AFC West: Denver Broncos

John Elway's pictures -- including the jumbo shot of him celebrating with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after one of his Super Bowl wins -- hang outside the Denver Broncos' locker room and here and there in the team's suburban complex, but he doesn't often tell when-I-played-football stories unless asked.

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.

Broncos draft rewind: 2013

April, 14, 2014
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As the guy at the top of the football flow chart for the Denver Broncos for the last three seasons, John Elway has now overseen three drafts for the team.

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.

Today: 2013.

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.

Starters: 1.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Jack DempseyBroncos running back Montee Ball wasn't technically a starter last season, but that should change in 2014.
With those seven starts in 2013, Williams was the only Broncos player from last April’s draft class to open that many games. He is the only "starter" in the group by the letter of the law at the moment.

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.
The Denver Broncos continue to get face-to-face with some of the prospects who have piqued their interest for next month’s draft.

They have been in front of their allotment at the college all-star games, the scouting combine and continue to do their homework as they bring many into their Dove Valley complex to meet with coaches and executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway.

Here is the first of an occasional look at the prospects who have attracted Denver's attention.

Fox
Fox
Combine a quality work ethic with a powerful frame and long arms and you have the kind of cornerback Broncos head coach John Fox, a former defensive backs coach when he entered the NFL, always talks about in Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller.

Fuller, who already has a brother in the NFL and carries a grade worthy of the Broncos’ first-round pick, is 5-foot-11 3/4, 190 pounds and ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at the combine (electronically timed). He has upper-tier ball skills and understands where receivers are trying to go as he consistently plays with good anticipation to get himself to the spot.

He is also a quality tackler. He missed time after surgery this past November for a sports hernia -- he missed five games and the Senior Bowl because of it -- and dealt with shoulder and groin injuries in 2012, but didn’t miss any games that season.

The bigger cornerbacks routinely move up the board once the actual picks get made, so there is plenty of question as to whether Fuller would even be there when the Broncos pick at 31.

Among the other defensive backs on their radar is Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, who sat with the team for the first time at the Senior Bowl. Bucannon ran a 4.49 at 211 pounds at the combine and his 78-inch armspan is among the biggest on the board at the position.

Among the defensive lineman on the board keep an eye on is Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. Hageman, at 6-5 7/8, 310 pounds is a top-tier athlete for a player his size -- he arrived to the Gophers as a tight end -- and carries a grade worthy of a pick in the bottom third of the first round. Connecticut defensive tackle Shamar Stephen is an interior player who, at 6-4 7/8, 309 pounds, will get a look down the board some. Stephen is adept at attacking double teams and very active/effective with his hands to shed blockers.

Elway has also routinely promised to look at quarterbacks in every draft no matter who the team has behind center, and has used a pick in 2012 (Brock Osweiler) and 2013 (Zac Dysert) to grab one with Peyton Manning on the top of the depth chart.

They still project Osweiler as the first starter in the post-Manning era, but Elway simply will not let the cupboard go bare. Among the quarterbacks the Broncos have met with are Miami’s Stephen Morris and Wyoming’s Brett Smith.

Both are down-the-board guys for the Broncos and are slightly undersized. For his part Morris is a two-time team captain who has the head for the game and the fire Elway likes in a passer. Smith is a get-it-done guy who will grind it out to make a play, and was a team captain as a sophomore.
Over the course of his work on this year’s draft, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has kept the Denver Broncos focused on defense, including last month’s mock draft when McShay had the Broncos selecting Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy with the 31st pick.

And in his latest effort -- a two-round mock -- McShay again has the Broncos opening their draft with a defensive player


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After center Will Montgomery's contract was filed with the NFL last week, the Denver Broncos used up most of what had been allotted to spend in these initial weeks of free agency. And they intend to stick to the budget.

"You know you're going to have some bumps in the road and we don't want to get so close [to the limit] you can't adjust," is how Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has put it. "We'll ease back after our initial work and keep our eyes open."

