NFL Nation: Peyton Manning

DENVER -- Two halves don’t add up to the whole story right now for the Denver Broncos. At least not the story their offense wants to tell.

In two games, both wins, the Broncos' high-powered offense has had the ball for nine possessions in the first halves of their two games combined, excluding one kneel-down play for quarterback Peyton Manning to close out the opening half against the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Jack DempseyPeyton Manning and the Broncos are 2-0 despite their second-half woes on offense.
On those nine possessions the Broncos have scored six touchdowns, a field goal and had two punts. The Broncos also have scored on their opening drive in each game.

"It feels good to go down and score on the opening drive," Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "It gives everyone confidence that we can seriously do it over and over and over again."

But in back-to-back games the Broncos have left the offensive mojo in the locker room. In eight second-half possessions that haven’t included Manning taking a knee to end both games, the Broncos have scored just one touchdown and one field goal to go with six punts with offensive coordinator Adam Gase working out of the same playbook.

Broncos head coach John Fox, sitting at 2-0 after Sunday's 24-17 win over Kansas City, bristled at least some following the game with questions about discipline and offensive flow.

"We’re not going to beat everybody 58-to-nothing," Fox said.

For his part, Manning took a bit of a big-picture look following Sunday’s win.

"We’re playing a lot of good football teams," Manning said. "We played two really good teams, two playoff teams off the bat. Feel fortunate to win those games; have another tough game next week as well. So it’s still kind of the goals that you set on the offensive philosophies that you have, if you can achieve those goals those usually can lead to positive results. So we’re hitting some of those goals and some things we can do a little better job of."

Yes, Manning did finish his day with the NFL lead in touchdown passes, with six in two games. He has been particularly willing to find the best matchup in the scoring zone with four of those scoring passes having gone to tight ends Julius Thomas (three) and Jacob Tamme (one).

But the second-half numbers are troubling given the Broncos have been forced to hang on in each game, having to make a fourth-down play on defense in the game’s closing moments to preserve the win in each of the first two weeks.

Against the Colts, the Broncos didn’t make the most of their chances -- three three-and-outs in the second half -- while the Broncos simply didn’t get many chances against the Chiefs.

"If the other team has it, we can’t score," running back Montee Ball said.

The Broncos had just two possessions, other than Manning’s kneel down to end the game, in the second half against Kansas City. They turned one into a field goal, but were penalized for almost as many yards (17) as they netted on the drive (27).

The Chiefs opened up the first 10 minutes of the third quarter with a 19-play drive (23 plays with penalties included). They did not score after all that work when Cairo Santos missed a 37-yard field goal, but they got the next best thing by keeping Manning & Co. on the sideline for most of the third quarter.

"That’s ball-possession defense, all 10 minutes with no points," Fox said with tongue in cheek. "In all seriousness, that team struggled last week on third down. I’d say it’s fair to say, like any very competitive people, they worked very hard at it. Hat's off to them."

But the Broncos exited their 2-0 start knowing the team next on the docket is the one that derailed their offense in the Super Bowl just over seven months ago -- the Seattle Seahawks -- and that status quo won't be enough.

"We’ve got some work to do," Ball said. "We’re getting better every week. … It’s part of the game. The tide is going to turn, momentum is going to swing. Once we get momentum, we want to keep the momentum."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
7:33
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videoDENVER -- A few thoughts from the Denver Broncos' 24-17 victory Sunday over the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

What it means: The Broncos certainly won't put a frame around this one after a somewhat choppy performance with ill-timed penalties, inconsistency on defense and an off-and-on day on offense when the numbers looked better than the actual output. But the Broncos were able to win without their best fastball in an early AFC West matchup.

Stock watch: He's a do-it-all guy who fits many roles in the team's offense and special teams: Tight end Jacob Tamme continues to show his worth over and over again. On a day when special teams captain David Bruton Jr. was out with a shoulder injury, Tamme filled in the leadership void in those units. When the Broncos inserted Tamme on offense as the second tight end in their two-tight end, it sparked a unit that hadn't quite found its rhythm with back-to-back touchdown drives late in the first half.

Way too much bend: The Broncos held on for a win in the season opener with a defensive stop in the closing minutes against the Indianapolis Colts. At times Sunday they showed plenty of teeth on defense, but at others they allowed the Chiefs to convert in situations when the defense holds most every advantage. On a mammoth 10-minute third quarter drive alone the Broncos allowed the Chiefs to convert a third-and-18, a third-and-11, a third-and-13 and a third-and-8. Two of those were Chiefs completions and two were Broncos penalties.

Game ball: If a team is going to win without its best stuff, at some point one of the marquee players has to step up and pull everybody else through. Sunday, it was the Broncos' biggest name on the marquee who did so. Quarterback Peyton Manning finished with yet another three-touchdown day -- the 86th of his career.

What's next: The Broncos say they're tougher, more physical, that they have moved past a 35-point Super Bowl loss to put themselves in position to play in the title game again. They get a chance to prove it at 4:35 p.m. ET Sunday when they travel to Seattle to face a Seahawks team that will be smarting from a loss in San Diego, in a game in which anything but the Broncos' best will send them home with an ugly loss.

W2W4: Broncos Week 2

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
7:30
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Cornerback Chris Harris is just seven months removed from ACL surgery, so the team's Week 1 victory over the Indianapolis Colts had a work-in-progress feel for him.

"I know in the first game I wasn’t quite where I want to be with my stamina and things like that, but my knee feels great, when I was in there I felt like I showed I can play the game how I want to play it," said Harris. "But I wasn't all the way where I want to be, but I'll get there. We got the win, that’s all we’re concerned about. We’ll fix what we need to fix after wins, that’s what we want."

That is true for the Broncos as a whole. They weren’t quite where they want to be in the victory over Colts, but they won.

