John Fox watches the Broncos rookies on day one of minicamp.
Rookie minicamp kicked off Friday for the Denver Broncos out at Dove Valley. Last month in the NFL draft, the Broncos selected some big-name players who are expected to make an immediate impact this season.
Not only top picks but all draft picks, undrafted rookies and players not on the roster long enough last season to gain one year of vesting can participate.
Many expect the Broncos to push for a Super Bowl title in 2013. That could happen with additional help from this incoming class of rookies.
Here are my first-hand observations from the opening day of rookie minicamp for the Denver Broncos.
Montee Ball is likely to have the biggest impact this year of any rookie on the Broncos' roster. Denver knew it needed to add more running back talent this offseason, and that's why Ball was a target for the team in the 2013 NFL draft.
I was out at Dove Valley bright and early today to observe minicamp from the sidelines of practice. Ball was a player who immediately caught my eye.
Ball looks big on the field, and he has the size to take an NFL beating like most running backs do. His strength should help him on short-yardage situations and at the goal line. Ball has a nose for the end zone, as evidenced by his NCAA record 83 total touchdowns in his college career.
I liked the way Ball moved after handoffs and running through different drills. He showed good footwork and moved fluidly when he changed direction.
Ball also caught the ball cleanly during receiving drills. He would snatch balls out of the air away from his body before he turned upfield after the catch.
After practice I had a chance to ask Ball some questions at his press conference. He commented how working with current Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson helped him when audibles are called at the line of scrimmage.
Ball said, “It actually helped a lot. Our offensive coordinator gave Russell the green light to change the calls at the line of scrimmage, as well, change the play and all that stuff. So I’m very, very familiar, and I have great experience with a quarterback who is very in control of the offense. I have a lot of plays with Russell where I had to really pass protect him and all that stuff. Like I said, I have a lot of great experience with all that stuff.”
Later on Friday, I was able to interview Denver Post beat writer Mike Klis on ESPN Radio in Denver. Klis said that he believed Ball could get around 225 carries this year. That would break the rookie record for carries under head coach John Fox (2008, Jonathan Stewart, 184).
One thing is certain—the Broncos want Ball to have a big role in 2013. It's up to him to keep impressing every time he's on the practice field.
Sylvester Williams was the Broncos first pick in this year's draft and for good reason. He's a mountain of a man who takes up a lot of space.
The rookies were practicing without pads, and Williams looked huge just wearing a jersey. His upper-body strength is evident by his size, and he looked like the biggest player on the practice field.
During minicamp, the team only runs through some drills during the media portion of practice. Williams showed good athleticism moving around and is surprisingly nimble for a big man.
After practice I had to find out more about his amazing journey. Years ago, Williams was working in a radiator shop before walking on at Coffeyville Community College. He worked hard and ended up at North Carolina after two years. During his time with the Tarheels, he racked up 8.5 sacks in two seasons.
His blue-collar work ethic has carried over to his football career. Williams is known as a hard worker and a team-first player.
I asked Williams how often he thought about where he came from and how he got to the NFL.
Williams said, “Every day. Every day I take time out of my day to sit back and think about it, because that’s the way I keep myself humble. That’s the way I stay humble, because you can always get a big head and say, ‘Oh, well, I’ve made it to this point, in my life,’ but you can always remember where you came from, because there’s always an opportunity for you to end up back there again. So I just take advantage of every opportunity I get to better myself in life.”
Williams may begin his career as rotational player on the defensive line behind veterans Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton. However, he could move his way up the depth chart quickly, and it wouldn't be a shock to see him in the starting lineup before the end of the regular season.
Kayvon Webster was considered a surprise pick by some in the 2013 NFL draft. In fact, I called him the Broncos biggest reach in the draft. Webster enters the league with some questioning his draft status, but that doesn't change his focus or his confidence.
Webster has good size and certainly looks the part. I watched him run through some drills on Friday and was impressed by his straight-line speed. He certainly looked like he could turn and transition smoothly from his backpedal to a sprint.
After practice Webster spoke to the media, and I asked him about his fearless nature in run support.
Webster said, “I think my physical nature came from when I was younger—I played linebacker in high school. I always was inside the box and I always had to tackle, so I think that’s where I get my tackling skills from. I pride myself in making the play.”
He was then asked more about his transition from linebacker to cornerback:
“I think it was because of my size. I started playing cornerback when I got to college. That was my first time ever playing cornerback—when I got to college. I had never played that until I stepped on USF’s campus." Webster continued, "Until then, I had played wide receiver and linebacker at the same time. So, I’m still getting experience and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
I like his size/speed combination and asked Webster who he patterned his game after in college:
“When I used to go to practice in college, I used to always come tell everyone that, ‘Champ Bailey is here.’ He’s my favorite corner. It’s just a blessing to be able to be on a team with him. I’m looking forward to getting coached by him as well as my position coach.”
Webster is going to begin his pro career as the Broncos' fourth defensive back behind Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. He should get experience this year in the Broncos' dime package and on special teams.
