Denver Broncos: Top Position Battles to Watch in Camp
The Denver Broncos are less than 10 days away from the start of training camp at Dove Valley. They have worked diligently to improve their team on both sides of the ball.
Denver is talented, and they have plenty of depth at most positions. Many of their starting positions are already set at the start of training camp. However, there are a few positions that will be up for grabs during August.
In addition to starting positions, pecking order on the depth chart will be established over the next month. This order is important for the team as they look for reliable players as backups to key starters. It’s also important when considering developmental players which are worth keeping around on the 53-man roster.
Here’s a look at the top position battles to watch unfold as the Broncos go through camp.
Chris Clark Versus Winston Justice
The Denver Broncos have shuffled their offensive line this offseason. With one loss in free agency (left guard Zane Beadles), the Broncos have changed two spots from 2013.
Last year’s starting right tackle Orlando Franklin has moved inside to left guard. That has left the right tackle position open for a new starter to be found.
Chris Clark will compete with Winston Justice for that spot.
Clark was the team’s starting left tackle for most of the season after Ryan Clady was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in Week 2 against the New York Giants. He did an admirable job for the most part, but Clark did have struggles in certain games.
Moving to the right side, Clark would see a downgrade in the pass-rushing talent lined up opposite of him. Many assumed Clark would just be handed the job, but that hasn’t been the case.
During the team’s voluntary minicamp and mandatory offseason training activities, the right tackle reps have been split between Clark and Justice.
The Broncos signed Justice to a one-year contract as an unrestricted free agent in 2013. He previously had played with the Indianapolis Colts, but Justice struggled at right tackle for them in 2012. He dressed for only four games for the Broncos last season.
The team decided to re-sign Justice to another one-year deal earlier this offseason. He’s clearly getting a larger opportunity this offseason than some expected.
At this time, the race is too close to call. Clark should win the starting job, but Justice is not going to give it up without a fight. This battle could go down to the wire in training camp and the preseason.
C.J. Anderson Versus Ronnie Hillman
The Denver Broncos have a talented (yet inexperienced) backfield. Montee Ball is the clear-cut starter for the team, but behind him the depth chart is wide open.
We’ll see second-year pro C.J. Anderson compete with third-year pro Ronnie Hillman to be the primary backup behind Ball.
Anderson has starter’s ability. He’s a big back who can grind down an opponent between the tackles. Anderson has a powerful lower body, and that helps him pick up yards after contact.
In addition to running with power that no other back on the roster has, Anderson has arguably the quickest 10-yard burst of any player in the backfield. He’s swift and decisive when the football is in his hands, and this also makes him tough to bring down once he quickly builds a head of steam.
Anderson is a capable receiver out of the backfield, and he’s worked hard to become the best he can be in pass protection. This asset may be the difference-maker in the competition with Hillman—that and ball security.
Hillman was the team’s No. 1 back entering training camp last year. Three fumbles in the preseason (two returned for touchdowns) caused the team to look elsewhere for a starting running back. Hillman not only lost the top spot, but he seemed to lose his confidence after that as well.
Fumbling continued to plague him during the regular season, and after fumbling near the goal line against the Colts in Week 7, he was inactive for all but two games the rest of the year.
Hillman might be the fastest player on the team, but he runs small and goes down on initial contact too easily. Even though he could be a dangerous change-of-pace runner and receiver, Hillman has to prove that he can hang on to the rock before the team trusts him with any sort of sizable role.
Anderson should win this competition, as he’s the more complete back. Hillman could get a few touches or targets here and there as the third-string back. If anything happens to Ball, the team could trust Anderson to carry the load at running back—something they couldn’t do with Hillman.
Nate Irving Versus Lamin Barrow
The team has been looking for a standout middle linebacker for quite some time. Nate Irving is getting another chance to prove that he can be the man in the middle this year. Irving had an opportunity at the position last year in training camp, but the team quickly moved on to other options as Irving wasn’t ready to be a starter.
He spent most of last year as a reserve strong-side linebacker, but he did gain valuable experience after Von Miller was lost for the season with an ACL injury in the Week 16 game against the Houston Texans. Irving improved his diagnostic skills and showed improved ability in coverage as well.
