NFL Nation: Peyton Manning

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 this past May's draft, 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 last 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 Caldwell the ball 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 1-on-1 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 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 (PUP) 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."
Impressionist Frank Caliendo stopped by ESPN.com’s NFL Nation TV Thursday and offered hilarious takes in different voices on the current state of the NFL, joining host Paul Gutierrez (Oakland Raiders reporter), co-host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Kevin Seifert (NFL national reporter).

Caliendo broke out many of his impressions, including his staple of staples, John Madden, and advised life-of-the-party rookie Johnny Manziel to keep on partying, in Madden’s voice, like Madden’s Raiders of the 1970s did as one of the league’s dominant teams of the era, both on and off the field.

Earlier in the day on ESPN Radio’s "Mike and Mike" show, Caliendo read LeBron James’ letter to the fans, his reason for returning to Cleveland, in the voice of Morgan Freeman. Caliendo shared some of it on the Spreecast as well.

Other NFL personalities Caliendo did impressions of included what is now his newest staple, Jon Gruden, while briefly taking the show into a Gruden family reunion and reminiscing on Harry Potter’s school of Hogwarts. He also did Will Ferrell doing Harry Caray.

Caliendo, who has had his own television show in the past, said he stopped counting how many voices he has in his repertoire, though it’s been reported he has at least 120 impressions, from former president George W. Bush to Mike Ditka, which he said is all about chewing gum and putting his index finger above his lip as a mustache. He wants to add a Peyton Manning impression, saying there’s some “Elvis” in the five-time NFL MVP’s voice.

And yes, Caliendo did some Charles Barkley while discussing how he comes up with ideas for impressions. Caliendo was on the show for 20 minutes.

Other topics discussed by Gutierrez, Harvey and Seifert included Ray Rice getting a reported two-game suspension, Tony Dungy’s recent assertion that he would not draft the openly gay Michael Sam because he would be too big a distraction, and a new home for the Raiders.

The show can be watched here:

 
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The last word rings the loudest, and when it comes to all the Denver Broncos accomplished last season, the Seattle Seahawks got the last word.

It came in the form of a 43-8 victory over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

For many, that nationally televised cave-in wiped away all of the touchdowns, league records and remember-when plays that the Broncos had assembled along the way. Because of that, the Broncos have moved through the offseason with questions about their mettle swirling around them.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware, Von Miller
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesAdding DeMarcus Ware, left, and getting Von Miller, right, back from injury has the Broncos excited.
Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner went on ESPN and dropped the words "scared" and "timid" when asked about the Broncos and the title game. Others around the league have done the same in private -- asked the same questions, wondered the same things. How can the Broncos navigate a tougher schedule than they had last season and do it as they try to bounce back from the kind of high-profile loss that is often difficult to shake?

That's what everyone wants to know, and it's a burden the Broncos carried as they took the field Thursday for their first training camp practice.

Make no mistake -- the Broncos like the team they have. And why not? Peyton Manning is back, as are the coaching staff and the guts of a roster that has gone 13-3 in back-to-back seasons.

As cornerback Chris Harris Jr. put it, "Guys know what kind of team we have."

John Elway, the Broncos' general manager and executive vice president of football operations, was busy this offseason, signing high-profile free agents DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders.

"Are we a better football team on paper?" Elway asked. "I think we are. I feel good about the fact that we're a better football team with free agents that we signed, as well as the draft, as well as the young guys taking steps from last season."

Ware arrived from Dallas with 117 career sacks. Talib and Ward were named to the Pro Bowl last season.

"DeMarcus came in and walked in like he'd been here for 10 years, because that's the kind of guy that he is," Elway said. "You know the way that Aqib practices and the competitive nature that he has, and the mentality, the toughness that he brings."

The Broncos also have the likes of Harris Jr., Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson and Rahim Moore -- defensive players who finished the season on injured reserve -- back on the practice field. They've seen Manning look as good as ever, with his receivers saying the future Hall of Famer has had a little more on his fastball this spring.

They see a deep team with impact players they believe is tougher, a little more calloused by what has happened. But training camp is the season of sunshine and rainbows in the NFL. Always has been, always will be. Everyone arrives to camp happy and optimistic, touting the offseason changes in players or attitude, the new day or new era.

"I'm never getting too optimistic, because this thing changes so fast, and things can change on a dime," Elway said. "But I am excited about the team that we have on the field, I'm excited about the coaching staff that we have.

