NFL Nation: Andre Caldwell

Broncos camp report: Day 1

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
9:30
PM ET
A daily review of the hot topics coming out of training camp:
  • When the Broncos selected wide receiver Cody Latimer in the second round of the draft in May, they did it knowing full well Latimer had suffered a fracture in his left foot in a pre-draft workout, much like Demaryius Thomas had before the Broncos made him a first-round pick in 2010. "I think they're like experts when it comes to that because it's worked out for them before," Latimer said. The Broncos dialed Latimer back for much of the offseason -- he did some limited team work in the team's three-day minicamp in June and the final set of organized team activities -- but looked just fine Thursday as he consistently flashed top-tier speed throughout the practice. He will get some premium snaps this season.
  • With Demaryius Thomas excused until Monday, Andre Caldwell took plenty of reps with the offensive starters. Caldwell, who signed a two-year deal to stay with the Broncos just before free agency opened in March, watched the team draft Latimer and sign Emmanuel Sanders. But quarterback Peyton Manning trusts Caldwell and showed even in Caldwell's limited playing time last season he was willing to throw to Caldwell in tight situations. And Thursday Manning made it clear people shouldn't be quick to dismiss Caldwell just yet in the wide receiver rotation, offering, "Caldwell will have a more significant role this season."
  • In the wake of the team's announcement that Pat Bowlen was stepping down as the team's owner this week, team president and CEO Joe Ellis met one-on-one with three players -- Manning, special teams captain David Bruton and defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Ware just signed in March, but this, as well as how Ware has conducted himself in offseason workouts, shows his standing in the locker room already. He spent time with almost every pass-rusher on the practice field Thursday, offering tips during drills, including to Derek Wolfe, Von Miller and Quanterus Smith. It will be absolutely stunning if Ware is not one of this team's five season-long captains.
  • The issue is a long way from being decided, but, as expected, Chris Clark is getting the first look with the starters at right tackle. The Broncos figure to do at least some mix-and-match at the position over the next couple of weeks with Clark and Winston Justice having received the bulk of the work in minicamp and OTAs. But if they stick to the plan to take a look at all of the possibilities, rookie Michael Schofield has shown enough in offseason work to get a look as well.
  • The Broncos lost 16 fumbles last season, the most in the league, and lost three more fumbles in the playoffs. So, safe to say ball security has been a front-burner issue for the Broncos all through the offseason with the appearance of a green ball that has been carried around by the likes of Manning and Thomas. But the fumble reminder is blue for training camp and Manning was toting it around Thursday. Things still need attention as the Broncos put the ball on the ground twice in team drills, both on strip plays by the defense.
  • Some odd and ends: With Chris Harris Jr. on the physically unable to perform list, Kayvon Webster got some work in the base defense in the two practices. ... Linebacker Von Miller, who isn't expected to be cleared for full contact until the Broncos' third preseason game, took part individual drills with the linebackers and some 7-on-7 drills. Asked about his knee he said "it feels good for today."
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Denver Broncos aren't in a rush to sign any more checks in free agency.

But they do have their eyes, and minds, open when it comes to players still on the market. John Elway, the team's executive vice president of football operations and general manager, wouldn't rule out the return of some of the team's free agents. In particular, he said he would be willing to consider running back Knowshon Moreno and defensive end Shaun Phillips.

Both veterans are unsigned and would have to accept their roles with the Broncos if they came back.

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
Aaron Ontiveroz/Getty ImagesWould Knowshon Moreno be willing to return to Denver in a reserve role?
"I'm still open to that," Elway said at the NFL owners meetings. "You look at the impact from a lot of different ways as in what role they would have on our team, but it is something I would consider in both those cases."

Moreno, who led the Broncos last season with 1,038 yards rushing to go with 13 total touchdowns and 60 receptions, would have the most significant adjustment in any potential return. He just finished his fifth season with the Broncos and was the team's No. 1 back.

But the Broncos have moved Montee Ball to the top of the depth chart as they work to improve their run game. If Moreno returns, it would be with the understanding, barring an injury, that it would be in a reserve role.

"With a guy like Knowshon, who was the starter and would have to come back in a different role, we would look at how he would handle that," Elway said.

On the other hand, the Broncos signed Phillips as a rotational option in their pass rush. He received a one-year deal during the weekend of last April's draft with the idea that he could give them some pop on pass-rush downs.

But then Phillips was forced to play far more than originally intended because of injuries and suspensions up front. Von Miller was suspended six games to open the season before suffering a season-ending ACL injury in December. And Derek Wolfe had an illness that put him on injured reserve.

Phillips played 770 snaps on defense in the regular season, or 68 percent of the team's plays. If Phillips is still on the market later in the offseason, Elway said he would want to know whether Phillips would return to the Broncos in a situational role.

"Shaun was really signed as a rotational-type guy last year, and we'd be looking to see if he would play that same role," Elway said. "The thought process with Shaun is we'll see how things go, but I'd like to have him back. But it's a matter of who's out there and what opportunities he has, too."

The Broncos have added DeMarcus Ware at defensive end in free agency and have 2013 draft pick Quanterus Smith coming off injured reserve. The Broncos will look at this year's draft class for edge rushers, too.

The Broncos have about $5.9 million in salary-cap space remaining after signing Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and Andre Caldwell. They need to leave some room for players who eventually end up on injured reserve as well as the draft class and any potential moves they want to make during the season.

"We're still in good shape with the cap, we just know it's too early," Elway said. "There's going to be bumps in the road as we go ahead, and I just want to be able to be prepared for any type of thing that would come up . ... We've got a cushion right now, and it's early to eat that cushion up."
In the it-seems-like-a-lot-longer department, NFL free agency will have been open for all of six days by the time Monday afternoon rolls around.

And for the Denver Broncos those six days were filled with plenty of negotiations and some big checks. As Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has put it, it was all in the name of filling “glaring needs’’ on the roster. The idea, Elway said, is to have enough salary cap space to participate in free agency if you wish, limit the dead money (salary cap charges for players no longer with the team) and position the Broncos to look at the draft board in May and select the best players available with each pick instead those who are needed the most.

So, as the first official week of free agency draws to a close Tuesday afternoon, here’s a scorecard of the major Broncos’ arrivals thus far:

Ward
S T.J. Ward

What did he sign for? Four years, $22.5 million, $5 million to sign

Why him? Ward estimated he played “about 70 percent of the time’’ down in the box for the Cleveland Browns last season. And that’s just the kind of presence the Broncos want, and need, in a defense that spends much of its time in specialty looks.

He had 112 tackles last season in that role and will bring some toughness into the team’s secondary. The Broncos do prefer their safeties to be interchangeable if possible and able to line up as strong safeties in some situations and play out in coverage more as free safeties at times as well.

While the game film shows Ward has clearly played the role of strong safety far more in his career, he has the ability to drop into coverage when asked. It was no accident he was the Broncos’ first target when the bidding began and after the team initially believed Ward would be out of their price range, the two sides found a deal to their liking.

