Orton the starting quarterback ... for now

The Broncos may be playing possum with their starting quarterback situation - or they could just be playing it safe.

Executive vice president of football operations John Elway publicly announced that if the season began today, it would be veteran Kyle Orton that would be the starting quarterback - not fan favorite Tim Tebow.

The comment on the surface makes perfect sense.

Elway, new coach John Fox and general manager Brian Xanders have been steadfast in their support of Tebow - the person, the worker - but more lukewarm when it comes to the second-year player's preparedness to come in and start effectively in Year 2 in the NFL.

"Tim is a very good football player," Elway said at the Super Bowl. "He's not a very good quarterback yet. Hopefully we can make him a great quarterback. He's a young guy."

Orton gives Fox a game manager for which he can build a conservative attack, buttressed by a stronger running game.

Fox saw up close and personal the disastrous results in Carolina of playing a young quarterback before his time - see Jimmy Clausen. And while Tebow demonstrated moxie in three late-season appearances, Orton has the seen-it-all quality that could make for a smoother transition out of a 4-12 season.

Prior to suffering a rib injury in the San Francisco game in London, then aggravating the problem in December, Orton demonstrated a solid rapport with receivers Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Lloyd but eventually fell short of his second straight 4,000-yard passing season. It's clear Orton would relish a one-on-one competition with Tebow, but it's probably fair to say that given Orton's popularity with the fan base he'd be put in a no-win situation, regardless. Every interception, every overthrow - and yes, every loss -- by Orton would be scrutinized from outside the organization differently than one tossed by Tebow, who would be viewed as part of a rebuilding project. Orton wouldn't get that benefit of the doubt, certainly.

From another angle, it would behoove the Broncos to keep talking about Orton as a roster mainstay to keep up any potential trade value to teams needing a steadying force behind center. Arizona has been one team linked often to Orton, should he be made available. The March 4 CBA deadline will factor into whether that's even possible in the short term.

"I can only speculate, but with the kind of season Orton had, there's not going to be any issue with him switching to another team, at all, not with the way so many quarterbacks are putting their teams in compromising situations with the ball," Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Lloyd said . "Orton does not do that. He's experienced. It's going to be tough for me if he's dealt, but there comes a point in a player's career where you make a move for money or for wins. It's hard to turn back (now) ... but I feel Orton's proven and deserves a long-term contract, and as his teammate, he needs to get it whether it's with the Broncos or someone else."

Orton is due about $8.4 million in the final year of his Denver contract. In December, while Tebow took his place, he was adamant where he believed he stood in terms of his role moving forward with the team.

"If I'm going to be here, I'm expecting to be the starter," he said. "I don't think my play has warranted anything other than that. It's just kind of the way I'm looking into it. I understand as an organization you've got a lot invested in first-round picks and you want to see them play. That's how it goes."

Elway has said publicly it's Fox's call but that's a bit too narrow. The fervor that's accompanied Tebow's inclusion with the first team will be an item that certainly merits discussion among all of the team's higher-ups, including owner Pat Bowlen and COO Joe Ellis. The Broncos are seeking a reinvestment emotionally from their fans. Now that Tebow has given some of that back, it will be that much more difficult to yank away.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Coach John Fox was asked at his introductory press conference the strengths of the current Denver roster. He didn't hesitate before answering receiver.

That talent is beginning to dwindle.

WR Eddie Royal had hip surgery that will require a lengthy rehab. And now comes news that 2010 first-round pick Demaryius Thomas is out 6-8 months after tearing his Achilles during a workout in Georgia.

"I have no doubt Demaryius will overcome this setback," Fox said in a statement. "He's proven he can handle adversity and will get through this."

Thomas has had constant foot problems since even before joining Denver, from broken bones to sprains. The talent flashed briefly last summer but he simply can't stay healthy to date, making some re-evaluate the decision to bypass Dez Bryant in favor of Thomas last April.

--There's no argument that Lloyd had a breakthrough season in 2011. He was one of the NFL's premier deep threats, coming out of nowhere to blunt the loss of Brandon Marshall via trade.

"I don't see my story as a miraculous comeback ... The remarkable thing about it is there was no hype, no hoopla, no marketing campaign or advertising about me. I made the Pro Bowl strictly from the respect of my peers."

