5 Things We've Learned from the Denver Broncos OTAs
The Denver Broncos have entered the second week of voluntary minicamp at Dove Valley. It’s “Phase 3” of the offseason, and the installation continues on both sides of the ball.
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio commented on Tuesday that about 75 percent of the defensive playbook was installed. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase says the offense is coming along at a similar pace.
“We’re close to the same. We’re on the same schedule. We kind of work together as far as what’s going in personnel-wise, formations and some of our specialty plays. So we’re at about the same track. Our younger guys, for the most part, they are spinning a little bit.” Gase concluded, “Our older guys do a better job of handling everything.”
During the offseason we don’t know exactly what the final product will look like. We’re left to assemble clues from practice observations and comments from coaches and players.
Here are five things we’ve learned from Broncos OTAs so far.
Emmanuel Sanders Is Going to Be a Big Part of the Offense
The talk of minicamp so far has to be the play of Emmanuel Sanders. He’s termed Denver “wide receiver heaven” because of the Adam Gase pass-happy system led by Peyton Manning. Not only is Sanders happy to be playing under Gase, but Gase is happy to have Sanders on the team.
The addition of Sanders gives this high-powered offense more horsepower, according to Gase.
“When you watch him on film from when he was at Pittsburgh, you just see that quickness off the line, the vertical speed, his ability to separate down the field.” Gase continued, “I think we’ve got a group of guys, every guy brings a little different element to our passing game, and not saying what we had before wasn’t any good, but it’s just a little different element for us.”
“They’re different body types, and Eric had his way of finding ways to get open and catching the ball and making plays down the field, and making big plays underneath and creating, and Emmanuel can do the same thing. It’s just going to be in a different way. They’re two different styles of players, but their job at the end of the day is to get open and catch the ball, and they both can do that.”
Last year for the Broncos, Decker was targeted 136 times, caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns. Compare that to the career numbers (four years) for Sanders of 287 targets, 161 receptions, 2,030 yards and 11 touchdowns. There is no doubt that Sanders could have career-best (single-season) numbers in his first season with the Broncos.
Sanders has never had a 100-yard game as a receiver during his time in the pros. He could have multiple 100-yard performances this year with Denver. Not only is Sanders taking Decker’s role, but the team may not target Montee Ball as many times as Knowshon Moreno was targeted last year (74)—some of those targets could be headed Sanders way.
Bottom line: Sanders could be more productive than Decker. His speed means there could be more big plays and long touchdowns. His quickness means he’ll get separation easier in his routes, and that could lead to more receptions.
Demaryius Thomas is clearly the favorite receiver for Peyton Manning, and he has caught over 90 passes each of the last two seasons. It’s not out of the question to think that Sanders could join Thomas in the 90-catch club for the Broncos.
Running Back Competition Is Wide Open Behind Montee Ball
The competition at running back is going to be something to watch as camp unfolds for the Broncos. Montee Ball is penciled in as the starter after a rookie season in 2013 that saw him progress as the year went on. That’s not set in stone yet, but it would be a shock to see anyone else start for the Broncos unless Ball gets injured before the season begins.
Behind Ball, the Broncos have an interesting collection of backs.
C.J. Anderson is a second-year pro and the team’s only true power back. He has a huge lower body and incredible leg drive that helps him push defenders after contact. Anderson could be relied on as a starter if need be, and that may win him the primary backup job behind Ball.
Ronnie Hillman is a third-year pro who could be in a make-or-break season in 2014. Last year at this time, Hillman was the lead back for the Broncos. He lost the starting job in the preseason after fumbling three times in two games (two were returned for touchdowns).
Hillman began last season as a rotational backup behind Knowshon Moreno. He lost the job with another fumble in Week 7 against the Indianapolis Colts. Hillman recently admitted that he relaxed too much last year.
“Yeah, and leading up to the season, and it carried over. But like I said, it won’t happen again. I’m going into a new season.”
He knows that he must be accountable and prove to the coaches that he can be a reliable professional. Hillman is also not conceding the starting job; he wants to compete for the top spot.
“You’ve just got to come to work with a chip on your shoulder. It’s easy to say you’re going to practice hard and work hard, but you’ve just got to show it. Right now is the time. These next couple of months are crucial.” Hillman emphasized, “The job’s open, and I’m going after it. I’m not working to be No. 2.”