Ward has $7 million guaranteed in 2014 with the potential for a $4 million guaranteed next March and a potential $2.5 million guaranteed in March of 2016.

At the moment Ward projects as the Broncos’ strong safety with Rahim Moore returning at free safety. Ward could also line up as a weak-side linebacker in some of the Broncos’ specialty dime (six defensive backs) and seven-defensive back looks.

Talib
Talib
CB Aqib Talib

What did he sign for? Six years, $57 million, $5 million to sign.

Why him? Talib represents the Broncos’ biggest gamble in free agency. The deal is far more salary-cap friendly for the team than was initially believed when the numbers were first floated after the two sides agreed to terms.

If Talib plays every game in ’14 he gets $12 million guaranteed this season -- signing bonus, roster bonus and base salary to go with another potential total of $500,000 in game-by-game bonuses. If for some reason things don't go as hoped for them, the Broncos can part ways after ’14 with limited salary cap implications and the potential impact goes down significantly each year after that.

But Talib has never played 16 games in a season. He has said the hip injury many have cited -- that’s how the New England Patriots listed him this past season on the injury report -- was not, in fact a hip injury, but rather a thigh injury and that he’s “100 percent’’ on his arrival to the Broncos.

He has top-level speed, has matched up with some of the league’s best -- he held the Saints’ Jimmy Graham without a catch last season -- and plays with a physical edge. It’s all needed in the Broncos defense and why the Broncos moved so quickly last Tuesday night when apprised of Talib’s interest in them.

But the injury issue is there. If he can consistently stay on the field, however, it’s a win at a high-need position for Broncos.

Ware
DE DeMarcus Ware

What did he sign for? Three years, $30 million, $5 million to sign.

Why him? The Broncos had red-alert issues on the depth chart in the secondary and at defensive end when free agency opened. In terms of initial guaranteed money, the Broncos dove in with more for Ware than they gave to Talib.

Ware has $16.5 million guaranteed out the gate, including his $3 million base salary in ’14, his signing bonus, another $5 million bonus and $3.5 million guaranteed in his $7 million base salary for 2015. Ware also has and additional $6.5 million worth of potential guarantees in 2015 if he’s on the roster on the fifth day of the league year.

That’s a big commitment to a player who will soon be 32 years old, but the Broncos see a player with 117 career sacks who has missed just three games in his career and who was playing at a high level until he tried to play through an injury last season. Ware had elbow surgery early in the offseason and says “I’m ready to go’’ for the Broncos.

He’s a potential every-down player for the Broncos, but they will monitor how they use him to maximize his impact. A powerful and accomplished lead-by-example guy they believe will help mentor Von Miller as well as 2013 draft pick Quanterus Smith.

WR Andre Caldwell

What did he sign for? 2 years, $3.45 million.

Why him? The Broncos had just two wide receivers -- Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker -- on the roster when free agency opened who had also been on the team’s 53-man roster last season.

The Broncos see a deep and speedy class of big, physical receivers on the draft board and will give a long look toward using a premium pick on one of them. But signing Caldwell, a player quarterback Peyton Manning trusts in the offense, before free agency formally opened allowed the Broncos to have some patience in the opening waves of the bidding and as they prepare for the draft.

Sanders
WR Emmanuel Sanders

What did he sign for? When filed it is expected to be a three-year deal.

Why him? The league is abuzz with the fact he had agreed to terms with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he agreed to terms with the Broncos Sunday.

The two sides had agreed to terms Sunday and he was scheduled for a physical Sunday at the team’s Dove Valley complex. The Broncos discussed plenty of receivers in the opening days of free agency and had Sanders at, or near, the top of their list, but waited for some of the dust to settle a bit.

Sanders is undersized so the Broncos will be a smaller group overall, at least until the draft, than they were with Eric Decker in the mix last season. But he has versatility in that he can play, with production, both the outside and slot positions.

He does drop some passes at times, but he gives the Broncos more speed on the depth chart with the ability to play all over the formation.
When all is said and done, the Denver Broncos have an enormous learning curve at wide receiver. The team's up-tempo offense in which QB Peyton Manning can call anything from any page of the vast playbook at the line of scrimmage is simply not for everybody.

Which is exactly why the Broncos reeled in wide receiver Andre Caldwell just before free agency opened Tuesday. On the surface, it may not move the needle all that much on the opening day of bidding, especially given Caldwell had just 16 receptions this past season to go with three touchdowns.

But the Broncos signed him to a two-year, $3.45 million deal because Manning trusts Caldwell to be where he is supposed to be in the pattern, and when given the opportunity, Caldwell has produced when needed and still has young man's speed. His two-touchdown day against the San Diego Chargers on Dec. 12 was proof that Manning had no qualms about going Caldwell’s way despite the fact Caldwell had five receptions on the season at that point.

It also allows the Broncos to examine a deep, talented and fast draft class at wide receiver without worrying about being too inexperienced at two spots on the depth chart at the position.

Before Caldwell re-signed, the Broncos had just two wide receivers among the four who were on the 53-player roster last season -- Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker -- under contract for 2014. The Broncos had some concerns internally about bringing multiple new players in because of how much work the team does at the line of scrimmage.

Receivers have to think fast and smoothly make the changes at the line of scrimmage with a minimum of mistakes. Sure, the Broncos would bring back Eric Decker if he doesn't find the windfall waiting in free agency he expects, but with Caldwell back, the Broncos see him as a hybrid No. 3/No. 4 receiver who could help ease the transition of any potential rookies at the position or other new arrivals.

 
With the countdown to free agency in its final stages, it’s time to take a look at the Denver Broncos' top needs in the open market.

The Broncos are expected to aggressive and active once the signings formally begin on March 11. Their executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has repeatedly made clear he believes teams should shop for need in free agency and take the best player available in the draft.

Plenty of folks in the league say they expect the Broncos to buzz in early for some specific targets and then back off to finish out with shorter-term deals after the initial waves of signings have passed. It was a profile they used last season when they moved quickly to sign Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and then waited to add players such as Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.

[+] EnlargeEric Decker
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliEric Decker could be on his way out of Denver as a free agent.
Today: Wide receiver

Saturday: Defensive backs

Why it’s an issue: The Broncos are a half-and-half affair at the position at the moment. As in two of the top four wide receivers the team had on its 53-man roster this past season will be unrestricted free agents in the coming days.

Eric Decker and Andre Caldwell are each headed to the open market, leaving Demaryius Thomas and Welker as the only two players at the position on the current roster who caught passes in games in 2013. Kick returner Trindon Holliday does practice with the receivers during the week, but had just one catch for seven yards this past season.

Decker has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with Peyton Manning at quarterback and has 24 touchdowns receptions in the past two seasons combined. Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall and A.J. Green are the only wide receivers in the league to have had at least 10 touchdown catches in both 2012 and 2013.

