NFL Nation: Gary Kubiak

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – As teams around the league continue to jettison veteran players to take some contracts off the books in advance of the formal opening of free agency, the Denver Broncos will always take a look at the list if they believe a player will fill a need.

But most of the time, the players simply do not fit the profile of what the Broncos are usually searching for in free agency, as in they are often in the 30-something club, coming off big-money, multiyear deals and hoping for another.

In short, the Broncos prefer players heading into their second NFL contracts, or the kind of players who usually aren’t getting released before the start of free agency.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Jack DempseyJohn Elway and the Broncos typically aren't major players on the opening days of free agency.
And while this new era of the salary cap – estimates are that it will come in between $143 million and $145 million per team, a significant jump from the $133-million limit in 2014 – has forced plenty of decision-makers across the league to wrap their heads around the idea of what is “too much" to pay a player at a given position. The Broncos have stuck to their profile for the most part.

At least in the big-ticket signings. You can take quarterback Peyton Manning’s signing in 2012 as the outlier, as Hall of Fame quarterbacks with football left in the tank don’t see the open market, so the Broncos dove in with a $96-million deal.

But overall, for much of John Elway’s early tenure with the Broncos, the team’s signings for those older free agents were usually on one-year contracts, usually well after the opening bell of free agency, especially if the player was well beyond his first contract in the league.

The players signed in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 free agency classes were largely veterans on one-year deals – Keith Brooking, Justin Bannan, Jim Leonhard, Dan Koppen, Brandon Stokley, Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips, just to name a few. Most of the exceptions didn't get much longer deals. Wes Welker got a two-year deal, Terrance Knighton got a two-year deal and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie got a two-year deal on paper, but the second year was voided five days after the Super Bowl following the 2013 season.

The exceptions in those earlier seasons were Manning and guard Louis Vasquez. But Vasquez was a 20-something was making his first venture into free agency, and the Broncos gave him a four-year deal for what was his second contract in the league.

He has been a starter, an All-Pro, the kind of return the Broncos want. Even in the 2014 splurge in free agency of the four high-profile, big-money, multi-year signings – Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and DeMarcus Ware – only Ware was older than 28 when the contracts were signed while Ward and Sanders were signing their second NFL contracts.

All four of those players went on to play in the Pro Bowl this past January.

So, when you see all of the veteran players released now, before free agency opens, the Broncos aren’t going to be all that active with those players because the price is the highest. Yes, they've already had tight end James Casey in for a visit, but only because Casey has played four seasons in Gary Kubiak’s offense.

The Broncos are looking to free agents more in line with Ward, Sanders and Vasquez, players just completing their initial contracts, players still ascending. Those are the kinds of players who will be shown the Broncos' checkbook in the coming weeks.

They’ll fill with older players later if they feel they need to, with "later" being some time after the initial flurry of free agency dies down.

Because with some of their needs, Elway has already said the Broncos will look within as well, especially to those in the 2014 draft class who didn’t play much last season – such as wide receiver Cody Latimer – or at all last season – such as tackle Michael Schofield.

As Elway put it: “They’re going to have expectations for those young guys to be able to step in and be able to contribute early. That’s the coaching staff, that’s Gary’s mindset, the coaching staff’s mindset -- they’re not afraid to play young guys. They’ll get them trained up to play, which is going to be beneficial to us."

So, as the list of veteran free agents already on the market grows, as teams shave their salary caps and send signed contracts into the wind, the Broncos will look. Just don’t expect them to dive in on most of the most familiar names.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Over the past three seasons, or since Peyton Manning signed on to be the quarterback, the Denver Broncos have largely used two personnel groupings on offense – the three-wide receiver set and a two-tight end package.

And while there is no disputing the Broncos' win output -- 38 in the last three years -- or scoring output, in the last years in particular when they have averaged 34 points per game over their last 32 regular-season games, both executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway and coach Gary Kubiak say that’s going to change.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning, Ryan Clady, Orlando Franklin, Virgil Green, C.J. Anderson
Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos' offensive huddle will include a fullback with frequency in 2015.
Kubiak said in the past week that he alwayshas had a fullback in the offense and intends to with the Broncos as well. And Elway added; “I think to be really effective in the run game, you’ve got to run with the fullback … We’ll have people who can play fullback.’’

Then asked if he believed there was still a place for a two-back offense in these pass happy times, he said; “Without a doubt I do.’’

With James Casey, a tight end who could line up as a fullback as well, set to be the first free agent the Broncos sit down with face to face with in the coming days -- Casey was released by the Eagles last week so he already is in the open market -- it's clear how much of a priority being able to staff the two-back look is at the moment. So, as the Broncos go about melding the playbook for quarterback Peyton Manning’s expected return with what Kubiak wants in the offense, it’s clear the Broncos will look different in how they go about things.

Over the last two seasons the Broncos have preferred the three-wide look to be their base formation. They had just two games last season when they lined up more with two tight ends than with three wide receivers – the season-opening win over the Indianapolis Colts and the Oct. 12 win over the New York Jets – and the difference was just one snap and three snaps, respectively.

It was far more common to lean almost exclusively on the three-wide look over the two tight end – 49 snaps to one in the first meeting with Kansas City, 63 to 10 against Arizona, 49-0 against San Francisco, 77-0 in the first meeting with Oakland, 63-3 against St. Louis and 41-9 against Cincinnati.

