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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's a little hard to believe now, but 12 months ago, there seemed to be as many questions about Peyton Manning as there are players in an offensive huddle. How strong will his arm be after multiple neck surgeries? How well will he mesh with his new receivers? Will he be able to turn the promise of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker into actual production? Is he one hit away from his career being in peril?
The questions went on, and lingered for a while. But by the time the Broncos concluded their best season since 2005, Manning had answered them all. His laser-precise focus is the same now as it was last year, but after a season that was statistically his best in eight years, the noise about his prospects has largely been reduced to the quiet hum of a machine metronomically doing its work.
"I feel better," he said during minicamp. "I've certainly made strides when you talk about in comparison to this time in 2012. I feel better, I've made some improvements. I still have some improvements that I want to make. I think every player would probably tell you that and they have things that they want to improve on."
Manning, the Broncos' future Hall of Famer who has amassed one of the most decorated careers in the sport -- is talking about improvements. Usually players at his age find retirement and legacy to be the primary concerns; Manning, freed from the questions over whether he could be the same quarterback after his surgeries, is obsessed with hitting a new apex -- and, in doing so, becoming the first quarterback to start and win Super Bowls with two different teams.
Having a year of experience with Thomas and Decker will help. So will the addition of Wes Welker as a slot receiver. But perhaps the most crucial factor of all is where he stands his his rehabilitation -- which continued even as he played last season.
"I just feel like after a year of the strength training with (Strength and Conditioning Coach) Luke (Richesson) and the work with (Head Athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos), I certainly do feel better," Manning said. "It's a better feeling than it was last year."
Something else feels better for the entire team's hopes: the progress of Manning's insurance policy, 2012 second-round pick Brock Osweiler. Although Osweiler was the backup behind Manning for every game last year, the Broncos kept Caleb Hanie around in case Manning missed multiple starts, since Hanie had the starting experience that Osweiler lacked.
But Hanie was cut in March, having never suited up in the regular season. Osweiler was the only backup quarterback in uniform for the playoff game against Baltimore, a sign of the team's growing faith in the 22-year-old quarterback to carry its season in case Manning was injured.
The name on the back of Osweiler's jersey remains the same from last year. Everything else has changed.
There's his delivery, which is now a more traditional, efficient over-the-top motion than the one he displayed last year, where his elbow would often drop and lead to a motion that at times was nearly a sidearm. The streamlined motion helps him deliver the football more quickly, although it remains a work in progress.
"I'm nowhere near perfect as far as my mechanics," he said. "I'm certainly not thinking about them as much as I was last year. But there's always room for improvement, and every day I'm going him and breaking down … and watching every throw that I make and I'm just trying to stay consistent with my motion and just keep the coaches happy."
There's his study habits -- as he admits, he learned how to properly prepare from watching Manning.
"I see how he studies, how he comes in with such a professional mindset that he doesn't waste a minute in the building, he doesn't waste a minute in the workday," Osweiler said. "That's something I'll definitely try to carry over to my game."
And because of his study, his understanding of the offense has changed. The coaches threw the entire scheme at him last year, which forced him to play catch-up. Last summer, he was hesitant and often struggled to set the offense before the snap. A year later, he ran an up-tempo offense smoothly, making checks and adjustments before the snap as though he'd been doing so for a decade.
"I was told by somebody that a lot of rookie quarterbacks come in, and you kind of bring them along at an elementary and junior-high level and you work your way up. This person told me, 'Hey, you're jumping straight to Ph.D. So you've got to figure it out,'" Osweiler said. "And that's what I've done. And it comes down to studying. There's a lot of work you've got to do off the field."
Take all that and even add a change in jersey number from 6 to 17, and you've got a quarterback who has polished out plenty of rough edges. Preseason play will show the degree of his progress, but if the Broncos need Osweiler to play multiple games in 2013, he should be ready to at least maintain their status as a contender.
At some point in 2013, Osweiler could become the most important player on the roster. But for now, that's Manning, and even after 16 years, he's far from done.
THE QUARTERBACKS: THE BASICS
Peyton Manning: Central to Manning's success is having multiple targets that he trusts, which frees him from locking onto one receiver and forces the defense to account for everyone who's running a route. That's why Welker's arrival was so significant, and why Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen are still vital at tight end. Together they helped the Broncos get more receiving production from the position than they had since Shannon Sharpe's playing days. When Manning can look in every direction and find a reliable target, he's nearly impossible to contain effectively.
Brock Osweiler: One impressive facet of Osweiler's development is the realistic self-awareness that he shows. This was apparent when he discussed what he'd learned from Manning during a June interview. "I watch everything he does," Osweiler said, but he admitted that not everything Manning did would be ideal for him. "As an individual, you just have to sit back and weed out the things that could definitely improve your game or improve yourself as a professional, as a person, and then maybe understand that some things aren't for you. That's just a process that you learn by trial and error," he said. Osweiler wasn't drafted to be the next Manning. He was drafted to be Osweiler. If he incorporates the work ethic and study habits of Manning while staying true to his own skill set and personality, the Broncos have a chance for a smooth transition when the time comes.
Zac Dysert: Just because the Broncos have a quarterback of the present and a starter of the future doesn't mean they don't need to keep drafting quarterbacks. Barring a massive wave of injuries, Dysert will be afforded the chance to develop deliberately and quietly, and could at least develop into Osweiler's long-term backup, if not push for the starting job in the years to come. During OTAs and minicamp, Dysert looked exactly as you'd expect a rookie in a complicated offense; he made some decent reads and throws, but looked at times as though the pro game was too fast. It looked that way for Osweiler last year, and 12 months later, he's dramatically different. It will be fascinating to see where Dysert is at this time in 2014.
Ryan Katz: The connection that helped steer him to the Broncos was longtime pro quarterback Jeff Garcia, who last played for the Houston Texans in 2011 and played 18 seasons in three different leagues, including 12 in the NFL. Garcia tutored Katz in the months leading up to the draft, and spoke highly of new quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, who joined the Broncos this winter. Knapp worked with Garcia during his best years with the 49ers. "He had that connection," Katz said. "I knew that they (the Broncos) were a little interested."