John Fox looks on as the Broncos open minicamp
The Denver Broncos kicked off organized team activities (OTAs) Monday at Dove Valley. Rookie minicamp wrapped up a little over a week ago, and now the whole team was out at practice. This is the first time we've seen the Broncos all together on the practice field since the playoffs last year.
The team is built to make another postseason run, and many consider the Broncos favorites to win the Super Bowl this year. They've got a different look at some positions this year, and we'll have to see how these pieces perform in 2013.
Some of those pieces are on the offensive side of the ball and the skill positions were my focus Monday as we in the media had access for the entire day of practice. During each practice I will tweet out some of my observations.
Here's my full report of what I saw from the Broncos' skill position players on Monday.
Peyton Manning looked sharp on the practice field. Right from the beginning, his arm strength stood out. I've watched Manning every day of practice open to the media through OTAs, training camp and the regular season last year. His arm never looked as lively as it did Monday.
Manning was putting plenty of zip on his passes and challenging the edges of the defense.
He was also throwing with great touch and accuracy in practice. Manning would place passes where only his receiver could get the football on deep routes. On underneath routes, Manning did a fine job of leading his receivers and hitting them in stride so they could maximize the yards gained after the catch.
Manning did throw a pick-six to cornerback Chris Harris. On a five-yard out, Eric Decker slipped on his break and Harris jumped the route, easily taking it to the house. Manning shook off that play and continued to spread the ball around to all spots on the field.
The veteran quarterback looked more comfortable this opening day than he did last year during his first practice with the Broncos.
I asked head coach John Fox about this and he said, “He can speak to that better than I can, but it seems to me he’s way more comfortable. A year ago, he didn’t play the year before, he played in another city. He’s since then moved to a new city, gotten familiar with his teammates and I think felt a lot more confident about his abilities. I think he showed that a year ago and I think he’ll just build on that this year.”
Manning was excited to get back out on the football field.
Manning commented on the first day of OTAs after practice. "It’s nice to be able to get back on the field with jerseys and helmets and have more of an organized practice. This is the first time we were able to go against the defense. We’ve really just been running plays and throwing passes versus air. To go against our defense, to go against our secondary players like [CB] Champ [Bailey] and [CB Chris] Harris [and] our new secondary players—it’s always good work going against really good players.”
Brock Osweiler was simply outstanding Monday. Several things are different about Osweiler in 2013. He has a different jersey number now. He changed from the "No. 6" he wore as a rookie to his college "No. 17" and looked like a different player too.
He was showing off his rocket arm on most every throw. Osweiler has an improved motion, and his release point was consistently over his head at the proper spot. He makes zipping passes look effortless and showed proper footwork and hip snap when throwing Monday.
His strong arm caused some dropped passes by receivers who had to be surprised at the ball coming in that fast. Osweiler used his arm strength to split double-teams, and he was able to throw into incredibly tight (and shrinking) windows.
On one play, Osweiler fit the ball into running back Lance Ball as middle linebacker Nate Irving swooped in to break up the play. Irving anticipated the throw but was unable to make it to the ball by the time it hit Ball in the hands. The veteran back was able to scoot up the field untouched after the catch.
Osweiler also showed good touch on his passes. It's a skill that he didn't have down last year as a rookie. He was able to hit wide receiver Greg Orton on a deep route near the sidelines where the ball dropped in right over Orton's shoulder in stride 30-plus yards down the field.
Throwing on the run is not a problem for Osweiler either. He looked good throwing on the move in either direction, still zipping the pass accurately to his intended target. His athleticism was also on display as he scrambled to pick up some yards when all options as a passer were exhausted.
I've always said if Osweiler plays up to his potential he can be a Ben Roethlisberger-like quarterback. Monday, he looked more seasoned and more relaxed than ever before.
It was a rough day for Zac Dysert. The seventh-round pick from Miami (OH) showed that he was a work in progress during rookie minicamp, and Monday was no different.