"So we're excited about getting started -- plus we can put last year behind us. As tremendous as last year was, obviously there's always a bitter taste in your mouth when it ends the way it ended. When we get out on the field, that officially ends the 2013 season. We can now get going on the 2014 season."

It's a season where the Broncos hope they can be the team that hands out the exclamation point.
PITTSBURGH -- ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski recently ranked all of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is sixth on his list after Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck.

Roethlisberger
"Jaws" performed his usual exhaustive film review in compiling his list, and he offered strong praise for Roethlisberger as well as an astonishing statistic:
I thought Big Ben had one of his best seasons in 2013. We all know he has a unique skill set, with the ability to be a pocket passer but also extend the play when it's necessary. Ultimately, there are two sets of numbers that stand out to me for Roethlisberger. The first is that he has 156 career starts and has won 67 percent of them. That's astonishing. The second is that veteran quarterbacks understand the necessity of coming away with touchdowns and not field goals in the red zone. In the last two seasons, Roethlisberger has 27 TDs and zero INTs inside the 20-yard line."


You can debate where Roethlisberger ranks among NFL quarterback but one thing that can't be disputed: Big Ben is the player the Steeler can least afford to lose for an extended period in 2014.

The 11th-year veteran makes the no-huddle attack go and that will again be an important component of the Steelers' offense. Roethlisberger, who turned 32 in March, is still playing at a high level and he is coming off a season in which he took every snap. Bruce Gradkowski is a capable backup but nothing would help the Steelers more as they try to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus than if Gradkowski spends most if not all of the upcoming season on the sidelines.

Here are four other players whom the Steelers cannot afford to lose this season.

WR Antonio Brown: The Steelers' wide receivers become average if Brown is sidelined by a significant injury. The reigning Steelers MVP caught 110 passes for a team-record 1,499 yards last season and he will again make the other wideouts better simply because of the attention he commands from opposing defenses.

C Maurkice Pouncey: The Steelers got lucky that Fernando Velasco and later Cody Wallace played so capably at center after Pouncey tore his ACL eight plays into last season. They cannot count on that fortune again if Pouncey goes down. The three-time Pro Bowler is the unquestioned leader of the offensive line, and he is eager to reward the Steelers for the lucrative contract extension they gave him last month.

LB Lawrence Timmons: Durable and incredibly productive, Timmons should have at least one Pro Bowl on his resume by now. He will call the defense until rookie Ryan Shazier is ready to assume that responsibility. Simply getting lined up properly proved to be a problem for the defense after Larry Foote went down in the 2013 opener with a season-ending arm injury.

DE Cameron Heyward: The 2011 first-round pick is the one proven commodity that the Steelers have at defensive end. Heyward pushed his way into the starting lineup after the fourth game of last season, and he led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures in 2013 and tied for the team lead with five sacks. To say there is a significant drop-off after Heyward at defensive end is an understatement.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said this season was "Super Bowl or bust" earlier this month, that was one thing.

After all, folks all over the region are thinking the same thing as they look over the Broncos' depth chart that still includes Peyton Manning at quarterback with a fairly young roster around him and one of the league's biggest hauls in free agency as well.

But now new arrival DeMarcus Ware has brought another goal into the conversation. Asked about the expectations of the team's defense, Ware said he hopes the Broncos go to uncharted ground when it comes to the franchise's history.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDeMarcus Ware says the Broncos want their defense to play as well as their offense.
"We are trying to be a force to be reckoned with this year and you already talked about us being an offensive team, but at the end of the day, we are trying to be [No.] 1 and [No.] 1," Ware said. "The best offense in the league and the best defense in the league."

That's not just a lofty goal, but something the team has never done in five-plus decades worth of football business. The team has been to seven Super Bowls -- six of those on Pat Bowlen's watch -- and won two title games. But the Broncos have never finished a season with the No. 1 defense in yards allowed per game, which is what the NFL uses to statistically rank defenses each year.

The Broncos' best season in scoring defense -- when they allowed a franchise low 148 points in a 14-game season -- was 1977. They finished ninth in yards allowed and were third in scoring defense, behind the Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons. Former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan routinely has said a team will almost certainly be in the Super Bowl conversation with a top-five offense to go with a top-five defense.

Then, Shanahan has said, it comes down to playing your best when the lights are brightest. But even that will be no small chore for these Broncos. Overall the Broncos have had only four seasons when they even finished in the league's top five in yards gained per game on offense and yards allowed per game on defense -- again that's how the league ranks them each year.

