Postcard from camp: Broncos
Kyle Orton is winning over teammates with his mastery of the offense
Denver's revamped secondary is offset by a still weak front seven
Rookie Knowshon Moreno has the talent to be an every-down back
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Ross Tucker had to say about the Broncos' camp in Englewood, Colo. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.
Setting the Scene
The Broncos have continued the recent tradition of holding training camp practices at their year-round facility in Englewood, Colo. Unlike some first-year head coaches who prefer to take their teams away, Josh McDaniels is more than comfortable keeping his at home because that's what the Patriots did when he was with them.
Fans were treated to musical choices that included Elvis and rap while the players stretched at the Tuesday practice I attended. Because the Broncos were prepping for their preseason matchup on Friday night with San Francisco, the practice was conducted at a slightly reduced tempo, with the emphasis on providing the first offense and defense schematic looks that are similar to what they can expect from the Niners.
1. This offense is a good fit for Kyle Orton, even if he got off to a slow start. Orton doesn't have former Broncos starter Jay Cutler's natural physical ability, but he is extremely cerebral and hard-working, and was handpicked for this role by McDaniels. The Broncos veterans appear to be impressed with his early mastering of the new offense and are comfortable with him behind center.
Keep in mind, Orton had a .636 winning percentage after two years in Chicago, where he received substantial playing time. His supporting cast in Denver is significantly better than what he had in Chicago. The offensive line is one of the better units in the league and he has a full complement of other weapons at his disposal, including receivers Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, Jabbar Gaffney and Brandon Stokley, tight ends Tony Scheffler and Daniel Graham, and running backs Knowshon Moreno, LaMont Jordan and Correll Buckhalter. Orton is well aware of his good fortune, telling me it is absolutely the best unit he has been surrounded by.
2. Josh McDaniels is doing it his way. The subject of scrutiny already, McDaniels seems to realize the honeymoon period is over as a result of the contentious Cutler situation, which ended in his trade to Chicago. Whether it is refusing to acquiesce to Cutler, trading next year's first rounder for Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith, or telling the media that longtime Eagles safety Brian Dawkins' injury is "above the ground," McDaniels has been unafraid to make bold moves or ruffle feathers.
The fans are restless, as evidenced by some booing at a recent scrimmage. If McDaniels gets off to a bad start or Orton performs poorly, things could get ugly in short order. The good news is McDaniels doesn't seem to care all that much and has the thick skin of a veteran head coach. He has a plan and is sticking to it. Win or lose, it seems McDaniels will be able to walk away with little to no regrets.
3. The defense is better than it was last year ... but still not good enough. Wholesale changes in the secondary should help improve a unit that had been below average the past couple of seasons. Longtime stalwart Champ Bailey is joined by Reynaldo Hill, Andre Goodman, Dawkins and rookie Alphonso Smith. Goodman told me Smith has the ideal skills to be the nickel corner, defending slot receivers on a weekly basis. In fact, Goodman said Smith will be one of the five best in the league by season's end, which is high praise for any rookie at any position.
The problem is in the front seven. Even though new coordinator Mike Nolan has been somewhat proficient in running the hybrid versions of the 3-4 in Baltimore and San Francisco, the cupboard up front has never been so bare. One front office executive told me recently while grading starters around the league that last year's Broncos offense had 14 players deserving of solid starter grades. The defense had four. There are several 3-4 teams in the league whose second unit is better than the Broncos starters up front, which includes Ryan McBean, Kenny Peterson and Ron Fields.
New Face, New Place
Brian Dawkins, safety. The Broncos are counting on Dawkins to bring his physical style of play and fiery leadership to a defense that was an abomination last season. That plan suffered a setback when Dawkins reportedly had hand surgery recently after suffering an injury early in camp. Dawkins, without revealing the specific nature of his injury per team rules, insists he will be ready when the real games begin.
The longtime Philadelphia Eagle was his typical focused and confident self when I spoke with him, expressing serious frustration at the bad-mouthing his new defense has received. Expect Dawkins to play a major role in the run defense as the eighth man in the box. The Broncos front seven simply isn't good enough to get the job done on their own and will need the hard-hitting Dawkins to set the tone in the running game and then rely on the new secondary to handle its business on the back end.
Knowshon Moreno, running back. Denver hopes and expects to get substantial contributions from a number of rookies this season, but the lights will shine brightest on their first pick. Moreno is the total package both on and off the field, and his charismatic personality has already been noticed by his teammates and other Broncos personnel. More appealing to his teammates, however, is his unique combination of quickness, lower body strength and agility.
In part because he is catching up after a fairly lengthy holdout, Moreno got a number of touches at the practice I watched as the Broncos worked to get him ready for the opener. Even though a number of capable veterans can spell him, Moreno was drafted 12th because he has the skills to be an every down player. With defenses likely focusing on stopping Marshall, Royal and the other Broncos weapons, look for Moreno to have a big year running the football and catching passes out of the backfield.
By far the best play of the day belonged to rookie tight end Richard Quinn from North Carolina. He was taken in the second round of the draft primarily because of his outstanding blocking ability. The Broncos, however, think Quinn can be more than just a one-dimensional blocking tight end.
Evidence of that was in full display at practice when Quinn, impersonating San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis while running scout plays, made a spectacular one-handed grab on a crossing pattern that got the biggest reaction from the crowd on an otherwise uninspiring practice session. Unfortunately for Quinn, he later dropped a pass that was thrown right into his hands. Quinn is fortunate he can learn pass patterns from one of the best receiving tight ends in the league in Scheffler. He's learning how to get down and dirty in the trenches with the other marquee name at tight end, Graham.
Don't get too caught up in the hoopla surrounding Marshall's "demotion" on the depth chart. He will be the number one receiver as long as he is healthy and eligible to play.
McDaniels has run a very physical camp. One vet told me it was one of the hardest he has gone through, and estimated that the starting units were receiving close to 80 percent of the reps.
Broncos second-string nose guard Chris Baker, an undrafted free agent, certainly appears to look and play the part. Baker started his career at Penn State before legal issues led him to Hampton University. He has the natural power to play the nose in a 3-4 defense; he made a number of plays at the practice I attended.
Remember Chad Jackson, the former Florida Gator speedster taken in the second round of the 2006 draft after the Patriots moved up? The Broncos are giving him every opportunity to salvage his career as he caught a number of balls from Orton and Chris Simms.
The Broncos offensive line looked as if it were already in midseason form. The only problem for this unit is depth. Denver likes the young but talented Kory Lichtensteiger as the first interior backup, while youngster Tyler Polumbus will battle veteran Brandon Gorin for the swing tackle role.
Even though they were going against the backups on the scout team for the most part, the Broncos had trouble generating much of a pass rush. That is not a good sign for a team that also looks to have some liabilities against the run.
Speaking of lack of a pass rush, the Broncos are counting on their other first-round pick, outside linebacker Robert Ayers, to fill that void. The early returns have not been good as Ayers has admittedly been thinking too much as he attempts to comprehend Nolan's defense. The good news is Ayers is conscientious, plays with a high motor, and seems to have taken to heart the talking-to he received recently from veteran linebackers D.J. Williams and Andra Davis.
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