AFC West: Denver Broncos
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Gary Kubiak has said the Denver Broncos’ new playbook on offense is ready to go and waiting for its formal installation when the Broncos begin their offseason work April 13 at their suburban Denver complex.
And Kubiak has said he expects to call plays in the offense “because it’s something I’ve enjoyed and have done for a while," but that doesn’t mean folks still won’t see Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning doing what he’s done for so long at the line of scrimmage.
Kubiak covered a lot of ground earlier this week at the league’s annual spring meetings, including plenty on Manning fitting into the new offense.
And one of Kubiak’s main messages was Manning is a future Hall of Famer, with a long resume of successes in the NFL and a deep understanding of the game, so the Broncos are going to run an offense that fits his strengths.
Play calls will come in from the sideline, but Manning will still have freedom change things at the line of scrimmage. But the changes will be a product of working through things on the practice field, so a Kubiak play call made on Wednesday or Thursday in practice in a particular situation is the one Manning makes at the line of scrimmage on game day.
“I think you prepare to help him call that game throughout the course of the week," Kubiak said. “A lot of people put emphasis on him calling plays at the line, but you’ve also prepared to do that throughout the course of the week, so you, as a coach, 'Here’s what I think is best in that situation.' In a lot of ways you’re still working together. You’re just going about it a different way."
Kubiak, who played nine seasons as John Elway’s backup at quarterback, has consistently talked about “meshing" things Kubiak has done with offenses in the past with both the Broncos and Houston Texans to what Manning has done in his 17 previous seasons in the league.
And the phrase “comfort level" has come up a lot in recent weeks.
“You never want to put a player in a position where he’s doing something he’s uncomfortable with," Kubiak said. “One of things about having a veteran, especially like Peyton, he’s going to let you know, 'This is what I do best and this is what I feel comfortable with.' That’s what you need to go do as a coach. You might tweak things here or there that you think may help, but you’re never going to take him out of his comfort zone and what he feels like he does best.”
It wasn't that Manning, who completed 21 of 37 passes for 273 yards, didn't throw a touchdown pass (one of his two games last season without one) or that the Broncos struggled (they didn't in a 47-14 win). It was that Manning, with a right thigh injury he had suffered just two games before, was even playing in the final game of the regular season since the team couldn't improve its playoff seeding.
Manning played deep into the fourth quarter of that Week 17 game and two weeks later looked less than 100 percent in the Broncos' playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. And with his 39th birthday having arrived this week, getting Manning at least some rest in the coming season, whenever possible, is something that is at least on the table for discussion.
Coach Gary Kubiak said this week at the NFL's annual spring meetings, it is a topic he wants to address in some way as he and Manning begin their working relationship together when the Broncos open their offseason on April 13.
"It's interesting," Kubiak said in Phoenix. "He and I talked about that and I know his mindset is totally the other way but I have to get a feel for that. I think that as a coach you have to make those suggestions to players ... I don't know what that's going to be until I get involved with him on a day-to-day basis."
It is certainly a topic Kubiak has addressed before. He was the Broncos' offensive coordinator for John Elway's final four seasons at quarterback when Elway was 35-, 36-, 37- and 38-years-old and the Broncos were regulating Elway's practice time.
Manning himself wants to take every snap he can in practice, let alone missing any parts of practice. The Broncos did have him take Wednesdays off down the stretch in the 2013 season because of ankle injuries that had bothered Manning for much of that year.
So, Kubiak knows he may have some push-back from Manning.
"The great ones -- the reason they're great is you have to battle them on things like that because they are used to being a part of every day," Kubiak said. "They are used to having that under-control every day situation. So we'll see how it works out. We want to do what's best for him. I went through the same process with John late in his career. It was a battle for me and (former Broncos coach) Mike (Shanahan) to do some things with him. ... But he battled us too and that's why they are who they are."
Resting Manning would also give the Broncos an opportunity to check on their life-after-Manning plan. Brock Osweiler, who was a second-round pick by the Broncos the same year the team signed Manning in free agency (2012), got in just four games last season to attempt 10 combined passes.
Over the last three seasons Osweiler has thrown 30 passes combined with his long career touchdown pass coming in that regular-season finale against the Raiders when Manning remained in the game deep into the fourth quarter. Kubiak said he had gone through the video of Osweiler's work in games to go with the three years' worth of practice video.
"He's got a bunch of ability, he's a big, strong kid, he's smart, he can move around," Kubiak said. " ... Now I get a chance to get my hands on him, work with him. But the thing I'm so impressed with is how, I guess I'll use the word excited, he is wanting to get going. I know he wants to be a part of the Broncos organization. He sees himself as a starter, that's the most important thing."
The Broncos will face a decision about Osweiler's future at the end of the 2015 season when he is slated to become an unrestricted free agent. Both Kubiak and executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway have expressed the optimism with Osweiler's progress.
For the most part Osweiler has remained patient in his time as Manning's backup, save for the Broncos' game in Oakland when Osweiler's hand-wave reaction to Manning re-entering a 41-10 game with 40 seconds remaining in the third quarter was caught by the network TV camera.He has consistently expressed his desire "to learn everything I can and understand what a good situation I'm in."