In those four seasons -- 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2012 -- the Broncos won the Super Bowl only to close out the 1997 season. They were upset in the playoffs, at home, to close out both 1996 and 2012 and were thumped by Manning in the wild-card game to close out 2004.

But Ware has again raised the issue many of the Broncos defensive players, most notably defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, have touched on throughout this offseason. That it's great Manning and the offense can pile up the touchdowns, but the Broncos want, and need, to be known for something on the other side of the ball.

If the team can't win the Super Bowl in a year that they scored more points in a season (606) than any team in history, then it's clear the Broncos need to bring a little something more than offensive pizzazz to the table.

But the difference in saying you want a top defense to go with the top offense and actually doing it is galactic in size. Especially in the salary cap era, when many teams find themselves picking sides when they're doling out the contract cash. And that was something John Elway was trying to avoid this past offseason when he was waving Bowlen's checkbook around in free agency, securing players such as Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward for the team's defense.

"I think that we've got to get to be where we're a complete football team," Elway said Wednesday. "We can't rely on [No.] 18 to win it because he can't win it by himself."

The 2013 season will always have its place in the team's lore as Manning threw for more touchdowns on his own (55) than the 31 other teams each scored. But the team never, whether it was because of injuries, mistakes or simply a lack of personnel, showed it had a Plan B for the days when the offense and Manning couldn't pull the team through -- like the day Super Bowl XLVIII was played, for example.

The Broncos didn't run the ball well enough not to have to throw it all the time and they didn't play defense consistently well enough to close the deal. Although the Broncos defense may have actually had one of its better days against the Seahawks in February until things got out of hand.

"To win a world championship, you have to be a great football team and you have to be well rounded," Elway said. "I think we've moved closer to that. Seattle was a tremendous football team. But this is a new year and we've got to go out and we've got to play the best football that we can play, and do what we do best. And how the coordinators put our guys in the best situations to be successful and we'll create our own identity. I think if we continue to do that with the people that we have, we're going to be able to compete for a world championship."

"I think this is going to be a night and day defense from last year," Ware said. "You had guys that were hurt [last year], and have the opportunity to not have any holes in your defense … So I think the sky is the limit for us."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are Pro Bowl selections and plenty of all-everything teams revealed in every NFL season. Some players are named, some are snubbed and the discussion on all fronts can be lively.

And then there's what Donny Moore does. Moore, who laughingly calls himself a "former sandwich artist who has had the greatest of opportunities, is a 36-year-old guy whose decisions are debated, sifted through and often even used as verbal barbs in not only living rooms across the country, but in locker rooms around the NFL."

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
EA SportsIt comes as little surprise that Peyton Manning is ranked as the top quarterback in "Madden NFL 15."
That's because Moore has the final say about player rankings in "Madden," the wildly popular Electronic Arts video game. The 26th edition -- "Madden NFL 15" -- is set for release on Aug. 26.

And when it comes to the Denver Broncos' game, players will soon discover what NFL defenses did last season -- because quarterback Peyton Manning is at the top of the heap. Manning, who threw for an NFL single-season record 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards last season on the way to this fifth MVP award, is tied for the game's top rating for quarterbacks at 98.

Moore gave Manning and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers a 98 rating -- "it's a 0 to 99 system, there are no 100 ratings in the game," Moore said. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees checked in at 96; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was rated at 93.

And while the debate rages around the league about whether Russell Wilson is a top-10 quarterback, Moore said he will be in this year's "Madden," as Wilson was also given a 93 rating.

Calculating Manning's rating, Moore said, was simply a matter of balancing past production, plenty of advanced metrics on the statistical side, and giving Manning the eye test.

"You're constantly looking at it, having your eyes on everything," Moore said. "It's not only what you see, relative to his peers, relative to the league, but what the metrics tell you as well. A guy like Peyton has such a long track record, from our standpoint it's going to take a lot to push that rating down any. A younger player's rating may be far more volatile ... But we update through the season and through the playoffs."

Moore said Manning's rating in the gaming world represents a complete bounce-back from the quarterback's return from spinal fusion surgery that caused him to miss the 2011 season, which are also the only games Manning has missed in his career. Since signing with the Broncos in 2012, Manning has started every game -- 32 regular-season games to go with four playoff games, with 92 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions.

"There were a lot of unknowns there when he came back, but the feeling was it would affect his throw power," Moore said. "We dropped him down to 84, 85 range, got back up to 89 in 'Madden 13,' I believe. And then to where he is now where we just looked at everything, throw power, awareness, all of those things."

