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Training Camp Preview: Quarterbacks

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As long as Peyton Manning is upright and effective, the team he leads will be a contender.

That sentence has been true for nearly a dozen years, ever since the Indianapolis Colts limited their early-2000's absence from the postseason to one year, returning to the playoffs in 2002. In the last 11 full seasons Manning has played, his team has never failed to win at least 10 games, has made the postseason without fail, has won its division nine times and made the Super Bowl on three occasions, winning one.

And after last year, he has the league's most treasured single-season passing standards on his ledger. But it didn't end in a world championship, and now Manning and the Broncos start training camp at the base of the mountain, with the same distance and altitude to climb that 31 other clubs face.

"You just don't go out and go a step further because you went that far last year," Manning said in June.

The Broncos did finish the 2013 season two steps ahead of 2012. There were myriad reasons for that advancement, and most of them revolved around the offense, which picked up a defense wrecked by injuries and suspension and allowed the Broncos to win 13 games in spite of allowing at least 20 points 12 times -- the second-most in franchise history.

Manning's growth with his receivers was a major reason why. The quarterback and his targets were in sync. Collectively, they had the confidence to turn narrow gaps into big plays, a product of the mutual trust and precise timing that came with a second year together.

"The more you know where a receiver's going to be, the more accurate you are," said Manning, "and I think the more velocity you can have on a pass if you know where he's going."

And that velocity is enhanced by Manning's continued recovery from the multiple neck surgeries of 2011. Demaryius Thomas, the only first-team wide receiver left from Manning's first Broncos season in 2012, noticed during organized team activities that his footballs had more zip than in 2013, when they had more than the previous season.

"Well, I think (Manning) has picked up where he left off last year," Thomas said during OTAs, noting that he dropped one pass that arrived "quicker than usual."

"So I feel like he's getting stronger, and stronger still. He's just amazed me with some of the things that you see every day on the field."

That is another piece of data that Manning's supercomputer mind can incorporate.            

"I like having that feedback," he said. "I can learn a lot off of that. I do the same thing for receivers. I tell receivers, 'Wow, you're really coming out of the stance, I'm having to throw the ball a lot sooner to keep you from outrunning.'"

That goes with the Manning-Thomas partnership being in its third year. What may help determine whether the passing offense can match or surpass its 2013 efficiency is where the timing settles between himself and Emmanuel Sanders.

"You can't hold the ball very long when he is running a route," said Manning, who describes Sanders as a "really nice addition" who is "eager to learn."

Although the timing gets better as the years pass, Manning's results with new receivers the last two years show just how quickly effective collaborations are established. Given Sanders' diligence, this pattern of immediate production should continue.

But what if …

Okay, those last two words are the ones no one connected with the Broncos  -- from ownership to the displaced fan watching on the opposite side of the planet -- want to hear. But the Broncos have enough talent on the roster to where an injury at quarterback -- even to a certain Hall of Famer -- should not cause a collapse, with enough pieces to keep the club in contention. 

At this point, Brock Osweiler has the pieces around him and the experience in the offense to cushion the bumps of a potential transition. At a minimum, he doesn't have the excuses other young quarterbacks could have. Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker would be among his targets. Two-fifths of the starting offensive line were first-team All-Pro selections in the last two seasons (left tackle Ryan Clady and right guard Louis Vasquez).

Players like these are so effective that they enable a quarterback to focus on his task. That would help Osweiler, who noted last month that a significant step he took this year involved his ability to "mentally delete" possible decisions before the snap.

That happened "by understanding what the coverage is, what our play is designed to do," Osweiler said. "I think that's something that kind of comes with just being in the offense for two full years now, going on three. With deleting decisions pre-snap, and having a better understanding mentally of the game, I'm able to play faster and to my true ability."

This reduces "paralysis by analysis," and by the end of OTAs, Osweiler was playing with more consistency, making better decisions, and passing more accurately than at any point in his NFL career to date.

"You look in the past, and maybe I was out there thinking a little bit, and I wasn't sure exactly what to do," he said. "Where now, I'm comfortable in the offense, I understand what we're trying to get accomplished, and I'm just able to play football."

When Osweiler plays, no one knows. He remains the future of the position -- one that the Broncos hope doesn't arrive for a while, considering how much quality Manning appears to have left in his right arm and a brain that is sharper than ever.


Peyton Manning: In his 16th season and with a nearly unparalleled collection of honors, he's still searching for a new edge, still excited about what's around the next bend -- and still dedicated to every last detail. "I think as soon as you say,  'Well, hey, I don't have to do that this year, I'll just skip that part,' that is cheating yourself, that is cheating the team and it means that you're probably not going to be as good a quarterback as you need to be," he said.

Brock Osweiler: He acknowledges that this preseason will be crucial in his development. Most early-round quarterbacks have already started at least once by this point, and his summer work represents the bulk of the game-time snaps with which his full-speed growth can be evaluated. One of his goals will carry over from OTAs: "not making the same mistake twice."

Zac Dysert: The last preseason game of 2013 was the first measuring stick for the 2013 seventh-round pick. He quickly adapted to a pass rush, but also had some scattershot throws toward the end of his performance. He looked more consistent during OTAs and, at the minimum, helps give Osweiler competition for the No. 2 job.

Bryn Renner: Had there been an eighth round of the draft -- which last existed 20 years ago -- Renner might not have fallen into the Broncos' satchel of undrafted rookies. His opportunities will be scarce compared to the returning quarterbacks, and he will have to maximize them to have a shot at either beating out Dysert or sticking on the practice squad.

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