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Broncos rookie report: Ball's soft hands

8/7/2013

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Despite the Broncos' recent run of 30-something signings -- offensive linemen Dan Koppen and Ryan Lilja to go with defensive back Quentin Jammer in late May -- the key to remaining a Super Bowl contender and managing some coming salary-cap dilemmas will be how well they draft and develop those draft picks.

Or as Tony Dungy often said during his coaching career; "you can't be afraid of young players."

After all this is a team with 33.4 percent of its cap space in 2013 devoted to three players (Peyton Manning with a $17.5 million cap figure, Ryan Clady at $12.6 million and Champ Bailey at $11 million).

In light of that, we will be doing a weekly check-in with how the team's first-year players are doing. Let's get to it:

THE DRAFT CLASS

Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams. The Broncos' first-rounder was slowed early in camp with a knee injury that cost him a few days worth of practices, but it's clear the Broncos have plans for him in their pass-rush looks early on. Williams has most often lined up as Terrance Knighton's backup on the nose in the team's base 4-3 look. But when defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio goes to the specialty looks that feature a variety of fronts, Williams has been in the mix with the regulars. At least early on, he figures to play on longer-yardage situations most often.

Running back Montee Ball. Ball has consistently said he "attacked'' the playbook before training camp as well as in his limited free time since the team began its preseason work. He is already at the top tier of the rotation in the run game -- a No. 1B to Ronnie Hillman's No. 1A status. Ball cannot match Hillman's speed or big-play ability. But Ball has good vision, quick feet and

has shown the team better hands in the passing game than some scouts believed he had. Ball is also bigger than Hillman -- Ball weighs about 214 pounds compared to Hillman's 195 -- so could appear in some scoring situations deep in the red zone. But Ball will have to continue to progress in pass protection to see work in longer-yardage situations.

Cornerback Kayvon Webster. Webster has shown good speed in practices thus far and a willingness to match up in both press coverage and play with awareness off the ball in zone. But he also finds himself at one of the more crowded spots on the depth chart. Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris, Tony Carter and Omar Bolden are ahead of him at the moment. Rodgers-Cromartie will miss some time with an ankle injury so Webster will get the benefit of some additional practice snaps in the coming weeks.

Defensive end Quanterus Smith. Smith is coming back from surgery to repair a torn ACL he suffered in the 10th game of the 2012 season at Western Kentucky. The Broncos worked him back slowly through the offseason program. Other than one practice he left early because of the knee, he has practiced fully throughout training camp. The Broncos believe -- and he has shown it in practice thus far -- that he can contribute immediately as an edge player in some of their nickel and dime packages. He has worked as the No. 3 right defensive end in most team drills behind Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips but has moved up the ladder when the team goes to its long-yardage groupings.

Wide receiver Tavarres King. On another team or in another situation, King would have the potential to be a rookie of notice league-wide. But he arrived to a team with plenty of veteran production at wideout in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. King, who played a school-record 56 games at Georgia, has shown a savvy about how to conduct himself in practice to go with upper-level ball skills, an understanding of a complicated offense and the ability to make plays in traffic. He was slowed during offseason workouts with a thigh injury, but has been healthy so far in camp and is making a legitimate push to be the No. 4 player at the position, especially if he can show some value on special teams in the preseason.

Tackle Vinston Painter. When the Broncos selected Painter in the sixth round this past April, they saw an athletic project with a pile of potential. What they got was a player who has steadily worked his way up the depth chart, some by necessity because of injuries and some because he has advanced slightly more quickly than expected. Painter has worked much of the time as the backup right tackle, just behind Orlando Franklin. But the coaching staff showed this past week it doesn't think he's quite ready for work with the starters yet. Rather than simply elevating Painter after Franklin was injured, the coaches jumbled things up front, moving Louis Vasquez to right tackle in one practice and Chris Clark there in another.

Quarterback Zac Dysert. There is no rush for Dysert, whose task right now is to show enough to force the Broncos to keep three quarterbacks among the final 53. He's shown mobility and the ability to improvise as things break down in front of him. But he'll need to be more accurate, especially throwing to his right as well as in the short and intermediate areas.

UNDRAFTED ROOKIES

The Broncos have had at least one undrafted rookie make the roster for nine consecutive seasons. A number of undrafted rookies have stood out as candidates to keep the streak going.

Running back C.J. Anderson, at 224 pounds, has flashed some quality work with the ball in his hands, especially on runs between the guards. But his attention to detail wavers at times and he has made just the kind of assignment errors that get players ushered out. He needs a quality, no-nonsense showing in the first two preseason games, especially if he can make a play or two on special teams.

Linebacker Lerentee McCray is one of the biggest players, at 6-foot-3 and 249 pounds, the Broncos have at the position. He had just 25 tackles in 11 starts for the Florida Gators last season, but has shown the Broncos enough to have worked as the No. 3 strongside linebacker behind Von Miller and Phillips. If he can do some quality special-teams work in the coming weeks that could be the difference for him, especially if Miller loses his appeal of a four-game suspension to open the regular season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

Wide receiver/Kick returner Quincy McDuffie has missed some time of late with a hamstring injury and will have a difficult time getting many quality snaps at wideout. But he has done good work in the return game and while he would not supplant Trindon Holliday as the team's top returner, he has certainly gotten the Broncos' attention.