Wednesday notes

Well, the Broncos are finally breaking new ground and obtaining a variety of players at reasonable cost for the DL. Marcus Thomas was already in the fold on Monday, as was Jeremy Jarmon; Derrick Harvey and Brodrick Bunkley were obtained on Monday, and Ty Warren came on Tuesday. The EFX team started a little slower than I expected (which makes me the fool for believing a guy at a poker game, which is very much what FA can be). The DT crew has been a long time coming, but I like what they’ve done with it in the short run, and the rest we’ll find out when the games matter.

Some of the young guys including Von Miller, Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter are still playing first team roles, as is Orlando Franklin at right tackle. The news out of camp is pretty much what you’d hope for - no one’s been arrested, there are no ego-meltdowns and everyone seems to know their job for this phase. It’s nice to have football, and nice to have good news.

There was a nice set of interviews on Monday afternoon with John FoxDennis Allen, and Mike McCoy over on the official site. Nothing was earth-shattering, but several things were good to hear, including HC Fox’s comments on the quality of the draft class and DC Allen’s comments on changing the culture of the team. There was an accompanying article. Let’s get right to some of the updates that I thought were worth talking about:

Day 5

From Andrew Mason (it’s good to have him back):

Rookies Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter continued to work together as the starting safety tandem with Dawkins watching and Hill released a day earlier …

From where I sit, Dawk is unlikely to start. Even he has said that he’s going to be helping develop the youngsters more, and has an interest in coaching (try and find a better motivator...) and as a mentor, while Renaldo Hill was just hitting the point where it was time to go and let the younger players develop. I haven’t heard a lot on David Bruton (whose ST slot is likely to be pretty much assured) so far this camp and Darcel McBath only took brief first-team reps, so it’s very possible that Moore and Carter will start at some point in 2011 - that could even be sooner rather than later. Orlando Franklin is going to start, Julius Thomas might get the nod at receiving TE and Von Miller’s slot is carved in stone. Even Mike Mohamed got another day with the first-teamers when D.J. Williams’ tricky hamstring hadn’t healed up enough by Monday.

Gray Caldwell noted, “When he wasn’t on the field, Rahim Moore was almost always taking a knee beside Brian Dawkins, listening intently to the 16-year veteran.” That’s going to become a mantra for those who cover the secondary players. Moore’s also been showing that he’s more physical than his metrics would have suggested, butting heads in rough collisions on Monday, including stopping Knowshon Moreno (who had a good practice) in his tracks coming through the middle.

Although I touched on the play of the draft class on Monday, what’s most interesting to me here is that I expected more rookie difficulties with the loss of OTAs and mini-camps, but am seeing that the quality of players that came with the 2011 draft appears to be good enough that they can work immediately with the first teams. That’s very much a tribute to the level of scouting that Denver got and the decisions on the draft board that they made - nice work all around, folks.

I like to watch the clips of practice that Chris Hall puts out and to watch them without the sound, focusing only on the numbers of the players who seem to be showing up the most often. At linebacker, numbers 91 and 51 seem to be around the action the most - not surprisingly, that was Nate Irving and Joe Mays, who are in a battle for the starting Mike position (#91 then went to Robert Ayers on Tuesday, while Irving got his #56). Nate really impressed me on several plays, and Mays is, well, Joe Mays. He’s got a relentless motor and hits like a runaway freight train. Both of those are qualities that Irving has in spades, so it seems Denver can’t go wrong at MLB. #41 Cassius Vaughn also had quite a few good plays. #42 Mario Fannin looks on film much the way he’s been described as playing in camp - tough, talented and willing. #22 Syd’Quan Thompson also had a few plays that he stood out on, and Eddie Royal looks like the hip problem is a thing of the past - he’s quick, balanced and effective, which is great to see. Brandon Lloyd’s hands are still remarkable and Britt Davis (#17) had a couple of circus catches.

Running Backs

According to Lindsay Jones, Denver was thrilled to sign undrafted rookie Mario Fannin from Auburn last week; so was I when they did. As I said, I’d been holding out hope for that since draft week. Fannin might be the fastest of the Broncos' running backs with a campus time of 4.38 in the 40. He had three fumbles in 2010, which he’ll have to improve on, but his speed, receiving hands and size are a rare combination. #37 Jeremiah Johnson was under the radar until last week, but he has already made a stir in camp. He is a second-year player from Oregon who missed all of 2009 because of a shoulder injury and spent time on the Redskins and Panthers' practice squads in 2010. A lot of top players bounced around a bit before catching on, so there’s reason to be hopeful on him as well. Add Moreno and Willis McGahee to that, consider the options of LenDale White and Lance Ball and Denver could have a solid group of backs this season. It’s been a while since that was true.