Whether it be on Twitter or in person, Moore said plenty of NFL players have approached him about a ratings adjustment, and that speed tends to be the flashpoint from time to time.

"What usually happens is a big play will happen on Sunday and fans will start tweeting the player, 'Oh man, you did great, you need to talk to 'Madden' to get your rating up,' " Moore said. "And then they'll start following me and we'll go back and forth ... Guys always want to talk about their ratings, they're sort of 80 percent joking, 20 percent serious."

Moore said earlier this year, as he sat "in my cubicle at the office," he could hear Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, on site for a visit, questioning other staffers about how to get his speed rating adjusted. Moore said he then stepped over to meet the quarterback "and I look down and he's got a walking boot on because he just had surgery, so I was kind of going back and forth with him about how a walking boot would affect his speed."

"But in the end we want to just get it right," Moore said. "Whether it's a quarterback everybody knows like Peyton or a long snapper, we want to be right. We strive for perfection, we don't get it, but we always strive for it. But as far as Peyton, I've got a good feeling we're right on that one."

Camp preview: Denver Broncos

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
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NFL Nation’s Jeff Legwold examines the three biggest issues facing the Denver Broncos heading into training camp.

History: Say what you want about what the Broncos did in the offseason -- and there’s plenty of ground to cover because their haul in free agency was almost unprecedented for a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance -- the simple fact remains they are swimming upstream against a powerful current of history. No team since the undefeated Miami Dolphins of 1972 has gone on to win a Super Bowl in the season after a loss in the league’s title game. On paper, the Broncos’ depth chart looks poised to be in the championship conversation again, but for the second consecutive season they carry the significant burden of unfulfilled opportunity along for the ride. A double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens ended their 2012 season and left them empty-handed on the Super Bowl front. That loss followed them throughout the 2013 season, even as they rewrote the record book on offense. For some, the regular season was little more than one long opening act for another Super Bowl chance. This time around, a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVII will mirror their every move. How the Broncos deal with that and how successfully they roll up their sleeves to get to work on the new season will have a lot to say about how things go.

Get rugged: The Broncos’ 2013 season was a study in contrasts. On one hand, they were the highest-scoring team in league history, the first to score 600 points in a season. On the other, they were a drama-filled operation that featured two front-office executives arrested for DUI offenses and Von Miller’s six-game suspension to open the season. Toss in a pile of injuries on defense and the blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the final game, and the Broncos were left staring at the idea that they scored more points than any team that came before them but still didn’t win the title. So, although Peyton Manning and company figure to be fun to watch again, this team will earn its championship chops by what it does when Manning isn’t throwing the ball. By how it grinds it out in the running game from time to time to both protect the quarterback and close out games. And by how defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio implements players who were reeled in by the lure of owner Pat Bowlen’s checkbook and the Manning-led offense, such as DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, with those returning from injury, such as Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson. Scoring touchdowns shouldn't be an issue, but stopping others from scoring them can’t be one either.

Be right on Ball: There is no spot on the roster where the Broncos have put their faith in the most youthful of hands more than at running back. Ronnie Hillman is set to enter his third season, and he is the oldest player in the position group's meeting room. And if you’re looking for a player for whom the Broncos have cleared the way to shine most, it’s Montee Ball. Let’s be clear, though: Ball earned that optimism by how he played down the stretch last season. He was the most effective runner with the ball in his hands over the last six weeks of the season/postseason. He’s smart and has the requisite work ethic, and the Broncos have seen vast improvements in his work as both a receiver and blocker in the passing game. That gives him the gotta-have-it, every-down potential in their offense. The Broncos aren’t looking to run the ball significantly more than they did in ’13, but when they do, they want to move the chains more efficiently. And when it’s time to slam the door on somebody, they’d like Ball to be the guy to do it.
With the countdown to training camp down to its final days for the Denver Broncos, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said there aren't many things on the to-do list for the players before they formally begin the trek toward what they hope is a shot at Super Bowl redemption.

"The main thing right now is everybody has so much time on their hands, so just stay in shape and stay out of the news," Harris said Friday. "That’s just something I’ve been trying to keep tabs on guys, lead by example, just come in with a clean slate and no bad stories before we get there."

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
John Leyba/Getty ImagesChris Harris Jr., who is coming off knee surgery, said he should be back to full strength during training camp.
Since the Broncos adjourned from the last of their OTA workouts last month, they, like every team’s players, have largely been on their own unless they were recovering from injury. The Broncos players will report July 23 for training camp at their suburban Denver complex with the first practice set for July 24.

