The Denver Broncos wrapped up their first session of organized team activities (OTAs) last week at Dove Valley, a three-day minicamp with helmets worn but no contact allowed.
On Wednesday, the team will continue OTAs with another three-day session before concluding OTAs from June 3 through June 6. Mandatory minicamp will be held later in mid-June, and training camp will begin in late-July.
Here's a few notes from the team's first organized team practices of the offseason.
Last season, then-rookie running back Ronnie Hillman was playing at 175 pounds. Entering training camp, he says he's now pushing 200 pounds.
Hillman has been working out at Athletic Gaines in Los Angeles, where Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Detroit’s Reggie Bush and Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew also train, according to the Associated Press' Arnie Stapleton, via The Washington Post.
“Right now I’m probably about 15 pounds heavier than I was in the last game that I played,” Hillman told Stapleton, adding that he hopes to play at 195 all season.
“He was light last year,” offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “And that happens with a young guy, his first year in the league, his weight decreases. That pounding that you’re going to take running between the tackles — he needs to keep that size. And I think he will.”
"We’re a fast team," said Hillman, a speedster himself that can afford to put on a few pounds. Now pushing 200 pounds, Hillman figures to be more effective for the Broncos in 2013.
He's no Elvis Dumervil, but he may be one of the linemen Denver is counting on to step up in Dumervil's absence this fall.
Defensive end Jeremy Beal was a defensive end/outside linebacker pass-rushing hybrid at Oklahoma and was drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL draft by the Broncos. He spent his first season on the practice squad but was having an impressive training camp last summer before landing on the injured reserve list.
Coming back at full strength, Beal will be a sleeper to watch at training camp, as was noted by DenverBroncos.com's Gray Caldwell.
Watch for Beal to compete for a rotational role on Denver's defensive line.
It won't be hard for the Broncos to find a role for a versatile pass-rusher like Shaun Phillips on defense. But Phillips will be doing more than just rushing the passer.
In April, coach John Fox noted that Phillips would be a hybrid-like player—serving as both a defensive end and backup outside linebacker to Von Miller, who also plays with his hand on the ground on occasion.
At OTAs, Phillips confirmed that his role will extend beyond pass-rushing.
"It's a little tough that they've got me covering tight ends a little bit more and not just rushing the passer, but it's the first day. I'm learning," Phillips told DenverBroncos.com's Andrew Mason.
But if Phillips has any say in the matter, he clearly prefers defensive end in a 4-3 look:
Whether it's outside linebacker or defensive end, they're pretty similar positions. The great thing about defensive end is you get to put your hand down and pass rush all the time. Hopefully that's the case, but we'll see. Everything will shake out in the end.
Whether he lines up a majority of the time at defensive end or outside linebacker, Phillips' job will always be the same: Get to the football.
"Football, at the end of the day, is always simple," he said. "See the ball; go tackle the guy with the ball."
Last season, second-year cornerback Chris Harris Jr. had a mini-breakout season, recording 61 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions in 12 starts (15 games). His production resulted in him being ranked third among Matt Miller's top 100 cornerbacks of 2013 and being ranked fifth overall by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
But outside of Denver and beyond serious students of the game, Harris' season went seemingly unnoticed. Without Pro Bowl recognition, Harris' stellar play flew under the radar.
That should change in 2013.
"I feel like I am a starting corner in this league, easy," Harris, noted as a nickel defensive back, told Caldwell DenverBroncos.com last Tuesday. "I’m an undrafted guy that’s taking advantage of the opportunity. That’s the easiest way that I can describe it to you. I’m just taking advantage of the playing time I get.”
Harris joined the team as an undrafted rookie in 2011 and went on to earn PFW/PFWA and Football Outsiders' NFL All-Rookie Team honors in year one before bursting into the starting lineup in year two.
As Denver's slot cornerback, Harris will get to go against Wes Welker every day in practice, something that will only make him better.
"He’s one of the best slot receivers, and I think I’m one of the best slot corners," Harris said.
That will be one heckuva matchup to watch in training camp.
If you are looking for a breakout starter on Denver's defensive line this season, look no further than Derek Wolfe.
The second-year defensive end is coming off a six-sack season and is primed to increase his sack total in 2013. (Merely for the sake of discussion, consider that Houston's J.J. Watt recorded 5.5 sacks during his rookie year—in a role very similar to the one Wolfe held in Denver in 2012).
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Wolfe emerged as a leader as the year went on last season, and Von Miller noted that he took around "three to four" sacks from Wolfe throughout the season.
“I probably took about three or four sacks away from Derek Wolfe,” Miller said, via Kim Constantinesco of PredominantlyOrange.com. “If you add that on to his total, I think he was up there in double-digits. He had an amazing rookie season and I think the way he’s been working this offseason—he’s already a leader now.”
"He's already the leader in the defensive line room," Miller told Caldwell of DenverBroncos.com. "I think everybody knew he was destined to be that right when we first brought him in."
Watch for Wolfe to thrive playing across from Miller in 2013.