The totals against St. Louis and Cincinnati came in losses -- the loss against the Bengals in a period in the season when the Broncos were trying to run the ball more efficiently and they looked disjointed doing it at times.

And by the time the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Colts rolled around, they had a far different approach against the Colts. Last month they were in a three-wide look 56 times, penalty snaps included, as compared to two tight ends on 15 snaps, a far different ratio than they had used in the season-opening win over the same team.

From a football perspective once of the adjustments more two-back looks would bring would have to come from Manning. He could be under center more and face more crowded looks around the line of scrimmage than defenses have played against the Broncos over the last two seasons especially.

Kubiak, for one, says Manning would flourish in the offense because “he’s one of the best play-action quarterbacks ever to play the game. He can run whatever scheme he’s in.’’

But Kubiak did add; “We’re going to run whatever makes sense, whatever we think will get first downs and touchdowns, we’re going to run an offense that fits the personnel we have. Some of it could be different and some of it could look the same.’’
INDIANAPOLIS -- As the NFL’s scouting combine winds down Monday, Denver Broncos general manager John Elway has spent the past week previewing the draft's top prospects and navigating the hotbed of free agency that the event has become.

As teams and player agents scrambled to carve out time in between all of the running and jumping, the business of constructing a roster was at the forefront. A clearer picture has emerged after six frenetic days of how things will go for the Broncos once free agency officially opens on March 10.
  • Elway said in Indianapolis wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, as has been expected for weeks, will formally get the franchise player tag by the March 2 deadline if the two sides cannot work out a long-term deal. The franchise player tender is a one-year, guaranteed contract that would be for roughly $12.9 million for wide receivers this season -- the average of the top five contracts at the franchise player's position. The Broncos want, and intend, to keep Thomas and have made him the top priority this year among their own free agents. There was every indication that Thomas will get the franchise player tag and could then sign a long-term deal shortly after free agency opens and the market for front-line receivers is set.
  • Tight end Julius Thomas' representatives are seeking a long-term deal with near record guaranteed money for the position, as you would expect from a player with back-to-back 12-touchdown seasons. Denver has not given any indication that it expects to go that high. No talks are currently scheduled and Julius Thomas is expected to sign elsewhere. With all three of their top tight ends scheduled to be free agents, the Broncos will scan the market as well -- former Gary Kubiak favorite James Casey is available after having been released by the Philadelphia Eagles this past week. They will give a long look to selecting one in this year’s draft class as well. The team had particular interest in the tight ends workouts on Friday.
  • Yes, the Broncos would like to try to get players like defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, guard Orlando Franklin and safety Rahim Moore back, but Elway outlined this past week the difficulty in trying to do a deal for those players before free agency opens. He described the conversations as: “How much you want? Oh I don’t know. How much you got? I don’t know.’’ And he also said: “Really the bottom line is until the market opens and you get out there and see what’s out there, that’s what sets the price. That’s why it’s very difficult for them to accept something before free agency starts and why it’s difficult for us -- we don’t know what the market is, it could be different for some players … . Players want all the money and they want to play where they want to play. Heck I’ve been a player I understand that, but I can’t calm the frustration because we have to do what’s best for the Broncos and also know we would love to have him back, but we’ve got to see what that number is.’’ Elway said he believed Franklin would get "a lot of interest'' from other teams and the Broncos expect him to sign elsewhere.
  • Elway also made it clear some of the roster gaps left behind by departing free agents will be filled by young players already on the roster who may not have gotten much, if any, playing time last season. In particular, Elway talked about the potentials of tackle Michael Schofield and wide receiver Cody Latimer many times this past week. He also called the right tackle position “a need for us,’’ that a player like Schofield could fill. With Wes Welker scheduled to be a free agent and the Broncos not expected to bring him back, Latimer will be asked to do far more in the offense. The Broncos also saw what everybody else saw this past week in Indianapolis: A deep, athletic group of wide receivers that could reach into the draft’s third day.
INDIANAPOLIS -- As the on-field workouts continued Sunday at the NFL’s scouting combine, some players who will be of interest to the Denver Broncos were on display.