Former Broncos coach John Fox said he was responsible for the communication mix-up that resulted in Manning re-entering the game. Kubiak said this week his message to Osweiler has been, and will be, to stay ready.
"He's had a chance to sit behind, learn behind a Hall of Famer," Kubiak said. "His opportunity is going to come at some point and it's our job to make sure he's ready. ... I always tell young players nobody knows if you're taking care of your business until you're thrown in the fire. ... he's handled his business well."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With the official opening of the Denver Broncos’ offseason program still three weeks away, coach Gary Kubiak can’t say how the team’s offensive line will look, but he can guarantee one thing awaits all those involved.
And that’s a clean slate.
Kubiak said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix that strengthening the team’s offensive front is still a priority and the returning players from last year’s group will get a fresh start.
Asked Tuesday where things stood in the offensive line at the moment, Kubiak quickly said Ryan Clady is the team’s left tackle, Louis Vasquez is, as expected, going back to right guard where he was a first-team All-Pro in 2013 and that Manny Ramirez could be in the competition at center.
“Obviously our left tackle [Clady], Manny Ramirez and … Vasquez -- those guys have been pretty much staples of what’s going on,’’ Kubiak said to the media at the AFC coaches’ breakfast. “ … I would say those three guys have been anchors in what they’ve been doing and then from there we’re going to have to have a very competitive situation.’’
In early November, as their struggles up front continued to grow, the Broncos moved Vasquez from right guard to right tackle, moved Ramirez from center to right guard, and moved Will Montgomery from a backup role to center. The lineup stayed that way for the remainder of the season, but at times the Broncos simply could not repair their issues in pass protection, particularly in the middle of the formation.
The Broncos also saw their running backs being hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on a third of their carries, and Kubiak said the Broncos will have an eye on the position in the draft and free agency, including Montgomery.
“Obviously we have to get better up front,’’ Kubiak said. “ … But we think a lot of the young guys, we really do.’’
Kubiak has also consistently said with offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and offensive line coach Clancy Barone in teaching roles, the Broncos were fully prepared to toss the younger players on the roster into the developmental mix, but a returning veteran like Chris Clark will start on even ground with the new staff.
“I told Chris, ‘We’re going to let last year go and we’re going to start over,’ and he’s done some good things,’’ Kubiak said. “I think it’s a fresh start for everybody. Obviously we’re not done trying to improve up front … the keys is going to be these young guys we have.’’
While Ramirez has started games at center for the Broncos in the past, including in the Super Bowl season in 2013, Kubiak said he believes Matt Paradis, a 2014 draft pick who spent last season on the practice squad, is an option and Tuesday Kubiak added that Dennison and Barone believe Ben Garland might eventually be a center prospect as well. It would be the third position move for Garland, who started his career with the Broncos in 2010, before his active duty stint in the Air Force, as a defensive lineman before being moved to guard.
Kubiak wants free-agent signee Shelley Smith, who has played guard and center in Kubiak’s offense with the Houston Texans, to concentrate on playing guard. With Vasquez moving back to right guard and Orlando Franklin having left in free agency, the Broncos could give Garland a look at left guard along with Smith and a likely draft pick.
Michael Schofield, a ’14 draft pick who was inactive for every game last season, will get a look at right tackle, as will Clark.
“We like the Schofield kid, too, so we’ll see," Kubiak said. "We think he’s got some flexibility. But those three older guys will continue to go [Clady, Vasquez and Ramirez], but after that it will just be very competitive.’’
Kubiak said he’d like to have things settled by the time the Broncos close out all of their OTA workouts and minicamps by mid-June in order to take a new starting offensive front into training camp.
“We’re going to kind of take it a step at a time and see how much progress we can make this offseason,’’ Kubiak said.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos got some much needed draft help Monday, or at least the potential for some much needed draft help.
Or as the team's top football decision-maker, John Elway, has put it; "you want the picks, but then you have to hit the picks, you've got to make them count, find some good football players who can be productive Denver Broncos."
The Broncos were awarded four compensatory draft picks by the NFL for their net free agency losses in 2014, pushing their original total of six selections to 10 picks in this year's draft on April 30 to May 2 in Chicago.
Denver received a fourth-round pick, a sixth-round pick and two seventh-round picks. Denver now has the potential for the team's first 10-player draft class since 2009.
And given starters and key depth players can found all over the board in a seven-round draft -- the Broncos had three starters alone last year in cornerback Chris Harris Jr., running back C.J. Anderson and long snapper Aaron Brewer who were all originally signed as undrafted rookies -- the Broncos are at a point with the salary cap and on the depth chart they need to make them all count.
The draft is a decidedly inexact endeavor, but the teams that succeed at it season after season consistently find the "fit" players well into the second and third days of the draft.
In Elway's four previous drafts since taking his current job the Broncos have had some quality hits and also some misses from the fourth round on. They also have some players who they still believe, and hope, will grow into key contributors.
