ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If you're looking for grand meaning from organized team activities and minicamp, your search will be an endless one. They're important for laying the foundation for a season, but far from the be-all, end-all of a team's hopes. Broncos Head Coach John Fox often tempers his praise of work in these sessions by reminding listeners that these are only workouts "in their underwear," compared to the shells and full-pad work that begins in late July.
That point is already clear to the newest Broncos.
"Well, right now with no pads on I think I'm pretty good," said rookie Montee Ball when asked about his progress in blitz pickup. "When we come back we're going to put pads on, it's going to be a different story."
Still, there's a few key thoughts that linger after watching seven practices during the four weeks of work.
- If you're going to go young at any one position, running back is the best place to do it. The learning curve isn't as steep as it as at other spots -- although the pass-protection aspect can make for a bumpy college-to-prop transition -- and the high-attrition nature of the position means a runner's best years could be their first ones.
Veterans Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball, Jeremiah Johnson and Jacob Hester will have something to say about the composition of the position, but when you draft running backs in the third and second rounds of the last two drafts, you're not adding them to gather splinters from sitting on the bench.
The experience that Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman gained the last few weeks working alongside Peyton Manning was invaluable in understanding the protection calls and honing their timing when catching passes out of the backfield.
"From what I've seen on TV, he makes all those audibles and stuff like that," the rookie said. "The work we've been doing after practice has helped out a lot because I'm a lot more comfortable and I feel like I've gained some experience with all the help.
"It means a lot to me. I'm very grateful for it because he's going out of his way to help me out a lot, which obviously is going to help him by giving him more time at pass protection and by everyone knowing their assignment. I really appreciate it. Every time after practice when he, after he helps me, I tell him, 'Thank you.'"
If all goes as the Broncos hope, Manning will reciprocate those thank-yous to Hillman and Montee Ball for delivering the blocks that help keep the 37-year-old quarterback upright.
- The depth on the team looks better than it has in years, and is the most tangible aspect of the rebuilding job that began when Fox and executive vice president John Elway joined the team in January 2011. At that point, years of shaky drafts had hollowed out the core of the roster; in the following regular season, the Broncos signed five players who'd been cut by other teams before their sixth game, trying to breach the gap. But it wasn't enough, and the Broncos' two skids that year -- a 1-4 start and an 0-3 finish to the regular season -- were directly attributable to a rash of injuries that claimed seven starters, which the roster was not yet equipped to overcome.
Two years later, the Broncos' two-deep is flooded with recent draft picks. Fifty-six of their current players didn't break into the league until 2010 or later, and all but one of the Broncos' draft picks under Elway is still with the team. But now we're at the point where some of these players with multiple years on the fringes of the roster must produce, or be pipped by younger prospects.
The last four weeks, players like tight end Julius Thomas, wide receiver Greg Orton, defensive end Jeremy Beal were among those who answered the call and showed they might be ready to take that next step. That they had three years to take that step -- each was on the 53-man roster or practice squad in 2011 -- is evidence of the patience this regime has shown in cultivating its youth. It's only practice, but all looked good enough to contribute on someone's roster.
Some significant talent will have to be pared when the Broncos get down to 53 players, and in a reversal of the 2011 scenario, the Broncos' cut list will be the one that other teams scrutinize for talent -- particularly if the Broncos continue opting for youth when all other factors are equal.
- At any one point, a backup could become the Broncos' most important player. The two most crucial reserves could become quarterback Brock Osweiler and linebacker Danny Trevathan, both of whom are likely to end up behind the players who will be responsible for setting the offense and defense, respectively, on every play.
On offense, it's obvious that the quarterback receives the play call through the helmet that is equipped with a radio receiver; on defense, it's usually a linebacker -- but it needs to be one that plays every down. That used to mean that a middle linebacker typically wore the helmet, and Joe Mays began 2012 with it. But by the second half of the season, the responsibility belonged to weak-side linebacker Wesley Woodyard, since he remained on the field when the Broncos went into nickel and dime packages. Trevathan looks poised to back up Woodyard after being eased into a larger role as a nickel linebacker next to Woodyard as his rookie season progressed.
But while Trevathan is on track to be that crucial backup -- who could play a majority of the snaps as one of the two nickel linebackers -- the role won't be handed to him, and when training camp arrives, the Broncos could shuffle the deck to find multiple combinations for base and sub packages.
"The good thing about our linebacking crew is that they all have a great deal of flexibility and can play the (weak side) for us or even the (middle), and plus they all play in nickel situations," Elway said. "They all have great flexibility and to be able to move around, and that's one thing that really helps us and gives us a great deal of depth, to be able to play different positions."
- The future isn't so hazy for Osweiler, who is the clear-cut No. 2 quarterback now and looked the part of a pro quarterback. There was no comparison between the Osweiler of 2012 and the one on the practice field this year; he kept the offense at a quick tempo and delivered passes quickly, which was due as much to his understanding of the offense as the work he's done to hone his delivery by keeping his elbow high, which tightens his motion and allows him to better capitalize on his 6-foot-7 frame.
"Mentally when you know where to go with the ball and you have a pre-snap plan, you're able to throw it on time. You're not indecisive," Osweiler said. "You're making a decision, you're sticking with it, and you're playing to your abilities, where once again, at times last year, you're not exactly sure where to go with the ball, so you're kind of hesitant with your throw, and it's maybe off-target, not as accurate as it could be, where all those things are slowly starting to change."
Osweiler isn't a finished product in any way, he says he's "nowhere near perfect as far as my mechanics," and that he's "nowhere near where I need to be" in terms of the off-field work he's done. But he has learned how to properly study and learn an offensive scheme from watching Manning, and has been able to help players like Hester last December and rookie quarterbacks Zac Dysert and Ryan Katz this spring get up to speed.
"I was told by somebody that a lot of rookie quarterbacks come in, and you kind of bring them along at an elementary and junior-high level and you work your way up. This person told me, 'Hey, you're jumping straight to Ph.D. So you've got to figure it out,'" Osweiler said. "That's what I've done, and it comes down to studying."
And perhaps no Bronco is more eager for the next six weeks to pass than Osweiler, who needs the game repetitions that preseason provides to validate his practice work.
"It can't come soon enough," he said.
- Every time a team emerges from OTAs and minicamp without any major injuries to key contributors, it breathes a sigh of relief so loud that its rivals can hear it. Only tight end Joel Dreessen succumbed among the Broncos atop the depth chart at the end of 2012, and his knee injury should be fully healed by training camp. Teams like the 49ers and Chargers weren't so lucky, losing wide receiver Michael Crabtree and linebacker Melvin Ingram to a torn Achilles tendon and torn ACL, respectively. Both teams hold out hope that either could return late in the season, but it's unlikely that either would be at 100 percent if they did come back in 2013. Every collision and open-field cut in training camp will create some nervousness among onlookers, but the Broncos can't complain about emerging from the first phase of their 2013 quest with their expected core intact. They should have left tackle Ryan Clady, center J.D. Walton and safety Quinton Carter ready at some point this summer, and guard Chris Kuper continues to try and work his way back from a series of ankle problems that have dogged him since he fractured his leg on Jan. 1, 2012.