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NFL team preview: Denver Broncos

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INSIDE SLANT

Denver would have been a work in progress anyway this summer. But the spate of injuries during August has cast doubt on the kind of immediate cohesiveness the team will have in the early season.

That holds true, in particular, on the offensive side.

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, running backs Correll Buckhalter, Knowshon Moreno and LenDale White, offensive linemen Ryan Clady and Chris Kuper and tight ends Daniel Graham and Richard Quinn all have missed significant time in the trainer's room.

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Sprinkle in some anticipated rookie contributors and it could be anything but a seamless transition to the regular season.

All those players could be back for the opener, except maybe Thomas, but some -- Clady and Moreno -- may not be ready for a full workload and have had only limited contact heading into the opener vs. Jacksonville.

There have been outward signs, especially, that the delicate balance in the running game will be affected. The team didn't run the ball much in the preseason, and when it did, it was using a hodge-podge of personnel.

"We may not be in midseason form on Sept. 12, but it doesn't matter," coach Josh McDaniels said. "We can't take a mulligan."

One huge bright spot: the apparent gains QB Kyle Orton has made in his second year in McDaniels' offense, both in accuracy, demeanor and overall knowledge.

The team also appears better equipped to handle things defensively, where the defensive line appears stronger and the secondary is the best position, top to bottom, on the field.

The loss of outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil to a torn pectoral muscle was a huge blow but if there was a bright side, it happened early and the team could adjust its personnel to compensate. The linebacker position, both in alignment and personnel, has been tweaked several times over the last few weeks.

The goal was to see how newcomers Jason Hunter and Joe Mays can best be used, determine Mario Haggan's best position (he's back at middle linebacker after a long look at OLB) and rotating Baraka Atkins and Jarvis Moss in Dumervil's vacated position to uncover whether having a three-down player or shared responsibilities work best.

All this uncertainty, though, has given many Denver fans little optimism that the team can do much better than the inconsistent 8-8 season in McDaniels' first year in 2009 that included a blazing start and dramatic collapse.

"On paper, people don't see much out of us. But come on, man, this is the NFL and you see a lot of teams go from the bottom to the top just like that," cornerback Andre Goodman said. "We have confidence in what we have."

COACHING: Josh McDaniels, 2nd year, 2nd with Broncos (8-8).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 8-8 (2nd in AFC West).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 7-9 (3rd in AFC West).

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Broncos still have an interesting dilemma on their hands when it comes to their backup quarterback situation. It was widely assumed that Brady Quinn's experience would win out, at least immediately, over Tim Tebow and allow the rookie to learn at his own pace. But Quinn's progress has been on a straight-lined path for much of the summer while Tebow shows signs of consistent improvement, even while making plenty of mistakes.

Coach Josh McDaniels already has intimated he doesn't want to keep three QBs on the active roster at the expense of depth or special teams. It's also open to question whether he would want to put Tebow in the unenviable position of perhaps playing him in his first NFL game in Jacksonville, close to where he became a college legend, should Orton sustain an injury.

"Both players have done some good things. Both players have turned it over," McDaniels said before the final preseason game. "Both players have been able to function in the two-minute offense. And both players have plenty of room to improve. ... But certainly I don't think either one of them has done so much that either guy has removed himself from the competition at all."

On the injury front, Knowshon Moreno returned to practice Aug. 31 and will attempt to get back into shape in time for the Jaguars game, though the player was unsure whether that was a possibility.

"I think I'll be over it. At the same time, you never know with a hamstring," Moreno said.

The most likely scenario, barring a setback, is that Moreno plays a reduced role to ease his way back in, while Correll Buckhalter gets the bulk of the work backed by Lance Ball. LenDale White is suspended for the first four games under the league's substance-abuse policy.

Ryan Clady was practicing without an orange non-contact jersey and while the Broncos are hopeful he'll be available for the opener, he may have to take some series off. Zane Beadles has been working at left tackle more in recent weeks to brace for that possibility.