The Broncos have three players selected from the fourth round on in those four drafts who have been starters and are still under contract with the team -- tight end Virgil Green (7th round in 2011), defensive end/tackle Malik Jackson (5th round in 2012) and linebacker Danny Trevathan (6th round in 2012).
They have one other player – tight end Julius Thomas (4th round in 2011) -- who was a starter as well as a two-time Pro Bowl selection before he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this month as an unrestricted free agent. Safety Quinton Carter (4th round in 2011) also started 10 games in 2011 for the Broncos before knee troubles derailed his career and he is an unsigned unrestricted free agent.
The Broncos selected five players form the fourth round on in those drafts who are no longer on the roster and didn't have a significant impact with the team while they were in Denver -- Mike Mohamed, Jeremy Beal, Philip Blake, Tavarres King and Vinston Painter -- though Mohamed did play in 14 games, with two starts, this past season for the Houston Texans.
The Broncos also have five other players still on the current roster who were selected from the fourth round on in those last four drafts who have not yet been starters, but the Broncos continue to hope they can carve out bigger roles.
In particular Elway has mentioned center Matt Paradis (6th round in 2014) as one of those players who could step forward for a far bigger role in the coming season. Paradis spent the 2014 season on the practice squad. Linebackers Lamin Barros (5th round in 2014) and Corey Nelson (7th round in 2014) each played a smattering of snaps on defense last season and each was a regular on special teams.
And Quanterus Smith (5th round in 2013) has potential to find some snaps in the new 3-4 defense if he can put his knee troubles behind him -- he has spent time on injured reserve in each of the last two seasons after an ACL tear in his senior season at Western Kentucky. Quarterback Zac Dysert (7th round in 2013) has spent the last two seasons, one on the practice squad and one on the active roster as the team's No. 3 quarterback.
In this draft the Broncos will have the newly-arrived fourth-round pick to go with two picks each in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. And since compensatory picks cannot be traded the Broncos' ability to make those picks count will directly impact how aggressive they feel they need to be in the free agency market in the seasons ahead.
As Elway has put it: "We want those homegrown players, we want to hit those picks ... to stack those drafts."
And Thursday, Tamme became the sixth player who has started at least one game for the Broncos over the last two seasons to leave in free agency since March 10. Tamme signed a two-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons and took to Twitter to thank Broncos fans, as well as his former teammates and coaches, early Thursday morning.
I'm thankful for my @Broncos teammates & coaches and very much enjoyed my time being in Denver. A great organization and city.
— Jacob Tamme (@JacobTamme) March 19, 2015
On Wednesday, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein signed a two-year, $1.9 million deal. Toss the departures of the last eight days in with the change in coaching staffs immediately following the season and suddenly you have a rather significant makeover underway for a team that won 12 games this past season as well as it fourth consecutive AFC West title.
While the Broncos has said they would consider bringing Tamme back, the eighth year tight end’s departure is not a surprise given the Broncos had largely made clear, in both word and deed, that most of their free agents would find better offers elsewhere. And that has proved to be the case.
The Broncos re-signed cornerback Chris Harris Jr. in December, a player who would have commanded the biggest contract of any of their impending free agents had he reached the open market, and re-signed tight end Virgil Green in the opening days of free agency last week. By contrast, tight end Julius Thomas (Jacksonville), guard Orlando Franklin (San Diego), safety Rahim Moore (Houston), defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (Washington), Unrein (San Diego) and Tamme have now signed elsewhere.
Unrein, who has a touchdown catch on a pass from Peyton Manning on his career resume, had been with the Broncos since he was signed to the team’s practice squad during the 2010 season. He played in 54 games for the Broncos, starting three.
Last season, with the Broncos spending so much time in their nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) packages, Unrein’s playing time was reduced and he was a game-day inactive eight times in the regular season as well as the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Tamme, who had played in the Colts’ offense for three seasons with Manning at quarterback, including a 67-catch season in 2010, was signed in 2012, shortly after Manning had signed with the Broncos.
Tamme caught 52 passes in 2012, starting eight games and playing in all 16. However, Tamme's playing time has shrunk as the Broncos' three-wide receiver set became their base formation and as Julius Thomas emerged from two seasons largely lost to an ankle injury.
Tamme started one game in 2013 and made no starts in 2014. His 14 receptions this past season were also his lowest total since he had three catches in 2009 with the Colts.
Down the stretch this past season, Tamme -- slowed by a rib injury -- played nine, zero, seven and two snaps on offense in each of the last four regular-season games. The Broncos cut his base salary this past season from $3 million to $1.25 million and added $1.3 million in incentives.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Since Gary Kubiak was named Denver Broncos head coach in January, he has taken several opportunities to say the team will run the ball more.
Kubiak has said "I just believe in it."
Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, too, has said the team will run more, and has said, "It's something we've believed in."
Quarterback Peyton Manning, who took a $4 million pay cut to see what the Broncos could be, has said he'd be comfortable in any offense short of the wing-T.