Behind Hillman, the Broncos have Jerodis Williams. He’s a bit of an unknown after coming out of Furman as an undrafted free agent. He spent last year in training camp with the Minnesota Vikings but failed to make the final roster. Williams has been impressive in limited reps with the Broncos during minicamp because of his receiving ability and agility after the catch.
The team also added three college free-agent running backs this year after the draft.
Brennan Clay has arguably been the most impressive back during rookie minicamp and team minicamp. Clay has big-play ability, speed, agility and vision to pick up big chunks of yards as a runner or receiver out of the backfield.
Kapri Bibbs was a stud for Colorado State last year, rushing for over 1,700 yards and scoring 31 touchdowns. In addition to his nose for the end zone, Bibbs runs with great efficiency. He doesn’t waste motion as a runner and can run inside the tackles. Bibbs also has the speed to bounce it outside once at the second level of the defense.
Juwan Thompson has a fine all-around skill set. He’s kind of a ‘tweener, as he can line up at fullback or running back. He’s got a quick initial burst and is tough to bring down once he builds a head of steam.
Thompson is also a fantastic receiver out of the backfield. He has soft hands and can work well as a target on screen passes or wheel routes. An incredibly important asset—pass protection—is also a feather in his cap.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase says the competition is wide open behind Ball.
“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.”
He’s not looking for just a change-of-pace back behind Ball. Gase wants to find the best backs for the depth chart.
“The way I look at our running backs is, we’re going to have two to three guys playing every game, and whoever the first guy on the field is, it’s irrelevant. You never know, it might be [TE] Virgil Green one game. And what’s he, the starter?” Gase continued, “We’re going to have two to three guys that are going to contribute every game, and whatever their skill set is, we’re going to make sure that we use them to the best of their ability.”
Anderson has to be considered the front-runner at this point, but guys like Hillman (and the rest) will feverishly compete for the primary backup job.
Orlando Franklin Is a Left Guard Now
The Broncos lost last year’s starting left guard, Zane Beadles, in free agency. He moved on to the Jacksonville Jaguars and was rewarded with a five-year, $30 million deal. This has created a hole at left guard and a trickle-down effect at other spots on the offensive line.
While right tackle seems unsettled at this time—it could be Chris Clark, Winston Justice or rookie Michael Schofield—left guard is clearly Orlando Franklin’s job to lose.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase talked about what Franklin needs to work on now that he’s at guard.
“We talk about it all the time and [G] Louis [Vasquez] does a great job of this as far as just your pad level. We just want to make sure these guys aren’t standing straight up and getting pushed back. It is a little less physical than what you expect, but you can do the little things right: your footwork, and just the way that you come off the ball, where it’s in a safe manner, but at the same time, you can show that you know what you’re supposed to do.” Gase concluded, “And then a lot of our stuff is assignment. ‘Hey, be right on what you’re supposed to do.’”
Franklin is huge, and his size gives the team two big guards to get push as run-blockers. Vasquez is a quality talent, and he is arguably the best lineman on the team.
Vasquez is looking forward to the team having more balance (i.e. more of the ground game) in 2014.
“Anytime an offense is balanced, it means they’re running the ball pretty well. And that’s a focus for us this year. I’m pretty excited with Montee [Ball] back there, getting more chances to show what he can do.”
Franklin struggled with more athletic pass-rushers on the edge. That won’t be a concern for him now that he’s inside at guard. His footwork has been poor when mirroring faster players, so Franklin may not be asked to pull much now that he’s inside. Franklin doesn’t have the skill set to be a “sticky blocker” at the second level.
The team has had a clear vision for Franklin ever since the offseason began. It made no attempt to keep Beadles around because of its confidence in Franklin switching positions. That confidence continues during minicamp, and we could really see Franklin flourish at his new spot during training camp and the preseason.
Von Miller May Be Ahead in His Recovery
The Broncos have one of the best pass-rushers in the game today in linebacker Von Miller. When healthy, he can dominate from the edge and has multiple moves to get after the passer. Miller suffered a torn ACL in the Week 16 game against the Houston Texans and has been on the road to recovery ever since.
