As the Broncos began their first training camp practice after winning the Super Bowl last February, their music playlist reinforced the organization’s preferred theme. The first song that blasted from the speakers on a cloudless day in Englewood, Colo., was Jay Z’s On to the Next One. On to the next season.
The reigning champions survived an eventful spring and early summer. They wished quarterback Peyton Manning well in retirement, waved goodbye to quarterback Brock Osweiler in free agency, signed quarterback Mark Sanchez and drafted quarterback Paxton Lynch. And that was only one position. Denver also made quarterback terrorizer Von Miller the highest paid non-signal caller in NFL history (six years, $114.5 million, up to $70 million guaranteed). One cornerback, Aqib Talib, was shot twice in the leg in Dallas. And two defensive starters—Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan—departed in free agency.
And so the Broncos approached 2016 the way their defensive backs practiced in individual drills on Thursday: with blinders affixed to their helmets. Coach Gary Kubiak said what all coaches who win a Super Bowl say, dating back to the first football coach. “We aren’t defending anything,” he told his team.
Ah, but they are, and if recent history is any indication, bet against the Broncos. The Patriots are still the last team to repeat as Super Bowl champions, back in the 2003 and ‘04 seasons. The last team before New England? Denver, after the 1997 and ’98 seasons, with John Elway, their current general manager, at quarterback.
What was odd about Denver’s first day back at camp was how many seemed to doubt the Broncos, who return most of the league’s top defense and solid playmakers on offense and still answered question after question about feeling disrespected. Most pundits have not picked Denver to even win its own division, choosing Kansas City, or Oakland, to end the Broncos’ five-year reign. And that’s because of the uncertainty at quarterback, along with questions on the offensive line.
“A lot of people are saying, 'You're going to have a tough chance of defending it', as if we don't win the Super Bowl this year we have to give our rings back,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “The trophy is ours. We're just out here chasing another one.”
More news and notes from Day 1:
• Miller didn’t splurge on any purchases after signing his new contract. “What am I supposed to buy?” he asked. “A spaceship?” I asked him if he could point to a key meeting, or turning point, in his negotiations with the Broncos, which were contentious, with Miller threatening to hold out rather than play this season under the franchise tag. He said that a week or two—he couldn’t remember exactly—before the deadline he called Elway and Joe Ellis, the Broncos president, not to talk numbers but to reiterate that he wanted to stay in Denver and hoped they could reach a deal. He wanted, Miller said, to remind them that he was human. “I really wanted to get the agent and the whole business thing out the way,” Miller said. “I didn’t want to talk numbers or anything like that. I just wanted to talk on how I felt and the type of expectations that I had for myself and what I wanted to do.”
And what did he tell them? “The expectations that I hold for myself are scary,” Miller said, before declining to provide specifics. (Although he said earlier this summer that he wanted to win defensive player of the year.)
He practiced for about 40 minutes on Thursday, after missing OTAs and mini-camps. The Broncos plan to work up to a full workload for Miller.
• Talib watched practice from between the two outdoor fields, mostly with a towel covering his head. He’s on the Non-Football Injury list, and he did not take questions from the media, which meant his coaches and teammates answered several questions about him. Elway said the Broncos did not yet have a timetable on Talib’s recovery or return. “Our expectations are that’s going to be real soon,” Kubiak said.
• DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos veteran pass rusher, also did not practice Thursday. Typical of many of advanced age, (Ware is about to turn 34), his back is hurting. But Ware told reporters he could have played Thursday if the Broncos had opened their season then. A team source said he expected Ware to play fewer snaps on average this season, around 15 a game or so.
• It’s hard to read too much into one training camp practice, but receiver Demaryius Thomas stood out Thursday, with several catches and one long run up the right sideline. Thomas had a strange season in 2015: 105 catches, 1,304 yards, six touchdowns and, by his own admission, far too many drops. Those are monster numbers, by any measure, and yet Thomas talked about last year like it was the worst 105-catch season in NFL history. Maybe it was.
Thomas said he spent this off-season focusing on dropping fewer balls this year, focusing on his fundamentals. He spent the last week trading texts with Kubiak, detailing his expectations for this season. “We could be better than last year,” he said.