And as they head to a Week 2 game against the Kansas City Chiefs (0-1) Sunday, here are some things to keep an eye on:

  • [+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
    Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesExpect to see Demaryius Thomas get more opportunities against the Chiefs than he got in Week 1.
    Demaryius Thomas had just four receptions for 48 yards in the season opener, but those numbers figure to go up this week, especially if Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton sticks to what he did last season against Thomas. Sutton didn’t match a cornerback on Thomas, so when the Broncos moved Thomas around in the formation, they could usually get the matchup they wanted, often getting Thomas on Marcus Cooper in last season’s two meetings. As a result Thomas had two 100-yard games against the Chiefs and averaged 28.5 yards per catch in those two games. Cooper, who missed last week’s game with an injury, is expected back in the lineup Sunday.
  • Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles had just 11 touches in the opener, including just seven carries. The Broncos should, and do, expect Charles to get many more opportunities Sunday. There was a time, during his tenure in Philadelphia, when Chiefs head coach Andy Reid took some heat for leaving the run game behind in his play calling. Things got away from the Chiefs offense a bit in the loss to the Titans Sunday -- the Titans led 10-3 at half, 20-3 just before the end of the third quarter -- but the Chiefs ran the ball just 17 times in the game. The Chiefs had just two running plays in the third quarter. "We know Jamaal Charles is one of the best," Harris said. "We know they want to get him the ball."
  • The Chiefs have just one offensive lineman -- center Rodney Hudson -- who is starting in the same position for the team that he played last season. And the group looked out of sorts at times in the opening-week loss to the Titans. As a result the Broncos figure to get a steady diet of quick-hit plays as the Chiefs try to adjust. Reid has an extensive screen game in the offense and the Chiefs run many of those screens, to either side of the field, to a variety of players, when they all look the same at the start of the play. The Broncos' linebackers will have to be disciplined in their pursuit.
  • Sutton will offer plenty of unorthodox looks in the pass rush, often dropping safety Eric Berry into the mix with a delayed rush in the middle of the formation. The Colts had some success sending a rusher from off the ball late into the middle of the formation. The Broncos were slow to adjust at times and there were times Colts defenders got a free run at quarterback Peyton Manning.
  • The Broncos figure to test the Chiefs defense on the inside, particularly in the run game. Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive tackle Mike DeVito will miss the remainder of the season with Achilles tendon injuries and that is a significant amount of production out of the team’s defense, particularly on early downs when Johnson was the keystone of the team’s run fits and DeVito was in the rotation. The Broncos figure to pound away a bit to see how the Chiefs respond, both out of their two-tight-end or three-wide-receiver looks.

Broncos vs. Chiefs preview

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
8:00
AM ET
video
The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs don't have to wait long to open up AFC West play as they jump into a Week 2 matchup. The Broncos had one glorious half before they had to hang on in their season-opening 31-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

The Chiefs struggled in a 26-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium and will be without two regulars in defensive tackle Mike DeVito and linebacker Derrick Johnson, who both suffered season-ending Achilles injuries in the loss.

ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.

Legwold: Adam, every training camp for every team ends with such high hopes and plenty of optimism. What is the Chiefs' mindset after such a tough opening week?

Teicher: There's not a lot for the Chiefs to be optimistic about right now. Since their 9-0 start last season they've gone 2-7, including their collapse in the playoffs against Indianapolis. Their offensive line is in tatters, quarterback Alex Smith is throwing interceptions in uncharacteristically high numbers, running back Jamaal Charles didn’t get the ball much against Tennessee, some of their best young players aren't contributing much, they lost two of their best defensive players for the season with injuries last week and their defense got pushed around by Jake Locker and the Titans. Then there's the upcoming schedule, which has the Chiefs playing road games against the Broncos, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers and a home game against the New England Patriots in the next five weeks. Otherwise, all is good with the Chiefs.

What about the Broncos in this regard? The losing team in the Super Bowl often has a season-long hangover afterward, but the Broncos don't seem to be affected.

Legwold: When the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said he wanted not only Manning's play on the field, but also a player "who raises all boats." Manning and the other Broncos veterans attacked the offseason and a fairly young team overall has taken its cues from those hard-driving older players. When they brought in veteran players such as DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, those guys saw this as a chance at a Super Bowl, so they have been no nonsense as they've gone about their business. That has kept things on the tracks. The suspensions handed down to wide receiver Wes Welker and kicker Matt Prater ended what had been a quiet summer for the team. But, overall, it's a locked-in group that needs to avoid injuries to key players to be in the title mix again.

In terms of offseason work, the Chiefs locked up Smith with a contract extension. What was the organization's plan and is there even more pressure on Smith now to lift them into the postseason?

Teicher: The plan with Smith all along, from the time they acquired him in the trade with the 49ers, was to lock him up for the long term. At no time did they consider him a stopgap or the bridge to the next quarterback. Those plans could have changed had they not been satisfied with Smith's play last season. But Smith last season was the guy the Chiefs thought they were getting. This new contract certainly increases the pressure on Smith to deliver. The Chiefs have committed to him in a big way, and he will be consuming a significant portion of the team's salary cap. Smith is by no means solely responsible for last Sunday's loss, but he didn't play well. He threw three interceptions, and two were bad decisions on his part, the kind of choices he doesn't usually make. The Chiefs are paying him a lot of money to make better decisions.

You mentioned Denver's offseason signings of defensive players in Ware, Talib and Ward. How has their presence changed the complexion of the Broncos' defense?

Legwold: Elway spends a lot of time talking about "the mindset" and "the mentality to win a world championship," and when he was waving the team's checkbook around in free agency, he went looking for players with the mindset to remake the defense. There are just six players on the roster who started on defense in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Broncos players voted Ware a captain and his straightforward, no-nonsense approach has made him an almost instant team leader. He also had 1.5 sacks in the opener, and while some in the league had labeled Ware a declining player in his 10th season, the Broncos think they can manage his snaps to get the most out of him. Ward and Talib bring an edge the Broncos wanted, and both were all over the field this past Sunday night. Toss in the first-round pick, cornerback Bradley Roby, and the Broncos will play with more aggressiveness and a bigger variety in personnel groupings than they did in last season's two games against the Chiefs.

