Denver Broncos: 5 Players Whose Stock Is on the Rise After OTAs
The first week of minicamp has wrapped up, and the Denver Broncos begin the second week of “Phase 3” of the offseason program on Monday.
During these minicamps, the players can show off the work they did in the offseason while preparing for camp. This is an important time for free-agent additions, rookies and players returning from injury to impress the coaching staff.
They didn’t need to go outside the roster to find the replacement for free-agent departure Knowshon Moreno (Dolphins). Second-year pro Montee Ball is set to be the team’s lead back, and he could prove to be a much better runner than Moreno was.
The players returning from injury last year are like a whole other free-agent class for Denver. Several big-name players like left tackle Ryan Clady and linebacker Von Miller will be working their way back to the starting lineup this year. In addition, players like Rahim Moore and Quanterus Smith will want to prove they can contribute at varying levels in 2014.
The Broncos also have players like Nate Irving trying to earn more playing time this season. Irving has done well as a reserve strong-side linebacker, but the team needs him to excel as a middle linebacker moving forward.
Let’s take a look at the five players whose stock is on the rise after the first week of OTAs.
The Broncos have a new weapon on offense in speedy veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. He has been the story of OTAs so far because his speed and playmaking ability are evident in every route he runs. Sanders is also getting a lot of praise from his new teammates like Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas.
Sanders appreciates the compliments he’s getting from the guys.
“It makes me feel good. But at the end of the day I still have a lot of work that I have to put in. It’s early. It’s OTA’s right now. I’d be lying to you if I told you that I know the playbook. My head is still spinning a little bit but, I’ll tell you what, I’m happy and excited to be a Denver Bronco.”
His speed and versatility give the Broncos many options with the talented veteran. He has the speed to run deep routes to take the top off the defense. Sanders also has the quickness and agility to effectively run shorter routes where his run-after-the-catch ability makes him a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
Sanders is just trying to get used to his new offense.
“I’ll tell you what, the playbook is definitely a lot harder than any playbook I’ve ever been a part of because they do a great job of moving guys around. That’s what I want to be a part of. I’m excited.”
He has big shoes to fill as the replacement for Eric Decker, but Sanders has the skill set to really flourish in Denver. He may prove to be an upgrade over Decker.
Denver is moving forward with a new starting running back this year. Montee Ball was selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft to eventually be the starter, and his time is now.
Ball’s rookie season started off slowly, but as the year went on he did more with his opportunity. He became more patient as a runner, and that helped him maximize the yardage gained on his carries.
The second-year pro feels much better now than he did last year. His confidence and experience should only help him play better.
“Complete turnaround—confidence, speed of the game. Instead of being a little nervous in the backfield with [QB] Peyton [Manning], now I’m completely calm. I can anticipate some of the calls he’s going to make, which, like I said, allows me to play faster.”
He runs with more power than last year’s starter Knowshon Moreno, and he should be able to be more successful against the six-man fronts the team will run against. Last year, Moreno saw 79.7 percent of his carries come against defensive fronts with six or fewer defenders in the box. Ball has the patience, power and intent to be a force on the ground.
Ball looks larger, and by his own admission he weighs in around 220 pounds right now. He’s added the weight in anticipation for a larger role in 2014.
“My focus is to really, really harp on the flexibility, which will prevent injuries and will allow for me to play faster, run faster. And upper body strength, for protection.”
The Broncos want a little more balance on offense, and that means they need more from the ground game. Ball will give them the toughness between the tackles they need to grind out leads in close (and not-so-close) games.
After coming back from a rare lower leg injury in 2013, Rahim Moore is ready to pick up where he left off. Moore was a scapegoat to many Broncos fans after missing Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones on a big touchdown in the team’s 2012 playoff loss. His confidence returned last year before he was bounced for the year due to injury.
Compartment syndrome happens when pressure builds up to incredible levels in the muscles. This injury could have cost Moore his lower left leg to an amputation. Fortunately, the injury was diagnosed quickly after Moore was in pain during the team’s Week 11 game against the Chiefs.
Moore is healthy now, and he’s excited about getting back to football.
“Oh yeah, I’m full speed. I’m full speed. I’m faster and stronger than I was the year before, than I’ve ever been. So today was a great day for us, just team-wise, just our communication as a defense. It’s been a great offseason so far.”
He has a new partner in the defensive backfield in 2014. The Broncos’ first move in free agency was to add strong safety T.J. Ward. This addition will give the team toughness it didn’t have last year, and Moore is appreciative of his new teammates.
“I’m glad [head] coach [John] Fox and [executive vice president of football operations/general manager] Elway brought these guys in. Me and [S] T.J. [Ward], we’ve been friends since back from college days. We used to call each other up and share different route concepts, stuff like that, so the rapport is great.” Moore continued, “We have [CB] Chris Harris, we got other great leaders on the team. So I believe we’re going to be very special, but we’ve got to put the work in.”
Getting Moore back on the field will also help boost the Broncos defense. With his renewed confidence and health, Moore may start playing up to his potential as a pro. He was known as a playmaking ball hawk in college at UCLA, and he might show some of that same big-play ability in 2014.
The Broncos added to their group of pass-rushers when they acquired DeMarcus Ware in free agency. However, teams can never have too many pass-rushers in the NFL. That’s why getting Quanterus Smith healthy is so important for the Broncos this year.
Smith came into the league as a fifth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Coming out of Western Kentucky, Smith was known as an elite pass-rusher. He was mostly known for the three-sack performance he had against powerhouse Alabama's offensive line.
He injured his knee during his final collegiate season. At the time of his injury, Smith was leading the NCAA with 12 sacks. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio recently reflected on Smith’s collegiate career.
"On tape coming out, we liked his athleticism, his length, his ability to bend and his ability to rush the quarterback," Del Rio said. "So those are things we’re looking forward to seeing from him."
Smith practiced in training camp last year, but he didn’t have the same first-step explosion that he did in college. When it came time to select the 53-man roster, the Broncos decided to shut down Smith for his rookie season by placing him on injured reserve.
During OTAs this year, Smith was back on the field. Del Rio likes what he’s seen so far from the second-year pro.
"I know he’s healthy," Del Rio said. "I see him moving around very well right now so we’re looking forward to getting him some of that experience, some of the reps, and let him earn his way."
Smith will be nearly two years removed from the injury by the time the regular season begins. With Von Miller recovering from the knee injury he suffered in Week 16 against the Texans last year, the Broncos could certainly use a part-time pass-rusher like Smith.
There is a question mark on the Broncos roster at middle linebacker. They tried to move up in the first round to select inside linebacker C.J. Mosley out of Alabama, but they couldn’t find the right deal. The team ignored the position until the fifth round when it selected Lamin Barrow from LSU.
The Broncos were confident enough in Nate Irving to not get desperate for an inside linebacker in the draft.
Irving was a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft and was known for his athleticism. He’s gotten a chance to play middle linebacker before, but Irving was unable to win the job. Irving made poor decisions as a run defender and was too often out of place when attacking the line of scrimmage.
He did carve out a nice role as a quality reserve strong-side linebacker with the Broncos, but now he has to prove himself inside. Irving could use the experience he’s gained over the last season to excel in the middle.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio believes Irving has a real opportunity in 2014.
“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.”
So far in OTAs Irving has impressed Del Rio.
“He got a lot of reps last year in the middle so it’s a little more comfortable for him this time around. I like the way he’s approaching it right now.”
In today’s NFL, middle linebackers need to cover. Irving has the athleticism to keep up with tight ends on the field, and now he has more experience when playing against the run. These skills could certainly help him be the middle linebacker the team needs him to be 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.