ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Denver Broncos' depth chart comes together for the 2014 season, some of their homegrown players will need to germinate into homegrown starters.
The model this past season was linebacker Danny Trevathan. A sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft, Trevathan was the defense's most consistently impactful player last season, a 129-tackle guy that some personnel executives believe could have a chance to make a Pro Bowl someday if he takes the next step.
And even after the rather substantial checks the Broncos wrote in free agency, even with the draft just around the corner, three names in particular kept coming up this week at the NFL meetings when the Broncos' roster builders talked about what's to come.
A running back, a cornerback and a defensive tackle. All Broncos draft picks last April, and all guys if the Broncos offseason plan is to work to its fullest, who have to make the jump from potential to production.
"That's the plan, that's the hope," said Broncos head coach John Fox. " ... They're young players and it's time to take the leap of faith."
"We have some young guys who will have the opportunity to play a lot of football for us," said executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway.
Elway said this week he would consider bringing back Knowshon Moreno at running back if Moreno remains unsigned in the coming weeks and if Moreno would accept what his "role" would be. The plan for that role is as a backup, because the Broncos believe Ball's 4.7 yards per carry last season mean he's ready to be the starter.
"It's a young man's game and every year you take leaps of faith with young players," Fox said. " ... He grew up as a player as far as being dependable, being accountable assignment-wise, all the things young players struggle with or have the opportunity to. We'll see what this year brings."
Fox added, "He's a tremendous young player. He improved a lot -- we needed him to a year ago. I thought he turned into a pro. He understands how to prepare. Sometimes that may take a while. It didn't take him as long. We're looking for him to make good leaps."
You may remember Webster as the guy with the target on his jersey with San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throwing at him play after play last December. But Webster played much of that game with a fractured thumb that needed surgery to repair.
Overall, his body of work as a rookie was solid. He played with confidence, bounced back from mistakes and was willing to press receivers up close while many cornerbacks his age are uncomfortable with that task. Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, said those traits make Wesbter a starter in waiting if the kid can hold up his end of the bargain.
"He was really playing well for a young player until he broke his thumb," Fox said. "He showed good development, he earned all those reps and I've seen great growth. We kind of missed him a little bit toward the end when the thumb went bad."
And Williams struggled some on the learning curve early last season when he was a game day inactive three times in the first nine games of the season and played 19 or fewer snaps in the other six games during that stretch. But necessity dictated more playing time for Williams last season when Kevin Vickerson suffered a season-ending hip injury Nov. 24 against the New England Patriots.
He played 36 snaps on defense against the Patriots in the wake of Vickerson's injury and played as a starter down the stretch and into the postseason, topping 40 snaps in two of the final three games of the regular season.
"He grew tremendously, he earned that," Fox said. " ... I thought he had a very good rookie year ... and his track record has shown he's going to be a good player."
So, there it is, three examples why the draft will continue to be the most important roster-building exercise the Broncos do each and every year no matter how much confetti folks toss at their free-agency performance. In the end, they simply would not have been in position to spend what they did in free agency without the salary cap room created by the younger draft picks that populated most of the roster.
And their ability to move from one season to the next, with success in mind rather than trying to figure out how to escape salary cap woes, with or without Peyton Manning at quarterback down the road, will depend on them being right more than they are wrong on their draft picks.
On players like Ball, Webster and Williams.