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.
1. The buzz around the organization has not diminished since Peyton Manning came to town. The Broncos are drawing record crowds to their practices, where predictably most eyes are on Manning. Fans celebrate his completions and sigh in slight disappointment at his incompletions. Either way, the fans have brought added energy to practices. Coach John Fox loves it because it's a small step toward simulating game conditions. Plus, skill position players typically love to put on shows, and the larger the crowds, the greater the stage, the higher the competition.
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."
2. It's debatable which group is most excited about Manning's arrival: the wideouts, the defense or the running backs. Willis McGahee, the team's leading rusher last season, couldn't stop smiling when discussing his new QB. "Having him is going to take a lot of hits off me," he said. "I'm not going to get that pounding like I did in the past. I'm not going to say that we're not going to run the ball as much, but as far as keeping nine out of the box, defenses have to respect [Manning]. You can try that one-on-one coverage with no safeties out there, and he's going to pick you apart."
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."
3. One of the more notable comments from Manning had nothing to do with his offensive mates. It was about outside linebacker Von Miller, whom Manning said might be the most complete pass rusher he has worked against in practice. That's quite the statement, considering he went against Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis for years, but Manning, while extremely complimentary of his former teammates, said Miller, the 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year with 11.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, has a unique combination of size, strength and burst.
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."
Ty Warren, defensive tackle. The Broncos are stressing the need to upgrade their run defense after allowing five of their last six opponents, including those in the playoffs, to rush for at least 140 yards last season. Warren could play a major role after missing the past two seasons because of arm (Broncos) and hip (Patriots) injuries. The 31-year-old is fresh and claims to feel better physically than he has in a decade. That's good news, because the Broncos are hoping to shut down teams on early downs and force a lot of 3rd-and-longs, situations in which they can turn loose elite pass rushers Dumervil and Miller.
Tracy Porter, cornerback. The Broncos struggled against teams that used spread formations last season -- remember Tom Brady burning them for six touchdown passes in the playoffs? -- and Porter is expected to help change that after four seasons in New Orleans. He has speed and a history of making big plays, including a pick-6 of Manning to clinch Super Bowl XLIV. If he and Drayton Florence, the former Bill who is expected to play in nickel packages, step up, opponents are going to have a tough time, particularly when trying to cope with Denver's pass rushers.
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.