NFL Nation: Peyton Manning

When the Denver Broncos gathered this week for their first group workouts of the offseason, there were plenty of new faces on the roster.

DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, Aqib Talib and Will Montgomery lead the way in the new arrival department, at least until the draft class arrives next month. But for many on hand this week, the workouts still had an odd feel to them.

The Broncos were missing three former team captains -- three powerful voices in the locker room, three players others often looked to in good times, as well as bad, to show others the way.

Champ Bailey is in New Orleans, having been released by the Broncos after 10 seasons. Chris Kuper retired and Wesley Woodyard signed with the Tennessee Titans.

Manning
And while Super Bowls are won with talent on the field, they are also won with how things get handled in the locker room along the way, because ego, the pursuit of credit, fretting over contract status, grousing over playing time and the general human condition has cratered almost as many title hopefuls as the injury report.

Asked this week about the team's identity, quarterback Peyton Manning said what he usually says when things such as identity or chemistry are the topics of the day.

"I don't know if it has to be the same or different," Manning said. "I want it to be an identity that helps us win football games. I think it's hard to say what it is going to be at this point. Our full roster has certainly not been decided. The draft is -- when is the draft now? It's like in September now. ...We still probably need to see who we are based on who the personnel is, I think you form the identity from that. I think it is OTAs, it's definitely training camp and obviously it'd be nice to have it somewhere around the beginning of the season, but even before, I think you can develop it throughout the course of the season -- what really works for you."

Clady
It also means players such as Manning and left tackle Ryan Clady, the team's captains on offense last season -- Wes Welker replaced Clady when Clady went on injured reserve -- will again have prominent roles in the locker room.

But defensively, with Bailey and Woodyard gone, there are some players who are going to have to step forward in how they handle themselves as well as how they interact with their teammates. Linebacker Danny Trevathan has the look of a potential captain in how he approaches his job and how he plays on the field. As does cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who is currently working his way back from ACL surgery.

They will be two of the most important voices in the defensive meeting room, kind of a bridge between the new arrivals like Ward, Talib and Ware and the players who have been with the Broncos. But it would be a shock if Ware, whose friends in the league say is one of the hardest workers they have been around, is not elected a team captain by his new teammates when the votes get tallied later this summer.

Ware is a classic lead-by-example guy who has 117 sacks on his playing resume. He will serve an important role in the coming weeks and months, as a veteran presence on that side of the ball. And while Ware's presence will certainly benefit Von Miller, Derek Wolfe is another player who could reap the rewards as well. Wolfe had the look of an impact player as a rookie in 2012 before last season's illness landed him on injured reserve.

The Broncos have some questions to answer on the field as they get started, but they're working through some in the locker room as they move through these opening weeks of their offseason work.

"Everything is all about details when it comes to football," Ware said this week. "When you have everything in place, it really doesn't matter. It comes to the small things of guys really wanting it, the mistakes that you make and it starts this offseason with just working out and guys really giving it their all. That carries over into the season."

Denver Broncos schedule analysis

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
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Breakdown: Denver Broncos coach John Fox will always caution against making judgments about a schedule based on what happened the year before. Regardless, it's easy to see the challenges that await the Broncos in 2014 and they won't have to wait very long to get right down to it. The Broncos' first three games are against three teams that made the playoffs in 2013 -- the Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs and the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. They will face 2013 playoff teams in six of their first eight games. The opening eight-game stretch also includes the Arizona Cardinals, who did not make the NFC's playoff field last season despite a 10-6 record. The Broncos are also going to have be ready to finish strong on the road if they are going to add a fourth consecutive division title. They have three consecutive road games -- at New England, at Oakland and at St. Louis -- in November and play six of their last nine on the road.

Complaint department: OK, now I'm with Peyton Manning on this one. Manning has questioned whether some things in the NFL schedule are truly "random" and the almost annual trip to Foxborough, Mass., is starting to look like a non-random event. Sure, Tom Brady-Manning matchups are historical, but the Broncos wish more of those would happen in Denver. The Broncos have played the Patriots on the road in each of the previous three seasons, in 2011 season it was a playoff game, and 2014 will be the fourth. Since the start of the 2002 season the Broncos have played five regular-season games in Gillette Stadium and one playoff game. Also, the Broncos may not admit it, but they won't like the early bye week. They like the off week to hit close to the midpoint of the season, but this year get the off week in Week 4, before September had even drawn to a close.

Muscle up: With a flashback to the 2013 preseason, when the Broncos were pushed around a bit by the San Francisco 49ers and the Seahawks, this year's regular-season slate will have that same physical flavor. And a team that has largely built its back-to-back 13-3 finishes on the precision and timing of its next-level passing attack, will have to be ready to roll up its sleeves and wrestle in the heavyweight division. The team has tried to add some grittiness to the defense this offseason in cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware, they have made their intentions clear to try to run the ball more efficiently. To have a shot to get back to the Super Bowl, they'll need all of the above as the league's divisional rotation has them facing the NFC West. The Broncos will have to muscle their way through those games to win a fourth consecutive division title of their own.

Strength of schedule: 2nd, .570 | Vegas over/under : 11

Broncos Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Indianapolis, 8:30 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, Kansas City, 4:25 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at Seattle, 4:25 p.m.
Week 4: BYE
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.
Week 8: Thursday, Oct. 23, San Diego, 8:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, at New England, 4:25 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at Oakland, 4:05 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, Miami, 4:25 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Kansas City, 8:30 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, Buffalo, 4:05 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at San Diego, 4:05 p.m.
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 22, at Cincinnati, 8:30 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Oakland, 4:25 p.m.
As he progressed through his offseason work, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning watched with great interest as his team opened free agency in high gear.

