ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Training camp, by its commonly-accepted definition, is over. The gates of Dove Valley are no longer open to fans; veteran players are no longer required to stay at a nearby hotel.
But by practical definitions, the Broncos are still in camp mode for another two weeks.
"Training camp's not over; you still have to come out here and work to earn your spot," said running back Ronnie Hillman. "It's just that you're out of the hotel and you get to sleep in your own bed."
"Sleeping in my bed, that's probably the biggest difference," added cornerback Champ Bailey. "The work goes on; we just don't have late days like we have had."
Nevertheless, the end of camp is a crucial demarcation point. Next week will be the one that most closely resembles a regular-season week in terms of preparation; not coincidentally, it ends in the game that sees the starters play more snaps than any of the four preseason dress rehearsals.
If you're on the first team for that game against the St. Louis Rams, it's a good bet you'll be there for Week 1, barring injury or utterly calamitous performance. Thus, this week, capped with Saturday's game at Seattle, represents a prime chance to move up or down the depth chart.
We don't know exactly how the Broncos will look in Week 1, but we have a better idea now than we did on July 24.
1. Wes Welker changes the entire offensive dynamic.
Peyton Manning has had outstanding slot receivers before: just look no further than Brandon Stokley and his 1,077-yard season in 2004, when Stokley, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison all broke the 1,000-yard milestone. But he's never had one like Welker, who might be an even more potent threat than he was in New England, if the Broncos' willingness to use him on a variety of routes and to stretch the field down the seam carries into the regular season.
The domino effect of that will be profound. Safeties will have more difficulty making choices in coverage. Linebackers might be asked to drop back more, taking them out of the pass rush and creating mismatches with Denver's wide receivers and tight ends. (The emergence of Julius Thomas can further exploit the mismatches created by the defensive attention that Welker's play demands.) Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will see more single coverage, allowing them the latitude to make plays downfield -- and as was witnessed Thursday, Decker has the athleticism and awareness to adjust to the ball in flight and catch a deep pass, even when the coverage is sound.
And for the Broncos' defense, Chris Harris is unlikely to see a sterner challenge on Sundays than he received from Welker every time the two dueled during training camp.
2. Duke Ihenacho will be a factor on defense.
Whether it's as a starter or a reserve remains to be seen. But his ascension to the first unit -- and his ability to keep the role because he flourished in the preseason opener -- offer indications that he might have earned the job for good. What's more, his emergence is no surprise to Bailey, the only team captain in the secondary.
"Well, it's kind of a surprise to you guys but I've kind of been seeing this happen over the past year or so," Bailey said. "He had great practice squad sessions last year. And this year his OTAs were amazing, and then now in training camp he has even stepped it up more. I just love his aggression and his instincts—his whole game is pretty impressive."
It has been surprisingly low on mistakes, as well -- and when he makes mistakes, he often makes up for them with a stellar play moments later. Or he simply steals the show by making an athletic play on the football, as he did during a goal-line period this week to intercept Manning in the back of the end zone.
"That was a really good play. Sometimes there are bad decisions, and sometimes there are (plays where you'd say), 'Hey, I would have thrown that again,' and that was a good play by him," Manning said.
3. The smoke has cleared only a bit in some of the most heated competitions.
Going into training camp, running back and middle linebacker were generally acknowledged to be the most wide-open scrums of camp. This remains the case, although Ronnie Hillman and Stewart Bradley have currently established themselves as the first-teamers at their respective positions.
Hillman and Montee Ball split a fair amount of the first-team snaps, although Hillman is nearly always up first, which perhaps offers a clue as to the order in which they will be used in each game. (That doesn't necessarily mean Hillman will get more touches; if that plays out like John Fox's Carolina running duos, the one with the heaviest workload may simply be that day's hot hand.) If both stay healthy, theirs is a fluid competition that could continue well into the year.
The middle linebacker competition also might play out into the regular season. If Von Miller's appeal of a four-game suspension fails, then Bradley and Irving are likely to play alongside each other at middle and strong-side linebacker, respectively. If Irving flourishes and Bradley struggles, Irving could easily transition back to middle linebacker. Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio isn't afraid to change his defenders' roles at midseason, as evidenced by Keith Brooking's evolving duties last season.
4. Pass-rushing from the edge beyond Von Miller: Quanterus Smith is still the future, but others will define the present.
Smith had some explosive moments early in training camp, but often looked exactly like what he is at this moment: a rookie burdened with the task of learning the speed and playbook demands of the pro game while still completing recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
"It's coming along good, I had a couple days where it acted up on me a little bit but that was expected," Smith said. "It's coming along well."
But for the moment, Smith will have to wait his turn. Shaun Phillips looks poised for a prominent role if Von Miller's suspension is upheld; Malik Jackson emerged as a solid inside-outside rotational contributor in the mold of starter Derek Wolfe, and 2011 seventh-round pick Jeremy Beal has been explosive at times in his return from injured reserve last year. He would have notched a sack during Thursday's two-minute period had he not pulled up when he approached the quarterback (as he is supposed to do in practice), and saw a brief cameo with the first unit for a play early in practice. (Shuffling has been the modus operandi up front recently at the tackle and end spots, so don't read too much into one snap.) Beal is the wild-card in the mix; he's a pass-rush specialist, but in his third training camp, is at arguably the most crucial juncture of his career.
5. The Broncos didn't dodge all bullets.
The injury situation could have been worse, but the Broncos took their share of punches, losing center Dan Koppen for the season (torn ACL) and going through much of training camp without tight ends Joel Dreessen (knee surgery) and Jacob Tamme (quadriceps), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (high ankle sprain), left tackle Ryan Clady (shoulder surgery) and guard Chris Kuper (recovery from ankle surgery and infection). Running back C.J. Anderson's knee injury Aug. 15 was a further blow, although it may not be as bad as initially feared.
But aside from center, the Broncos emerge from training camp with the core of the team intact. Beyond every other accomplishment of training camp, this was the first, most crucial goal.