But how much more running the Broncos do remains to be seen as Manning tries to mesh what he does with what Kubiak believes in, and has done as a part of his coaching career that includes three Super Bowl rings. If you draw the line at seasons with 500 rushing attempts -- a hefty total even before pass-happy times went to pass-giddy times -- it's clear Manning, Kubiak and Dennison will have to work it out because that would be uncharted ground for the quarterback.
Manning has never played in an offense that ran the ball 500 times and there would be a line around the block of offensive playcallers, offensive strategists, who would say "and why run the ball 500 times with Manning, moron?" But Manning has been a part of three seasons when his offense ran the ball 450 times and had four seasons when his team didn't run the ball at least 400 times.
Those sub-400-carry seasons were his rookie year in 1998 and a three-season run of 2008-10 before he missed the 2011 season with his fourth neck surgery.
By contrast, Kubiak has been a part of offenses that ran at least 500 times in a season nine times and been part of offenses that ran the ball at least 450 times in 12 seasons.
It's not to say Manning hasn't played in an offense that succeeded at running the ball. Edgerrin James won league rushing titles in 1999 and 2000, with 1,553 yards and 1,709 yards rushing respectively, and had two other 1,500-yard rushing seasons (2004-05) for the Colts.
The rub, and it may be a small one, or at least one that is lost in a sort of chicken-or-egg argument, is all of those 1,500-yard seasons for James came in Manning's first seven seasons in the league. The question then becomes: did things change because the Colts didn't have James, or was Manning taking more of the offense into his own hands to get the ball into Reggie Wayne's and Marvin Harrison's hands?
His growth as a quarterback, the Colts pushing the no-huddle offense and Manning doing more at the line of scrimmage meant more of the results fell on his shoulders. That's been true in Denver as well. But the postseason has not always been kind. In the past two playoff exits, including a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, Denver's offense faltered when Manning struggled and it didn't have the run to fall back on.
The chase for a franchise quarterback most often separates the teams with the trophies and the ones without them in the NFL. But over the past 16 years, at least one Super Bowl team has emerged from a small pool of 500-carry teams seven times -- over that span the highest total of 500-carry teams in any year was eight in 2008, and there have been four or fewer in nine of those years.
So how the Broncos find the common ground between Manning and Kubiak will be one of the most important items on their to-do list in the coming months, perhaps the most important item after a rare retooling following a 12-win year.
Manning looked uncharacteristically out of sorts in the Broncos' playoff loss in January, making choices with the ball that brought a scowl to his face and the punter on the field. And the Broncos have watched four consecutive division titles turn into zero championships.
The potential is certainly there, both in personnel and talent, for the Broncos to find the balance between what's been done and what needs to be done. But Manning has to be on board with the changes, while Kubiak and Dennison have to show him why he should be.
Majority owner: Because Pat Bowlen, 71, has Alzheimer’s disease and has surrendered day-to-day operations, the Denver Broncos are owned by The Bowlen Family Trust, a group of non-family trustees, with team president and CEO Joe Ellis operating the team with full authority.
Minority owners: John Bowlen
Source of wealth: Pat Bowlen was a lawyer, an executive in his father’s oil company (Regent Drilling), a real-estate developer and a mining investor.
Net worth: Estimates in recent years put Bowlen’s net worth at $1 billion.
Residence: Denver and Hawaii
Marital status: Married
Family: Wife, Annabel; sons Patrick and John; daughters Brittany, Annabel and Christianna. He also has two daughters -- Beth and Amie -- from a previous marriage.
Education: University of Oklahoma (business and law)
When purchased team and for how much: Pat Bowlen first purchased a majority stake in the Broncos, with his brothers John and Bill and sister Mary, in 1984 for $78 million. Bill and Mary sold their interests to the family in the 1990s. John is believed to have a 40 percent ownership stake, while Pat had a 60 percent stake at the time his interests were moved to the Bowlen Family Trust.
Franchise valuation: $1.45 billion (Forbes)
2014 revenue/rank: $301 million/11th (Forbes)
Owns stadium: No
Ownership philosophy: When he was around the team day-to-day, Bowlen always said he wanted the “Broncos to compete for the Super Bowl every season and do it the right way.” Earlier this season, Ellis said, “... We will all operate the Broncos as Pat Bowlen wants us to, striving to win championships and conducting ourselves the right way."
Defining moment in ownership tenure: Winning Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII.
Regular/postseason wins-losses during tenure: 301-193-1/18-15
General managers during tenure: John Beake (1984-98), Neal Dahlen (1999-2001), Ted Sundquist (2002-07), Jim Goodman (2008), Brian Xanders (2009-10), John Elway (2011-present)
Coaches during tenure: Dan Reeves (1984-92), Wade Phillips (1993-94), Mike Shanahan (1995-2008), Josh McDaniels (2009-10), John Fox (2011-2014), Gary Kubiak (hired January 2015)
Playoff appearances: 1984, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014
Super Bowl appearances/championships: Lost to Giants 39-20 in Super Bowl XXI (1986 season), lost to Redskins 42-10 in Super Bowl XXII (1987), lost to 49ers 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV (1989), defeated Packers 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII (1997), defeated Falcons 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII (1998), lost to Seahawks 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII (2013).
