Sunday, August 3, 2008 Updated: August 18, 8:23 AM ET
Camp Confidential: Shanahan remains confident despite recent struggles
By Bill Williamson ESPN.com
Mike Shanahan and Jay Cutler are looking to once again be a serious contender in the AFC.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- His Denver Broncos haven't made the playoffs the past two seasons, his quarterback was diagnosed with diabetes, his star receiver might be suspended to start the season and two of his biggest vocal leaders, Rod Smith and John Lynch, have just left the team.
But Mike Shanahan remains undaunted.
The dean of Denver sports is entering his 14th season in town, but there has been some squawking from fans that perhaps Shanahan's time is up and maybe the Broncos should go in another direction.
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That would be wasted energy as Shanahan, who has three more years remaining on his contract, is not going anywhere unless he wants to.
Owner Pat Bowlen has said numerous times that Shanahan is the only coach he wants to run his Broncos.
Shanahan believes all is fine in Denver. He believes the team, which has undergone another major makeover this offseason, is primed to improve from its 7-9 record last season, only the second losing season in Shanahan's tenure. And he isn't afraid to say his team is ready for prime time.
He went on a local radio show on Friday and all but guaranteed his team would make the playoffs.
Shanahan looks like a man in control and his track record cannot be denied. Just listen to him and it's clear that the Broncos will be a factor in the AFC in 2008.
"We feel good about our football team," Shanahan said. "Obviously we've got to go out there and do it. We have to take it day by day through this training camp and get better each day."
1. Is Jay Cutler healthy enough to be an effective NFL quarterback?
Cutler, entering his third NFL season and second full year as a starter, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in April. It is the most serious form of the disease, forcing Cutler to take insulin shots several times a day the rest of his life.
While the disease is serious, Cutler has been treating it and it is under control. He gained nearly all of the 33 pounds he lost during last season. Cutler, 25, also has a handle on the disease on the field. His arm strength is incredible and his passes have a lot of zip to them. Coaches and teammates are raving about him, and it wouldn't be a shock if Cutler takes his game to the next level this season. He feels much better than he did last season when he was suffering the effects of diabetes without knowing the diagnosis. Expect him to be recharged in 2008. If the Broncos are going to make a run this season, it is because of a healthy Cutler.
2. Can the Broncos withstand a Brandon Marshall suspension?
Brandon Marshall led the Broncos with 1,325 yards receiving in 2007.
It's simply depends on how long Marshall is suspended, if at all. The Broncos expected to hear about Marshall's situation this past week, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is still reviewing the situation. He is facing a potential suspension for various off-field issues. If Marshall is suspended for a long period, the Broncos' season will be severely hampered. Even if he misses two games, it might be tough for Denver, which opens at AFC West rival Oakland and then hosts division champion San Diego. Marshall is a special talent. Couple him with Cutler, and this is potentially one of the best pass-catch combos in the league. The Broncos need Marshall on the field as much as possible.
3. Will the Denver defense be improved?
The Broncos have their third defensive coordinator in three years, Bob Slowik, who has been the team's secondary coach for the past three seasons. Slowik replaces Jim Bates, whose system never took off in Denver. Shanahan thinks Slowik's approach works well with his players. Slowik is popular and respected amongst the Denver defensive backs. But the bottom line is production. Denver needs its young defensive alignment to develop quickly, and it needs improved play from the linebackers, otherwise the defensive coordinators switch means little.
4. Who will be the starting running back? Selvin Young is having a good camp and is keeping a strong handle on the No. 1 tailback job. But keep an eye on rookie Ryan Torain. He too is having a productive camp and the Broncos might use both Young and Torain extensively. With Young having durability problems both as a rookie and in college at Texas, the presence of Torain should help.
It was just a couple of years ago that the Broncos had perhaps the best linebacking group in football. Al Wilson, Ian Gold and D.J. Williams were a fast, tough unit that made Denver stand out at the position. However, last season, linebacking in Denver was a major problem after Wilson was released in the offseason because of a neck injury, Gold tailed off considerably and Williams struggled in the middle trying to replace Wilson.
The Broncos hope that they have done enough to improve the position which, of course, would improve the defense. Williams is back at the weak side, where he starred as a rookie in 2004. Entering his fifth NFL season, Williams, who has played all three linebacker positions, has made it clear he is most comfortable at the weak side. On the strong side, Denver signed Detroit's Boss Bailey, the younger brother of the Broncos' best player, cornerback Champ Bailey.
While Boss Bailey has suffered knee injuries over the course of his career, he is still very fast and athletic. The Broncos hope he has a lot of plays in him. In the middle, free-agent pickup Niko Koutouvides and veteran Nate Webster are competing for the job. This likely won't be one of the NFL's premier linebacking crews, but Denver is hoping that it resembles its 2005 version.
Newcomer to watch
The Broncos aren't beyond overhyping a young player, especially at receiver. But Eddie Royal does look good. The second-round pick from Virginia Tech has been one of the stars of camp.
The Broncos plan to use Royal at receiver and as their return man. They think he can be a dynamic returner, something they have been thirsting for. While he was drafted for his terrific returning skills, Royal really impressed the Denver coaching staff in the offseason workouts as a receiver. He has continued to be impressive there in camp. If he continues his progress, Royal will be a significant contributor as a rookie.
The Broncos are thrilled with first-round pick Ryan Clady. The left tackle has been terrific in training camp, and the Broncos think they have a star ... Second-year player Ryan Harrishas played well at right tackle and the Broncos think that even though they have young tackles, Clady and Harris will make a good pair for years to come. ... While the Broncos will miss John Lynch's leadership, Denver is happy with Hamza Abdullahand Marlon McCree at the position. ... There is some concern that 2007 first-round pick Jarvis Moss isn't ready to be a contributor. The pass-rusher missed much of last season because of a leg injury and he has had trouble at times in training camp. ... Kicker Matt Prater has been decent in camp and the team is confident he will capably replace Jason Elam, who surprisingly signed with Atlanta as a free agent in the offseason.
Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com