During minicamp Miller has been doing work off to the side with cornerback Chris Harris Jr. While Miller suffered a full ACL tear, Harris suffered a partially torn ACL three weeks after Miller in the playoff win over the San Diego Chargers.
Dr. Jene Bramel from Footballguys.com says that partially torn doesn’t mean the recovery is going to be shorter for Harris when compared to Miller: “There are different surgical techniques (full reconstruction vs augmentation of the intact portion of the ACL) for partial tears. I haven't seen any specifics on Harris' procedure or a timetable given. But, generally, the timetable for return from an ACL repair is the same whether it's a recovery from a full or partial tear.”
Bramel also highlighted the differences in the process: “Every ACL rehab is a little different. Recovery progresses based on strength and range of motion. If a player passes milestones early, they can be moved along the rehab protocol more quickly. It's always promising when a player says they are ahead of schedule, but that doesn't mean setbacks won't occur later in the rehab process.”
Miller is working on lateral agility right now at minicamp. He looks more explosive than one would assume a mere five months from the initial injury. Miller already has good burst in a straight line, but now he’s getting strength back for lateral moves.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes what he’s seen from Miller during the recovery process.
“Von is still working hard with the trainers and the rehab and trying to work his way back on the field. He’s doing a good job from that standpoint. He’s very engaged in our meetings. He’s another one of the veteran guys that’s trying to step up a little more in a leadership role,” Del Rio said. “Speaking up and letting the guys understand what it takes to play at a high level. So that’s been very good for us.”
Adding DeMarcus Ware gives the team a mentor for Miller, but according to Del Rio he’s just getting more mature as a player.
“I think just it’s all part of the experience that you have as a player. When you come in here as a young guy, your head’s spinning. You’re just trying to figure out how you get to the meeting room and where do you belong on the practice field, and where’s the training room and all that stuff.” Del Rio concluded, “So by the time you get to where Von is, as a veteran player who’s been through several seasons with us, I think you understand now that you have the opportunity to help some of these young guys find their way.”
Getting Miller back for Week 1 would be a huge boost for the Broncos. They added Ware in free agency, but they still have question marks for pass-rushers. With Miller and Ware on the field together, the Broncos defense could be tough to beat.
There May Be More Than 1 Answer at Middle Linebacker
The team has a void at middle linebacker. It’s been there for quite some time, and it's tried multiple fixes (Stewart Bradley, Paris Lenon, Keith Brooking), but none has been more than a temporary fix at best.
The Broncos have a few options to fill the spot this year.
Nate Irving has to be considered the front-runner at the position right now. The fourth-year pro has tried out at the position before, but he’s failed to win the job he was drafted for. Irving looked good as a reserve strong-side linebacker last year, but the team really needs him to be the man in the middle.
It’s an easy answer for the Broncos. However, nothing in the NFL is that easy. The Broncos are ready in case Irving fails to win the middle linebacker job again.
Third-year linebacker Steven Johnson is going to get a chance to compete for the starting job. He’s primarily been a special teams player during his pro career. Johnson is a tough player who can excel as a run defender, but there are questions about his ability in coverage.
In the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft, the Broncos selected Lamin Barrow out of LSU. Barrow was a weak-side linebacker in college, but the team is hopeful he can make the transition to the middle.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio confirmed Barrow was a middle linebacker for Denver on Tuesday, and he praised the rookie’s skill set.
“Good. Young guy, learning the system. He’s getting a little better every day and applying himself. I think he’s been solid to start.”
Unlike most two-down thumpers who play inside linebacker, Barrow excels in coverage. He has the length and speed to stay with athletic move tight ends down the seam. Barrow needs to work on his ability as a run defender, but that might be easier than making a thumper better in coverage.
An unusual candidate for middle linebacker on passing downs could be strong safety T.J. Ward. General manager John Elway commented on this possibility before the draft.
“When we look at it [middle linebacker], we’re more concerned on third down—the nickel ‘backer on third down. We have several options there. [S] T.J. Ward can step down in the box, does a tremendous job in the box, so he could be that nickel ‘backer.”
Whether it’s Irving, Johnson, Barrow or Ward (on third downs)—or a combination with multiple players—the Broncos have given themselves plenty of options at middle linebacker 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.