Defensively, how will the Chiefs adjust to the injuries to DeVito and Johnson? Will it alter their approach dramatically, especially given what Johnson means to the group?

Teicher: I don't think the Chiefs will change their approach dramatically, but there's no question they will feel the loss of both players. Johnson will be replaced by James-Michael Johnson. The Chiefs went out in free agency and signed veteran Joe Mays, a former Broncos player, to fill one of their inside linebacker spots, an indication they didn't think Johnson was ready to be a full-time player. He got a long look in passing situations during the preseason, and the Chiefs are more comfortable with him playing in coverage than against the run. That said, he's no Derrick Johnson, who is superb against the run and versatile against the pass. DeVito was one of the Chiefs' better run defenders and was improving as a pass-rusher. His main replacement will be Jaye Howard, who had a promising preseason. Former Oakland Raider Vance Walker, and even the newly signed Kevin Vickerson, could get some playing time as well.

The Chiefs tried to sign wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency before he joined the Broncos. He looked like a good fit for the Broncos in the opener against Indianapolis. What are their expectations for him? And give us a little scouting report on Vickerson, a former Bronco.

Legwold: In terms of players on offense who were available in free agency, Sanders was the team's top target. The Broncos' offensive coaches, particularly offensive coordinator Adam Gase, like Sanders' versatility in that he can line up in the outside spots and in the slot to go with the fact he has quality short-area quickness to beat press coverage off the snap and top-end speed to run away from defenders in the open. Manning has worked extensively with him -- the two stayed after practice, often with rookie receiver Cody Latimer -- every day of offseason workouts, as well as in training camp. The work helped, and Sanders projects to a big season in this offense. Vickerson was likely the 54th player on this roster when the Broncos cut to 53. The Broncos liked his work on run downs and the physicality and ability take on double-teams. They did have some long-term concern about his hip -- Vickerson was kept on a limited schedule throughout much of training camp -- but they needed a little cap space and kept only eight defensive linemen, so Vickerson got caught in the squeeze.video
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In the end, the goal is likely somewhere between better and much better.

The Denver Broncos aren’t on a quest to take what was the league’s highest scoring offense in history and remake it into something it’s not. In these pass-happy times, the Broncos can chuck it around with the best of them.

Even after the Broncos scored 31 points in a season-opening victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the team has spent a lot of the past week discussing missed opportunities, dropped passes – they had five – and lost touchdowns – they said there were a few. And the Broncos also still want to run the ball better.

They don’t want to be a running team, but a passing team that runs it better when they want to.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Elsa/Getty ImagesMontee Ball rushed for 67 yards on 23 carries in the Broncos' season-opening victory over the Colts.
“The run game is a focus for us," said tight end Julius Thomas. “We have to run the ball efficiently, but if you’re running the ball well on third-and-short, it’s going to extend drives, so we’ll take that. But we’ll keep working."

After the Broncos cleared away the debris from a 35-point Super Bowl loss, they went into the offseason with adjustments to their run-game scheme/personnel on their minds. Knowshon Moreno was allowed to leave in free agency, Montee Ball was named the starter at running back, they moved one of their most physical linemen, Orlando Franklin, from right tackle to left guard and they tweaked some things they were doing on handoffs.

In Sunday’s opening act of the new season, Manning threw for three touchdowns, all in the first half. At times, the Broncos' passing attack looked every bit as dominant as last season, with Thomas having taken the next step as a player and Emmanuel Sanders fitting in quite nicely.

But as the Broncos now consistently talk about “efficiency" in the run game, they weren’t always able to reach their desired output. On first down, they had eight of their 18 carries gain one or fewer yards – four for no gain, one of 1 yard and one for minus-1 yard, all by Ball.

As a result of those runs and the down-and-distance situations they created, the Broncos then had just five second-down carries in the game and just three third-down carries. They did convert all three of those third-down carries for first downs, but all but eight of their rushing attempts in the game came on first down, and from a defensive standpoint, there is some predictability there.

“You have to focus on the plays that didn’t go so well," Ball said. “We’re going to carry the good plays to the next game. But from an individual standpoint, you want to focus on the bad plays where if you made a mistake, you can correct it and become better for the next team. For me, there are some holes out there that I missed. I’m looking forward to correcting them and getting better."

Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said Ball is “being a little hard on himself. He did a pretty job hitting them … A lot of times he’s doing what the scheme allows him to do."

It all presents an odd sort of riddle. The Broncos want to run better, but they score plenty already. The Broncos have scored at least 31 points in 24 of Manning’s 33 regular-season starts with the team.

They’ve also been committed enough to the running game to have run the ball at least 25 times in 23 of those games, including Sunday.

So they don’t necessarily want more, as in more carries; they still want, and need, better carries. They want it because they’re thinking big-picture, that they’re going to need it to get another shot at the title, to slam the door against a physical opponent, to win on a bad-weather day without surrendering who they believe they are.

“I think our history speaks for itself as far as we’re not one to pull off [the accelerator]," Gase said. “Are we working on some things, trying to run the ball a little bit? Yeah. We were still trying to throw it [Sunday]. We figured if we finished a few of those plays a little differently -- we had a third-and-3, had a drop. The guy falls down -- we catch that, that might be a 30-yard gain. So some things that didn’t go our way in that second half, but in no means will we ever pull off the gas. We’re going to try to score as many points until the clock is at zero."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In what has been the Summer of Construction, it can be easy to miss everything that has been added to the Denver Broncos complex in recent weeks and months.

Thomas
 But there are three newly-minted signs in the players’ parking lot that will make it easy to see how things have gone in the game that was just played each week. It was quarterback Peyton Manning who pointed out the primo front-row parking real estate this week, one spot each for the team’s offensive, defensive and special teams player of the week, and the fact tight end Julius Thomas had parked his car in one of them.

“You get a parking spot by the way, player of the week, don’t know if y’all noticed that,’’ Manning said. “ … Right there the first three spots … if you get Broncos player of the week.’’

