The Denver Broncos will begin their offseason training program this week—starting today. Phase one will focus on strength, conditioning, and rehabilitation. No helmets allowed—not exactly exciting goings-on for the fanbase.
However, fans should at least take consolation in the fact that this week officially kicks off the Broncos 2015 campaign. Change is in the air. General Manager John Elway reshuffled the deck. As the team’s leading front office executive, he had to adapt or die.
Under John Fox, the Broncos were dying. Elway hopes that under the guiding hand of Gary Kubiak, the team will thrive. With Kubiak, comes a new system—both on offense and defense. That fact alone will require certain young players, who may not have had a significant role in the past, to step up in 2015.
Couple that with the free agent exodus of several key starters and the influx of new veterans and the upcoming draft class, and the Denver Broncos are a roster in flux. However, they have the sixth-youngest roster in the league.
There will be new opportunities for the younger, more inexperienced players to thrive. Let’s take a look at a few players who could be in for an expanded role in 2015.
Malik Jackson, DE
Jackson isn’t exactly an anonymous no-name. He’s started 11 games for the Broncos (including playoffs), since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Jackson emerged as a player in 2013, when Derek Wolfe was lost for much of the season.
At 6-foot-5, 293 pounds, Jackson has been used primarily as the strong-side defensive end in Jack Del Rio’s 4-3 scheme and as an interior rusher on passing downs. In the 3-4 scheme that new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is installing, Jackson projects as a starting 5-tech defensive end, along with Wolfe.
Jackson has the size and athleticism to excel in this new role. His combination of power and speed, along with a nasty mentality, could serve the Broncos well. The biggest concern for Jackson is self control. He has a penchant for losing his cool and getting flagged for personal fouls.
He’s entering a contract year, as the final season of his rookie deal. And he willl have to keep a cool head, because the Broncos brought in two free agents with extensive experience at the position, who could step in and start without a hitch—Vance Walker and Antonio Smith.
Jackson will also have to get better in his run defense and stay disciplined. If he can batten down the hatches, we could see him really turn the corner in 2015 and possibly price himself out of the Broncos budget, unless Peyton Manning retires following the season, which would free up a lot of salary cap space.
Cody Latimer, WR
The Broncos traded up to select Latimer in the second round of last year’s draft—and he quietly sat on the bench for the entirety of his rookie campaign. Latimer’s lack of playing time was more a result of an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position for the Broncos, than it was a reflection of his abilities as a player.
When the three players ahead of you on the depth chart have all been to a Pro Bowl, seeing the field for any meaningful snaps becomes a daunting task. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders each had a phenomenal 2014 campaign, and Wes Welker was option No. 3 when the Broncos ran 3-receiver sets.
But the Broncos have made it clear that re-signing Welker is not in the cards and that Latimer will be given every opportunity to succeed in 2015, which means Broncos Country will be seeing a lot of the former star from Indiana.
At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Latimer will provide Peyton Manning with another big bodied target outside the numbers. Latimer also is dangerous after the catch. But what could really set him up for more playing time is his blocking acumen.
In Gary Kubiak’s offense, running the ball will become a central component. The Broncos receivers will be expected to pull their weight in the running game. And if Latimer’s preseason performance taught us anything, it’s that he relishes the opportunity to lay the wood and block.
Schofield represents one of the most disappointing draft picks in Elway’s tenure as GM. Last season as a rookie, he did not see the field once. In fact, he did not dress for action a single time. It was a head-scratcher.
But Schofield’s lack of playing time likely stemmed from John Fox’s reticence to play rookies. With very few exceptions, Fox favors veterans and only turns to rookies when he has no other choice. This predilection was likely one of the points of demarcation between Elway and Fox, ultimately leading to his mutual dismissal this past January.
Looking to the future, Elway and Gary Kubiak have made it clear that Schofield is still very much in their plans. He will get the opportunity to compete for the starting right tackle job. He’ll have to battle Chris Clark and probably a rookie.
This summer, Schofield’s mettle will be tested and we’ll get to see if his lack of playing time as a rookie was indeed a reflection of his talents, or a coaching decision outside of his control. Regardless, he was drafted in the third round and the Broncos need him to step up and contribute.
David Bruton, S
Along with Demaryius Thomas, Bruton is the only Josh McDaniels draft pick left on the roster. Selected in the fourth round of the 2009 draft, Bruton has carved himself out a role with the Broncos as a special teams captain and a rotational player at safety.
Last season, we saw Bruton take advantage of his opportunities to play on defense. He started one game at strong safety and played 193 snaps on defense, earning a +4.5 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus.
With the departure of last year’s starting free safety Rahim Moore, there is an opportunity for Bruton to win the job in training camp. But he’ll have to compete with newcomer Darian Stewart and possibly Bradley Roby or Kayvon Webster.
Ben Garland, OG
After spending a couple seasons on the Broncos practice squad, Garland finally cracked the final 53-man roster last year. He only played a total of 47 snaps, but could be in for an expanded role in 2015 in Gary Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme, which requires quick, light feet and athleticism.
Like Michael Schofield, Garland’s name has been mentioned by the coaching staff as a player they like and expect to contribute this season. Nothing quickens the development of a player more than necessity and the Broncos are in need of a starting left guard.
The team signed Shelley Smith in March to compete at left guard with Garland—and a possible rookie. The only positions on the offensive line that are not for the taking are left tackle and right guard—currently locked down by Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez, respectively—two former All-Pros.
Williams was the Broncos first round pick in 2013 out of North Carolina. Like most rookie defensive tackles, Williams faced a steep learning curve as a rookie, but began to flash immense potential down the stretch.
As the Broncos starting defensive tackle next to Terrance Knighton in 2014, Williams performance was inconsistent. He had a few games where again he flashed, but couldn’t do it week-in-week-out. Defensive tackles often take a year or two to develop, and the Broncos are hoping 2015 is Williams’ breakout year.
Pot Roast is gone. And with the switch to a 3-4 base defense, the Broncos need Williams to step up and be the anchor on defense. He possesses the raw power and explosion to be a difference maker, but seems to lack that high motor and intensity. Perhaps he’s still encumbered by the mental side of the game.
However, the Broncos showed faith in Williams—even if by default—by letting Knighton walk. Williams will compete with fellow North Carolina Tarheel Marvin Austin for the starting nose guard position and we shouldn’t be surprised to see a rookie, likely drafted in the first three rounds, in the mix as well.
Virgil Green, TE
Of all the players mentioned in this article, Green is perhaps the player best primed for an expanded role in 2015. Selected in the seventh round of John Elway’s maiden draft class of 2011, Green bided his time and honed his skills as a blocker and became arguably more valuable to the team than two-time Pro Bowler Julius Thomas.
Both players were drafted in 2011 and as such, hit unrestricted free agency together. The Broncos made it a priority to re-sign Green, while they let Thomas walk. The primary reason why is because Green is a tenacious blocker, but he also has the athleticism to be a weapon in the passing game.
In Gary Kubiak’s offense, Green will be featured primarily as an in-line blocker, but he’ll also see a career high in passing targets via the play-action game. Criminally underrated as a receiver, Green is a more athletic Dwayne Allen—the Indianapolis Colts tight end.
The Broncos also brought in Owen Daniels and James Casey to bolster their tight end corps. But Green is younger than both and has higher upside. Kubiak will find ways to utilize Green, especially between the 20’s.
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