Former Broncos stars Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware returned to UCHealth Training Center to take in the sixth day of the Broncos' OTAs. (Photos by Gabriel Christus)
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos are just six practices into OTAs, but Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave can already see the benefit of having an established starter in place at quarterback.
As the team installs their offensive system, Case Keenum has gotten each of the first-team reps, and that value can't be understated for both Keenum and the team.
"Case is working hard," Musgrave said. "It's a new system for him, it's a new system for everybody. Case is getting — exclusively — all the reps with the ones. We're not splitting them like you would if you didn't have an established starter, so he's getting more concentrated work, and it's paying dividends."
Musgrave's system — which has been described as player friendly by several members of the offense — will retain a variety of formations and packages to disguise itself from defenses, but the wording of plays will be shortened.
That should help the Broncos' offense achieve its overall goal: putting its players in position to make plays.
"Any offense worth its salt," as Musgrave said Thursday, should be based around its players' skills. One of Keenum's strengths, as he showed off last year during an 11-3 campaign for the Vikings, is his ability to make plays out of the pocket.
"He definitely was mobile last year in Minnesota, and he's been mobile when he played for Houston and St. Louis before," Musgrave said. "So I think that's a great part of his game. He can stay on the move and remain a passer [and] process what he sees instantaneously. So those are good attributes to have, especially when things break down."
On Thursday, Keenum had a chance to learn a little more. The signal caller spoke with former quarterback Peyton Manning, who observed the team's practice and addressed the group as they huddled to end the day.
With Manning in attendance, Musgrave sensed an added sense of urgency from the entire team.
"Fun to have Peyton out there and fun to have DeMarcus Ware," Musgrave said. "Made for a special day. That was our sixth day of OTAs, and the energy was great to begin with.
"When those two guys are on the field, everybody steps it up a notch, that's for sure."
The Broncos named a starting punt returner early in last year's training camp, but as OTAs roll on, there is no set hierarchy.
"I want them to earn it," Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon said. "I think naturally, Isaiah [McKenzie] , Jordan [Taylor] — in my opinion, they're doing a great job right now. Royce Freeman's back there. We're using them all. David Williams is back there. [DaeSean] Hamilton is back there. Phillip [Lindsay] is back there. If you watch us after practice, we've got seven punt returners that are rookies. I don't know who that guy is. I learned my lesson a long time ago with thinking, 'This is going to be the guy, not the guy.' A year ago, Chester Rogers popped out for us in Indy, and no one thought he could do it. We've got great talent here, we're going to have a great returner, whoever it is — and they'll develop."
McMahon stressed the Broncos "have got to have guys that make plays for us," but he also acknowledged the importance of catching the punt.
To ensure that happens, the returners have added a drill in which they must call out the words or numbers that have been written on the football as they catch a punt. You catch the ball with your eyes, McMahon said Thursday, and this drill makes sure the returners aren't looking elsewhere.
McMahon will also be busy helping his team adapt to the NFL's new kickoff rules. He spoke favorably of the changes, but he added that Strength Coach Loren Landow will be instrumental in helping the coverage team make the most of a shortened takeoff zone.
When the Broncos added safety Su'a Cravens via a March trade, they gained a player who has plenty of positional flexibility. The former second-round pick can play in the box at 6-foot-1, 224 pounds — but he also has the speed to play in coverage.
"He's a unique player," Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods said. "You can see his natural instincts in the box. When he's in the box, he fits the run like a linebacker. Right now, you can see that — you can see it's easy for him. We're just really spending a lot of time teaching him how to play off the ball, playing the deep safety position.
"But I think he's going to really help us in terms of what we're able to do with our sub-packages. I think there's a few things, actually, that we can do that we couldn't do last year."
So, is Cravens the missing piece that can help the Broncos solve their woes covering tight ends last year?
"Part of it," Woods said. "We're going to have to do it with safeties, with linebackers, with dime[-package players]. But he's definitely a big part of it."
Just days after Head Coach Vance Joseph said he was proud of 's development, Musgrave provided a specific example of where the third-year player has improved.
"Paxton's growing every day," Musgrave said. "He's learning more about football, learning more about defense. He's learning more about the way that he can be effective at this level of football, which is completely different than college and a world apart from high school. So he's going through the process and, shoot, he had another good day today.
"He's doing a good job late in the down being real smart with the football. We have our times out there at practice where the ball doesn't go where it's supposed to. We've got to learn from when we stub our toe, but to Paxton's credit, after six OTAs, he's doing the best of the three in terms of protecting the football and making smart decisions, especially late in the downs."