But the Broncos see Decker as a No. 2 receiver who likely sees himself as a No. 1 with the desire for the paycheck to go with it. And the Broncos believe they need to plan for next year’s free-agency season when Demaryius Thomas and Broncos tight end Julius Thomas are both slated to be unrestricted free agents. Caldwell was a rotational player -- 16 catches this past season to go with three touchdowns -- but with Welker having suffered two more concussions this past season it is a spot on the depth chart that needs some attention.

The biggest hurdle, however, in the Broncos’ search for replacements, whether it be in the draft or in free agency, is the fact they need players who think quickly and can work through a complicated playbook without mistakes in game-day situations. Manning calls plenty of the game at the line of scrimmage and the receivers have to make the changes with him. The offense is built on timing and moving quickly and not everybody is a fit in that situation.

The best out there: Seattle’s Golden Tate is not quite as big as Decker physically, but he's a productive player who would flourish with a quarterback like Manning if he could get up to speed quickly in the call-it-on-the-fly work the Broncos do at the line of scrimmage. Tate could also play on the outside and offer something in the return game.

The Patriots’ Julian Edelman does a job similar to Welker's in the slot, but he’s a proven player who could move to other spots in the formation and help in the return game. However, his injury history is cause for at least some pause. The Broncos know Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones all too well and Jones would offer some potential special-teams pop as well.

Carolina’s Brandon LaFell is seen as a rotational player with some upside still remaining, but he’s had just 13 touchdown catches in his career.

Bottom line: The talent pool in free agency is fairly shallow, which only enhances Decker’s ability to get a bigger deal elsewhere. The Broncos will take a look with checkbook in hand, but with a deep class waiting in the draft, there is no reason for them to overreach on a player at this point in the offseason -- especially considering Julius Thomas will be ready for more next fall.
The Denver Broncos and Eric Decker have done the obligatory opening moves to the free-agency dance.

Decker approaches the open market as an unrestricted free agent and Broncos head coach John Fox and executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway have each said they would like Decker back.

Decker has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons as the Broncos' No. 2 guy at the position. He knows their offense and understands what needs to be done at the line of scrimmage during the pre-snap. He had 11 drops in 2012 and seven this past season to go along with 24 touchdown catches during that span. Of course Fox and Elway want him back.

Decker has said he wants to be back. With Peyton Manning as the team’s quarterback, the Broncos -- even with an increased commitment to the running game in 2014 -- will throw a lot. And the team expects to be in the Super Bowl hunt again. Of course Decker wants that.

[+] EnlargeEric Decker
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliEric Decker caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns last season with the Broncos.
But the Broncos have a price and Decker has a price, and the two aren’t expected to be the same unless there is a substantial change of heart on either side.

Fox has called free agency “like going shopping without price tags."

“You need to get price tags before you start buying stuff," he said. "... That's what we're in the process of doing now."

The Broncos have two of the four wide receivers they carried on the 53-player roster this past season up for free agency -- Decker and Andre Caldwell. But Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker had 93.7 percent of the team’s receptions at wide receiver.

The offense was a three-man show at the position with tight end Julius Thomas and running back Knowshon Moreno options No. 4 and No. 5, respectively. Caldwell had 16 catches and three touchdowns.

Much of the issue for Decker's potential return to the Broncos is simply bad timing. The Broncos -- even with the salary cap at an all-time high of $133 million per team this season with $150 million per team on the not-so-distant horizon -- are already looking at their free-agency docket a year from now.

Demaryius Thomas will be poised for the open market after the 2014 season, as will Julius Thomas, Welker and linebacker Von Miller. Demaryius Thomas is the team’s No. 1 wide receiver and will have to be a top priority. Julius Thomas, if he has another stellar season in 2014, won’t be far behind.

Welker will take some consideration depending on how things go in 2014. Miller, too, has some questions to answer. How Miller conducts himself, as well as how well he recovers from recent ACL surgery, will factor into whether or not the Broncos roll up the wheelbarrow to make him one of the team's highest paid players four or five seasons into the future.

Then there is the matter of what every team just saw in Indianapolis at the league’s scouting combine. Personnel evaluators saw a group of big, physical and blindingly fast receivers. There is both depth and impact to be found.

Now, showing up and producing at wide receiver has consistently been a difficult affair for NFL rookies. They are not used to the physical play from the defensive backs, not used to working when the definition of "open" is a step instead of yards.

And any potential rookie receiver won’t be used to what’s being asked of them in the playbook. On the Broncos they have to be ready to think fast, work on the fly with most of the calls made at the line of scrimmage and do it for a future Hall of Fame quarterback whose career clock is winding down. Patience and hand-holding will be in short supply.

Not many rookie receivers are going to be built for all that.

The Broncos will have to use some draft capital at the position because Decker will be able to get more money elsewhere. This figures to be his best chance at getting a big contract and it is a fairly shallow class of wide receivers in free agency. Unless he wants to leave money on the table, or the Broncos are unexpectedly willing to put more on the table, he’ll be in somebody else’s uniform next season.

The Broncos will take a look at the rest of the players available, but injury concerns trail many of the more prominent names at the position. There are a handful of slot receivers, but that's a job title already filled in Denver's huddle. It’s why the healthy and likely undervalued Golden Tate is worth a long look, especially given his special-teams abilities.

The Broncos figure to dive into the draft at wideout, but must not only find an athlete ready to contribute as a rookie, but a player mentally ready for what they will ask.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- They don’t have T-shirts yet, but if the Denver Broncos get three more wins over the next four weeks, the team’s touchdown-makers will really be the stuff dreams are made of.

Broncos wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert calls them “the 5-10 club.’’ It’s exclusive to be sure, and beyond having a future Hall of Famer at quarterback, it makes the Broncos' offense tough to decode. It has also created a battle on the Broncos’ practice field just to get involved in some way, and that has helped everyone.

“The hardest thing to do here is get on the field,’’ Tolbert said of the Broncos’ game-day choices.

[+] EnlargeBroncos
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyEric Decker and Demaryius Thomas' touchdown celebrations were a familiar sight in Denver in 2013.
That’s because the Broncos have -- count ‘em -- five players who finished the regular season with at least 10 touchdowns. Five. No other team in league history has had more than three.

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had 14, running back Knowshon Moreno had 13 (10 of those rushing), tight end Julius Thomas had 12, wide receiver Eric Decker had 11 and wide receiver Wes Welker had 10, despite missing the last three games of the season. All with quarterback Peyton Manning dealing for a league-record 55 touchdown passes in Adam Gase’s high-speed attack that set a league record with 606 points.

And just to frame things properly, there were 23 players leaguewide this season who finished with at least 10 touchdowns. The Broncos had 21.7 percent of the total and were the only team on the list with more than two players.

“It can be anybody at any time,’’ Thomas said. “It can be anywhere on the field to any of our guys. … That’s why everybody’s always ready, so when the ball comes your way you can make a play, or if the ball doesn’t come your way you can help somebody else make a play.''