NFL committees: Pat Bowlen was a longtime member of the league’s broadcast committee and finance committee but no longer serves on any committee.
Most significant signing: The Denver Broncos didn’t do their best work and didn’t make their best move of free agency last week. They did it in December when they signed cornerback Chris Harris Jr., a player many personnel executives in the league rank at, or near, the top at his position, to a five-year, $42.5 million extension. Harris said when he signed he likely could have gotten more in the open market -- Byron Maxwell's deal (six years, $63 million), with all of 17 career starts, was proof of that -- but he wanted to stay in Denver. "It's what I wanted where I wanted, that’s good for me and my family." And it was the best thing the Broncos did.
Most significant loss: Tight end Julius Thomas may have had back-to-back 12 touchdown seasons, safety Rahim Moore started 48 games for the Broncos in four seasons and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton was a defensive captain who would have easily fit into the team’s new 3-4 scheme. But the biggest loss was guard Orlando Franklin, whose position group has several question marks. The Broncos were never going to pay Franklin what he could get on the open market and were so sure they couldn't, they didn’t make him an offer. The Broncos signed Shelley Smith and a prospect they like at guard in Ben Garland, but Franklin started every game but one in his four seasons with the team.
Biggest surprise: It was more of a surprise to the outside world, but in-house the Broncos have always been fond of tight end Virgil Green. The Broncos were certain they wanted to bring Green back, and on their long list of unrestricted free agents the first move they made was to put the franchise player tag on wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and the second was to sign Green to a three-year, $8.4 million deal. As the John Elway said; "We really think Virgil's going to flourish."
What’s next: Even though the Broncos have young players they believe are poised to help in the offensive line, Michael Schofield in particular, they still have decisions to make with the right tackle, left guard and center positions open. They need linebacker depth with Danny Trevathan coming off a season when he had three separate injuries to his left leg and they need wide receiver depth.
With an opening at free safety after Rahim Moore departed to the Houston Texans in free agency, the Denver Broncos signed Stewart Friday to a two-year deal. And Stewart now joins a secondary where the free safety was the only starting position not manned by a Pro Bowler last season.
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward each played in the Pro Bowl in January.
"I feel like I’m the final piece to the puzzle," Stewart said on a conference call Friday from Atlanta, where he was scheduled to visit the Atlanta Falcons. "The secondary, they’re one of the tops in the league, and I felt like they can get it done out there. We have a great organization and we have the personnel in place to get it done."
Moore, who got a three-year, $12 million deal from the Texans, started 48 games in his four seasons with the Broncos. The draft class is considered to be thin at the position, so Broncos executive vice president of football operatons/general manager John Elway had said earlier in the week that safety was one of the positions where the team would try to sign a player in the coming days.
Stewart played in all 16 games, starting 14, for the Baltimore Ravens last season. Some personnel executives said in recent days that Stewart was guilty of mental errors at times, but some who have coached him say they liked his willingness to stick his nose into the action and had improved his reliability as a tackler.
"I’m just ready to work. I feel like I always play with a chip on my shoulder, and that chip still remains," Stewart said. "I’m not done yet, I’m just ready to make plays. I’m excited about coming out there and getting to work and working with the secondary."
Stewart entered the league with the Rams as an undrafted rookie in 2010. The Broncos won’t specifically divvy up the playing time until the new coaching staff gets the players on the field.
But defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has the personnel to do at least some mix-and-match work in the secondary in a variety of down-and-distance situations if he wishes. The Broncos used Bradley Roby on 75 percent of the defense’s snaps last season, and his playing time isn't likely to decrease as offenses aren't going to stop running plenty of three- and four-wide receiver sets against Denver.
Players like Omar Bolden, who has played at both cornerback and safety for the Broncos, could also get some situational work, as could safety David Bruton Jr., who often played in the team’s seven-defensive back look last season.
Stewart said he’s simply ready to dive in wherever he’s needed.
"One thing about this league, the more you can do, the better off you will be." he said. "My versatility, it helps me a lot. But not just with the safeties -- just trying to know where everyone’s at. I take pride in that. It all plays its part, especially with run fits and on the back end."
Stewart added he met Ward at the 2010 scouting combine, when Ward was coming into the league after finishing his career at the University of Oregon. Stewart was actually listed as a strong safety prospect by many teams before that draft.
"I think we will work together just fine. ... He's a good dude," Stewart said. "He’s a thumper and I think I add to their bunch. It’s great with my versatility, playing back deep and getting the ball."
“I can play any position," Walker said Thursday shortly after signing his deal with the Broncos. “Really whatever they need me to do, whether it’s D-end or nose (tackle) ... It’s a penetrating type of defense, so really wherever they feel that I fit. I spoke with the coaches and they’re pretty impressed that I can play all positions. It’s really wherever they believe I fit."
In John Elway’s tenure as the team’s top football decision-maker, the team has often looked for players after the initial signing frenzy of free agency subsides a bit, often signing those players to one- or two-year deals. Terrance Knighton and Wes Welker signed two-year deals in 2013, while Shaun Phillips was added on a one-year deal.