And with three touchdown receptions in the Broncos’ regular-season opener, Thomas certainly earned not only the team’s player-of-the-week honor, but he was the league’s AFC Player of the Week. But what Thomas may also be is another shining example of why draft classes can’t, and shouldn’t, always be judged quickly and why a player’s makeup will often be as important as the scouting trinity of height, weight and speed.

Because after two NFL seasons, Thomas, a guy who is now one of the league's most difficult matchups for any defensive coordinator, had all of one catch, a five-yarder against Cincinnati on Sept. 18, 2011 when he suffered an ankle injury. And for the remainder of that season and the season that followed Thomas was a fourth-round draft with potential the Broncos simply hoped to eventually see healthy.

Then they saw last year’s 65-catch, 12-touchdown season. Then they saw Sunday night’s opener when Thomas had three touchdowns in the season's first 30 minutes.

“I think he’ll be a better player this year than he was last year,’’ Manning said.

And beyond Thomas’ obvious physical attributes for his job -- the ex-Portland State basketball player is fluid in is movements, has soft hands and top-tier body control to go with rare speed for a player his size -- it was his approach during his one-catch period that always caught the eye on the Broncos’ decision-makers.

And that includes Manning after he signed in 2012. Because of the collective bargaining agreement, Manning wanted to gather some of the offensive players before the Broncos’ official offseason workouts began. Thomas was one of the team's few first- or second-year players to find his way to, and faithfully attend those workouts.

“But Julius was one of the guys, he and [Eric] Decker, that I was throwing with,’’ Manning said. “And I remember … 6-4 tight end, those guys just don’t come around very often, that can really run, just seems like next, you know, he had a previous injury that kind of flared up again … [I] definitely had a great early appreciation of his talent and his ability.’’

Thomas never lost confidence in himself. “I always believed, had the confidence, if I kept working through it, good things would happen. My approach has always been to be as good as I can be over my career, not just one year here, one year there, so always looking down the road to make sure I’m doing things that keep me successful in the long haul.’’

Thomas is in the last year of his original rookie deal, and the Broncos have had discussions about a new one for him, as well as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. And the price goes up a bit every time Julius Thomas befuddles another linebacker or safety for another touchdown.

But it will be easy for executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway to see how it’s all going. He can simply count the touchdown on gameday and then, after Elways pull into his spot the next morning, he can see where Julius Thomas is parked as well.

DENVER -- After the Denver Broncos swept up the pieces of a 35-point Super Bowl loss, after they picked at the football scabs and said all of the uncomfortable things behind closed doors that needed to be said, John Elway took the team's checkbook into free agency in search of players.

At the top of the list he said he wanted "the right mentality" on defense, he wanted a defense to "develop its own personality, something to grab onto like we have on offense."

One game in for the Broncos, and it was money well spent. Because while it was quarterback Peyton Manning who took the knee in the victory formation to close out a 31-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts with another three touchdown passes on his resume, it was the Broncos' defensive work in the third quarter that kept this game in the win column.

"That's it right there, if we don't get those, we would have lost," Broncos safety Rahim Moore said. "That was a great job. … Communication was fantastic. Anything bad happened, we fixed it. That's what it's all about. But those goal-line stands were crucial."

After exploding from the gate for a 24-0 lead by the time the two-minute warning arrived in the first half, the Broncos suddenly saw the Colts pick away. Andrew Luck drove the Colts 80 yards in eight plays just before halftime to make it 24-7.

And then Luck took the Colts to the Broncos' 8-yard line in just four plays in Indianapolis' first possession of the second half. With a first-and-goal from the 8, the Colts pushed the ball to the 1, where, on fourth-and-goal, Colts coach Chuck Pagano tried to seize momentum with both hands.

Luck tried to sneak into the middle of the Broncos' defensive line but was stuffed by linebacker Brandon Marshall.

"Andrew Luck, you knew he was going to try to sneak the ball," Moore said. "But those guys in the middle, they're like vending machines, you can't move them. … Just clog the holes up front and everybody else comes swarming."

On their next possession, the Colts moved to the Broncos' 4-yard line in eight plays. Then Marshall tackled Reggie Wayne for a 2-yard loss, Chris Harris Jr. knocked a pass away for tight end Coby Fleener and DeMarcus Ware sacked Luck. The Colts came away with a 25-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri.

In all, the Colts ran eight plays inside the Broncos' 10-yard line on those two possessions and came away with just a field goal.

And with Marshall playing for the injured Danny Trevathan (fracture at top of tibia in training camp) and with Harris and linebacker Von Miller on a pitch count of sorts as they come back from ACL surgeries, the Broncos simply showed the depth on defense they didn't have last season.

New arrivals Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib had the desired impact with 1.5 sacks, four passes defensed and nine tackles combined. One of Talib's tipped passes turned into one of the Broncos' two interceptions.

And Denver felt good enough about rookie Bradley Roby, the team's first-round pick this past May, to lock him up on Wayne throughout the night. Roby would finish with seven solo tackles and three passes defensed, including the game-clincher in the final minutes. And it had been Roby and safety Quinton Carter, who had not played in almost two full seasons before Sunday because of knee injuries, who stopped Colts wide receiver Hakeem Nicks at the 1-yard line on the play before Luck was stuffed.

"The defense just came up with some big stops when we needed them," Manning said. "I thought it was a good, overall team win. The offense did some good things and then we were in a little bit of a rut [before] our defense picked it up for us."

New faces that, for one opening night, gave the Broncos just the kind of return on investment they had hoped for.

