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John Elway's design benefiting Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» Marc Trestman's biggest challenge in Chicago.
» What does the future hold for Percy Harvin?
» An inside look at the Seahawks' locker room drama.
And much more, beginning with John Elway's grand plan coming to fruition in Denver. ...

The Denver Broncos appreciate everything they've gotten from Peyton Manning over the last three years.

That said, John Elway and Co. have done all they can in the 32 months since signing the icon to build a team capable of winning without him.

Confused? Don't be. It's exactly what Elway himself had at the end of his illustrious career, and the Broncos executive has two rings to show for that.

"We're getting to the point where I was at the end of my career, where we were a good football team -- a very good football team," Elway said from his office on Wednesday. "We're fortunate to have Peyton, but now we're starting to get everyone to take responsibility and say, 'I have to play well for us to win.' The defense is creating their own identity, realizing they can play great. Everyone's not relying on Peyton anymore. They're relying on themselves."

With another impressive primetime performance in the books, Denver will ride into New England at 6-1 with a chance to use Brady-Manning XVI to get a major leg up in the race for home field, an advantage that came up aces last January with the Broncos vanquishing Bill Belichick's crew in pristine conditions.

But 6-1 going into Foxborough this year feels a lot different than 9-1 heading out there felt last year.

And part of that is the result of the immediate aftermath of the 43-8 Seattle smackdown that Denver took in Super Bowl XLVIII. "I still remember flying home," Elway said, "and trying to figure out what steps we should take to make us better. ... We weren't where we needed to be."

It's easy to forget that during the Broncos' two championship seasons, Elway only eclipsed 300 yards in three games (one in 1997, two in 1998), before throwing for 336 on the final night of his career.

Conversely, Manning threw for 300 yards in 12 of 16 regular-season starts last year on his way to single-season records for passing yards and touchdowns. Worth mentioning here, too, that his counterpart in New Jersey last February, Russell Wilson, only needed 206 yards to draw even with Manning in the ring department, which is a little like Elway only throwing for 123 in Super Bowl XXXII.

"You get to fall into that same thing like everyone else, where I'd just handle my responsibility as the quarterback," Elway said. "You fall into that role. If I do my job, whether it's throwing for 150 or 350, we'd be fine, because we had Terrell Davis to run the ball, and a defense. When you have that balance, it becomes a matter of playing a role and managing the offense."

So how is Elway getting there with Manning?

The first, and most important step, is drafting well, which has put core players on the Denver roster (Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Von Miller) at reasonable rates. That frees up the front office to be aggressive in free agency, and the Broncos were in landing DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Emmanuel Sanders and T.J. Ward this past March.

The second part, which ties into the first, is building depth. The Broncos now have it in spades at corner, with Bradley Roby in reserve; on the D-line, with former fifth-rounder Malik Jackson and trash-heap pickup Marvin Austin; and at linebacker, where Brandon Marshall (not that one) has been a godsend in Danny Trevathan's stead. All of this has helped prevent the team from reverting to simply leaning on Manning.

Plus, it's not like they were starting from zero. The Broncos were 13-3 in 2012, Manning's debut year in Denver. And yet, Elway says, "I think we're a lot better now."

It's not perfect. There's still, admittedly, work to do on the offensive line. The run game struggled in September, but it has steadily improved over the last three weeks behind Ronnie Hillman (and it certainly won't hurt getting Montee Ball back from injury).

But all in all, this is pretty much what the old quarterback envisioned for his new quarterback three summers ago, when he explained to me on a postcard Denver day that he wanted to give Manning what he had, and that two more rings would make No. 18 the greatest ever.

And while Elway says Manning is "far from done," the way he sees it, the Denver approach is giving the QB the absolute best chance to win in the twilight of his career, while simultaneously laying the foundation for life after him.

"I wanna be 16-0 every year -- obviously, we want to keep winning," Elway explained. "I'm gonna wanna win just as much when he walks out the door. We're continuing to work at that, it's not like we'll relax for three years after he leaves. We're gonna keep working at it, to win year in and year out, and our goal is, when he decides to walk, to make it seamless."

Elway wasn't done, then saying, "I don't look at it as win now. I look at it as win from now on. As long as we keep stacking good drafts, the cap's gonna keep going up, and we can keep complementing with free agents that fit. ... We've had the flexibility because of the young guys we've had. We're running into it now, but that's where you wanna be -- you have good players, and you have to make decisions. That only happens when you have talent, and this offseason, we'll have some tough decisions to make."

Really, the plan's pretty simple. Manning gets a team that's capable of winning without him, which is ideal for a quarterback. And that makes the Broncos sustainable past the outer reaches of his career.