So, how does Lloyd top his performance or even match it? Certainly there will be questions about whether he's a one-hit wonder after seven previous up-and-down seasons.

"I don't care. I don't care. I put my product out on the field and that's what it is and that's what I've always done," he said. "But I've walked my path. I've paid my dues. I've made the vet minimum. I've been benched. I've been a backup. I've done it all. There's always going to be doubters. But I approach this thing one day at a time, literally."

--General manager Brian Xanders said that retaining Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator was an easy decision, given his strong knowledge of several systems and previous relationship with Fox in Carolina.

Xanders sees the scheme evolving into a hybrid of the Panthers strong rushing attack and Josh McDaniels' powerful passing concepts.

"I think we'll have a good offense with balance that adjusts quickly to a defense and does a good job scoring points," he said.

--The Broncos finished the season with kicker Matt Prater on injured reserve after a strong season start. Replacement Steven Hauschka went 6 for 7 and hit all 10 extra points after his departure.

"Maybe we'll be competing in the offseason, who knows?" Prater said, adding he'd welcome the challenge. "I know when I'm kicking like I can, I don't think there's anybody that can beat me out. ... I don't think there's anyone that can kick as hard or as straight."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The immediacy of it I think is really neat. If there's anything that gets out there that's not true, and that's really important because players are going to hear it and they may take it some way ... the ability to get the message correctly out there is what's so great about it." - John Elway, on his use of Twitter to release news to the public this offseason.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Broncos' coaches, front office and scouts spent the bulk of January breaking down Denver's own roster to surmise what players might be a fit in 2011, particularly defensively, where the team is expected to return to a 4-3 defensive front.

That could spell bad news for 3-4 stalwarts such as nose tackles Jamal Williams and Ronald Fields and linebackers who are 'tweeners.' It also could mean a return to defensive end for players like Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers.

The next step was aligning Denver's new scheme under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and head coach John Fox with the free-agent players available. The team will be particularly aggressive on that side of the ball on the open market, as well as the draft, with fewer offensive holes to fill.

OFFSEASON STRATEGY

The Broncos' in-house strategy hinges largely on the decision regarding 10-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey. The team can franchise Bailey but won't with a $15 million one-year cap hit that comes with it.

Still, the team appears reticent to commit long-term to Bailey, who turns age 33 next season, so one of the few spots without a hole may create yet another crevasse.

Should Bailey sign elsewhere, it opens the real possibility Denver could target LSU's Patrick Peterson with the No. 2 pick. Peterson's size-speed ratio would fit any scheme and in Denver's case, provide a raw replacement for Bailey.

But overall, the Broncos will concentrate on rebuilding its front seven both in the draft and in free agency, while keeping tabs on right-tackle prospects with Ryan Harris due to hit free agency.

A couple of free agents to potentially keep an eye on are running back DeAngelo Williams, who would help take some of the pressure off Knowshon Moreno while adding a playmaker to the backfield. They also desperately need a dual-threat tight end, with Owen Daniels and Mercedes Lewis two of the top names available.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Defensive tackle: The Broncos have tried a long line of patchwork fixes in the middle of the front four for years. Now is time to get serious about rebuilding from within. If Auburn's Nick Fairley doesn't go to Carolina at No. 1 in the draft, he'd have to be considered near the top of the team's list.

2. Safety: Denver has gone the free-agent route several times since 2000 and few have lasted for the long haul. Brian Dawkins remains a top-notch leader but doesn't have the speed-athleticism combination that Allen is looking to infuse within the defense. Free safety Renaldo Hill is a heady player but doesn't consistently make big plays and is limited in coverage.

3. Middle linebacker: D.J. Williams has moved around from strong to weak to middle linebacker and back again over the last five years. But in a base 4-3 alignment, he lacks the desired thump with which to build a defense around.

MEDICAL WATCH: Running back LenDale White continues his rehabilitation from a torn Achilles tendon suffered last August and has his sights set on returning for mini-camps. He was supposed to run on flat ground beginning in January. WR Eddie Royal's recovery from hip surgery could last into May or possibly June. WR Demaryius Thomas' timeline puts his availability for training camp in serious jeopardy.


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