DENVER -- Peyton Manning is a creature of habit -- and good habits, repeated often, can be your best friends.
One such habit during training camp is to spend time signing autographs before or after practice. Manning signs autographs, one after another, to the extent where you would expect his hand to cramp under the repetitive strain.
It's his way of saying, "Thank you." For the lucky fans that receive his signature, it's a memento to last forever. He gives them something -- but they give him something, too.
"When you get into that third or fourth padded practice and it's kind of the dog days of training camp, those fans lift you up," Manning said Thursday. "I've really enjoyed the fan interaction in the two training camps I've had here."
That enjoyment is why Manning was the first Bronco out of the southwest tunnel Sunday morning. Nearly a half hour before the walk-through period of practice, and just less than an hour before the Broncos got stretched out, Manning walked up to the wall between the stands and the field and signed autographs, one after another, until he had to go to work.
There were 21,933 fans at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday, ready to embrace their team, a metaphorical hug delayed by construction at Dove Valley. It wasn't the same as sitting on a grassy berm, a pleasure that will be restored -- and available to nearly twice as many fans -- next summer.
But Manning's early trip onto the field -- and his teammates' lengthy stay after practice to keep signing -- was the best way to try to make up for conditions that, for one year, make camp not what everyone wants it to be. Wednesday and Saturday, the Broncos will do the same thing at the stadium, and there'll be plenty of autographs from players on those days, as well.
But before and after the signing sessions is when the work happens. Here's what caught my eye from Sunday's practice:
- Sylvester Williams plays like you'd expect from a first-round defensive tackle.
Sylvester Williams' speed is on display. Got through the line and chased Ball outside, forcing him between the sideline and Lerentee McCray. — Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) July 27, 2014
What is impressive is his ability to disrupt the run and pass with equal effect. For the second time in three days, he got his hands on a Manning pass, although he was not able to intercept it this time and and had to settle for a deflection. Pressure from Derek Wolfe made the play possible; he beat Chris Clark around the right side, leading to a throw that ended up within Williams' reach.
Williams' pass-rush abilities pushed him into the first round. But his work against the run can be equally effective, as he showed late in practice when he burst through the line of scrimmage and pursued Montee Ball, guiding him to the sideline, where Lerentee McCray was waiting.
Williams has been solid all offseason. Since the pads went on, he's been much better than that.
- On the pre-practice Broncos TV show that ran on the scoreboards above the seating bowl (and right here on DenverBroncos.com), Chris Hall and I talked about wide receiver Andre "Bubba" Caldwell. This is the team where his value is highest, because it's enhanced by his experience in the system and with Manning. Their timing and Caldwell's ability to adjust to Manning's throws is sharper now than before.
One play I liked today: Bubba Caldwell's adjustment to the flight of a Manning deep pass & his subsequent wresting of the ball from Talib. — Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) July 27, 2014
This was evident on the deep connection the two made. With Aqib Talib covering Caldwell deep up the right side, Manning's pass sailed 45 yards through the air. The pass hung up a bit. But Caldwell adjusted to give himself a chance at the ball against Talib, who was underneath Caldwell. Then Caldwell wrested the football away from the free-agent pickup for a 39-yard gain.
Caldwell will be needed at some point this year, perhaps extensively, if any of the starting trio misses multiple games. He kept the offense humming after Wes Welker suffered a second concussion last December.
- Ball showed some burst up the middle, exploding through a hole in the 9-on-7 period and bouncing off potential tacklers. But his awareness of the blitz and ability to identify it continues to improve. It was evident late in practice, when safety T.J. Ward sprinted into the backfield. Ball got position and held him off long enough for Manning to get the football away.
Ronnie Hillman had a nice day -- and a busy one. He showed some burst in the 9-on-7 period and looked explosive in brief work on kickoff returns.
Check out photos from the Broncos' first practice at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
- For the second consecutive day, linebacker Shaquil Barrett was quick off the edge. Barrett burst past Paul Cornick late in practice for what would have been a sack -- with the potential for a strip and fumble -- of Brock Osweiler.
As Von Miller completes his recovery from a torn ACL, the other strong-side linebackers have moved up a line. Barrett and Lerentee McCray have capitalized. McCray has consistently mounted pressure on the quarterback, and on Sunday he burst up the middle for a sack of Peyton Manning inside the defense's 5-yard-line.
At weakside linebacker, Corey Nelson has also shown explosion and versatility. He can keep pace with running backs sprinting up the sideline, and can get pressure on the quarterback when asked, as he did when he forced Osweiler out of the pocket, where Nate Irving was waiting. In the middle, Lamin Barrow showed flashes of brilliance in the 9-on-7 period, effectively closing holes.
- Barring a Niagara Falls-like cascade of injuries, none of the wide receivers at the bottom of the depth chart will factor substantially in the offense during the 2014 season. But the position is one of the Broncos' deepest, and the competition for a spot at the bottom of the depth chart or on the practice squad is intense, and could lead to one of the team's most difficult choices on Labor Day weekend.
In this competition, Sunday's standouts were Greg Hardin and Isaiah Burse.
At the beginning of Sunday's practice, Hardin got open on a go route up the left sideline past Kayvon Webster and Rahim Moore, lunged and hauled in a 45-yard bomb from Osweiler. Hardin later caught a touchdown in the red zone from Dysert.
At the end of the day's work, Burse took advantage of apparent miscommunication in the secondary to get open on a deep post route, then used his elusiveness to take Dysert's pass the remaining 15 yards for a touchdown. Burse's routes are more precise, and his cuts sharper, than they were during organized team activities. And he showed off his straight-line acceleration Saturday on punt returns.