Broncos fans were treated to seeing their favorite players on a very special day on Saturday. Before I get to recapping the week in camp and at the Invesco scrimmage, I wanted to take a minute to congratulate one of the most unique players to ever put on pads. Shannon Sharpe was one of a kind - his heart, his irrepressible nature, his remarkable natural skills and his unflinching work ethic, learned in the fields under the hot Georgia sun have been an inspiration to fans all over the league and especially in Bronco Country. Let it sink it, Shannon. You earned it. Thank you for all the memories, Shay - they’re endlessly sweet.
If by any chance you missed his enshrinement speech, do yourself a favor and catch it here.
What, Me Worry?
Regarding the open scrimmage on Saturday: I’m definitely not concerned because the Broncos' second-string tackles couldn’t handle the Von Miller-Elvis Dumervil combination. John Fox was up front that Tim Tebow had a tough situation, so that’s not going to be a problem. I’m not sure that a lot of teams are going to stop them, with their first team or not. When you add DE Robert Ayers and look at the DT options, it’s a heck of a front line, all of the sudden. It doesn’t make me happy or sad that Tebow also held the ball too long - he had a couple of nice passes, too, so it was a mixed day for him, and there are a lot more to come with different circumstances. And it isn’t a worry to me because Brady Quinn threw the only TD pass of the scrimmage, either. Quinn has greatly stepped up this camp, and he, too, will be getting a look.
I’m also not feeling bad because WR Eric Decker didn’t handle a TD pass on a fade route from Orton or a pass over the middle that he bobbled on third and 4, or that it was against the second string. It’s a first scrimmage. It really isn’t much more than a loose approximation of what the team is going to do or look like, and I’m not that attached to the results. These guys have played together for what, 9, 10 days? It matters, but it’s not that big a deal. How they progress will make the difference. NT Ty Warren will make a difference, I’d suspect. Figuring out the outside corners on run defense doesn’t matter that much to me this early.
I’m not blue just because I’m still not sure what Denver’s got in Knowshon Moreno. The numbers on his blocking from today’s (Monday) Lard show the combination of Knowshon and Correll Buckhalter to be among the worst pairs for pass blocking in the league, which I suspect mattered in letting Correll go. It’s surely not because Jeremiah Johnson looked like the best back of the group - more power to him. Despite his fourth-string status on the current depth chart - which doesn’t mean all that much, at this point, since it’s a first TC chart - he was an interesting question mark last year, and I wanted to see him this camp - what he’s done with LenDale White and Mario Fannin injured has been to make a bit of a name for himself.
I suspect that the move to waive Fannin was in part influenced by the play of Johnson, who has really stepped up. He’s blocked - had a nice one that let Quinn complete a pass to Mark Dell on Saturday - and he’s run well. It was certainly mostly created by Fannin’s own injury history - the knee problem is part of a pattern with him, and that pattern kept him from being drafted, so seeing it again was a ticket to a quick ‘see ya’, but with a hook - he’s cleared waivers, and they like what he’s been doing well enough that he’s back with the team on Injured Reserve. With Moreno and Willis McGahee, the Broncos still have a great start to a run game, and I think that McGahee is going to be counted on for those short-yardage TDs. Ball makes a serviceable fourth back, and he and White will fight for the last slot. That doesn’t bother me at all. Johnson might put some of Moreno’s carries down too on his side of the stat sheet and that would be fine with me too, if he keeps earning it. Moreno isn’t a ‘through the tackles’ runner at this point. Johnson is having quite a camp, and as I mentioned, some of the things I heard on him last year were more than just interesting.
I’m seriously orange and blue about the way that the pass rush is going to look this year, and I’m definitely O+B on adding Syd’Quan Thompson, new RB C.J. Gable and Brandon Bing to the potential list of returners. Eddie is a talent, and they need to also monitor the number of times he gets hit - return tackles have a somewhat higher rate of injury, and they need him healthy at WR. Syd’Quan has a talent, and getting him on the field is in the team’s best interest - even though Cassius Vaughn has taken over the nickelback duties right now, obscuring Syd’Quan’s role, and putting Perrish Cox’s place on the team in question. Vaughn is #2 behind Champ on the current depth chart, and congrats to Kyle McCarthy for currently taking the #2 role at SS from Quinton Carter. Syd’Quan has had an INT in almost every practice, but is currently the third RCB. Even CB Brandon Bing, a guy I want to see on returns if possible, had an INT at Invesco to wrap up practice. Depth is a beautiful thing. Injuries will happen, and Denver has some options. A nasty, blazing, overwhelming pass rush is always a good start. Oh, and RB Gable, picked up off waivers from the Saints, had over 1,100 yards returning for USC, so that’s an option that may be worth exploring.