Of course, it's not that easy to actually pull off. But as Elway puts it, "We're getting there."

Four downs

1) Marc Trestman's challenge: No one ever questioned Marc Trestman's ability to put together an offense, call plays, or teach players what to do behind the lines. The problem for the Bears head coach, in waiting for his NFL shot and even going to Canada first to get it, has always been one of perception: Can this football intellectual command a locker room? This week has provided him with a heck of a litmus test, as Brandon Marshall's locker room outburst Sunday put his team in the crosshairs nationally, and the story wound up including another core player (Jay Cutler) with a checkered past. I spoke with one executive who has worked with Trestman in the past and swears by him, saying he cares for his players, and uses a "fatherly" touch to reach them in a very logical way. But others harbor doubts. One long-time personnel man said that he thinks Trestman "is not tough enough. ... They need to know that you will fight for you." And an NFC exec said he'd worry about "a lack of buy-in from the players." For their part, the guys I talked to in the Chicago locker room stood behind Trestman. Matt Forte was particularly forceful, saying, "He'll do research, and come up with points that make a lot of sense, and put them up during team meetings. There's always something for the situation we're in." This week's point from Trestman to the Bears: Block Out The Noise.

2) The Ravens' renaissance: Baltimore is seventh in the NFL in total offense, and seventh in rush offense. Sans their $35 million tailback, the Ravens are on pace to rush for nearly 700 more yards than they did last year, and are averaging 1.4 yards more per carry. So what gives? Part of it is the addition of Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator, a move that even Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh thought would be hard to pull off in the days leading up to his hire. But the truth is, it's deeper than just one guy. The last couple years, line coach Juan Castillo was working with coordinator Jim Caldwell, and while both were accomplished, they had different football backgrounds. Castillo was held over to work with Kubiak, who shares his West Coast roots. And other assistants, like QB coach Rick Dennison, were part of the makeover, ensuring that the staff on that side would be working in synergy. So far, so good. So good, in fact, that the Ravens were able to make it through last week with fifth-round rookie John Urschel and undrafted free agent James Hurst manning the left guard and left tackle spots, respectively. And second-year pro/first-year starter Ricky Wagner (himself a former fifth-rounder) has established himself at the right tackle spot. That group should get better. And a defense with some nice young pieces should, too. Credit Harbaugh for getting the team through a tumultuous September, and emerging as the best-looking group in the AFC North.

3) Putting the "D" back in Detroit: The Lions went into Week 7 as the league's top-ranked defense, and they came out of it the same. In between, there was one of those fourth-quarter sequences that a unit can hang its hat on. First, they mitigated damage, forcing a field goal after a Matthew Stafford pick, keeping the deficit within two possessions at 23-10. Then, after Golden Tate's 73-yard touchdown, and with under four minutes left, Detroit needed a stop. The defense got more than that. The Lions fought past an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty that gave the Saints a first down, forced New Orleans into a third-and-9, and Glover Quin did the rest, picking off Drew Brees to put Stafford and the offense in position for the go-ahead score. After that, the group battled past another penalty that negated a fourth-down stop, and got the Saints to go four-and-out on the next set of downs. James Ihedigbo, who came over from Baltimore with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, explains the group's rise this way: "It's selflessness, playing true team defense, not looking out there and saying, 'Man, I'm just gonna get stats for myself.' It's doing your job in the defense, making plays and playing for each other. It's a brotherhood. I'll put it like this: If you're not running 100 miles an hour to the ball, and we're watching tape as a defense, you'll stick out like a sore thumb. No one wants to be that guy." If the defense can keep this up, and Calvin Johnson and the tight ends can get themselves healthy, Detroit figures to be in a dogfight with Green Bay in December for the division title.

4) Trade deadline looming: Looking at the bigger early-season trades over the last five years can be instructive, in showing that extenuating circumstances are almost always involved. There are the malcontents (Randy Moss in 2010, Carson Palmer and Brandon Lloyd in 2011), and those spurred by a regime change (Aqib Talib in 2012, Trent Richardson in 2013), and sometimes the biggest deals (Moss, Richardson) are done well before the deadline. So what to expect this time around? Approaching Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET deadline, we've already heard names tossed around because a few calls were made. Vincent Jackson is one, simply because, I'm told, a couple teams went fishing in Tampa Bay's pond. Chances are very few will actually materialize. But one necessary condition is cap space. With that in mind, it's worth mentioning that 15 of the NFL's 32 teams have less than $5 million in cap space. Conversely, according to the NFL cap report that teams get daily, there are six teams with more than $10 million in room: the Jaguars ($22.84 million), Browns ($19.06 million), Eagles ($16.31 million), Jets ($12.82 million), Titans ($11.86 million) and Patriots ($10.54 million).