Sunday the defensive linemen and linebackers got to work.
  • With Danny Trevathan coming off three separate injuries to his left leg that kept him out of all but three games last season and with Nate Irving, who finished the season on injured reserve after knee surgery, scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, the Broncos will look hard at this year’s group of inside linebackers. While every team will certainly look at the group differently, it’s generally not considered that deep a position on this draft board. So the Broncos may have to consider an earlier pick to get the guy they want. Two players considered slightly undersized who will still continue to get the Broncos’ attention are Miami’s Denzel Perryman and UCLA’s Eric Kendricks. Perryman measured in at 5-foot-10 3/4 in Indy, while Kendricks was 6-0 1/4. But both were sure tacklers who consistently showed up in the run defense. Among the bigger players at the position who will get a look as well from the Broncos will be Benardrick McKinney (6-4 1/8, 246), who clocked an official 40 time of 4.66 Sunday.
  • Perryman, especially, has drawn interest at the combine from teams running a 3-4 defense, as the Broncos will run in the upcoming season. He suffered a pulled an abdominal muscle in a Senior Bowl practice and did not play in the all-star game. Perryman said in his meetings with teams that his discussions of a 3-4 defense were “pretty much second nature to me." And asked to describe his playing style, he said he believed he could, and should, be the first inside linebacker taken in the draft and called himself “a downhill, hard-nosed dog."
  • Washington’s Shaq Thompson won this year’s Hornung Award, given annually the nation’s “most versatile player." He scored two touchdowns as a running back in the 2014 season and four on defense -- one interception return for a score and three fumble returns for scores. Against Eastern Washington he had 15 tackles on defense and carried the ball three times on offense for 66 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown run. So, in theory, he could help solve the Broncos’ needs for a linebacker and, to a smaller extent, as a situational fullback. However, Thompson said at the combine he intended to play only linebacker in the NFL, and when asked about running back he said, “No, running back is out of the question." Thompson, at 228 pounds, was officially clocked at 4.64 in the 40 on Sunday.
  • The Broncos had all of their top talent evaluators at Sunday’s workouts -- including executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway, director of player personnel Matt Russell, director of pro personnel Tom Heckert and coach Gary Kubiak -- and they will give plenty of consideration to the defensive linemen they saw work Sunday. But many coaches on hand in Indy said this week they also expected to see a big jump in the Broncos’ defensive line play with the arrival of defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who is one of the most respected assistants in the league and represents a major coup for Kubiak given he was under contract with the Texans when Houston coach Bill O’Brien allowed Kollar to pursue the Broncos’ job. Kollar gets three potential starters on the defensive line still in their first contract in Sylvester Williams, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson -- all Broncos draft picks -- to go with his work with Von Miller.
  • Elway addressed, in particular, Kollar’s potential impact on Williams, a first-round pick in the 2013 draft, this past week at the combine. “I think Sylvester’s still growing," Elway said. “We still like Sylvester, still think there’s a lot of potential there, not sure that he’s scratched it yet. If there’s any guy who can get it out of him it’s Bill Kollar. ... Sylvester is going to get tested and he’s going to get pushed."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Whatever becomes of the Denver Broncos offense is still under construction as Gary Kubiak and his coaching staff begin to create the framework of what things will look like with Peyton Manning at quarterback this fall.

Kubiak said at the scouting combine this week that he’s already begun to create the terminology for the playbook, “meshing" what Manning has used with the Broncos and what Kubiak’s teams have used in his career.

But Kubiak also made a couple of philosophical things clear.

“If you run the ball well offensively in this league, it opens up some other avenues," Kubiak said. “ … We’re going to run the ball and we’re going to be physical."

[+] EnlargeC.J. Anderson
AP Photo/Michael ConroyNew Broncos coach Gary Kubiak wants running back C.J. Anderson to act like the starter this offseason.
And on the prospect of a fullback, which the Broncos didn’t have this past season, Kubiak offered: “That’s a topic, obviously I’ve had one on my team all the time, it’s something we’ve discussed, that we’re going to have to find, or have to build."

In the end, a productive running game might offer the biggest challenge to the new staff. The Broncos offense became somewhat disjointed down the stretch, from a Nov. 16 loss at St. Louis when the Broncos had 10 rushing attempts through the loss in the playoffs to the Indianapolis Colts as the Broncos tried to combine a more committed approach in the run game to what they could do, and were already doing, in the passing game.

Toss in some struggles on the offensive line -- Broncos running backs had first contact with defenders at or behind the line of scrimmage on 33 percent of their carries this past season -- and the attempt to weave it all together will get plenty of attention in the weeks and months ahead. For his part, Manning said in Phoenix, two days before the Super Bowl, that he would be "comfortable" in any offense Kubiak and the Broncos created. Manning also endorsed the benefits of play-action inside a productive run game.

During his time as an NFL play-caller, Kubiak has had a player lead the league in passing yards, rushing yards and receiving yards at some point. He obviously likes the prospect of Manning at quarterback, coming off a 39-touchdown season, as well as the team’s running backs, starting with C.J. Anderson.

Asked Wednesday if Anderson should be considered the starter, Kubiak said, “He’s got to go earn that. I think when he walked off the field last year he was playing that way. … When I talked to him, I said, ‘C.J., when you come back to the offseason, you need to walk in here handling yourself like a starter. I think he’s ready to do that. … I’m very excited about the young running backs we have."

The group includes Montee Ball, who was the starter when last season opened, along with Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson, who could be one of the initial candidates to play fullback.

Last season, in Kubiak’s only year as Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator, the Ravens finished among the league’s top 11 in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. The Broncos have not had a season in which the team finished in the league's top 11 in those three categories since 2005, when they were second in rushing attempts, second in rushing yards and third in rushing TDs. That was the last year Kubiak was the Broncos offensive coordinator before he accepted the job as head coach of the Houston Texans.

“It’s something I believe in, something I think you need to do as an offense," Kubiak said. “ … It will be part of what we do."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Technically, Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio can't specifically talk about signing soon-to-be-free-agent Terrance Knighton, but Wednesday Del Rio made it clear he likes the Denver Broncos defensive tackle plenty.

Free agency doesn't open until March 10 -- a negotiating window opens the week before that -- so under the league's tampering rules coaches and general managers can't talk about acquiring players under contract with other teams. Contracts from the 2014 season do not expire until March 9, the last day of the current league year. But there is history at work given Del Rio was the Jacksonville Jaguars coach when the team selected Knighton in the third round of the 2009 draft and he was the Broncos defensive coordinator when Knighton signed in free agency in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDenver Broncos
Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Getty Images"We drafted him," said Raiders coach Jack Del Rio of Terrance Knighton, "we thought at that time he was kind of a dancing bear type. A big powerful man that could stay on his feet and run down the line."
And with Knighton scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent and Del Rio on the hunt for more players in his new job as Oakland Raiders coach, it's clear there will be interest in the Bay Area.

