ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – This week we talk Montee Ball getting tutored by Peyton Manning, the quarterback's relationship with Wes Welker, the 2013 rookies' impact and when the Broncos next head to Pittsburgh.
Thanks for this week's contributions. As always, you can tweet your questions directly to me on Twitter using the hashtag #GrayMatter. The mailbags are posted every Friday.
Let's get to the questions.
A little bit of both. There's always a learning curve for rookies entering the NFL, but as Eric Decker pointed out, it's even bigger when Peyton Manning is your quarterback. "You want to make sure you're perfect because that guy is a perfectionist," the wide receiver said. So Manning has been taking a hands-on approach to make sure the club's rookies are getting up to speed as quickly as possible. He's also been taking on that leadership role with other players on the roster, not just rookies -- something he's done for his entire Hall-of-Fame career.
At the same time, Manning acknowledged that he doesn't expect Head Coach John Fox to bring Montee Ball along slowly -- the running back was taken in the second round, which usually means production is expected early. "We are going to put him in there and make him a contributor this year," Manning said. Ball has taken that to heart, and said he's been asking Manning questions as often as he can so that he's ready when his number is called. It seems to be working, because the rookie said his jitters are already gone.
Which brings us to our next question.
The first name that comes to mind is Ball. There's obviously competition there in a deep running back stable, including last year's third-round pick, Ronnie Hillman. But Ball was one of the most productive running backs in college history -- he racked up 5,140 rushing yards and 77 rushing touchdowns along with six receiving scores in his career -- and taking him so high in the draft shows that the Broncos anticipate big-time production from the back in the NFL, and earlier rather than later. His ability to pick up the offense quickly -- which Manning is helping him with -- and pass block for Manning will dictate whether he takes his opportunity all the way to a starting role as a rookie.
First-round pick Sylvester Williams is probably the only other rookie that has a legitimate chance of starting from day one. Suddenly the Broncos have good depth at defensive tackle, including Kevin Vickerson and newcomer Terrance Knighton, the two best bets to take the two starting roles at the moment. Mitch Unrein will also be a contributor in what Vickerson called "a good, solid, four-man rotation." But Williams has already shown flashes in OTAs, impressing coaches and teammates with his work ethic. Derek Wolfe said he's learning quickly and Vickerson said when the rookie uses his hands, he's already shown an ability to dominate. Even if he doesn't technically start, expect Williams to play a big role.
In a team without many holes, it's probably a good thing that not many rookies step in and start right away. While many of the rookies will see the field in 2013, don't expect the group to rack up a ton of starts.
As with every player, Webster's role is up to him. Clearly the team thinks highly of him, taking him in the third round of the draft. But he's part of perhaps the most loaded position on the Broncos' roster -- the defensive secondary. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said he's already been impressed with Webster's speed and how hard he's been willing to work, and Champ Bailey said that he and the rookie have had a few one-on-one sessions to make sure he picks up the defense as quickly as possible. As a rookie, I expect Webster's main contributions to come on special teams, where he can use his speed to impact that phase of the game. "He knows he is going to have to fight his way to get on the field, but when it comes down to it, he is going to do whatever it takes," Bailey said this week. "I love that about him."
Lori Mahaffey asked on Facebook: How are Wes Welker and Peyton working together?
Welker's currently learning, as Coach Fox put it, a new language. He's learning a new system and the nuances of playing in the Broncos' offense alongside Manning. The quarterback said he's been very vocal in meetings every time Welker has a question, wanting to "get it all out in the open" in terms of what he's looking for on every play and what he wants the receiver to look for. The two started working on their timing as soon as early April, when Manning, Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker worked out together at Duke University, and the chemistry has only built sense then. Manning compared Welker's ability to read defenses to Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, who Manning played with for one year in Indianapolis, so it shouldn't take long for the two to be completely on the same page. That process has already begun -- Jacob Tamme said Welker has "done great so far. He does what you'd expect him to do, getting out there and making guys miss and getting open."
Donnie Miller III asked on Facebook: Is there ever going to be a game played in Pittsburgh? I'm from Pennsylvania and would love nothing more than driving to Heinz Field and seeing the Broncos pound the Steelers.
Well, it's hard to look too far in the future with regards to the scheduling formula. But I'll give it a shot.
The formula for each team's 16-game schedule includes: home and away games against its three division opponents (6 games), the four teams from another division within its conference on a rotating three-year cycle (4 games), the four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle (4 games) and two games against conference opponents based on the prior year's standings (2 games).
Looking at the current schedule rotation, the Broncos will play in Pittsburgh the next time the AFC West and AFC North square off -- tentatively the 2015 campaign. The two divisions matched up last year, so Denver plays the AFC South this season, the AFC East in 2014 and, if the formula holds true, back to the AFC North in 2015. Since Pittsburgh came to Denver last year, the Broncos would head to Heinz Field in 2015.
Whether they play before that depends on how the two teams fare in their respective divisions. If the Broncos and Steelers both finish in the same spot in their respective divisions this year, they'll play next year. That's a big reason why the Broncos and New England Patriots have played so often recently -- they've both been winning their divisions.