The Denver Broncos are in “Phase 3” of their offseason training activities. The activity at Dove Valley has been exciting for this team as they push for another run at the Super Bowl in 2014.
Unlike other teams across the NFL, the Broncos had full attendance for their mandatory minicamp. Players who could not participate in team drills like linebacker Von Miller or cornerback Chris Harris Jr. were only out due to injury.
The team is taking cues from quarterback Peyton Manning. He’s incredibly serious about his job, and that resonates with the team. It’s no surprise that Denver would have full attendance.
Manning praised his teammates for their attendance:
“I think with the way the schedule is set up now, it’s a pretty restricted time that you’re allowed to be here with the coaches. So I think it’s good that our players have understood that it’s a limited amount of time, so it is important to be here during this time. We’re trying to put in the offense, trying to install it, trying to work on your timing with the newer players.” Manning concluded, “You certainly would be disappointed if everybody was not here given that you’re only allowed a certain amount of time, so that certainly is a positive.”
Here are some of my observations from Broncos minicamp. Included are some notes and quotes about what’s going on with the Broncos as they prepare for the 2014 season.
A healthy John Fox was out on the field commanding the players on Wednesday. Fox missed four games last year due to heart surgery, and he has worked diligently to get back to full strength.
“I feel great. Again, I reminded the players that I wasn’t even whole last year. So it’s nice to be healthy. I thought I was healthy when I came back. Wasn’t maybe quite where I needed to be, but it gets better every day for sure.”
The team has a nice blend of youth and experience on the roster. There will be some key second-year players like defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and running back Montee Ball who will be counted on to play big roles this season. Fox talked about what he expects from second-year players this season.
“You’re looking for improvement. You’re looking for improvement from season to season, meeting to meeting, practice to practice. I think you don’t stay the same in this league—you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.” Fox continued, “You don’t stay the same. So that’s what you look for and it’s all part of the process when you pick your final 53 for the 2014 roster this year.”
The Broncos are currently in the midst of a big remodeling project out at Dove Valley. They are constructing a new indoor facility as well as adding on to the original facility to give themselves the most state-of-the-art headquarters in the NFL. In addition to the construction on the premises, there is construction on the roster.
One of the biggest places that will see the most changes this year is the offensive line. So far, Fox likes the pieces they have in place for a new look up front.
“Like all of it, it’s really fun to get these guys back out here. I think the move with [G] Orlando [Franklin], obviously getting [T] Ryan Clady back, missing a guy of that stature and of that ability, that’s hard to replace. Actually irreplaceable.” Fox exclaimed, “It’s kind of nice to be whole and reload and get ready again.”
Manning is coming off a 2013 season where he pushed the boundaries for passing records in the NFL. With 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards passing, Manning set new single-season records in 2013. With new weapons on offense and better protection from the offensive line, Manning is looking at another big year of offensive production.
One of the new additions to the offense is speedy wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Manning was beaming when talking about his new weapon.
“We’ve worked hard [on their chemistry]. Like I said, this is important work for he and I to get on the same page, going against top cover guys like [CB Aqib] Talib, trying to execute a timing pass pattern with [DE] DeMarcus Ware rushing in your face. So Phase One, Phase Two, you’re working more individual. Now that you can put it together in team work with guys like Emmanuel, with guys like [WR Cody] Latimer when he gets out there, it’s beneficial.” Manning continued, “You really couldn’t have enough OTAs because the season opener will be here before you know it. Emmanuel’s been here the entire time. He’s worked hard. He’s asking a lot questions. I’m sure his head is spinning a little bit kind of like mine was a couple years ago. So the sooner he can get comfortable… But I appreciate his work ethic and he’s certainly a talented player.”
Sanders has been a standout player in practice this offseason. His speed and quickness is immediately evident when watching him on the football field.
He has the speed to take the top off the defense, and he’ll give Manning another deep target to look for. The veteran is also fearless when running underneath. He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball, so getting him the ball on screen passes and quick outs makes a ton of sense as well.
Manning’s arm strength looked good in practice. He was throwing with plenty of velocity, and his passes (of course) were incredibly accurate.
Topping his numbers from last year will be a challenge. He’s coming off his best statistical season as a pro, and we may be in for a treat when watching his encore in 2014.
Demaryius Thomas is the favorite target for Manning. He has been targeted by Manning 290 times over the last two seasons. Thomas looks a little larger in his upper body this year, and on the field he still showed off that amazing speed.