• What you didn’t see at Broncos training camp: two words, Sports Authority. That’s because the company, which had purchased the rights to the stadium—known as Sports Authority at Mile High—has gone bankrupt. Ellis said the Broncos are working with the Denver Metropolitan Football Stadium District to find another company to buy the naming rights. “It's important that we do get one,” Ellis said, citing stadium improvements as one place to spend that money.
Five Questions with John Elway
Q1: Von Miller noted this summer that Mr. Bowlen made you the highest-paid player in the NFL twice. Did you share with him any of your own experience on coming back into a locker room after cashing that kind of paycheck?
A: That’s what I tried to tell him today. We met in my office. I know that he’s one of those happy-go-lucky guys that wants everybody to be positive. But the expectations, you’re going to see different sides of people because of them and what you make. So you have to be able to battle through that and understand that situation. You can’t let if affect you on the negative side. Just tried to warn him a little bit what’s coming.
Q2: What else did you tell him?
A: It’s always a little bit worrisome, like, how does a guy react to being financially set? I said, this is about creating your legacy. It’s about what you want to do as a football player. You should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. That’s what you should be. He agreed with me. He’s capable of that.
Q3: Was there a pivotal moment in the negotiations?
A: Ultimately, as much as you’d like to get these things done before the 15th, they’re never going to happen. It’s never going to happen until its time, unless one side just totally caves. So that’s why [there’s the] need for the deadline. That’s why we knew it probably was going to get until the 15th, and it did.
Q4: He had an insane off-season, traveling the world, reality TV. Does that concern you at all?
A: That’s up to him. That’s his time, right? But ultimately whatever it takes for him to be ready to play football and play at a level we expect him to play is what he has to do.
Q5: Does he remind you of anybody who used to chase you around on Sundays?
A: Yeah, I mean Derrick Thomas is a guy that had that kind of talent, with the speed and the ability for him to come off the edge. He’s got that ability. He’s unique. So that’s why he’s gotta take advantage of it.
Biggest Turnaround: Quarterback
The biggest change in Denver is obvious: Quarterback. Quarterback. Quarterback. How the competition plays out there over the next month will go a long way in defining the Broncos’ title defense.
Sanchez, the fifth pick in the 2009 draft, is the presumed frontrunner. He looked sharp on Thursday, and Kubiak even noted that to reporters. “He just looked confident,” Kubiak said. Sanchez started on the Jets teams that reached the AFC championship game in the 2009 and ’10 seasons, but his career stalled, first in New York, then in Philadelphia.
If Sanchez is the starter, he will replace Manning, a first ballot Hall of Famer, after having replaced Brett Favre, who is being inducted this year, when he was with the Jets. Sanchez said he learned the Broncos’ playbook by studying flash cards like he prepping for a vocab test.
There is a sense in Denver, though, that the starting job isn’t necessarily Sanchez’s, and since the Broncos have been adamant that they don’t plan to play Paxton Lynch, their first-round pick out of Memphis, too much this season, don’t be surprised if Trevor Siemian gets a shot at some point. For now, Siemian and Sanchez are slated to split the first-team repetitions.
Drawing Some Buzz: Shane Ray
The Broncos seem genuinely excited about Shane Ray, the pass rusher they took 23rd overall in 2015. Ray told me he gained 10 pounds of muscle this off-season. He’s always been known for his speed and quickness and ability to get around the edge. But he wanted to be able to play more physically, too, in order to keep the blockers guessing—and put them on their backs. He said he thinks he will even shift inside some this season, which he also did in college at Missouri. “Without a doubt,” Ray said after practice Thursday. “I had no problem with beating guards. I feel like if a tackle can’t block me a guard sure can’t.”
Imagine an improved Ray chasing quarterbacks alongside Miller and Ware this season. Opposing offenses would prefer not to. And that’s one reason why several Denver defenders argued that this defense could actually be better than the one that finished first overall and ranked in the top five in almost every defensive category last season. Obligatory disclaimer: Of course they’re going to say that in July. But … “We can become the best defense of all time,” safety T.J. Ward said.