Broncos strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson handed each player a workout plan for the month they would spend away from the team’s complex before training camp opened, and Harris Jr. said there was plenty of incentive for each player to follow the plan because they should know what is expected when they return.

"Guys know what’s at stake this year, at least they should -- it’s Super Bowl or bust for us," Harris said. "It means a lot for this team for all of us to come back and hit the ground running fast. Especially the young guys, if they weren’t paying attention at OTAs and minicamp, but to make this Broncos team this year, these cats on defense better be working out because Peyton Manning will make you look crazy."

Harris, who has gone from an undrafted rookie who made the roster in 2011, to one of the team’s defensive mainstays, was making the rounds Friday at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, as he appeared on several of the network’s broadcast and digital offerings.

The fourth-year cornerback said he had hoped to attend one of the NFL’s broadcast boot camps this offseason, but that his rehab schedule as he returns from ACL surgery did not allow him the time.

"It’s something I look forward to doing when I retire, definitely," Harris said. "I planned on going this year, but doing the rehab all summer took my whole summer, so next year I’m definitely going to try to do one of those boot camps."

Harris, as he said last month, reaffirmed Friday he expects to be cleared for full participation by roughly the halfway mark of the preseason, but that the decision also will hinge on an upcoming visit to his surgeon, Dr. James Andrews.

"I’m doing everything, there’s really nothing I can’t do right now," Harris said. "I still have to go see Dr. Andrews at the end of the month and get checked up, and he’ll pretty much let us know the plan from there."

Colts' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
PM ET
Quarterback Andrew Luck isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He’ll remain in an Indianapolis Colts uniform for the foreseeable future.

Luck
 Owner Jim Irsay will make sure of that.

The Colts look at Luck in the same way they looked at Peyton Manning (minus having to part ways with him at some point). They want to keep Luck under center and have him lead the Colts to the Super Bowl multiple times.

If the first two years are in any indication, the Colts are in a good position to accomplish those things with Luck. The only real question -- one that has been burning since Luck’s rookie year -- is whether he will be as durable as Manning because of poor offensive line play?

Luck has been sacked so many times (73) during the first two years of his career that you’re left wondering at times how he has yet to miss any snaps in a game because of an injury. He has shaken off countless hits to lead the Colts to 22 regular-season victories and three playoff games in just two seasons.

 Still, the Colts are flirting with danger when it comes to their franchise player because of poor pass protection.

The Colts are set at tackle with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus on the left and right side, respectively.

The interior part of the line has remained poor, however.

Luck has a new center in Khaled Holmes, who played only 12 snaps last season. Hugh Thornton is the frontrunner to retain one of the guard spots, while the other guard position is uncertain. Rookie Jack Mewhort could end up starting at guard. If so, Luck and the interior part of the offensive line will grow together. Luck, in just his third season, is the elder statesmen of the group. Holmes and Thornton are both in their second season, and Mewhort has yet to play an NFL snap.
The main key for success for the Detroit Lions this season is remarkably simple and has been the main focus of the franchise since it fired coach Jim Schwartz following the 2013 season.

Stafford
Stafford
From hiring new head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter to signing Golden Tate, re-signing Brandon Pettigrew and drafting Eric Ebron, that focus has been giving quarterback Matthew Stafford everything he could possibly need to succeed.

Stafford has to use those tools to turn into the elite quarterback the team has been hoping for since they drafted him first overall in 2009. Statistically, Stafford has been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, putting up massive numbers for the Lions during his first five seasons.

Yet for every fourth-quarter comeback he completed and remarkable play he made, he has also made a decision leaving those watching and wondering what he saw or thought on that play. That has been the conundrum of Stafford's career. The Lions believe any issues Stafford has are correctable and these are the guys to do it after working with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

If the Lions turn Stafford into the consistent quarterback that led them to the playoffs in 2011 full-time, then the entire shift in coaching staffs and upgrading the offensive roster will have been worth it. But it all falls to Stafford -- as it often does to quarterbacks around the league.

There's a reason many franchises believe they can go only as far as the quarterback plays. Thus far, Stafford has taken them from a club that didn't win a game in 2008 to one with realistic playoff expectations each season.

Detroit has set itself up for more than that now, though. The Lions have a roster with enough talent to at least make a run at the playoffs, if not succeed in the postseason. If they do, Stafford and his improvement will play a major role in making it that far.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Perhaps it all boils down to the difference between more and better.

