to do everything we can to get there."

And as Elway has said, the decisions get tougher with the wins -- the Broncos are 26-6 over the last two regular seasons. With that, here's an early look at what's to come for the Broncos:

First, the lists ...

Unrestricted free agents (2013 salary cap figures in parentheses): RB Knowshon Moreno ($3.287 million), LB Wesley Woodyard ($3.25 million), CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ($2.9 million), DE Robert Ayers ($2.241 million), S Mike Adams ($2 million), LB Paris Lenon ($1.54 million), WR Eric Decker ($1.506 million), CB Quentin Jammer ($1.5 million), DE Shaun Phillips ($1.4 million), LB Stewart Bradley ($1.2 million), G Zane Beadles ($1.06 million), C Dan Koppen ($1.015 million), WR Andre Caldwell ($1 million), T Winston Justice ($991,176), C Steve Vallos ($555,000), S Michael Huff ($296,470).

Restricted free agents, so Broncos have right to match other offers (2013 salary cap charges): CB Tony Carter ($715,000), CB Chris Harris Jr. ($555,668), DT Mitch Unrein ($555,000), LB Brandon Marshall ($28,235).

Exclusive-rights free agents, so they can't negotiate with any other team (2013 salary cap figures): KR Trindon Holliday ($480,000), S Duke Ihenacho ($480,000).

Position to watch: The Broncos have six defensive backs who are slated to be either unrestricted or restricted free agents. Rodgers-Cromartie, whose 2014 portion of his contract will void Friday, will turn 28 in early April so he will likely have demand elsewhere.

Bailey
Harris will need the entire offseason to recover from surgery to repair a torn ACL, so the Broncos could simply tender him a one-year offer with enough compensation required to keep away the suitors if they want to gauge his recovery before diving in long term.

But overall, cornerback Champ Bailey will also turn 36 in June and played in just five games this past season. The Broncos will have to look long and hard for help at this position since their entire rotation is in flux. Rodgers-Cromartie started 13 games in the regular season, Adams played in 16 and started seven, Harris started 15, Jammer played in 11 games, Huff played in seven after signing in November and Carter played in 12.

That's a lot of snaps at one position on the bargaining table.

Cap figures to watch: Bailey's $10 million hit for '14 leads the way. It's likely the Broncos will approach him about some kind of relief and if Bailey's willing the two sides could work something out. If not, the Broncos are not in position to bring him back at that number.

"Most people in this locker room have to deal with something coming up," Bailey said this week. "You deal with it when you can. I don't control anything -- I'm under contract for another year, so I'm not concerned with what's going on, really. Those decisions are not made by me. I'll deal with that when it comes."

Guard Chris Kuper, who has continued to battle his way back from multiple ankle surgeries as well as a major infection, took a pay cut last August. He has a $5.19 million cap figure for '14. Tight end Joel Dreessen has a $3.166 million cap figure and was a game-day inactive for the Broncos' three postseason games.

The you-can't-keep-everybody department: Woodyard -- who has been a captain in all six of his seasons with the team -- Moreno, Ayers, Decker and Beadles have been just the kind of home-grown players Elway wants as the Broncos move forward.

Decker
But they are not all going to get their best offers from the Broncos. Decker, in particular, fits the profile of an offensive players who will do far better in the open market than he would with the Broncos. Offensive starters at skill positions, especially those who work in the league's marquee offenses, are considered splash signings to many teams. So, those players often get some of the big money tossed around early in free agency.

Moreno fits what the Broncos do in all facets of his game, but he's had two knee surgeries, including an ACL repair. Ayers has been a rotation player over the last two seasons. And while offensive linemen are considered by many general managers to be the safest bets in free agency, the Broncos' feelings on Beadles will be seen in the kind offer they extend.

Feel the draft: The Broncos' top spots should be cornerback, defensive line and the middle of the offensive line. They will have to consider wide receivers as well if Decker moves on and given they lost their last draft pick at the position -- Tavarres King -- when he was claimed off waivers by Carolina in October as the Broncos tried to get him back on to the practice squad.

Given Lenon and Woodyard are free agents and Von Miller coming back from ACL surgery, linebacker will need at least a second-day look as well.

Who's got the most to gain in '14: Miller, by far. He's been suspended for six games already. Another one would cost him a year and he remains in Stage 3 of the league's drug program for the remainder of his career.

Miller
He returned from his suspension a little heavier and didn't play with nearly the same explosiveness he had in 2013, according to a wide sampling of pro personnel scouts who have evaluated him. And he's coming back from ACL surgery.

That's a lot for a guy set to be an unrestricted free agent following the '14 season and it means there are several questions swirling around a guy who once looked like a foundation player for the team.

Also, Brock Osweiler can continue to show the Broncos he's got what they'll need for him to take over in the post Peyton Manning era.

And offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who will be in the last year of his current contract in '14, was a red-hot head coaching candidate this season and he figures to remain at the front of the line with Manning's return.

Other matters that need attention: Head coach John Fox will be in last year of his deal in '14, a situation more coaches do not like to be in. Elway has said he would sit down with Fox after the season was over. In Fox's favor are three consecutive division titles, but he will have to answer for the Super Bowl meltdown.

Also, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's contract is set to expire. He likes it in Denver. The Broncos like his work, especially as the interim head coach this season season, so as it stands something would get done unless an unexpected bump in the road appears.

