ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — **This was a year where the Broncos took free-agent hits while pooling their cap and cash resources into keeping Pro Bowlers. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., linebacker Von Miller and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas currently consume a combined $25.58 million under the 2015 salary cap on a new contract, a fifth-year option and a franchise tender, respectively, and with existing commitments, the Broncos had to pick, choose and let some key players depart.
But the door to the locker room opens as often as it closes. And as the offseason quickly winds toward its conclusion, the Broncos have plenty of newcomers whose progress will help determine how the 2015 season fares.
None are more important than their second-round pick, although when the Broncos selected Colorado State offensive lineman Ty Sambrailo, they weren't counting on him having such an expansive role this soon.
1. TY SAMBRAILO
When Ryan Clady tore his anterior cruciate ligament, Sambrailo became not only the most crucial new Bronco, but one of the most vital components to the entire team, period.
Protecting the blind side of a 39-year-old Peyton Manning is a job description unlike any other in the NFL, and the Broncos might try to help him out early by keeping a tight end in to help more often than anticipated before Clady succumbed on the first day of OTAs. B
But Sambrailo will be on his own at times, and with pass rushers like Elvis Dumervil, Justin Houston, Everson Griffen and Khalil Mack lurking in the first five weeks, he will need every practice repetition that he has against DeMarcus Ware in order to be ready. Ware already sees the progress.
"The first day I went against him, you know, a rookie's going to be a rookie," Ware said. "But he's getting a really good comfort level in his play … For him to pick up the offense and know what's going on, but also be able to be effective and have the confidence that he's had, I really compliment him on that."
But that was without pads. The real test begins Aug. 2 when they go on.
- OWEN DANIELS**
Daniels' value is not just about his on-field play. However, that still matters, and last year saw him return to his normal productivity level after a broken leg sidelined him for much of the 2013 season. But he's also around to provide a bridge between the offensive schemes that the Broncos spent the offseason melding.
With nine previous seasons under Head Coach Gary Kubiak in Houston and Baltimore, Daniels spent OTAs answering questions from teammates while putting in extra work to hone his timing with quarterback Peyton Manning. Daniels might not put up the prodigious touchdown numbers that Julius Thomas amassed the last two seasons before jumping to the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency, but he can still be effective.
- GINO GRADKOWSKI**
Gradkowski has multiple tasks: stabilize the center position, use his experience with Kubiak and Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison to help others learn, and serve as a mentor to Matt Paradis as he works as a backup center with the hope of eventually becoming a long-term starter. This represents Gradkowski's second chance to be an NFL starter, and although he struggled at times in 2013 with Baltimore and was on the bench last year, many others have made a successful transition from being a one-year backup in this scheme to handling a starting role.
4. SHANE RAY
The presence of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware means that Ray will begin his pro journey as a backup and will stay there as long as the two Pro Bowl edge rushers are healthy. But he will allow both of them to stay fresh, and Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips will find ways to get all three of them on the field at the same time, forcing opposing blockers into pick-your-poison mode.
- DARIAN STEWART**
He appears to have built on the progress he made with Baltimore last year. With the Ravens, Stewart capitalized on good health aided by a new stretching regimen. He improved his tackling, played with more awareness and consistency and put the ups and downs of his Rams years in the past. Stewart appears more confident, and even though he's the only member of the secondary quintet who didn't go to the Pro Bowl in January, he fits right in.
6. JAMES CASEY
The Broncos don't have a true fullback, but Casey is the closest thing, working in a dual fullback/tight end role with the Texans before jumping to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency two years ago. Casey can line up all over the place, which could make him a key component of the Broncos' no-huddle attack, since he can go as far out as the slot, can come in to tight end, H-back and fullback, allowing them to change formations without altering personnel.
- ANTONIO SMITH AND VANCE WALKER**
Both are expected to provide relief at multiple spots along the defensive line, although Smith's status remains on hold pending a resolution of criminal allegations that came to light just before the start of OTAs, leading to his excused absence.
If everything is resolved, Smith would give the Broncos one of the league's best 3-4 interior pass rushers, and his experience in the scheme and with his coaches ensures that he would not need much practice time to get up to speed. Walker is perhaps the most versatile lineman on the roster, and will likely see time at all three spots up front.
- RYAN HARRIS AND SHELLEY SMITH**
You can call them the "insurance policies" if you want, but their experience working under Kubiak and Dennison and executing zone-blocking-based schemes means that they cannot be counted out, even though they are expected to begin training camp on the second team at right tackle and left guard, respectively, behind Chris Clark and Ben Garland. With Clark having a background at left tackle, the Broncos have at least one option at every offensive-line position with previous regular-season starting experience.
9. REGGIE WALKER
He helps fortify the depth behind rehabilitating inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, but the former San Diego linebacker's primary role will be on special teams, where he can step up as a leader alongside team captain David Bruton. Backup inside linebackers will prove crucial to the Broncos' special teams, and the Broncos could have a glut of them on the 53-man roster as a result. Among them, Walker can provide leadership and an example that special teams is not just a path to a roster, but it can keep you in the NFL for years.
- KARL SCHMITZ**
Most teams have kicking or punting prospects on their 90-man roster at this point in the year, so having a rookie like Schmitz is not unusual — although his backstory and age (28) are, since he has not kicked in a game since 2008. Schmitz's prospects might depend as much on others as himself.
Schmitz can kick off and punt, but isn't handling placekicks. Brandon McManus is in the mix on placekicks and kickoffs, but hasn't punted competitively since he played at Temple. Incumbent punter Britton Colquitt can punt, but hasn't kicked off as a pro, and placekicker Connor Barth is among the league's most accurate at that craft, but struggled in his return to kickoff work for one game last year, leading the Broncos to promote McManus back from the practice squad. From that group, coordinator Joe DeCamillis wants to find two kicking specialists, and not carry three, as the team did late last year.
The Broncos donned helmets again to open the last phase of OTAs and make their final impressions before training camp in July.