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Offseason Rookie Report: Defense, returns

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' recent offseason practices have confirmed that rookies will have to fight hard for playing time -- especially given the way the team dove into free agency with a fervor rarely seen from a defending conference champion.

It is a good time to see where things stand at some of the hot spots for the team's rookies as the Broncos will report for training camp in a month. We'll start today with the defense and special teams.

Linebacker: When the Broncos made Lamin Barrow a fifth-round pick in last month's draft, they believed he could at least push for playing time at the team's middle linebacker spot.

Barrow, who had a 4.59 clocking in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, had shown quality athleticism in his career at LSU and a look at his game video with the Tigers showed a player who was better at shedding blockers to get to the ball carrier than perhaps he was given credit for in some pre-draft evaluations. As a result he projects in the middle of the Broncos defense.

In the team's recent workouts Barrow had some of the missteps you would expect from a guy who just had an NFL playbook tossed in his lap. But he also showed lateral quickness and some precision in his drops into pass coverage.

Few things will keep a guy out of coverage duty more than a lack of precision in the drops in zone looks. The guys who can get where they are supposed to be and then play the ball with some anticipation get the snaps at linebacker in the specialty downs.

At minimum he has already shown enough to get a long look in the Broncos' nickel package as one of the two linebackers. And if he shows in those scrappy 9-on-7 drills in training camp he can keep the blockers off him in the run game -- and the Broncos' mammoth defensive tackles help all of the linebackers there -- he could be an every-down option.

He is slightly lighter -- the Broncos list him at 229 pounds -- than he was when he arrived at the scouting combine at 237 pounds, but he looks to be a quick fit somewhere in the defense.

Seventh-round pick Corey Nelson will have to show some special teams proficiency to earn a roster spot, but after missing much of his senior season at Oklahoma with a torn pectoral muscle, he looks healthy and quickly showed some ability in coverage. Undrafted rookie Shaquil Barrett has played some at strong-side linebacker in recent workouts and there is room to battle for a backup role there.

Defensive back: This is a crowded spot overall, especially with the Broncos having dropped so much free agency coin on cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, but rookie cornerback Bradley Roby will play plenty early and plenty often for this team.

Roby, the Broncos' first-round pick, carried some questions about his maturity, both on and off the field, into the draft. Those questions were enough of a concern that a player many defensive coaches in the league said was the best cover cornerback in the draft fell to the 31st pick.

But the Broncos see a physical, athletic cornerback who can disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage and yet still has the speed to run with them downfield. He got fooled once in a while against the Broncos offense in recent workouts, but that's to be expected given the group across from him every day was also the highest-scoring offense in league history last season.

Roby showed the willingness to bounce back and battle the next play -- something 12-time Pro Bowl selection Champ Bailey has always said is one of the most important traits for a rookie cornerback -- so the Broncos will live with any mistakes out of the gate because the potential there was easy to see.

Returner: The job, either on punts or kickoffs, was open when offseason work began and remains open as camp approaches. Sure, Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker could do some return work and have proven that over the course of their careers.

Sanders, in particular is a sure-handed, quick-twitch player who could handle both kickoff and punt returns for the Broncos, but the team would prefer to have options in the return game that don't include offensive starters. That's especially true for Welker, who does carry some concerns about putting him into harm's way on more snaps because of his recent concussion history -- he suffered two last season.

That gives Isaiah Burse, an undrafted rookie at wide receiver, some room to work for a roster spot. Burse returned kickoffs for three seasons at Fresno State and had two punt returns for touchdowns against Cal-Poly last season.

During the non-contact work in organized team activities and minicamp, he showed decisiveness once he had the ball in his hands. He didn't waste steps and found the proper creases.

He was consistent catching the ball as well, no small item for a staff that essentially decided Trindon Holliday's vast touchdown potential no longer out-weighed poor decision-making and ball security at times. That leaves how things go when the pads are on and in the preseason games as the significant hurdle that awaits him.

But the Broncos want a reliable option at the position fielding the ball to go with enough athleticism to turn a well-blocked play into something big. And the first player that shows them he's up for the job will get it.