Because any rational person would have a difficult time saying the Denver Broncos' offense could do more in the coming season than it did in the last one. At least when it comes to touchdowns, league records and whoa-look-at-that explosiveness that were all in the Broncos’ jet wash last season.

The Broncos became the league’s first-ever 600-point team in 2013, had five different players score at least 10 touchdowns -- no other team in history had more than three -- and quarterback Peyton Manning set single-season records for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477). So to say more is in the offing in ’14, even with all the Broncos have done in the offseason, is borderline nuts.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Franklin
AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Broncos are hoping that Orlando Franklin's move to left guard will help improve the team's run game.
But better? Now that’s another matter.

"Oh yeah, we can be better. We can do some things better, we can make better calls, I can make better calls, I can get us in better situations," Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. "There are some things we’ve got our eyes on."

And one of those is a simple matter of physics. That when the defense gets smaller to defend the Broncos’ high-wire passing game, the Broncos have to find a way to pound away better, more efficiently, in the run game.

No, the Broncos aren't moving toward some outdated idea, at least in these pass-happy times, that balance on offense means some kind of 50-50 split between run and pass. The Broncos were about at a 58-42 split in pass plays to runs last season, and with Gase a 60-40 split will likely be the starting point to any discussion about "balance."

But the Broncos do want, when the opportunity presents itself, to run the ball better against the vast array of smaller defensive personnel groupings in front of them. It’s not complicated -- the Broncos play out of a three-wide receiver set much of the time, about three-quarters of the time this past regular season, closer to 90 percent in the postseason.

That means they face defenses' specialty packages, with primarily with five or six defensive backs, most of the time. Formations that also include smaller, quicker defensive fronts as well.

So much so that last season when the Broncos handed the ball to their No. 1 back, Knowshon Moreno, he was running against six or fewer players in the box on 80 percent of his carries. Moreno finished the year with his first 1,000-yard campaign, but at 4.3 yards per carry against those lighter defensive groupings, the Broncos saw room for improvement as the team's yards-per-carry average overall was 4.1.

And that’s why when it came time to make decisions, the Broncos didn’t offer Moreno a deal in free agency -- he signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins and will miss the next month or so after arthroscopic surgery. Instead they moved Montee Ball into the starting role and shifted Orlando Franklin to left guard, a move that gives Denver perhaps the biggest guard tandem in the league.

Even when they were thinking about their passing game, like when they used a second-round pick on wide receiver Cody Latimer, as the Broncos lauded Latimer’s combination of size and speed, they still had some visions of the run game dancing in their heads, as John Elway also called Latimer the "best blocking wide receiver in the draft."

A big part of the foundation of Manning’s play in an offense has always been the play-action passing game, but the run game must be a threat for that to work as defenses must believe the ball will actually end up with the running back. And when Gase talks about the touchdowns the Broncos left unscored last season, it’s often because they couldn’t find a way to get the ball into the end zone from inside the 5-yard line.

For example, Broncos kicker Matt Prater made three 19-yard field goals in 2013 -- two in the regular season, one in the AFC Championship Game. In all three cases the Broncos had failed to convert third-and-goal plays from their opponents’ 1-yard line, and in all three cases the field goal followed an incomplete pass.

The Broncos don’t want to be anything close to a run-first team, but they want to be a run-when-they-need-to team to close out games and to help keep the offense’s biggest asset -- Manning -- out of harm’s way by slowing down opposing pass-rushers.

"Any time an offense is balanced, it means they’re running the ball pretty well," guard Louis Vasquez said. "And that’s a focus for us this year."

"We’re always going to try to get the best look, to do the best thing in each situation for the offense to be successful," Gase said. "The more things we can do, the more options we have. We want to be able to execute the plays we want in those situations. If that’s throwing, that’s throwing the ball, if it’s running, then we want that available, too."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Who do you trust to evaluate NFL players -- those paid to do so for a living or those who are paid to play the game?

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando polled 26 front-office executives and coaches Insider and found that Aaron Rodgers -- along with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning -- belonged in the top-tier of quarterbacks. Even more telling was that the four tied for the top spot in the voting.

Rodgers
Rodgers
Yet when the NFL Network solicited the advice of current NFL players for its latest top 100 list, the Green Bay Packers quarterback came in as merely the 11th-best player in the league regardless of position.

How can that be?

The answer is simple. Like in many things NFL-related, players don't know what they're talking about. Every one of them is in the NFL for a reason -- whether it's blocking, tackling, catching the ball, running with it, throwing it or kicking it.