Montgomery signed a one-year deal last week that carries a salary cap hit of just more than $1.5 million. Montgomery will get a $50,000 roster bonus in August to go with another $75,000 bonus in Week 1 of the regular season.

Before the signing the Broncos had just under $6 million worth of workable salary cap space, so that total is close to $4 million at the moment. That figure includes just the top 51 players and with the May draft still on the docket. The Broncos will need to keep enough room to count all 53 players on the roster when final roster cuts are made this summer and to cover the potential of players on injured reserve.

The Broncos currently have seven picks in next month's draft and have allotted room for that.

So unless they want to release a player, they're largely done signing any free agent beyond a no-bonus, one-year minimum deal. Because they have spent most of the cash they had on hand in recent weeks, the Broncos have even tweaked the last two deals they've done -- Montgomery and Emmanuel Sanders -- to pay the bonuses later.

Sanders gets the actual payment of the bulk of his "up front" money in a bonus payment next year.

Before free agency started the Broncos were among the teams in the best shape in terms of "dead" money -- salary cap charges for players no longer on the roster -- but did add a bit in recent weeks. They are still among the 11 teams with fewer than $6 million in dead money charges, but they added the bulk of theirs since the end of the season and the start of free agency.

They took a $2.1 million hit when the second year of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's original contract voided five days after the Super Bowl. They also took a $1.83 million dead money charge when Chris Kuper retired last month.

Those two players account for 67.8 percent of the Broncos' current dead money total. The charge for the player who has been gone the longest is $500,000 for running back Willis McGahee, who was released last spring.
Three consecutive AFC West titles, back-to-back 13-3 finishes and a Super Bowl are certainly cause for pause in a business where getting any of that done is difficult at best.

But the Denver Broncos didn’t re-up head coach John Fox because that was enough. The team slid another contract in front of Fox because they think there’s more to be done and that he understands that.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox, John Elway
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliRecently extended head coach John Fox knows his boss John Elway wants more from the Broncos than just Super Bowl appearances.
“We’ve got work to do,’’ Fox said.

Or as executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway put it; “We like the direction, we like where were are compared to where we were, but we’re here to compete for world championships, this year, next year, every year. People keep telling me we’re acting like we want to win now. I want to win now, but I want to win every year and we’re going to try to make decisions that are the best for the Denver Broncos to make sure we can.’’

When the Broncos and Fox/Fox's agent Bob LaMonte finished the negotiations for Fox’s deal -- which now runs through the 2016 season and puts him in the $5 million a year club -- the message got through. Both sides had a chance to give and take in the give and take.

The message that, despite how folks outside the Broncos’ Dove Valley complex feel, this it isn’t just about this year. The good the Broncos have done since the 4-12 finish in 2010 is, well, good, but not everything they want for owner Pat Bowlen.

“I couldn’t be happier being part of this organization,’’ Fox said this weekend. “We’ve made some strides, but we’re not a finished product by any means. And we talked about winning championships, we’ve won three AFC West championships, one AFC (title), but now the goal, and always has been, bringing a Super Bowl championship back to Denver.’’

So, in the end the Broncos wanted Fox to hear the message that three consecutive division titles is a quality run, but the team’s decision-makers would still like a little more. Especially since the Broncos have let two opportunities to put another Super Bowl trophy in Bowlen’s lobby slip away in the last two seasons.

The kind of opportunities many teams haven’t even seen once, let alone have repeated in a 12-month span.

Fox understands where the Broncos are coming from and conveyed that in his discussions with Elway after the 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII. After all, Fox would like to put a Super Bowl ring on his own finger as well.

And Fox, having lived through a miserable season in his final year in Carolina when he was also in the last year of his deal, wanted a little more stability in his pocket when dealing with the players in his locker room, the meeting rooms and on the practice field. He also got a nice raise and will get a bonus if the Broncos do win a Super Bowl on his watch.