Case in point is Andre Caldwell, who had five catches in the Broncos’ first 13 games. Then, in the first of three games Welker missed because of a concussion down the stretch, Manning had six completions to Caldwell, including two touchdowns.

“With Peyton Manning at quarterback, anybody can score at any given time,’’ Tolbert said. “Our guys know that. … All of a sudden Welker goes down, the next game 'Bubba' comes in and he has two touchdowns.’’

Defending Manning has always been about choices for opposing coaches. When Manning led the Indianapolis Colts, they had to deal with likes of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai through the years. And in 2004 the Colts featured an offense with three 1,000-yard receivers in Harrison, Wayne and Brandon Stokley to go with a 1,548-yard rusher in James.

Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey was on the field for Denver when that Colts team defeated the Broncos, 49-24, in an AFC wild-card game as Manning finished 27-of-33 for 458 yards and four touchdowns. Wayne, often in man coverage on then-rookie Roc Alexander, finished with 221 yards receiving and Clark finished with 112 yards.

"That team could come at you a lot of different ways,’’ Bailey said. “This one, and time will tell, can spread it out even a little more, especially down in the red zone where offenses are always looking for those matchups to win. Defense is about tendencies sometimes, percentages and what teams have done in the past in similar situations, and this offense is tough that way. And Peyton has 10 more years’ experience in the league, 10 more years of doing what he does, and that’s a lot of time.’’

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesWith Knowshon Moreno producing, the Broncos were more than just a pass-happy offense.
The Broncos had two 1,000-yard receivers this season in Thomas (1,430) and Decker (1,288) to go with 1,000-yard rusher Moreno (1,038). But what many defensive coaches say has made the Broncos’ offense so difficult to decipher is Manning’s willingness to move the ball to the best matchup, rather than having “go-to" players in given situations.

Also, many defensive coaches say they can find a way to offer at least some double coverage on three players in the pass pattern, but that things get dicey with the fourth. And if the offense’s running back can contribute as a receiver as the fifth, then there are almost always choices for a quarterback savvy enough who has enough time to find them.

That has taken some potential predictability out of the equation as defenses prepare. The Broncos had five different players with at least 60 receptions. Gase has also used the running game more than most might think.

The Broncos finished the regular season with 461 rushing attempts -– 11th in the league -- and the team’s 16 rushing touchdowns were tied for seventh in the league. Of the remaining teams in the playoffs, the Broncos, the New England Patriots (second, with 19) and the San Francisco 49ers (fourth, 18) finished among the league’s top seven in rushing scores.

“I think our guys just feel like anything can happen at any time with the guy we have at quarterback … so they prepare like it, every rep is a championship rep in practice, and those opportunities come,’’ Tolbert said. “I don’t think we have the kind of players who worry about the numbers. They just prepare and go play.’’

The Broncos also enter the playoffs at full strength. The last time the Broncos faced the Chargers – a 27-20 San Diego win on Dec. 12 – Welker did not play and Caldwell had his two-touchdown game. The Chargers were effective at getting to Manning at times with a variety of coverage looks that included safety Eric Weddle lining up all over the formation.

And while the Chargers did surrender the scores to Caldwell, they held Julius Thomas, Thomas and Decker to just three receptions combined in the second half, forcing Manning to throw to running backs Moreno and Montee Ball. The Broncos did not have a pass play longer than 22 yards in the game.

Welker’s presence will likely change how the Chargers go about allocating their defensive resources.

“We all know he’s a dynamic player and he’s a guy that has been a big part of our offense this year. To have him back, San Diego is going to have to key on him,’’ Decker said. “They’re going to have to make sure they have a plan for him. It just opens everybody else up and it gives us more options, more opportunities.’’

“I think everybody -- Wes and everybody that has come back from injury -- is going to be a big factor in this game,’’Demaryius Thomas said. “They didn’t account for Wes last game because he didn’t play, but they will this game. It’s good for us because you don’t know what they’re going to throw at us, but it’s another weapon on the field to help us out.’’

Broncos believe Caldwell ready for more

December, 20, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was a sunbaked August day one year ago, just after a training camp practice, when newly signed wide receiver Andre Caldwell sat at a picnic table behind the team's complex and offered up what he hoped Denver could mean for his career.

“I always believed I could be a starter, I could be a go-to guy for a quarterback, be a guy they trusted," Caldwell said then. “That if I was healthy and had some opportunities I could be that guy."

[+] EnlargeAndre Caldwell
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsAndre Caldwell helped fill the void left by Wes Welker's injury, catching six passes for 59 yards and two TDs against the Chargers.
The road hasn't always been as smooth as he would have liked, but this December, Caldwell has the chance to be that guy at a time when the Broncos sorely need one. With Wes Welker sidelined after suffering two concussions in a four-game span, the touchdown factory that has been the Broncos offense will have to make some rather large adjustments.

Welker is still tied for second on the team with 73 receptions and has been targeted by Peyton Manning 111 times, which is good for third on the team in that category. His 10 touchdown catches are also third on the team.

In short, Welker has been exactly the player the Broncos hoped he would be when they signed him to a two-year, $12 million deal in March.

He is slated to miss Sunday’s game against the Texans -- expected to be formally ruled out after Friday’s practice -- and will likely be held out of the regular-season finale as he goes through medical evaluations. Welker has not been cleared to practice, but Thursday he spent some time working with the Broncos’ strength and conditioning staff in the team’s weight room. Broncos coach John Fox said Welker had done some limited on-field work outside as well.

Welker has not practiced since leaving the Broncos’ Dec. 8 victory over the Tennessee Titans just before halftime. He was taken from the field after being hit by Titans safety George Wilson, suffering a concussion and a neck injury on the play.

Losing Welker is no small matter for a quarterback in Manning and a playcaller in Adam Gase who prefer the Broncos work out of a three-wide receiver set most of the time. In 14 games this season, the Broncos have lined up in a three-wide formation on 77.5 percent of their offensive snaps, including penalty plays.

Most of the rest of the time, they have been in a two-tight end look, but never for more than 24 snaps in any game before Welker’s most recent concussion. After Welker left the game against the Titans, however, the Broncos used a two-tight end look on 36 snaps, all in the second half.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Wes Welker
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesThe Broncos could be without Wes Welker for a couple more games as he recovers from his second concussion within a four-week period.
With Caldwell and tight end Jacob Tamme, who made most of his 52 receptions in 2012 working out of the slot, the Broncos believe they have the personnel to deal with Welker’s absence.

“I don’t think it’s a big difference offense-wise," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “I think it’s a little different for preparation by the defenses because now we don’t have Wes. But we still have weapons. I think we’re still capable of doing what we want to do with the guys that we’ve got, so I don’t see a big difference.”

While the 20 points the Broncos scored against the Chargers was a season low, the game did reveal that Manning was still willing to move the ball around the formation without Welker in the lineup and that he trusted Caldwell in almost any situation. Caldwell led the team with 10 targets against the Chargers and finished with six catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns. Caldwell has 11 catches on the season, three for touchdowns.

