ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The injury-riddled Denver Broncos are finally starting to look like themselves.
Correll Buckhalter returned to practice Tuesday for the first time since wrenching his back on the first day of training camp, and All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady will practice Wednesday for the first time since blowing out his left knee in a pickup basketball game in the spring.
"This isn't one of those things where he's going to go out there in a hat and kind of go through a walkthrough," Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. "He'll be out there, and we're going to go ahead and bring him along just like you would any player that's coming off of an injury where he's been away for a period of time."
McDaniels said "the goal is for him to be as ready to go for as long as he could be in the opener" at Jacksonville on Sept. 12.
Clady practiced footwork drills with strength coach Rich Tuten on the field a few hours before the Broncos played the Detroit Lions in a preseason game Saturday night. "Feeling a lot better," Clady said after the game, when he suggested he was on pace not to miss any regular-season games.
The Broncos will soon find out if that is a realistic goal. They desperately need their best offensive player to return to anchor a line that features two rookie starters and, not surprisingly, has had trouble boring holes for a bevy of backup running backs.
Joining Buckhalter at practice Tuesday were co-captains Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams, top draft pick Demaryius Thomas and right guard Chris Kuper, all of whom sat out against the Lions with injuries.
Buckhalter said he's about as healthy as he'll get after a decade of wear and tear in the NFL, but he isn't sure he'll be able to play Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers after missing more than three weeks while seeing medical specialists.
"It's a process," Buckhalter said. "I'm a little older now, so I don't know if I can just jump right in."
What about LenDale White? He's set to practice Wednesday for the first time since spraining an ankle Aug. 6.
"If Josh calls my number and tells me that's what I need to do, then I'm going to do whatever he wants me to do," White said.
"We have to get healthy, get back on the field and make some plays," White said. "Every offense that I've ever been a part of, if the run goes, the offense goes really well."
Notably absent Tuesday was rookie quarterback Tim Tebow, who has practiced only once since bruising his ribs in his pro debut Aug. 15. He was at the team's morning walkthrough but not its afternoon workout.
On Tuesday, the Broncos released nine-year veteran linebacker Akin Ayodele and moved Mario Haggan back inside to the "mike" position, where he played before Dumervil was hurt just two weeks after signing a $61.5 million contract. That means Denver's outside linebackers will be Jarvis Moss and Robert Ayers, neither of whom registered a single sack last year, when Dumervil led the league with 17.
Ayodele is one of only three linebackers to appear in all 16 regular-season games every year since 2002 and was having a solid camp. But with Haggan back inside alongside Williams, Ayodele dropped to second team, where special teams contributions are obligatory, helping the likes of Joe Mays and co-captain Wesley Woodyard.
McDaniels said he likes the way outside linebacker Baraka Atkins has played during the preseason, and the coach also wants a longer look at newly signed linebacker Jason Hunter, a fifth-year pro who had five sacks for the Lions last year as a 4-3 defensive end and two for the Green Bay Packers the previous year.
"At this time, he's our sack leader on the roster as it stands," McDaniels said. "He's played football. He's been productive. He's going to get his opportunity to stand up and play on the edge."
Ayodele, the coach said, is "a guy that we'd bring back here if the situation was right."
"I just don't believe in taking veteran players all the way to the final cutdown once you've made a final decision as a staff that this is the direction you're going to go," McDaniels said. "I don't think that's fair to them, and it certainly doesn't do us any good, either."
The Broncos also waived Tyler Polumbus, who started eight games last season in place of right tackle Ryan Harris. Polumbus was filling in for Clady at left tackle this summer but was replaced by D'Anthony Batiste during the preseason.
The Broncos also were awarded tight end Kory Sperry off waivers from the Miami Dolphins. Sperry, who is from Pueblo and who starred at Colorado State University, played in eight games for the Dolphins last season.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press