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Mark Sanchez on Broncos chance: Gift-wrapped 'from heaven'

ENGLEWOOD, Co. -- Last December, shortly before the end of his second season as a backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, Mark Sanchez sent bottles of wine to coaches, front-office employees and other staffers as a token of his appreciation.

Less than three months later, the Eagles sent Sanchez to a place he regards as pro football's champagne lounge.

Upon completing an offseason workout in Southern California on March 11, Sanchez noticed a pair of missed calls from Philly general manager Howie Roseman and figured he'd been released. Instead, upon calling back, the former New York Jets first-round pick and four-year starter received some surprising and exciting news.

"You gave me a bottle of wine for the holidays," Roseman told Sanchez. "You're probably gonna owe me a case of wine for this one."

Roseman then informed Sanchez he'd been traded to the Denver Broncos for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2017 draft, giving him a golden opportunity to revive his once-promising career -- for the defending Super Bowl champions.

On Thursday, Sanchez completed his first training-camp practice for his third NFL team as the Broncos' nominal No. 1 quarterback, armed with the knowledge that he has the inside track to succeed the legendary Peyton Manning as the main man in the Mile High City. He'll have to fend off challenges from second-year passer Trevor Siemian and 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch to earn that honor, but the quarterback once known as Sanchize believes he's the right guy for the job.

Sanchez, who took the Jets to AFC Championship Games in each of his first two seasons, knows this may be his last shot to reestablish himself as a legitimate NFL starter. It's not an endeavor he's taking lightly.

"This is like a gift-wrapped opportunity from heaven," he told me Thursday afternoon. "As soon as it arrived, I told myself, 'Take advantage of things. Assert yourself. Be the guy you know you can be. Win the job. And then go win some games, which is the most important thing of all.' "

Last year, the Broncos won 12 regular-season games while flip-flopping between a well-past-his-prime Manning (now retired) and untested 2012 draft pick Brock Osweiler (who parlayed a seven-game starting stint into a four-year, $72-million free-agent deal with the Houston Texans). Coach Gary Kubiak's surprising switch back to Manning midway through the regular-season finale set the stage for an epic exit in which the NFL's all-time passing yards leader threw for just 141 (with no touchdowns and one interception) in Super Bowl 50 yet still went out a winner.

As dominant as the Denver defense was during a phenomenal playoff run, uncertainty at the sport's marquee position has triggered rampant skepticism about the 2016 Broncos' ability to compete for a repeat title.

"I don't think there's much respect out there," said Denver general manager John Elway, who quarterbacked the franchise to consecutive Super Bowl triumphs in the 1997 and '98 seasons before ending his stellar 16-year playing career. "And a lot of that is [because] when you look at the quarterback position, with the guys that we have, they don't have a lot of (outside) respect, obviously.

"We think a lot more of Mark Sanchez than maybe the public does. [That's from] watching tape on him, and really watching him in Philly last year, and also since he's been here. If you're in New York, they have a tendency to bring the attention to the negative, rather than the positive. And Mark kind of got caught in that rut. We hope we're right. The great thing about camp starting, finally, is we can stop talking about it and see who's gonna come to the forefront."

In other words: While cynics who focus on the end of his Jets tenure may lampoon him for the infamous Butt Fumble, Sanchez is viewed inside the Broncos' locker room as a savvy field general with a firm grip on his responsibilities.

"The leadership Mark brings is so important," running back C.J. Anderson said. "He's been there, and he can rally us around him. And then there's the experience. This is not a guy whose head is swimming out there. The game has slowed down for him.

"What people don't understand is that if we do our jobs, his job can be that much easier. We understand that we don't have an Andrew Luck or a Ben Roethlisberger, a guy who the ball has to be in his hands 50 times a game -- but there are other ways to win. We can win as a team, and we're gonna take care of business in all three phases to make the quarterback's life that much better."

Elway and Kubiak insist the competition between Sanchez, Siemian (a 2015 seventh-round pick out of Northwestern) and Lynch (for whom the team traded up to snag with the 26th overall selection in April) is wide open, but Sanchez's experience made him the obvious choice to assume the bulk of the first-team reps, at least in the early stages of training camp.

"Mark comes from a background with West Coast verbiage," Kubiak noted Thursday. "The day we (traded for) him we started talking plays, and we just kind of went from there. He's done some really good things in this league. We're gonna surround him with some really good players and give him a chance to succeed. Now, it's up to him."

He'll have to hold off Siemian, who has earned the respect of teammates by displaying accuracy, athleticism and composure, and Lynch, whose obvious passing talent and draft position make him the team's presumptive quarterback of the future -- but, in fairness, the competition could have been stiffer.

Even after acquiring Sanchez, the Broncos continued to explore a trade for former San Francisco 49ers starter Colin Kaepernick, who'd brought that team to within five yards of a potential Super Bowl XLVII victory over the Baltimore Ravens. In early April, Elway met with Kaepernick in an unsuccessful effort to get the quarterback to reduce his salary, something the team considered a prerequisite for a trade.

In the aftermath of the Super Bowl, Kaepernick's departure from the Niners had been considered such a foregone conclusion by Sanchez that he "expected to end up in San Francisco" (to compete with holdover Blaine Gabbert) before that fateful phone call with Roseman.

Once dealt to Denver, Sanchez approached his new gig with an almost maniacal drive, to the point where earlier this month he was able to coax several Broncos receivers into joining him for an early morning workout at USC, his alma mater, before they attended the ESPYs.

"I basically devoted all my (offseason) energy to trying to master the system, getting to know my teammates and getting involved in the community," Sanchez said. "I never want to be in a position 10 or 15 years down the line where I could look back and say, 'Oh man, if I had just done a little more, I could have made it happen ... '

"Especially not this opportunity -- it's a quarterback's dream come true."

Sanchez did allow himself one conspicuous indulgence: Just after the Broncos' offseason program ended in June, he took his mother, Olga, on a trip to Israel.

"It was amazing," Sanchez said. "At one point I got to spend a few hours with the Israeli military, going through some training exercises and even firing weapons. There was a (simulation) where a situation was going down inside a marketplace, and you had to operate under some pretty crazy conditions."

And how was the simulated soldier's aim?

"Pretty good," Sanchez said, smiling. "I was locked in."

Now, on a professional level, it's about to get real.

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