AFC West: Denver Broncos
But the strength of the draft board should still offer them the chance to pick the best player available at what is also a position of need. That’s certainly the case in ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay’s latest mock draft.
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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.
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."
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."
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.
And this week Ware said he received some advice from a Hall of Famer that the team certainly hopes works its way back to Miller.
As Ware prepares to enter his 10th season he was asked if he had taken the time to break down some of the great pass-rushers, including Hall of Famers, or sought them out for tips on maintaining a high performance level at this stage of his career.
"Actually, I have," Ware said as the Broncos opened their offseason program at the team's Dove Valley complex. "Actually, they got a little bit more consistent in what they were doing. I actually talked to Michael Strahan and he tells me, 'You know what? You've got to make sure you're lean. Make sure you're able to run, because your body now is a totally different deal once you hit the 30s. So you've got to make sure you're able to stay out there on the field and you have the endurance.' That's what I'm trying to do now."
Ware said he had already spent time watching game tape with Miller, talking about specific pass-rush moves in a variety of situations against a variety of offensive linemen. But there are certainly plenty of people in and around the Broncos who hope Ware extends the message to Miller about staying lean.
Miller's weight was a topic of conversation last season when he returned from his six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. The bottom line is many Broncos' decision-makers and Miller's teammates saw him as a special player when he tipped the scales between the 246 pounds he weighed at the 2011 scouting combine and the 255 pounds he said he weighed during the 2012 season when he had 18.5 sacks.
But even before his suspension last year, Miller had made the decision -- for reasons he only described as "it could help me" -- to get bigger. He said he was just over 260 pounds when the Broncos gathered for their offseason program a year ago and by the time he returned from his suspension in October he said he was just over 270 pounds so he "could play with more power."
And while he flashed the disruptive play that put him in the conversation for the league's Defensive Player of the Year award in the 2012 season, Miller wasn't consistently the same player when he returned to the field in 2013 as he had been the year before. He finished with five sacks in nine games before he tore a ligament in his knee in December against the Houston Texans.
Given he is returning from an ACL injury, it would seem playing at a lighter weight would help take some stress off the joint even as he works to strength the muscles around the knee. The Broncos currently list Miller at 6-3, 250 pounds, but they also listed him at that last season when Miller said he weighed at least 20 pounds more when he returned in Week 7 from his league-imposed punishment.
But at a few offseason appearances, Miller has looked slightly leaner than he did last season. Broncos coach John Fox has said "everything is on target," with Miller's return, but he is expected to be limited during the team's organized team activities (OTAs) in May and June and, at the moment, is not expected to participate fully in training camp.
"Now I have an opportunity to shed some advice onto him," Ware said. "He is a great player and I look forward to playing with him this season."
And current New York Giants cornerback Walter Thurmond, who played for the Seattle Seahawks last season, certainly cranked up one of those arguments Tuesday. As the Giants opened their offseason workouts this week, Thurmond, who signed a one-year, $3 million deal with New York in free agency, said: "I'm the best slot corner in the league. I'll say that, for sure."
But best slot cornerback in the league? No.
For that designation let's go to a 12-time Pro Bowl selection to make the call. And this past season when former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey was asked about Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr., Bailey said: "Chris has that ability to play on the outside and be one of the best in the league. He's smart, he studies, he's tough and competes on every play. But in the slot, at the nickel, he's the best in there. He can match up with anybody."
Sure, Bailey was Harris' teammate and mentor for three seasons. But Bailey doesn't say anybody is the best at anything if they're not. That's just not how he's wired.
Harris made the Broncos' roster as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and since has simply become one of the defense's most consistent and versatile players. Last season Harris started games on the outside, playing both sides of the formation. When the Broncos went to the nickel or dime, Harris was often in the slot.
And when Bailey returned from a foot injury last season and the Broncos tried to limit his snaps by using him as a nickel corner in the slot down the stretch, Bailey said Harris was a quality resource, "a guy I can talk to about playing in there, because everything happens fast, you almost have to know what the offense is doing as much as the receivers. I definitely can learn from him about playing in there."
Harris, who is still coming back from surgery to repair his ACL, took to Twitter to state his case Tuesday. After seeing Thurmond's comments, Harris sent:
I almost got Thurmond career #'s my rookie year lol I'm done now— Chris Harris (@ChrisHarrisJr) April 22, 2014
Harris, who was an unrestricted free agent, signed his one-year, $2.187 million tender and is rehabbing at the Broncos' complex. The Broncos expect him to be ready for the start of the season.