“We’re ready to get to work and happy it worked out, and it worked out for both sides,’’ Fox said. “ … We’ve got things to do now and over the long haul.’’
John FoxJustin Edmonds/Getty ImagesJohn Fox, 59, is 34-14 with three AFC West titles in his three seasons with the Broncos.
At the start of free agency, John Elway was asked about the chances of the Denver Broncos making the effort to bring back some of their players who were set to test the market.

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

“The market sets the prices."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where it went is where all involved expected, and they all did what needed to be done to get there.
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The best way to get the best answers is to ask somebody who knows. Not somebody who just says they know, or acts like they know, but those who really know.

My dad worked for the railroad for several decades. Up early, home late, holidays, weekends, whatever, the trains always had to be on time, the boxcars always had places they needed to be.

"People need their groceries," he always used to say.

In the piles of questions I once fired his way in the years gone by because he really knew about so many things, there were always a few about if he liked his job or not, if he hated working Christmas or if he ever got yelled at by anybody.

And one of the items he left me with was, “A job isn’t everything you are or you’re gonna be, but you can tell the people who take pride in their work, right away, no matter what it is.’’

Count Champ Bailey as one of those people.

And after 10 seasons around Bailey in Denver, and a few more years around some others equally as gifted in their own ways, one of the things that is clear is a person simply cannot survive 15 years and beyond as a professional football player without some luck, a pile of talent and pride in their work.

Sure, the money can be great. And for those with some star power, the fame and fortune are life changing.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsWith his experience, the Saints will be looking to Champ Bailey for more than just on-field production.
But when Bailey agreed to a two-year deal with the New Orleans Saints on Friday, it put his 16th season on deck. And 16 seasons for a cornerback puts you on the shortest of lists. Bailey got there because he began his career with immense talent, fluid athleticism, unshakable confidence and a willingness to study.

He has learned the game -- he routinely cites Deion Sanders and Darrell Green, two of his early teammates in Washington as important mentors -- he has adjusted to every tweak of the rulebook and every "point of emphasis" given to the league’s officiating department to take away more and more of what defensive backs could do in coverage. He's worked through injuries and through an almost annual change in his team’s defensive coordinator until he got Jack Del Rio in back-to-back seasons in his last two years in Denver.

Bailey, who has been named to the Pro Bowl 12 times, waited 15 seasons to play in his first Super Bowl to close out this past season, but the foot injury that hounded him for much of 2013 robbed him of some of what he could do to try to get the ring he covets. It was an odd scene, watching the Seahawks pick on Bailey in the Super Bowl.

There were many years when nobody threw his way, ever. So much so he said, "Some games you’re out there just doing sprints."

And while his place in his era, at his position, will be argued, Bailey has not only been one of the best ever in coverage, he has been the best tackler of the "shutdown cornerbacks" of his generation. He has played the run when others wouldn’t, so much so he once blew out his shoulder making a run-play tackle on the dirt of what was then the Florida Marlins’ infield and has worn a brace on the shoulder since.

Former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer once called Bailey "not just a great tackler, but an elite tackler … one of the best I’ve ever seen or anybody else will ever see."

He should have been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006, with 10 interceptions and in his decade on the Front Range he saw the Broncos bobble three spectacular chances to win a Super Bowl in 2005, 2012 and 2013 with losses in the AFC Championship Game, the divisional round and Super Bowl XLVIII, respectively.

The Broncos made the tough call when they released Bailey right before the start of free agency. “Time to move on’’ is how the team put it.

"I can’t thank him enough for what he did for me and our organization," head coach John Fox said last week. "… I’ll miss him, we’ll miss him, it’s a business, it happens."

The Broncos never really postured that they were going to bring Bailey back in any fashion -- Bailey said they didn’t make any sort of offer for a pay cut or a change of position when they released him -- but as long as Bailey was unsigned the door was still cracked a hair in the minds of some of the team’s faithful.

The door is closed all the way now. But five years or so after Bailey retires the Broncos will put his name up in the team’s Ring of Fame and he will be in one of those first-ballot discussions for the Hall of Fame.