The Broncos signed a host of players to one-year contracts in 2012, including Brandon Stokley, Keith Brooking and Justin Bannan.
Walker, who is entering his seventh NFL season, signed a two-year, $4 million deal. The Broncos have seen him plenty over the last two seasons, as Walker was with the Chiefs last season and the Raiders in 2013.
Walker figures to be a rotational player for the Broncos. Walker played fewer than 10 snaps on defense in seven games last season for the Chiefs. He played more than 20 snaps on defense in three, with a season-most 53 against the Raiders in December.
Walker’s versatility was an attraction as the Broncos transition from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4. With the Broncos having used up most of the workable salary cap space, Walker fits their on-field and budgetary needs.
"I really liked what Coach [Gary] Kubiak is doing, what he’s building, and also [defensive Coordinator] Coach [Wade] Phillips," Walker said. “He’s got a great defense. I studied him a good bit when he was coaching with the Texans, so I know a good bit about his game and am really excited to play for him."
The Broncos felt like they good depth in the defensive line on the roster to make the transition into Phillips’ defense with Sylvester Williams, Marvin Austin Jr., Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson.
But Elway said earlier this week the team was still looking hard at available defensive linemen, especially players that could potentially play more than one spot. Walker, who visited the Broncos Thursday, fit that profile. After meeting with the coaches, including defensive line coach Bill Kollar, the Broncos signed Walker.
“[Kollar] is very energetic," Walker said. “He knows his stuff though. He’s very knowledgeable about a lot of things. He watched a good bit of film on me and gave me some feedback. We talked a lot about football for a couple hours. I was just really impressed with him. He seems like a great coach to have. I’m excited to work with him."
Elway said the Broncos have an idea of where they think the players will fit in the defensive line, but those roles won't be fully determined until the coaches see the players in mini-camps and OTAs.
Elway also touched on the recent negotiations to trim quarterback Peyton Manning’s base salary from $19 million for the upcoming season to $15 million. The talks with Manning were on the front burner, as well as the Broncos' use of the franchise-player tag on wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, before the Broncos could really get down to the business of free agency this week.
Manning’s base salary for the season was guaranteed Monday and free agency opened Tuesday, so the timetable was tight as it negotiated with Manning's representatives.
“That’s always a hard part; those discussions are always hard," Elway said of the talks. “It went fine and Peyton was good through the whole thing. It’s just not an easy thing to do. It’s just the business part. We got through that and everything’s fine. I talked to Peyton and he’s ready to go."
Elway also addressed the idea that while most of the high-profile free agents had already agreed to deals in the opening hours of free agency, he believes there are still available players who can contribute. He said the Broncos are paying particular attention to safeties and defensive linemen, especially players who could play nose tackle in the team’s new 3-4 defense.
“Everybody thinks it just opened yesterday and that’s the last day of free agency," Elway said. “This is a process that goes all the way through [when] the training deadline stops. You get out of the frenzy of everything and you can get back to the reality and try to find some good football players."
With Orlando Franklin’s departure in free agency and the fact center Will Montgomery is a free agent, the Broncos are also on the hunt for as many as three new starters on a revamped offensive line. It is also a position the Broncos assured would be improved during the talks with Manning about his new deal, and the Broncos have bigger designs on filling the jobs from within than perhaps many expected.
Elway said Michael Schofield, a third-round pick in the 2014 draft who was a game-day inactive in every week of the season, including the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, is expected to get the first look at right tackle. The Broncos see him as a future starter.
“We actually went back and looked at what he did in the preseason," Elway said. “We’re excited about what he did in the preseason. He’s just a young guy. He’s a talented kid and we have expectations."
Center Matt Paradis, a sixth-round pick in last year’s draft, will also compete for a job and Elway said Ben Garland would get a look at left guard, before adding that the position group as a whole will likely could get some attention in the coming days and weeks in free agency and the draft.
The Broncos have six draft picks right now, and Elway said Wednesday he believed the team would be awarded as many as four compensatory picks as well. Compensatory picks will be announced at the league meetings in Phoenix later this month.
“We do have some young guys that we think highly of," Elway said. “It’s time to put the pressure on them, step up, grow up and get in there. We’re not done either. … We’re not done. We've got 10 picks."
Wide receiver Cody Latimer, a second-round pick in 2014 who played just 37 snaps on offense last season, will also be in the mix far more, Elway said. He is expected to join Manning at workouts at Duke in the coming weeks.
“You get through that rookie year, he’s going to have his feet under him this year and feel a lot more comfortable with where he is," Elway said. “And I think the system is going to be easier, too."
The Broncos made it abundantly clear Tuesday they believed tight end was a spot that needed quick work as free agency opened. Free agency had barely begun Tuesday and the Broncos already had two tight ends under contract -- one of their own in Virgil Green and one new addition in Owen Daniels -- at a position where their top three players were set to be unrestricted free agents.
