Another year, another training camp come and gone for the Denver Broncos...At least as far as I'm concerned. That's the phrase my dad says every time we walk out of the gates and make the seemingly long trek to our vehicle after the last practice we decide to attend.
This year, there was something just a little bit different about camp. I've been coming to Broncos training camp ever since I can remember, which seems to be back to the 2001 or 2002 year of camp. I remember meeting then first round pick Ashley Lelie all the way up to watching Tebow-mania last year, but I've never quite seen anything as remarkable as this.
For the first day we were at practice, my dad, my brother Bryce, and myself were among the 5,000 plus that set a record for a single day of Broncos training camp. I had the opportunity to shoot the breeze with fellow MHR staffers Troy and Kirk for a brief bit before the practice started, but when the gates opened, I re-joined my family in line and we made our way to about the 42 yard-line, front and center.
After assuring our seats, my brother and I headed to the team shop which doesn't have as broad of a selection as usual, and oddly enough we were the only ones in there besides the workers. Since we had already purchased various things from the stores we'd been to in the days prior, we each purchased a New Era cap and headed back to our seats to watch the players come out of the locker room.
After hearing rumors about the roars that the crowd was able to generate as Peyton Manning trotted onto the field, I will admit I was a bit jealous when I was only able to clap due to my painful head cold, but it was an amazing thing to be part of regardless.
As the Broncos got started with practice, it was much of the same that I was used to. Getting the punt teams lined up, doing walk-throughs and shooting punts through a jugs machine at various return men, which this year was led by Eric Decker, Syd'Quan Thompson, and a couple of other guys. I'll admit, I was not interested enough in this portion of practice to pay much attention. It was either that, or these two crazy girls with their faces painted wearing some of the oldest Broncos hats I've ever seen running up and down the sideline with the permission of the "orange shirts" or security guys. The girls were trying and succeeding in getting the crowd to do the wave at about eight in the morning. Not only that, but they were letting out a loud shriek with every word that came out of their mouth. If there was a moment of minor action, these girls were cheering for it.
That was a pretty entertaining start to practice, but when it really got started was after the stretching period, where about 5,000 people stood up with the team as they did some warming up and stretching, which felt good after sitting and waiting for about an hour or so.
When the horn blew and the teams broke off into their individual groups, the position closest to me was the wide receivers. For whatever reason, Demaryius Thomas was not there participating originally, but he eventually showed up and joined the guys for some timing and footwork drills, as well as some work with getting out of bump coverage.
I'm always in awe of how big the players are, no matter how many times I see them. It's actually quite impressive to see guys like Brandon Stokley with so much consistency in this league when so many receivers now are the size of Eric Decker and Thomas.
It seemed like time slowed down as the Broncos continued individual drills and walk throughs before they started playing some actual football. This is where I became instantly entertained and intrigued. Although the time for my viewing was short, what I saw was powerful. Here are some hits from what I saw on the field, and what I'm looking forward to.
- Peyton Manning is a beast. I was, am, and always will be a fan of what kind of leader Tim Tebow is, but the Broncos didn't replace him with a slouch. I've never seen any quarterback donning orange and blue orchestrate a practice like Manning does. His movements are precise. He's calling players to stand behind the line during drills, coaching receivers between plays and on the sideline, moving tight ends around at the line of scrimmage, and joking around with the offensive line. Not only are his passes pristine, he has the ultimate professional demeanor, which I would identify as always leading, knowing when to be serious, and knowing when there is a time to laugh. The addition of Manning has completely altered the culture of this Denver Broncos team, which I find incredibly impressive. Prior to this year, I can only remember two, maybe three years where the Broncos knew going into camp that they were not only a good team, but they had a quarterback who could take them to the Super Bowl. The last time it looked that way was in 2005 with Jake Plummer at the helm, and with all bias aside, he was easily the best QB to play for this team since Elway and before Manning.
- Second paragraph on Manning. He doesn't mess around, but he does. I spoke on this earlier about him knowing when he needs to be serious, and knowing when to joke around. Well, maybe the coolest part of camp was when the second or third team was running through plays on the field--I don't know, I couldn't see a thing with all of the players standing right in front of my face. Manning, during the down time, unscrewed the lid to a water bottle and brought it over to the kid sitting beside me. "Anyone thirsty?" he asked. The kid shot up out of his seat, and Manning brought the bottle right over to me and over my head to the kid. I awkwardly reached for it with a goofy smile on my face, but I don't know if I'd have had the strength to grab the bottle I was so star struck. Manning told the boy that if he wanted the water, he'd have to chug it. So he did, and he got it all over his face. Not all was lost though, as the boy received one of Manning's wristbands and a story that his children can tell their grandchildren. As the boy put it, "I got a wristband from the Hall of Famer!" Peyton is a class act, and you can see how the team is responding. There is a completely different aura around Broncos camp this year. No one arguing about throwing motion, no one complaining about our diva wide receiver beating his girlfriend, and the latest great superstar wasn't just traded in time for us to go 4-12. This camp has the feel of a contender, and Manning is the captain of the ship.
