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Gray Matter: May 17

Posted May 17, 2013

In this week's fan mailbag, we talk Charles Woodson, more free agent possibilities, three 1,000-yard receivers and more.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The offseason conditioning program is in full swing here at Dove Valley, and the first of the club's organized team activities -- or OTAs -- will kick off Monday.

There's been plenty of news around team headquarters this week, including a visit from veteran free agent defensive back Charles Woodson, which brings us to this week's first question.

There is real interest, as Woodson spent Wednesday at Dove Valley for a visit. But the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year certainly has other suitors as well. Two that have been reported are Oakland and Carolina, where he might have a better chance of stepping in and starting. As Andrew Mason wrote in his piece after it was initially reported there might be some mutual interest between Woodson and the Broncos, it may ultimately be a matter of what Woodson is looking for. Of those three teams, it's not much of a stretch to say Denver is the best landing place for him to chase his second Super Bowl ring. So if that's what the eight-time Pro Bowler is looking for, and if he and the Broncos can agree on a mutually beneficial situation, it's definitely a situation to keep an eye on. It has been reported that he will visit Oakland on Tuesday, so don't expect a decision before then.

Let's keep the free agency questions going.

On a fan forum with season-ticket holders earlier this month, Director of Player Personnel Matt Russell reiterated that the team feels "very good" about the middle linebacker position. It's too early to tell who will come out of the competition on top, but the fact that there will be such a heated competition leads Russell to believe whoever emerges to take over the position will be ready for the job. Nate Irving, originally drafted in 2011 as a middle linebacker, knows the system and has thrived on special teams. The same could be said for Steven Johnson, who made the team last season as an undrafted free agent. Stewart Bradley is the veteran presence in the competition, as he spent two years as the starting middle linebacker in Philadelphia earlier in his career. Then there's Joe Mays, last year's starter, who is working his way back from injury. The team has shown it's never finished looking for available players that could help improve the team -- as evidenced by Woodson's visit this week -- but the club is also happy with where the middle linebacker position stands as is. Keep in mind, it's a position that will play only about one-third of the team's snaps in base defense.

When Peyton Manning met the press on the first day of offseason conditioning, he expressed hope that the addition of Wes Welker didn't mean a "closed-door situation" with regards to bringing back Stokely. He said he'd "love" to play with Stokley again, and Stokley showed last season he still has something left in the tank as he became one of just 10 receivers in NFL history to record at least 30 receptions and five touchdowns entering a season aged 36 or older. Of course, the Broncos have plenty of targets already on the roster, from Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Welker at receiver to Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen at tight end. Stokely reportedly visited the Tennessee Titans in March, and if he were to re-sign in Denver, it could be late into training camp, similar to the additions of Keith Brooking, Jim Leonhard and Dan Koppen last season. It's a situation worth watching, but Denver appears set at receiver at the moment.

Holliday's primary contribution to the Broncos will continue to come on special teams. After all, he was one of just five players in the league with a kickoff and punt return touchdown last season. He had two of each. But the player who Russell called "the fastest guy in the NFL" said he wouldn't object to a bigger role on offense. He caught two passes last year for 17 yards, and his build -- 5-foot-5, 170 pounds -- might prevent him from a heavy offensive load, particularly given his importance on special teams. But with the way gameday inactives work, Holliday will likely be active as a special teamer even if the club's fourth or fifth wide receiver is inactive. So he could see some playing time on offense that way depending on the formation, or if there's an injury or a player needs a breather. It wouldn't be shocking to see him on the offensive side of the ball enough to grab more than two catches this year, but expect Holliday's main role to continue to come solely on special teams.

I don't see why not -- it's only been accomplished by a wide-receiver trio four times in league history, but as you mentioned, one of those was in 2004 with Manning throwing to Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Stokley. Statistically, last season was one of Manning's best, as he set Broncos single-season records in nearly every major passing category, including completions, completion percentage, passing yards, touchdown passes and quarterback rating. Meanwhile his top two targets, Thomas and Decker, became the youngest receiving tandem in league history to post 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns each in the same season. As that duo continues to grow, Welker is added to the mix -- a player who has managed five 100-catch, 1,000-yard seasons in the past six years. Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase said the club's offensive targets aren't worried about how many balls they catch -- the "unselfish" group is more concerned with winning. So three 1,000-yard receivers isn't as big a goal for the actual pass-catchers involved, but -- and it all depends on how many targets the tight ends receive this season -- there's no reason to think Denver can't become the fifth team in league history with three 1,000-yard wide receivers.

It's far too early to judge that race, but if I had to say right this second, I'd say no, Smith won't start as a rookie. First of all, he wasn't able to participate in any drills in last weekend's rookie minicamp as he continues to recovery from a knee injury. While he did say he'd be ready for training camp, Smith has competition in front of him -- namely Robert Ayers, the current starter at the rush defensive end spot. Derek Wolfe is entrenched at the other starting defensive end position. In mid-May, there's no reason not to pencil in those two as the starters, with Smith and others rotating in. To answer your second question, I don't think Shaun Phillips will start, either. After the draft, Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said Phillips will be a backup 'Sam' (strongside) linebacker behind Von Miller, and can also rotate in to rush the passer. While his official position will be at outside linebacker, you can expect to see Phillips in a three-point stance, rushing the passer as a defensive end -- depending on the defensive package that's on the field.

I think the Broncos are trying to give him the best possible chance to make the team. Garland has been around since 2010, competing in that preseason before spending 2010 and 2011 on the club's reserve/military list. Last year was his first on the team's practice squad, and the fact that Garland has been around so long shows that the team likes him. But with the depth at defensive tackle, his best chance to stick around this year might be on offense. Head Coach John Fox said it's Garland's intelligence that will help him most as he makes the move -- the offensive line is all about assignments, and Fox said Garland is "not going to blow assignments." His strength and toughness were pointed out by Offensive Line Coach Dave Magazu, as well. Of all the story lines to watch in training camp this year, Garland's transition to an entirely different side of the ball will be interesting to see play out.

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