In Denver, an Unknown Steps to the Front

With Von Miller facing a potential suspension, fifth-round rookie Quanterus Smith is unexpectedly in the Broncos’ spotlight
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — You come to the first day of Broncos training camp, alongside a patch of tall evergreens and the Rockies looming in the distance, with grand expectations. So many stories, so much excitement. Fans were lined up outside the parking lot starting at midnight (having been turned away at 10 p.m. Wednesday by stunned security guards) for the 8:50 a.m. Mountain Time practice on Thursday. The region’s revved.

Peyton Manning wasn’t sharp in his first practice of the summer, but he’s going to be in fine form in year 2 here, heaving downfield to the speedy Demaryius Thomas. And then there’s Wes Welker, Tom Brady’s longtime slot receiver now in the slot for Manning, looking strange with a horse rather than a Patriot on his helmet. There’s hunky wideout Eric Decker. Four or five teen girls screamed at one point, “We love you, Decker!” To which a couple of linebackers sing-songed, “Oh, we love you Decker!” Shaun Phillips and Quentin Jammer and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, trying to revive their careers, patrolled a new defense for the first day. And No. 38 … remember him, Badger fans? Montee Ball, the 2011 Heisman candidate, circled out of the backfield and caught a nice screen from Manning. He’s going to have a good shot to contribute to the offense from day one.

So why were so many eyes Thursday on the fifth-round pick from Western Kentucky with the unique name and big left knee brace?

Quanterus Smith, selected in the April draft 16 slots after a fullback from Harvard, is suddenly in the eye of a very significant storm. The news this week that the best pass-rusher on the team by far, Von Miller, could be subject to a four-game suspension at the start of the season—with the Broncos opening against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Eli Manning in succession—makes the Super Bowl express much less assured here.

It’s unlikely Miller will beat what The Denver Post claims is a looming suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, though there are growing suspicions there could be extenuating circumstances to Miller’s proposed ban. Neither he nor the Broncos were talking about it on Thursday. But losing Miller would be a blow to Denver’s hopes of getting off to a fast start. The Broncos are already missing the No. 2 pass-rush threat from a 2012 playoff team, Elvis Dumervil, who left for Baltimore in a messy free-agency spat. No team got more pressure in ’12 from its top two pass rushers than the Broncos got from Miller and Dumervil, and beating good offensive teams like Baltimore and the Giants will be tough without them.

Phillips should help some, but the former Charger linebacker is coming off a low-impact season. Robert Ayers and Derek Wolfe, likely defensive-end starters, are good players but not classic rush ends. So the rush will have to come from somewhere. The Broncos are being careful not to put too much pressure on Smith, a 6-5, 255-pound rookie eight months past torn-ACL surgery, but he showed enough flashes in his first NFL camp practice on Thursday to let the Broncos know if they have to plug him in the first month of the season, he’ll at least be physically ready.

When we studied him, we saw a first-round talent. That’s the kind of flyer you take on draft day.

The Smith story is a strange one. He burst onto the national scene last season when Western Kentucky traveled to play the best team in the country, Alabama, on Sept. 8. Smith got three sacks against the Tide, the first coming directly over the man who would be the 11th pick in the 2013 draft (by San Diego), tackle D.J. Fluker. Actually, the first sack came on a speed rush around Fluker. The second came on a power move, when Smith powered through guard Chance Warmack and Alabama tackle Cyrun Kouandjio and flattened quarterback A.J. McCarron. A speed move—lots of rushers can be one-trick ponies and get a few sacks. But the ability to use power, particularly against a guard like Warmack, seen by many as the best this year’s the draft, is impressive.

And it’s that second one, the power/changeup move, that made some scouts fall in love with Smith. He was on his way to first-round contention, leading the nation in sacks with 12.5, when his left knee caved in against Louisiana in November. He tore his ACL, and Dr. James Andrews operated late that month. Now it was a race to draft day.

“When we studied him,” said Broncos coach John Fox, “we saw a first-round talent. That’s the kind of flyer you take on draft day, using a fifth-round pick on a kid who has rare talent and you just hope he can make it back from the injury. So far, I really like what I see—but we haven’t had the pads on yet. It’s still very much a wait-and-see deal.”

On one snap in one-on-one defensive-line rush drills Thursday, Smith powered off the ball and put significant pressure on his left leg using a power-rush into the tackle. He showed no hesitancy. That’s what Broncos coaches were looking for on day one—Smith being unafraid to use a power move with all the torque on his braced knee.

“I’m pretty sure I should be ready to go when the games start,” Smith said after lunch on Thursday. “I felt good today. My knee wasn’t locking, or hurting. I’m lucky it feels this good not that long after surgery. I’m lucky I got Dr. Andrews to do the surgery. I’m pretty sure this was nothing he hasn’t seen before.”

It’s possible—though Fox said no lineup decisions are close to being made—that if Smith play wells in camp and the preseason games he could open as the weakside rusher in Denver’s nickel unit. “I know this: The way we play defense, we can manufacture pressure,” said Fox. “We’ll figure a way to get pressure.”

Amazing that the 18th defensive end picked last April might be the man Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio need to bring the heat in the playoff rematch against Baltimore to start the season.

“I just go out and play,” said Smith, a quiet kid just trying to fit into his NFL surroundings. “The Von thing, I don’t worry about it.”

He may have to soon. All of Denver may have to.

The MMQB crew has hit the road for training camps. Check out all our coverage.

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