- John Elway made an appearance at practice about 10-15 yards away from me. This is the closest I have been to Mr. Elway in my lifetime that I am aware of, and it was really cool to see him out there observing. His presence was later followed by head coach John Fox coming over close to the sideline, and that was the nearest I'd been to the Broncos' new head honcho as far as I can recall as well. The reason these guys were coming to our side of the sideline is because that's where all the players who were not participating on offense were standing, right in front of our view. It's not a bad view being there as a fan, getting to see all the stars up close and personal, but to be frank, I didn't see much action on the field at all. What I did see, I was impressed with.
- Champ Bailey's play stood out to me. Even on a couple of plays where Jason Hill and Demaryius Thomas made incredible grabs, Bailey's coverage was top notch. Even with his great coverage, Manning was able to sneak the ball past him into the waiting hands of Hill and Thomas on these occasions, the only place those guys could have caught it. Still, there were also times when Bailey got the best of Manning. I don't know or care what other so-called experts say. Champ Bailey may have lost a step, but he is still a great cornerback.
- Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas look primed for great things in their third year, and receiver as a whole appears to be one of the Broncos' strong areas. Brandon Stokley and Andre Caldwell are undoubtedly two of the better and quicker route runners I've seen. Those guys are going to be huge on the money downs. I think both were great, underrated additions to our passing game. I didn't see them make many mistakes at all, save for a drop by Caldwell I believe that ignited a pretty big fire in Manning, who made an excellent pass. The Broncos struggled with drops last year and had a pretty weak but decent excuse with the fact that catching left-handed passes were weird, and also the fact that Tebow's accuracy wasn't great. This year, there are no such excuses.
- The Broncos' timing and rhythm offensively is superb. They are already in-sync with the new program being put in, and when they were not, Manning stopped the play and re-huddled the team without coaches orders. That is something I've also never seen before from any single player at camp. The timing of his passes are also incredible. He appears to throw the ball about 10 yards past where it needs to be, and then magically the receiver drops under it, taps his feet in bounds--just barely--and makes the play. This happened on more occasions than I could recount to you. It seemed like it was 75 percent of his passes going for toe-touch grabs by receivers who were getting open.
- Our specialists are among the best in the league, but I do question our kick and punt returners. I saw Matthew Willis catching some punts, but that's a road we've already been down. I don't think the Broncos have their kick or punt returner for this season on the roster at this point.
- It's good to see some old faces back on the team. Along with Brandon Stokley, I readily accept the return of Ryan Harris to the offensive line. He has had many injury issues, but knowing he is on the depth chart as a backup is a much better situation than we've been in for quite a while. Also, Justin Bannan returning to the line is a welcome addition. Bannan is a massive guy who is going to be a solid two-down player. He was a good addition in 2009 but was forced to play too many downs. This year, the Broncos have the luxury of rotating in a couple of guys at that position.
- Our defensive line rotation is interesting. I noticed the first team included Jason Hunter, Ty Warren, Justin Bannan, and Elvis Dumervil. That would make three new starters for the 2012 season, and I've heard great reviews on Hunter's camp thus far. It looked like Robert Ayers lost all of his first team reps, including those where he kicked inside to tackle on third downs, a spot that was taken by rookie second round pick Derek Wolfe.
- Waiver wire pickup Cameron Kenney impressed me. Maybe it's just because I like rooting for an underdog, or maybe it's the eternal optimist in me, but Kenney seemed quick, looked like he had great footwork, and he didn't drop a pass that I could see. He has good size and he wears the Broncos colors well. I was discussing with Kirk and Troy that he seems like he'd be a good pre-season body, but maybe this guy can really play.
- I was disappointed to not see Ronnie Hillman, who was out with a hamstring injury. Hopefully he is okay soon. I actually didn't get to see much of the running backs in general, but training camp is a very hard measuring tool for backs unless you are a coach and know exactly what you're looking for. Very disappointed as well to see the news about Mario Fannin, who just can't stay healthy. Hoping for a speedy recovery for him, and it must be a really tough time he's going through after just getting back healthy.
- Brock Osweiler has "it." I don't know what it is at this point, but I really liked him going into the draft season, and I liked when the Broncos picked him. His accuracy was erratic at camp, and he will throw some picks in the pre-season, but I believe he was the second best QB we saw at camp. He has a rocket for an arm and appears to be learning things very quickly. My brother and I repeatedly marveled over his size in person. You can see why Gonzaga offered him a basketball scholarship, though looking at him and his sweet hair do, you'd think Osweiler was offered a surfing scholarship or was related to that guy from Airborne. He doesn't look like a football player, but when the helmet goes on and he starts tossing passes, the guy can play. Our QB of the future looks like a sure-fire keeper, but his jersey may as well have been green instead of blue. He is very raw right now.
- The only roster move we made while I was attending camp was signing on Kenney, but since I left Denver we added Jim Leonhard and Keith Brooking, two veteran additions that I like at areas where we have some depth issues. The Broncos are clearly not pleased with their depth at inside linebacker, and interestingly enough placed Nate Irving as the backup to Von Miller at SLB in the first official depth chart of the season.
- Another rookie that was good looking was ASU wide receiver Gerrell Robinson, who showed off his length and overall size to make some plays. He will need to have a big pre-season to make the final roster with the depth we have at receiver, but he looks like a sure-fire practice squad keeper and a guy who can continue to develop with Osweiler as well.
Overall, it was a great trip to camp for me and my family this year. I was able to come home with some new Broncos swag, as well as some new great memories. Here are some other photos I took this year at training camp for your viewing pleasure.
The view my brother and I had for most of camp.