For the past several weeks the Denver Broncos have held numerous minicamps and OTAs to help players up to speed and prepare them for the rigors of training camp and the forthcoming regular season. In case you missed a little bit of the coverage, here is a quick breakdown of fifteen things we have learned since the beginning of these sessions in June.
(1) Health issues at LB linger, but Broncos' starters expect to be ready by training camp
The Broncos switching to a 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips means plenty of changes for players on the squad. Middle linebacker is no exception, with Brandon Marshall shifting inside next to Danny Trevathan in 2015. When healthy, the two are dynamic players on the gridiron, but both have had major injury concerns that have lingered on since last season. Their foot (Marshall) and knee (Trevathan) injuries have them sidelined, but it hasn't stopped them from learning the system and taking a heavy dose of mental reps to absorb the playbook.
Both players hope to be ready by the start of training camp, but if not, the Broncos will look to a handful of youngsters behind them to fill their void. When asked what Marshall means to the team, defensive end Malik Jackson remarked:
"Brandon means a lot. He’s a great player. He’s very vocal. You know what he says is going to be is right. There are no mistakes from Brandon. But it’s ‘next man up.’ The train stops for nobody."
So who is the next man up? One player stood out above all the rest at his position through these sessions, which brings us to number . . .
(2) The next man up is Todd Davis
If Marshall and Trevathan aren't healthy enough to start the season at inside linebacker, Todd Davis appears to be more than ready to be the "next man up." The competition at the position is among the best on the team according to head coach Gary Kubiak, who shared his thoughts on Davis and the linebacker situation:
"Well, he flashed with his time playing last year" said Kubiak "Our guys inside right now to me have played really well and it’s because they kind of got forced into a tough situation with two injuries, with Danny and Marshall not working. But those guys have responded and I think it’s just going to help them. That’s just going to be—they may be as competitive as spot as we’ll have probably going into camp."
Steven Johnson, Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson also earned reps on the interior, but the experience Davis had last year has transferred into this offseason, with players like DeMarcus Ware coming away impressed and taking note on his performance.
"I think with [LB] Todd Davis] it goes back all the way to the season, the end of the season with him playing a little bit and him taking on that role now. You’re used to seeing him in the huddle now, calling the plays, calling the defense and being confident. He’s gotten that confidence and that swagger that he needs to be that role player for us."
There is no doubt that the Broncos need a healthy Marshall and Trevathan to compete for a championship in 2015, but their injuries have provided the opportunity for younger players to grow and become acclimated to a more prominent role on the squad, which will only make them stronger as a unit moving forward.
(3) Yin and Yang: Anderson and Ball RB combination
The zone blocking scheme's return to Denver has players and fans excited about the rushing attack in 2015. With that said, it's no surprise that one the biggest competitions brewing is at running back. After a dazzling second-half performance in 2014, C.J. Anderson currently heads the top of the depth chart, with third-year player Montee Ball second in command.
In an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio, Ball remarked that the situation isn't necessarily a 1-2 punch statement, but a 1A-1B situation, with an equal amount of carries to be distributed between the two of them.
While many other backs drafted in his class have performed well to date, Ball has struggled to stay healthy and make a good impression thus far in his NFL career. Though the fire and eagerness to prove himself worthy of his second-round draft status by performing this year was evident throughout OTA's. With Anderson and Ball the clear frontrunners, Ronnie Hillman, Juwan Thompson and Kapri Bibbs will battle for the last running back spots on the roster. My gut tells me that the Broncos carry four running backs, but all five could remain on the squad of the team also flexes Thompson and his services to fullback as well.
(4) Trial by fire: Youth movement on the offensive line
The most disheartening news to come out of the OTAs was on the second day of activity when Clady suffered a season-ending tear in his knee in non-contract drills, putting his future with the Broncos in question. Furthermore, it is a big blow to an offensive line that already struggled last year and will have Louis Vasquez as the only spot solidified with a well-known veteran presence.
In order to replace Clady, the Broncos will look to second-round draft selection Ty Sambrailo to protect Manning's blindside this season. Last year's third-round pick Michael Schofield will compete with Chris Clark and Ryan Harris at right tackle for a starting position. Young players Matthew Paradis and Max Garcia are in play for the starting job at center, while Shelley Smith and Ben Garland are earning the most reps at left guard.
(5) Still no sign of Demaryius Thomas
Contract negotiations between the Broncos and Demaryius Thomas have reached an impasse and the star wide receiver wasn't present for any of the OTAs over the past several weeks. The team has him on slate for the 2015 season with the franchise tag, but his future with the team beyond this year is uncertain.
If a long-term deal isn't agreed upon by the July 15 deadline, Thomas will test the free agent waters after the season and receive a lucrative contract. However, Kubiak is confident that a long-term deal will be in place by the deadline. He went on to add that although Thomas wasn't present, he has access to the playbook with all the new installations and confirmed that Demaryius has been meeting with Manning even though he is currently holding out from participating with his teammates at Dove Valley.
Fans are torn on whether Thomas is worth the big cash he is likely to command, but the Broncos' hopes of winning a championship this year and down the road are much better if he is in the fold. Even though the situation is cloudy, there is one silver lining to be considered . . .