Manning is known to quickly call and/or text the team's newest acquisitions, welcoming them aboard. This offseason, Manning quickly reached out to cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders after they signed.

The Broncos are set to open their offseason program Monday, and despite all the new acquisitions, Manning said this past week one of the biggest "additions" to this season's lineup will be the return of Ryan Clady. The left tackle had foot surgery that ended his 2013 season after two games.

[+] EnlargeRyan Clady
Rich Kane/Icon SMI"You always want to have your good players in the lineup. And he's one of our best," Broncos coach John Fox said of Ryan Clady.
“We lost some players and we're getting some players back that were injured last year,'' Manning said. "It's almost like Ryan Clady was a free-agent acquisition. He didn't play last year [after injuring his foot in Week 2]."

Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said in recent weeks the Broncos expect Clady to be at full speed by the time the season rolls around. Clady has progressively stepped up the work in his rehab, even after the Broncos had closed out the season with a loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.

But even as the Broncos blistered the league's single-season record book with Manning's 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards to go with the team's 606 points overall, the Broncos were not always what they could have been if Clady were healthy. The Broncos used a three-wide receiver look as their base offensive set -- with Chris Clark playing in place of Clady -- but Manning didn't always have time to explore all of his options.

Manning was actually sacked fewer times with more pass attempts in 2013 than in 2012 -- he was sacked 18 times this past season with 659 pass attempts as compared to 21 times in 2012 with 583 pass attempts. The Broncos believe Clady's return will enable them to expand some of what they did last season. That includes their ability to run the ball more efficiently out of their open formations and give Manning more time to see more options when he does throw the ball.

Manning's ankle troubles this past season were a result of hits taken from his blind side, from rushers Clady would have been blocking had he been in the lineup. Manning's sack totals don't always tell the story, and the Broncos want to address the hits he took in 2013.

With his preparation, anticipation and pre-snap recognition of what the defense has to offer, Manning has always been able to limit sacks -- almost no matter what the offensive line has looked like in front of him. He has been sacked 20 or fewer times in 10 of his seasons as a starter; fewer than 15 times in five of his seasons. Defenses have never sacked Manning more than the 29 times they got him in 2001, a season the Indianapolis Colts finished 6-10.

But after four neck surgeries and turning 38 years old, every hit on Manning is potential trouble.

Broncos head coach John Fox has said, in the wake of the departure of left guard Zane Beadles in free agency, the team will try plenty of combinations up front during offseason workouts and even into training camp -- "a million," he said -- but that the "best five" will be the starters. And as they get down to business Monday, all of those plans are based on having a healthy Clady at left tackle, handling his business on his own so the Broncos can slide the help elsewhere if necessary.

Or as Fox put it: "You always want to have your good players in the lineup. And he's one of our best. We did a lot of good things when he was out last season, but we'll be able to do even more good things with him back in there."
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher often tells veteran players they will have to expend 10 percent more effort in an upcoming offseason than they did in the one before, if they plan to maintain their ability to compete for the same amount of playing time.

Essentially, the message is that the status quo can't be on the agenda, that every time you roll over and hit the snooze button, the guy who wants your job already is out of bed and has put the proverbial nose to the grindstone.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Hyoung Chang//The Denver Post/Getty Images"Just because you were there last year in the [Super Bowl], it doesn't guarantee you anything," Peyton Manning said.
And this week, sprinkled through Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's first public comments in Colorado since the 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, it was fairly easy to discern Manning's theme for the coming weeks and months.

Manning has been known to rattle the cage of a teammate a time or two about what needs to be done, or surprise someone with a pop quiz in the hallway about their responsibilities on a third-and-long. He dropped the word “work" 10 times into his comments in the span of just a few minutes, and that included a couple of references to both “hard work" and “good work."

It was a preview of sorts, because the Broncos will open their offseason conditioning program Monday and the vast majority, if not all, of their healthy players are expected to take part. These are technically “voluntary" gatherings; the Broncos can only declare offseason workouts mandatory for a three-day minicamp in June. But this is "voluntary" -- as in, you "voluntarily waive your right to play any significant snaps when training camp rolls around."

Last season, the Broncos worked off the premise that the double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round would be the fuel for the offseason in 2013. That worked, at least until the season's last game, when the Broncos arrived at the Super Bowl seemingly without their mojo in their luggage.

They're hoping disappointment can once again help power them through spring and into summer.

“Just because you were there last year in the game, it doesn't guarantee you anything," Manning said. “It does take a lot of hard work and sacrifice."

Manning, certainly the analytical type when it comes to the game, is also still a big believer in the elusive power of football chemistry -- that somehow teammates who have invested time together will eventually also play better together, particularly when the ride gets bumpy.

“I think forming that chemistry takes time," Manning said. “Certainly working together in the weight room is part of it. [Aqib] Talib getting to know Chris Harris; DeMarcus [Ware] getting to know [Kevin] Vickerson and [Derek] Wolfe and Von [Miller] -- the guys he's going to be rushing with; for me, getting to know [Emmanuel] Sanders. It's not an overnight process. That's something that we have done in the past. I think that's been a big part of some of the wins we've had -- is our offseason work and how guys have spent time together and put the time in together."

