Denver Broncos Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch
The Denver Broncos have a quality group of players as they enter training camp. During camp and the preseason, the Broncos will work to determine who can make the 53-man roster, who should go on the practice squad and who should be cut.
It’s a whirlwind time for the team, and the regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts will be here before you know it.
Several storylines have set themselves up to be answered during camp. These storylines include new additions through the draft and free agency, young players who have worked hard to improve and players coming back from injury.
Here are five early storylines to watch.
How Will Emmanuel Sanders Be Used?
The biggest free-agency splash the Broncos made on the offensive side of the ball was the addition of Emmanuel Sanders. The veteran wide receiver spent four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he never quite performed up to his full potential.
That could change quickly in Denver. When Sanders was added by the Broncos, he called it “wide receiver heaven” at his first press conference at Dove Valley. The Broncos are heavenly because of their elite passing game led by Peyton Manning.
Manning had to learn a new offense when he signed with the Broncos in 2012. He identifies with what Sanders is going through right now.
“It’s hard to unlearn that (Steelers) offense and so I know what Emmanuel is going through and it just takes time. He stays out there for every play and it’s a credit to him and we are making progress and it’s important to put the time in and it paid off with Wes last year and I know it will pay off this year with Emmanuel as well.”
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase is excited to have a talented weapon like Sanders on the team. Per Broncos media policy we can’t report on specific plays or formations, but I can report that Gase is being very creative with the way that he uses Sanders.
“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.” Gase concluded, “He’s shown us that he’s still got that.”
Sanders has never eclipsed 100 yards receiving in a single game during his career. He could hit that mark more than a few times with the Broncos. Sanders’ role will be significant as the team’s second target behind Demaryius Thomas.
Playing in that role last year was Eric Decker. He compiled 87 catches for 1,288 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns. Decker moved on in free agency to the New York Jets, and Denver will look at Sanders to fill that role.
Sanders could match the number of receptions and receiving yards, but he’s not as good of a red-zone target as Decker is. His career total in four years (11 touchdowns) matches the mark that Decker hit last year with the Broncos. Sanders might be in line to catch around seven touchdowns this season.
It’s a large role and a large responsibility for Sanders this year. He’s ready to put up career-best numbers in 2014.
Is Ronnie Hillman Finally Going to Play Up to His Potential?
Entering the third year of his pro career, Ronnie Hillman is no lock to make the final roster. If we rewind a year ago, Hillman was the starter for Broncos entering training camp.
Three fumbles in the preseason (two returned for touchdowns) caused the team to look elsewhere for their top back. Another fumble, this time near the goal line against the Indianapolis Colts, caused Hillman to hit the inactive list for all but three games after that. He was inactive for the entirety of the playoffs, including the Super Bowl.
Hillman is looking for a fresh start this year. Earlier this offseason he talked about what he learned in a disappointing 2013 season.
“You’ve just got to be accountable. Just don’t relax and just come out here and give it your all every day. I probably got a little relaxed last year, but it’s not going to happen again.”
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase gave me a thorough answer when I asked if 2014 was a “make-or-break season" for Hillman.
“We’ve talked to him, [running backs coach] Eric [Studesville] and myself, as far as, ‘Hey, this is a new start to the year. Whatever happened in the past, you’ve got to build off it. We’ve just got to start over.’ His goal is to become the best running back he can. I can’t say make-or-break, because I don’t know what that is.” Gase concluded, “He’s just got to come out, he’s got to work his butt off and make sure he puts himself in a great position to contribute this year.”
Hillman is going to get a legitimate shot to win the primary backup job in 2014. Montee Ball is clearly the starter, but the depth chart is wide-open behind him. Hillman is arguably the fastest player on the team, and that skill alone would make him a great change-of-pace back—if he hangs onto the rock.
During minicamp or training camp, Hillman has always been able to make big plays. He needs to start being both a fine practice player and a reliable player when the games are live.
He may never be a starter in this league, but Hillman has the speed to be dangerous any time he touches the ball. Hillman will need to beat out C.J. Anderson if he wants to be second in line on the running back depth chart for the Broncos.
Is Cody Latimer Too Good to Keep on the Bench?
The Broncos moved up in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft to select wide receiver Cody Latimer from Indiana University. The move could pay huge dividends for the Broncos if Latimer develops his amazing skill set fully.
Latimer is big, fast and physical.
Measuring in at 6’2”, 215 pounds, Latimer can easily track deep passes over his shoulder. He has good build-up speed, and Latimer can pull away from trailing defenders.
Latimer has a large frame, and he knows how to box out smaller defenders to keep them away from the point of the catch. This immediately makes him a potential red-zone threat for the Broncos.
He’ll begin his rookie season as the fourth-string wide receiver behind Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker. The Broncos may put a special package of plays in specifically designed to get the ball to Latimer. It makes sense to use him as much as possible because Latimer creates mismatches in several different ways.
Head coach John Fox talked about expanding Latimer’s role in practice as he develops as a pro.
“Yeah, it’ll progress. His team reps picked up. He’s been going through individual. We want to be smart, especially this time of year, but he’s been very impressive in what I’ve seen him do.”