(6) Thomas' absence provides opportunity for Cody Latimer
Thomas being absent from OTA's has given second year wide receiver Cody Latimer more opportunities to impress the new coaching staff. After using an early round draft selection on Latimer, he rarely saw the field as a rookie and was buried deep on the Broncos depth charts. It wasn't a season of action, but one of learning for the former Hoosier star receiver. He knows the expectations for him this year are high and so far through OTA's, he hasn't disappointed and earned high praise from coach Kubiak.
"I’ve been really impressed. It sounded like to me like he struggled a bit mentally keeping up and it held him back [last season]. Anytime you’re doing that it’ll hold you back physically. But I think he’s comfortable with what we are doing. His reps have been increased obviously without [WR] Demaryius [Thomas] here. So, I see a fine young player. I liked him coming out. I’m really excited about what he can bring and I know he’s a lot better now than when he started. So just, I’m excited moving forward."
The Broncos suffered a large drop in production in 2014 from 2013 at the third wide receiver spot, so the development of Latimer is crucial for the Broncos success in 2015 and beyond. He has all the physical tools to dominate at the NFL level, but just needs a little more seasoning and experience before he is ready to ascend to those levels.
(7) Child abuse investigation of Antonio Smith's leaves future with Broncos up in the air
From a personal perspective, the most underrated signing in free agency was the team's acquisition of veteran defensive lineman Antonio Smith. Though the Broncos have a handful of young players on the defensive front poised for quality playing time in 2015, Smith was expected to earn a fair share of snaps in a rotation.
The hope inside Dove Valley was that his addition to the defensive line would offer them versatility and flexibility, but those hopes became clouded after news broke that Smith is under investigation for child abuse in Texas. If Smith is charged and found guilty of such a crime, it would prompt a swift release from the Broncos and leave them a man short on the defensive line.
Smith was a productive player under Wade Phillips when they were together on the Houston Texans and showed his versatility playing inside and out. The potential negation of that prospect for the 2015 season should be an area of concern for Broncos fans.
Undoubtedly, the Broncos would be a better team with Smith on the active roster in 2015, but whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen. Smith was not present at OTAs or the veteran minicamp as a recommendation by the team for him to focus on matters other than football and let the justice system play itself out.
(8) Teams should beware of Von, Ray and Ware
Though concerns exist on the defensive line and linebacker for the 2015 season, the Broncos are very lucky to have a number of high caliber pass rushers at their disposal.
Few teams across the league could match the Broncos pass rushing prowess with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, but that task became even tougher when Denver drafted Shane Ray in the first round of the NFL Draft. The Broncos have been cautious with Ray, bringing him on slowly over the course of OTA's due to ongoing recovery from a toe injury that has bothered him for the past several months.
Ray is expected to be unleashed in full pads come training camp for full contract drills, but in the meantime, he dedicated himself to being a professional and taking in as much information as possible to make an impact as a rookie. The Broncos will have a very aggressive defense this season and a lot of their potential hinges on the contributions of from the former Missouri product.
The sky is the limit for Ray, and he couldn't be in a better situation. Few rookies have the benefit of learning from two of the best pass rushers in the NFL, which he has in Miller and Ware, who spoke about his and Miller's mentorship of the first-round pick:
"With Shane, he’s like a sponge right now. Him being a rookie, just figuring out where he fits in the defense, how and what position he’s going to play, but also learning from [OLB] Von [Miller]—two different type of mentalities of rushing. I’m more of a technique guy that’s been here for a while and just really teaching him more film work, more of learning how to read the tackles. And then Von, both of us working on technique work with him. So he’s getting the best of both worlds."
As long as the big men up front do their jobs, the trio of Broncos pass rushers should be set to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks all season long and register quality production. Speaking of quarterbacks, how is ours doing? Well, apparently he is doing great.
(9) Peyton Manning "looks as good as ever"
Veterans, including Peyton Manning, got ample rest with the coaches dedicating a great portion of the OTAs and minicamp sessions getting younger players up to speed through individual coaching and workouts. The nineteen year veteran was present, but a majority of the reps at the quarterback position came by way of back-up quarterbacks Brock Osweiler and Zac Dysert.
That didn't stop Manning from making the headlines, with former offensive coordinator and longtime confidant David Cutcliffe hinting that he looks as good as ever.
"I'm amazed at times," said Cutcliffe, Duke's coach and a former Tennessee offensive coordinator. "We're doing this in an indoor facility with nobody watching and I watch his focus, his intensity, the absolute desire for every rep to be as good as it can be — that hunger is pretty amazing at this stage. But that's what successful people do."
This is encouraging news for many Broncos fans who have entered a stage of ambivalence with Manning after his performance in the AFC Divisional Round playoff game to the Indianapolis Colts last season. If the Broncos want to reach their ultimate goal, Manning is going to have to be the best he is ever been to compete with a glowingly competitive division, conference and league.
(10) Plenty of legs to boot: Competition among Broncos specialists
Brandon McManus, Britton Colquitt, Connor Barth and Karl Schmitz are amidst a fierce battle for the kicking and punting duties for the Broncos heading into training camp. As of now, Colquitt and Barth have the upper hand, but don't expect McManus and Schmitz to give up so easily.
Last year's starter, Barth, had this to share about his OTA performance:
That percentage is lower than the 93.8 percent field goal success rate he had with the Broncos in 2014 but well above his career average of 85.3 percent. If he can keep kicking with that amount of accuracy, McManus won't have a shot at beating him out unless he is darn near perfect.