Updating Denver Broncos' Key Position Battles Early in Training Camp
The Denver Broncos have made it through the first few practices of training camp. Several more intense practices and the annual summer scrimmage are still to come.
Several important position battles have begun, and here, we will provide accounts of how the players involved have performed thus far.
One thing that will catch your eye is that most of the battles in Denver will be for backup positions. That is a huge credit to Broncos general manager John Elway and his staff, who have put together one of the league's top rosters.
On a 53-player roster, every position matters. And as the Broncos found out last year, injuries to top players make it necessary to have proper depth at each one.
Less than a week into camp, take a look at who has the advantage at each of the key positional battles.
Defensive Tackle: Mitch Unrein vs. Marvin Austin
The Broncos have solid depth at the defensive tackle position, with three players who are all but guaranteed roster spots.
Terrance Knighton, Kevin Vickerson and second-year player Sylvester Williams will all be on the team, but who will be the fourth man? That will be decided between Mitch Unrein and Marvin Austin.
Unrein has been in Denver since 2010, despite going undrafted out of Wyoming. He has helped the team at times as a reserve defensive lineman as well as lining up as a fullback in goal-line situations.
However, it has been Austin who has staked his claim for the roster spot to this point. As David DeChant of the team's official website reports, Austin was one of the most impressive players on the entire field on the third day of training camp Saturday, which just happened to be the first day the team put on pads.
In addition, blogger Andrew Mason noted:
Marvin Austin is consistently getting penetration. Repeatedly outclassing the backup interior OLs.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) July 26, 2014
Austin was able to consistently get pressure on Saturday, tackling runners in the backfield on multiple occasions. The team's report also mentions Unrein, noting that backup center Will Montgomery was easily able to fight him off in practice.
Unrein is a nice little backup, but there is a reason Austin is a former second-round pick. Though he is already with his third team and has been a major disappointment to this point in his career, it seems Austin may have come to the right place.
Unrein has his work cut out for him to keep his place on the team.
The Edge Currently Goes To: Marvin Austin
Defensive End: Malik Jackson vs. Derek Wolfe
After a solid rookie season, Derek Wolfe regressed in 2013, mainly due to injures. In 2014, Malik Jackson will be ready to claim Wolfe's starting spot at defensive end if he fails to show the level of play he did as a rookie.
Jackson will also be entering his third year in the league and was second on the team in 2013 with six sacks. He should be brimming with confidence in camp this summer.
The Broncos will feature a pass-rushing unit that includes Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Quanterus Smith, but they will expect a lot out of Wolfe and Jackson because the pair should see very few double-teams.
As ESPN's Jeff Legwold tweeted on Saturday, Wolfe was already experiencing some tightness in his back during practice:
First day of full pads at #Broncos practice ... S John Boyett and DE Derek Wolfe each some lower back tightness.— Jeff Legwold (@Jeff_Legwold) July 26, 2014
Wolfe still would have to be considered the front-runner to be the starter opposite Ware, but Jackson continues to close the gap.
This will be an interesting battle to watch heading into the season.
The Edge Currently Goes To: Derek Wolfe
Linebacker: Shaquil Barrett vs. Lerentee McCray
Shaquil Barrett and Lerentee McCray will be competing for a backup linebacker spot, but hopefully the Broncos are able to find a way to keep both men with the team.
Though both were undrafted rookies out of college, they can bring an attitude and high-energy level of play that the Broncos would love to have on their defense. In fact, had he not gotten hurt in the preseason finale last season, McCray may have made the team.
Both linebackers made plays during the Broncos' first practice with pads on, according to DeChant.
Barrett was able to blow by tight end Virgil Green on a play, while McCray was around the ball on a consistent basis and also showed his ability as a pass-rusher later in the day.
This will be a fierce competition between two guys who can contribute at the pro level. Right now, you'd have to give the slight advantage to McCray due to his experience in camp last year.
The Edge Currently Goes To: Lerentee McCray
Running Back: Ronnie Hillman vs. C.J. Anderson
The battle for the backup running back spot is the one most fans will be watching as we get closer to the season. Will it be Ronnie Hillman or C.J. Anderson who spells Montee Ball in 2014?
Hillman is coming off a very disappointing 2013 season in which fumbling issues led to his benching, and by the end of the year, he was lucky to even get on the field.
On the other hand, Anderson is likely salivating over the chance to show his abilities to a bigger audience this season after being called upon just a handful of times as a rookie.
With Knowshon Moreno moving on to Miami as a free agent, the Broncos need one of these guys to step in and fill the vacancy.
On Day 2 of camp, Hillman stood out in practice by making several catches out of the backfield, according to Lauren Giudice of the Broncos' website. This is very important, because the player who shows he is the better receiver between Hillman and Anderson may very well win the No. 2 job.
However, as Mason tweets, Anderson looked very good in blocking drills:
I loved C.J. Anderson's persistence in the 1-on-1 blocking drill. Gets his feet set quickly, stands his ground. A fighter.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) July 26, 2014
Pass protection will be the other area where one of these players could gain a leg up.
Anderson versus Hillman could be the most intriguing battle in training camp this year. It could also be the closest.
The Edge Currently Goes To: Ronnie Hillman
Right Tackle: Chris Clark vs. Winston Justice
Though Chris Clark played very well after starting left tackle Ryan Clady went down with a season-ending foot injury last season, he isn't going to be handed the job at right tackle this year.
Third-round draft pick Michael Schofield is likely a future prospect for the Broncos, leaving the competition between Clark and Winston Justice.
Though DeChant reports that Clark was beaten badly by DeMarcus Ware on Day 3 of camp, it is also noted that Justice gave up more than one big play to undrafted rookie defensive end Kenny Anunike.
This also shows that Clark is working with the starters and Justice is the clear backup. We can also forgive Clark for giving up what would have been a sack in a live game to Ware, the man who sits at No. 18 on the NFL's all-time sack list (117 career sacks).
Justice will be a nice player to have around in a pinch, but it's hard to imagine him winning the job over Clark.
The Edge Currently Goes To: Chris Clark