"We drafted him, we thought at that time he was kind of a dancing bear type," Del Rio said Wednesday at the NFL's scouting combine. "A big powerful man that could stay on his feet and run down the line. So, you know, this game is about big, powerful men so the guys that have the skill level can do their things. This big powerful man played well in Jacksonville, we got back together, he played well in Denver and so I appreciate that and I respect. We have to have those kinds of people in our trenches in the offensive and defensive line in order to play the kind of football we expect to play."

Del Rio even used some of his question-and-answer session with the media at the combine to put the word out the Raiders have money and are ready to spend as well.

"I think it's important that the prospective players out there understand that things have changed," Del Rio said. "Our practice fields are all being re-done, our weight room will be expanded, we have a steam room going in, there's a freshness going on. ... As you go in this phase of free agency and acquiring players, we have cap space, we have cash, and we have a new staff full of teachers and we have a good young quarterback, we have a good man off the edge Khalil Mack, we've got a good left tackle, we've got good corners, so the things we needed when we started we have."

Knighton, a team captain this past season for the Broncos, was a key voice in the locker room and a key part of the team's defense as well, especially on early downs. For his part Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said Wednesday the team hopes to retain as many of its own free agents in the coming weeks, including Knighton.

Knighton would be a nose tackle in the Broncos' new 3-4 defense.

"We've got a few (free agents) obviously," Kubiak said. "The key in this business is holding your football team together and getting better at the same time. We've got some key free agents. … I know we're going to do everything we can to hang on to our players, but at the same time you have to put yourself in position through free agency and the offseason to get better as a football team. John's track record has proven he's doing a great job of that so I'll leave that to him. We would like to hang on to everybody. We want to keep the team intact as best we can."
INDIANAPOLIS – Coach Gary Kubiak met with the media Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine, here’s what we learned about the Denver Broncos:

Manning
1. Let Peyton be Peyton: Kubiak said he likes to call plays and run the scheme he always has, but he’s prepared to put verbiage in the play-calls that quarterback Peyton Manning is familiar with. Kubiak said the coaches already are “in the process’’ of “meshing’’ what Manning has used with the Broncos and what Kubiak has used in the past. And when it comes to running the no-huddle, he’s ready to let Manning do that as well. “He’s, obviously, at the line of scrimmage, as good as there has ever been in this game,’’ Kubiak said. “You don’t ever take that away from your players and it’s something I look forward to talking with him about, his mindset, his philosophy.’’

2. Job opening at fullback: Kubiak was clear the Broncos are on the hunt for a fullback, a position they did not stock on the roster last season. The Broncos used tight end Virgil Green at times as a lead back, as well as reserve guard Ben Garland. They did line up in a two-back look on a smattering of snaps this past season, usually with three tight ends in the formation as well in short-yardage situations. Of the current backs on the roster Juwan Thompson is the most likely candidate, but Kubiak added a "smaller tight end’’ might fit the job description as well. “Obviously I’ve had one on my team all the time, it’s something we’ve discussed, that we’re going to have to find, or have to build,’’ Kubiak said. He added players who fit the bill would be reviewed over the next week at the combine as well as in the weeks leading up to the draft.

3. Come ready to work C.J.: Running back C.J. Anderson, whose roster spot was on shaky ground last spring when he showed up to the start of last year’s offseason workouts a little heavier than the Broncos coaches wanted and looked sluggish in that early work. But through training camp and into the season Anderson rebounded for 648 yards rushing over the last six regular-season games. And from a football perspective Anderson is considered a quality, potentially immensely productive fit in the run game Kubiak will install. Kubiak said he confirmed that in a conversation with Anderson shortly after Kubiak was hired. Asked Wednesday if Anderson would be the starter, Kubiak said; “He’s got to go earn that. I think when he walked off the field last year he was playing that way … I told that when I talked to him, I said ‘C.J., when you come back to the offseason, you need to walk in here handling yourself like a starter.’’

4. Grow up fast: Of the Broncos' draft class of 2014, only the defensive players selected got any significant playing time, especially first-round pick, cornerback Bradley Roby. But of the offensive players in the class – wide receiver Cody Latimer, tackle Michael Schofield and center Matt Paradis – only Latimer played in a game and he played only 37 snaps on offense all season. Kubiak said he has looked at practice video of that group, from both OTAs and into the season, and believes all three will be in the mix to be considered for far bigger roles this time around. Kubiak said he liked Schofield leading up to last year’s draft and that he liked what he has seen from Paradis as well. On Latimer he said; “I spent a whole day with him in Baltimore [before the ’14 draft], we really, really liked him. I think a lot of his ability.’’

5. On the nose: Kubiak said the Broncos would like to retain as many of their pending unrestricted free agents as possible, including defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. Knighton would be one of the best fits to be the nose tackle in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense, but Kubiak said the Broncos could adjust to the personnel they have. “Wade has played with both, Wade has had the huge guy [at nose tackle] and … Wade has played with the small guy – Earl Mitchell in Houston.’’ Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson are expected to move smoothly into the two defensive end spots in the three-man front, and Kubiak said he liked the potential of both players.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, now a month into his new job, said Wednesday that the team is moving forward in constructing the team’s offensive playbook with the idea Peyton Manning will be the team’s quarterback. While Kubiak likes and wants to call plays, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp will be heavily involved.