"We're a force to be reckoned with," Marshall said. "That's what all defenses want. We have a long way to go, we'll keep getting better. We'll be a great defense, definitely."
DENVER -- A few takeaways from the Denver Broncos' locker room after the team hung on Sunday night for a 31-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts:
  • Safety David Bruton's was the most significant injury for the Broncos. The special teams captain suffered a left shoulder injury covering a second-quarter kickoff. Bruton suffered the injury on what was a touchback. He received treatment following the game and will undergo an MRI on Monday. Just before he left the locker room, Bruton said he still held out hope he wouldn't miss much time. Linebacker Nate Irving left the game in the third quarter with a lower right leg injury, but he did re-enter the game in the fourth quarter. Irving will be examined again Monday.
    Carter
  • Broncos safety Quinton Carter waited almost two seasons, after multiple knee surgeries, including a microfracture procedure, to play in another regular-season game. Carter finished with five tackles on defense to go with two more on special teams and forced a fumble. "It was very emotional, truly blessed to be back out there," he said, "... but you know you look hard at it, a little disappointed too, left a couple plays out there, dropped a pick for sure. But definitely some gratification to be back out there. There were plenty of days I wasn't sure if I would ever play again."
  • With cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Von Miller having had ACL surgeries in February and January, respectively, the Broncos played it safe at times in the players' first full game since their injuries. Miller played just nine snaps in the preseason; Harris not at all. The Broncos used rookie Bradley Roby and Tony Carter to spell Harris at times while Lerentee McCray got plenty of work in Miller's strongside linebacker spot. "I'll be all right," Harris said. "I just need to get my wind back." For his part, Miller said, "I was more thinking about breathing. The knee wasn't an issue, it was more conditioning. I haven't played a full game in I don't know how long."
  • Broncos tight end Julius Thomas had his first three-touchdown game Sunday night, but there may have been more out there for him. "On Wednesday you're always saying 'Man, look at this game plan, there's five touchdowns'," Thomas said. The Colts tried to cover Thomas with a linebacker early in the game and then tried safety LaRon Landry as well. When all was said and done, Thomas had seven receptions for 104 yards and three touchdowns, with five of those catches for 90 yards and all three touchdowns in the first half. Colts coach Chuck Pagano called him "a monster."
  • And this from quarterback Peyton Manning on becoming just the second quarterback to defeat all 32 teams in the league as a starter -- Brett Favre is the other; "I think it means you have to be old. You have to be 38 years old probably, at least, to beat all 32 teams. I don't think I will have that one up on my mantel or anything like that -- put it that way."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- In some ways, the freedom has always been there for Matthew Stafford. He is an NFL quarterback and as such, will always have some flexibility to change what he sees.

Now, though, he might have more freedom than ever to make adjustments on the fly before a snap in the new Detroit Lions offense.

"In this offense, they put a lot on the quarterback, which is great," Stafford said. "You like to have a lot of control at the line of scrimmage and things of that nature. But it’s a challenge, no question.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford completed 21 of 30 passes this preseason for two touchdowns and one interception.
"Coming in the first year in an offense and try and operate at a high level. But the guys have done a great job picking up this system. Mental errors are going down and down and down. Trying to make sure we’re in the right spots, running the right routes and executing at a high level."

Most important among those cutting down on mental errors has to be Stafford this season, especially if the Lions are going to give him more responsibility than before. Besides limiting mistakes after the play begins, he must now make sure he doesn’t check Detroit into a poor play based on a read he makes.

So far, though, it sounds like he has been pretty good at avoiding that.

In a small sample size, Stafford completed 21 of 30 passes this preseason for two touchdowns and one interception. The interception was on a forced pass to Calvin Johnson during the third preseason game in a situation where it appeared the Lions were doing as much as possible to have Johnson pick up some work in his only limited appearance during the preseason.

Other than that, Stafford made smart reads most of the time and threw the ball into the proper spots. He also got a handle on what he was doing pre-snap with the new offense.

"It’s great to see coach allows him to sometimes put him in position to make a call, to call a play and then put us in the best position he feels he can put us in," Johnson said. "That’s pretty awesome to see, because that’s some stuff that you see Peyton Manning do all the time at the line, check out of something into a totally different play that wasn’t in the play call that coach may have called in.

"That’s pretty cool to see and gives the whole team confidence."

Handing Stafford more control of the offense makes sense considering who is influencing the offense. Jim Caldwell and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter both worked extensively with Manning, who calls a lot of plays at the line. Lombardi, the offensive coordinator, worked with Drew Brees in New Orleans and Brees is one of the game’s best and most cerebral quarterbacks.

So both entrusting and expecting Stafford to handle this comes from their past as much as what they think of his skills in the present.

"He had some (freedom), certainly last year they even expanded the things he did pre-snap," Lombardi said. "So maybe a little bit different emphasis of the things that he is in control of.

"But he is very comfortable, I think, with making decisions at the line of scrimmage. He’s done that in the past and he continues to have some of that flexibility."

How much? The Lions will answer that starting Monday night.

Broncos vs. Colts preview

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
12:00
PM ET
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The last time the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos faced each other, the Broncos were rolling along with a 6-0 record, having scored at least 41 points in four of those games and 50 in two. But on Oct. 20, they couldn’t block Indianapolis' Robert Mathis (two sacks and a forced fumble), quarterback Peyton Manning aggravated his ankle injuries, and the Broncos limped away from a 39-33 loss.

This time, the Colts will see a newly minted defense -- just five players remain from the Super Bowl XLVIII roster -- and the Broncos will see a Colts team that has battled injuries throughout the preseason and is without Mathis, who is suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday night’s game.

Wells: Not that Manning needs any motivation to get better year to year, but how much did the embarrassing Super Bowl loss fuel him during the offseason and in training camp, especially because the clock is ticking on his career?

Legwold: Mike, as folks in Indianapolis saw for quite some time, Manning is a study in focus, and he simply attacked the offseason. He said once he decided he was all-in for the coming season, and his annual exam on his neck came back with a medical thumbs-up, he went about the business of taking last season apart -- league-record 606 points, Super Bowl blowout and all -- pass by pass. He looked at his incompletions, interceptions, touchdowns, plays that should have been touchdowns and plays that should have been interceptions. He essentially took his game back to the foundation. Coach John Fox says Manning looks stronger physically than in his previous two seasons in Denver, and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas says Manning has shown more arm strength in workouts. Put it all together and it’s pretty clear Manning is locked in on getting another shot at the trophy.