“All the hard work is paying off," Caldwell said. “I’ve been around here for two years and finally got a chance to make something happen. … I’ll just go out there and do what I’ve been doing -- working hard every day. If the ball comes my way, I'll do my best to make a play. I just want to win the ballgame, so I’m going to do whatever they want me to.”

When the Broncos put Caldwell in the lineup in a three-wide set, he'll likely go to one of the outside spots while Eric Decker or Demaryius Thomas would work out of the slot more to go with either Julius Thomas or Tamme in the opposite slot. Former Broncos coach and current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels always believed Decker could be a highly productive receiver in the slot.

If the Broncos go with a passing-friendly combination of Julius Thomas and Tamme in a two-tight end set, Tamme would work out of the slot much of the time, just like he did for most of last season.

Overall, the immediate issue will be on third down and in the red zone. Even though Welker has missed the past six quarters, he still leads the Broncos in third-down catches with 18. The Broncos were just 2-for-9 on third down against the Chargers, including 0-for-6 in the first half.

But the Chargers game came on a short week. The Broncos have had time to adjust since and had an extra practice Monday, so they'll likely see at least some of the fruits of that work over the next two games. Manning has been ruthlessly efficient in where the passes have gone this season, and that can be seen in how often he targeted Caldwell last week.

“[That’s] the way that [Manning] operates. He’s going to go to the guy that the coverage kind of dictates to him," Gase said. “He’s not worried about who is where. Like I’ve said before, it’s amazing how the balls have been spread out because usually it’s dictated by what the defense has done. And he’ll find the open guy. [Caldwell] did a great job of getting open when he had his one-on-one matchup.”

Added Caldwell: “I don’t think it changes much. I think we had a great group of receivers. They put Decker inside, they put Tamme in there, and they moved me to the outside. I think we’re still explosive, still can put up big points and big numbers every week.”

Manning locked in on Texans

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
5:45
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- He's already been named Sportsmen of the Year by Sports Illustrated. He's the leading vote-getter among fans for the Pro Bowl to this point. Talk of a record fifth NFL MVP award is swirling around him. And there is a stack of fairly heady NFL records he could put his name next to over the next two weeks.

Manning
But with more than a few questions to him these days usually about trophies, history or some "trips down memory lane," as he calls them, don't try to keep Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning from his appointed rounds. And this week that means Houston and the 2-14 Texans.

"I think we've done a good job of treating all our opponents the same," Manning said following practice Wednesday. "... It's all about Houston, I think we've done a good job taking things week to week. I think we've prepared well each week. We haven't always played as well as would have liked. You like to transfer good practices to the playing field ... it's really all the focus is."

So Manning will discuss the Texans defensive personnel, especially their tandem at defensive end in Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt. He'll talk about the differences in having Wade Phillips in place as an interim coach than if Gary Kubiak were still on the job and how it essentially gives the Texans a "new defensive coordinator" with Houston secondary coach Vance Johnson now calling plays on defense.

Manning will talk about the Texans' pass defense, the role of the Broncos' running game in the offense and what wide receiver Andre Caldwell can do in the Broncos' offense with Wes Welker sidelined with a concussion.

But MVP award, records and the like? Not so much.

"It does not get heated up for me," Manning said of the award conversation. "When you're in the middle of the season ... That is plenty on my plate to focus on. I know that's probably not the answer you're looking for, but that is all my focus is on and that's the way it has to be -- getting myself ready to play and helping our offense get ready to play to go on the road to beat a team that's really played well on defense, I think."

With 47 touchdown passes in 14 games, a total that includes a staggering seven games with at least four touchdown passes, Manning is two away from tying his single-season career best of 49 (2004) and just three away from the NFL season record of 50 set by Tom Brady in 2007. Manning's 4,811 yards passing are the most ever after 14 games in a season and he's within shouting distance of Drew Brees' record of 5,476 yards, set in 2011.

But asked Wednesday about the potential to carve out a little more space for himself in the league's record book, Manning stuck to the Texans.

"We're trying to get a win," Manning said. "We were disappointed about last week's game -- didn't play our best game, got beat, got whipped in a lot of areas.

"I would hope we would respond to that loss with a better performance this week. It doesn't guarantee anything. There are a lot of teams that get mad when they lose and say 'we're going to play better next week.' And it doesn't happen. So it's about preparing and practice well and hoping we can transfer that to the playing field, and that's what I'm focused on."

Broncos head coach John Fox did weigh in at least some on those topics. Asked what his case would be for Manning to win a fifth MVP award -- Manning is the only four-time winner of the trophy in league history -- the Broncos head coach was more than willing to stand by his guy.

"I think it's fairly well documented a year ago -- no disrespect to anybody -- but I think he had that type of season a year ago," Fox said. "I don't think there's any question the kind of season he's having this year, and not just individual records, I think his win-loss record and team success speaks for itself. I don't think it's close, personally."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Not quite a half-full, half-empty argument, but there are enough ripples in the pond for the Broncos over the past eight games to at least evaluate some things as they point to the final two games of the regular season and into whatever becomes of the playoffs.

A thank you note might be in order as the Miami Dolphins did the Broncos a favor Sunday with a 24-20 win against the New England Patriots that again puts the Broncos ahead of the pack in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC despite the Broncos' loss Thursday night to the San Diego Chargers. Friday, Broncos head coach John Fox, with the players set for a weekend off, attempted to at least stem some of the angst about Thursday night’s defeat with; “I think we lost our third game, not our 13th. We don’t think the sky is falling."

And it’s not, not at 11-3, with two wins already in hand against the Chiefs. The Broncos still have the AFC’s best record and the second-best record in the league behind the Seahawks’ 12-2. But there is still a bit of a cleanup to be had on Aisle Broncos if they are going to play in the Trophy Game.

Notably:

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos will need the veteran experience of cornerback Champ Bailey as they try to get their defensive woes worked out heading into the playoffs.
Same players, still need better defense: The Broncos are 5-3 in their past eight games. In those eight games they have surrendered at least 27 points five times, including all three losses.

Their offense, with quarterback Peyton Manning fueling the performance, is poised to break a pile of single-season records. But in the end, a look-pretty-and-lose season would leave an empty feeling, something many of the league’s highest scoring offenses (including the current single-season record holder, the 2007 Patriots), have had to live with.

And the ’07 Patriots had performed far better on defense -- they finished No. 4 in scoring defense in the regular season at 17.1 points allowed per game -- than these Broncos have. The Broncos are surrendering 26.6 points per game, 25th in league. It would also be time to recall the Broncos have surrendered 83 points, 694 passing yards, nine touchdown passes and had just one sack in their past two playoff losses combined -- the double overtime loss to the Ravens last January and the 45-10 implosion against New England to close out the 2011 season that effectively ended Tim Tebow's tenure in Denver.