PLAYER NOTES

--One of the most intriguing questions about to be answered in the final cuts is whether Denver is willing to turn the page on cornerback Alphonso Smith or keep him in what will largely be viewed as a face-saving move. Smith was acquired in the second round of the 2009 draft at a huge cost -- a 2010 first-rounder. He struggled as a rookie and is nowhere near the upper reaches of the DB rotation. Smith is the backup nickel cornerback but, at best, is the fourth cornerback and likely would be sixth behind Nate Jones and emerging Syd'Quan Thompson.

--Early in camp, Brandon Stokley seemed to establish himself as a lock at receiver, given his strong rapport with Orton. But Stokley suffered a groin injury that kept him out of the final three preseason games and, meanwhile, other players began to get healthy and/or perform. It would be a huge upset if third-round pick Eric Decker didn't make the roster. And unless No. 1 pick Demaryius Thomas goes on IR because of his foot issues then he's definitely not going anywhere. With Brandon Lloyd, Gaffney and Eddie Royal currently the top three wideouts and Matt Willis not only having a solid camp but performing on special teams, the Broncos would have to keep seven WRs for Stokley to stick. And since he isn't involved in special teams, that's not a given.

--Denver added Worrell Williams, brother of starting ILB D.J. Williams, as the club continues to add bulk to its linebacker corps. Williams appears to only have an outside shot at making the team unless he can make a quick and lasting impression on special teams.

--Not even a week after Denver waived offensive tackle Tyler Polumbus and Detroit claimed him, the Lions flipped Polumbus to the Seattle Seahawks via trade for an undisclosed late-round draft pick.

--Denver released RB Justin Fargas, who played in only one preseason game. Fargas has struggled with knee problems and even with an injury-ravaged backfield couldn't distinguish himself. He looked good immediately, but then seemed to lack the necessary burst and quickness, perhaps health-related or attributable to still learning a new system.

--The Broncos have been happy with the progress of Jason Hunter as a possible contributor at OLB. Hunter, a natural defensive end, has been trying to get acclimated to his new position but has the size and get-upfield mentality as a pass rusher the team covets.

--Punter Britton Colquitt didn't have any competition in camp but knew all along that the waiver wire could be his enemy if he didn't perform. Colquitt has responded to the pressure with a 51.2 gross average through the first three preseason games.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/22, WR Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech -- Thomas missed most of the offseason with foot surgery and just when he began to look like a possible future star in the making, he got hurt again -- then had another setback. He may not be able to be fully integrated into the offense in the short term due to those absences.

Rd. 1/25, QB Tim Tebow, Florida -- No one has generated more headlines in camp. Some are even deserved, given that there's a strong chance the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner may actually beat out Brady Quinn for the No. 2 job.

Rd. 2/45, LG Zane Beadles, Utah -- He took every first-team snap at left guard during camp but now may serve as a reserve left tackle and insurance policy if Ryan Clady's recovery and on-field progress stalls. Beadles still has a shot at the left guard job, too, in the opener but it isn't the slam dunk it was earlier in August.

Rd. 3 /80, C J.D. Walton, Baylor -- The Broncos put Walton in the pivot and haven't looked back. Part of the reason is that Denver doesn't have a truly viable backup. Dustin Fry was cut. Russ Hochstein is more of an in-the-pinch option and fellow rookie Eric Olsen is learning the position. But Walton also has a toughness and grit the team loves.

Rd. 3/87, WR Eric Decker, Minnesota -- A foot injury marred most of Decker's offseason and when he returned, he sprained an ankle Aug. 7 that kept him out a couple weeks. Decker's got optimal size (6-3, 220) but his inconsistent practice time may have contributed to hands that were sometimes less sure than advertised. He's someone that could work his way into the rotation as the season progresses.