It was great work by John Fox to set up the scrimmage as it was, keeping units intact to get some level of consistency. There’ll be other scrimmages as well as preseason games, and different guys will get a turn. Is it a perfect free competition for the QBs? No. There are two things at work here, though - the desire to find out what you’ve got from each QB (injuries and trouble on the field can make deciding changes that may come tough, and the more info you have, the better) and simultaneously developing the guy you see as the starter. Starter is far from won, although folks have strong opinions.
I’d made the comment to the staff a while back to the effect that I wondered if people’s heads would explode if Brady Quinn started this year. Some of the observers have noted that Quinn looks like a new QB of late, with the mobility that you associate with Tebow but more of Orton’s accuracy. That might work, as crazy as it seemed not long ago. I recall Orton commenting that four months of studying with Josh McDaniels taught him more than four years in Chicago had, and I’m not surprised - Mike Martz is a good attempt to fix that in Chicago, but it’s been a QB graveyard for a generation and that’s always been a coaching problem as much as a GM problem. Quinn may have learned a lot himself and put it into work during the long offseason - he’s a smart guy, and he knows what he’s up against. He may even see a role for himself. Which leads to...
I’m a bit more blue when I wonder about the OL, and that may favor Quinn at some point. It isn’t that the second-string tackles couldn’t handle Von Doom - that’s normal. I expect a lot of first-string offenses to struggle at times with the new-look Denver DL. I look forward to the firsts versus the firsts, O and D. It’s going to come, and it’s going to tell us a lot about Denver’s ability to stop its own defensive front. So will preseason, within reason. It’s a scripted, strange way of winnowing the herd, but it plays its role. No, what worries me is that Cecil Lammey’s been in camp, watching and keeping notes, and he’s seeing that Zane Beadles is tough as nails, but gets beaten too much still, and J.D. Walton, in his opinion, hasn’t improved since last training camp. That’s pretty cold, but Cecil’s been accurate on a lot and he’s been there to see it.
By the way, his wife had emergency surgery last week, and he missed some practice time to be with her. I’d like to take this chance to wish her and Cecil all the best for her speedy recovery.
By the way, those of us whose jaws dropped open in seeing Russ Hochstein listed as the starting RG with Eric Olsen second and Chris Kuper third can take a deep breath - the new chart lists Kuper as the starting guard, with Hochstein and Olsen behind him. Whew!
If Cecil is right, the QB problem will return in much the same way as it did last season. Teams will realize that you can blitz 5 and 6 guys without fear, and the staff will have to come up with an alternative - which Josh McDaniels never did, and that surprised me. The OL is a huge key to the new coaching staff’s plans. Without it, a running game becomes a joke and the QB a moving, or not so moving target. This does worry me. Manny Ramirez, a Detroit castoff at guard who’s playing on a future contract, is currently the backup center. Eric Olsen is behind Hochstein. Zane Beadles remains at LG, with Stanley Daniels behind him. I expect Denver to be actively following the waiver wire, especially with their #2 position - a number of linemen are going to be cut in numbers games, and some of them may help.
If the OL can’t step it up this year - and it’s early, to be fair - Orton probably won’t last and it will become a question of Quinn and Tebow. Either could start this year and next - there’s no reason for either not to. If the OL does step up, Orton might do much better. Julius Thomas, Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario are all options to improve the situation - better TE blocking is a max-protect option, having one TE or WR on a hot route is another (Right now, Fells is the starting TE with Richard Quinn and Dan Gronkowski behind him and Julius Thomas as fifth string, but I’ll believe that when they have shaved ice franchises in Hades). Orton is very good at play action, which is surprising, given the running game of late. One option is the short outlet pass to the RB, and Moreno may not have worked out how to run over the middle, but he sure can catch and run. So can Johnson, for that matter, and so can McGahee. Possibilities abound, but the OL is the key.
There’s no lack of receivers. It certainly isn’t a concern to me that Eddie Royal and Matt Willis are both starting to look scary, with Julius Thomas becoming just as much so or because Brandon Lloyd already is frightening. Decker’s issue in the end zone and on third down on Saturday notwithstanding, he’s also obviously going to be a player this year. Lloyd is still unearthly, Royal looks like his early self and Matt Willis has turned on the afterburners to back up Lloyd. It’s a great group, and David Anderson has also been steady and showed a lot of talent in the last few practices. Great depth again.