If he develops his raw skill set, then Webster could be counted on to do more in the near future.
Tavarres King really impressed me Friday at Broncos minicamp. His speed was on display in drills, but what was most noteworthy was his acceleration. King can get to top speed in a hurry, and that ability will help him eat up cushions at the pro level.
King also changed direction with ease. I watched him at the Senior Bowl earlier this year and came away impressed by his crisp cuts. King did not disappoint today either. He is fast but doesn't have to throttle down in order to make a move. That ability will help him set up defenders and get open.
The most impressive thing about King today was his ball-tracking ability. I liked the way he would look in the football and catch passes over his shoulder. King was naturally plucking the ball out of the air, showing strong hands and grip on the football after the catch.
King is going to compete for the team's fourth wide receiver spot behind superstars Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. His main competition should be veteran Andre Caldwell, but there's also a chance Denver could bring back free agent Matthew Willis for training camp.
We may not see a lot of King this year, but his impressive skill set won't be out of the spotlight for long. There could be an increased role for him in Denver, as Decker will be an unrestricted free agent in 2014. If Decker moves on, then the Broncos may ask King to step into that third wide receiver spot.
I liked the way Zac Dysert was zipping the ball around today. Only two quarterbacks are at rookie minicamp: Dysert and undrafted free agent Ryan Katz (San Diego State).
Dysert had plenty of opportunities to sling the ball around with his new team.
I scouted Dysert earlier this year at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. and saw him struggle through the week of practice. On Friday he looked much improved and more comfortable than he did at the Senior Bowl.
Dysert's passes came out of his hand cleaner and with proper velocity. He also had a commanding bark when calling for the football. His confidence showed throughout the media portion of practice.
There was one play where Dysert threw an "in" route when wide receiver Greg Orton ran an "out" pattern. Other than that hiccup, Dysert had a strong day.
He's no threat to backup quarterback Brock Osweiler and is mostly a developmental prospect for the Broncos.
Dysert has the mobility, leadership and football intelligence to buy him some time at the pro level. If he can develop, then the Broncos could flip him for draft picks or use him as the backup quarterback when Osweiler takes over after the Peyton Manning era is done.
Greg Orton is a fourth-year player who is entering a make-or-break season with the Broncos. He was at rookie minicamp Friday because he hasn't played enough in the regular season during his pro career.
I remember watching Orton on film coming out of Purdue. His large frame, wingspan and strong hands came in handy when he was in college.
Orton ran the comeback route to perfection. He would square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage in order to present the biggest target to his quarterback. Orton would also use his frame to box out defenders and keep them away from the football.
When I saw Orton in Houston during the week of practice for the Shrine Game, I once again saw the player who could excel on the comeback. However, Orton hadn't developed as a route-runner and was essentially a one-trick pony.
Since then, he's bounced around from the NFL—to the Arena League, to the UFL and back to the NFL. Orton has been with the Broncos since 2011, mostly as a practice squad player.
I've seen improvements from Orton, and now his game is more complete. He showed well last year in training camp but ended up getting lost in the shuffle.
Orton has improved route-running ability, and he does a good job of disguising his routes so defenders don't know where he's going. He also has shown the ability to make difficult catches seem routine. I remember a few plays last year in training camp where Orton wowed the crowd with acrobatic touchdown catches.
He started off minicamp with another strong showing. We'll see if Orton can finally break through and make the 53-man roster for the Broncos in 2013.
C.J. Anderson looks like he'll be difficult to tackle when the pads come on. Standing next to second-round pick Montee Ball, he was shorter but had a bigger lower body. Anderson is only 5'8" but weighs in at 228 pounds.
I like the way he moved during drills, as he showed good balance when changing direction. Anderson is not a burner but did show nice burst and acceleration out of his cuts. He also has good foot frequency—which helps him cut at speed and enhances his balance when running through trash at the line of scrimmage.
Anderson was one of the undrafted free agents I highlighted after the Broncos added 15 college free agents last month. I like what he could add to a team looking for more power from its ground game.
The Broncos have had several hits with undrafted free agents in the past. Most notably (from the current roster) are starters Wesley Woodyard and Chris Harris.
After practice, I asked John Fox about the team's history of striking gold with priority free agents.
Fox said: “It’s just seizing that opportunity. We talked about it last night. I think they understand it, the track record of this organization. I think it’s over the last nine years [a CFA has made the roster out of training camp], I know definitely since I’ve been here. It doesn’t matter where you start the race; it’s where you finish, whether you’re a first-round pick or a college free agent.
Our coaches sell that and there’s a lot of ways to catch coaches’ eyes. We’re involved in special teams in these minicamps, and so I try to get them to liken it to when they stepped on their campuses as freshmen and that mindset and that attitude because this is a level jump, much like high school to college, college to the NFL and we’ll see where it goes.
They’re out there competing and we’re not prejudiced to where guys were drafted. We’re going to play the best guys and pick the best guys.”
Players like Anderson, cornerback Aaron Hester and wide receiver Quincy McDuffie have a chance to make a strong impression over the course of rookie minicamp.