In the post-spinal-fusion portion of his career, Manning has always said he would keep playing if he believed he could still compete at the level he wants, and as long as he still enjoyed the preparation as well as the effort it takes physically to get ready to play.

So while the regular season is still a long way off, Manning, having already worked with the team's pass-catchers while at Duke, has made it pretty clear he's ready to get back to business -- and that the expectation is everyone else will be, too.
SteelersAP Photo/David RichardDenver hopes Emmanuel Sanders can not only replace, but also exceed Eric Decker's production.
When the Denver Broncos prepared themselves for free agency, they did what any team in the supply and demand business of roster spots would do: The decision-makers looked at their free agents and assigned each a value.

Then executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said those free agents would be allowed to test the market. And what that often really means is the team believes those players will get more in the open market than it would be willing to pay to keep them.

That turned out to be true for guard Zane Beadles as well as running back Knowshon Moreno and it really turned out to be true for wide receiver Eric Decker. Decker got a five-year, $36.25 million deal from the New York Jets that includes $15 million guaranteed.

The Broncos then signed Emmanuel Sanders, the player who at the moment is Decker's replacement, to a three-year, $15 million deal. The Broncos see Sanders as a more versatile, more athletic player overall than Decker, one who can play both outside and in the slot.

Decker did play in the slot at times in his tenure with the Broncos, but the current regime saw him as an outside receiver only. Sanders has quick-twitch ability with the ball and creates missed tackles with the hope of more catch-and-run yardage.

Both he and Decker have had difficulties at times with drops. But the coming season may, or may not, show how much of Decker's emergence as a receiver with back-to-back 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown seasons had to do with playing in an offense with Manning.

And for his part Sanders will have the chance to show if he can go from a guy whose top two seasons have been 626 yards in 2012 and 740 yards in 2013 to something more.

Manning got his first up-close look at Sanders in recent workouts at Duke University -- where Manning's long-time friend and former offensive coordinator at Tennessee, David Cutcliffe, is head coach. By all accounts Manning came away feeling good about Sanders' potential in the offense.

Or as Manning put it Wednesday morning, before he spoke at a fundraising breakfast for the Boy Scouts at the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver: "I had a chance to throw with Sanders down there in North Carolina and I'm excited about playing with him."

At first blush unless the Broncos add a bigger receiver in next month's draft, they are smaller, as a group, with the Sanders-for-Decker swap. Decker is 6-foot-3, 214 pounds as compared to Sanders' 5-11, 180 pounds.

Since Manning's arrival two years ago, defensive coordinators routinely talked about the difficulty in matching up with Decker, Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229) and tight end Julius Thomas (6-5, 250) in the red zone where Manning can put the ball up for his guys to go get it. That was particularly true from the doorstep with five of Decker's 11 touchdown catches this past season were for three or fewer yards.

The Broncos hope, however, Sanders can win some of those battles with quickness to give Manning the room/opportunity to throw to him in the more confined spaces once the Broncos' offense is inside the opponents' 15-yard line.

Whether he was running across the formation or worked to the side where he lined up, Decker's catches were fairly well dispersed all over the field this past season. He made 34.5 percent of his catches to the offensive right, 41.4 percent to the offensive left and 20.7 percent in the middle of the field.

Sanders, too, would project a similar dispersal given his ability to line up anywhere the Broncos want him to in their three-wide look. The Broncos, though, believe Sanders can do even more after the catch even as the Broncos receivers led the NFL in that category overall last season.

Decker had 47 percent of his catches go for 10 or fewer yards last season, 69 percent for 15 or fewer yards. The Broncos hope Sanders can push a higher percentage of his catch-and-runs toward bigger yardage totals, but for Sanders' part he will have to be ready to play more snaps than he has in the past.

Decker was in the 1,000-snap club last season -- 1,050, or 87 percent of the Broncos plays -- and had 15 games when he played at least 50 snaps. Only Thomas played more than Decker (1,106 snaps) among the Broncos' pass-catchers.

Wes Welker played 770 snaps, or 63.8 percent of the plays, before missing games down the stretch with a concussion and Julius Thomas checked in at 901 snaps (74.6 percent).

The Broncos threw more than the Steelers did in '13, 675 pass attempts as compared to the Steelers' 586, and Sanders played at least 50 snaps in nine of 16 games last season. When the Steelers still had Mike Wallace in 2012, Sanders played at least 50 snaps in five games.

Sanders has played in 16 games in each of the last two seasons, but has never started more than 10 games in any season of his career.

But if things go as the Broncos want, and need them to go, he'll certainly have the chance to change that this time around.
When Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball arrives Monday morning for the start of the team’s offseason conditioning program, he can expect to carry the expectations of being a starter as he goes about his business.

A task the guy who will hand him the ball in the coming season -- quarterback Peyton Manning -- says Ball is ready to handle. Manning said Wednesday morning, before he made an appearance as the keynote speaker at a fundraising breakfast for the Boy Scouts in Denver, he believes Ball has prepared himself for the job.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey"I thought Montee had a great year, I thought he learned a lot in his first year," Peyton Manning said of Montee Ball.
"There is no question with the loss of Knowshon [Moreno] -- who was just nothing short of awesome for us this past year and was a great teammate -- that Montee is going to have more responsibilities, and I think he will answer that challenge," Manning said. "I think he has the work ethic, I think he has the mental capabilities to handle the workload and I look forward to having a full offseason with him."

Ball, who finished his rookie season with 559 yards rushing and 20 receptions, will be asked to fill the significant role Moreno played in the offense last season. Moreno led the team with 1,038 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, to go with 60 receptions.

