The Denver Broncos recently completed their final set of OTAs this week.
OTAs feature no contact and no pads, but for rookies, first-year team players and even some veterans, it's a chance to get back into football shape—mentally as well as physically—and, most importantly, to reestablish camaraderie with teammates.
Through the last couple of weeks of OTAs, a handful of Bronco players have impressed and have caught the eyes of the Denver coaching staff. Whether that's due to no-shows of certain players, injuries or just pure skill, these five players have improved their stock after completing OTAs.
One of the beneficiaries of Willis McGahee's annual no-show to OTAs and Knowshon Moreno's absence due to injury, was rookie running back Montee Ball.
Being a second-round draft pick entering his first OTAs, Ball—along with second-year running back Ronnie Hillman—received the majority of reps with Peyton Manning and the first-team offense.
The University of Wisconsin product chose the extra time spent with Manning to pick the veteran QB's brain on a variety of subjects, most notably what Manning and the coaches expect of Ball as the rookie tries to digest the Broncos' offense, according to Mike Morris of denverbroncos.com:
It's been big...The biggest adjustment from (Manning) is all the audibles that he makes because he's capable of—as we all know—changing the play at the line of scrimmage. You've got to know not only what the running back's route is on a play, if he's spread out and empty on a play, he can change the route from the first routes to the second routes.
With McGahee and/or Moreno likely to be released at some point before the start of the regular season, the former Heisman runner-up Ball will have every opportunity to seize the starting running back position entering 2013.
OTAs are the first step in making that happen.
Speaking of young running backs making an impact during OTAs, Ball was not the only one making an impression.
Second-year running back Ronnie Hillman also took advantage of McGahee and Moreno's absences.
The San Diego State product has bulked up to 195 pounds, after spending parts of last season at 180. Hillman has learned much from the weight loss he experienced during the 2012 season. Via Mike Klis of The Denver Post:
First time being on my own, not being disciplined about how to train my body. How to eat. There's a big one-year difference now in knowing what it's going to take.
With both running backs in their early 20s and having been draftees of John Fox, both Ball and Hillman have the inside track to be Denver's most productive running backs in 2013.
Having added some bulk to his smallish frame, expect the Hillman to spend the majority of the 2013 seasons splitting carries with Ball.
As Bleacher Report featured columnist Jon Heath pointed out, tight end Julius Thomas turned some heads during OTAs.
With Joel Dreessen out because of a knee situation, there has been ample opportunity in recent weeks for third-year tight ends, Thomas and Virgil Green, to step up.
On DenverBroncos.com, Andrew Mason noted how Julius Thomas "was once again active and made multiple catches."
Demaryius Thomas had this to say on the third-year tight end's efforts over the last few weeks: "I feel like every time we’re on the field he goes hard and tries to make a play like everybody else is doing."
The Portland State product has had minimal impact since entering the NFL in 2011. He's had just one catch for five yards during his first two years with the Broncos.
However, coach John Fox and the Broncos staff have always been high on the fourth-round selection's athletic ability.
With Dreessen's injury, if there is ever an opportunity for Thomas to step up, it's now.
The third-year linebacker is currently involved in a three-way battle for the starting middle linebacker position with free-agent signee Stewart Bradley and second-year man Steve Johnson.
Irving was a third-round draft selection in 2011, and although he has made an impact on special teams after leading the unit in tackles in 2012, he has yet to start a game through two seasons in the NFL.
Well, now is his opportunity.
With the Broncos choosing not to address the middle linebacker position through the draft, Irving, according to John Fox, is getting his opportunity to fill one of the team's biggest voids. According to Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post, "He's a guy that was a third-round draft pick that really, in Nate's defense, has not had a great opportunity yet," Fox said. "He'll get that this year."
Entering his third year with the Broncos and having played well wherever the Broncos have stuck him, the North Carolina State product should be the man manning the middle for Denver in 2013.
With the Broncos reaching to draft Kayvon Webster in the third round of this year's draft, it's clear the team has high hopes for the University of South Florida product.
OTAs are probably most beneficial to rookies, and first-year guys such as Ball and Webster are seizing these opportunities to learn from veterans.
As Bleacher Report's Jon Heath has pointed out, veteran cornerback Champ Bailey has taken Webster under his wing. And with an open cornerback competition, Webster has taken advantage of his limited time thus far with the Broncos.
During Monday's OTA session, Kayvon intercepted a deep pass thrown by Zac Eysert and intended for wide receiver Tavarres King.
If the third-round selection can pick up a thing or two from Bailey and continue to make plays throughout training camp, it wouldn't shock me to see him playing on the opposite side of Bailey as early as 2013.