Thomas had nothing but good things to say when asked about how Sanders’ speed can help open things up for the offense.
Bey Bey was beaming when I asked him how Emmanuel Sanders speed will help the offense. "He's too fast!" DT exclaimed pic.twitter.com/LrbKLWrZFk— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) May 30, 2014
“Sanders is too fast. He’s quick and fast at the same time. Some guys are quick [or] fast, and you’ve got [WR] Wes [Welker], who’s quick. Sanders is quick and fast. But I think it’ll be great for the team, because he can go over the top, he can be quick, he can go inside.” Thomas concluded, “I think it’s a big pickup for us. I think he’ll be great.”
Thomas also had good things to say about Manning’s arm strength, backing up the sentiment that Manning’s arm looked stronger than it did last year.
“I know I had a pass today that I dropped. I really don’t drop a lot. But it came up on me quicker than usual. So I feel like he’s getting stronger still. He’s just amazed me with some of the things that you see every day on the field.”
His role has been the same over the last two years, and Thomas should once again be the biggest (and best) part of the Broncos' passing game in 2014.
Adam Gase enters his second year as the Broncos' offensive coordinator. He has one of the most creative minds in the league when it comes to offensive football, and Gase has taken what he learned last year and is applying it in preparation for this season.
“I would like to go back; going back and looking at our 2-minute [offense], there are a lot of calls which I wish I could have had back there. Inside the 5[-yard line], we actually didn’t score as many touchdowns as we would have liked. We kicked a lot of field goals and a lot of people probably say well you scored a lot of red zone points, but we left a lot out there.” Gase concluded, “But we look at those categories and figure out, how do we get better in those areas? And that’s what we do as a coaching staff in the offseason. We try to find ways to improve in those areas.”
Ball security (or lack thereof) was a big topic of conversation for Gase on Thursday. He knows that in order to be their best, the team needs to do a better job of holding onto the rock.
“I think over the last two years we’ve had 48 fumbles. And we’ve lost quite a few of those. We’ve been in the back half of the league.” Gase continued, “We need to improve on that. We need to be a better turnover margin team and it starts with us. We can help the defense out. We need to get in the plus category. And if we stop putting the ball on the ground, that can help us. So it’s been in a big point of emphasis for us right out of the gate and hopefully it’ll be nothing but positive for us.”
Sanders has been the talk of camp, and Gase was asked about the new addition immediately.
“I’ve been very impressed. He’s been exactly what we thought from watching him in Pittsburgh. His ability to get off versus the jam is very impressive. Just that quickness, top of the route, and that speed down the field is something that we were very interested in to start with, and he’s shown us that he’s still got that.”
The passing game is likely to be the most high-powered unit in the league, but there are questions with the ground game in 2014. Last year’s starter, Knowshon Moreno, moved on to the Miami Dolphins in free agency, and now second-year back Montee Ball will take over as the starter. Gase feels good about the transition.
“We drafted him in the second round [last year] to be a big contributor. I know I keep saying the same thing, but we do have a lot of confidence in him. He brings that full package of a good running back, running the ball, catching the ball out of the backfield and protecting.”
Ball improved as the season went on, and he was one of the best backs in the league over the last six games of the year. That improvement did not go unnoticed by Gase.
“Big strides. I’d say he’d probably be the one guy [who] made the most improvement. And to see him make the next jump in his second year, we’re looking forward to that.”
Behind Ball, the team has a wide-open depth chart. Gase talked about what he expects in the competition between guys like C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman.
“I would say everybody behind Montee right now is competing for the second spot. It’s wide open. So whoever wants to step up, take the spot, that’s what we’re looking for.”
One of those backs in the mix for a backup role in 2014 is undrafted rookie Kapri Bibbs. While fellow UDFA Brennan Clay was the best back in rookie minicamp, it is Bibbs who has been standing out this week.
Bibbs runs with a nice blend of balance and vision. He’s an efficient runner who wastes little motion with the ball in his hands. Bibbs is not the fastest back on the field, but he’s decisive and has good initial burst after getting a handoff.
Gase has been impressed with the rookie so far.
“He’s done a good job. All these free agents that we’ve had out here, the rookies in that running back room have been very impressive. You can tell it’s not too big for them and they’re stepping up and getting their reps, and doing a good job at it.”