Plan for the future: What the Broncos do, or don't do, in free agency this time around could be affected by the fact Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Orlando Franklin are all slated to be unrestricted free agents after the 2014 season.

Or as Elway put it; "My job is to stay two steps ahead."
 Julius ThomasAP Photo/Jack DempseyJulius Thomas has come a long way since living with Brady Quinn to learn the Broncos playbook.

NEWARK, N.J. -- It was the spring of discontent in the NFL. The lockout was on, two sides dug in for a nasty corporate spat over money, benefits with each trying to find the public relations high ground.

And Julius Thomas, with all of one season’s worth of college football experience on his résumé, had just been selected in the fourth round of the 2011 draft by the Denver Broncos. But Thomas was a Broncos player in name only. He had no contract, no contact with his new coaches beyond a short post-draft how-do-you-do? session, no access to the team’s weight room and no way to use anything the Broncos had inside of their complex that could help him.

"At that point, the lockout was kind of frustrating for a guy like me," Thomas said. "I needed the OTAs [organized team activities], I needed practice, I needed meetings, I needed to be around it. I didn’t know what my role was going to be in the NFL or what kind of player I could be. I just knew I thought I had a lot of work to do and wanted to get started."

Now, Thomas is a Pro Bowl tight end, a key piece in an offense that set an NFL scoring record this season with 606 points. But in April, May and June of 2011, he was a Broncos draft pick adrift, with more questions than answers with just one season of football at Portland State after his four-year basketball career has concluded.

Thomas was raw, bristling with potential and in search of help.

Enter Brady Quinn, a Broncos backup quarterback at the time who hoped to compete for the starting job if and when the labor posturing ended. Quinn was one of many Broncos players who took part in on-their-own workouts during the lockout, a group that included several current Broncos such as Zane Beadles, Chris Kuper, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, as well as former Broncos safety Brian Dawkins.

And Quinn, the guy with the best grasp of the team's playbook in those workouts -- having never met Thomas before, having been introduced to the then-rookie by a friend -- offered Thomas a place to stay as well as a seat in a Football 101 classroom of sorts. Thomas gladly accepted, paid his own way -- before he even had an NFL paycheck -- and got to work.

"But just to go live with someone he didn’t even know, to sacrifice whatever he was doing in his life right to start a career you’re just beginning, all during a lockout, I think it took a lot for a young guy," said Quinn, currently a St. Louis Rams quarterback recovering from back surgery in California. "But you just saw that desire, that work ethic."

Quinn also saw what the Broncos saw in pre-draft workouts, what the team saw in Thomas’ first two seasons in the NFL despite struggles with ankle issues, including surgery following the 2011 season. But even through those first two seasons -- when Thomas had just one catch -- the Broncos believed in the potential Quinn saw from almost the first pass he threw to the kid.

The veteran quarterback set things up like Thomas would see once he was allowed to join the team. The two had installation sessions with the team’s playbook, then they would discuss what Thomas had just been shown and head to the field to see if Thomas could turn the information into action.

"And the thing that struck you right away was his ability, that wow factor, just watching him move. You’re like, 'holy crap,'" Quinn said. "And I know it’s going to sound crazy, but to me, it was like if LeBron [James] played football. I really thought to myself, even in those first workouts, this is what it might look like if LeBron James played football. You saw that size, running like a wide receiver. That wingspan, the way he ran routes with power and agility and to look so smooth and effortless to go with the way he just snatched the ball when he caught it."

"I think about it from time to time, for sure, but I’ve always appreciated what Brady did for me," Thomas said this week. "Here I am, a young guy, coming out of college, lockout is going on, and Brady opened up his home to me. And he didn’t just open his home to me, he sat down every day and worked with me on the playbook. He was my first real introduction into the NFL, my first real glimpse of being a pro."

Quinn said after he would throw to Thomas and some of the others in the on-field work, he would quiz Thomas about things in the playbook they had discussed or worked on that day "just to see what he retained."

Coaches often say good habits, developed early in a career, will serve a player well, maybe even help beat the league's short-term odds. Two years after his work with Quinn, Thomas was also one of the first of the Broncos' youthful group of players on offense to find his way into workouts with Peyton Manning after the quarterback signed in March 2012.

Thomas quickly developed the on-field chemistry with Manning, and it could be seen in his 65-catch, 12-touchdown season.

"It showed [Thomas] didn’t have much of a football background at that point. He knew some of the things he was going to have to do to be in this business to be a pro," Broncos tight end coach Clancy Barone said. "He was living on Brady’s couch basically. That was his first step. I’ll be honest, he’s still got a great upside to go, still plenty of work to do, and that’s a great thing, to have that kind of skill set now and still have some room to grow. I think it shows what he could be if he continues to do those things."

"He’s just smart. He picks things up easily. He understood football right away even though he didn't have much of a history with the game," Quinn said. "It was almost innate. You just didn't have to teach him too much about the routes. He seemed to just understand how to do it. It was almost like he had a feel of how to set up a guy who was covering him."

So here’s Thomas now, a star in waiting and a matchup nightmare who is being described as an X factor in a Super Bowl. An unlikely road traveled, in at least some way, right from Brady Quinn’s house.

"I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what he did for me," Thomas said. "I’ll always appreciate it, I’ll always be grateful for it and I’ll always remember it."

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