COMMENTARY | With the Denver Broncos' training camp approaching, expectations are high.
This offseason, the Broncos made many moves to bolster those thoughts. The team signed quality free agents such as Wes Welker and Louis Vasquez. They drafted well, bringing in players like Sylvester Williams and Montee Ball to contribute right away. Just recently, the team made an important step by signing All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady to a long-term contract extension.
When the Broncos step onto the practice field at Dove Valley, players and coaches will be well aware of the pressure surrounding them.
"I think this is a big year for us as a team because, you know, we're stacked," Clady said on a conference call. "Definitely have a lot of expectations - Super Bowl or bust for the most part. It's a lot of pressure. ... Definitely a big step with us this year."
However, certain expectations also create certain questions. Here are five questions and storylines to watch as the Broncos prepare the next six weeks for the regular season.
5. Will the players who stood out in previous workouts continue to shine?
Description: There were some pleasant surprises during early offseason workouts. Safeties David Bruton and Quentin Jammer were at top of the depth chart after mandatory minicamp, according to The Denver Post. Tight end Julius Thomas, who was finally healthy, impressed with his sheer athleticism and got time with the first-team offense. There was also Ronnie Hillman (more on that later).
Analysis: Bruton is probably the most surprising of the listed group. In his three-year Bronco career, Bruton has been a standout on special teams but has been generally seen as just that. However, Bruton's size and athleticism makes the former Notre Dame safety an intriguing option if he can continue his rise up the depth chart. Bruton is being considered for the free safety spot over Rahim Moore.
As for the other safety spot, it's no surprise the newly signed Jammer is getting looks at the position. While this will be Jammer's first year as a safety, strong safety is up for grabs with Mike Adams playing the spot last year. Covering tight ends was a big problem for Adams and Jammer will get his chance to compete. Also an x-factor is Quinton Carter, the promising young safety who sat out 2012 with a knee injury.
Thomas is another player like Bruton, whose athleticism gives him so much potential. He's probably the most intriguing prospect on the Broncos. Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme are two dependable tight ends but Thomas' upside could be a welcome surprise if he's ready to start now.
Gut-Reaction Answer: Moore's playoff blunder isn't indicative of his entire playing career. Moore made strides throughout last year, including a huge leap from his rookie season. Moore will use training camp to keep his spot.
At strong safety, there's a good chance all three will be used in rotational packages. Adams will most likely be the starter on paper but all three should get a good amount of playing time. It also wouldn't surprise me if Carter bounces back strong. Carter started 10 games in 2011 before his injury.
Unfortunately - and this is why it's called a gut reaction - it still feels like a matter of time until Thomas get hurt again and misses most of the season.
4. Will Montee Ball emerge as the clear cut favorite at running back?
Description: It' s been assumed ever since he was drafted that second-round rookie running back Montee Ball would become an every down back with the rest of the Broncos' backfield rotating in and out. When former starter Willis McGahee was cut in June, the writing on the wall became even more apparent.
So far, it's been second-year back Ronnie Hillman that's been seeing the majority of carries.
"Come the opener, I want to be the guy," Hillman told The Denver Post. "I can't lie. I want it to be me and I'm pushing to be that guy."
Analysis: Hillman's potential is based on speed. He ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the combine before the 2012 draft and flashed previews of that speed throughout the course of his rookie year. On the other hand, Hillman struggled with pass protection and finding holes at the line of scrimmage.
Hillman said he's gained 15 pounds this offseason and now weighs 195 pounds. His newly added weight could help with squeezing through the tackles, yet awareness needs to be Hillman's focus as well. With a crowded back-field, Hillman has to show that he has the smarts to play alongside Manning every down if he wants to be the starter.
Gut reaction: The position battle at running back will be the most fun to watch this training camp. All three running backs in the mix for the starting position have their argument. Come preseason, Ball will shine in his playing time and end up the starter week one.
3. How will Brock Osweiler develop in year two?
Description: In what could go down as the deepest quarterback draft class of all time, plenty of rookies made their mark in 2012. Brock Osweiler spent his year developing behind Manning. A 6-foot-8 prospect, Osweiler is seen as the future of the franchise that needs plenty of time to develop. One of the more underrated questions when the Broncos start July 24: How big of a jump will Osweiler make from year one to year two?
Analysis: During his first preseason, Osweiler struggled in consistency. He went 16-for-33 with a completion rate of 48 percent. Osweiler looked impressive in his first preseason game against the Chicago Bears, where he led the team to a touchdown drive. However, that was Osweiler's only touchdown in the entire preseason.
