Denver Broncos: What We've Learned Through Week 1 of Training Camp
The Denver Broncos are now nine practices into training camp. The first week of practice saw the Broncos hold three practices that were open to the public at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Team headquarters at Dove Valley is currently closed as the team rebuilds the facility. The absence of fans at practice has given training camp a noticeable difference this year.
The Broncos are working diligently to find the best 53-man roster they possibly can. There aren’t that many starting positions up for grabs on the veteran team, but there are constant battles going on for positioning on the depth chart.
Here’s what we’ve learned through the first week (or so) of camp at Dove Valley.
Peyton Manning Will Go Deep
There’s no question about Peyton Manning’s arm strength in practice. He’s been able to zip passes that two years ago (coming off four neck procedures) would have been nearly impossible.
Not only is the added arm strength noticeable to the media, but teammates are also commenting on Manning’s arm.
Demaryius Thomas dropped a pass in practice that Manning zipped in hot. Afterwards, Thomas explained the ball arrived much sooner than he was normally expecting.
Manning doesn’t have a rocket arm, but he can make every throw required in the NFL. With the addition of Emmanuel Sanders, we could see Manning fire more deep shots this season.
The veteran quarterback loves what he’s seen from Sanders so far.
“Emmanuel has come in and worked really hard. He is a guy that stays after practice every day, he is trying to improve his craft [and] he is trying to help the young guys. We certainly appreciate that about him. A veteran player with that kind of work ethic, I am excited about playing him this year.”
Per Broncos media policy, we can’t report on exactly how Sanders is being used. Let’s just say that Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase is being “very creative” with his new weapon.
Gase is pleased that Sanders (and rookie Cody Latimer) is staying after practice to work with Manning.
“I am sure they are enjoying it. There are a lot of things to cover and we can’t do everything in the meeting room and it is good for them to spend some time with him just to kind of get used to his mannerisms, how he operates at the line of scrimmage.” Gase concluded, “I don’t think anything is really going to [prepare them for] what it really is like until we get into those preseason games and they can understand the tempo of the way we play and how our no-huddle offense really works.”
First, they must run the ball more effectively. When a defense is stacking the line of scrimmage to jam receivers in a spread set, an offense must be able to soften up an opponent up the gut.
Second, the Broncos must go vertical. Press-man or press-bail coverage near the line of scrimmage means a lot of one-on-one situations deep. Manning needs to take advantage of this look with vertical routes on both sides.
With Manning’s improved arm strength and speedy receivers like Sanders, Latimer and Demaryius Thomas, we could see the Broncos throw long early and often in 2014.
Montee Ball Will Be the Workhorse
Entering his second season, Montee Ball is getting the chance to be the bell cow for the Broncos. Knowshon Moreno moved on to the Miami Dolphins in free agency, and Ball is now set to take over as the starter—and featured back—for the Broncos.
Ball has added weight to his upper body in anticipation of a larger role. He currently weighs around 220 pounds, and his added strength shows. Ball did a good job of delivering blows to defenders trying to tackle him during the team’s scrimmage on Saturday morning.
In year two, Ball knows what he needs to work on.
“I think being a complete back, like what [former Bronco and current Miami Dolphins RB] Knowshon [Moreno] did last year. Being able to catch the ball out of the backfield, pass protect, carry the football, get the four yards, the five yards, and obviously, on top of that, take it 20, 25, 30 yards down the field.”
Ball will face defensive fronts that are geared to slow down Manning and the passing game. This means he should have plenty of wide-open rushing lanes this season. Last year, Moreno faced six or fewer defenders in the box on 79.7 percent of his carries yet barely rushed for over 1,000 yards.
The Broncos could see Ball easily outperform that number this year. Ball has the intent running style and determination to make a living between the tackles. When holes are clogged up, Ball also has the quickness to dash outside to the corner if need be.
Protecting Peyton Manning is a back’s top priority in Denver. This is why Ball is carefully choosing his opponents in pass-protection drills.
“It’s [pass blocking] been a lot better. The one drill that we do, it’s to make me better. I keep going against the best linebackers that we have. I understand that it’s going to make me a better player. It’s very important to our offense.”
Ball wants to be more of a complete back, and his emergence should help the team have a more balanced offense in 2014.
Montee Ball was hospitalized on Monday, and he will undergo an appendectomy according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. We should see Ball back for the start of the regular season. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson is going to compete to be the top back while Ball is out.