But that does not mean they are qualified to judge others who do so.

Maybe the players polled looked at last season, when Rodgers missed seven-plus games because of a broken collarbone, and forgot how good he is. But they should have been reminded of that when he returned for the regular-season finale and led the Packers to a Week 17 win against the Bears that gave the Packers their third straight NFC North title and their fifth straight playoff appearance -- all under Rodgers.

Listen to the players if you want, but Sando's 26 league insiders -- eight general managers, two former GMs, four pro personnel evaluators, seven coordinators, two head coaches, two position coaches and a top-level executive -- are far more qualified to judge talent.

In Sando's project, designed to rank all 32 starting quarterbacks and determine who among them are elite, here is what he wrote about Rodgers:
If Rodgers gives up anything to Brady and Manning before the snap -- which is debatable -- his athletic ability seems to make up for it.

"You can't fool him," a defensive coordinator said. "We watched some cutups on him and he was ridiculous. He sees everything. They'd have a blitz on and he'd throw it and he knows what the blitz is. I don't know how he knows it. He throws into this tight window that nobody would throw into. Brees is the same way."

A veteran cornerback I talked to this offseason put it this way: "He is very cerebral. I don't think he is quite like a Peyton Manning, but he can read defenses and all that stuff, and when stuff breaks down, he is mobile enough to get out of the pocket and run. That is what made him so good, especially a couple years ago. He is still playing well. He just got hurt last year."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is headed into his third season. He has played in three playoff games -- winning one -- and has had two offensive coordinators in his first two seasons.

Luck
Luck also has 22 regular-season victories, an arm, mobility and the will the win. That is why ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, with the help of anonymous league insiders Insider, views the Colts’ franchise player as a top-five quarterback in the league.

Luck is ranked higher than fellow quarterbacks like Manning. No, not that Manning, but Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.

The quarterbacks are broken up into four tiers. Luck is in Tier 1 with all future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. He joins Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in that top tier. Impressive company for a third-year player.

Here is what Sando wrote about Luck:

"Luck doesn't have the track record of the other Tier 1 QBs, and there was a clear gap in the voting between him and the top four. But people in the league love him almost unconditionally, and 14 of the 26 voters insisted upon putting him in the top tier (each of the top four received 25 of 26 Tier 1 votes).

The evaluators think Luck has carried a subpar roster to a 22-10 record without much help. They see no limitations. They have zero doubt about his long-term stardom and felt strongly enough to give him 14 first-tier votes even while acknowledging he is below the Big Four at this early stage. Every other QB fell into the tier in which he received the most votes, and so shall Luck, even if his Tier 1 designation feels a bit premature."

The Colts' offensive line was atrocious Luck’s rookie season and only a little better last season. Luck didn’t have a reliable receiver to turn to outside of T.Y. Hilton after Reggie Wayne went down with a torn ACL in Week 7 last season. The running game? That was a problem, too.
IRVING, Texas -- When it comes to ranking quarterbacks, the debates can be endless and sometimes pointless, but Mike Sando took the question to people inside the NFL with his latest ESPN Insider piece. Insider

Romo
It might surprise some of you that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo finished tied for eighth in the tier-rankings of 26 general managers, former GMs, pro personnel people, coordinators, head coaches, position coaches and an executive.

Four players tied for the top spot in Sando’s rankings, using a 1 for the best at the position and a 5 for the worst. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees shared the top spot. Andrew Luck was fifth.

Romo checked in after Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger and tied with Russell Wilson and Eli Manning in the second tier.

Here’s what Sando wrote and the insiders had to say about Romo:
T-8. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys (2.23 average rating)

A few evaluators questioned whether Romo had the mind-set to play at the highest level consistently. It's a familiar refrain in league circles, a feeling that Romo is an undisciplined QB playing for an undisciplined organization with a poorly constructed roster.

"People want to knock him," one GM responded, "but the guy has talent and is one of the top 10 starters in the league."

Romo is 34 years old and coming off back surgery, but he still could be in line for a "monster" season, one evaluator said. "But I absolutely believe they will not win big with him. As soon as he decides it's a clutch moment, his brain goes elsewhere. He loses focus and tries to create something."




What’s funny is that the GM and evaluator have the same thoughts of those who love Romo or loathe Romo who are not on the inside. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports went so far as to call Romo “underrated” in his yearly rankings, which drew the ire of some.

