|Jack Dempsey / Associated Press|
|Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton has a better understanding of the offense entering his second year in Denver.|
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For a moment, let's put aside the Tim Tebow hysteria and focus on the reality of the Denver Broncos' quarterback situation.
Which is this: Kyle Orton is clearly their No. 1 guy.
Tebow is, by far, the most popular player at Broncos training camp. But the first-round draft pick from Florida remains a long way from being ready to start -- or even see significant playing time -- as a rookie.
Brady Quinn, acquired during the offseason from the Cleveland Browns, has looked impressive during workouts. But he has plenty to learn in an offense that is similar to the one he ran at Notre Dame, yet with several differences now that it's been six years since Broncos coach Josh McDaniels and former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis stopped working together in New England.
Orton knows the scheme better than the other quarterbacks on the roster, and it shows. When running plays in offseason and camp practices, he displays a great deal of confidence, far more than he had after arriving here last year from the Chicago Bears. He's calm, and he throws with tremendous accuracy.
"All of my thoughts have been on self-competition, making myself a better player," Orton said. "I know, if I'm playing my best ball, where I'm going to be on Sundays -- just trying to do what I've got to do to get us in a winning position."
McDaniels said he is pleased with all three quarterbacks but pointed out that "they're at different stages of their development in our system. When we teach and install (the offense), we're teaching to the highest common denominator, and right now that's Kyle."
Orton cites being fully healthy for the first time in a long while as the primary reason for his ability to perform well. Second, he has a much better understanding of the offense.
"Hopefully that'll allow the communication to be so much better on Sundays," Orton said. "Last year, we could put two or three good plays together, where everybody's doing the right thing. But we had a heck of time trying to find 10 or 11 plays in a row. That's what you've got to do in the league to score."
MacDaniels, too, has noticed the change in Orton.
"The speed at which he's playing mentally, and then couple that with the fact that he's making very few mistakes physically, or with the football, that's a good thing," McDaniels said. "I've seen that happen before (with Tom Brady and Matt Cassel in New England), and it's led to good things."
» The Broncos are still trying to rebound from the double whammy they received when their top two running backs suffered injuries on the first day of practice: Knowshon Moreno (hamstring) and Correll Buckhalter (back). If Moreno is able to return in a few weeks as the team is saying, it might be something the Broncos can weather. If it lingers, who knows, especially with Buckhalter's status up in the air? Moreno was injured last summer after a camp holdout, causing his rookie season to get off to a slow start. The coaches were hopeful that he'd be able to participate fully this summer and get off to a faster start.
There isn't much in the way of experienced depth at running back. Kolby Smith has nine career starts, all with Kansas City in 2007 and 2008, making him the only other back on the roster who has started. He has missed large chunks of the last two seasons with injuries. Smith now has an opportunity to prove right the multiple Broncos player-personnel people who believe he has considerable potential to move up the depth chart.
"Yeah, it gets you nervous; they're two of our best players," Orton said of the injured rushers. "I don't think it's panic mode by any means. Hopefully, they get back real quick, but certainly you want your best players on the field all the time."
» The offensive line could have at least one serious health issue with standout tackle Ryan Clady opening camp on the active/non-football list while recovering from a knee injury he suffered playing basketball in April. Clady was still moving with a noticeable limp during the offseason. The Broncos hope he'll be ready to play at the start of the season, but he could very well remain sidelined until October. Besides missing Clady's tremendous talent, the Broncos also could be forced into using more two-tight end sets to compensate for his absence, which could give opposing defenses a better feel for what's coming.
» One player who has been highly conspicuous by his absence on the field is behemoth nose tackle Jamal Williams, a 13-year veteran signed as a free agent from San Diego. Williams began camp on the active/physically unable to perform list because he couldn't pass the Broncos' pre-camp physical conditioning test. McDaniels said he's expecting Williams to get on the field "sooner rather than later." That's a good thing, because the Broncos are counting on him to be the anchor of their 3-4 defense and give them a much-needed run-stopper. They allowed 173 or more rushing yards in six of their final nine games last season, including 317 in the season finale against Kansas City. Most of the gains came up the middle.
The Broncos don't have much in the way of an alternative. Ron Fields started at nose tackle last year, and his struggles helped lead to the signing of Williams. Marcus Thomas worked inside in passing situations, but neither he nor Ryan McBean provides the physical presence that the Broncos sought in acquiring the ex-Charger.
» Throughout the offseason, Broncos defensive players have talked about new coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale installing a more aggressive scheme than they had under his predecessor, Mike Nolan. So far, there have been no obvious signs of that in camp, but there is reason to believe that it will change. Martindale is from the Rex Ryan School of Defense, having worked on Ryan's defensive staff at the University of Cincinnati. Martindale also coached linebackers for Ryan's twin brother, Rob, with the Oakland Raiders before coming to Denver. The Ryans -- beginning with their father, former NFL coordinator and head coach Buddy Ryan -- strongly believe in using a highly aggressive, in-your-face style of defense.
"For me, it's a no-brainer to play for a guy like Wink," said nine-year veteran defensive end Justin Bannan, whom the Broncos signed as a free agent from Baltimore, where Rex Ryan served as defensive coordinator. "I'm a Ryan guy, so Wink's the next best thing for me. I know what he expects, I know what he's thinking and what he wants. I've just got to make sure I provide that."
» It's hard to imagine the Broncos not missing Brandon Marshall (who they traded to the Broncos in the offseason), but it also wouldn't be correct to say that the outlook of the position is hopeless. Besides the strong possibilities of significant contribution from Thomas and Decker, the Broncos also have the makings of a solid corps that includes Brandon Lloyd, Eddie Royal, Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Stokley and Matt Willis.