To a coach, training camp is a process that only can be seen in its entirety. They’re going to try out certain guys for particular roles and those players may sink or swim - it’s mostly up to them. The goal is to win games, and the coaches are going to have to make a lot of decisions about who gives them the best chance, based on everything that they’ve learned over the years, studied and trained for and have seen up close in a level of detail that we just don’t get, no matter how often some fans (and a thousand thanks to them for the updates!) attend public camp sessions or what the fans believe to be in the team’s best interest. Some of those decisions will be popular, and some won’t. It goes with the job.
To a fan, the results of a day are the issue that he knows about and has in his consciousness, and the fans react on that basis. Fans are passionate people - they feel things deeply, they have a visceral connection to their teams and they generally have strong opinions. That’s their role, it’s an important one (without it, the game would wither and fade) and the team needs that 12th man that they trust and respond to - it can turn the tide of a close game. It’s a powerful force.
Last week, the newest arrivals, including Ty Warren, Brodrick Bunkley, Dante Rosario, Daniel Fells and Willis McGahee joined Brian Dawkins and got onto the field. The process of deciding the roles of these players, if any, will take a lot of time. The decisions may seem like they come fast, but they’ll be the product of endless 100+ hour weeks, thought, effort, preparation and calibration of the performance of those players. The 90 guys who are out there this week will be winnowed by more than half. Some of those decisions are probably already obvious - others will be made in the final days before the season. Many of those will change with the course of the games; injuries, performances, guys who stand out and those who can’t handle certain situations. There will be movement as some players go down and others have to step up.
In the end, some fans will be disappointed with the choices, and others won’t. Those who are should hang in there - if the player they wanted to see start doesn’t, the guy in front of yours has the world on his shoulders. You can’t hide a thing on game day - the pleasures of national television (and the exorbitant Sunday Ticket, as well as the far less expensive NFL Rewind, which I recommend) mean that everyone who wants to can watch, record, replay, study and talk about the performances and what they mean. If one guy doesn’t get it done, the next fellow always gets his chance. It might not happen the way we want or in the time frame that we want, but it’s a Darwinian environment that’s pretty merciless and it tends to get the job done. If a player you’re rooting for is benched, demoted or traded, that’s all just part of the business.
The coaches aren’t really going to listen to the fans. The management might - they will, in a bad enough situation - but in general, they have to back up the decisions that the guys in ball caps who work with the players daily come to. It’s the nature of the job - management can’t be seen as manipulating the coaches, because the players will lose respect for the coaches. Every coach lives and dies, professionally, by his decisions. The staff of coaches that Denver brought in or kept have a lot of experience. It’s up to them to base their professional lives on those decisions, and they aren’t going to take that lightly.
I’m happy to argue, debate, support and question those decisions, just like everyone else. But I’m going to generally support the decisions that are made by those guys, because they just know a heck of a lot more than I do. I love the game and I’ve watched, enjoyed, studied and learned about it for over five decades, but what I know is a drop in the bucket to what they’ve seen and learned, and I try to keep that in mind. Every coach, just like every other person, is going to make mistakes. They’re also going to do good things. Right now, I’m aware of how often Denver has done things that weren’t in the team’s best interest over the past several years (and it leaves me a bit on edge at times), but I’m also very aware that the EFX team hasn’t even fielded a team yet. It’s too early to judge much of anything, but it’s a great time to support your team.
There’s not much question that the biggest developments of the week were on the defensive side of the ball, with big body Brodrick Bunkley immediately taking number 77 and taking over the starting nose tackle position on the first team. He joins Ayers, Vickerson and Doom right now, with Louis Leonard sitting down with a knee injury (he was also moved to the fourth string on the depth chart), but in theory joining Marcus Thomas and Jeremy Jarmon and Derrick Harvey, along with several other DE players who got reps on that or the third unit. Marcus Thomas also had a dominating day on Friday, which is encouraging.
The arrival of Ty Warren will have an effect on that lineup - if he’s able to stay healthy, Warren could take the defense up another step. Right now, Denver has him listed as the #2 NT where he’ll probably fight with Bunkley for the starting NT position. His pass rushing is his hole card in that competition - both are stout run defenders. I can’t imagine not being excited by the changes in the defense this year, and I look forward to seeing them in action.
Given the advantages that the offenses have in the modern NFL, I thought that Dennis Allen’s perspective was worth considering:
I think the only advantage defenses have anymore is they have to be feared, and that’s the thing that we want to be. We want to be a violent, aggressive defense that plays within the rules, but we’re going to hit try to hit you as hard as we can and then obviously schematically we’re going to try to bring pressures in different areas when we get you in those downs and distances.
Sounds like a lot of fun to me.
