One of the first things Denver Broncos strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson tells new arrivals is that athletic life at altitude (the team’s weight room is a mile above sea level) is a different and far drier proposition.
For a recently signed player like safety Darian Stewart, the message has to get through if Stewart is going to contribute to the team’s defense as much as both he and the team would like him to.
Stewart’s 14 starts for the Baltimore Ravens were a career best. It was also the only time in his five seasons that he had played in all 16 games in a regular season. In four seasons with the St. Louis Rams, Stewart dealt with hamstring injuries and there was a feeling among some of the coaches there that flexibility and hydration were at the root of at least some of the issues.
Lessons Stewart says he has taken to heart.
"I have a stretch guy," Stewart said earlier this week at the Broncos’ suburban Denver complex. "I’m really big on stretching. No matter how bad I’m down, if I don’t feel right, I make sure I get a stretch in. I feel like me staying stretched out and my hips are open, I’m good."
In his one season with the Ravens, Stewart publicly discussed making a more concerted effort to increase his flexibility and to improve his hydration habits. And that’s certainly something the Broncos' players quickly learn either the easy way or the hard way.
Humidity is lower at higher altitudes, sweat evaporates more quickly than at elevations closer to sea level and according to organizations such as the Wilderness Medical Society, you can lose water through respiration at higher altitude twice as quickly as you do at sea level. It all adds up to the message Richesson and the trainers give to all of the Broncos: Even when they think they’ve had enough to drink, drink some more.
“You dehydrate pretty quickly, so you definitely have to stay hydrated," Stewart said. “Being up here and getting acclimated to the weather has been good. It’s going to help me when we go down south to wherever we have to play at."
The Broncos went into free agency hoping to find a safety who could contribute quickly on defense. They signed Stewart to a two-year deal with a $1.5 million signing bonus.
It may take some time for coaches to pair Stewart with safety T.J. Ward in the base defense because some of Stewart’s former coaches have described him as being better in a more physical role rather than in coverage -- a description that fits Ward as well. When Ward moves to more of a weakside linebacker in some of the specialty packages, the defense has multiple roles available. Last year, David Bruton Jr. played down the stretch at safety, alongside Moore, when Ward moved to linebacker.
That leaves plenty of playing time to be carved out and determined as the Broncos move through the current offseason workouts and training camp. Bruton has said he’s approaching things as if he is the starter; Stewart also pictures himself at the top of the depth chart.
“It’s my position, it’s my position to lose," Stewart said. "When I line up, I feel like at this level you’ve got to have confidence. When I signed here, I knew it was my job … I’m feeling well. Last year I was feeling well and it’s all about just staying consistent.’’