Moreno, who signed a one-year deal in Miami, was also the most consistent player in pass protection the Broncos had and that was ultimately why Moreno moved into the starting role last season. The Broncos had used Ronnie Hillman (a third-round pick in 2012) as the No. 1 back through their offseason work last spring and summer, and had begun to take a look at Ball (a second-round pick last April) during training camp for that role as well.

But then Ball missed a blitz pickup in the Broncos’ preseason loss in Seattle, and Bobby Wagner blasted Manning in what was one of the biggest hits Manning has taken in his tenure in Denver. Moreno’s snap count kept increasing following that game and neither Ball nor Hillman could unseat Moreno once the regular season began.

Ball also lost three fumbles in the first 11 games, but showed steady improvement. He didn’t fumble the rest of the way, and the Broncos had slotted him in as the potential starter since season’s end.

"I thought Montee had a great year, I thought he learned a lot in his first year," Manning said. "In my past, I’ve seen a lot of development in guys from their first year to their second year … I look forward to getting even closer with him as far as being on the same page."
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DENVER -- Standing behind a podium perched atop what will be playoff ice for the Colorado Avalanche in the coming days and surrounded by a crowd of Eagle Scouts and those hoping to be, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning offered his thoughts Wednesday on leadership, work ethic and community service.

He told a football story or two, including one about his first trip into a game-day huddle as the University of Tennessee quarterback. And within all those words was also a clear-eyed glimpse into Manning as a professional quarterback, into what the Broncos face in 2014.

When, in making a point about wrestling with, and ultimately overcoming, adversity, Manning told those assembled we must all "learn to thrive on discomfort."

Ah, discomfort. Maybe something on the order of a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, perhaps, or a double-overtime loss in the divisional round a season before. Maybe two playoff trips with home-field advantage, two 13-3 finishes, a pile of team and league passing and scoring records, and no Super Bowl ring to show for them.

Yeah, that’s some professional football discomfort, all right.

The Broncos thrived in the discomfort left from the shocking playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens in January 2013. They went on to win the division again and, this time, played their way into Super Bowl XLVIII after a season during which Manning hit career marks in almost every offensive statistical category, including NFL records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). The Broncos also became the first team in league history to top 600 points in a season.

That was before the Super Sunday cave-in, a football sinkhole in which the Broncos watched all their title hopes and dreams cascade into the abyss. Most troubling to those in and around the team was the fact after a bad snap on their first offensive play of the game, the Broncos didn’t respond, and one bad play became another and another until they were on the short list of most lopsided Super Bowl losses.

That they didn't rise up and put up a good scrap, make a game of it. The Seattle Seahawks simply looked more prepared, more talented, more motivated -- just more of everything.

Two Januarys ago, when the Broncos lost to the Ravens, John Elway, the team’s chief football decision-maker, said the Broncos should remember 2012 was a good season, but that those with the team couldn’t be "afraid to be honest with ourselves."

Manning even said last season Elway had tried to create "an uncomfortable atmosphere" as the team moved into the 2013 season to make sure all involved remembered the sting of the loss. An atmosphere that seemed to suit the Broncos last season as they piled up the wins and touchdowns.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/John MinchilloThe Broncos stayed busy this offseason, adding key players in free agency to help Peyton Manning and Denver push for another postseason run.
It wasn’t always easy for those in the locker room -- expectations can be heavy when your boss is a Hall of Fame quarterback whom friends describe as the most competitive person to walk the planet, and the starting quarterback isn't far behind, if at all, in that department -- but, as Broncos coach John Fox routinely says, "if it were easy, everybody would be doing it." Winning is hard, an item Elway and Manning always want on the front burner. The burden of expectations gets a little heavier if opportunities to win the season's final game are lost, squandered or both.

Wednesday, in what was his first significant public appearance in Denver since the Super Bowl loss, Manning was in statesman mode, trying to help raise funds for the Boy Scouts in Colorado. His appearance filled the seats on the arena floor of the Pepsi Center.

Before he addressed the gathering, he lauded the Broncos' additions made in free agency -- players like Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward -- and lamented the departures of Champ Bailey, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno as he tried to leave at least some of the Super Bowl aftermath in the rearview mirror.

"First off, we lost many players and some great friends," Manning said. "It’s been a real pleasure to play the last two years with Champ, Knowshon, Eric, [linebacker] Wesley Woodyard, Chris Kuper retiring … I’m probably leaving a name or two out. That's the worst part about football. When you form some friendships with these guys and really put a lot of hard work in -- the business side comes into play.

"You have to move forward," Manning later added. "You have to kind of re-establish your identity of the 2014 team. The 2013 team -- it was a good season in a lot of ways. There is no question it did not end the way we wanted it to, but we have to find a way to build off that and take a step further -- try to finish."

This is where the Broncos will begin their trek into 2014: as a team trying to finish what it started, in many ways, when Elway, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Fox enticed Manning to sign in Denver.

They are a talented team with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. They were one of the most active and successful teams in filling needs in free agency. They have worked the draft well in the past three years and once again will carry the label as one of the Super Bowl favorites.

But they are also a team that let two rare title opportunities get away and are now trying to beat the odds to position themselves for another. They will have to deal, again, with the idea that many folks won’t much care what they do in the regular season if they aren’t the team catching the confetti next February.