"The receiver position is one that we're excited about, not discouraged and certainly not feeling sorry for ourselves," McDaniels said. "Brandon (Marshall) was a great player, and he's going to continue to be a great player. But we have numerous players at that position that are very unique and different. We've got speed, we've got size, we've got guys that can play in the slot, we've got versatility outside, we've got some young guys, we've got some older guys with experience. Whereas some teams may say, 'We have our surefire No. 1,' I'm not sure it's not better to have multiple guys that can really do a lot of good things."
» Willis, an undrafted free agent in 2008, had a strong offseason and is performing well in camp. Said veteran cornerback Champ Bailey: "He was our best receiver out there at times (during the offseason). He's an unknown guy, but I figure people should (be aware of him). It's just his competitiveness, speed, quickness. He really doesn't have any weaknesses. He's not afraid to go across the middle, and he's one of the smallest guys (at 6-foot, 190 pounds)."
» Free-agent linebacker Baraka Atkins is an interesting pickup. He performed well enough during offseason workouts to see some practice time with the starters in place of 2009 first-round choice Robert Ayers.
» The Broncos' coaches will be challenged in trying to figure out what to do with Tebow this season. Keeping three quarterbacks active on game day is a risk teams generally do their best to avoid. But the Broncos just might take that chance in order to have Tebow available for Wildcat looks and other special situations that take advantage of his athletic skills.
Another chance they're going to take is to work on some of the gadgetry they have in store for Tebow in public practices and preseason games, where anyone -- including someone gathering information for another team -- can watch.
"We understand that, if you're going to be good at something, you've got to practice it," McDaniels said. "At some point, somebody's going to see something. If we're running gadget plays out there -- whether they be reverses or flea-flickers or whatever -- people are going to see those. And we may have a few things that we experiment with, with Tim. We're not going to hide it because the only way to get good at something is to practice it."
Tebow seems to have made progress through the offseason with improving his mechanics, and elevating his release point so that he is able to get the ball out of his hand quicker than he did in college. The concern is how he reacts when he's under duress. Will he, as some current and former NFL coaches and scouts predict, revert to old habits?
» Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos' other first-rounder, looks impressive early in camp drills. The former Georgia Tech standout is raw, coming from a Triple Option offense that basically asked him to run slant and sideline routes. Still, he has considerable athleticism. The Broncos see the 6-3, 229-pound Thomas as having the ability to make an impact in the red zone because he is the kind of receiver who excels when locked up in one-on-one battles that take place near the goal line. He is physical and shows good body control. Eric Decker, a third-round pick from Minnesota, offers similar abilities with his 6-3, 220-pound frame.
» Second-rounder Zane Beadles, a guard from Utah, and J.D. Walton, a center from Baylor, have been working with the starters in practice. Both are exceptionally quick, they play with a mean streak and show considerable intelligence. Walton was the one collegiate offensive lineman who matched up well against former Nebraska tackle Ndamukong Suh, the second overall pick of the draft.
Tebow is like a rock star at practice, with fans constantly chanting, "Tee-bow! Tee-bow! Tee-bow!" They clamor for him to just give a glimpse in their direction and beg for him to pose for a picture or sign an autograph.
"I'm kind of blown away," Bannan said. "I've just never seen anything like it. It's like a phenomenon. This city's just become obsessed with Tebow. The guy has earned that right to get that kind of attention, because he's probably going to go down as one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- college player to play the game."
Fans camped out the night before the first public practice at training camp Sunday to be sure they'd be the first in line for a spot on one of the small hills that surround the field. Though the local fire marshal capped attendance at 3,000; there were 3,100 in attendance on Sunday, a Broncos record for the first day of camp at their practice facility.
The last time the Broncos had anything like this, a guy named John Elway was their quarterback. Most of it is due to the fact that Tebow might very well be the greatest player in college football history and had a strong national profile in place way before his arrival. There are some long-time followers of the Broncos who are desperate to latch onto the first franchise player they've had in a long time.
"I've been on a team with some (high-profile) players, such as Deion (Sanders) and guys like that, but I've never seen nothing like this," Bailey said. "It's amazing."
Equally impressive is how Tebow has remained grounded, something that hasn't been lost on his teammates.
"I'm kind of proud of him for the way he handles himself," Bailey said. "He wants to be one of the guys. People are going to put him on that pedestal, but he handles both sides (fans and teammates) very well."
"I'm always optimistic, but being real, we've got a lot of work to do. We know what it takes to be a championship football team, but... we don't see it in practice yet. We've got a long way to go. It's going to take a long training camp and (a) few games to really get where we want to go."
-- Champ Bailey.
» McDaniels on changes he has made to his approach in his second season as Broncos coach: "I'm an emotional person; I'm not going to change that part of it. But I want to channel that the best way that I can to help our team the very most that I can."
» One thing that hasn't changed about McDaniels is that he runs a fairly grueling camp. He keeps the practice tempo high, with plenty of hitting and has players run gassers after workouts, which is less common than it used to be in the NFL. Said Bannan: "He's old school in a young (34-year-old) body. I mean, this camp's no joke. It's an old-school camp. It's hard. No shortcuts. You're going to be in pads every day, you're going to be banging, you're going to be running after practice. He's tough and I like that; I respect that."
» A rule that McDaniels instituted last year is that a player who makes a mistake in practice must run a lap around the field. Occasionally, after a series of blunders, he will make the entire offense or defense run a lap (and even an assistant coach). The first unit to do so this summer was the offense, after what Orton described as about four or five bad plays in a row "where we weren't doing anything."
» The defensive backs have their own way of dealing with errors. When one of them drops an interception, he does 10 pushups on the spot. Veteran safety Brian Dawkins was the first to do so in the first practice.