He will be the starter in one of the outside cornerback positions, with Aqib Talib in the other. But when the Broncos go to their specialty packages, Harris is again expected to get most of the reps in the slot. The Broncos hope Kayvon Webster, a 2013 draft pick, is ready for more work in the defense, but Webster would play in an outside spot when the Broncos go to their specialty looks, leaving Harris to bump down inside when offenses go with three or four wide receivers.
Franklin, whose Twitter profile begins simply with; "Right Tackle for the Denver Broncos," confirmed his move to left guard Monday, the opening day of the Broncos' team workouts in 2014. Following the team's first full gathering with the team's strength and conditioning coaches since the 35-point loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, Franklin sent:
Left guard, excited to learn and improve this offseason. I will give it my all— Orlando Franklin (@OFranklin74) April 21, 2014
Though Franklin learned of the decision Monday, this is something Broncos officials had considered last spring and were considering once again shortly after the season ended, when they had made the decision to let guard Zane Beadles test the free-agent market. Beadles signed a five-year deal worth $30 million with the Jacksonville Jaguars shortly after free agency opened last month, a deal worth far more than the Broncos would have been willing to spend.
The Broncos made no offer to Beadles' representatives, though Beadles had played in every game and started every game but two in his four years with the team. That departure left a hole in the team's plan up front.
The Broncos, searching for more power in the middle of the offensive line for much of the past two season, had considered moving Franklin to guard during the 2012 offseason. They worked him there at times during training camp, and head coach John Fox has said Franklin took some reps inside during last year's regular season as well.
The Broncos then jumped out a year ago to sign Louis Vasquez to a four-year deal -- the longest free-agent deal the Broncos signed last March -- and in return Vasquez gave the Broncos an All-Pro season at right guard. But the defenses that gave the Broncos the most difficulty, most notably the Seahawks in the title game, often did so with pressure in the middle of the field.
Franklin has started 47 games at right tackle since he was the second of the Broncos' second-round picks in the 2011 draft (the 46th pick overall). At the league meetings last month, Fox said Franklin "was prepared to play guard last year."
It won't be an unfamiliar position for Franklin, who started 25 games at left guard in his career at the University of Miami before starting at left tackle in his senior season. And there were many scouts who believed when Franklin entered the '11 draft he would be a better guard in the NFL over the long haul.
Franklin is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent following the 2014 season. He will give the Broncos more pop at the point of attack in the run game. His reach -- he is 6-foot-7-inches tall -- will make him tough to handle for opposing defensive tackles on the inside in pass protection. His chief hurdle will be to block on the move in the run game when the Broncos go to more of a zone look, but the Broncos have been of the mind it will help them overall to move him inside.
With Ryan Clady's return at left tackle, Chris Clark will get the first look at right tackle and Will Montgomery, who signed as a free agent, will battle Manny Ramirez in early offseason work for the starting center spot. When the Broncos signed Montgomery in the second week of free agency, they did so with the feeling he would push, and could win, the starting center job.
But make no mistake, the Broncos will still give a long look to potential swing tackles in the draft as well as swing players inside who can play both center and guard. In the latter scenario, the Broncos won't have to look far for a player who could fit the bill in Colorado State's Weston Richburg.
Richburg started 50 consecutive games for the Rams and never missed a game -- a streak that included him snapping with his left hand at times during the 2011 season after he had fractured his right hand. Richburg is athletic, savvy and only added to his quality résumé on the field by performing well at his pro day in Fort Collins, Colo., last month.
The Broncos also believe Vinston Painter, a 2013 draft pick who spent much of last season on the team's practice squad, is a potential fit at right tackle down the road as well.
In the end, Fox has said they will use only one criteria to pick Peyton Manning's personal protectors. Fox said they are "trying to get our best five on the field and there will be a lot of different formulas for that ... we'll work a million combinations."
And on the first day of offseason work Franklin's shift to the left was the opening move.
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.
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."
With Miller still recovering from ACL surgery and slated to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2014 season, team officials face their first major decision about Miller's contract. The team has until May 3 to exercise an option year in Miller's rookie deal that would put him under contract for 2015. With 15 days before the deadline, the Broncos had not yet reached a decision as Friday's business day drew to a close.