They will be asked about the Super Bowl, about the window to win a championship closing and about what happened inside MetLife Stadium until they are sick of answering for it all. Truth be told, they might have been sick of it already, even as they dispersed into the offseason, and the wheel hasn't even really started to spin on all of that yet.

Manning himself might be asked to throw less so the offense can be more. To face the realities of age and four neck surgeries and use his remember-when mind to help diversify the team’s attack, not only to help give it a plan B but endorse it in what he calls at the line scrimmage if things don’t go right on another important football afternoon.

To, well, thrive in the discomfort.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has gathered most of the team's wide receivers and tight end Julius Thomas at Duke University this week for the well-planned headstart on the offseason work.

Thomas
Thomas
Newly-minted Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders tweeted a picture of the group Tuesday, a photo that also included Wes Welker, Andre Caldwell and Julius Thomas. And that set off the requisite amount of social media panic in the local zip codes on the Front Range because the Broncos' No. 1 wide receiver, Demaryius Thomas, was not in the photo. Or even at Duke for that matter.

Cancel the panic. There is no rift or bubbing controversy. Thomas is still recovering from a left shoulder injury he suffered in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Thomas suffered what some with the team have described as a separated left shoulder in the Broncos' 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks when he was hit by Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor in the first quarter of the 35-point loss. He played through the injury and did finish out the game with a Super Bowl record 13 catches.

Thomas could still be limited in some of the OTA work in the weeks to come, but the Broncos don't expect issues when training camp opens. Thomas had shoulder problems during the regular season as well, even leaving the Dec. 1 win over Kansas City after the first series but he did return to the lineup just before halftime.

Thomas left a 2012 game against the Raiders with a shoulder injury as well but returned in that December win.
John FoxJustin Edmonds/Getty ImagesJohn Fox, 59, is 34-14 with three AFC West titles in his three seasons with the Broncos.
At the start of free agency, John Elway was asked about the chances of the Denver Broncos making the effort to bring back some of their players who were set to test the market.

The Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager said:

“The market sets the prices."

When it comes to NFL head coaches, the market has been set in recent weeks. On Friday, Pete Carroll, 62, signed a three-year extension with the Seattle Seahawks that runs through the 2016 season.

Carroll’s deal had been set to expire following the 2014 season.

Like Carroll, Denver coach John Fox’s contract was set to expire following the 2014 season. And like Carroll and the Seahawks, the Broncos and Fox came together on a three-year extension Friday. Despite some who said the fact things had not been wrapped with Fox meant there was potential trouble on the horizon, both Fox and Elway had consistently expressed optimism a deal would get done.

There were talks at the scouting combine in February, and Elway said at the league meetings in Orlando, Fla., last week that Fox’s deal was “the next thing on the agenda."

The only way a deal wouldn't have gotten done is if one side had simply pushed too hard to win. If the Broncos tried to dig in a little too hard on the money, Fox could have ended up coaching the coming season without an extension. And if Fox’s agent, Bob LaMonte, had pushed too much, also on the money or for too many years, the Broncos might have folded their arms to simply wait and see.

Fox signed a four-year deal worth about $3 million per year in 2011, and he would have received a $1 million bonus had the Broncos won Super Bowl XLVIII in February, but Denver was bullied 43-8 by Carroll's team. And this is where Carroll’s deal comes in. Essentially, welcome to the market being set.

After all, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl and looked like a far better prepared team on the way to a 35-point win. Carroll is 38-26 as the Seahawks’ coach and 5-2 in the playoffs.

That is where the fence stands. Win the big trophy as a 60-something head coach, get a three-year extension.

Fox just turned 59 in February, he’s 34-14 with three AFC West titles in his three seasons with the Broncos, and he helped recalibrate the franchise to dig out of the crater that was the 4-12 finish in 2010.

However, the Broncos have also let quality championship opportunities slip through their fingers with a double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to end their 2012 season, to go with February’s title-game rout. Those two games alone, at least from the Broncos’ perspective, could have pushed Fox out of consideration for a three-year extension, and there were rumblings to that effect in and around the team early in the talks. But this is where the Broncos stepped up to get things done.

Again, the market had been set. Seven active head coaches have won Super Bowls, and Fox is not one of them. But Elway has repeatedly said, including last week, he likes the direction the team has gone in the last three years, and that he didn't expect any major hurdles in the negotiations, but also always added he expected the team to take the next step.

To not just play for a title, but to win one. And Fox obviously outlined his plan to get that done to Elway's satisfaction.

Those who know Fox well know he did not enjoy coaching the Carolina Panthers in the last year of his contract there in 2010, when the roster was scraped to the foundation and the Panthers limped to a 2-14 finish. Fox knew for that dismal season that the Panthers had no intention of bringing him back no matter what happened.

But coaching a team coming off back-to-back 13-3 finishes with Peyton Manning at quarterback in the last year of your contract isn't in the same football galaxy of what Fox went through in 2010. And at the league meetings, Fox said the sides were “working on it."

“Really I’m going to coach my rear end off no matter what happens," Fox said. “That’s in people’s hands, and I feel confident something will happen. But either way I’m going to be fine, I’m under contract ... They’re talking and working on it ... Everybody’s got good intentions, we’ll see where it goes."

Where it went is where all involved expected, and they all did what needed to be done to get there.
When the Denver Broncos didn't make wide receiver Eric Decker an offer in free agency, they were making a fairly public admission that they simply wanted to spend their available dollars elsewhere.

And that they could spend those dollars elsewhere to fix some holes in the depth chart and somehow replace Decker in the offense.