Keeping with the quarterbacks, where do the Colts believe quarterback Andrew Luck is on his developmental curve? This is decidedly his team, correct?

Wells: I’d say it became Luck’s team once they selected him No. 1 overall in 2012. That is not a bad thing when you take into account Luck has led the Colts to 22 wins, two playoff appearances and an AFC South title in his first two seasons. Did I mention that he is only 24? Not that Luck needs any pats on the back, but you could tell how he is perceived by others when our ESPN.com colleague Mike Sando talked to executives around the league and they said he is a top-five NFL quarterback. There is nothing wrong with being voted behind Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Those are four future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The Colts have a chance to beat any team, including the Broncos, as long as No. 12 is taking the snaps for them.

The Colts' issue is whether the defense can play on the same level as Luck and the offense. The Broncos went out and added some substantial pieces to their defense. Can the defense be as good as Manning and the offense?

Legwold: If it isn’t, it won’t be because the Broncos didn’t make the effort. They made an almost unprecedented dive into free agency for a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, adding defensive end DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. They also used their first-round pick in the May draft on cornerback Bradley Roby. All four players will get significant snaps against the Colts on Sunday night. Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway wanted more speed on defense and more attitude. The Broncos, who had five defensive starters on injured reserve by the time they got to the Super Bowl, also have a healthy Von Miller back at linebacker and Chris Harris at cornerback. They have not shown much in the preseason, so the Colts will get the first real look at this unit. But Miller and Ware give Denver the kind of one-two pairing in the pass rush it had with Miller and Elvis Dumervil in 2012, when this was a top-five defense.

Defensively, Mathis is suspended for the first four games of the season. The previous time these teams played, Mathis was the most disruptive defensive player on the field. What is the Colts’ plan to get to Manning this time around?

Wells: How about we say: What do the Colts hope to do without Mathis? As you pointed out, Mathis was the difference-maker in the game last year. His strip-sack of Manning was a momentum changer because it led to a safety and started a string of 23 straight points for Indy. Bjoern Werner is starting at outside linebacker in place of Mathis. But let’s be real, there is no replacing Mathis' 19.5 sacks from last season. The Colts will attempt to do it by committee. The starting defense accounted for only two sacks in the preseason. That is pretty scary to think about. Manning is the master of picking apart defenses.

I was going to ask you about Wes Welker and his concussion issues. Now the Colts don’t have worry about facing him because he has been suspended for the first four games of the season. How do the Broncos go about replacing Welker in the lineup?

Legwold: Welker’s suspension is the reason the Broncos will have to adjust their rotation at wide receiver Sunday night, but they had put plans in motion long before because of Welker’s concussions. He had two last season and suffered a third in an Aug. 23 preseason game. The Broncos made Emmanuel Sanders a primary target in free agency and used a second-round draft pick on Cody Latimer in May. Sanders, who has shown in the preseason just how big a year he could have in this offense, will get plenty of work in the slot; he played there during most of his tenure with the Steelers. Tight end Jacob Tamme, who played in the slot a great deal in Manning’s first year in Denver (2012), will also get plenty of snaps. The Broncos will move the pass-catchers all over in search of the matchups they like. They have a versatile group of receivers and tight ends that should allow them to overcome four games without Welker.

A different kind of injury issue to be sure, and you have written about it plenty, but how will the Colts adjust things on the offensive line to line up against a revamped Broncos defense?

Wells: The offensive line has been an issue for the Colts going back to when Manning was there. Luck has his best group of offensive weapons to work with since entering the league, but none of that matters if the line can’t do its job. Luck has been sacked 73 times in his first two seasons. The Colts have a rookie -- Jack Mewhort -- starting at one guard, a second-year player -- Hugh Thornton -- at the other guard, and center is up the air. Khaled Holmes, the projected starter, missed four weeks with a sprained ankle, and A.Q. Shipley was claimed off waivers from Baltimore last weekend. Ware and the rest of the Denver defense should be excited about the opportunity to get after Luck.
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For the second time in less than a week, the Denver Broncos have a starter facing league discipline to open the season. A team that had coveted a quiet summer has had anything but that as the regular-season opener approaches.

Tuesday, it was revealed Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker is facing a four-game suspension for violation of the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy, according to my sources and sources for ESPN's Adam Schefter. Last week Broncos kicker Matt Prater was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Unlike the substance abuse policy, which requires multiple tests to reach the level of a four-game suspension, the league's policy on PEDs goes immediately to the four-game suspension on the first positive test if the player's appeal is not successful.

Welker's appeal was heard by league officials Aug. 20-21 when Welker was excused from practice for what the team publicly described as "personal reasons." The Broncos were practicing against the Houston Texans on both of those days and Welker suffered a concussion in the Aug. 23 preseason game against the Texans. But for a team that wanted what cornerback Chris Harris Jr. called "the no-news approach" preseason after the DUI arrests of two front-office executives and linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating the substance abuse policy overwhelmed the conversation a year ago, the team is now back to dealing-with-adversity swirl it thought it had escaped.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
AP Photo/Jack DempseyWes Welker, who caught 73 passes for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, is facing a four-game suspension.
On the field, the Broncos had been optimistic Welker, who has had three concussions in the past 10 months, would be available for at least partial duty in Sunday night's regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts. Welker returned to practice, on a limited basis, Monday for the first time since his injury and the Broncos were hoping he would clear enough benchmarks in the league's concussion protocol to be cleared for full participation by the end of the week.

The Broncos were preparing for the Colts with the possibility Welker would be in the lineup. Welker's suspension means the Broncos will implement the plan they had been developing had he been sidelined because of the concussion.

And, now a team that has touted its single-minded focus of getting back to the Super Bowl -- to as John Elway said, "win that last game of the year and get that world championship" -- has had two veteran starters disciplined by the league in a week's time.