But first, Bailey will join the Saints, and how they use him remains to be seen. Will he line up on the outside, feeling healthier than he did this past season, or will Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan find some kind of safety-nickel corner role for him?

No matter the task at hand, there will be pride and there will be work. And everyone else in the defensive backs’ meeting room should be ready to ask a lot of questions.

Because those players likely won't ever have a chance to sit next to a player like Bailey again.
The Denver Broncos watch the recoveries of all of their surgically-repaired players with great interest, but the recovery timetable of one of those players will have the most significant impact on the kind of defense the Broncos will play in the 2014 season.

Is it Von Miller? Well, the Broncos certainly want their Pro Bowl linebacker back to his 2012 production level-self when he returns from ACL surgery because an elite edge rusher is a foundation player in roster building. But, no, it's not him.

Is it Derek Wolfe? The Broncos would like Wolfe, who did not play after suffering seizure-like symptoms in late November, to return to their defensive line rotation and be the impactful player up front they believed he could be when they took him in the second round of the 2012 draft. But, no, it's not him.

It's cornerback Chris Harris Jr. By all accounts Harris Jr. is progressing well from his ACL surgery. Harris signed his one-year tender offer this week. The one-year deal, now guaranteed since Harris Jr. has signed it, is worth $2.187 million in the coming season.

The Broncos had placed a second-round pick on Harris Jr. as compensation had he signed an offer sheet from another team. But the Broncos had the right to match any offer Harris Jr. would have received from another team and would have quickly done so had anybody else tried to sign him.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
John Leyba/Getty ImagesChris Harris Jr.'s ability to play both outside at cornerback and inside in the slot against any receiver makes him a rare player in the league.
But in a pass-happy league, Harris Jr.'s ability to play both outside at cornerback and inside in the slot against any receiver makes him a rare player in the league.

In fact there are some in the league who believe, after a franchise quarterback, the cornerback who can play effectively down inside at the nickel spot may be the most difficult to find. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway says there is only a short list to work from when you look at draft prospects each year.

“And that's where it's really getting difficult, and maybe the most valuable guy right now is the guy who can come down and play in the slot,'' said ESPN's Herm Edwards, a former NFL defensive back who has also coached the secondary and called plays on defense in the league. “When you get that guy he can play a long time. He's got to do everything, a unique, valuable guy, who can cover, blitz, tackle and play outside and inside and do all of that while being technically sound.''

It is how Harris Jr. has gone from inexplicably going undrafted as a rookie in 2012 to such a key role in the Broncos' defense. He's ultra competitive, quick, rebounds from the few mistakes he does make quickly and can cover bigger receivers outside as well as the smaller, fast-twitch quick players on the inside.

Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, said the nickel corner has one of the toughest jobs because things happen quickly in the middle of the field and there is no benefit of a sideline “where you can force a guy to cut him off from the ball. Inside you're always in the open and if you make a mistake the quarterback can pounce fast.''

“When you play outside the boundary is your friend, you're always playing to a boundary,'' Edwards said. “It's there to help you. When you play the nickel you're in the middle of the field, and there's always a void in the defense between the numbers, between the hashes, there's always an empty spot. If a guy beats you there, you're done on defense the guy catches it and now he's running ... And it all happens fast in there.''

It's why Harris Jr. was easily the Broncos' most important restricted free agent and also may have been their most important player from their own roster who was poised for some kind of free agency. Replacing Harris would have likely, in the opinion of many personnel executives around the league, been more difficult for the Broncos than replacing Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Zane Beadles or Shaun Phillips -- all players who signed elsewhere.

Harris Jr. is still on track to return to full speed from ACL surgery -- an injury he suffered in the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers this past January -- and projects as a starter at corner alongside Aqib Talib. And while Talib has played inside at times in his career, Harris Jr. still projects to move into the slot when the Broncos go to the nickel and if they haven't matched Talib on a receiver who has moved into the slot to try and escape him.