At the NFL’s scouting combine, Kubiak offered a glimpse into how things will look on the offensive side of the ball for the Broncos.

Kubiak
Kubiak affirmed his belief and desire that Manning will be behind center when the season begins -- an official announcement from Manning is expected after he his neck examined next week -- and said the Broncos have already begun the work on the new scheme.

“No doubt I want him to be," Kubiak said. “I think all indications are that everything that he said and through his conversations with John [Elway], he feels good. He’s had his self-assessment, or however you want to label that, and he feels good about moving forward. So, we’ll just continue with the process."

Asked how he would merge Kubiak’s version of the West Coast offense, which often requires the quarterback to roll out, throw on the move and features a vastly different terminology in the play calls that Manning has used previously in his career, Kubiak said the scheme would be built around Manning and adjustments would be made.

“I think he can do anything he wants to do; you do what your players do best," Kubiak said. “It’s interesting to me -- I’ve been asked over the course of the last month since I’ve been in Denver about the bootleg and those types of things. We had Joe [Flacco] in Baltimore last year and I think we booted maybe 25 times in the season. You do what you players do best. We’re going to run the Denver Broncos offense."

Kubiak added that he has already started, with Dennison and Knapp, to construct the terminology that will be used once the players return, with the expectation Manning is there, too, for the start of the offseason program. The Broncos will open their offseason conditioning work April 6.

Kubiak said he has already worked through the game video from the past three seasons since Manning signed with the Broncos in 2012. The Broncos set the NFL’s single-season scoring record in 2013 with 606 points and were second in the league in scoring this past season.

Manning has thrown 131 touchdown passes in the past three seasons, including the NFL’s single-season record of 55 in 2013.

“I’m in the process right now. We’re in the process right now of taking what they’ve done and taken Peyton’s verbiage and taken what I’ve done; there’s a lot of cross already," Kubiak said. “And we’re meshing two things together and that’s a great challenge."

On game days, Kubiak said the plan right now would be for Dennison to be in the coaches’ box with Knapp on the sideline and that Knapp would be the coach on the headset who relays the play call into Manning. Only one coach can talk to the quarterback. Kubiak said he would be on the headset with Dennison and Knapp, so either Dennison or Kubiak would relay the play call to Knapp that would then be sent to Manning.

Kubiak has said he enjoys calling plays and that the staff would see what works best as they prepare for the season.

“I can tell you this: I’m very comfortable going with Knapper and Rico," Kubiak said. “In Houston, I did give up a lot of [play-calling] those couple years we were working together. I’m very comfortable with Rick being able to call the game and he and [Knapp] working together, but at the same time it is something I like to do. I’m going to be part of that; it’s something that’s my passion in football on game day. I’m never going to get away from that. I could sit here and maybe tell you I might, but I’m never going to get away from it. I trust those guys and I’m going to let them do their job."
INDIANAPOLIS -- He had been with Houston since the beginning, but now new Detroit Lions special-teams coach Joe Marciano is on his second team in two seasons.

Last year, he was a consultant for Minnesota with its special teams. And now, he is running a special-teams unit again, having been hired by the Lions last month. And his former boss in Houston, Gary Kubiak, praised Marciano’s passion Wednesday.

“Joe's a fireball. He's been a very successful coach in this league for a long time,” Kubiak said at the NFL combine. “Obviously we went through a tough situation in Houston a couple years ago and Joe sat out last year.

“I think a lot of times in this business there's coaches that kind of reassess where they're at in their career and go back at it are even more hungry than maybe they have been in the past. I think you're getting a guy that's really ready to go back to work and be successful.”

Marciano was with the Texans from 2002 to 2013, when he was fired just after Kubiak was let go. In 2013, his last year with Houston, the Texans were 16th in net punting yards and 28th in both punt return coverage and kick return coverage. The Texans were also 20th or lower in punt and kick return during his last season there.

During Marciano's tenure in Houston, the Texans were 288 of 364 on field goals (79.1 percent) and 13 of 23 on two-point conversions. His punters averaged 42.49 yards per punt and 37.81 net yards per punt. The Texans had seven kick return touchdowns during his time there and averaged 22.62 yards per kick return. His returners also averaged 9.16 yards per punt return with five touchdowns.

His unit allowed six kick return touchdowns and six punt return touchdowns during his Texans tenure as well.
Gary Kubiak's admiration for Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco remains the same even though he has changed teams.

Flacco
Asked at the NFL combine whether Flacco is elite, Kubiak said: "You bet he is. That's why I'm standing here today."

Kubiak was hired as the Denver Broncos head coach last month after one season as the offensive coordinator in Baltimore, where Flacco set career-highs in passing yards (3,986) and touchdown passes (27). The Ravens hired Marc Trestman to replace Kubiak.

"I really enjoyed working with him," Kubiak said of Flacco on Wednesday. "As talented a young man as I've ever coached and as good a person as I've ever coached."

The debate of whether Flacco is elite is a long-running one, and it often becomes heated because Flacco is spectacular in the postseason but just solid in the regular season. He has never thrown for 4,000 yards or 30 touchdowns in his seven NFL seasons. But since 2008, when Flacco was drafted in the first round by the Ravens, he leads the NFL in playoff victories with 10, which is three more than any other quarterback during that span.