I like where the Broncos selected Dysert and believe that good teams draft and develop young quarterbacks whenever they can. Dysert is a good developmental prospect, but there are a few things he needs to improve on.
First, he needs to show more poise as a passer. That should come with time, but right now after watching Dysert during rookie minicamp and on the first day of OTAs, he looked nervous.
He mishandled at least one snap that the defense jumped all over. I'm sure his head has to be swimming with the transition from college football to the NFL. Dysert has a strong work ethic, and correcting this problem should happen eventually.
Second, Dysert needs to improve his accuracy. While in college, he showed inconsistent accuracy from game to game and sometimes from play to play. He'll miss too many wide-open receivers and is spraying the ball all over the field.
Dysert will throw some passes in the dirt, yet on the next play (on a similar route) he'll overthrow it. It's not just missing targets, it's also pass placement when the ball gets within a receiver's catch radius. Too often Dysert throws behind his targets so they have to slow down for the ball and reach back to secure the catch. This leads to contested catches and minimizes the yards gained after the catch.
Dysert was working with receivers Monday that he worked with during rookie minicamp, so they should have some chemistry already.
Third, he needs to learn how to use his eyes to manipulate the defense. Dysert locks onto his initial read too often, and that tips off the defense as to where the pass is going. This leads to tipped passes, interceptions or causes his receivers to take big hits.
A four-year starter in college, he should have this skill more developed than it is right now.
Finally, Dysert needs mechanical work. He holds the ball too low at times, and that causes a delay when releasing the football. It can also lead to ball-security issues as defenders can swipe it away at his midsection. Passes come out of his hand with a little wobble. That is a mechanical issue that can be fixed by making sure he's throwing with proper velocity for both short and long throws.
Dysert also needs to clean up his footwork. Dropping back is something he needs to work on as he needs to be more confident in his stride. When he's under center, he doesn't look as comfortable as when he's in the shotgun. Dropping back doesn't look natural for him yet.
Dyset did make a positive play of note. Late in practice he was able to connect with undrafted rookie tight end Lucas Reed downfield. Dysert threw the pass right on the money and hit Reed over the shoulder in stride. It's an incredibly difficult throw and one he needs to make more consistently as a pro.
I like Dysert's team-first mentality, plus he's known as a strong leader and very coachable kid. Dysert won't push Osweiler for anything until he cleans up his game. I don't believe the Broncos could sneak him through to the practice squad after training camp.
This means Dysert is likely the third-string developmental quarterback in 2013.
Ronnie Hillman had a good day of practice. Still the youngest player on the Broncos' roster, Hillman provided more than one "wow" play during practice.
As USA Today reporter Lindsay Jones pointed out on Twitter, Hillman spent the majority of the time running with the Broncos' first team. Both Willis McGahee (absent) and Knowshon Moreno (knee) missed Monday, which made the second-year back the first option to open up OTAs.
This could be veteran deference on the Broncos part, or it could be a sign of things to come in the Broncos backfield. Either way, Hillman ran with the opportunity.
He immediately looked bigger to me on the field. This offseason, Hillman has been working out with world-class trainer Travelle Gaines at Athletic Gaines in California. I've known Travelle for years, and he has trained some of the best running backs in the league today like Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush and Maurice Jones-Drew.
The work this offseason has certainly paid off. Hillman's upper body looked bigger, yet he was still running with his trademark speed.
Hillman showed good burst and acceleration with the football in his hands. In team drills, he would get up the field in the blink of an eye and was getting to the second level in a heartbeat. His speed was apparent in the open field, but he also showed subtle moves to make defenders miss and create his own space.
In addition to running in space, Hillman looked good running in between the tackles. Even with his bigger size, Hillman is not going to be a pile pusher. However, I did see defenders lose track of him up the gut when Hillman was hiding behind the bigger offensive linemen.
On one play, Hillman ran underneath the arms of an outstretched defender and was 15 yards into his run after one cut.