OL

I’ve expressed concerns about Denver’s depth on the OL, and I’m not alone. I was glad that it looked like Denver had decided that the solution is in-house in bringing back Ryan Harris. Since Harris was a ZB-only player and Denver has decided to go that route with their blocking scheme, this was a great potential solution. Harris knew the other players, knew the basic blocking and could back up both Clady and Franklin - if they could get quality interior backup play from Eric Olsen, they’d have been in good shape.  Now, the same issues remain, and they’ll have to look on the market for a similar tackle. That remains to be seen, but adding depth to the line has been one of my biggest concerns - apparently, it still is.  It’s not that everything can be fixed in one offseason, but you can hope.

The DL

As noted, Denver added Derrick Harvey to their DL mix by Monday, as well as trading a conditional 2013 pick for Brodrick Bunkley of the Eagles, giving them a total of 7 current DEs and 9 DTs on the roster - 10, with Ty Warren in the fold. Harvey was a 1st-round pick in 2008, but he never quite emerged for Jacksonville, while Bunkley, at 6’2” and 306 lb, is also a former 1st-round pick who was traded to the Browns and refused to go. Until last year, which he sat out most of with an elbow injury, Bunkley had started 52 of 61 games for Philly, with 105 tackles and 6 sacks, plus 7 passes defensed. The expanded camp roster has also led to a very full group of DEs, with several of them (although not including Harvey) also having the chops to play at DT situationally, while Vickerson, Bunkley, M. Thomas and L. Leonard all more classic DTs. Vickerson and (potentially) Thomas are suited for UT, with Bunkley and Leonard more for NT (Thomas can go to either slot, another reason I’m glad Denver got him back). Warren is coming back from a hip injury suffered in August of 2010. He’s had a few injuries, the past few seasons. I hope that he can hold up for the Broncos, but he’s a low cost, high reward option, just as Denver has managed to achieve with nearly everyone.

There’s been a lot of talk over the weekend and into Monday regarding the Broncos DL choices and their tendency to place DE/DT players along it. Much of that talk has revolved around concerns with the ability to stop the run. A day later, Denver has new options:  Marcus Thomas is 316 lb and Louis Leonard is about 325 lb while Vickerson is in the 290’s and Bunkley at 306 lb, but overall, I still understand the concerns. Here’s a different way to look at it:

Seattle beat out Denver in the Mebane Sweepstakes, and they also added Alan Branch out of AZ, a player who had killed them last season. That gives them, in essence, two heavy, NT soma-type players starting side-by-side at DT in a hybrid defensive scheme. They aren’t enormously bigger than most teams, but they’re big. A lot of teams like that approach, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But does it really ensure better run-stopping? It can help, sure. There’s a lot of reasons to suggest that it doesn’t always do so, but I’ll give you a simple one: 

If you look at two of the last three SB participants to run a 4-3 base front (I consider AZ to be a hybrid, which disqualifies them from the discussion and the NY Giants run a bigger line), the Saints and the Colts both won their SBs with ‘undersized’ base DTs. It’s really not about how much beef you put up front, but how well you use the players and scheme that you’ve settled on. If Denver only had DE/DT types at this point I’d be more concerned, but they now have some size, power and quickness. M. Thomas is a solid penetrating one-gap DT and it doesn’t really matter if he’s at UT or NT, although I consider the second to be more likely. Brodrick Bunkley, like Louis Leonard, is also a more typical NT. Warren can probably play either, Vickerson is probably a UT at his weight, but again - with what scheme, beyond the base front formation? When does the team run its under/over formations? How much will they stunt? Blitz? Zone blitz? Each matters, and the final decisions on them will in part be based on the specific skills of the guys that they keep. They’ve got a long way to go before they reach the final roster size.