Significant help isn’t on the way beyond Champ Bailey's potential return to the defense, so whatever the Broncos do, they have to do it with the people on hand.

“It’s something that we’re working on," Fox said. “It’s something that we have to get better at. I don’t think it’s acceptable for anybody, including those guys in that room. I think they understand that, and we have to get better to get where we want to go."

Wave bye to flags: The Broncos have spent a lot of time discussing the character and talent in their locker room, and deservedly so.

But there are times when the Broncos lack the kind of down-to-down discipline that is essential in postseason football, and part of the rather enormous difference between cruising through an October blowout and winning a tight game in January.

You don’t have to look beyond a third-quarter drive Thursday night when the Broncos, in need of as many possessions as possible in a game they trailed 24-10 at the time, had a neutral-zone infraction on a punt that gave the Chargers first down. Denver had a 12-men on the field penalty later in the drive that turned what would have been a second-and-14 into a first-and-5.

After 14 games, before Thursday night’s affair and this weekend’s games, the Broncos were one of just five teams with at least 110 total penalties, including those that were declined.

Seattle, Oakland, St. Louis and Tampa Bay were the others. The Broncos have also had four games this season with at least 10 total penalties, including those that were declined, and after 13 games no team had more defensive holding penalties (13) than the Broncos.

Welker
Adjust for Welker injury: The Broncos might need a tactical adjustment with Wes Welker's concussion, his second over a four-game span.

It kept him out of Thursday’s game, and Fox said Friday that Welker had not yet been cleared medically to return to activity. It makes Welker’s availability uncertain, and even with Andre Caldwell's performance Thursday night, the Broncos lack a consistent presence in the slot when they go three-wide without Welker in the lineup.

That’s an issue, especially with an 0-for-6 performance on third down in the first half Thursday night, and the Chargers' ability to keep the ball away from Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in the second half -- just three catches combined after halftime. For the season, including penalty snaps, the Broncos have worked out of the three wide on 77.5 percent of their offensive snaps.

Against the Titans, the Broncos worked out of the three-wide set on 57.6 percent of the snaps, and still scored 51 points as they used a two-tight-end set that included Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas, the best receiving combination at the position, much of the time when they weren't in three-wide. They worked out a two-tight-end set on 68.5 percent of the snaps Thursday night, including penalty plays, and finished with a season-low 20 points.

Tamme played just nine snaps in the game as the Broncos went with a more physical look in the two-tight-end set with Virgil Green and Thomas together against the Chargers’ 3-4 look. When the Broncos couldn’t run the ball effectively, that bigger set lost its benefit. And if they’re without Welker, it likely leaves them trying to decide between a little more protection for Manning in the formation or a little more pop with Tamme and Julius Thomas in with Decker and Demaryius Thomas.

Holliday
Get special again: By the time the season was a month old, Trindon Holliday had two touchdown returns. Then Holliday had a 40-yard return in Week 5, and David Bruton had a 35-yard run on a fake punt in Week 6. Toss in Matt Prater's NFL record 64-yard field goal against the Titans, and there has been plenty to like.

At their best, the Broncos' special teams units have been lock-it-down solid over the past two seasons. But as injuries, particularly on defense, have jumbled the depth chart there, the special teams units have looked unsettled as well.

Holliday has not looked confident fielding the ball of late, especially Thursday, when he returned after missing a game with a shoulder injury. He’s muffed five catches in the past eight games, losing two of them. The Chiefs’ Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown, and a punt hit Tony Carter in the leg in the loss against New England in Foxborough, Mass.

Any one of those plays are just the kind that turn playoff games.

QB Watch: Broncos' Peyton Manning

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
1:30
PM ET
A weekly examination of the Denver Broncos' quarterback play.

Rewind: Those who know him say there is no question that Peyton Manning takes almost no joy in facing his younger brother, Eli, in a game and Sunday’s meeting was the third time it’s happened in the pair’s NFL careers. And in the end Peyton's effort was a no-frills, workmanlike affair as he finished 30-of-43 passing for 307 yards and two touchdowns. He called it "strange."

Manning
Fast-forward: Raiders coach Dennis Allen, a former Broncos defensive coordinator, has his defense tied for the league lead in sacks (nine) after two games. And while the late Al Davis was never a big fan of blitzing to get to opposing quarterbacks, half of the Raiders' sacks this season have come from defensive backs, so Manning figures to get pressure from all over the formation with backup left tackle Chris Clark set to start for the injured Ryan Clady.

Patience a virtue: The Giants were determined to take away the big play in the passing game and consistently dropped their linebackers deep and kept at least one safety well downfield -- the Giants had just six defenders in the box on Knowshon Moreno’s first touchdown run. So Manning took the short-and-sweet approach, with 18 of his completions in the game going for 10 or fewer yards. He had 11 completions of between 11 and 20 yards and just one -- a 36-yarder to Andre Caldwell on the Broncos’ first possession -- of more than 30 yards.

Prediction: Manning, with nine touchdowns in two games, has already proved he is willing to pick away at a defense if he has to, so Allen figures to be a little more aggressive, especially on Clark’s side of the formation. So the Broncos will pick up the pace on offense and test the Raiders' ability to get everybody in the right spot.

Rapid Reaction: Broncos 49, Ravens 27

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
12:57
AM ET

DENVER -- Some thoughts in the wake of the Denver Broncos' 49-27 victory over Baltimore in the NFL season opener Thursday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

What it means: The Broncos, after their playoff misery last January and an offseason filled with turmoil, finally have more than a little momentum to grab on to as they head off into the regular season.

The offense flexed its big-play muscle and flashed some of the pedal-to-the-metal speed, which is going to cause opposing defenses some problems at altitude. Peyton Manning became just the sixth quarterback in NFL history to throw seven touchdown passes in a single game, and he did it with the merciless, take-what-the-defense-gives-you approach that should worry ever defensive play-caller in the league.

Manning tossed touchdowns to three different wide receivers and the tight end -- two to Wes Welker, two to Julius Thomas, two to Demaryius Thomas and even one to, yes, Andre Caldwell.

Stock watch: America, meet Julius Thomas. The Broncos' third-year tight end caught two touchdown passes and figures to be a rather popular fantasy pick-up in the coming days.

The Broncos thought cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie still had it in him to be a No. 1 option if needed, and on a night when Champ Bailey missed the first season opener of his award-studded career, Rodgers-Cromartie was all that. He lined up in Bailey’s left cornerback spot and kept the Ravens’ Torrey Smith in line all evening.

Hit the reset: Sometimes, when pass protection is an issue in the team's preferred three-wide receiver look, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase likes to beef it up for a series to set things right.

After running their first 20 offensive snaps in three-wide formation with only limited success and Manning having taken a hit here and there, the Broncos opened a series with 8:03 left in second quarter in a two-tight end look. They quickly moved the ball, gave Manning time and switched back into three-wide when they got into Ravens territory, and stayed in it for much of the remainder of the evening.