In the postseason the last four years, Flacco has thrown 21 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating of 107.5 over that time is the best of any quarterback who played more than three playoff games.

"I think we'll be talking about Joe for a long, long time," Kubiak said. "I really appreciated my time with him and I wish him the best."
A closer look at the areas the Denver Broncos could address in the draft. Today we will look at the tight ends, who are scheduled to work out Friday in Indianapolis.

Position of need: The Broncos had three tight ends catch at least 14 passes last season. All threehad at least one receiving touchdown and played in at least 13 games. And Julius Thomas, Virgil Green, and Jacob Tamme are all scheduled to be unrestricted free agents on March 10. Thomas' representatives, with his back-to-back seasons of 12 touchdown receptions, are looking to move him into the upper reaches of the pay-grade at the position. With a long list of free agents that includes wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos are not expected to put a better offer in front of Julius Thomas than he could get elsewhere. So, they have some work to do here, especially since, in the past, new head coach Gary Kubiak's offenses have carved out a large role for the tight ends.

Three players the Broncos could target in the draft:

Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota: He will be the top-rated player at the position for many teams, so the Broncos, with the 28th pick overall, are not expected to have a shot at him. But just in case, Williams is a due-diligence player with a big catch radius who has shown himself to be an adept cut-blocker -- a top-shelf combination in the new offense.

Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan: Having played at about 235 pounds this past season, he projects as a tight end who would line up out wide plenty or in the slot. He is listed by some teams as a wide receiver, but athletically he likely will add a few pounds and find himself in a scheme that puts him on linebackers and safeties in the pass pattern rather than outside, where he would more often be matched against cornerbacks.

Ben Koyack, TE, Notre Dame: He’s raw with plenty of potential -- 13 of his 21 starts for the Irish came this past season. Koyack needs some polish in his route-running, but he catches with his hands -- not a body catcher -- makes plays in traffic, and could likely play on the line or line up in the slot. He's also a competitive blocker who consistently wins in the run game and showed the ability to set in pass protection.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – If the NFL Players Association’s salary-cap projections are close, or higher, than what the NFL’s management council has already projected for teams, the Denver Broncos will have enough room in 2015 to try to attack the long list of their own free agents and perhaps make a quality late signing or two to fill in the gaps.

But a splash like last year's is not in the cards this time around.

Teams around the league, the Broncos included, were told just before the end of the season the 2015 salary cap was expected to be between $138.6 million and $141.8 million per team, up from this past season’s $133 million per team.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesJulius Thomas' future with the Denver Broncos could be in doubt because the tight end is an unrestricted free agent.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said last week in Phoenix that the union also will, for the first time, issue its own cap projections for the coming season, just before the NFL’s scouting combine begins Feb. 17. Despite the combine's main purpose being the place where the most of the highest-rated prospects for the 2015 draft are evaluated, it’s also the place where agents and team officials get together with free agency on the horizon so the union would like its own projections in the discourse.

The union has long held that the league's cap projections have been too conservative and artificially hold down spending. It certainly didn’t hold down the Broncos’ spending last March when they dove into free agency for cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. All four of those players played in the Pro Bowl.

But this year, with 17 restricted and unrestricted free agents combined, the Broncos’ plan will have a more local feel than the last year’s when the Broncos simply let their highest-profile free agents head into the market without an offer from the team. Just after the Broncos hired Gary Kubiak as the franchise’s 15th coach last month, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway more than hinted that this year, the team will be looking in-house first.

“We like our roster, we like where we are with the moves we’ve made," Elway said. “We’re always looking to improve and will bring in any player we think is an improvement over guys we have, but we have some of our own guys coming up, and we want to do what we can there."

If the salary cap officially comes in at, near, or even a little above the league projection of $141.8 million per team to go with an expected rollover of some cap room of this past season, the Broncos would (conservatively) have about $25 million in projected workable salary-cap space if you take their top 51 salary-cap figures at the moment into account.

Some of that room will have to be set aside for their draft picks, and Elway said last month he expected to “have at least eight" draft picks.

The Broncos have limited their dead money against the cap, and at the moment, kicker Matt Prater’s cap charge of just more than $800,000 is the biggest hit there for '15. The Broncos also don’t have many big-roster bonuses due in the coming weeks, either, other than Ryan Clady’s $1.5 million roster bonus, to go with a $2.5 million roster bonus for Ward and $500,000 for Talib.

Also something to consider is Ware, Talib, Ward and Clady have all, or part, of their 2015 salaries fully guaranteed within the first week of the new league year, as well -- so between March 10-14.

With Peyton Manning's $19 million guaranteed on March 9, the Broncos will, if Manning returns to play for 2015, have guaranteed $40.5 million in base salaries to those five players by the time March 14 rolls around. It's why, with the oldest deal in the pile, after groin and thigh injuries this past season, Clady could be a target for a contract redo if the Broncos are searching for some additional room.

It all means the Broncos' focus will be largely on their own free agents. The top priority is wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, whom the Broncos would certainly like to sign to a long-term deal, but at minimum will be poised to use the franchise player tag on him for ’15.

That’s a guaranteed one-year deal. For the 2014 season, it was $12.312 million for a wide receiver, so that would take a slice out of the this year’s cap, as well, and would be the team’s second-highest figure behind Peyton Manning’s $19 million, which is guaranteed March 9, if he’s on the roster.

