The reigning AFC champs underwent major reconstruction since that game in February and have looked as formidable as ever this summer. But, oh, those creaking 30-something bones . . .
A different training camp report from the others our staff has done in the last month. Peter King spent two days this week at the Denver practice facility watching the Broncos and Texans practice and interviewing people from both teams. First, a story about the Broncos, followed by the training camp report.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo.—The architect of the AFC champions stood on the sideline of a training-camp practice Tuesday and stared out at a different landscape. Finally, the Broncos are building an indoor practice facility—it's a gargantuan luxury barn due to be operational by November—and the evergreen trees that dotted the west side of the practice fields are gone, replaced by a hill and one of three video towers and this new indoor facility. Turns out owner Pat Bowlen, who stepped down last month due to advancing Alzheimer’s disease, wanted the indoor facility for a long time—the Broncos have been forced inside by lightning as much as by rain and snow—and committed $35 million toward the new place and renovations to existing facilities.
“One of the things I got from Pat,’’ said John Elway, “is how winning was more important than any business success he could have. His competitive nature, doing whatever he could to provide a winning atmosphere, ruled all his business decisions."
Bowlen would have wanted the kind of big, brassy offseason Elway oversaw. It was bold, and it was fast. It needed to be big because of that very bad day in New Jersey last winter. Let’s start there. I asked Elway if it’s worse to lose a Super Bowl narrowly, or to screw up the first center snap of the game, never be in the game and get blown out 43-8, the way Denver did last February?
“Well,’’ said Elway, smiling, “I’ve never lost a Super Bowl any other way.’’
True that. In a four-year span in the ’80s, Elway’s Broncos lost Super Bowls by 19, 32 and 45 points. “In the off-season, the ridicule never ends,” Elway said. “You work so hard to get to the game, and it’s just ... For us, this time, every mistake just got magnified, and they became tidal waves, not ripples. We just could never change the momentum. I don’t know how much, but I think it gives us some incentive coming into this year.”
There’s not much talk about 43-8 around here, or about Super Bowl hangovers. There is talk about what is new. Though the age of so many important players should be cause for concern (more about that later), Elway had a pretty good offseason doing some reconstruction where it was needed. No AFC team enters the season with a better chance to get to the Super than Denver, the team with the best record (26-6) in the league over the last two regular seasons. But we might not be able to say that if Elway hadn’t had the kind of off-season Pat Bowlen would love: aggressive, and all-in.
What got fixed, Denver hopes:
- The pass rush. The Broncos never really replaced Elvis Dumervil’s production last year, though Shaun Phillips did have a 10-sack season. An elbow injury marked DeMarcus Ware’s decline in Dallas last year at 31—he went without a sack in eight of his last 10 games—but he’s an upgrade over Phillips and should be better being solely on the edge now. Ware told me he feels he’ll be able to rush more effectively here. That’s in part because he’ll be lasered in on edge-rushing and not worrying about coverage or inside run defense. The early news is good: In Ware’s first preseason game he played only 10 snaps but sacked a juking Russell Wilson once and forced him to throw another ball away. Then there's Von Miller. He played only nine games last year because of a suspension and injury. Miller and Ware, and a healthy Derek Wolfe (back from a seizure and mental-health issues) at the end opposite Ware should give defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio some interesting chess pieces to move around.
- The secondary. The defensive backfield was supposed to be a strength last year, but great secondaries don’t give up 4,360 passing yards, as this one did. This defensive backfield is tougher now, with the addition in free-agency of cornerback Aqib Talib (replacing the departed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) and strong safety T.J. Ward. Champ Bailey aged out too and is gone to New Orleans. Talib’s not quite as good a pure cover guy as DRC, but he’s tougher. Watching Talib matched up against young star DeAndre Hopkins of the Texas on Wednesday in a padded practice was a treat. Talib would win a play, Hopkins would win one—and when that happened, Talib was livid. Talib’s had the benefit of practicing against Tom Brady for a year and a half, and now Manning. “There’s not much you haven’t seen after you go against those two guys,” he said. Talib told me he thinks he’ll be a better-prepared cornerback because of facing Manning so much in practice. “Peyton’s definitely the toughest quarterback I’ve played against in practice,” he said. “With those wideouts he’s got running around, how much he changes up, it definitely prepares you for Sunday. It’s a workout every day we come out here.”
- The offensive line. The line was the underdiscussed goat, collectively, of the Super Bowl disaster, with right tackle Orlando Franklin getting abused by the Seattle edge-rush and Chris Clark not faring much better on the left side. The big addition here is the return of Ryan Clady at left tackle from a Lisfranc injury. That pushes Clark, a subpar left tackle, over to the right side (where, by the way, he took a swing at J.J. Watt during a one-on-one rush drill Wednesday), while Franklin moves inside to guard. Clady looked good this week in individual pass-rush drills against Jadeveon Clowney.
- The receiver group. If Emmanuel Sanders can stay healthy—and he has had a nagging quad injury all summer—he can be every bit the threat new Jet Eric Decker was. He’s faster. With Sanders and Demaryius Thomas outside and Wes Welker and Jacob Tamme (reprising the Dallas Clark slot role from Indianapolis), Manning will always find someone open. And we haven’t even mentioned tight end Julius Thomas, who should be good for 90 catches and 10 or 12 touchdowns.