From his work at OTAs, it appears that Osweiler is making progress.
"This year, the biggest difference, I would say, is that I know how to study now," Osweiler told the Associated Press. "And when you know how to study, you can translate that to the field and you're not out there thinking as much, and you are able to jut play on instincts."
Osweiler needs to show that on the field this preseason and lead the second team in consistent drives. With him being the primary back up, he'll have plenty of opportunities to do so.
Gut reaction: The Broncos knew Osweiler would need development when they picked him in the second-round. Osweiler was seen often last year alongside Manning, picking his brain on the sideline. By no means will he look perfect, although Bronco fans should look forward to his appearances and study his progress in the preseason.
2. Will anyone emerge at middle linebacker?
Description: Middle linebacker is the biggest question mark regarding a position. Last year, the Broncos relied on Keith Brooking, who did a serviceable job at 37-years old. Brooking wasn't brought back and the Broncos signed veteran Stewart Bradley to add depth.
It's still unclear who exactly will start at the position. Third-year player Nate Irving is currently at the top of depth chart and head coach John Fox is a believer in Irving.
"In Nate's defense, (he) has not had a great opportunity yet. He'll get that this year," Fox said. "I see great growth in him already."
Is Irving's growth enough to be a quality starter on a team that has Super Bowl expectations?
Analysis: Just because Irving has the endorsement of Fox for now doesn't mean Irving will continue his growth into camp. Joe Mays was last year's starter and seemingly had the confidence of Fox. His eventual struggles were well documented - losing his job in the first half of the season to Brooking. To make matters worse, Mays broke his fibula week seven and missed the rest of the season.
Even Steven Johnson was relied upon more in nickel packages than Irving last year. Irving has had his chance to develop, but it's not like middle linebacker had great competition at it before. The position has always been a problem for the last three years and Irving is just the next man up.
Gut reaction: Irving will do for this year, but look for the Broncos to upgrade in the draft next year.
1. Is this really a Super Bowl caliber team?
Description: The Broncos' 2013 season essentially comes down to the question whether this team is a Super Bowl caliber team.
The year 2012 was Manning's first as a Bronco. Everything was new. Manning had to get adjusted to his teammates and his teammates had to get acclimated to the offense. As successful as the season was, the year was very much a learning process.
The 2013 season has to be different. Manning is a master of preparation, but is this really a team that will make a deep postseason run? Are the team's strengths greater than its weaknesses?
Analysis: The Broncos still have their fair share of concerns. Besides already having mentioned middle linebacker and safety, there are now concerns at defensive end. How big will the loss of Elvis Dumervill hurt the team? Dumervil produced 11 sacks last season and more importantly, was enough of a threat to not double team Von Miller. Will defenses now control Miller better with Dumervil not there? Additionally, can Shaun Phillips or Robert Ayers even come close to reproducing that sort of efficiency?
There are also injury concerns among the offensive line. The Broncos smartly re-upped Clady to a five-year, $52 million extension, although they still need to see how he performs on the field after returning from his shoulder injury. Right guard Chris Kuper has battled ankle problems the last two years and center JD Walton looks lost for the season as well. Signing Louis Vasquez was an underrated move, but will this line do as good of a job protecting Manning as they did last year?
Of course these issues could be negated by having the best offense in the league. Welker's addition makes the Broncos receiving corps the deepest in the league (sorry, Atlanta). It will be up to first time offensive coordinator Adam Gase to make the right decisions when playing calling.
Perhaps the most pressing issue is the need to start fast. An under-looked part of Manning's first season with the Broncos is that it took him six weeks and a 2-3 record until the Broncos really got going. The Broncos were easily facing a 2-4 start by being down 24-0 at half time until the Chargers blew it.
The tune should be quite different this year with a sense of familiarity during training camp. The Broncos should be in much better position to succeed than they were last year. It all comes down to proving it.
Gut reaction: Are the Broncos a Super Bowl quality team? Yes.
What questions do you have for the Broncos' upcoming season? Discuss them in the replies.
Matthew Paras is a Journalism Major at DePaul University. He writes for multiple outlets including Maxboxing.com, Operationsports.com, and DePaul's student newspaper, The DePaulia. He can be reached by email at Mparas1432@gmail.com or on twitter @Matthew_Paras. He currently resides in Chicago, but lived in Littleton, Colo. for seven years.
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