As a result, tight end Julius Thomas, also an unrestricted free agent, will be a tougher get. His representatives have made it clear he wants to have a contract among the league’s highest-paid tight ends after back-to-back seasons with 12 touchdown receptions.

The Broncos would not have the cap space, nor the inclination with a tighter cap fit for them on the horizon in 2016, to put both Thomases at the top end of the pay scales at their respective positions.

Terrance Knighton will get a long look from the Broncos, but Jack Del Rio is going to want Knighton in Oakland as much as he wanted Knighton in Denver. And Knighton, who has called Del Rio “a genius,’’ has made no secret of his affinity for playing in Del Rio’s defense. Safety Rahim Moore, tight end Virgil Green, tight end Jacob Tamme, guard Orlando Franklin, linebacker Nate Irving and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein also are among the team’s unrestricted free agents.

Among the restricted free agents, linebacker Brandon Marshall showed more than enough as the team's leading tackler to draw interest from elsewhere if the Broncos don’t put a high enough tender on him. The Broncos do have the right to match any offer to him, as well.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning recently discussed his impending decision about whether he will return for the 2015 season, two things stood out.

The first is his ability to physically compete -- not survive, but compete -- and swing with the league's heavyweights. The second is how the Broncos explain how he fits into the plan with a new coaching staff during a pretty hearty rebuild of a 12-4 team.

Manning said Friday in Phoenix that he did not want his decision to be a "lingering thing," and it is best resolved "the sooner the better, for a lot of people."

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Ed ZurgaPeyton Manning would be playing for a third offensive coordinator in four seasons if he returns to the Broncos in 2015.
Many in the league, including many inside the Broncos’ complex, see Manning making his decision within the next two weeks, a time frame that would account for postseason time off for the team's football staff. Manning said he wants to speak to John Elway when the executive vice president of football operations/general manager returns.

Manning also implied last week that he might make a decision even before the exam on his neck that has to be performed at least 10 days before the start of the new league year, which starts March 10. So Manning's physical would be March 1 at the latest. Manning’s salary for 2015 -- $19 million -- is guaranteed on March 9. Manning’s father, Archie, said last week that he believes Peyton will make his decision in "the next week or two," so that puts next week on the radar.

But Manning’s ability to physically handle another season is important to him. He has often said he doesn’t want to be a "hang-on guy."

"If you come back, it’s because you still believe you can help a team," Manning said in Phoenix after receiving the Bart Starr Award for his off-the-field work. "And you think you have a chance to help that team win. That’s kind of why you’ve always played. … It’s one thing to play and have a uniform and be on the roster; it’s another to truly contribute and help."

With a roster that has eight Pro Bowlers under contract for next season, there is plenty on the table for Manning and the Broncos.

But Manning will also have to wrap his head around change, and there has been plenty for the Broncos since the season ended. In his 13 seasons behind center for the Indianapolis Colts, excluding the 2011 season he missed after spinal fusion surgery, Manning had one offensive coordinator (Tom Moore).

In three seasons in Denver, he’s already had two (Mike McCoy and Adam Gase), and if Manning returns for 2015, Rick Dennison would be the third. Head coach Gary Kubiak is expected to call plays for the Broncos, but Dennison would be side by side with Manning in creating the game plan.

Although Kubiak has said he would gladly structure an offense to fit Manning’s abilities, Kubiak’s offenses of the past -- versions of the West Coast offense -- have had a far different look with far different terminology than what Manning has used. Manning said last week he would "be comfortable" in whatever Kubiak wants to run, and the two have been at the job long enough that they could make things work.

But Manning doesn't just roll with changes. He researches change. He grinds at the details. His lists of questions for any and all problem-solving sessions border on legendary. College coaches who recruited him in high school talk of his lists of questions. Bill Polian has recalled on several occasions that when he was the Colts’ general manager and first met with Manning before the 1998 draft -- the year the quarterback was drafted -- he came armed with a long list of questions.

Elway said the questions came when the Broncos were Manning’s first visit of his first foray into free agency in March 2012. Gase, once asked what Manning wants most from a coach, has said "answers." So when Manning talks of wanting to see where he fits, it isn’t lip service. He wants to know. He wants to sweat all the details.

As he said in Phoenix: “At the same time, you want to get a good feel if the team is comfortable with you, and if you fit in. Like I said, we’ve had quite a few changes. … Getting a good evaluation of the changes that have been made, you know, how I fit in to the changes, how does Coach Kubiak see me possibly fitting in with him and his team. Like I said, you want to get a good feel for them and what’s comfortable to them, as well."

Manning has said he has "great respect" for Kubiak as a football coach and human being, and Kubiak has said it would be easy to design an offense for Manning.

In the end, Manning’s decision won’t have anything to do with the Broncos’ playoff loss or any nervousness about the new offense. It will simply be whether Manning feels good enough to compete at the level he believes he needs to reach to win, and whether he knows the Broncos feel good about his doing it.
PHOENIX – Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has been out of sight, at least in terms of public appearances. But the team’s coaching change, with John Fox out and Gary Kubiak in, has not been out of Manning's mind.

Manning is aware of the public conversation following Kubiak’s hire has been about whether Manning could fit into his new coach's offense. On Friday, Manning said the subject isn't worth debate.

