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Newest Broncos a big part of 6-1 start

Posted Oct 26, 2014

The Broncos would not be atop the AFC after eight weeks without the jolt brought by their offseason imports.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- No team has a better record than the Broncos through seven games, and their success would have not been possible without the contributions of their newcomers.

With eight weeks down and nine to go, let's break down the season-to-date progress for each of them:

EXPERIENCED NEWCOMERS

S T.J. WARD

Games played: 7 - Defensive snaps: 483 - Special-teams plays: 4

Ward's snap count is the highest of any new Bronco, and those snaps included work in coverage, as in in-the-box run defender and as a pass rusher, a role in which he's posted a sack of Seattle's Russell Wilson and three quarterback hits this year. He leads all Broncos defensive backs with three quarterback hits, and added three tackles for losses in the first seven games.

The performance of others shuffled Ward into the background a bit in the first eight weeks, but his presence opens up avenues for others, including the edge rushers, safety Rahim Moore and linebacker Brandon Marshall. They can be more aggressive because Ward draws attention.

CB AQIB TALIB

Games played: 7 - Defensive snaps: 460 - Special-teams plays: 2

Talib's aggression against the run and screen passes and in coverage provided a bracing jolt to the defense -- and the offense, as well, as he is as fiery and fierce in everyday one-on-one drills against the Broncos' stable of elite receivers as he is against opposing receivers on game days.

"He's one of the most competitive guys I ever played with," said Ward. "Him and Chris (Harris Jr.), that's what you need at a corner position. Both of those guys, they lock in, very physical, smart. You couldn't ask for two better corners playing the safety, making my job a lot easier."

Talib has been a perfect match for Harris, thanks to the rapport they developed as teammates at the University of Kansas seven years ago, and their shared traits. Neither is timid, and both fit well in a defense that has dialed up the aggression as its personnel coalesced. The duo has 21 passes defensed between them -- 11 for Harris, 10 for Talib.

WR EMMANUEL SANDERS

Games played: 7 - Offensive snaps: 443 - Special-teams plays: 4

He is spectacular and steady at once. And with four 100-yard games and 634 yards and four touchdowns on 47 receptions this season, he is everything the Broncos thought he could be when they gave him a three-year contract.

His speed opens up another dimension for the offense: the deep post. That could become even more lethal now that the offense has a productive run game to make the play-action fake viable, but Sanders and Peyton Manning made it work even before the recent running revival, as the quarterback learned what sort of weapon he had.

"He was much faster than I anticipated and he's got that acceleration where he's a hard guy to overthrow, or for me anyway," Manning said. "He's a special athlete and you combine that with his work ethic and that's what's really separated him.

Among receivers new to their teams in 2014, only Detroit's Golden Tate has more yardage per game than Sanders' 90.6, which is seventh overall in the league. And he has not dropped a pass, a statistic confirmed by STATS, Inc. (ProFootballFocus.com credits him with one drop.)

Sanders' emergence should not be a surprise, when viewed on a per-reception basis. His first-down percentage of 63.8 percent is in line with the 63.9 percent figure he compiled in Pittsburgh, and his rate of gains of 20 yards or more (one every 5.2 receptions) is in line with his Steelers rate (one every 4.9 receptions). He is as efficient as ever; all that's changed is his snap count and his opportunities, which propelled him into the league's upper echelon.

DE DeMARCUS WARE

Games played: 7 - Defensive snaps: 338 - Special-teams plays: 2

In returning to the sack-a-game pace he posted during the 2007-2011 seasons (80 sacks in 80 games played), Ware answered any questions that lingered from a 2013 season in which he played through injuries for a defense that was ultimately doomed to one of the worst statistical seasons in league history. His first step remains explosive, and his body control and balance might be better than ever, as San Francisco's Joe Staley learned on Oct. 19 when Ware caught him off-balance with a fake spin move.

Judicious use of Ware also helps his effectiveness. Last year, when Ware was hurt, he played 69.1 percent of the snaps in the 13 games he played (per ProFootballFocus.com). This year, his playtime percentage is 1.3 percent higher -- but he's healthy, and his chances of maintaining optimal condition increase with appropriate rest, which allows Quanterus Smith to get some needed repetitions.

"I think DeMarcus probably wants Quanterus to play a lot more," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "DeMarcus doesn't want to play 50 plays a game. Good pass rushers are fresh pass rushers."

DT MARVIN AUSTIN

Games played: 7 - Defensive snaps: 132 - Special-teams plays: 44

One of the breakout stars of the preseason parlayed his strong summer into a rotational role up front, giving Terrance Knighton the chance to take breathers when needed. Austin's primary role is to occupy blockers, and his chances for big plays were scarce in Weeks 1-8. He's still looking for his first quarterback hit or tackle for loss, and has five quarterback hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

K BRANDON McMANUS

Games played: 7 - Special-teams plays: 80

The first-year kicker provides an upgrade to kickoffs; the Broncos' touchback percentage is up 5.9 percent over last year. His leg is among the strongest in the game, and strength has not been an issue as he replaces the released Matt Prater, now with Detroit. But McManus needs greater accuracy from long range. Although the sample size remains way too small, he is perfect from inside 45 yards and 0-for-2 from beyond, including a 53-yard attempt last Thursday that sailed wide left.

C WILL MONTGOMERY

Games played: 7 - Offensive snaps: 6 - Special-teams plays: 37

Good health on the offensive line through seven games ensured that the Broncos' insurance policy on the interior line remains unused to this point; the only change was up front was at right tackle, where Paul Cornick ascended to the first line after Chris Clark struggled. All of Montgomery's work on offense came in mop-up duty against the 49ers, when he lined up at right guard in place of Louis Vasquez.

ROOKIES

CB BRADLEY ROBY

Games played: 7 - Defensive snaps: 389 - Special-teams plays: 65

Roby has more non-special teams plays than the rest of the rookies combined (143) and with good reason; the defense spends more than half of its time in nickel or dime packages, and Roby has emerged as an aggressive, physical slot cornerback who has pass-rush capability, as seen on his sack of Jets quarterback Geno Smith in Week 6.

Foes test Roby; according to ProFootballFocus.com, opponents threw passes in his direction 42 times in Weeks 1-8, with 30 completed. On average, teams throw in his direction once every 9.3 snaps (Talib's average is one every 9.2, and Harris' is one every 11.2). Expect more of that in the next nine games, in which Roby will try to improve, while avoiding the "rookie wall."

LB COREY NELSON

Games played: 7 - Defensive snaps: 58 - Special-teams plays: 143

Thrust into nickel-package duty after Danny Trevathan suffered a second leg injury of 2014 in Week 6, Nelson led the Broncos in tackles against the Jets as one of the two linebackers in the nickel package. More than half (36) of his defensive snaps came that day, as Nate Irving saw more nickel responsibilities in Weeks 7 and 8. But that doesn't mean Nelson is permanently out of the mix; his attributes could allow him a role in the defense again.

"Corey is athletic. He's quick. He has good hips," said fellow linebacker Brandon Marshall. "They (Nelson and Irving) both bring a different dynamic to the nickel package. When Nate comes in, I'm more the primary cover guy. When Corey comes in, we both cover; it doesn't really matter. That's just what they both bring."

LB LAMIN BARROW

Games played: 7 - Defensive snaps: 28 - Special-teams plays: 157

Barrow has become an integral part of the Broncos' special teams, but has endured a rough October, punctuated by a penalty and ejection against the New York Jets on Oct. 12 and a concussion 11 days later in the Thursday night win over the San Francisco 49ers. The Broncos' depth at middle linebacker leaves him on the third team, but if the Broncos re-use the speed-linebacker packages with Barrow and Corey Nelson that they utilized in Weeks 3 and 5, he could see some more defensive opportunities going forward.

RB JUWAN THOMPSON

Games played: 7 - Offensive snaps: 53 - Special-teams plays: 49

Thompson is one of the best stories on the roster, and the latest chapter was a two-touchdown performance against the Chargers. Both touchdowns came as an I-formation fullback, adding another dimension to his play and another tactical wrinkle to the offense. Thompson finished that game with 24 yards on seven carries, accounted for first downs on four of his runs, and displayed a bruising, tackle-breaking style that shows his preseason was not a fluke. Thompson's blocking is above average, as well, which should continue to provide him more opportunities.

WR ISAIAH BURSE

Games played: 7 - Offensive snaps: 4 - Special-teams plays: 47

In raw numbers, Burse's rookie season as a punt returner has been a struggle; his average of 6.1 yards per return ranks 24th. But he forces missed tackles and appears close to a breakaway return. In ProFootballFocus.com's metrics, he ranks ninth among punt returners.

WR CODY LATIMER

Games played: 2 - Offensive snaps: 0 - Special-teams plays: 13

Opportunities have been non-existent for Latimer, who has yet to see an offensive snap after a stellar preseason. The experience of Andre Caldwell in the offense, the utilization of Caldwell on kickoff returns and good health in the wide receiver corps renders Latimer the victim of a numbers game. His summer work offers evidence that the Broncos have a keeper and a potential stud in the second-round pick, but for now, he looks likely to wait a bit longer for actual game work on offense.

G/T MICHAEL SCHOFIELD

Games played: 0

As with numerous offensive-line mid-round picks over the years -- and even some first-rounders, such as George Foster in 2003 -- the rookie season appears to be a developmental one for Schofield unless the unit absorbs multiple injuries. His future position could depend on the choices the Broncos make in free agency this offseason, and on the progress of former practice-squad contributor Paul Cornick at right tackle.

RB KAPRI BIBBS

Games played: 0

An approach from the Buffalo Bills led to a promotion from the practice squad to the 53-man roster, but as the fifth running back (including the injured Montee Ball) and the recent success of the running game, his immediate future appears to be as a game-day inactive. But the call-up reveals that the Broncos are high on him, and at a high-attrition position, he could get opportunities later in the season if injuries strike.