The "fifth-year option" must be engaged by May 3 and the option-year salary doesn't become guaranteed until March of 2015. So, it is possible for teams to engage the option year and potentially release the player at a later date before the base salary is guaranteed.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Friday that the San Francisco 49ers did not plan to engage the fifth-year option on defensive end Aldon Smith, who was the No. 7 pick of that draft, but several players have been informed their teams would pick up the option. This includes Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (the No. 11 pick), Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (No. 5) and San Diego Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget (No. 18).
The Broncos made Miller the No. 2 pick of that draft, behind Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. With 30 sacks over his first two seasons, including 18.5 in 2012, Miller looked to be on the fast track to elite status in the league.
Miller then opened the 2013 season with a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy -- a violation that now subjects him to testing up to 10 times a month for the rest of his career. Several off-the-field issues, including an arrest last summer on a failure-to-appear warrant and several traffic violations, also dogged him last year.
He then tore his ACL against the Texans' in December and again raised some eyebrows with the team when he tried to attend a Seattle Seahawks victory party following the Broncos' 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.
For the first 10 picks of the 2011 draft, the salary for the option is this year's transition tag salary in free agency at their respective positions. The figure is calculated as an average of the top 10 salaries at those spots. For Miller that would mean a $9.754 million salary if he's on the roster when the new league year begins next March.
If the Broncos decline the option and Miller returns from his injury and shows his former speed and explosiveness and more maturity off the field, the team could still use the franchise tag to keep him.
That scenario would cost slightly more since the franchise tag salary for linebackers was $11.455 million this year and could be higher next season. A franchise player's salary is guaranteed the moment the player signs the tender. Some players sign them as soon as they receive them to guarantee the money, and some wait until training camp, hoping a long-term deal is worked out instead.
The Broncos and Miller could, if both sides found some common ground, still negotiate a long-term extension.
Miller said at an appearance for his foundation Monday that he continues to work hard to return from his knee injury, and that he wants to return "a better player" than he was. The Broncos open their offseason conditioning program Monday, but Miller will not participate. He will continue with his knee rehab with the team's trainers and strength and conditioning staff.
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.
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.
To that end Kiper has pointed the team to that side of the ball much of the time in his mock drafts thus far, and stays with that theme in his latest as well.
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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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
He'll discuss the importance of team chemistry or the importance of a starting quarterback's ability to manage the role. He will talk about how he wishes he would have run less in his career and thrown more from the pocket. But he does not look for opportunities to say how things were done and how they should always be done.
His experience as a Hall of Fame quarterback and a former No. 1 pick are clear in the way he evaluates players for the draft. It doesn't always make him right. It doesn't even make him more right than those who never played a down in the NFL. But his experience does give him more of an understanding of the process.
Elway was the first pick of what was a gold-star draft. Perhaps the gold-star pick in a draft that had six Hall of Famers selected in the first round and another seven Hall of Famers selected overall in the 12-round affair.
In the weeks and months before the Colts picked him and then traded him to the Broncos, he listened to people break down his game -- the good, the bad and the stuff he never could quite figure out where it came from. He saw the anonymous quotes about his potential as a professional, the threat of a baseball career as some pre-draft leverage and the desire to not play for the Colts at that time in the franchise's history.
Granted, talk radio was not in the same galaxy as it is today and the publicly traveled Internet was still a decade or so away, but you can see Elway's experiences when asked about players in his current role as a talent evaluator.
Ask him if a quarterback should throw at the scouting combine and he routinely says, "I always want to see a guy throw, see him work with some really good receivers, but I understand. Why would you want to look bad? I understand if a guy makes a choice. Again, I always want to see a guy throw, but I do understand their thinking when they don't sometimes."
That's because Elway has a history with being on the other side of the equation. And as far as a relevant Elway draft stat, there is this: 4. That's the number of scouting combines available for players to participate in the year Elway came into the draft.
Scouting combines Elway actually attended: 0.
His reasoning? "I had bad knee, and I just didn't want everybody to see it."
That's right. He didn't go. He didn't throw. He didn't let teams poke, prod and X-ray him. He didn't attend interviews or take a Wonderlic. No one said he slouched, that he didn't make eye contact or that he was lazy.
But the draft interests people. The league's decision to move it down the calendar, to Mother's Day weekend no less, has provided more time for speculation. It's a different media environment than when Elway entered the draft. Quotes from anonymous sources this time of year can range from fib to outright lie as a means of misdirection.
