Early Predictions for Denver Broncos' Training Camp Battles
The Denver Broncos kicked off the next phase of installation on Wednesday as full-team minicamp kicked off at Dove Valley. There are no pads in these workouts, but the team does get to work on drills individually and as a group. These team drills give an idea of where players are at in the pecking order of the depth chart.
Per Broncos reporting guidelines, there is no reporting of which players are practicing with individual units (personnel groupings, starting lineups, blitz schemes, goal-line offense, nickel defense, etc.). However, we do know which positions are up for grabs with the starting lineup. We also know which positions are unsettled behind the starters.
Broncos head coach John Fox was excited about “Phase 3” of offseason training activities.
“It’s real football. I think you get to practice against somebody. Offense and defense practice against each other. That’s really the first phase where that’s allowed by the new CBA. So I just call it real football. Back on the grass. I think they get excited and I know all the coaches get excited about it.”
In today’s NFL a team needs quality starters and depth in case of injury.
The Broncos did a good job in free agency when adding supremely talented players like strong safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. All four of these players should start and have big impacts with Denver this season.
They followed that up with a strong draft, especially in the first two rounds. Cornerback Bradley Roby should push for a starting job immediately. Even if veteran Chris Harris Jr. comes back fully from his partially-torn ACL injury, the team may decide to let Roby start on the outside opposite Talib.
Wide receiver Cody Latimer was a steal in the second round. Had the Broncos taken him at 31st overall instead, the NFL world would not have been shocked. He’s a talented player with the upside to be a future starter for the Broncos.
This collection of talent that was added has bolstered the roster in Denver. Now it’s time to see which players rise to the top—and it all starts in minicamp.
Here are some early predictions of the winners in the training camp battles that are coming up for the Broncos.
Manny Ramirez vs. Will Montgomery
The Broncos have brought in competition at the center position this offseason. Last year’s starter Manny Ramirez began 2013 as a starter by default. The team used Ramirez there during the offseason because Dan Koppen had not yet been re-signed and J.D. Walton was still recovering from an ankle injury.
The Broncos tried to add more talent during the 2013 offseason. Koppen came back for about a week before he was lost for the season with a knee injury. Former Indianapolis Colts center Ryan Lilja was signed, but he failed to make the final roster. They even added Steve Vallos to see if he could possibly be the starting center.
In the end, those guys failed to make the impact and Ramirez won the job. Now Ramirez is going to have to prove himself all over again.
Earlier this year in free agency, the Broncos added veteran center Will Montgomery from Washington. Originally a draft pick by the John Fox-led Carolina Panthers, Montgomery has plenty of experience as both a center and guard.
He’s got the athleticism to work perfectly in the zone-blocking scheme employed by the Broncos. Montgomery can get to the second level cleanly, and he is capable of blocking a moving target—becoming a “sticky” blocker as scouts like to call it.
Montgomery is a more natural fit at center than Ramirez is.
Manny Ramirez is very strong at the point of attack. He can plant his feet and use his powerful upper body to keep defenders at bay.
However, he struggles when asked to block a moving target in open space. Ramirez shows weakness as a starter when asked to block a more active/athletic defensive tackle. Watch any time he’s had to block a player like J.J. Watt (Houston Texans) and you’ll see a deficiency in his game.
With Peyton Manning under center, the Broncos need to have the most athletic offensive line they possibly can. They’ll once again employ an uptempo system under offensive coordinator Adam Gase, and the linemen need to have the athleticism to work quickly and in space.
Ramirez is going to begin training camp as the starter at center, but there’s a strong chance he won’t finish camp with a grasp on that job.
Winner: Will Montgomery
Orlando Franklin vs. Ben Garland vs. Manny Ramirez
The Broncos lost one starter from the offensive line in free agency (left guard Zane Beadles), and now they have three positions that are up in the air entering training camp. The team didn’t even make an offer to Beadles, as they had a plan in place. The primary plan was to move starting right tackle Orlando Franklin inside to left guard.
Franklin was a second-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Coming out of the University of Miami, Franklin was known as a mauling run-blocker who had experience at both tackle and guard.
He came to a Broncos team that had a much different philosophy on the offensive line compared to what they are now. In 2011, the Broncos were a run-heavy team—especially with Tim Tebow at quarterback. This required the offensive linemen to have a different skill set—one that more closely resembled what Franklin could be at tackle. He was a road grader for the Broncos, and he did a fine job of moving defenders out of the way.