Three checkdowns

1) The dynamic between Percy Harvin and his new QB, Geno Smith, will certainly garner scrutiny, and the money involved is a significant factor. Harvin is down for $10.5 million for next year, but that's not guaranteed. Thus, he'll either earn it by proving himself to the Jets or have to go make it up on the market. And so, if Harvin doesn't feel like the Jets are getting the most out of him ...

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2) Zach Mettenberger has had some issues in the past, but he was as set to transition to the pros as any quarterback coming out of college in 2014, having worked in a pro-style attack at LSU. And it's not just that -- Mettenberger and LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron took time out last year to look at NFL defenses, to prep him for the next step. Clearly, the Titans see him as ready for it, with the rookie ticketed to start his first pro game on Sunday.

3) Ray Rice's grievance against the Ravens and his NFL appeal will center on the same double-jeopardy argument. Clubs are permitted to terminate players for conduct detrimental but can't arbitrarily change course based on public pressure. So Rice's camp will make the argument that the team knew about the conduct for months, and only acted after the public got a fuller view of it.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess (at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): It's not often that evaluators can't decide whether a player is a wide receiver or a tight end, but that's the case here. One AFC college director told me Funchess is strictly a wideout. Another veteran exec said he sees him purely as a move tight end. Meanwhile, an AFC GM said he could be either. One thing you can say for certain about Funchess, at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, is that this "problem" is a good one for him. The exec compared him to Julius Thomas. The GM said he sees him in a Jimmy Graham-type role: "He's very talented, a legit first-rounder." And the Michigan State tape figures to be the first one a lot of scouts pop in, with Funchess likely to see a lot of Spartan standout Trae Waynes. Funchess isn't the only receiver to watch in this one, either. State's big outside target, Tony Lippett, has improved big-time this year, and the college director said he could see him sneaking into the second round.

2) Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon (at Tennessee, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2): The Vols' defense has played well through seven games, and star linebacker A.J. Johnson gives reason to put Yeldon on the marquee this week. The 'Bama back, of course, has been on everyone's radar for a long time. "He's got good size, good hands, outstanding feet, and outstanding vision and run instincts," a second AFC college director said. "Ball-security issues in the past, but he's gotten better there. ... He'll be a better pro than a college player, because he is used in a rotation, plus he's avoided the high carries that some college backs have accumulated." Yeldon has an upright style, which will lead to durability questions. One comp I got on him was Darren McFadden, while another evaluator shot that down (saying McFadden is considerably faster) and gave me DeAngelo Williams. "He's better than he gets credit for," an AFC area scout said. "He's a good back, good vision, balanced runner, and better burst than overall speed." Todd Gurley is the No. 1 back looking forward to the 2015 draft. The consensus seems to be Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Yeldon will fight it out for No. 2.

Extra point

Coming into the season, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell seemed to have gargantuan things ahead -- a monster contract for the former, and a potential head-coaching shot for the latter.

Now, those two have more immediate goals to tend to -- specifically, winning some people back over at work.

You can start with Wilson, whose celebrity exploded in the offseason. Fair or not, quarterbacks are seen as management by other guys in the locker room to begin with, and when a player at that position becomes a star, it's that much tougher to remain relatable to teammates. Wilson doesn't go out and party with the guys; he's a first-in, last-out type at the office, and he's fostered strong relationships with his coaches.

This challenge isn't exactly a foreign one in the NFL. It's common that quarterbacks have to learn to straddle the line between being The One and just one of the guys.

But some of Wilson's teammates see him as the coaches' guy, and believe he hasn't done enough of late to ingratiate himself to those he plays with. It's fixable, of course. But it's there.

As for Bevell, the need to placate Percy Harvin early in the season -- running screens and jet sweeps to get him the ball in space -- led to many in the organization thinking that the offense was losing its way. During that time, some players gravitated toward line coach Tom Cable, and openly campaigned for a return to the team's downhill-running ethos.

The fact that the straight-laced Bevell is pretty different than many of the players he coaches probably didn't help much, either.

To the OC's credit, there were some signs of change last week. The offense's tone-setter, Marshawn Lynch, got 18 carries in St. Louis after logging just 10 against Dallas. And my sense is players will be watching closely in hopes that this trend continues.

There were other issues, too, of course. Harvin sitting out two practices last week before declaring himself good to go on Friday raised the temperature, to be sure. And there's no question there was concern that Harvin was a threat to do a number on the culture and chemistry of the team.

But in the end, just moving the one piece out won't change everything. Bevell and Wilson are responsible for much of the rest.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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