Some teams want guys to fall so they can take them later; some teams want guys to rise so other people will pick them and leave them with the guys they really want. Whether any of it really works -- and plenty of folks who say it doesn't do it anyway -- is up for debate.
And maybe some guys really are lazy, or aren't really certain they want to play football, or are a little too short, a little too slow or can't keep themselves out of trouble. Those factors will all get tossed into the decisions that are made when the picks finally come off the board next month. All of those things -- especially character and chemistry -- matter, and they should matter just as much as talent.
But in the end, it isn't really a player's job to tell, or show, a team why it should, or shouldn't, take him. Because, well, that would be the lazy way out.
The Broncos have made 23 picks in those three drafts and found seven full-time starters. Denver hopes to be add to that total this season if things go as planned in May.
But let’s go inside each of those three drafts to see how things have gone and where they are headed.
First pick: Sylvester Williams, 28th overall. When the Broncos selected him last April they saw an every-down option, a potentially disruptive interior pass rusher and a player also strong enough to play with power in run defense as well.
Given Williams’ personal history -- a stint working on an assembly line in a factory before deciding to walk on to play football in junior college -- the Broncos also saw a player with plenty of room to grow on the developmental curve to go with the work ethic that put him in the a position to be a first-round pick.
With Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson both having ended up on injured reserve last season, Williams went from being inactive on game day three times in the season’s first nine games to starting the team’s last four games of the regular season and three playoff games.
But running back Montee Ball (second round) will be the second starter as soon as the Broncos open their offseason workouts. Ball, with 312 snaps this past season, actually played more overall than Williams (296 snaps) and finished as the team’s second-leading rusher with 559 yards.
Williams and Ball will continue to lead this draft class. With the Broncos expected to add some wrinkles -- and attention -- to the run game, Ball will have the potential for a breakout season.
Best value pick: At the moment it’s Ball. As the 58th player selected in the 2013 draft, Ball was the classic example of production over measurables in the pre-draft process.
He didn’t run as well as many of the other running backs on the board, but he plays faster, and showed good instincts with the ball. A lot of players talk about what needs to be done. Ball actually put in the time and effort to do those things. Ball improved in pass protection, boding well for the future. Despite few opportunities as a receiver in the run-first Wisconsin offense, he will function just fine catching the ball in the league.
Now’s the time: The Broncos expect and need Williams to take a significant jump this season. There are few positions -- other than quarterback -- where it is more difficult to move quickly into the lineup and have an impact as an NFL rookie.
NFL offensive guards are far stronger, move better and play smarter so the transition for the defensive tackle can be tough because there isn’t much room to work in the middle of the field. So once a defensive tackle is shut out of the play it is difficult for him to win the advantage back.
Williams flashed the ability to consistently win position off the snap down the stretch. If he takes the usual step between a rookie and second season, he should be one of the starters on the interior.
Gone: WR Tavarres King. The Broncos believed King, who had played in a school-record 56 games at Georgia, had the physical skills to go with some on-field maturity to get into their rotation as a rookie.
And King flashed those skills in camp, but he also showed a little too much ego and attitude for the Broncos’ liking at times, so they put him on the practice squad. But after a one-week move to the active roster last October, the Broncos tried to get him through waivers and back on the practice squad to bring Von Miller back from his six-game suspension.
King was signed by the Carolina Panthers, but did not play in any games last season. That hole in the draft class means the Broncos will be inclined to take a receiver out of this draft's exceptionally deep class.
More to come? Though the Broncos will give a long look to the cornerbacks in this year’s draft, cornerback Kayvon Webster (third round) will have the opportunity to earn plenty of playing time in the nickel and dime packages moving into the season.
With Champ Bailey's departure and Chris Harris Jr. still coming back from ACL surgery, Webster will have to be in the mix.
Also, defensive end Quanterus Smith (fifth round) did not play as a rookie after the Broncos placed him on injured reserve as training camp drew to a close. Smith, who had a three-sack game against an Alabama offensive line loaded with NFL draft picks in his senior season at Western Kentucky, had torn his ACL in his last collegiate season.
The Broncos tried him in the rotation in camp, but decided to move him to the IR in an attempt to bring him back at full speed this year. With Miller still working through his return from December ACL surgery, the Broncos could use Smith to come out of the gate strong.
Smith, at 255 pounds, is slightly undersized to play the power left end spot, but could have some opportunities to play there as Miller works his way back.