Middle linebackers in today’s NFL are no longer two-down thumpers who only stuff the run. Teams are looking for someone who can stay on the field for all three downs. Irving showed the ability to do that late last year, and that momentum could carry over to this season.
His main competition for the starting job could be rookie Lamin Barrow.
The Broncos selected Barrow in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft with the idea that he could push for playing time early. Barrow played weak-side linebacker for LSU, but the Broncos felt he could make the transition to middle linebacker in the pros.
Unlike most young inside linebackers, Barrow is more known for his ability in coverage. He’s got the length and athleticism to make up ground in a hurry. This helps him make plays against slot receivers or move tight ends that are running routes over the middle.
Barrow needs to improve his ability as a run-defender, and this is one spot where Irving has the advantage. Irving should win the job, but don’t be surprised if the rookie puts up a bigger fight than some think.
Zac Dysert Versus Bryn Renner
The Broncos believe in Brock Osweiler as the primary backup to Peyton Manning and quarterback of the future. Behind Manning and Osweiler, the team is looking for a developmental quarterback with upside.
Zac Dysert was a seventh-round pick by the Broncos in the 2013 NFL draft. A favorite of general manager John Elway, Dysert flashes on the field with a rocket arm and the athleticism to keep plays alive with his feet. The Broncos were compelled to keep Dysert around as a third-string quarterback last year after a standout performance in the final preseason game.
This year Dysert will face competition from talented rookie Bryn Renner.
The Broncos picked up Renner as an undrafted free agent after the 2014 NFL draft. Renner was a standout player at North Carolina, and he also helped make a name for himself at the Manning Passing Academy. He lacks the big arm of Dysert, and he’s not as athletic as Dysert either.
However, Renner looks better as a pure passer than Dysert does. Dysert has a big arm, but he struggles with consistency, pass placement and accuracy. Renner has a strong enough arm to make every throw required in the NFL, and he throws with consistency, accuracy and touch.
It’s going to be a tough decision for the Broncos, as both are talented in different ways.
Dysert has the experience edge right now, and Renner may be a better fit on the practice squad as a rookie. Watch the preseason to see which one of these quarterbacks stands out the most.
Bradley Roby Versus Kayvon Webster
Denver added several pieces to the defensive side of the ball this offseason. They acquired star cornerback Aqib Talib in free agency, and then they added cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. These two moves are clear signs they wanted upgrades at the cornerback position.
Talib will start on the outside opposite Chris Harris Jr. in 2014. Behind Talib and Harris, the Broncos have to find the best slot corner. They spent about 65 percent of their defensive snaps in the nickel package, so the third cornerback is going to have a large role in 2014.
Roby has to compete with second-year pro Kayvon Webster for that job.
Webster was a third-round pick by the Broncos in the 2013 NFL draft. Coming out of South Florida, Webster was known as a big-hitter who could be an enforcer near the line of scrimmage. He’s a physical corner who likes to push around opponents at the snap.
He has good straight-line speed, but there were questions about Webster’s ability to transition smoothly in coverage. Webster began his rookie season as a reserve player for the Broncos, and he flashed some ability. As the season went on, Webster earned a larger role as injuries to the secondary (Champ Bailey, Chris Harris Jr.) plagued the team.
Webster was regularly targeted by opposing quarterbacks when he was on the field during the playoffs. These targets certainly tested his mettle, but they didn’t seem to shake his confidence. Webster struggled, but he gained valuable experience. That experience gives him an advantage over the rookie.
Roby is not as physical as Webster is, but he’s faster and has better click-and-close ability when a play breaks down in front of him. At Ohio State, Roby stood out because of his straight-line speed, nose for the ball and ability to bait opposing quarterbacks into bad throws.
At minicamp, Webster continues to struggle. Peyton Manning will find him quickly, and he has tested Webster often. Roby is getting tested plenty as well, but he’s made a few plays that Webster has not.
This is going to be a close race, and it could last through most of training camp. Roby should win the third cornerback job with the idea that he could slide to the outside and Harris could slide inside in certain defensive packages. Webster still gives the team a talented, physical young corner with experience and upside.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.