Pass protection has been an issue many felt Hillman needed to improve on. Monday at practice, he did have to defend against the blitz and did a good job of squaring up to rushers and holding his ground.
Hillman also showed well as a receiver. On one pass from Peyton Manning he had to go low in order to scoop the pass into his hands. He caught the ball quickly and turned up the field before the linebacker covering him had time to react.
Manning told me, "We’re really counting on him this year to have more of a role in the offense. Last year they kind of had a rotation and he had a certain amount of snaps that he was going to get. I definitely see that role increasing and Adam [Gase] giving him more responsibility in this offense. It’s not just kind of a limited package like we did last year. We are really expecting him to make that next-level jump."
Per Mike Klis from the Denver Post, the Broncos want Montee Ball and Hillman to be their one-two punch in 2013. We'll see if those roles can shake out for both young backs in training camp.
Montee Ball is the rookie everyone was watching Monday. The second-round back from Wisconsin is expected to win the starting job before the start of the regular season. However, the Broncos aren't just going to hand the rookie the job; he'll have to earn it by impressing in camp.
Ball has the strength between the tackles needed to push the pile. His leg drive is incredible, and he can pick up tough yards after contact. Ball is fearless between the tackles but showed good burst when running outside.
He's not the fastest back on the roster but showed the ability to make the corner in practice. His vision is extraordinary as Ball found cutback lanes quickly. I like the way he can change direction with one step explosion, and he gets to top speed in a hurry.
Ball did a good job as a receiver out of the backfield too. He caught the ball cleanly and showed wide receiver-like skills, making adjustments to poorly thrown passes.
I like the way Ball was going at full speed during practice. He showed a sense of urgency no matter what the Broncos were doing. If they were going through position drills, Ball was intense. If they were going through team drills, Ball was running at full speed and making crisp cuts.
Ball also showed a bit of an extra gear once he got to the second level. He's not a burner by any means, but he showed deceptive speed downfield.
Ball will have to continue to impress if he's going to make it to the starting lineup before Week 1. He made strides toward that goal Monday.
Arguably the biggest addition of the offseason was former New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker. Everyone in the media was waiting to see what the superstar veteran looked like on the practice field in a Broncos uniform. Welker did not disappoint those in attendance and made several big plays in his debut.
His ankle-breaking moves were on full display from the start. Welker is so quick on the field, and he can get open with ease because he doesn't tip of his routes before making his break. My ankles felt sore just from watching Welker. I can't imagine being a defender trying to cover this guy.
Welker got open regularly and showed good concentration looking in passes from Peyton Manning. A favorite target of Tom Brady in New England, I'm sure that Welker will become the same trusted receiver for his new quarterback.
After practice, Welker commented on catching passes from Manning. "Peyton’s a great quarterback and has been for a long, long time. I’m just fortunate to be a part of it.”
The respect goes both ways. Manning also commented on his new weapon after day one of OTAs. "He’s just been an extremely difficult guy to cover one-on-one and then you can tell by watching him on film—he’s an extremely smart player. He has an excellent feel for zone coverage."
The addition of Welker means a change in formation for the Broncos. Last season under Mike McCoy the offense featured 12 personnel (two tight ends) as the base set. This season under new offensive coordinator Adam Gase the team should use more 11 personnel (three wide receivers).
After practice, I asked Welker about how 11 personnel helps not only on short yardage situations but also in the red zone: “I don’t know how it’s going to help it. I think our goal-line, that’s going to be a different-type personnel and guys are going to be in there making sure that we’re getting the ball across the goal line."
Welker continued, "I guess for the three-wides, making sure that we get it in the end zone whenever we get that opportunity. On a long run, not getting caught at the 1[-yard line] or anything like that.”
It was great watching Welker on the practice field, and I can't wait to see his chemistry further develop with Manning in this high-octane offense.
