Updating Denver Broncos' Key Position Battles Halfway Through Training Camp
It was a rather uneventful game. The games' only touchdown was scored by linebacker Shaun Phillips, after he scooped up a fumble by 49ers running back, D.J. Harper, and returned it nine yards for a touchdown.
Other notable highlights included Denver's first usage of the pistol offense with Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler throwing the ball efficiently, the defense playing strong in holding the Niners to just six points in the game, and C.J. Anderson's effective rushing day.
The Broncos still have training camp to complete along with three more preseason games as we progress into mid-August.
But how are the Broncos' key position battles shaping up thus far?
Starting Running Back
Along with the competition for the starting safety spots, the battle for the starting running back position has been the most intriguing competition throughout training camp.
Second-year man Ronnie Hillman is listed as the team's starting running back on the depth chart, but, as noted by Caitlin Swieca of the Denver Post, he continued to split first-team reps with rookie Montee Ball in practice last week.
In the Broncos' 10-6 victory over the Niners in the preseason opener, Hillman started the game, and Ball replaced him on the third offensive drive with the second-team offense. Knowshon Moreno followed thereafter.
However, the star running back of the game was neither of the top three running backs listed on the depth chart—it was actually C.J. Anderson.
The undrafted running back out of California gained 69 yards on 15 carries in his first-ever professional game. He gained all of his yards against second-team players, though, and he remains fourth on the team's depth chart. But if he can continue to show off his running skills throughout the rest of August, the Broncos could keep Anderson on the roster.
As it looks right now, Hillman and Ball are still the clear-cut favorites to become the starter, and Anderson is a wild card who should only be worried about making the roster right now. If he continues to impress, it will be at Moreno's expense, as the Broncos will not cut either Hillman or Ball.
The backup quarterback battle is between second-year man Brock Osweiler and rookie quarterback Zac Dysert.
Yes, it's true that neither of these young quarterbacks will see any meaningful playing time during the regular season unless a catastrophic injury to Peyton Manning occurs, but nonetheless, it's still a key battle. After all, one of these guys could take over the reins of the franchise once Manning retires.
Both quarterbacks come from different backgrounds, and both have different playing styles.
Osweiler is a 6'7" quarterback known for his big arm. He was drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft with the expectation that he would take over for Manning once the latter retires. Dysert was a late-round draft selection by the Broncos in this year's draft after showing off his ability to pass and run at Miami of Ohio.
Manning left Thursday night's game after just one drive, and Osweiler received a lot of reps. He went 13-of-18 for 105 yards without any turnovers.
On the other hand, Dysert only led two drives versus the Niners, and one of them was at the end of the game, which saw the rookie quarterback kneel to end the contest. However, the rookie quarterback did lead a drive that culminated in a field goal and ate up seven minutes of clock. The mobile quarterback also showed his ability to make plays with his legs, as he escaped the pass rush and ran outside of the pocket to prolong a few plays in his short amount of work.
As it stands right now, though, Osweiler is the favorite to be Manning's backup for a second straight year.
However, it'll be interesting to see what Dysert is able to do with more reps, considering his mobility. If he continues to impress, the Broncos might consider keeping three quarterbacks on the active roster in 2013.
Starting Safety Spots
Overshadowed by the running back battle has been the battle for the starting safety spots throughout OTAs and training camp.
It has been such a fierce competition that it's hard to say who will be Denver's starter at either of the safety spots come September.
In the Bronco's preseason opener, Duke Ihenacho started at strong safety, while Rahim Moore started at free safety. However, on the team's current depth chart, Ihenacho is listed as the backup at strong safety to Mike Adams, while Moore is listed as the starter at free safety.
According to Brandon Mooree of Broncos.com, Ihenacho has made a surprise impression upon the coaching staff early on in camp, and he was perhaps Denver's most impressive player versus the Niners. Ihenacho led the team in total tackles with seven, while also forcing a fumble.
Adams himself made plays as well, though, as he picked off a Colt McCoy pass near the end of the second quarter with the Niners threatening in Broncos territory.
It's obvious that Moore looks to be the Broncos' starting free safety come the regular season opener. What is less certain is the starting strong safety spot.
If Ihenacho continues to play well, it will be him—not Adams—who will start alongside Moore when the Broncos open the regular season against the Baltimore Ravens.
Starting Middle Linebacker
Nate Irving started at middle linebacker in the preseason opener, and he is listed as the No. 1 middle linebacker on the team's depth chart.
Still, this is a three-way battle between Irving, Stewart Bradley and Steven Johnson.
Irving had four tackles on Thursday night, including the biggest play of the game, which saw him cause D.J. Harper's fumble that resulted in Shaun Phillips' nine-yard touchdown.
Bradley also had an efficient game, ranking second on the team with six total tackles.
This is Irving's spot to lose. The Broncos coaching staff likes him, and, as pointed out by Mike Klis of the Denver Post, the team has had him pegged for the starting position for a while now.
However, keep a look out for the veteran Bradley. As unlikely as it seems, he could possibly make a late push to unseat Irving.
It's not likely that happens, but Bradley is worth keeping an eye on as the preseason progresses.
At the moment, Kevin Vickerson is listed as the team's starting defensive tackle, with Terrance Knighton listed as the starting nose tackle. That remained true in the opener, as both Vickerson and Knighton started the game.
The Broncos' first-round draft selection this year, Sylvester Williams, continues to work his way up the depth chart, and he will begin his career as a rotational player behind Vickerson and Knighton.
Although it was expected that the University of North Carolina product would have an immediate presence in the Broncos' starting defense, it looks as if Vickerson will start for yet another year.
Look for the Broncos' two veteran defensive tackles to remain the starters throughout the preseason as Williams continues to learn the system.