Predicting the Winner of the Denver Broncos' Biggest Training Camp Battles
Let's be honest: The Denver Broncos know what most of the depth chart is going to look like already, so training camp battles are mostly for depth. This is one team where the top-end positions are pretty much decided. Even the new guys—DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib, Emmanuel Sanders—know where they stand. They'll all start.
That being said, depth is huge in the NFL, and it often wins games—and even Super Bowls. The injuries that hindered Denver late in last season—Ryan Clady, Chris Harris, etc.—could have been better overcome with more depth. It's also important for the long-term future of the team, something that is always a bit in flux.
On top of that, the NFL is changing. A third cornerback used to be considered a second-string player. With the amount of nickel coverage that has to be run these days, that guy is pretty much a starter. He needs to be able to play like it. The same can be said for a backup safety if the starter is going to be brought up into the box and used like a linebacker at times, as the Broncos may do with Ward.
With training camp finally underway, the last pieces of the puzzle can start to fall into place. These battles are simply ranked according to their importance to the team's immediate future, mostly based on playing time.
Bradley Roby and Kayvon Webster
This is pretty much how the nickel corner battle looks in Denver. Webster was a rookie last year, and he was thrown into the action when injuries dictated. Bradley Roby, of course, was the first-round draft pick before the 2014 season, a player whom the brass loves for his athletic potential, physicality and upside.
In a lot of ways, Roby looks poised to jump Webster. They have a lot invested in him with the early pick, and there is always the chance that he can develop into a star. He's not the next Champ Bailey, but who is? He could be very good, and you'd think they'd like to go forward with that as soon as possible. ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold's reports from the early camps were quite positive.
At the same time, it's hard out there for rookie corners. Webster struggled to find his groove. Rookies make mistakes, and that often means giving up touchdowns at cornerback. Webster's game experience could be huge. It could put him way ahead of Roby because of the development curve. If he's less of a risk, Denver wants him out there, even if the potential isn't as great and the ceiling isn't as high.
Furthermore, the most recent reports from DMac and Big Al Williams of Denver radio station 104.3 the Fan (h/t Fansided's Chad Jensen) have Webster starting over Roby in camp.
And the winner is...
On the whole, his athleticism is going to win out. The physicality won't hurt either, as that's exactly why guys like Talib were brought in. Roby fits that mold, and he'll play nickel when the season starts, regardless of who does it at the beginning of camp.
Lamin Barrow and Nate Irving
I've been hard on Denver for their middle linebacker position.
I didn't like what it looked like last year, with Paris Lenon playing for part of the season, and I don't like what it looks like now, with Nate Irving pencilled in. I don't think it's the position of strength that it needs to be, and I think that's big when teams want to run on you, slowing the game down and keeping Peyton Manning on the sidelines.
I will say that I feel a bit better about it now, seeing as how the Broncos have the potential to just avoid sets with three linebackers.
They can play two of them, with one being Von Miller, and sort of swing Ward up into the box to act as a third. This should actually work really well because Ward is a heavy hitter who can stuff the run, but he's also able to roam the field and play coverage. It's a good hybrid-type look.
When it comes to Barrow and Irving, you're basically looking at two smaller guys who can run. This makes sense in the new NFL; Denver has already moved that way a bit, with players such as Danny Trevathan, whom people used to say was too small but who then led the team in tackles. These are guys who fit the new mold, though they'll never be the same as an Al Wilson.
And the winner is...
I like Barrow for the future, as he was a huge leader for the LSU Tigers, a team that knows a thing or two about defense. But he's going to have to grow into it. Right now, Irving is much more familiar with the system, and he's physically bigger at 245 pounds than Barrow at 229. Both are over six feet tall, but Irving's bulk and knowledge give him the edge.
Andre Caldwell and Cody Latimer
Really, this one is all for the depth. The Broncos top three are set with Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Sanders. When they run a four-wide set, though, or give someone a breather, should they sub in veteran Andre Caldwell or rookie Cody Latimer?
Caldwell's advantage is that he was in town last year. He played sparingly, but he looked good when he was on the field. He understands the offense, and he can step into it with ease.
Latimer, the second pick that Denver made in the draft, was in Indiana last year. Physically, though, he's intimidating. He's got two inches and 15 pounds pounds on Caldwell, and he's still a rookie. He could bulk up with some lifting.
And he's got great explosive speed to go with that size, having run a 4.39 40-yard-dash on the broken foot that pushed him down into the second round of the draft in the first place.
And the winner is...
This kid is part of the future here, and there's a good chance that Denver looks at him like a steal of a pick because of his injury. The Broncos can work him slowly into the offense by playing him as the fourth wideout, getting him experience. Word out of camp, per Kyle Montgomery of SB Nation's Mile High Report, is that he's already turning heads, so they'll want to get him out on the field at least a little bit. Watch for him to start next year.
C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman
Clay being ahead of Anderson was a bit of a surprise since he's a rookie, but maybe they were just trying to get a look at him while they can.
I think it's fair to say that Clay won't take the job. He did run for almost 1,000 yards at Oklahoma last year, but part of the reason that Denver didn't play Ball more last year, despite the fact he was a higher pick than Clay, was pass protection. It can't afford to take chances with Manning.
That leaves Anderson and Hillman. There was a time when Denver was very high on Hillman, but he had some trouble holding on to the ball. That moved him off the field, and he's been fighting to get back ever since. Anderson was a rookie last year, and he didn't have the same ball-security struggles, but he also only has seven career carries for a grand total of 38 yards. It's not much of a sample size.
And the winner is...
Turnovers are the worst sin you can commit in the NFL, but Hillman really only fumbled twice last year; he just did it in consecutive games, and one instance was in a big situation which helped the Broncos lose to the Indianapolis Colts. He paid the price for it, but it's a new year. He's been here longer, and this is perhaps his last chance to show what he can do. If he fumbles, though, don't expect to see him again.
Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson
The defensive end who gets to start opposite Ware is going to love his job. Not once is the protection going to be shifted his direction. When Miller comes on the blitz, that second DE is going to be almost an afterthought for the offense. That's a great way to get sacks.
Derek Wolfe clearly has the upper hand here as far as past starts go. Both he and Jackson are roughly the same size, with the same experience, but Wolfe started 16 games in 2012 and 11 in 2013, before his injury.
Jackson, by contrast, only started five games in 2013, after not starting at all in 2012. Still, he saw a lot of action, and even with those limited starts, he ended up leading the team in a few key areas: Tackles for loss (11) and quarterback hits (15).
And the winner is...
Derek Wolfe. You have to go with history on this one. He was starting over Jackson when he was healthy every single time. Jackson only became the starter after Wolfe went down. You have to think that Denver will put him back out there now that he's healthy again.
That being said, though, Jackson's production cannot be ignored. He was very good when he did play. This battle should be interesting, and it wouldn't be shocking to see it go either way.