ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** The first question Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway received when he met the media Saturday afternoon was about the release of Kevin Vickerson, a nine-year veteran defensive tackle who started 41 of the 47 games he played for the Broncos in the past four seasons.
Releasing a player with that sort of pedigree was notable, and Elway explained that the team chose between Vickerson and fourth-year vet Mitch Unrein for the final spot in the trenches.
That Elway didn't even mention Marvin Austin's name in his response indicates just how far the former second-round pick has come in the last four months.
After being waived by three different teams in 2013 and undergoing surgery for what could have been a career-ending back injury, Austin's signing with Denver was an afterthought that arrived on the morning of Elway's pre-draft presser. "We worked him out last week, and he's healed from his back surgery," Elway said on May 5. "We thought he was a guy that could come in and help us."
The low-risk move bore fruit immediately when training camp opened, as No. 76 barged his way into the notebooks of onlooking media on a regular basis. Austin was a nightmare to deal with in 1-on-1 drills and kept making plays in team periods, earning reps against Louis Vasquez, Manny Ramirez and Orlando Franklin.
His production translated to games as well, as Austin led the team's defensive linemen in the preseason with seven tackles and three passes defensed, to go with a sack and a QB hit. One of those passes defensed nearly turned into six points, as Austin dropped into coverage and stepped in front of a throw from Texans' quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick with acres of green in front of him.
Austin lamented the dropped pick after the game, saying, "Every play counts. I'm still trying to make the roster. I'm still grinding to make the 53."
But if Elway's words Saturday were any indication, Austin's spot on the roster had been secure for some time. At full strength for the first time in several years, Austin used the talent that justified his high draft position and elevated himself above the roster bubble, leaving two of the team's regulars fighting over one spot. "He's healthy and I think that's the key thing," Elway said when finally asked about Austin, near the end of his press conference. "As hard as he's worked and he had the surgery to where now he's healthy, he's getting [there], he played great against Dallas. We think he's just going to continue to get better so he's been a pleasant surprise coming back the way he has."
During camp, Austin gave much of the credit for his improved health to the Broncos' organization, saying it "takes care of players better than any organization I've been to, as far as the strength and conditioning coaches."
Now Austin and the team will reap the rewards, with the fourth-year tackle likely to be in the rotation when the team opens its regular season against the Colts.
After coming from nowhere to reach this point, Austin's rise might have been the most impressive story of camp. Stay tuned to see how high his climb can go.