The “clutch” talk has been a big thing around Romo since the bobbled snap in 2006 against the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. That talk is always followed up with Romo having the best fourth-quarter passer rating in NFL history (102.4) and his 20 come-from-behind wins.

Those numbers aren’t hollow, although with one playoff win to his credit that’s what his detractors will say.

That’s why this debate is a good one. Both sides can declare victory with their points. If Romo were to ever win a Super Bowl -- or perhaps just get to one -- then the perception would change entirely.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When Maurice Jones-Drew decided to sign a free-agent contract with Oakland, he took more than just 8,071 rushing yards and a Jaguars-record 81 touchdowns to the West Coast.

He took the Jaguars’ national identity.

Jones-Drew was the franchise’s most recognizable player. He was one of the few Jaguars players -- and possibly the only one -- who the average football fan in, say, Kenosha, Wisconsin, could pick out of a lineup, mainly because of fantasy football. When Jones-Drew said something interesting or controversial, it was national news.

[+] EnlargeBortles
Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsThe Jags are surely hoping that rookie Blake Bortles will soon be identified as the face of the franchise.
He was the team’s unquestioned leader and the person whose name first came to mind when the Jaguars were mentioned.

He was the face of the franchise, and now he’s wearing silver and black.

The Jaguars are entering the second season of the Dave Caldwell/Gus Bradley era, and while the rebuild is focusing on improving the talent level on the roster, they also need to find Jones-Drew’s replacement as the public image of the franchise.

"I think that will just develop," Bradley, the head coach, said. "We don’t talk to our guys about that. Our hope is that they just continue to become the best that they can be, and then that might be a byproduct of it. That’s kind of how we look at it, and we think in due time those things will come."

Every NFL team needs a face, especially a small-market team like the Jaguars. In many cases it’s the quarterback -- think Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. But not always -- think J.J. Watt, Adrian Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald. It certainly helps from a marketing perspective to have one -- especially when it comes to jersey sales -- but it goes beyond that.

The face of a franchise gives the team an identity. He's the player who rallies the team when things go wrong. It goes hand in hand with leadership, but think of the face of the franchise as the alpha leader. Teams generally have several leaders, and a player can be a leader without being the face of the franchise, but a player can’t be the face without being a leader.

In almost every case, he's a good player -- usually among the league’s elite. That’s the Jaguars’ problem. While they do have some very good players, they don’t have any who would be considered elite. Tight end Marcedes Lewis and middle linebacker Paul Posluszny have been to the Pro Bowl, but neither carries the same national recognition and cachet that Jones-Drew did for the past five seasons. Posluszny even admits that.

"Maurice is a national figure, and playing the running back spot, Pro Bowl player, offensive guy, great personality -- so whether you can fill his role in that aspect, I don’t know," Posluszny said. "Maybe it’s going to be by committee. Marcedes Lewis is a huge name, and then you look at Chad Henne and how he’s going to be able to lead, so as far as the leadership aspect of it there are several guys that’ll definitely step up to fill that void.

"Who’s going to be the guy? I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine."

The most logical pick would be quarterback Blake Bortles, the No. 3 overall selection in last month’s draft. He’s the most high-profile player on the roster right now. However, it’s hard to be the face of a franchise when you’re sitting on the bench, which is what general manager Caldwell and Bradley want Bortles to do in 2014.

Henne is well-liked in the locker room and has become more of a vocal leader now that he is assured of being the starting quarterback, but he doesn’t have the star power. Neither do receiver Cecil Shorts and running back Toby Gerhart.

The Jaguars’ most notable player may actually be wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who is serving an indefinite suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy for the third time, but he wouldn’t be considered the face of the franchise.

Right now, the most visible and prominent Jaguar is owner Shad Khan, and not just because of his handlebar mustache. He has put $31 million of his own money into improvements at EverBank Field -- $11 million to renovate the locker room and weight room and $20 million to help finance the $63 million in stadium upgrades that include the world’s largest video boards and two pools in the north end zone.

The mustache helps, though. It is featured in advertising campaigns and on T-shirts, and you can spot fans sporting fake ones throughout the stadium on game days.

It’s clever and it’s funny, and it’s obvious that the fan base has completely embraced Khan, who purchased the team from the beloved Weaver family in late 2011. But how long will that last if the Jaguars continue to struggle on the field? And can an owner truly be the face of a sports franchise? It has happened with Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and George Steinbrenner, but those three men share the same traits: huge egos and dominant, aggressive personalities. That’s not Khan.

It appears that Caldwell and Bradley have begun adding good players. They need one to become the franchise’s new face.

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