When the Broncos added Peyton Manning in 2012, the needed skill set for offensive linemen changed. Now the team was more of a finesse offense that required the linemen to excel at pass protection. Franklin did a decent job at right tackle for two years with Manning running the show, but it certainly wasn’t playing to his strengths as a football player.
Moving inside to guard will allow Franklin to be that ferocious run-blocker, and it will cover up some of his weaknesses in pass protection. Starting next to All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, Franklin will benefit.
When Manning was asked about Franklin’s move inside, he was complimentary of the move.
“Orlando’s been a solid player for us these past two years, so whether he stays a tackle or goes to guard, that’s probably to be determined. But he will be on the field and as a quarterback, I certainly like having Orlando on the field. He makes the quarterback feel comfortable back there.”
The guard position isn’t locked down just yet. Franklin will have competition, especially if he struggles with the transition in training camp.
The most likely competitor could be Ben Garland. The former defensive lineman moved to the offensive side last year with the hopes that guard would be a better fit. He’s strong at the point of attack, and Garland understands leverage when taking on an opponent.
Garland is still learning the position, but he could be in line for a jump in opportunity if he shows well in camp.
Another player that might be in the mix is last year’s starting center Manny Ramirez. He’s going to compete with free agent Will Montgomery for the starting center job this year, but if he loses that spot, then perhaps the team could switch him back to his more natural position of guard.
The Broncos want to find their best five offensive linemen, and they have a few different combinations to do so. The most likely scenario for them is to start Franklin at left guard in 2014.
Winner: Orlando Franklin
Chris Clark vs. Michael Schofield
With last year’s starting right tackle Orlando Franklin moving inside to left guard, the team now has to find a starter outside. With an uptempo offense, the team needs to find a player with the athleticism to move quickly, work well in space and handle speed-rushers on the edge.
Enter Chris Clark, last year’s starter at left tackle for a majority of the season. Clark stepped into the role after All-Pro Ryan Clady was lost for the season due to a Week 2 Lisfranc injury he suffered against the New York Giants. Outside of a few bad games here and there (Colts, Seattle Seahawks), Clark did a fine job protecting Peyton Manning’s blind side.
Clark has the athleticism the team wants in a tackle. He’s light on his feet, and Clark can shadow edge-rushers who try to bend around the corner.
He’s not a brute like Franklin, but Clark does have a good initial punch to redirect pass-rushers when they get close to him. Clark is not as devastating a run-blocker as Franklin, but this team is not a run-heavy team like they used to be.
When asked about the offensive line changes, Peyton Manning talked about Clark.
“As far as….[T] Chris [Clark] making a move, this is the time where you experiment. This is the time where you see guys in different positions. This is where you get guys out of their comfort zones and push them a little bit and see what they can do.”
Simply put, a tackle like Clark is the best fit on the right side.
That’s why the team selected an athletic (and versatile) tackle when they chose Michael Schofield out of Michigan in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft. Like Clark, Schofield stands out as a tackle because of his footwork and athleticism.
The rookie may be quite a bit meaner than Clark, and that could help him develop into a better run-blocker than the veteran. Schofield loves to toy with defenders, and he will patiently wait to set up an opponent for a pancake block.
Schofield could be the team’s swing tackle this year (Clark’s old role), but he could be much more. He has the natural talent, proper temperament and athleticism to be an effective starter.
The real question is how long will he take to develop?
Clark will enter training camp as the starting right tackle, and he’ll most likely win the job. Broncos fans just need to keep an eye on Schofield’s development because he has the upside to be a quality starter for Denver someday.
Winner: Chris Clark
C.J. Anderson vs. Ronnie Hillman
The Broncos are going to use second-year pro Montee Ball as their lead back in 2014. He’s added more muscle to his frame in anticipation of a larger workload, and Ball looked quick on the first day of minicamp. Behind Ball, the team has to find three spots on the depth chart.
In addition to filling the depth chart, the team needs to find the primary backup behind Ball. This player needs to be able to carry a large workload in case of emergency. The two players competing for that spot are second-year pro C.J. Anderson and third-year pro Ronnie Hillman.