To that end, they can go a little bigger and line up in a two-tight end look where Jacob Tamme is essentially a slot receiver. In Manning's first season with the Broncos, the year before Welker was signed, Tamme was the third-most targeted receiver on the team (85 targets), behind only Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

Given Emmanuel Sanders' ability to line up in the slot, as well as tight end Julius Thomas', they can create matchup issues in the middle of the field, even if they surrendered some speed overall.

They can also maintain their proclivity to keep things three wide as they did almost 75 percent of the time last season, a total that hovered near 90 percent of the time in the postseason.

And that's why Sanders was signed, why Cody Latimer was selected in the second round of the draft and why Andre Caldwell was the first player the team re-signed, just before free agency opened this past March.

Against the Colts, the Broncos could mix and match more with this group of receivers than they would have last season when Welker missed the final three games of the regular season. In those three games, Decker was targeted 27 times, Demaryius Thomas was targeted 24 times, Julius Thomas was targeted 21 times and Caldwell 10 times.

In the three games Welker missed, Tamme played nine, 52 and 49 snaps (two of the three games he played more than 30 snaps all season), but was targeted by Manning two, three and four times.

In the end, a team Elway has said is built to face "the bumps in the road that will come our way, and you're always going to have bumps in the road" will now have to prove it once again.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- In the simplest terms, here's what the Green Bay Packers face Thursday at Seattle: Aaron Rodgers will try to run the no-huddle offense in the loudest outdoor stadium in the NFL with a center who has never snapped to him in a game.

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Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAaron Rodgers will juggle a noisy outdoor stadium in Seattle with a rookie center playing in his first regular-season game.
And he will have to do so against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, who had the NFL's best defense in 2013.

There are many facets to the 2014 NFL opener, but perhaps none is more important than how the Packers' offense operates at CenturyLink Field.

When last we saw the Seahawks on a national stage, they were thoroughly dismantling the Denver Broncos' top-ranked offense on the way to a 43-8 Super Bowl victory.

The Packers aspire to field a fast-paced offense like the one Peyton Manning quarterbacks. But even Manning couldn't do that against the Seahawks.

And Rodgers was there to see it in person at the Super Bowl, watching from a luxury box.

"They got into a rhythm there with their pass rush and with their coverages [and] made some good plays," Rodgers said. "I think it's about film preparation. Watching in person is one thing, but seeing it on film is different. You get to see two angles and miss, you know you get to see some of the plays you missed while you're having chips and salsa or hot dogs or whatever it might be up in the box -- which was nice and warmer than some of the outdoor seats."

Rodgers has seen first-hand how the Seahawks can disrupt an offense. In the 2012 Fail Mary game, they sacked Rodgers eight times -- all in the first half. The Packers shored up the protection in the second half but still couldn't manage much offense, scoring just 12 points that night.

So enter a rookie center, fifth-round pick Corey Linsley, who inherited the starting center job a week ago after JC Tretter sustained a knee injury. Linsley did not stake a single preseason game snap with Rodgers, who sat out the summer finale. And in Linsley's 22 snaps last Thursday against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Packers ran just three plays of no-huddle offense.

Maybe the Packers' plan is not to use the no-huddle this week in Seattle, where the noise will make it even tougher on Linsley.

Whatever their plan, the Packers expect him to handle the job.

"You know, Corey's a smart guy," Rodgers said. "He's played a lot of center in his time, and he's going to be expected to play well. So we expect him to be able to keep up. I've said it a lot, but he’s got two incredible guards on both sides of him who are going to help him out with the calls and make sure that he's ready. But Corey's going to study hard. He's very well-coached, and he's going to be ready to go."

For his part, Linsley seems at ease with his responsibilities. Backup quarterback Matt Flynn noticed that from the moment Linsley found out he would be the starter.

"They're like, 'All right, you're the starter,' so he just quietly walked up there and started taking reps," Flynn said. "He's been impressive."

He was the same way with the crowd of reporters who surrounded his locker Sunday after the Packers' first day of regular-season practice. Near the end of a 10-minute session with the media, the topic turned to loud stadiums he played in when he was at Ohio State.

He mentioned Nebraska's Memorial Stadium and Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium.

But what about Michigan Stadium, which holds 109,101 fans?

Like any Ohio State alum would of his archrival, Linsley calmly said: "Michigan is quiet, really quiet. Probably the quietest stadium in the Big Ten."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Things could still change if the Denver Broncos look at the hundreds of players who were sent into the open market in recent days and see a name or two they like.

But when the clock struck the 4 p.m. ET roster deadline on Saturday, the roster in place wasn’t exactly the one some folks might have thought it would be.

First off, after their substantial plunge into free agency last March -- almost unprecedented for a Super Bowl team -- the Broncos have routinely been tabbed as “all in" or “win now."

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway, Peyton Manning
AP Photo/ Eric BakkePeyton Manning is the oldest player on the roster assembled by John Elway and the Broncos' front office. But the team as a whole has plenty of youth.
The career clock for quarterback Peyton Manning, at 38 years old, is certainly ticking, and they make no secret of their Super-Bowl-or-bust intentions. But the current Broncos roster has 13 players who are 23 years old or younger (24.5 percent) and seven rookies made a team in the Super Bowl conversation, including five members of a six-player draft class and two undrafted rookies.

Overall, there are 39 players entering their fifth NFL season or younger on this roster (73.6 percent). The Broncos will have three high-profile players start the season-opener next Sunday night -- Manning, DeMarcus Ware and center Manny Ramirez -- who are older than 30 and possibly a fourth if Wes Welker, who suffered a concussion in the preseason game against the Houston Texans, is in the lineup.

Some of the team's moves were motivated by the salary cap, to be sure. The Broncos have been nudged up against it since the free agency binge. But general manager John Elway has consistently maintained, even with the checkbook in hand at times, that he has more of a long-term approach than many believe he does. In fact, if you'd like to see the Hall of Fame quarterback get his hackles up, just ask him about a win-now approach.