Manning
“I know that’s been a hot topic of discussion," Manning said following a breakfast where he received the Bart Starr Award for his off-the-field efforts. “ ... But if I choose to come back, I feel pretty comfortable, aside maybe from Tubby Raymond’s Delaware Wing-T offense, I feel pretty comfortable playing in any offense. I really do. I don’t see that as really being a factor."

Manning’s affirmation of his ability to work within Kubiak’s playbook confirms what former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said shortly after Kubiak’s hiring that the two would be able to work together.

“There's no doubt in my mind," Plummer said earlier this month. "Man, look, Gary is a great coach and great coaches change their systems up -- they extend it or tweak it to maximize their players' abilities. But they would both have to work at it, they both would have to find what was best for them on each side. They could do it, but they would have to put in the time to make it right. It’s not an exact fit, but Kubes is a great, great coach and Peyton is one of the best ever. If they want to get it done, need to get it done, they'll get it done."

Manning has not yet decided if he will return for the 2015 season, but said Friday he doesn’t want the process “to linger." He said Kubiak’s offense and any fallout from the Broncos’ 24-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC’s divisional round would not be factors. Kubiak has run a version of the West Coast offense almost exclusively in his career as an NFL play-caller. It requires the quarterback to be on the move plenty, to throw on the run, rolling left or right to both sides of the formation at various times.

Manning has played almost exclusively in the pocket in his Hall of Fame career with a far different playbook with far different verbiage in the play calls. Kubiak, on the day he was introduced as Broncos coach, said it would be “easy to work with Peyton," and that should Manning return: "We would make an offense that fits what our players do. This will be a Denver Broncos offense, not Gary Kubiak's offense. ... We would work to Peyton's strengths when the time comes and he makes his decision either way."

Manning also reaffirmed Friday his decision to return will be based largely on his physical health as well as the team's plans for himself and the roster.

“I’m kind of still determining that," Manning said. “That’s a little bit of the time. I’m taking some time to assess some things and to see. That’s something that’s important to me is not whether I can physically do it for myself, but can I physically do it to help the team? I’ve always wanted to be part of the solution to helping and never a problem or a limiting factor for the team. I want to be able to look Coach Kubiak and John Elway and Joe Ellis in the eye and say, ‘Yeah, physically, I honestly feel I can contribute and help.'

“It’s one thing to play and have a uniform and be on the roster. It’s another to truly contribute and help. And that’s the only thing I’ve known in football."
PHOENIX -- Occasionally, in walking around the events that surround the Super Bowl, you’ll spot a forlorn-looking soul in a Broncos jersey. A No. 18 here, a No. 58 there, a No. 10, maybe a No. 88 or two.

The Broncos opened their offseason workouts last April with the idea they would be one of the two teams in Super Bowl XLIX, that they would be the AFC team working out of a snazzy resort hotel. They said it, stood up for it and lived with that thought for most of the season that unfolded.

“That was the goal all year long," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. after his first Pro Bowl appearance earlier this week. “We didn’t step back from that. That was our goal; we believed we had that kind of team. We still believe we have that kind of team. We’ll take some time and come back to work. But when you’re here and see all the Super Bowl stuff, it’s right there in front of you, most anywhere you look you see something that has the Super Bowl on it with those Roman numerals, right there. Of course, you want that to be you, you want to be playing for the championship."

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesEmmanuel Sanders is among the Broncos players participating in Super Bowl festivities this week.
These Broncos have felt the sting in each of the last three seasons. They have exited the divisional round as the AFC’s No. 1 seed (2012). They have exited the divisional round as the AFC’s No. 2 seed (earlier this month). And they have lost a Super Bowl, by 35 points last February as the AFC’s top seed. It was the team's first title game appearance since it closed out the 1998 season as the champion.

As the eight Broncos players went through the Pro Bowl practices last week, they were surrounded by communities doing a Super Bowl countdown, with Super Bowl banners hanging over calendars of Super Bowl events. They continue to be a part of things, as Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was on the autograph schedule at the NFL Experience Tuesday and Wednesday, and linebacker Von Miller was on the docket Wednesday.

That, too, is a Super Bowl phenomenon. For players good enough to draw a crowd in the Super Bowl mayhem, it is an odd existence. You’re at the Super Bowl, just not in the Super Bowl.

“You know you had a good season; you were in the playoffs and it’s hard to get in the playoffs," said Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who played in this past Sunday’s Pro Bowl. “But the goal was to get to where we wanted to go all season and that’s the Super Bowl … It’s why it’s a little different to play [the Pro Bowl] where the Super Bowl is. You see Super Bowl stuff everywhere, kind of reminds you a little every time."

The Broncos have continued to go about their business in the last week as Gary Kubiak fills out his coaching staff. But there may be no bigger crossing of paths between the Broncos and the Super Bowl than Friday when quarterback Peyton Manning is scheduled to be in Phoenix to accept the Bart Starr Award for his community work.

It will be Manning’s most public appearance since the Broncos’ Jan. 11 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Manning said following that game he was uncertain if he would return for the 2015 season.

Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway met with Manning the day after the loss and told Manning to take several weeks to make his decision.

“It’s hard for the season to be over," said Miller, one of the other Pro Bowl Broncos. “All you can do is get ready to get back to work when it’s time. We wanted to be here for the other game, be in the last game. You’re going to remember that no matter how many banners we see here."

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