C.J. Anderson Is Lighter, Quicker, Yet Still Powerful
Second-year pro C.J. Anderson had some work to do this offseason. He showed up at OTAs weighing 235 pounds. This did not sit well with the coaching staff, and they wanted him to slim down before the start of training camp.
Anderson did just that.
During the month off, Anderson worked hard to get his weight under control. He told me it was a mixture of diet and working out that helped him reach his new weight of 213 pounds. The lost weight certainly shows on the practice field, and Anderson still has a ton of power in his lower body.
Anderson is arguably the only true power back on the roster. Montee Ball (220) weighs more than Anderson right now, but Ball added mostly upper body strength this offseason in anticipation of a larger role. Anderson has a powerful lower body, and he can easily break through arm tackles near the line of scrimmage.
During the team’s recent Saturday Scrimmage at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Anderson broke off the longest run of the day. Working against the first-team defense, Anderson ran to the four hole, burst to the line of scrimmage and bounced the run to the sideline at the linebacker level. He had scampered 18 yards before strong safety T.J. Ward collided with him on the sideline.
Ward usually knocks every player down when he tackles them, but Anderson kept his feet. The second-year pro has great footwork, vision and balance when running the football.
Anderson told me after practice, “I just want to punish people. They don’t know what I’ve been through, and I want to make them feel that.”
The Broncos just released the first depth chart of training camp. Anderson is currently listed as the third back behind Ball and Ronnie Hillman. That’s only a number because the team would certainly hand the majority of the workload over to Anderson if something happened to Ball. Hillman is merely a change-of-pace back for the Broncos.
Anderson has the natural ability to be a starter for another team. In Denver, he’ll have to patiently wait for his opportunity. He wants to be the smartest running back in the room because he says, “That’s what Peyton would want.”
Emmanuel Sanders Being Moved All over the Formation
The Broncos replaced Eric Decker with Emmanuel Sanders this offseason. It’s a move that could prove to be an upgrade for many reasons.
Sanders is faster and quicker than Decker. The speed will help him stretch the field vertically more often than the team did last year. The vertical element to this offense could mean the difference against tough defenses like Seattle or San Francisco.
Sanders’ quickness means that he can get off the line of scrimmage quickly. Decker regularly had problems beating press coverage near the line of scrimmage. Sanders doesn’t have that problem because he has multiple releases (and quickness) to beat a defender who is trying to be physical.
Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase is being very creative with the way he’s using Sanders. The veteran wide receiver is excited about how he’s being used in the offense.
“I’m playing multiple positions. I’m not on the right, I’m not on the left, I’m not on the outside. I’m everywhere. I’m playing the slot, outside and that’s what a receiver wants. You want to play everywhere. With that said, you have to know the whole conceptual value of the play. That’s the hard thing. You have to know what everyone has.” Sanders concluded, “It makes you a better, smarter football player and a better football player.”
The Broncos have the most dangerous passing offense in the league. The addition of Sanders will just make them even more dangerous in 2014.
Cody Latimer Showing Upside Early
The Broncos moved up in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft to select wide receiver Cody Latimer out of Indiana University. The move looks like it’s going to pay off in a big way for the Broncos.
Latimer has made big plays almost every day in practice so far. He’s quickly become a favorite target of Brock Osweiler, and Latimer has hauled in multiple long touchdown passes in camp. His deep speed, concentration and strong hands make Latimer an excellent “jump ball” receiver.
The rookie is big, measuring in at 6’2”, 215 pounds, and he uses that size to his advantage. Latimer knows how to square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage. This creates the largest possible target for his quarterback to throw to.
Latimer also uses his size to keep defenders away from incoming passes. He’s simply too big for cornerbacks to reach around in order to knock the ball away. Latimer regularly plucks passes out of the air with his arms extended away from his body.
Every day after practice, Latimer stays late with Peyton Manning to get in some extra work on the practice field. This extra time has paid off for the rookie.
“I’ve been doing it [staying late] since OTAs. I try to stay out there and learn from them. He’s doing a good job. I’ve seen daily improvement because he’s doing it, so I’m just taking after that and hopefully I keep growing every day.”
Latimer is likely to be a starter on the outside opposite of Demaryius Thomas in 2015. This season, the Broncos might be forced to play him more than some people think. Latimer’s unique skill set is one that needs to be featured (at least in the red zone) this year.
