Ashley Lelie and Clinton Portis are gearing up for what could be Pro Bowl years, defensive tackle Dorsett Davis may be the most improved player in the league, Sam Brandon has settled in at free safety and Monsanto Pope has won a defensive tackle job for now.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that Denver's free-agent moves continue to look suspect. In March 2001, the Broncos gave Lional Dalton a seven-year, $22 million deal that included a $3 million signing bonus.
Now his career in Denver appears over, as the Broncos have put the beefy defensive tackle on the trade block. Dalton lost his job at the end of last season, and though he lost 36 pounds in the off-season, it wasn't enough to keep a starting job that opened up with Daryl Gardener's injury.
The Broncos were hoping to get a fifth-round pick for him. That would help them save face, but there's still the matter of the big bonus paid for unfulfilled potential.
"We've got a lot of depth, a lot of young guys and that's the direction we decided to go," defensive coordinator Larry Coyer said. "Lional's going to play somewhere in this league. He's not going to play here."
With Gardener out following wrist surgery, Dalton had been thrust back into the starting lineup at nose tackle. But the Broncos recently demoted him in favor of second-year pro Monsanto Pope. And with fourth-round pick Nick Eason and former University of Colorado standout Darius Holland both playing well and end Trevor Pryce also capable of playing inside, the Broncos decided it didn't make sense to pay Dalton $1.6 million this year.
"He is a very likable guy, but in this business, it's not a popularity contest," said outspoken tight end Shannon Sharpe, who played two seasons with Dalton in Baltimore. "It comes down to results and either you get it done or you don't. I guess they feel he wasn't getting it done."
The Broncos most hope their latest free-agent acquisition, Gardener, pans out better. So far, he has been relegated to watching from the sideline after injuring his wrist in an early morning fracas outside a Denver-area pancake house.
CAMP CALENDAR: The Broncos practice Monday night at Invesco Field, and have two more days of two-a-days before breaking camp Wednesday.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--Tight end Jeb Putzier consistently shows off his great hands at practice. But his ability to get up high for passes led to his separated shoulder Saturday night.
He is out two weeks, after trying to make the grab of a pass by Steve Beuerlein against the Bears.
--Former first-round pick Willie Middlebrooks may finally be shedding the bust label. Sure he led the Broncos in special teams tackles in 2002, but he hasn't played a defensive snap since the Broncos made him the 24th overall selection of the 2001 draft.
"A lot of people have labeled Tommy Maddox as a bust, but now he's a starter and did great things," Middlebrooks said. "I don't think in a guy's first couple years you can label a player as a bust. Maybe throughout his career you can."
After moving Middlebrooks to safety, he is back at cornerback, working with the second team. But he had a solid game vs. Chicago and will continue to get a lot of reps.
"I don't think he's ever looked right until this year," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "We didn't think it'd take that long, but it has. Now he has a chance to show us what he can do."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Unfortunately I've played long enough to see some games like that - but not many." -- Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, who made his preseason debut Saturday and caught one pass for 8 yards.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Broncos have put defensive tackle Lional Dalton on the trading block. If they trade him, it actually will cost Denver about $250,000 more under the cap this year but he then would be off their books in 2004. Coaches felt they had too much depth at DT, and with Dalton losing his starting job to Monsanto Pope, it didn't make sense to pay him $1.6 million.
The Broncos reportedly were seeking a fifth-round pick. Denver made another trade, picking up reserve wide receiver Nate Jackson in exchange for a conditional draft pick. Only if he makes the 53-man roster will Denver give up a seventh-round pick, and the odds are against that happening.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Monsanto Pope surprised everyone last year by working his way into Denver's defensive line rotation as a seventh-round pick. And his performance against Houston helped earn him a spot in the starting lineup at defensive tackle, ahead of Lional Dalton.
Dalton had been doing better since shedding 36 pounds this offseason, but it wasn't enough, and now he's on the trading block.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Frank Rice is one of four receivers battling for 1 or 2 remaining spots on the team, and he helped himself Saturday. Though he couldn't hang onto a two-point conversion pass, he came up big on a quick slant on fourth down, picking up 36 yards to set up the game-winning score vs. Chicago.
Herb Haygood had been running 5th on the depth chart, but he didn't think he helped himself vs. the Bears. He had two dropped passes, though he scored Denver's first TD. Rookie Adrian Madise caught two passes for 10 yards, and returned a punt 7 yards in helping himself.
Also in the mix is Charlie Adams, who has looked good in practice but didn't get a chance to play Saturday.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Jarious Jackson may have saved his job with a 13-play, 80-yard drive to beat the Bears, 15-10. He finished 5 of 9 for 56 yards with one touchdown, and also ran four times for 15 yards, including a key fourth-down sneak. Jackson has never been much of a practice player, but he stepped up vs. Chicago. The key will be how well fourth-string QB Danny Kanell fares in the final preseason games.
ROOKIE REPORT: OT George Foster made his NFL debut, playing almost three quarters Saturday night vs. Chicago. He missed two weeks with a sprained foot, and still isn't 100 percent but is getting a crash course..LB Terry Pierce continues to run second string at middle linebacker, but is still learning to play without thinking so much...RB Quentin Griffin (broken leg) is out at least another week but had the hard cast removed from his leg...DT Nick Eason continues to move up, and is now second string behind Monsanto Pope at defensive tackle since the Broncos decided to trade Lional Dalton. ... WR Adrian Madise caught two passes for 10 yards in the second preseason and did a better job on punt returns...C Ben Claxton is still learning Denver's system. ... DE Aaron Hunt continues to turn heads, but will have to keep battling to secure a spot. ... DE Clint Mitchell saw limited action in the second preseason game. ... RB Ahmaad Galloway did not play in the second preseason game and could be a practice squad candidate.
INJURY REPORT: LT Ephraim Salaam hopes to begin practicing after missing the past two weeks because of knee surgery.
DT Daryl Gardener (wrist surgery) is out through the first two preseason games.
RB Quentin Griffin (broken leg) had his hard cast removed, and hopes to return for the preseason finale.
TE Jeb Putzier suffered a second-degree shoulder separation in the second preseason game and will be out two weeks.
OG Steve Herndon was scheduled to undergo an MRI on his shoulder.
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