At the Broncos' year-round Dove Valley complex in Englewood, Colo. It is a stunning afternoon, with at least 4,000 fans lining the grass knolls around the far field. The players are in pads, which pleases me to no end because my first three camp stops featured players in shorts. Quick thoughts: Peyton Manning looks good; the goal-line run game needs work (it failed to get in the end-zone on four rushes from the 5-yard line or closer, although two play-action TD passes bailed it out); and Dove Valley has become the hub of the NFL world, with multiple national media coming through on a daily basis.
On this day, wideout Demaryius Thomas stood out, even catching a downfield pass for a touchdown before high-fiving fans. Manning lauded the 6-foot-3, 229-pound Thomas, who figures to be a key target for him. Eric Decker, who was a popular option for Manning the first week of camp, has missed time recently with a groin injury. He can't rush a return to health, but, at the same time, it's imperative that he take as many reps as possible with Manning, who has yet to get fully comfortable with his receivers. He told SI it might take an entire year for that to happen, adding that it's a "process." Said Decker: "There's no gray area with him. It's either you do it the right way or you do it the wrong way."
Defenders are ecstatic because last year their margin for error was almost nil with the Broncos struggling to score points. Yes, they won games. But it was draining in so many ways for them to have to be nearly perfect for any chance of victory. Now? "You know how you're so excited for something, you don't even want to talk about it until it happens?" says defensive end Elvis Dumervil. "This is one of those moments. I've played against him and seen what has he has done to guys, what he has done to me."
New defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio echoed that, saying: "He's got some freaky rush ability. He bends, accelerates and has power. Typically one guy doesn't get all of that. One guy has one or two of them but is lacking something. Von has the ability to bend like Gumby and burst like a [defensive back], but he can be strong like a lineman at times."
The star power that is Manning is reflected in the schedule, which features five primetime games. None is more important than the opener, at home against the Steelers in a rematch of last season's AFC wild-card win by host Denver (and Tim Tebow). If the Broncos prevail, it's highly possible they could be 4-0 heading to New England and San Diego in back-to-back weeks. That's because three of their first four are at home, the exception being a Week 2 trip to Atlanta.