For it all to work as they hope, those major investments -- DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib -- will certainly have to lift the defense. But for the plan to go from drawing board to deep in the postseason, preferably a return trip to the Super Bowl, the Broncos will simply have to be right about Emmanuel Sanders.

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesEmmanuel Sanders had a career-best 67 receptions last season, but the Broncos believe he can do more in their system.
The wide receiver was among their top offensive targets when the Broncos made their wish list before free agency opened. They see him as a versatile, fast, quick-twitch receiver who is ready to benefit from Peyton Manning's presence behind center.

Or as John Elway has put it: “When we looked at him, and I've said this to our guys, too, you saw a guy who has only scratched the surface. He's young with a lot of potential, even on top of what he's already done."

Decker's departure leaves a fairly large gap in what the team did on offense last season. At least in the regular season, anyway. Decker's totals dipped in the postseason, as Manning focused elsewhere, but Manning looked Decker's way 137 times in the regular season. Demaryius Thomas was the only Broncos receiver targeted more in 2013. Thomas isn't going anywhere in the pecking order. The Broncos see him as a special player who still has room to grow, even after his 1,430-yard, 14-touchdown season in 2013.

Tight end Julius Thomas was the fourth-most targeted player in the Broncos' offense last season. He missed two games with a knee injury in the regular season, but was far more active in the playoffs. He will be a bigger part of the offense in the coming season.

Wes Welker missed the final three games of the regular season while recovering from a concussion, but he was the third-most targeted player in the offense.

Sanders' ability as a slot receiver, as well as his ability to line up out wide, should help the Broncos create more matchups to get Julius Thomas the ball down the hashmarks. It was Sanders' ability to line up all over the formation, as well as his after-the-catch performance, that made him the Broncos' top target on the offensive side of the ball once free agency opened.

Sanders had a career-best 67 catches last season, but the Broncos believe he can go far north of that total in their offense, given the choices Manning has before the ball is in the air. Still, all of those plans are built around the idea that Sanders has to be up for the job, too.

The Broncos may feel like Sanders is quicker in the short area, faster in the open field and better after the catch than Decker. But Decker was on the finishing end of touchdown passes 24 times in the two seasons he played with Manning.

Some of that was Manning's ability to work the Broncos' scheme and find the favorable matchup. There is a long list of receivers who have put up career-best numbers with Manning. Still, Decker's production will have to be replaced. The Broncos lined up in a three-wide receiver set on 73.6 percent of their offensive snaps last season.

The Broncos lined up in a three-wide set even more than that as the season wore on, including all but one snap against the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round. And even with their intentions to run the ball better next season, Sanders will be key in how successful the Broncos are in making the transition from how the formation looked in 2013 to how it will look in 2014.

Questions surround Welker, who enters the season with two concussions in 2013 to go with a concussion history from before he signed in Denver. There is always a chance he will miss some time in the coming season.

In the end, the New York Jets put a $36.25 million contract in front of Decker and the Broncos signed Sanders to a $15 million deal. The Broncos did their comparison shopping, looked at the balance in the checkbook and made Sanders their choice.

 
Earlier this week, as the NFL's power brokers moved around a nicely-appointed Florida resort, Denver Broncos head John Fox referred more than once to "the dropoff" in the team's defensive performance from 2012 to what it became in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJohn Fox is hoping his defense can regain the top form it had in 2012.
Certainly, linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension to open the season didn't help matters last season, nor did his ACL injury to close the regular season. And when all was said and done the Broncos had six players they had called starters at some point on defense finish the year on injured reserve. That is a total that was hard to overcome even before free agency changed the face of team-building, let alone before a third of the roster turned over each year.

The Broncos also played with the lead for much of the year, with their offense scoring a season record 606 points as opposing teams felt compelled by the scoreboard to throw 613 passes just to try to keep up. Those 613 pass attempts would have been the eighth-highest total in the league last season if they had been attempted by one team.

"That gets your attention," Fox said. "... And all of those things probably affected what we did, we're not making excuses, it's just fact. We didn't play as well as we could have, either, whether it was personnel, coaching, game-planning whatever, it wasn't what we want it to be. That was a significant dropoff from where we were -- we played some pretty good defense [in 2012], and we'd like to get back to that. We feel better about where we are, but we'll see how it plays out. But we want to have that balanced look."

It's why the 2012 season will always be the One That Got Away, or was ripped away, however folks want to look at it. But with Peyton Manning another year older for the coming season and another year down the road from his fourth neck surgery.

Because the "balanced" team, with Manning at quarterback, has always been a difficult, well, balance to find when it comes to the construction of the roster.

In terms of the Broncos' franchise history, it's why 2012 was even more of a remember-when affair, at least in some ways, than last season's offensive explosion. Because '12 was just the second time in the franchise's history the Broncos had a top 10 defense and a 4,000-yard passer on offense in the same year.

The first was 2004 when Jake Plummer finished with 4,089 yards passing and the Broncos were fourth overall in defense. In '12 Manning threw for 4,659 yards as the team finished No. 2 in fewest yards allowed per game (290.8) and No. 4 in fewest points allowed per game (18.1).

That's the kind of balance the Broncos want this time around, why they've put the money where they want the defense to be. It's why, even as they did write a significant check to give Manning another target in the offense in Emmanuel Sanders, they leaned so hard on defense in free agency and will continue to lean hard as they watch the draft unfold in May.