Elway said last week at the NFL meetings that the timeframe for Harris Jr. to get back to full speed was not the same as other players who have had ACL surgery because Harris Jr. did not damage any other ligaments or cartilage and the ACL was not completely torn.

“But when you have that guy -- and I've coached guys who it took a year and half to even get comfortable in the nickel role -- and you can rely on that guy to move wherever you need him to, you have to keep him,'' Edwards said. “Because if you don't you're going to have to spend a lot of time trying to get yourself another one.''
The NFL released on Thursday the dates each team turned in to the league for offseason programs.

The Denver Broncos will open their offseason conditioning program April 21. Their first full-team, on-field offseason training activity will run from May 28-30 with the second going June 2-4 and the third June 16-19.

The team's mandatory minicamp -- the only section of the offseason work a player can be formally fined for missing -- will be June 10-12.

The Broncos have a major re-model underway at their suburban Dove Valley complex, including the construction of an indoor practice facility. But the outdoor playing fields are scheduled to be ready.

Per the league's collective bargaining agreement the offseason program can span nine weeks in all, in three "phases."

The first phase is two weeks and allows strength and conditioning work only. The second is three weeks and allows individual player instruction and drills with coaches. No team drills pitting offense against defense is allowed during this phase.

The third phase is the final four weeks of the offseason work and when the full team drills are allowed, but no live hitting is permitted.

Teams can also have a rookies-only minicamp in the first or second weekend following the draft. This year's draft is May 8-10. The Broncos have traditionally folded the rookies into their first OTA work in recent years.

"We can make plans and try to make some decisions about what we do right now," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "But until we get our hands on them and get to coach them, we'll still have some things to work out. We'll be ready to get to work when the offseason schedule kicks in and be ready to coach them up when the rules let us."
As the reigning AFC champions, the Denver Broncos will wait until the 31st pick before they make their first selection in this year’s NFL draft. And after a spending spree the first week of free agency that both raised some eyebrows around the league and largely focused on needs on the defensive line and in the secondary, there is still a hole on the depth chart.

And that’s what Mel Kiper Jr. has addressed in his Grade A mock draft .


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Two guys started games at middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos this past season. They were Wesley Woodyard and Paris Lenon.

This just in: Neither is on the Broncos’ roster at the moment, so welcome to what is the still one of the biggest unanswered questions in the Broncos’ plan for 2014. But the Broncos have treated middle linebacker more as an August issue over the past two years than one to take care of in March.

Or as executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway put it recently; “We’re not as worried about middle linebacker as some other people are."

[+] EnlargeRyan Matthews, Wesley Woodyard
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver PostWith Wesley Woodyard, left, in Tennessee, Denver is searching for a starting middle linebacker.
The Broncos exited their initial free-agent spending spree with two holes in the starting lineup unaddressed (at least officially) -- left guard and middle linebacker.

The guard spot, vacated when the Broncos let Zane Beadles leave as a free agent, will likely be filled in-house. The most likely scenarios, and two that will get a look in offseason workouts and training camp, is right tackle Orlando Franklin bumping down inside to left guard and Chris Clark moving to right tackle. Or, the Broncos can play Manny Ramirez and former Washington Redskins starter Will Montgomery -- Montgomery agreed to terms with the team Tuesday -- in some combination at guard and center with the option of leaving Franklin at right tackle.

Both Ramirez and Montgomery have started games at guard and center in their careers.

But at middle linebacker the Broncos are more willing to see what develops in what is now a situational position in their defense. In the past two years they didn’t sign one of their starters at the position until August, and both were 30-something players who were not already in somebody’s training camp.

In August of 2012 they signed Keith Brooking off the street, and he went on to play in all 16 games, starting 14 at middle linebacker. Last August they signed Lenon off the street. He started six games in the regular season and all three playoff games.