Those two deals together are well short of what Julius Thomas is expected to receive from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The deals also say a lot about what the Broncos want from the position and why they deemed Thomas, and his 24 touchdown receptions over the past two seasons, too expensive to pursue. The Broncos have proceeded, at least since the team and Thomas’ representatives briefly talked about a new contract this past season, with the understanding that Thomas wanted to see what the market had to offer and for good reason, given what Thomas received.
The Broncos are changing offenses. They want to run the ball with more efficiency and need tight ends who can block when it’s time to block and catch when it’s time to catch. Add that in with the price tag Thomas carried and that led to Tuesday’s events for the Broncos.
Are they right? They obviously think so and believe Green is ready to go as a guy who blocks well and occasionally catches the ball.
“We’re really thrilled Virgil’s going to be back. Virgil’s been a big part of what we do; he’s been one of those guys that’s been, not necessarily out in front of the scenes, but behind the scenes, has been a tremendous worker," said Elway, the Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager. “ … We’re really excited with what we’re going to do offensively. We really think Virgil’s going to flourish because of his strengths as a blocker, but also be more involved in the passing game."
Green has 23 career receptions and one touchdown -- on a pass from Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler, no less -- but the team is betting on the potential Green can do more.
Daniels, 32, is a known commodity -- he has seven seasons with at least 40 receptions in offenses Gary Kubiak has directed, including 48 catches and four touchdowns last season with the Baltimore Ravens. But Green is the key piece in the decisions the Broncos have made at the position.
They see him as an underused, athletic player ready to do more. Green believes that as well, so much that he turned away a concerted effort from the Chicago Bears, where former Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase will call plays, to stay with the Broncos.
Green said he talked to former Broncos tight end Joel Dreessen, who played for Kubiak with the Houston Texans, and former Texans linebacker Zac Diles, a high school teammate of Green, to find out more about both Kubiak as a coach and Kubiak’s playbook.
“I did go and try to learn more about what Kubiak’s offense is about," Green said. “And you see tight ends have flourished … but [the Broncos] didn’t have to do too much talking. I understand how I’m going to earn my keep on this team."
In the end, the Broncos' 2011 draft class, headlined by linebacker Von Miller and one that included both Thomas and Orlando Franklin, yielded seven players who have started games for the team. And it’s Green, the second-to-last player selected by the team that year -- the 204th player overall -- who is the first to sign his second contract with the Broncos.
“I think back all the time about how I shouldn’t be here," Green said. “A lot of seventh-round guys that were drafted in my year, a lot of fifth-round guys that were drafted in my year, are sitting at home right now. … I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to come my way. I’m not much to complain about things; I just go out and do. I feel like I earn the right to say something, I just need to keep my mouth shut and do my job.
“It is a true honor. I realize they understand how hard I work," he added. “That was always the goal for me, to always let people know at the end of the day, regardless of what’s happened, Virgil Green is going to work hard."
Because at the moment, the right tackle job is open, the center job is open and in the current negotiating period before Tuesday's formal opening of free agency, the left guard spot officially opened.
It's not that the Broncos didn't expect Orlando Franklin to sign elsewhere -- he has the framework of a five-year deal in place with the San Diego Chargers that is expected to include $20 million in guarantees -- in fact they expected it. It was Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway, after all, who used the phrases "change of scenery" and "might help them" when discussing the offensive line following the team's playoff loss.
But Franklin's departure formally puts the Broncos right where they were when they finished their free-agency splurge last year, with questions on the offensive line. Last year, they felt if they moved Franklin from right tackle to left guard that would help solidify things up front.
They thought Chris Clark could move into the right tackle spot and thought Manny Ramirez could stay at center. Then Clark got benched at right tackle just before Paul Cornick got benched at right tackle, and things got ugly enough the Broncos felt compelled to take an All-Pro guard in Louis Vasquez and put him at right tackle.
That made the play at right tackle better, but weakened the Broncos overall across the front. They didn't consistently protect well in the middle of the field and there were times players were asked to, in consistently open formations, to cover too much ground.
The Broncos' struggles in the run game were well documented -- backs were hit at, or behind, the line of scrimmage on a third of the team's carries -- but Franklin's value in free agency actually rose as the season wore on and the Broncos' struggles up front never seemed to get better overall. And it was easy to see, defensive coaches around the league said, quarterback Peyton Manning's confidence in the pass protection erode a little more with each passing week.
Still, teams saw Franklin as a physical player still ascending as a guard, a position he had not played in a game since his time at the University of Miami before the Broncos had selected him in the 2011 draft and immediately put him at right tackle. To some personnel executives Franklin stood out in the team's struggles and with Vasquez having moved to guard, Franklin was, again, in the eyes of other personnel executives, the Broncos' most consistent player on the interior.
The Broncos didn't agree, at least to the price tag Franklin appears to have carried on the open market, especially with a change in offense coming that will include more zone blocking. They didn't want to pay what Franklin is expected to sign for with the Chargers once he formally puts pen to paper on a deal that expected to be just north of $36 million.
But the Broncos will have to invest in the offensive line, both in dollars, in the coming days, and in draft picks as April turns to May. Because while they felt a change a scenery may be good for some of their linemen, they still have to build scenery of their own.