There’s not a lot to be negative about here, except this: age. Manning is 38, Welker 33, Ware 32. Manning is the franchise; this is a 9-7 team—at best—without him. If Ware can’t return to being Ware, Manning will have to score big weekly to ensure another 13-3 season. He may have to do that anyway. He can, but consider that the Broncos put up 37.9 points per game in the regular season, and 19.3 in the playoffs. The games get tougher in January, which makes health all the more important. It’s simply illogical to think that 30-something players will make it through an NFL season unscathed.
“My job,” coach John Fox said, speaking of Ware, “is get him to the season healthy, and keep him healthy by how he practices and how he’s used [in games].”
So the news on the Broncos is all good. But it’s August. It should be good for a team with Manning at quarterback and a general manager who knows you’ve got to load up to win now as long as Manning’s his guy.
Now for the camp report:
One vivid memory from watching practice
J.J. Watt of the Texans abusing the Denver offensive line and chasing Manning in the pocket. I greeted Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase who a how-you-doing after practice, and he replied: “I was fine—until J.J. Watt destroyed our practice.”
How this team can go 12–4
By the Broncos playing like they did Sunday in Santa Clara against the Niners. Denver went 47 and 80 yards with the first offense on the field (scoring a field goal and touchdown) and held the Niners scoreless, consistently pressuring Colin Kaepernick. If Ware and Miller can be the bookend rushers Denver envisions, this team will win home-field playoff advantage in the AFC for the third straight year. Watching the Broncos, you simply can’t overstate the importance of Ware. He’s been a leader that Miller needs as a pass-rusher and a mentor, and Miller needs Ware’s field presence to ensure he won’t have to fight off constant double-teams or chip blocks.
How this team can go 4–12
Hard to figure any way this happens, unless Manning gets hurt. Denver’s just too deep and explosive on offense, and the addition of Ware and Aqib Talib should keep the defense competitive. Not dominant, but competitive.
Now, from fantasyland …
Keep these tips in mind when you draft your team:
1. If Peyton Manning’s on the board when you pick in the first round, take him. He’s going to have another intergalactic year.
2. I’d be very bullish on Sanders, the free-agent wideout Denver signed away from Pittsburgh. But he’s had a nagging quad injury, and every time he tries to practice, it flares up. “I think I’m going to try to get out there tomorrow,” he told me Monday. In the end I’d bet on him. He’s a competitive Texan from a town where football meant everything, and that mentality has seeped into his play. He’s not just a speed merchant.
3. It’s always a good idea to take the kicker on the most explosive team in football—or is it? The Broncos have a great one in Matt Prater, but 17 teams kicked more field goals than Denver’s 25 in 2013. So when Prater’s the second or third kicker picked in your league, you can chortle and happily settle for Adam Vinatieri four rounds later.
Keep up with all our fantasy football coverage, including position-by-position rankings.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR1||Demaryius Thomas||LDE||Derek Wolfe/Malik Jackson|
|LT||Ryan Clady||NT||Sylvester Williams|
|LG||Orlando Franklin||DT||Terrance Knighton|
|C||Manny Ramirez/Will Montgomery||RDE||DeMarcus Ware|
|RG||Louis Vasquez||OLB||Von Miller|
|RT||Chris Clark||MLB||Nate Irving|
|TE||Julius Thomas||OLB||Danny Trevathan|
|WR2||Emmanuel Sanders||CB||Aqib Talib|
|WR3||Wes Welker||CB||Chris Harris Jr.|
|QB||Peyton Manning||Nickel||Kayvon Webster|
|RB||Montee Ball||SS||T.J. Ward|
|FB||Jacob Tamme *||FS||Rahim Moore|
|K||Matt Prater||P||Britton Colquitt|
The asterisk for Tamme is there because he’ll play far more snaps than a goal-line fullback in the Denver offense—and goal-line and extreme short yardage is probably the only time the Broncos will ever employ a fullback. Look for Manning to use Tamme in the slot much the same way he did with Dallas Clark in Indianapolis … With Sanders nursing his quad injury for much of camp, watch for Andre Caldwell—who has built some great chemistry with Manning despite not starting—to continue to be featured in multiple-receiver sets. Gase and Manning trust him to get open … Chris Harris won’t play much at all till opening day. He’s recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the playoff win over San Diego in January.
Best new player in camp
Cornerback Aqib Talib. This is second straight year in a new camp (he went from the Buccaneers to the Patriots in 2013), and he’s made a seamless transition. Talib told me what’s good for his game is to experience playing against a spread offense in practice every day, after practicing against more standard schemes in Tampa and New England. He gives the Broncos the kind of physical matchup cornerback defensive coordinators want, and he proved last year that he can match up against big players, too. with his shutout of New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Montee Ball’s going to be a monster in this offense. With Knowshon Moreno gone and only changeup speed back Ronnie Hillman pressing for playing time, Ball could put up the number Edgerrin James put up behind Peyton Manning in Indy.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
No holes. Best team in the AFC on opening day, without question.