Julius Thomas Has Improved His Game
Don’t think that we’ve seen the best from Julius Thomas. The fourth-year tight end is still learning the nuances of the pro game. Thomas has one year of high school experience, one year of college experience and one (mostly) healthy year as a professional.
Simply put, the best is yet to come.
Thomas spent this offseason working out with future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. In addition to working out with Gonzalez during the offseason, Thomas is learning a lot from veteran tight end Jacob Tamme.
“Jacob’s the kind of guy that leads by example and just to see the attitude and the approach that he comes to practice every day with, how well he studies—he knows everything in that offensive playbook and that’s something that I understand that I have to be able to do the same thing.”
Thomas is a quick learner, and he lacks any bad habits because of his limited football career. He posted 65 catches, 788 yards and 12 touchdowns last year after missing the first two seasons of his pro career due to an ankle injury that required surgery.
This offseason, Thomas looks better because he’s more comfortable in the offense. No longer is he running a route without a disguise. Thomas has improved using his eyes, head and shoulders to fake out an opponent before he makes his break at the stem of the route.
Thomas also has a more physical element to his game this year. He’s always been able to use his basketball skill set to “box out” smaller defenders, but now Thomas is ripping away passes at the point of the catch.
The comfort level he has with himself and this offense has given him even more confidence on the field. The team will have to make up for the loss of Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno (as a receiver) in 2014. Asking Thomas to do more is the best idea for the Broncos.
Quanterus Smith Is Back at Full Strength
The Broncos took a chance on Quanterus Smith in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft. He was coming off a knee injury suffered near the end of his 2012 season at Western Kentucky. At the time of the injury, Smith was leading the NCAA in sacks with 12.5.
Smith practiced last year in training camp, but it was obvious that he wasn’t fully recovered from his knee injury. The Broncos decided to put him on season-ending injured reserve to give Smith more time to heal.
What a difference a year makes.
Smith has been standing out nearly every day in camp this year. His burst is back off the snap, and he quickly explodes when changing directions. Smith is also showing a nose for the football and a good closing burst to get to the quarterback.
He’s impressed teammates with his play, and Smith is also catching the eye of Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
“Quanterus is great. There have been a couple young guys that were injured that are coming back from that injury. Quanterus is one of those guys. He’s a guy that has some natural rush ability. He’s long. He’s active. I feel like he’s had a good start to camp. He’s made progress and gotten better as the week has gone on.”
Injuries have opened the door for Quanterus to work with the first-team defense. “He’s getting an opportunity because [LB] Von [Miller] is not out and [DE DeMarcus Ware] was out for just a couple days, so he was able to get a lot of good snaps against a guy like [T Ryan] Clady, who is a heck of a player.” Del Rio concluded, “That’s good experience for him.”
Quanterus looks like he’s back at full strength this season. He’s a sleeper pass-rusher on defense that opponents will have to contend with in 2014.
Chris Harris Is Close to Returning
The Broncos found a gem when they added Chris Harris Jr. as an undrafted free agent in 2011. He made the team in 2011, and Harris has worked hard to become a starter—and one of the best young corners in the game today.
Harris suffered a partially-torn ACL last year in the playoff win over the San Diego Chargers. Less than six months removed from the injury, Harris was cleared to resume practice on a limited basis by Dr. James Andrews, per Lindsay Jones of USA Today.
The Broncos are wisely being cautious with Harris as he returns to the field. He’s already covering Demaryius Thomas in various team drills, but Harris is taking some other team work off at this time. Harris is also avoiding contact during camp, something that may continue as the team plays through the preseason.
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is excited by the return of the veteran corner.
“Great. Chris has been tremendous. I’ve been around guys that have rehabbed and come back from injury, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a guy more determined every day with great energy attacking it the way he did. He’s really stayed engaged mentally in the meetings.” Del Rio concluded, “He’s worked extremely hard and been very diligent, and it’s gone well—no setbacks or anything.”
Harris is set to begin the regular season as the starter on the outside opposite Aqib Talib. The two were teammates in college for one year at the University of Kansas. Being reunited in the NFL has brought back a ton of memories for Harris.
“Oh yeah. We know the chemistry so me playing with him; everything will happen a lot faster. Today, I hadn’t been out there with him, but I know the whole defense will come out there and we will fill in quick. That is one thing that helps me out a lot is where I know where to go and I know what to do and I always know my assignments.”
The Broncos found a star in Harris. So long as he’s healthy in 2014, Harris is set for a big pay day as a free agent in 2015.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey