ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When organized team activities begin next week, the defense will begin taking shape. It will not look like the form it is expected to assume in September, not with cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and strong-side linebacker Von Miller still deep in rehabilitation from late-season torn ACLs.
But over the course of OTAs and training camp, the missing pieces will return -- some sooner than others. Miller, Harris and other 2013 starters like Kevin Vickerson, Rahim Moore and Derek Wolfe will draw the focus of onlookers, but the progress of safety Quinton Carter, linebacker Lerentee McCray and defensive end Quanterus Smith will also bear monitoring.
Carter, if healthy after two years battling knee injuries, is a potential game-changer for the safety corps.
Late in the 2011 season, Carter looked like a budding star. Then a rookie, he had beaten out fellow draft pick Rahim Moore for a starting spot. He worked at free safety and strong safety, depending on whether then-captain Brian Dawkins was healthy or not. He intercepted passes off Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the postseason, which rocketed him into a tie for fourth place all-time in Broncos playoff interceptions, behind only Darrien Gordon, Tyrone Braxton and Bob Swenson.
Off the field, he carried a professional, yet relaxed, demeanor. He fit well into the role of his expanding responsibility. In interviews, he distilled complex defensive concepts into explanations even a football novice could grasp. It was easy to see a bright future for him as a defensive linchpin.
But after he first hit the ground at the South Suburban Sports Dome during a training camp practice in 2012, Moore seized the opportunity that was created. He overcame an up-and-down rookie season; by 2013, he blossomed into a steadying presence before compartment syndrome torpedoed his campaign in Week 11.
Moore turned his role into an expansive one. That remains in the realm of possibility for Carter, whose potential was so great that the Broncos stuck with him through the last two lost seasons.
"There's a guy who, I know as an organization, we've been very patient with to allow him to heal and do the things he needed to do from addressing the knee and having it surgically prepared," said Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio.
If Carter pushes for a starting bid, that only enhances the secondary. The Broncos have a surplus of experience with free-agent pickup T.J. Ward, the return of Moore, the presence of third-year veteran Duke Ihenacho, who started most of the 2013 season at strong safety, and special-teams captain David Bruton, who started alongside Carter in the 2011 postseason.
So far, the early signs are positive.
"I'm not a trainer or a doctor, but I see him moving around in drills and he looks pretty good," Del Rio said. "I know he's excited to get back into the mix."
The same is true of Smith and McCray, whose rookie seasons were scuttled by injuries. Smith effectively had a redshirt year to complete recovery from a torn ACL he suffered late in the 2012 season at Western Kentucky. McCray was lost to an ankle injury incurred in the preseason finale against Arizona.
Unlike Carter, neither are proven. But both could factor into the Broncos' plans to fortify depth behind Miller and free-agent pickup DeMarcus Ware. McCray has the versatile skill set to mimic Miller's role as a strong-side linebacker in the base defense and a pass rusher in sub packages. Smith is a pure pass-rush defensive end who needs to rely on speed and quickness to succeed, with his 255-pound frame on a 6-foot-5 body.
"Those guys are both in the same kind of category. Both had their years cut short, both placed on IR, both have worked hard and have put themselves into position to compete for a spot and playing time," said Del Rio.
When the Broncos traded down on the last day of this year's draft on May 10 and still managed to land linebacker Lamin Barrow, it mimicked a similar move last year in which the Broncos were still able to nab Smith, who they targeted. Smith would not have been available in the fifth round of the 2013 draft had he not torn his ACL; his three-sack performance against Alabama's massive, high-draft-pick offensive tackles on Sept. 8, 2012 caught the attention of teams evaluating his tape.
"On tape coming out, we liked his athleticism, his length, his ability to bend and his ability to rush the quarterback," Del Rio said. "So those are things we're looking forward to seeing from him."
The biggest question now how long it takes for Smith to regain his ability to cut on the knee at game tempo. He will be 22 months removed from the injury by Week 1; that is typically enough time to return to pre-injury form.
"I know he's healthy," Del Rio said. "I see him moving around very well right now so we're looking forward to getting him some of that experience, some of the reps, and let him earn his way."
That's the case for McCray and Carter, as well. The trio could turn the Broncos' defensive depth, which was severely tested last year, into a strength.