The questions that really matter aren’t so much about the size of the DEs and DTs, although that comes into it;  it’s more about how they will be used. When you have a number of DE/DTs, as Denver does right now, you may have a number of larger DEs. That can help solve a lot of problems, especially if the Mike can tackle well in run support. You could have a couple of 290 pounders at DE (Ayers may get there, while Jarmon, Ryan McBean and Colby Whitlock and Mitch Unrein are pretty much there now) with Vickerson, Thomas and/or Bunkley at DT, which comes to a lot of total line weight. That approach to the run gets even stronger with Joe Mays’ or Nate Irving’s added tackling power at Mike. You know that Ayers will start, the same is probably true of Doom. That means a lot of decisions will go into deciding the next couple of players. Denver may not suddenly get great, but they’ll keep the best of a lot of options.

Speaking of tackling....

Tackling the Problem

The official site had an interesting note on Monday’s practice:

“Defensive backs spent some time wrapping up as well in addition to their interception drills, but all three position groups took a turn at the tackle mat, where players were told to stutter step, sprint towards a tackle dummy held above the mat and launch themselves at it. Those who didn’t wrap up got an earful on their way to the back of the line.
After the drill stations, Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen worked with the linebackers and defensive backs on their coverage assignments with Dawkins surveying the action right beside him.”

Finally - work on the fundamentals of tackling! What a strange concept.....

The Rest of the AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs

From Khaled Elsayed: “The Chiefs walked into free agency with plenty of cap room and a need to push on from last year. After all, they were pummeled by the Ravens in the playoffs. What happened is they turned away from a guy they needed (Aubrayo Franklin) for an elderly defensive tackle (Kelly Gregg) with a history of injuries. They haven’t addressed finding a complement for Tamba Hali, and they haven’t even locked down their franchise player (or any of their RFA). Bringing in Steve Breaston doesn’t make them a better team the way addressing those two problem areas on defense would have.”

I don’t completely agree with Khaled (it wouldn’t be fun if I always did, either), but there were holes that KC didn’t fill, no doubt. Khaled wasn’t too thrilled with what Denver has and hasn’t done so far either, but it’s of no particular concern to me: Denver hadn’t begun to really build its DL when Elsayed wrote his article. The NFL has never seen a UDFA and FA market like this one, and the outcome was unpredictable. Most observers thought that there’d be even more movement and salary bumps, but overall teams held to a more rational level of compensation than was expected.

KC has needed to improve the OL, WR and the DL and they’ve addressed all three between the draft and UDFA/FA periods. I didn’t see Jonathan Baldwin as a 1st round pick, it’s true, and 6th round NG Jerrell Powe is clearly a role of the dice, but Justin Houston and Allen Bailey were both decent 3rd round pickups and 2nd round pick Rodney Hudson might be able to help them out in the middle of the OL. NG pickup Gregg Kelly will apparently compete for the starting position - he was an odd acquisition at age 34 but may give them a year or two of quality play. The Chiefs have moved Jon Asamoah to right guard and he’s apparently playing well there, permitting Ryan Lilja to hold down left guard.

San Diego Chargers

San Diego hasn’t had a brilliant offseason either, really. I’m with Ted on their draft - I think that Corey Liuget CAN play DG for them, but that wasn’t really what I think he’s cut out for, although they think they can ramp up the level of defensive aggression by using him. While Marcus Gilchrist was highly rated by a few observers, I don’t know if he’s the Bolts solution at safety: I think that it’s good for them that they resigned Eric Weddle or they’d have been in trouble. Gilchrist might be able to produce as a cornerback, and that’s what they’ll depend on him for, along with 3rd round pick Shareece Wright and veteran Antoine Cason. Using a second round pick on James Mouton seemed like a huge reach - while the Chargers were terribly uneven on STs last year and Mouton is highly thought of for the role, how often do you see a player who’s little more than a ST specialist being taken in the 2nd round? SD has been bringing him out to play in the LB rotation immediately, though, and they seem to feel that he’ll do well there.

WR Vincent Brown out of SD State looks like a good third to fifth WR, but was a third round pick. After that, 6th round pick Steve Schilling will start out purely as a depth OL player, Jordan Todman is hoped to take over for Darren Sproles and his 4.4 speed might help them out on returns, although he doesn’t have Sproles quick juking ability out of the backfield.  UDFA fullback Kenny Younger out of VTech is a shot in the dark who is hoped to block for last year’s 1st round pick, Ryan Mathews (who showed up to camp out of shape and failed his first day conditioning assessment drills). SD’s final 2011 pick was the undersized (6’3” 228 lb) LB Andrew Gachkar. It was a very late pick.