“We were happy with the draft when we went through it in May and then they just proceeded to work hard and get better so, especially when you get deeper into this, as active as we were in free agency, to be able to keep our draft picks is something we want to do and continue to have that be our base," Elway said when discussing this year’s cuts. “We’re excited with the guys and they are, at this point in time, everything we hoped they would be.”

Among that youth is what is likely one of the youngest position groups in the league at running back. The four Broncos running backs include a rookie (Juwan Thompson), two players entering their second seasons (Montee Ball, C.J. Anderson) and a player entering his third season (Ronnie Hillman).

“I like them. I’ve said that all along," Elway said. “We feel good where we are at the running back position -- good, young guys that we feel are going to continue to get better."

Some other roster nuggets:

  • Of all the football-playing colleges and universities in the country, Kansas, Tennessee and Texas Tech lead the way on the Broncos' roster with three players each.
  • Manning is the oldest current Broncos player at 38. rookie receiver Cody Laitmer is the youngest, at 21. Hillman, at 22 and starting his third season, is the same age as four of the Broncos’ rookies and younger than two of the Broncos rookies. Michael Schofield and Lamin Barrow, who are both 23.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The stories are almost football tall tales. They're like the one about walking uphill both ways to school while the snow was piled high. It will be told and retold, perhaps getting a little more far-fetched and drastic each time.

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Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning has achieved what many consider unprecedented work -- returning to the game and succeeding at it following several surgeries.
The ones where Peyton Manning couldn't throw a football.

Seems almost funny now, a little odd, really. The Denver Broncos quarterback has thrown 92 touchdown passes in two seasons on the Front Range, he's won his fifth MVP award, been behind center for 26 regular-season wins and helped power the Broncos to Super Bowl XLVIII. And heading into his 17th season -- and his third with the Broncos -- he's No. 3 in our 2014 #NFLRank survey, up two spots from No. 5 a year ago.

All after he couldn't throw a football.

"It's been a lot of work, I will say that," Manning said. "A lot of time with help from an awful lot of people to get where things are. But I've had to make some adjustments, I think, in how I do things. The goal has always been to help your team win games, to be reliable for your teammates. People always kind of ask me did I think I could come all the way back. I don't always know how to answer that, I knew I wanted to play if I could get to the point where I could compete at the level you need to compete."

Consider it done. It may be appreciated far more when Manning's career is over, when he's thrown his last competitive pass and the league's record book has his name next to the most significant passing records.

But coming back from four neck surgeries, the fourth being a spinal fusion surgery, as a professional football player who had already left his 35th birthday in the rear-view mirror, to where he is now is rare in his vocation, perhaps unprecedented.

"I don't know how many people could have done it," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. "It just shows what kind of guy Peyton is, how much work he's willing to put in to get to this point. And we feel like he's got a lot of good football in him and we're certainly glad he's here."

The post-surgery Manning has made his "adjustments" to be sure. Sometimes he wears a glove on his throwing hand in practice, sometimes in games, sometimes in any weather, wet or dry, hot or cold. But the nerves affected by the herniated disc in his neck that was repaired were in his right arm, which also happens to be his throwing arm.

They affected his triceps as well as his grip on the ball. Those nerves, in the early stages of healing were also the reason Manning bounced the first passes of his recovery, thrown in private, to trusted friends and family that included former Rockies first baseman Todd Helton and Manning's father, Archie.

Put video of his throwing motion now next to some early in his career and his current motion is a little more lower body driven, his stride a little longer, all to generate the power he needs to throw to NFL receivers in his post-fusion career.

Technology has helped him some as well. He doesn't have to divide his day into study and treatment. He can now take his iPad, with all of the game video he wishes to watch, wherever he happens to be in the Broncos' complex, whether it be the cold tub or with the trainers. It takes longer for him to get ready to play, longer to get ready for practice, but he continues to progress, to show more.

"All I know is it seems like his arm keeps getting strong," Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "I think this year he's stronger than last year and last year he was stronger than the first year. He's Peyton, he just does what he does."
Three takeaways from ESPN's #NFLRank reveal of the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the league. Today: 1-10.

1. QB shuffle: Everyone loves a quarterback ranking, and #NFLRank brought a unique take to the traditional top four. For the second consecutive year, the panel tapped Green Bay Packers ace Aaron Rodgers as the best quarterback in football. If anything, the 2013 season shook loose anyone who might have grown numb to Rodgers' skills and value. The Packers won only two of eight games he either didn't play in or couldn't finish because of a fractured collarbone, but he returned in Week 17 to lead the team to a division-clinching victory at the Chicago Bears. Meanwhile, the panel reacted to Tom Brady's down season for the New England Patriots by pushing him down to the No. 4 QB after Rodgers, the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees. Brady is still considered the seventh-best offensive player in the game, but you'll find no argument here about his standing among other elite quarterbacks.

2. Burying the lede: In a quarterback-driven league, it's fascinating that a receiver was named the best offensive player in the game. Yes, in 2014, Rodgers and Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson have swapped positions. Quarterback is the game's most important position, but the prime of Johnson's career is proving to be historically productive even in the NFL's age of passing. In 46 games over three seasons, Johnson has caught 302 passes for 5,137 yards and 33 touchdowns. That means in his average game -- average! -- Johnson catches 6.6 passes for 111.7 yards. Johnson has accounted for 1,120 more yards over that period than the NFL's next-most productive receiver, Brandon Marshall. There is no other player in the NFL who has outperformed his peers at that level in recent years.

3. Anonymously elite: You could probably name the NFL sack leader over the past two seasons. The Houston Texans' J.J. Watt has 31 since the start of the 2012 season, and for that and other reasons, he is the No. 1 defensive player in this year' #NFLRank. But can you identify the player who totaled the second-most sacks over that period? Robert Quinn of the St. Louis Rams might be the least known player among the #NFLRank top 10s, but he grew into an unblockable force during last season's 19-sack campaign. (He has 29.5 since the start of 2012.) One linebacker and three defensive backs separated Watt and Quinn in this ranking, and at this point Quinn has to be considered the top edge rusher in the NFL. You'll be hearing more about him.

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