It's a difficult line to walk, however, with the lure always there to surround the franchise quarterback with as much talent as possible. But it's one the Broncos will need to walk if they are to secure the brightest trophy during Manning's time in Denver.

"You want to eliminate as many holes in the roster as you can and have the depth to overcome things," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. "We want to create a situation where we can win a lot of different ways. That's always our challenge and we'd like to think we're getting closer to that ability."

The defense-Manning combination has always been difficult to keep consistently strong over his career. In all of his time in Indianapolis, Manning had a top 10 defense with a 4,000-yard passing season just four times -- the 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. The Colts went a combined 49-13 in those years, eventually losing in the wild-card round twice, the divisional round once and in Super Bowl XLIV (to New Orleans).

The year the Colts won the Super Bowl in Manning's time with the team -- the 2006 season -- their defense was ranked 21st overall, 23rd in scoring defense.

But it certainly doesn't happen without the commitment to put resources into the defense or special teams, to the parts of the depth chart that handle the business when Manning doesn't have the ball. The Broncos have already shown the commitment, with the draft still to come, but they'll just have to wait to see if they reap the benefits.
It was a telling moment from a competitive guy, one who knows the question is going to come and needs an answer even if he doesn't want to publicly reveal it.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJohn Elway and the Broncos have to take a deep look at themselves with their Super Bowl loss still lingering in the rear-view mirror.
That's because if you've been an NFL head coach fortunate enough to play in the season's final meaningful game and not win it, the question will always come. Over and over again in the season that follows.

And Denver Broncos head coach John Fox knows what's ahead in the coming months.

Former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, who is entering his third season as St. Louis Rams head coach, saw his receiver -- Kevin Dyson -- tackled one yard short of sending a Super Bowl into overtime. Long after the game ended and the workers had started to clean up the confetti that had rained down on the other team, Fisher was asked if he had already thought about what would change the result.

"One yard," he said. "That's my answer. We have to get everybody to get one more yard."

This past week, with the Broncos' 35-point loss in the Super Bowl not all that far in the rearview mirror yet, Fox was asked what he would change about Super Bowl XLVIII, a bad day at the office for the Broncos that was broadcast to every continent on the planet.

"Probably everything," Fox said. "Right now I'd like to get there [again] ... even my kids were getting on me, the getaway hotel 'Dad, that's 80 percent bad' ... You change a lot of things. You change if it didn't work ... It's like you end up every season, if you don't win the last game, it gnaws on you and it gnaws on you for a while. It really never kind of goes away, it's like that scar, but you learn from it, you move on, and you do everything you can to get better ... but I didn't watch it for a week."

The Broncos' football boss, John Elway, said following the Broncos' double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season the team had to be honest with itself about what happened and why. They ramped up the aggressiveness on offense, put the no-huddle attack in high gear -- a long way down the road from taking a knee with time still on the clock and timeouts still in hand -- and re-wrote many of the league's season records doing it.

The Broncos need that same honesty this time around. They have been open as to why they went defense-first in free agency, why they let most of their own free agents go into the market and why they needed more speed and youth all over the roster. But the Broncos have also tempted the odds having not turned back-to-back 13-3 seasons into more than crushing disappointment in their season's final game. And to change that they will have to continue to be honest, from the top down, with themselves as to why that happened.

And the one thing they -- Elway, Fox or anybody else -- simply can't take away from all that is status quo.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen was not at the league meetings this week, but by all accounts he's happy with the people who represented his team at the annual spring gathering and the direction they have taken the team over the last three years.

The Broncos just completed their third season with John Elway as the chief decision-maker on the football side with Joe Ellis as team president. A painful, somewhat embarrassing Super Bowl blowout last month aside, the results have been three consecutive AFC West titles, a favorable enough salary cap situation that allowed them to aggressively work free agency, and fan interest back where Bowlen always wants it to be.

All things, as the Broncos decision-makers adjourned from the meetings this week, have made Bowlen a happy team owner.

"He feels, we feel, the franchise is headed in the right direction," Ellis said as the meetings drew to a close. "Certainly hiring John Elway established the foundation, beginning of a trust that needed to be re-established with our fans, that was No. 1. No. 2, bringing John Fox on helped shift the culture both outside the building and inside the building. Those two hires have kind of re-established trust and re-ignited interest in the team."

Ellis said Bowlen likes the disciplined approach Elway has taken in terms of which players have gottten the long-term contracts that carry heavy salary-cap risks. In the four high-profile deals the Broncos signed with free agents this month -- Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders -- Ware's contract is the only one that carries a significant risk toward the salary cap beyond the 2014 season if Ware doesn’t play how the Broncos expect him to.

Ware is also the only one of the four who is more than 28 years old. The Broncos have taken similar approaches in the previous two forays into free agency when, beyond the deal for quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012, the longer -- three years or more -- bonus-heavy deals have largely gone to younger players.

"John has done a very good job of bringing in players to help us win and he’s done it with the short term in mind and the long term in mind," Ellis said. "He doesn’t waver from that, sticks to his plan with discipline. I know Pat feels this way and so do I, we have the right team in place in football to have short- and long-term success. We’ve established a program that should allow -- they’ll be blips in the road -- but should allow for sustained success."

Ellis added that both he and Bowlen believe the Broncos’ approach has to be draft first and supplement with free agency if the team is to succeed both with Manning behind center and in the post-Manning era.

"People say we’re all-in because of the players we signed, I don’t see that way and John is very open and very honest in how he goes about shaping the roster," Ellis said. "He doesn’t talk about this year, he talks about this year and beyond … . He and Mike Sullivan structure deals that make sure we’re talking about this year and beyond."