Jack Del Rio
Like the offense, the Broncos defense has undergone plenty of changes this offseason. One of the biggest question marks for the defense right now is at middle linebacker. Nate Irving has to be considered the front-runner for the job, and Del Rio is confident in the fourth-year player.
“I think Nate played well last year when he was called on. And the things that he got an opportunity to do, he played well. So I know he comes in with a lot of confidence based on the way he played last year, and the fact that he’s very familiar with our defense, understands where he belongs.” Del Rio continued, “He’s a heavy-handed guy, a bright guy, good communicator, and he’s having a good camp.”
We’ll see the team lean on 2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams even more this year. Del Rio praised the second-year player after practice on Thursday.
“I thought ‘Sly’ played pretty well down the stretch for us and there’s great competition in there. You’ve got [DE] Malik [Jackson], who stepped in and played well. Sly, who stepped up when ‘Vick’ (DT Kevin Vickerson) was injured and played well.“
Arguably the biggest splash the Broncos made in free agency was the addition of defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Having Ware line up opposite linebacker Von Miller to rush the passer is something that Del Rio is looking forward to.
“It’s similar to how it was with Von and [DE] Elvis [Dumervil]. You’ve got two premium guys. It’s difficult for offenses to block them one-on-one. If they slide too much, then they leave themselves vulnerable in other places. So obviously better players makes it better.”
The future Hall of Fame defensive end has been one of the best pass-rushers in NFL history. In 2013, Ware suffered an elbow injury that negatively impacted his production. Coming off a six-sack season, Ware is looking for a bounce-back year—one he should have now that his elbow is getting better.
“I’m not 100 percent, but in these types of practices, you don’t have to go 100 percent. It’s not about going 100 percent in the OTAs. You’ve got to have yourself for the mini camps when it comes up, training camp, that’s when you start bumping it up and slowly getting your body right. You can’t go full speed on the first day.”
Having Ware on the defensive line will be a great boost for younger defenders on the team. Guys like Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe can really learn from him. Ware says the young guys have asked for advice, but they have not asked him for any autographs.
“Actually, none of the guys are asking for autographs. They’re telling me that in high school, they played me on the Madden game. So I guess I’m getting a little bit older [laughs].” Ware continued, “But the guys like [DE] Malik [Jackson] and [DE Derek] Wolfe that have been here for a while, they’ve been big two-gap, big, brute guys and now they’re trying to get a little bit of finesse in their game with pass rushing. I’m able to teach them a lot of things that I do and they’ve been able to convert that over to the field. I’m enjoying it.”
A standout player for the Broncos in 2013, Terrance Knighton is looking to build on the momentum he established last year. With defensive leaders like Champ Bailey and Wesley Woodyard no longer with the team, Knighton feels he can help fill the void.
“I lead every way I can. We’ve got a lot of young guys. Sometimes they’ll mess up, and they’ll need a vet to let them know it’s all right and we’ve been there before. We just want to make sure everybody’s moving forward together. Me and ‘Sly’ (DT Sylvester Williams) have been working with the ones, so I go as far as he goes, he goes as far as I go. Nobody wants to leave each other behind—we want to move together as a group.” Knighton continued, “That’s something we definitely talk about with the first group on defense, playing together as a unit and being a dominant defense and not having spots where we’re dominant.”
Like Del Rio, Knighton is expecting a lot from Irving as the team’s starting middle linebacker in 2014.
“Absolutely. We talk about it in the film room. We sit next to each other in the film room. We were talking about a play yesterday, and I told him, ‘Nate, if there are two guys on me, just go. Just go. Don’t worry about what Coach Del Rio tells you to do (laughing), really just go and make the play. If you’re wrong, we’ll play off each other.’ That’s the type of relationship you want to have with your ‘Mike’ [linebacker]. Last year, I had that same relationship with [LB] Wesley Woodyard and [LB] Paris Lenon.” Knighton concluded, “Sometimes when you’re on the football field, Xs and Os go out the window and you’ve just got to play.”
Broncos fans should be excited about this team’s prospects in 2014. They have added quality talent through veteran free agency, the 2014 NFL draft and college free agency.
Denver is missing key players from the team that made a Super Bowl run last year, but they arguably made upgrades in their place. It will be interesting to see if they can hold down their conference title as the best team in the AFC.
Hope springs eternal across the NFL at this time. However, in the Mile High City, hope is more than just springing—a Super Bowl run is expected once again in 2014.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.