Especially after they asked the guy who has to play behind the offensive line to take a pay cut to help the cause.
They put a little of the short-term fix on contracts for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and quarterback Peyton Manning. They signed long-snapper Aaron Brewer, yet another one of their post-draft finds, to a four-year deal.
They tendered offers to linebacker Brandon Marshall, guard Ben Garland and tackle Paul Cornick -- all three are exclusive-rights free agents. And to close out the week they announced they had hired a director of analytics: Mitch Tanney, a former Monmouth College quarterback, who will be the franchise’s first to carry the title.
Thing is, every single one of those moves impacts what the Broncos can, and will, do in the open market.
“We look at it as a step-by-step process," is how Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway recently put it. “We work the plan. We have things we want to get done as we formulate the budget to, as I've said before, see who's going to fit."
Thomas and Manning have been the offseason’s top priorities to this point, or at least getting the team’s quarterback and No. 1 pass catcher squared away were the first items that had to be checked off the to-do list. The Broncos used the franchise player tag on Thomas, which means a one-year tender of $12.823 million that is guaranteed the moment Thomas signs it.
The Broncos will continue to work toward a long-term deal with Thomas, and while Randall Cobb’s four-year, $40 million deal with the Green Bay Packers is the marquee deal for pass catchers in the pre-free agency build-up, it doesn’t really impact Thomas’ potential deal with the Broncos. If the Dallas Cowboys were to sign Dez Bryant before the Broncos’ sign Thomas, that would provide far more specific a framework for any potential deal the Broncos get with Thomas.
Manning’s deal, which cut his base salary $4 million for the 2015 season and added a $2 million incentive for winning the AFC Championship Game to go with another $2 million for winning the Super Bowl, was finished after roughly three weeks of work.
And deliberate work it was on both sides in the touchy business of cutting pay for a future Hall of Famer. Manning has invested some in helping the Broncos’ cash-flow issues -- they have to account for $44.5 million in guaranteed salaries and bonuses between Monday and Saturday in the coming week. In the big picture, the $4 million is the same as the combined roster bonuses for left tackle Ryan Clady ($1.5 million) and safety T.J. Ward ($2.5 million), which are due in the coming week, but the Broncos are trying to get themselves positioned to make a run at a player or two this week.
The Broncos’ work in the coming days will also be focused on keeping their end of the bargain with Manning that they would address the offensive line, and that they will in free agency’s opening hours.
Brewer’s signing, to go with cornerback Chris Harris Jr.’s contract in December, shows the Broncos' success in finding undrafted rookies who fit what they do and have the mindset to compete and flourish. Brewer was initially kept on the roster over the more experienced, and expensive, Lonie Paxton, and has since revealed himself to be a player so reliable in his job that he is simply a football given.
One of next "finds" the Broncos will have to consider over the long term is Marshall, who will be a restricted free agent following the 2015 season. He was signed in 2013 after he had been released a third time by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He spent almost a full season on the Broncos’ practice squad before he played some on special teams to close out 2013.
Marshall was the team’s leading tackler this past season and has every bit the look of a core player on defense, even as the Broncos move to a 3-4.
And in Tanney’s hiring, Elway has simply followed through with something he discussed at length in December as he considered what role analytics will play in the team’s player evaluations in the seasons to come.
So, in the end, the Broncos needed a big week just to get ready for another one.
At the time, Elway leaned back in the chair behind his desk and said; “I have a stack of resumes, and it gets bigger all the time, of people who want the job."
On Friday, the Broncos announced who got the job as Mitch Tanney was hired as the franchise's first director of football analytics. Tanney, who worked with the Chicago Bears for the past two years, has also worked for Stats LLC as he managed that company’s system that paired a player’s analytical data and player records to the game video.
Tanney is a former Monmouth College quarterback who was the runner-up for the Division III Player of the Year in 2005. He holds degrees in mathematics and Spanish to with an MBA from the University of Iowa.
Elway, with an economics degree from Stanford, said this past season that, “I’m a numbers guy; I know the power they have. ... I want to know what they can do for us."
The Broncos have used a wide array of on-field statistics – down-and-distance, situational performance, etc., in the past. Tony Lazarro, the Broncos’ director of football information systems, has overseen that effort. Tanney’s hiring shows the team’s intention to step up the use of advanced metrics in its evaluation of football personnel, both in pro personnel and in college scouting.
“We want to try to get our arms around it, find out everything we think we can do with it," Elway said just before the end of the regular season. “I’m curious about it; I want to look at it. We haven’t used as much of it to this point, but I certainly want to continue to explore it."
Elway, whose father Jack was a longtime college coach and an NFL personnel man, has consistently said he believes in the traditional forms of “eyes-on" scouting. He also has said he wants to embrace new ways of thinking.
“I want to do things that help us succeed and achieve the goals we want to achieve, which is compete for and win world championships," Elway said. “You have to stay open-minded, have to be ready to do things that improve what you do and your ability to find the best players to be Denver Broncos."