Rd. 5/137, CB Perrish Cox, Oklahoma State -- Cox hasn't been perfect. His ball security catching punts has been shaky at times as he's tried to wrest that job away from Eddie Royal. But when Champ Bailey missed practice, Cox was the third corner and he didn't look out of place against Denver's first-team offense. He simply has a nose for the ball.

Rd 7/225, CB Syd'Quan Thompson, California -- His camp was a relatively quiet one with few noticeable plays. But a 62-yard punt return and 48-yard INT for a TD in the third preseason games finally showcased the playmaking ability Denver thought it was getting from Thompson.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Kyle Orton. Backups -- Tim Tebow, Brady Quinn.

This has truly emerged as Orton's team this offseason. Right tackle Ryan Harris said last week that the confidence that the quarterback and chip on his shoulder Orton has demonstrated has really rubbed off on the offense. More important, Orton is able to make quicker decisions, go deeper into his reads and get Denver out of bad plays. Tebow should play in some games in Wildcat-type formations to take advantage of his dual running and throwing ability. But, especially early in the season, Denver's in trouble if Orton goes down and either Tebow or Quinn has to play extensively.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Knowshon Moreno. Backups -- Correll Buckhalter, Lance Ball, LenDale White, FB Spencer Larsen.

Moreno needs to produce more in his second season after failing to record a single 100-yard game and averaging just 3.8 yards per attempt. The revisions up front should help, but he also has to demonstrate that he can make people miss in open space and bust a big play every once in awhile. Buckhalter actually was more decisive and quick to the hole last season but has to show that he can stay healthy for a solid length of time. Ball made the most of extra snaps in training camp and because he's impressed with his pass protection, too, he may play some early in the season with White serving his four-game league suspension and Moreno/Buckhalter getting back to full speed. Larsen concentrated solely at fullback after also playing linebacker last season and has concentrated on improving his lead-blocking techniques.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Daniel Graham. Backups -- Marquez Branson, Richard Quinn.

Graham never will be an Antonio Gates/Dallas Clark type in Denver's offense and isn't asked to within McDaniels scheme. He can occasionally pop loose and catch an intermediate ball down the seam. But his main contribution comes in the blocking game and the physical presence he brings along the line of scrimmage. Quinn can be described in much of the same manner but his hands leave much to be desired. If the Broncos are going to pass out of two tight-end formations, Branson could fill the role that Tony Scheffler once did with the Broncos. He's the best pass-catcher of the trio and will also align as a fullback and H-back at times.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Eddie Royal, Jabar Gaffney. Backups -- Brandon Lloyd, Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Matthew Willis.

Gaffney has been in McDaniels' system the longest and he's developed a non-verbal chemistry with Orton on sight adjustments. Really, Denver will be mostly a three-wide receiver team with Lloyd and Royal joining Gaffney. Royal will operate out of the slot and has the quickness to excel in tight spaces and take advantage of mismatches on linebackers in the middle of the field. Lloyd can stretch the field some and has been more consistent this summer, not just making the spectacular grab but the everyday catch. But what the Broncos really need here is for Thomas to get healthy. For a brief time in camp, he was using his size to leap over safeties and catch the ball through cornerbacks, bringing to mind a faster if only slightly smaller version of the departed Marshall. Decker and Willis will have to make special teams contributions to be active on game day, but a case could be made that Willis was the most consistent playmaker in August and that he's earned the right to play a sub role in the passing game.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Ryan Clady, LG Stanley Daniels, C J.D. Walton, RG Chris Kuper, RT Ryan Harris. Backups -- G/C Russ Hochstein, T D'Anthony Batiste, T Zane Beadles.

