John Elway took over a Denver Broncos franchise in disarray on January 5th, 2011. The team was reeling from the bizarre events of their last two years. They badly needed stability. Elway and his group knew they’d have to hit home runs in their first few offseasons to get their team back in the hunt. 2011 was their first free agency period and first draft. The next few drafts would set the stage for Denver’s future. Their free agency periods would be just as important.
Looking at their subsequent team development, free agency and the draft, some names stand out. Von Miller, Danny Trevathan, Chris Harris, Jr., Peyton Manning, Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe are among them. What do these names have in common? Some are well-known stars. Some came from out of late draft rounds—or were college free agents. But each played a key role in bringing the team back from the brink.
No scout, coach, GM or team is going to hit on all their draft picks. Careful scouting and intensive film study, though, often reveals traits that might make, or break, a career. Strength, attitude, taking tough coaching, playing speed and technique are among any rounds’ (or college free agents’) essential qualities. When a team acquires players well, scouting plays a big role. That’s true whether it’s FA, the draft or CFAs.
One problem that John Fox and Elway butted heads on was the use of rookies. Fox believed in using veterans. Elway believes in developing young players from the first camp, right on into their rookie season. ESPN Denver's Jeff Legwold recently commented,
“Elway was adamant he believed some of the team’s rookies last season could have, and should have, played more.”
That had to affect Elway’s decision to go in a different coaching direction.
I don’t usually go in for conjecture. I have to wonder, though, when it was that Elway started to consider going back to the Broncos current direction. He has two Super Bowl Rings from using an odd front defense married with the FSZB offense.
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Gary Kubiak was next to him on the sideline each time. Those rings might have helped remind him what’s worked best in the past. Or, perhaps it was that his connections with Kubiak, Rick Dennison and Wade Phillips were just too good a combination to pass up.
The move back to the full stretch zone blocking scheme (FSZB) helps out several of the offensive line personnel Denver has acquired. Players including Ty Sambrailo, Chris Clark and Ben Garland have talked about how well they fit the scheme. While we won’t know until well after camp how well the players can adapt to the scheme on the field, there’s no shortage of reasons to expect it to go well.
Clark has a legitimate shot at right tackle, due to the scheme change. His athleticism now takes center stage over his level of power, which didn’t fit last season’s RT role. Schofield came on in OTAs. Coach Kubiak referred to him as “a player who could power his way into the lineup.”
Sambrailo may do well at left tackle in this scheme. I doubt it will be long before Matt Paradis graduates to starting center. He’s a tough player from the Tom Nalen school. Ben Garland also fits FSZB very well. He’s beating out Shelley Smith at left guard so far. Louis Vasquez can excel in any scheme - he’s a tireless worker and leader.
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Former CFA C.J. Anderson and Montee Ball (second round, pick 58) are both extremely well-suited to the zone blocking scheme. Ball played it with the Wisconsin Badgers. He racked up 5,140 yards on 924 carries in college. Anderson came up the hard way, but put the league on notice with his stellar performances later in the 2014 season.
His vision and quickness, along with his ability to stampede through tackles, fits the new scheme perfectly. Juwan Thompson will have to show that he can find the minute gaps that the FSZB approach creates. He’s a powerful runner and blocker, who can receive as well as he runs. I don’t doubt him.
One of the more enjoyable camp battles may be former CSU star RB Kapri Bibbs against former third round pick Ronnie Hillman. Hillman may have needed another year in college to mature. He’s stated that his immaturity early on cost him with the Broncos. He was running well last season before he injured his foot. He’s not a primary back—effectively, he’s a scalpel, not a broadsword.
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Bibbs has to prove that he can block NFL rushers. He’s a potential touchdown every time he has the ball, but every Bronco RB has to be able to block and receive. It was true before Peyton Manning arrived and it should stay that way.
2012 sixth round choice Danny Trevathan led the SEC in tackles over his junior and senior years. Somehow, the draft buzz on him was that he was “too small”. The theory was that he wouldn’t hold up to NFL-level tackling. That theory was an epic fail, but he found limited reps in his first year. He went from 244 snaps in 2012 to 1,133 in 2013. Returning from leg injuries suffered in 2014, his tackling is elite.
2012 fifth-round defensive end Malik Jackson got much the same treatment as Danny. In fairness, he was a 270-pound senior. Knowing that his size was important, Jackson arrived at the Combine at 285 pounds. He was carrying some softness in his middle and had thinner legs. Since then, he’s developed into a 293-pound slab of Rocky Mountain granite.
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Jackson and Trevathan have joined Derek Wolfe as starters who are developing a reputation for toughness and performance. That’s equally true of former CFA Chris Harris and CFA/waiver-wire player Todd Davis, who quickly became a leader on the field last year. Fifth round/waiver-wire linebacker Brandon Marshall did the same before Davis started.
Von Miller is nearly unstoppable. Virgil Green has been a seventh round find. Cody Latimer’s comments out of OTAs were impressive, opening his second year. The list goes on. Veterans cement the group, but the youth movement is having the biggest effect.
Nose guard Darius Kilgo was drafted in the sixth round of year 2015, with pick No. 203. It may be some time before he’s ready, but he’s another player who the Broncos trust to become “elite depth”. Denver is transitioning to Wade Phillips’ single-gap, penetration defense and it suits Kilgo well.
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Kilgo looked solid in OTAs. Now he’ll find out how fast the NFL is. Sly Williams won’t have to think about details when the ball snaps, which hurt him last season. All he needs to do is to attack—and that’s what he wants to do the most.
Veteran Emmanuel Sanders has proven to be a star in waiting. He needed the right team, quarterback and scheme to bring out his best. He’s found them. Hopefully, he’ll be able to maintain that level of play under head coach Kubiak. He’ll still be catching his passes from Manning. His odds are better than good.
Training camp brings out great battles and frustrating injuries. It always has. The effort that Elway and company have put into finding and polishing elite depth players has put them into the playoffs each season since he took over the team.
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Whether a lucky break on Todd Davis or the fortunate choice of Brandon Marshall, who was too good for the scout team, there was always a reason why Denver took that player at that moment. Part of that is fortune—or karma, if you will. More of it is scouting—college, CFAs and FAs. It’s created a level of young depth that was apparent two years ago, and has grown since then.
My favorite part of camp and preseason? Seeing what the team has added and where they’ve grown. It’s watching the development from the offseason and the year before. Last, it’s seeing what surprises are in store for the fans. There are always plenty.
Bring on training camp!