ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The endorsement of Kyle Orton as his starting quarterback maybe wasn't as emphatic this time around.
From there, the competition is open as Brady Quinn and rookie Tim Tebow will have an opportunity to win the job.
Nothing is set in stone.
"We've got a guy who's going to go into camp as the starter, no question about it and he deserves it," McDaniels said. "If somebody comes in there and plays better than he does then that player will play."
About this point last spring, McDaniels, then in his first year as coach, eagerly anointed Orton as his starter, a move that was made to ease any tension, cease any speculation.
This time, though, McDaniels' affirmation seemed almost more tepid, a casual assumption rather than a proclamation.
"He is the starter, no doubt," McDaniels nonchalantly said.
On a rainy and cool practice Saturday, Orton received a bulk of the reps, an explicit indication he's the leader of the QB pack.
Asked if the competition was even close right now, McDaniels said, "It's clear, I think, that Kyle is definitely ahead. There's no question."
Orton isn't really giving the competition much thought, just going about his business. That's always been his approach.
"I'm really happy with the way I'm playing and just really have more confidence right now than I've ever had," he said.
Orton is coming off a season in which he threw for a career-high 3,802 yards and 21 touchdowns. But Denver limped home down the stretch and missed the playoffs despite a 6-0 start.
The Broncos brought in a cache of quarterbacks to challenge Orton, acquiring Quinn from Cleveland in March and then drafting Tebow, the two-time national champion and Heisman Trophy winner out of Florida.
Being the incumbent, though, and with a year of this intricate offense under his belt, Orton feels like he's a step ahead.
"It's just night and day," Orton said about his improvement since last season. "There's really just no comparison between myself and anyone else who's been in this offense for two years."
Precisely why he has a lock on the starting spot -- for the moment. Quinn or Tebow still have something to say about that.
"I don't know if it matters if it's close or not, but they're going to keep pushing (Orton) and working hard to try to improve their game so that they can make it close," McDaniels said. "I think we had three guys out there that practiced pretty well (Saturday)."
Not to mention a rookie receiver who's steadily finding his groove. Demaryius Thomas, a first-round pick from Georgia Tech, is working his way back into shape after being sidelined earlier this spring with a broken left foot.
"He's doing great," McDaniels said. "In terms of trying to get better at the things that he has struggled with or made an error with -- he has really worked hard to try to fix those."
Lately, Thomas has been spending time with former Broncos standout Rod Smith, who holds team marks for career receptions (849), yards receiving (11,389), touchdown catches (68) and touchdowns (71).
The tutoring is taking hold.
"He helped me out a lot," said Thomas, who tweaked his knee late in practice but said it wasn't anything serious. "Some of the stuff that he told me he did and would help me out and I tried it today and it did help."
"It was basically getting off the line and getting off press and using my body and using my shoulders -- something I never did before," he said.
Thomas wasn't the only receiver to dazzle Saturday, with Matthew Willis out of UCLA turning in quite a catch between defensive backs in a red-zone drill. Kenny McKinley wasn't to be outdone, leaping in the corner of the end zone to haul in a pass.
However, Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins refuted McKinley's catch, throwing his helmet as a makeshift flag and protesting that McKinley stepped out before the grab.
Still, it was a good day for the young wideouts as they build a rapport with Orton, Quinn and Tebow.
"I have a (high) comfort level with all these guys," Orton said. "All these guys run great routes."
Notes: LB Robert Ayers wasn't taking reps with the first team Saturday for what McDaniels called a "coaching decision." When pressed if Ayers, a first-round pick last season, was being punished, McDaniels responded, "I'm not going to talk about it." ... WRs Brandon Stokley and Brandon Lloyd were among the players who didn't practice Saturday.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press