It’s a roll of the dice to wait that long and then sign a player good enough to be a potential starter, especially when the Broncos have made a concerted effort to increase their team speed on that side of the ball during this offseason. So, the inside linebackers in the draft will get a long look.

The Broncos could play a rookie in the middle if they find the right one, because weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan is the every-down guy at the position and would be comfortable calling the defensive signals as well.

That would ease the transition in the middle for a younger player, if the Broncos would commit themselves to playing a younger player there. But they haven’t shown the willingness yet. They worked out veterans D'Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu last month just before Jackson signed in Indianapolis.

Tatupu hasn’t played in three seasons.

But they expect to have options later. Time is still on their side, and middle linebacker is no longer a glamour position for many teams. With the bevy of three- and four-wide receiver sets offenses use, the nickel -- five-defensive backs -- is almost the base defensive formation in the NFL.

The Broncos were in the nickel more than any other formation last season, often on early downs when a run play was still among the offenses’ choices. The Broncos had four games this past season when they were in the base 4-3 defense 12 or fewer snaps, and they had just three games last season when they spent more snaps in the base defense than they did in their five- or six-defensive back formations.

The Broncos will continue to look at the veteran players who are available, but getting a young player ready is looking increasingly like the route they will go. Nate Irving has played some in the middle, but he has been far more comfortable, and far more reliable taking on blocks, as Von Miller's backup at strongside linebacker.

In the middle, Irving has shown a tendency to be too quick to work to one side of the blocker instead of facing up and shedding to then move toward the play. That has resulted in an ill-timed running lane at times for opposing backs.

Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy has routinely said the way to get young players to produce in an NFL lineup is taking the first step and not being afraid to play them. For the Broncos, if they want to keep improving their team speed and fill a spot in the starting lineup, using a draft pick and not being afraid to play him in the middle might be the best way to go.
There are few players in the NFL who have out-performed their contracts over the past three years the way Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has since he battled his way on to the Broncos’ roster as an undrafted rookie in 2011.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Michael Ciaglo/MCT/Icon SMIThe Broncos are keeping Chris Harris Jr., at least for one more season as the three-year veteran cornerback signed a one-year tender on Tuesday.
And over those three years, Harris Jr. has gone from a scrappy rookie with potential who was just looking for a spot to the do-it-all, competitive leader who is now officially one season away from his first trip into the open market as a player the Broncos will try, very hard, not to lose.

Harris Jr. signed his one-year tender Tuesday as the most important restricted free agent the Broncos have. The one-year deal is worth $2.187 million in the coming season. The Broncos had placed a second-round pick on Harris Jr. as compensation had he signed an offer sheet from another team.

But the Broncos had the right to match any offer Harris Jr. would have received from another team and would have quickly done so had anybody else tried to sign him.

“Chris is just so competitive, he battles on every play and he has the flexibility to go inside and or outside for us, plays in all of our sub packages, he’s just a good, good, focused player," is how Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has described him.

Now that Harris Jr. has signed the tender, he can also participate in any offseason workouts he is cleared for by the medical staff. The Broncos are set to open their offseason conditioning program on April 21.

And while Harris Jr.’s signing was expected by the Broncos' decision-makers, it is formally just another offseason loose end that has been tied up by the Broncos in recent weeks. He is currently recovering from ACL surgery -- an injury he suffered in the divisional round win against the San Diego Chargers this past January -- but still projects as a starter at corner alongside Aqib Talib.

Harris Jr. also has the skillset to move down inside in the nickel and dime packages to work the slot, which makes him one of the most valuable players on the defense.

Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said this past week at the NFL owners meetings that Harris Jr. was progressing quickly in his recovery from his knee surgery. Elway added that the timeframe for Harris Jr. to get back to full speed was not the same as other players who have had ACL surgery because he did not damage any other ligaments or cartilage and the ACL was not completely torn.

Harris Jr. has maintained in recent weeks he could have played in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, but team officials did not want to risk him playing on a structurally compromised knee. Harris Jr. fits into their long-term plan and if he plays as expected in the coming season he will be on a growing list of players the Broncos will have to work to re-sign in free agency next year.

Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Von Miller and Harris Jr. will all be poised to be unrestricted free agents next March if the Broncos aren’t able to get any of them on long-term deals before then. But in terms of Harris Jr., the Broncos have enjoyed his high-value work.

He counted $470,626 against the salary cap as a 12-game starter in 2012 and $555,668 against the salary cap as a 15-game starter in 2013 because he was still on the income schedule set when he opened his career as an undrafted rookie.

If Harris Jr. had not been coming off knee surgery and was unquestionably going to be ready for the entire 2014 seaso,n the Broncos would have likely had to consider using the highest tender on him -- a one-year deal worth $3.113 million that carried a first-round pick as compensation.

Harris Jr. has started 31 games over the past three seasons and has three playoff starts. He has played in 47 games overall to go with four total playoff games.
When the Denver Broncos didn't make wide receiver Eric Decker an offer in free agency, they were making a fairly public admission that they simply wanted to spend their available dollars elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
If you were to make a to-do list for Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware, taking opposing quarterbacks to the ground would hold the top spot.

And in some ways it may hold down the top 10 spots. Carry 117 career sacks in your luggage into a new city, and it’s only natural for the latest employer to want you to add to the total.

"I know what they want from me and I think I can give it to them," Ware said. "I told them I think I have a lot of football still in me."

But it appears Ware also will have another role this season: mentoring teammate Von Miller.

The Broncos will make a number of decisions in 2014. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas will be on the doorstep of free agency.

They also will have to decide on Miller. Now, Ware will have a significant role in what happens with Miller and the Broncos down the road.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Von Miller's future with the Broncos depends on how he plays in 2014.
The 2014 season is the final year on Miller’s original contract, signed when the Broncos made him the second pick of the 2011 draft. Until July 2013, Miller was a no-brainer, foundation player for the Broncos.

But that was before his six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Before he moved into the part of the policy where he is tested up to 10 times a month for the remainder of his career. Before a missed court date and assorted traffic violations put his maturity in question. Before he tore his ACL to close out the 2013 season.

Now, instead of expecting the best of Miller, the Broncos are almost hoping for the best. Miller’s knee is now the immediate issue.

"He's coming off an ACL, that's touch and go, and right now he's doing everything he's supposed to be doing in that process," Broncos coach John Fox said. "Just another question mark. ... I suspect with today's medicine and how guys recover from those surgeries, he should be fine. ... Everything's on target."

Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has always spoken publicly about the intent to keep Miller with the Broncos long term, but this past summer came with plenty of discontent over Miller's actions as well as Miller's refusal to fully admit he had done anything wrong.

Couple that with the fact that he returned to the field heavier -- to play with more power, he said -- and didn't consistently show the fast-twitch work in the pass rush they want from him, and it's clear the team'’s decision-makers will have their eyes on Miller this season. It's clear how Miller acts, works and performs will have a lot to say about how hard the team tries to put a deal together for him at season's end.

This is where Ware comes in. In his time in Dallas, Ware was regarded as a lead-by-example player who consistently provided the best leadership in terms of performance, work ethic and knowledge of the game.

Asked if Ware's presence in the Broncos locker room could benefit Miller, both on and off the field, Fox said, "Big time. [Ware] was kind of his hero already. It will be good for them to be on the same field together, same locker room together. They’ve already had a relationship."

"I've known Von for a while," Ware said. "I look forward to being around him and helping him any way I can. He's got the talent and we can give him the knowledge of some things on the field, work with him, so he can play as fast as he can with all of that talent."

The Broncos will want to see Miller on a healthy knee, and they'll want to see Miller show he is ready to handle the next contract. If he does, they'll go in big to keep him, with a clause or two to cover themselves against any future trouble.

The Broncos signed Ware for three years and $30 million mostly for what he can do in the Broncos' defense, but also to show Miller the way.

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