The Broncos train at their year-round facility in Englewood, Colo. Despite having no offseason contact with his players because of the lockout, new coach John Fox didn't try to cram four months of missed workouts into the first week of training camp. He placed a premium on teaching and focused on details. Even when the Broncos went full pads for the first time on Saturday, all-out contact was limited. The best word to describe the session was controlled.
Fox wants to bring his players up to speed gradually. There is significant work to be done for a franchise that has not had a winning season since 2006, and the roster you see now is not the one that will hit the field in the season opener. Denver is No. 2 on the waiver wire and looking to upgrade wherever possible, with particular attention being paid to defensive tackle and running back.
"Von is a special player," says Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey. "When you see his intelligence and some of his pass-rush moves, you can tell he's going to make plays. I've seen a lot of players, the special ones and the not-so-special ones. He's going to be one of the special ones."
The Sunday signing of nine-year veteran Willis McGahee definitely helps. McGahee is a 235-pound, between-the-tackles back who most recently shared time with Ray Rice in Baltimore. Broncos assistant coach Eric Studesville knows McGahee well after coaching him from 2004-06 in Buffalo, where McGahee ranked ninth in the league with 3,365 yards rushing during that time.
The question now is: Can Knowshon Moreno hold up his end of the bargain? The third-year pro struggled with injuries his first two seasons and reported to training camp at 200 pounds, 15 lighter than last year. His slimmer body may help with quickness and agility, but will it allow him to absorb the hits that come during a full season?
LenDale White, on IR with a torn Achilles last season, is a bigger back but his forte with the Titans was goal-line running. It's unclear at this point how many backs Fox will carry, but there's no doubt there will be plenty of carries to go around. For instance, in two of Fox's final three seasons with Carolina, the top two backs combined for at least 437 rushes, with each getting no fewer than 184 carries.
After two years of trying to make the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker, third-year pro Robert Ayers is returning to defensive end, the position he played in college at Tennessee. Ayers produced only 1.5 sacks in 26 games his first two seasons, but teammates and staff believe he could be ready for a breakout season because of his comfort level at end and an influx of talent around him. Dumervil, the league's sacks leader in 2009, returns after missing last season with a torn pectoral muscle, and the rookie Miller is expected to command the attention of offensive coordinators. Those things could create one-on-one opportunities for Ayers.
The most important change is at head coach, where the experienced Fox replaces Josh McDaniels, who was fired after just a season and a half. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who is grateful to McDaniels because McDaniels revived his career last season, says the biggest difference between the coaches is that Fox is more even-keel. He says McDaniels tended to ride the emotional roller-coaster, that his highs were extremely high and his lows were painfully low.
There is none of that with Fox, who is known for being positive and steady. The former Carolina sideline boss also has the players' respect because he is known for being associated with outstanding defenses. The Broncos were last in many major statistical categories in 2010, and Fox and his staff are expected to turn that around. Denver is now on its sixth defensive coordinator in six years -- a fact that first-year executive vice president John Elway says is a prescription for failure. It's one of the reasons Elway was swayed toward Fox, whose defensive mind and steady demeanor were considered the perfect fit for a franchise in turmoil.
The Broncos' schedule would be difficult for a team coming off a playoff appearance. For a club that has gone four straight years without a winning record, it appears to be downright brutal.
There are games against the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, the reloaded Patriots and a participant from each of last season's conference finals (Bears and Jets). Throw in a game against up-and-coming Detroit, two against AFC West champion Kansas City and four against the Raiders and Chargers, who have combined to beat them six straight times and in eight of the teams' last 10 meetings and, well, it's a tough road.
The tone could be set in the Monday night opener against the Raiders, who've won three in a row and four of five overall against the Broncos. The games last year were no contest. Oakland won by 16 and 45 points and in 2008 it beat the Broncos by 21.
After games against Cincinnati (home) and Tennessee (away) and a trip to Lambeau Field to face the Packers, the Broncos return home to play the Chargers, who've won three straight, four of five and eight of 10 in the series. It's not implausible that the Broncos could win three of those first five, but it's also within reason that they could lose each of them. The key is the Oakland game. If the Broncos can beat a team that has physically bullied them in recent years, it could provide momentum against a Bengals team that might be breaking in a rookie quarterback and a Tennessee squad that has undergone dramatic changes since last season.
However, a bad showing against Oakland could send them reeling. Again.