Demaryius Thomas is one of the top receivers in the game today. Last season was a breakout year for him, and he quickly became a trusted target for quarterback Peyton Manning. Thomas showed me last offseason that he was incredibly focused and did not want to let Manning or his teammates down. Monday at practice, Thomas once again was sharp.
Thomas makes everything look easy. He was gliding down the field and hauling in deep passes with ease. Clearly, the chemistry between Manning and Thomas is stronger than ever before.
The big wide receiver did a good job of using his frame to box out defenders to keep them away from the football on underneath routes. He was also regularly plucking the football out of the air with arms extended away from his body.
Thomas had the most acrobatic play of the day. On a downfield route Thomas had to leap in the air, turn his body to catch the pass at its highest point, and kept his feet while twisting around to get up the seam. It was the type of catch that most in the NFL can't make.
With the addition of Welker in free agency, we should see the Broncos be even more pass happy than they were in 2012. That's nothing but good news for a budding superstar like Thomas. He should once again be the Broncos' leading receiver and biggest weapon in 2013.
Eric Decker is another part of the Big Three the Broncos have at the wide receiver position. Like Thomas, we saw Decker play up to his potential and post career-best numbers in 2012. At the first day of OTAs, we saw Decker continue his strong play.
He lacked the quickness of Welker or the big-play, jaw-dropping catches of Thomas, but Decker still had a strong day.
Coming out of college, many in the scouting community rated Decker's hands as the best in his draft class. Decker's strong hands and concentration are his best attribute, and they were both on display Monday. He caught nearly every pass thrown his way cleanly and did a good job tucking the football after the catch to turn and run up the field.
Decker did a good job fighting off coverage at the line of scrimmage. He's become better at beating press coverage and using his upper body strength to toss cornerbacks aside. Decker showed that he will fight to beat the jam and can get into his route quickly.
The addition of Welker could drop the number of targets for Decker in 2013. However, if the Broncos are as pass happy as some think they'll be, then his numbers should be just fine.
Duplicating the 13 receiving touchdowns from last season could be difficult. Decker is a great red-zone receiver and may catch around 10 touchdowns in 2013.
photo courtesy of Johnny Hart - KDSP
Ryan Katz is most likely a camp arm for the Broncos. He throws with good zip but struggled with accuracy Monday and had a slow dropback.
Fullback Jacob Hester ran with good leg drive Monday. He had good burst with the ball in his hands and ran with a lot of fight between the tackles in practice. Hester also caught the ball cleanly out of the backfield.
Undrafted free agent C.J. Anderson looked swift. He hit the hole hard and did a good job of cutting quickly to get upfield in a hurry.
Jeremiah Johnson showed his trademark speed on the outside. He's quick in the open field and difficult for defenders to get a bead on.
Mario Fannin didn't look like he's regained his speed. He ran tentatively and failed to impress as a receiver out of the backfield.
Greg Orton continues to play well. He adjusted to poorly thrown passes and secured the ball quickly. Orton showed good body control near the sidelines and hauled in a beautiful over-the-shoulder deep pass from Brock Osweiler.
Quincy McDuffie looked faster than fast on the practice field. He hauled in a few passes that were too low for him but failed to catch a pass from Dysert that sailed over his head.
Gerell Robinson looked good. He was regularly looking passes in and was able to high point off target passes.
Lamaar Thomas showed he could beat the jam easily and is a fluid athlete on downfield routes.
Virgil Green shows great effort as a blocker. He's smooth out of his breaks but dropped a pass that was too low for him in stride.
Julius Thomas is in a make-or-break season. He's healthy for the first time in OTAs and showed well Monday. Thomas is incredibly athletic and outran cornerback Omar Bolden on a catch down the seam.
Lucas Reed caught one of Dysert's best passes. He hauled in an over-the-shoulder catch that Dysert put right on the money in stride.
That's a wrap for my day one notebook. Make sure to follow me on Twitter for more updates from Dove Valley.