BOCA RATON, Fla. --For some of the Broncos' 2015 draft picks, it's almost like they're starting their NFL careers this year.
Second-round offensive lineman Ty Sambrailo played three games before tearing his labrum, and now faces a transition from offensive tackle to guard. Third-round tight end Jeff Heuerman had his rookie season wiped out by a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and is now back to health, and will be counted on "big time," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said Tuesday.
But for other players like quarterback Trevor Siemian and outside linebacker Shane Ray, the 2016 season represents not a fresh start, but a crucial next step in their development.
Kubiak touched on the progress of these four players at his hour-long question-and-answer session at the AFC Coaches Breakfast Tuesday at the Boca Raton Resort.
- Shane Ray: Primed for a bigger role**
The return of DeMarcus Ware on a restructured contract does not mean limited opportunities for Ray, from whom Kubiak is "expecting big things" in 2016.
Kubiak and Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips plan to limit Ware's repetitions to the most high-leverage situations to preserve his health and prevent a recurrence of the back problems that plagued him last year, and that will leave plenty of opportunities for Ray and Shaquil Barrett to see plenty of work.
If the Broncos narrow Ware's focus to a role as a third-down rusher, then Barrett or Ray would start. But no matter who is in the game-opening 11 on defense, both should play more.
Kubiak's optimism about both was palpable. He praised Barrett's play when his playing time expanded while Ware was injured, and lauded Ray's eventual adjustment to having a pair of elite rushers in front of him.
"Not many guys come onto a team as a first-round pick and then they've got two potential Hall of Famers in front of him," Kubiak said. "He came into a unique situation. I think it was a shock for him initially. I think it took him some time gravitate to those two guys and say, 'I'm over that. Now let me learn from these guys.' I think Shane started to do that at the end of the year.
"I think Shane could not have watched two better guys the last two years. It will be interesting -- yet exciting -- to see how he comes back and gets back ready to go -- tattoos and all," Kubiak added, smiling.
- Ty Sambrailo: Ready to move inside**
When Sambrailo completes his rehabilitation from surgery to repair a torn labrum, he will find a new position waiting for him. The Colorado State product will move inside to guard after starting at left tackle for three weeks last season before his injury.
At this moment, the Broncos are projected to have the league's youngest guard tandem, with Sambrailo and fellow 2015 draft pick Max Garcia, a fourth-round selection who worked his way into the rotation with Louis Vasquez and Evan Mathis last year. Garcia earned the nickname "The Future" inside the Broncos' locker room after flashing his potential, and Kubiak hopes that Sambrailo can be equally impressive when he settles in on the inside.
"Ty, in a lot of ways, is starting over," Kubiak said. "He's still a rookie again, but obviously he knows what we're doing. He had a cram course as a starter as a rookie early last year.
"The biggest thing for us right now, his flexibility helps us with our additions on our team. There is no doubt about that. But Ty is also in the same position where we've got to get him healthy."
Kubiak said that he might limit Sambrailo early in OTAs, perhaps foregoing work on the sleds.
"I know Ty is going to be ready for our offseason program. Is Ty going to be a full participant in OTAs? We've got some decisions to make there," Kubiak said.
- Jeff Heuerman: A big role is within his reach**
With the release of Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis hitting unrestricted free agency, Heuerman and Virgil Green are the top two candidates to receive extensive playing time at tight end.
Although Kubiak has kept the door open for a possible Daniels return -- "That's something John [Elway] and I have talked about," Kubiak said Tuesday -- Heuerman will factor "big time" into the Broncos' plans, having already completed his recovery from the torn anterior cruciate ligament that wiped out his rookie season.
"When Jeff came in [to rookie camp last May] he was very impressive," Kubiak said. "We feel like Jeff can be a total tight end. He's not [just] a receiver. We think he has the ability to do both [catch and block]."
If you're going to play in Kubiak's offense, you'll have to do both.
- Trevor Siemian: The time to show progress is now**
Quarterbacks need some time to mature and grow into their roles, particularly when they arrive from schemes that emphasize spread formations or don't involve relaying the play-call to teammates before the snap. Those are common in college football of the present day, and make quarterback evaluation a tricky task.
Siemian split time in Northwestern's spread attack, hindering NFL evaluations of him. But Broncos quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp liked what he saw, and Siemian's intriguing potential led the Broncos to use a seventh-round pick on him last year.
Now he's the longest-tenured quarterback on the Broncos' roster. Mark Sanchez has far more NFL experience, with seven seasons that included four as the New York Jets' full-time starter. But Siemian has worked in the scheme and is now 16 months removed from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in November 2014.
You don't want to rush a quarterback into service as a rookie. But in the second year, it's time to put some pressure on, Kubiak said, and find out what they have in Siemian.
"It's time to rush Trevor. After your rookie year, usually in my experience, if you're going to be a really good player in this league, you make your biggest jump from Year One to [Year] Two. It's just a natural jump," Kubiak said.
"I'm really excited to watch him come back in April and see how far he has come. I know how he left and I know the confidence that we have in him, but let's see because he's going to be much more in a leadership role than he was in the past."