"The clubs that have success, that have good performance over time, are the ones that stick to a discipline when it comes to picking players and paying players," Ellis added. "And at times in the past we may have gotten off track by signing players who were fix-it-now type players with fix-it-now type contracts and not showing any regard for financial discipline. Listen we need to spend to the cap to be competitive, we believe that, but you can’t spend recklessly. Some say you’re doing this through free agency, but I don’t think John, and I don’t want to speak for John, but the draft is equally important, if not more, to the organization."
So, you already knew that the recently acquired Matt Schaub was earmarked to be the Oakland Raiders' starting quarterback this season. And while neither Terrelle Pryor nor his fans should be happy about that development, what coach Dennis Allen told reporters Tuesday will perk up more than a few ears.

Schaub
Schaub
"We have a quarterback now," Allen said at the NFL owners meetings, per the Bay Area News Group, "that's on par with the quarterbacks in the division."

Got it?

Shaub = Kansas City's Alex Smith. Sure.

Shaub = San Diego's Philip Rivers. Meh.

Shaub = Denver's Peyton Manning. Um ...

If nothing else, Allen is a glass-half-full kind of guy. He has to be. After consecutive 4-12 seasons in which his teams folded spectacularly down the stretch both times, Allen knows this is a make-or-break type of year in which the Raiders need to show improvement.

And for the purposes of this discussion, it all begins under center ... with a new quarterback who is a two-time Pro Bowler coming off a nightmarish season. So what kind of quarterback does Allen prefer, exactly?

"Guys that can move the team down the field, guys who can put points on the board," Allen said. "I think there's certain qualities you look at in the quarterbacks that have been able to be successful over the years. I'm talking about guys like Drew Brees, who I was with [in New Orleans]. I'm talking about guys like Peyton Manning. I'm talking about guys like Tom Brady. Guys [whose] work ethic is unmatched; they're the first ones in the building, they're the last one to leave.

"They have the ability to process information quickly and they can throw the ball with timing and accuracy. And those are the things you have to be able to do to play the quarterback position."

And water is wet.

Of course, that's the goal of every team -- to find a franchise quarterback. It's been a tortuous journey for the Raiders the past three years as they've used first- and second-round picks (Carson Palmer), a third-round supplemental pick (Pryor), a fourth-round pick (Tyler Wilson) a fifth-round pick (Matt Flynn) and now a sixth-rounder (Schaub) in their search for a savior.

The new regime of Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie is responsible for the last three on the list.

"It's pretty obvious that we feel good about Matt Schaub as our starting quarterback," Allen said. "We feel comfortable with Matt McGloin as a back up. But we'll see what happens in the next few days, next couple weeks.

"Everybody has down seasons. Everybody has down years. It's not a shame to get knocked down; it's a shame to not get back up. [Schaub] is a guy that's been a two-time Pro Bowl player, he's been a top 10 quarterback in the National Football League over the last five years and we believe, and he believes, that he's still that. And I don't think that changes overnight, I really don't."

Schaub had a career-worst total quarterback rating of 43.65 last season, losing his starting job midway through the season and throwing 14 interceptions, including a stretch of four straight games with a pick-6, with 10 touchdowns and a 61.1 completion percentage rate.

"Do I think he's going to have a little bit of a chip on his shoulder? Yeah, I really do," Allen said. "I think there's going to be a little bit of added incentive for him to kind of prove what he can do? Yeah, I think there will be, and I think that's a good thing."
The Philadelphia Eagles need a backup quarterback. Mark Sanchez needs a new place to restart his career.

With ESPN Insider Chris Mortenson reporting Sanchez is expected to sign with the Eagles, it brings together two sides filling a major need.

Sanchez
Nick Foles is without question the Eagles' starter. He threw 27 touchdown passes and had just two interceptions while compiling an 8-2 record in 2013. But with Michael Vick off to the New York Jets and Matt Barkley an unknown, coach Chip Kelly is dipping into the Pac-12 quarterbacks again.

Kelly was Oregon's offensive coordinator when Sanchez played at Southern Cal.

We will now get to see if he can revitalize Sanchez.

Things started so well for Sanchez with the Jets. He helped New York and Rex Ryan to two straight AFC Championship Games, losing to Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, but he never made the next step in his career.

His best statistical year came in 2011, when he threw for 3,474 yards with 26 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, but the Jets lost their final three games and that was the end of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

Tony Sparano did not help Sanchez in 2012. A shoulder injury kept Sanchez out last year.

Provided the shoulder checks out, Sanchez will become the backup to Foles.

Kelly's first order of business is lifting Sanchez's accuracy. He is a 55.1 percent passer for his career. The best he has had in his career is 56.7 percent. In today's NFL with the rules the way they are, quarterbacks must complete about 65 percent to be effective.

With the Eagles, Sanchez would have better tools around him, especially on the offensive line. He could have DeSean Jackson at wide receiver, at least for a minute. He would have Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to go with Brent Celek and Zach Ertz at tight end. And of course he would have LeSean McCoy.

He would also have Kelly, who has won with different kinds of quarterbacks along his stops at New Hampshire, Oregon and last year with the Eagles.

The Eagles are not the ground-and-pound of the Jets in Sanchez's first two years, but Kelly will run the ball to control the game and his quarterback.

Sanchez would be going to a perfect spot without the pressure to be the Sanch-ise. All he would need to be is a backup, not a savior.

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