One thing that you have to give SD credit for is keeping all 8 OL players together again for 2011. I’m not a Jeromey Clary fan, but Brandyn Dombrowski and Scott Mruczkowsi were essential pieces of their offensive success last season and communication and experience as a group is a part of the OL that can’t be over-estimated.

If you think that Miami did Denver (or themselves) no favors in the Kyle Orton situation, give them credit on this one: SD lost out to the Fish on Kevin Burnett’s services, who the Bolts were counting on to anchor their inside LB group. Last year’s third round LB pick Donald Butler will have to step it up. I did like their Takeo Spikes signing, and 9 million over three years is a good bargain for him. Canadian DL import Vaughn Martin, who is phone-booth quick, if not fast, is said to be coming on, and the defense will be running a lot more stunts this year which should suit his skills makeup as well as Liuget’s. DG Antonio Garay played well for SD last year and should improve even more this season.

Oakland

Oakland is still a mystery to me, and probably will be for a long while to come. I think that Hue Jackson is an excellent coach for them. Oakland went undefeated in the AFC West last season yet didn’t even make the playoffs. They continue to struggle to put together the right group at OL, and picked up interior lineman Stefen Wisniewski with their 2nd round pick this in year’s draft (they didn’t have a 1st round pick, having used it to obtain Richard Seymour) after using both a 3rd and a 4th last year on Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell at tackle last year. They must still not be convinced on them - Oakland also took on hulking Joseph Barksdale with pick 92 in the 2011 draft, and he’s been projected to compete for the right tackle slot. Robert Gallery was permitted to leave for Seattle. They’ve got youth on their OL now, though. With their running game options, they need to solidify that line. They may need help in the receiving game as well, with TE Zach Miller gone to Seattle.

Oakland also chose 6’1”, 175 lb string-bean CB DeMarcus Van Dyke with their 81st pick in the draft. Why? Predictably, it’s because he’s very fast - 4.28 fast. It remains to be seen whether or not he can tackle in the NFL, but Al Davis loves speed in all its forms, even though I’ve never heard of a second round pick before who put up just 5 reps (yeah, 5) on the bench press and who struggles with both zone and man-underneath coverage (he can make up for a lot of mistakes on deep routes with his speed, or could at the college level). They also took on CB Chimdi Chekwa, another ‘fast’ CB with 4.4 speed. The issue with Chekwa is that he takes some time to get up to that 4.4 speed and can struggle to change directions at full gallop; in the NFL, that’s a problem. It’s hard to get a grasp on how Oakland will play this season.

Conclusion

To me, Denver had one big issue remaining - they really needed a quality backup offensive tackle and the return of Ryan Harris should solve that. I’ve no idea how Eric Olsen is doing for their backup guard and center player, but Russ Hochstein is taking the second team snaps at center, which to me isn’t good. Olsen has been trying to drum up interest in his training camp tweets, but got a total of two responses Monday during practice - if you’ve an interest, he’s @EOlsen69. One thing that he said was worth passing on:

It's only been 4 days, but there is definitely a different feeling in camp this year. #Broncos

That’s easy to believe. The team has gone into another makeover, with new players coming in constantly and 9 draft picks to go with over 15 UDFAs as well as players who’ve been let go and traded for. The coaching staff is new, and I like the guys they’ve put together. The approach of letting the coordinators coordinate and the head coach to coordinate everyone has long been my preference - Josh McDaniels wasn’t the first young HC guy to take on too much, and he won’t be the last. Even so, Denver has better players for their schemes than has been true in a long time. I don’t see them as being ready to take over the AFC West, but they’re closer to being competitive than has been true in some recent years.

Looking over the division, Denver has an uphill slog coming, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t make strides this year. I’m not much on making predictions and I certainly wouldn’t during the first weeks of training camp, but whatever his faults, McD left Denver with better players than he found it. The EFX team has done well in putting together a staff, a draft as well as a UDFA and FA period, and it’s not over yet. Dennis Allen spoke on Monday about the need to instill a new culture, and that’s exactly what they have to do to be successful. It’s not easy - it never is - but it can be done. As Allen said, “We’re going to get after it...I think that we’re got some work to do, but I think we’ve got some pieces to work with.” It’s as good a synopsis as I’ve heard yet. They’ve put a lot of pieces together quickly, and there may be more on the way. A week into training camp, and there’ve been no major injuries. It beats last year’s situation already.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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