Uh, the arm, it’s fine: Seven touchdown passes, another 400-yard game and a 49-point binge on the season’s opening night for Manning. His receivers have spoken all through the offseason about Manning’s improved arm strength, and he flashed accuracy to all parts of the field Thursday.

What’s next: The game Manning doesn’t particularly like – a showdown against his brother Eli in New York. But they now have nine days to prepare, given they helped lift the curtain on the season.

Observation deck: Broncos-Rams

August, 24, 2013
8/24/13
11:18
PM ET

 
DENVER -- While Peyton Manning's night was done at halftime, the Denver Broncos took most of their starters into the third quarter of Saturday night's preseason meeting with the St. Louis Rams and came away with the same questions they carried into the contest -- turnovers on offense and special-teams play that is changing games in the wrong direction. The Broncos did, however, come away with a 27-26 victory.

Some things to consider:

  • The Broncos kick-started the offense by going big. They opened the night in a three-wide-receiver set, their preferred look, but after Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree broke free in the middle of the formation on a third-and-4 on Denver's first possession, the Broncos beefed things up a bit. They lined up in a two-tight-end look on 29 of the next 35 plays, including all 12 in a drive that ended with a blocked field goal. It is a versatile formation for the Broncos, one that forces defenses to decide whether to put a linebacker or safety on Jacob Tamme. In all, the Broncos put up 174 of their 290 yards in the first half out of the two-tight-end look. But for a team that signed Wes Welker in the offseason, it shows there is some work to be done. Welker was not in uniform Saturday because of an ankle injury and Andre Caldwell played as the third receiver with the starters.

  • Special teams have gone from a hey-there-is-time dilemma to a full-blown, what’s-the-deal affair. The Broncos surrendered a 107-yard kickoff return for a score to go with a 33-yard punt return against the Seahawks a week ago. Saturday night, Tavon Austin took the Broncos’ first punt 81 yards and added a 23-yarder in the second quarter; the Rams also blocked a field goal. Jeff Rodgers' units were consistently a strength in the 13-3 campaign of 2012, and more of the same was expected this season. Yet the Broncos are giving up lanes in the return game when they don’t show the discipline they had last season and they aren’t getting off enough blocks.

  • [+] EnlargeRonnie Hillman, Alec Ogletree
    AP Photo/Jack DempseyRonnie Hillman saw this second-quarter carry end with Alec Ogletree ripping the ball away and returning it for a touchdown.
    For the second consecutive game, Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman saw one of his fumbles returned for a touchdown. Last week, it was Seattle’s Brandon Browner who went 106 yards when Hillman fumbled into the end zone in Seattle. Against the Rams, Hillman committed a cardinal sin for a running back -- turning his back to the defender when his forward progress had been stopped. Ogletree ripped the ball out as Hillman was falling, back to the ground and ball exposed; Ogletree scooped up the loose ball and returned it 13 yards for the score. The Broncos have lost four fumbles in three preseason games, including Hillman’s two. Hillman went back into the game to start Denver's next possession, so it hasn’t affected his playing time … yet.

  • Knowshon Moreno, whose roster spot looked shaky early on in camp, has carved out some playing time in passing situations because of his reliability in protection. He got some snaps with the starters in the first half and more on the Broncos' first possession of the second half when all of the offensive starters, except for Manning, were in the game.

  • The Broncos figured out a way to get Von Miller into the game and still work in the linebackers who will have to replace him during his six-game suspension to open the regular season. Broncos coach John Fox said this past week he would play Miller in the final two preseason games, including the finale Thursday against Arizona -- a game most, or all, of the Broncos regulars are expected to sit out. With Robert Ayers (ankle/Achilles) and Derek Wolfe (neck) out of the lineup, the Broncos played Miller at defensive end, with Shaun Phillips in the base defense. That put Nate Irving in Miller’s usual strongside spot in the base look, with Wesley Woodyard in the middle and Danny Trevathan on the weak side. Miller also stayed at end in the nickel and dime looks, which is where he normally plays in those packages.

  • Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase has promised to push the pace at times, especially in the elevation of the team’s home stadium, to see if defenses can keep up. The mistake-filled first half against the Seahawks camouflaged the fact that the Broncos ran 40 plays on offense for 209 yards. Saturday night, they made that look positively tortoise-like. Against the Rams, the Broncos ran an astounding 30 plays in the opening quarter and 49 for 290 yards in the first half. Hillman’s fumble and an interception from Manning in the two-minute drill tempered the output, however. But it shows opposing defenses that they will have to be ready for that kind of pace.

  • Manning showed he has regular-season awareness when he caught the Rams with 12 men on the field with a quick snap, which drew a penalty flag.

  • Wide receiver Eric Decker had one catch for 10 yards in the first two preseason games combined. He was targeted eight times in the first half and finished with six catches for 66 yards. With Welker out, Decker worked out of the slot plenty.

  • Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who left Thursday’s practice after taking a knee to his lower back, started the game and played with the first-team defense through the first half.

  • And in the what-a-difference-starters-can-make department: With the majority of the first-team offense still in the game, Brock Osweiler opened the second half under center for the Broncos. On the second possession, the second-year player led the Broncos on an 11-play, 79-yard touchdown drive. With time to look things over, he showed a power arm, going 5-for-6 for 58 yards on the march. Playing behind backup linemen, Osweiler had been sacked seven times in the first two preseason games. Saturday, he was sacked on his first drop-back after the starting offensive line left the game, and he tossed an interception in the fourth quarter.

  • Left tackle Ryan Clady made his first preseason start and played into the second quarter. Clady, who had offseason shoulder surgery, had practiced more with the starting offense this past week. Chris Clark, Clady’s replacement, was flagged for holding on his first play after entering the game for Clady. But Clady’s return should settle things down up front, and the Broncos will be able to push the help in pass protection to the middle of the field.

In a matchup of projected playoff heavyweights, the Broncos took what amounted to a preseason standing eight count Saturday night in CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks played with a regular-season edge and a bit more of a regular-season game plan. The Seattle regulars were far more opportunistic and played with far fewer mistakes in opening up a 26-point halftime lead the Broncos reserves couldn’t close.