Latimer is excited to be catching passes from Peyton Manning. He knows that he can learn a lot from the star receivers already on the roster in Denver.
“I’m very excited. I can learn from them and don’t have to get pushed into the system too early. I can sit back and learn off of them. I’ll be on the field when I can, special teams, however I’ve got to play on the field.” Latimer continued, “Like I said, it makes it easier for me having to catch on to the offense, not so much of a rush.”
Most fourth-string receivers don’t make much of an impact during the season. Latimer could be different because he’s too good to keep on the bench. Don’t be surprised if he starts to earn more and more playing time as the season wears on.
Latimer also gives the Broncos great insurance in case a guy like Welker gets banged up. We’ll see Latimer as a reserve player this year, then next year he could start on the outside with Sanders moving into the slot.
Will Bradley Roby Win the Nickel Cornerback Job?
The Broncos considered moving up in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. Instead, they stayed put at 31st overall and selected Bradley Roby from Ohio State.
Roby was a standout player for the Buckeyes because of his speed and ability to get to the play quickly. He has good speed when he turns to cover receivers on downfield routes. Roby’s speed also comes into play when he breaks on plays that unfold in front of him.
When he arrives at the ball-carrier, Roby is proven as a sound tackler. While not necessarily a thumper, Roby is a tough player who can swiftly bring down an opponent.
Roby has the speed to recover quickly after a receiver makes his break. He doesn’t take many false steps, and Roby can bait opposing quarterbacks into making ill-advised throws.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was impressed with Roby during minicamp.
“He (Roby) is making plays, an aggressive guy who can run. [He’s a] bright guy, and he’s doing well right now. So you know Roby is going to be a good player for us and right now he’s just earning his way.”
Roby is going to have to beat out second-year pro Kayvon Webster to be the team’s third (nickel) cornerback.
Webster was a third-round pick by the Broncos in the 2013 NFL draft. He’s big, physical and known as a big hitter. Webster got plenty of experience last year as he was forced into more playing time when injuries hit the depth chart in front of him.
He looked good early in his rookie season, but more playing time caused him to be exposed by opposing quarterbacks. When Webster took over for an injured Chris Harris Jr. in the playoffs against the San Diego Chargers, he became a regular target for quarterback Philip Rivers.
Webster’s struggles have carried over to this offseason.
During team drills at minicamp, Webster has been a regular target for Peyton Manning. Webster is not losing any confidence, but the team may be losing confidence in him if he keeps getting burned in the preseason.
Roby is the flashy rookie, but Webster has the experience edge and is a better hitter. This is a battle that should last through most of camp and the preseason.
Where Does Additional Pass-Rushing Help Come From?
The Broncos made several moves to upgrade the defense this offseason. The move to add free agent defensive end DeMarcus Ware is going to help the defense greatly. His presence on the field will constantly put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Lining up Von Miller on the opposite side of Ware is an absolute nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators to deal with. Miller has been working hard to return from the knee injury he suffered last year in Week 16 against the Houston Texans. If Miller can get back to full strength quickly, then the Broncos are going to have one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league.
They have two elite-level pass-rushers, but where can additional pass-rushing help come from?
That question could be answered by defensive ends like Malik Jackson and Quanterus Smith.
Jackson has improved every season as a pro. Originally a fifth-round pick by the Broncos in the 2012 NFL draft, Jackson was a large, athletic—but raw—prospect coming out of Tennessee.
He has brute strength that allows him to push opponents out of the way with ease. Jackson had limited pass-rushing moves, but he’s been more creative as he continues to get better.
Jackson is incredibly excited to be learning from a future Hall of Fame player like Ware.
“[Ware has been teaching] how to use your hands better. Keep them in tight. Just rush at him, things like that. [There are] more things I could probably show you than tell you. He’s a great guy and a great teacher and always willing to teach you.” Jackson exclaimed, “It’s just a blessing for me to have him so I can learn from him.”
Smith was a fifth-round pick for the Broncos in the 2013 NFL draft. He fell in the draft coming out of Western Kentucky because of a knee injury that cut his final season short. At the time of his injury, Smith was leading the NCAA with 12.5 sacks.
He was able to practice last year in training camp, but it was clear that he wasn’t fully recovered from his knee injury. The Broncos decided to put him on season-ending injured reserve so he could recover fully.
Even though he missed his rookie season, Smith looked for the positives.
“I wasn’t disappointed. I kind of knew towards the end of the last preseason that I really wasn’t ready. So I took it as, ‘It’s going to be a learning [experience]. I can get bigger. I can let my knee heal all the way.’ Just doing the training camp, getting the experience of the NFL, was a big help. So I kind of knew what I was coming into this year.” Smith concluded, “So, yeah, I didn’t look at it as a disappointment or anything like that. I looked at it as something that can help me.”
Jackson had six sacks as a part-time player in 2013. He could match that number (or more) this season.
Broncos fans should expect Smith to compile around five sacks this year if he’s healthy and back to full strength. Having those two players combine for 10 or more sacks would also be a boost for the Broncos defense. They may in fact have two dynamic duos, one being an “A” team and the other being a talented “B” team.
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