Clady is the key to the entire group, as the Broncos have always been confident to allow him to block one-on-one against the opponent's best pass rusher and freeing the tight end to either help on the strong side or go into the pattern. His recovery from knee surgery may not allow him to a 70-snap player, thus the move of Beadles to a reserve role where his G/T versatility will help. Expect teams to attack Denver up the middle with the rookie Walton and Daniels -- who has yet to start a game after being a practice squad player the last two seasons, via the pass rush. Kuper and Harris, coming off toe surgery, give the Broncos two experienced hands in the running game and should be the attack side for the running game with Graham, the tight end, helping provide extra push.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Ryan McBean, NT Jamal Williams, RE Justin Bannan. Backups -- NT Ronald Fields, DE Marcus Thomas, DE Le Kevin Smith, DE Jarvis Green.

Bannan is one of those lunch-pail players that coaches love, going hard every snap and able to stay on the field in virtually any situation. With the added beef Williams provides, and more depth from top to bottom on the line, the hope is that teams will have to attack the flanks more with the run game and that Denver can run out an effective rotation that keeps the line fresh and won't fade as the season progresses. The Broncos will show a variety of looks on pass rush situations, whether having Thomas and Bannan as down lineman and allowing their OLBs to play with their hands in the dirt, or even playing a single true defensive lineman as a changeup. In a more conventional set, Green was expected to provide a push from his defensive end spot but through camp he's rarely cracked the third team defense and been supplanted by Smith. Fields is better suited as a backup to Williams and should be effective in that part-time role.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WOLB Jarvis Moss, WILB D.J. Williams, MLB Mario Haggan, SOLB Robert Ayers. Backups -- ILB Wesley Woodyard, ILB Joe Mays, OLB Jason Hunter, OLB Baraka Atkins, OLB Kevin Alexander.

There's still an outside chance Denver leaves Elvis Dumervil on the roster in hopes of a November/December return. But the safer move would be to call it a lost season and try to develop players in more situational roles. Ayers is the key. The light has seemingly gone on for him in his second season and he's been the player drawing double-team attention in the preseason. His combination of quickness and strength is the best hope to replace, in part, Dumervil's production. More of a concern is how well Denver can defend the outside in the running game. The team has bulked up with players like Atkins, Hunter and Alexander in an effort to improve that weak area. Williams should be good for another 100-tackle season from his inside spot, especially given his comfort level in the second year in the defense at the same position after moving around for years. Another wild card is Moss. He has shown better quick-twitch movement off the snap than years past but it's still to be determined whether he would be a liability against the run as a full-time player.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Champ Bailey, RCB Andre Goodman, SS Brian Dawkins. FS Renaldo Hill. Backups -- CB/S Nate Jones, S Darcel McBath, S David Bruton, CB Perrish Cox, CB Syd'Quan Thompson.

Dawkins carries with him an intensity that could stare a hole in a wall and immediately impacts those playing around him. He should play closer to the line of scrimmage this season and he still packs a wallop in run support. His safety partner Hill is one of those players that dissects film and can quickly recognize those moving parts in live action. But the strength of the backfield is the cornerbacks. Champ Bailey in the first preseason game got physical with and batted passes away from Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens and it set a tone for the season he's expecting to have. Opposite him, Renaldo Hill is a strong complement. He doesn't have the recovery speed and quick hips of Bailey but he's physical and knows how to play the ball in the air. Nate Jones, a free-agent signee, brings a feisty attitude to the group and he'll play the nickel and serve as a fill-in and in three-safety packages. Cox is a dark horse who had a strong camp and with continued improvement could lock down the full-time nickel job this season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Prater, P Britton Colquitt, LS Lonie Paxton.

Prater has refined his game over the last several years from merely a kicker with a strong leg to a player who's learned that he doesn't have to boom the ball every time and can use his mechanics to be a more consistent performer. He's in the upper echelon at his position now. Colquitt has the family pedigree as an NFL punter and he's seemed like he belongs in camp, also demonstrating a strong leg. The question there will be whether he can perform in all types of weather and as a situational performer. If he can, he could be around awhile. Paxton is one of McDaniels' favorites from the New England days and is, in a word, reliable.
 

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