The rundown:
  • During a preseason in which they have had plenty of injury issues, the Broncos had what was the scariest thus far. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe was taken by ambulance to a Seattle hospital, where he was examined for a cervical spine injury. On a second-and-5 play in the first quarter, Wolfe was struck on the crown of his helmet by Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson. Wolfe was trying to fend off a cut block when Robinson plowed into him in a helmet-to-helmet collision. Wolfe was examined on the field by the Broncos’ medical staff before being loaded into the ambulance. Broncos officials said X-rays showed no broken bones, that a CT scan was "positive," and that Wolfe also had an MRI. The Broncos were hopeful he could return to Denver with the team. (Update: Wolfe will be able to return to Denver with the team.)
  • Special teams play was decidedly un-special. Those units were consistently a strength for the Broncos last season with Trindon Holliday's playoff heroics -- a punt return and a kickoff return for touchdowns against the Ravens -- lost in the disappointment of the double overtime loss last January. But the preseason has been a choppy affair for the group. Holliday made two unwise decisions in the return game in the preseason opener, including being tackled inside the 5-yard line on a punt return, and Saturday night in Seattle was worse for the unit. The Broncos surrendered a 107-yard kickoff return for the touchdown by Jermaine Kearse with 1 minute, 52 seconds left in the first quarter and then had a missed-tackle extravaganza on a 33-yard punt return by Golden Tate in the second quarter. The night would have been a total washout had it not been for Holliday’s 73-yard punt return against plenty of Seahawks reserves in the fourth quarter.
  • The Broncos simply did not take care of the ball. They fumbled four times in the first half, losing three of them. Most troubling was how the Broncos turned momentum-changing plays into enormous errors with the miscues. Tight end Julius Thomas lost a fumble after a 20-yard reception on what was looking like a scoring drive in the first quarter. Running back Ronnie Hillman fumbled away what would have been a 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Seattle cornerback (and former Bronco) Brandon Browner returned Hillman’s fumble 106 yards for a touchdown. Hillman fumbled twice in the game. The Broncos were among the league leaders in lost fumbles in 2012. The Broncos lost 14 fumbles overall last season; only six teams lost more. None of those six teams made the playoffs and three fired the head coach. The Broncos' backs lost seven of those fumbles, including one by Hillman. Add in Montee Ball’s missed block in the first quarter Saturday night that resulted in a crushing hit on quarterback Peyton Manning and it was not a good night for the team’s young running backs.
  • The Broncos would like to work out of a three-wide receiver set as their base formation, but that’s not going to work if they can’t hold off the rush when they are in it. The Seahawks were aggressive early against the three-wide look, often rushing six and seven defenders. And after Manning took a big shot following Ball’s bobble in pass protection, the Broncos worked out of a two-tight-end look for six snaps during their next possession. They also had one snap in a two-back formation. On that drive the Broncos had the ball for 14 plays and would have scored had Hillman not fumbled. The Broncos forced the Seahawks to back off the pass rush when they went bigger in the formation. It showed the Broncos have versatility in the offense, but pass protection out of the three-wide look is still a concern after two preseason games. Those troubles will embolden opposing pass-rushers all the more if the Broncos don’t tighten things up.
  • For the second time in two preseason games an opposing offense pounded its way through the Broncos’ first-team defense to score on a game-opening drive. The Seahawks took their opening possession 65 yards in 10 plays, with five of those plays coming on runs that accounted for 21 yards. And much like the damage the 49ers did in the run game in the preseason opener, the Seahawks pounded away against the Broncos’ base defense. The Broncos did tinker with the lineup as Mitch Unrein started at one of the defensive tackle spots in place of Kevin Vickerson.

Some odds and ends:
  • As expected linebacker Von Miller started and played for much of the first half for the Broncos. Miller spent Thursday in Washington, D.C., to meet with NFL Players Association officials about his appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Miller returned to Denver on Thursday night and traveled with the team to Seattle on Friday.
  • In addition to Wolfe, the Broncos have some other injuries that will be evaluated more Sunday. Cornerback Champ Bailey suffered a foot injury in the first half and guard Louis Vasquez suffered a knee injury. Bailey limped to the locker room at halftime while Vasquez's injury wasn't considered all that serious.
  • On a night when the Broncos had difficulty at times maintaining their composure, they had some ill-timed flags. In the first half, Vickerson had an unnecessary roughness penalty and tackle Orlando Franklin had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. An offside penalty by Malik Jackson negated a Tony Carter interception. There were two illegal formation penalties on tackle Chris Clark on back-to-back plays. The Broncos also had two illegal-formation penalties in the second half -- both on rookie tackle Vinston Painter. The Broncos also took a delay of game penalty late in the first half when backup quarterback Brock Osweiler didn’t ask for the snap in time.
  • Rookie Kayvon Webster showed he has moved up the depth chart a bit, as he entered the game on defense before Omar Bolden, a 2012 draft pick. Webster has appeared more frequently in the specialty packages in practice and opened the second half on defense.
  • The Broncos had to take a timeout in the first half when they only had 10 players in the offensive huddle.
  • Andre Caldwell got several snaps with the offensive starters in the three-wide receiver set. Caldwell was in the formation in Wes Welker’s place at times in the first half. Caldwell and rookie Tavarres King are battling for the No. 4 wideout position, and the Broncos likely wanted to see how Caldwell performed with some premium snaps.
  • Manny Ramirez, after working with the first-team offense all week, started at center Saturday night. Ryan Lilja entered the game as the second-team center.
Dominique Rodgers-CromartieAP Photo/Jack DempseyDominique Rodgers-Cromartie practiced Saturday for the first time since spraining his ankle July 31.

The Denver Broncos looked at the available cornerbacks in the offseason and saw Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as a still-in-his-prime, high-value target. Personnel boss John Elway went so far as to call him a "Pro Bowl talent."

Rodgers-Cromartie looked at his available options in free agency and saw the Broncos as a Super Bowl contender, making the decision to sign what is essentially a one-year deal something he called "really a no-brainer."

And how all this works out for both sides likely will depend on how cooperative Rodgers-Cromartie's left ankle is in the coming weeks and months. Rodgers-Cromartie returned to the practice field Saturday for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain July 31 during practice.

"It's good to be back ... I'm just easing my way back in," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "I'm just trying to get a feel for it, some days you feel good, some days you don't."

It is often a notoriously difficult injury for a player to shake, especially at a position like cornerback where top-flight speed and the ability to change direction in the open field are integral parts of the job. It is the kind of injury that also resurfaces at times if a player lands awkwardly on the same spot.

And there is the matter that Rodgers-Cromartie previously suffered what he said were torn ligaments in the same ankle earlier in his career, during the 2011 season in Philadelphia.

Certainly the Broncos can function without Rodgers-Cromartie in the lineup -- they simply play their 2012 rotation, with Chris Harris as the starting right cornerback. In nickel and dime looks, Harris then moves inside to the slot and Tony Carter lines up outside.

But Rodgers-Cromartie gives them the size -- 6-foot-2, 193 pounds -- and speed they want in an outside corner. He would also allow the Broncos use Harris almost exclusively in the slot and keep size on the outside when they do go to the specialty looks. (Harris is 5-10 and Carter checks in at 5-9.)

The Broncos have not expressed concern about Rodgers-Cromartie over the long haul, but the injury, as well as his recovery, will bear watching as the team works toward the regular-season opener.

Before their bye in Week 9 the Broncos will face a cast of quarterbacks that includes Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. They are going to spend plenty of time in the nickel and dime -- they played the nickel over 60 percent of the defensive snaps last season -- and certainly want Rodgers-Cromartie in that mix.

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