We saw on Saturday that one player who will benefit hugely from these changes to the D is Robert Ayers. Ayers has talked about the fact that the offenses will have to react to having Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil staring at them on passing downs, with Vickerson next to them, and how he expects that while the offensive line is dealing with those problems, he wants to get a few licks in.
People are going to be looking at Elvis and these other guys, and hopefully I can punch them in the mouth a couple of times. That’s my goal, and once we get them paying attention to all three of us, that’s when it’s really going to be fun.
Ayers is a talented guy who has the potential, baring injury, to make a huge impact this year. He’s also got to be happy with adding Warren and Bunkley to the lineup - both are big guys with experience and talent, and while Warren is now 30, when healthy he’s still a force while Bunkley is only 27. Ty Warren may start at nose tackle with the first team, but Bunkley’s play could change that - it’s going to be a great camp battle, and Denver wins either way. The way Bunkley rag-dolled OL candidate Shawn Murphy in his first drill, a play that drew loud cheers from his teammates, suggested that Denver may have something very good in him (Yes, Murphy is camp fodder, but he made an NFL camp, so he’s not untalented and he’s also 6’4 and 315 lb. That’s a lot of man to manhandle). Dennis Allen has experimented with moving Ayers to DT when Miller puts his hand down - it’s just a guess, but I’m looking for a lot more pressure out of this group than I did last year, especially with the unfortunate loss of Doom the first week of camp in 2010.
Someone asked - in a passing down, does the NT still just take up bodies, or does he attack the QB? The answer is that every DL player attacks the QB, but they may play different roles in doing so. Two seasons back, Doom gave the credit for some of his sacks to the way that Ayers collapsed the pocket and drove the QB into him, which is something the stat line doesn’t show. If Warren, for example, can put on that kind of pressure, it frees up Ayers, Miller and Doom to do what they do so well. Who the heck do you double-team? That’s one reason that Warren may start over Bunkley - Bunkley is great on rushing downs, but Warren adds a pass-rushing skill that makes the DL even more threatening. Vickerson isn’t exactly immobile either - the team noted his athleticism when they re-signed him, and I noted it last season from the game film. Thomas is also a talented, penetrating one-gapper who put on a great show at camp last week. The options are always interesting in training camp, but this one’s a circus - there’s something entertaining going on everywhere.
After the second quarter at Invesco, call it the Von Doom defense. Those guys are going to be amazing.
Lance Ball had tweeted last week about the difference in the feeling of camp this year. John Fox is a steady, calm presence who’s done it all before and expects to do it well again, which Denver badly needed. Several veterans made the decision to come to Denver based on meeting with Fox, including Ty Warren. He’s held onto OC Mike McCoy, whose continuity may be a key to developing the offense, and he’s working with DC Dennis Allen on defense, a man who has impressed me from the time he was coaching with the Saints. Allen in particular seems to know exactly what he wants from the players. Laconic and straight to the point, Allen has a clear vision of what he wants, and he’s bringing it out of the players.
I’m impressed with the overall feelings from the camp, and very happy with the upgrades to the team so far. There will be many more, eventually, but it’s a great start. Anytime you can put a 2nd-round player in at starting safety, add one of the top pass rushers available in the college ranks and have six of your draftees taking at least some reps with the first team, you’re going well. The additions of Bunkley, Warren, and Derrick Harvey, among others, have brought the level of play up another notch, and that can’t hurt.
John Elway sent a similar tweet:
One week into camp, there’s a positive dynamic and energy in our locker room. Everyone working toward getting better.
Sure, it’s what you expect to hear. That doesn’t mean that there’s not some truth to it - I think that every player who’s on a team that’s experiencing a major turnover has to want to be there, has to believe that there’s a place for him and has to be willing to prove it to the coaches and his teammates. In watching the films of camp, there’s an obvious sense of hard work and intense focus from the vast majority of the players.
There’s a swagger that comes with having a team that’s been in place for a long time and had success - Denver has experienced that before, and they will again. Almost every team - and all of them, over time - deals with ups and downs, periods when you make the playoffs nearly every year, and times when you don’t. It’s part of football. There’s also power in being a team that other folks take a little lightly. Given the pass rush that Denver will be boasting and the other pieces that are in place, though, I have to wonder if that’s going to happen this year. The league's OCs won’t.
There are a lot of great stories coming out of camp. What I’m not catching, other than the QB debate, are those things that kill a team’s momentum - players who won’t practice, those who are holding out and even those who get into trouble, even in a TC environment. Those things haven’t been happening. It’s an area where no news is great. It means that the team is able to focus on the job at hand: becoming a winner. It starts on the 11th at Dallas.