Anderson was picked up as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Continuing the tradition of finding contributors in the ranks of the undrafted, Anderson made the final roster last year. He was inactive for the first seven weeks of his rookie season, but a Week 7 fumble by Hillman opened an opportunity for him.
Hillman was the lead back for the Broncos all last offseason. He was holding off Ball and Knowshon Moreno at the top of the depth chart when fumbling problems caused him to lose the job in the preseason. Hillman worked mostly as a change-of-pace back behind Moreno once the season started, but he lost that job after his ball-security problems resurfaced.
After the fumble against the Colts, Hillman was only active for three games the rest of the regular season. He did not see the active roster for any of the Broncos’ three postseason games—including the Super Bowl.
Hillman is arguably the fastest player on the team. That speed could certainly come in handy behind the balanced skill set of Ball. Hillman has regularly looked good in practice, but he’ll have to prove he can hang onto the rock in the preseason if he wants to win the primary backup job.
Anderson is the team’s only true power back. He has a strong lower body, keeps his legs grinding after contact and he can wear down an opponent as the game goes on. Anderson would most likely be the starter for the Broncos if Ball was injured.
The ability to be an emergency starter should give Anderson the advantage in this battle.
Winner: C.J. Anderson
Sylvester Williams vs. Kevin Vickerson
The defensive line of the Broncos is a strength of the team. They have an interesting competition in the middle of the line next to defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. Veteran Kevin Vickerson will push second-year pro Sylvester Williams for the starting job.
Vickerson is a team-first player who has done anything the Broncos have wanted him to during his time in Denver. He’s lost weight in order to play defensive end, he’s added weight to play defensive tackle and Vickerson has been an impact player when relied on as a starter. In fact, Vickerson started next to Knighton for the first 12 weeks of the 2013 season.
Williams was the Broncos' first-round pick in 2013. His rookie season started off slowly, and too often Williams was out of position, guessing where the play is going wrongly, and then trying to run around his blocker. That may have worked in college at North Carolina, but it is not an effective playing style in the NFL.
Once Vickerson was lost for the year with a hip injury in Week 12 against the New England Patriots, the team turned to Williams—ready or not.
Williams not only started, but he starred for the Broncos after that point. Gone were the bad decisions that plagued him earlier in the year. Williams did a much better job tracking the play, and he became a disruptive player in the middle of the defensive line.
Vickerson is now healthy, but it could be difficult for him to get his starting job back. Williams has youth on his side, and he has a quicker first step than the seasoned veteran. Vickerson has a cap number just over $2.2 million in 2014, but he will provide valuable veteran depth for the Broncos at a reasonable price.
Winner: Sylvester Williams
Nate Irving vs. Steven Johnson vs. Lamin Barrow
The position of middle linebacker isn’t the same as it used to be in the NFL. With today’s offenses being so pass-happy, a middle linebacker needs to excel in coverage if he wants to stay on the field for all three downs.
The Broncos have to find a starter in the middle, and they have a few different linebackers to choose from.
Nate Irving was a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft with the idea that one day he would be the starting middle linebacker for the Broncos. Coming out of North Carolina State, Irving was praised for his athleticism, nose for the football and hard-hitting style. He has tried out at middle linebacker before (including last year in training camp), but Irving has never won the starting position.
Steven Johnson was an undrafted free agent in 2012 when the team picked him up from the University of Kansas. He has been a standout player on special teams during his time with the Broncos, making plays like the blocked punt he returned for a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles last year. Johnson has a nose for the football, arrives at the play with natural violence but his ability in coverage is an unknown at this time.
Lamin Barrow was a fifth-round pick by the Broncos in the 2013 NFL draft. He was a star for the Bayou Bengals because of his leadership skills and ability in coverage. Barrow has the athleticism to keep up with move tight ends down the seam, but his ability as a run defender is a bit of a question mark.
Irving has to be considered the front-runner in this competition. He’s worked well as a reserve strong-side linebacker for the Broncos, and he’s improved his nose for the ball. Irving has better diagnostic skills now than he did when he came out of college, and that’s going to help him in the middle where he has to get to the play quickly.
He should get a majority of the reps with the first team at middle linebacker once training camp starts. Irving would have to massively fail or get hurt in order not to keep this job. However, the team may find a replacement for him on third downs (T.J. Ward?) if he struggles in coverage.
Winner: Nate Irving
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. All transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com. All contract information provided by Spotrac.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.