Rodgers-Cromartie's health key for Denver

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie practiced Saturday for the first time since spraining his ankle July 31. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

The Denver Broncos looked at the available cornerbacks in the offseason and saw Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as a still-in-his-prime, high-value target. Personnel boss John Elway went so far as to call him a "Pro Bowl talent."

Rodgers-Cromartie looked at his available options in free agency and saw the Broncos as a Super Bowl contender, making the decision to sign what is essentially a one-year deal something he called "really a no-brainer."

And how all this works out for both sides likely will depend on how cooperative Rodgers-Cromartie's left ankle is in the coming weeks and months. Rodgers-Cromartie returned to the practice field Saturday for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain July 31 during practice.

"It's good to be back ... I'm just easing my way back in," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "I'm just trying to get a feel for it, some days you feel good, some days you don't."

It is often a notoriously difficult injury for a player to shake, especially at a position like cornerback where top-flight speed and the ability to change direction in the open field are integral parts of the job. It is the kind of injury that also resurfaces at times if a player lands awkwardly on the same spot.

And there is the matter that Rodgers-Cromartie previously suffered what he said were torn ligaments in the same ankle earlier in his career, during the 2011 season in Philadelphia.

Certainly the Broncos can function without Rodgers-Cromartie in the lineup -- they simply play their 2012 rotation, with Chris Harris as the starting right cornerback. In nickel and dime looks, Harris then moves inside to the slot and Tony Carter lines up outside.

But Rodgers-Cromartie gives them the size -- 6-foot-2, 193 pounds -- and speed they want in an outside corner. He would also allow the Broncos use Harris almost exclusively in the slot and keep size on the outside when they do go to the specialty looks. (Harris is 5-10 and Carter checks in at 5-9.)

The Broncos have not expressed concern about Rodgers-Cromartie over the long haul, but the injury, as well as his recovery, will bear watching as the team works toward the regular-season opener.

Before their bye in Week 9 the Broncos will face a cast of quarterbacks that includes Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. They are going to spend plenty of time in the nickel and dime -- they played the nickel over 60 percent of the defensive snaps last season -- and certainly want Rodgers-Cromartie in that mix.

• The Broncos held wide receiver Wes Welker out of Saturday morning's practice -- "just one of those 'team decision'-type days," is how coach John Fox described it -- and it pushed Andre Caldwell into plenty of work with the starters.

Caldwell, who has once again flashed in training camp, worked in the three-wide receiver set with Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. Decker worked out of Welker's spot in the slot and Caldwell worked on the outside.

Caldwell has traveled this road before, however. Last spring and summer he initially appeared to have built the quickest on-field chemistry with Peyton Manning in the team workouts following Manning's arrival, and he also showed some big-play potential in camp. But by the time the season rolled around he rarely worked his way into the rotation, being a gameday inactive nine times, including the playoff loss to Baltimore.

Caldwell has been far more consistent in his routes this time around as well as in catching the ball. And his speed is still noteworthy -- he was one of the fastest players in the 2008 draft, and has maintained that speed even through some nagging groin problems and the surgery to repair them.

Rookie Tavarres King is in the No. 5 receiver spot at this point, but the player who gets the most gameday opportunities at the position after the big three on the depth chart will be the one who has the most duties on special teams.

"Your No. 4 receiver is not always the fourth receiver in the rotation on offense if you know what I mean there," Fox said. "We've got other things to do there, other decisions to make when you pick that gameday roster."

• In the more-you-can-do department, second-year defensive lineman Malik Jackson continues to catch defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's eye.

Jackson played 25 snaps on defense in the preseason opener against San Francisco (along with two on special teams) as he worked at both defensive end and defensive tackle.

"I thought he really stood out in the front," Del Rio said after Saturday morning's practice. "Malik is having a good camp and quietly making a move himself."

Jackson, a fifth-round pick by the Broncos in the 2012 draft, has found a niche in the defensive scheme in that, at 6-5 and 293 pounds, he has shown the ability to pressure the passer from both the interior and on the edge and is stout enough to play as a run defender in the middle of the field when the Broncos go lighter in the rest of the formation in the dime or their seven-defensive back look.

"He has just been much more disruptive and confident this year," Del Rio said.

• When all was said and done in San Francisco Thursday night, rookie tackle Vinston Painter was the snap king. Painter, a sixth-round pick in April's draft, played 55 snaps on offense, or 82 percent of the plays run. He added two more plays on special teams.

The Broncos drafted Painter as a raw, athletic project in the offensive line, and he has since performed well in offseason workouts and the opening portion of training camp.

He still has a ways to go before he's ready to be tossed into the audible-heavy, no-huddle offense the Broncos often run, but he has pushed himself into the No. 2 spot at right tackle at the moment. He has enough power to anchor against bigger pass rushers and is athletic enough to play on the move when the Broncos go to the zone run game.

Defensively, rookie Kayvon Webster played the most -- 43 snaps on defense to go with 12 on special teams. Webster had an interception in the game.

Of note on special teams, and always a good indicator for how many of the spots in the depth chart will go when the roster goes to 53, tight end Virgil Green was the busiest of the offensive players with 11 special-teams plays. Running backs Jacob Hester and C.J. Anderson had eight each.

Linebacker Steven Johnson led all defensive players with 16 snaps on special teams, while veteran David Bruton had 14 snaps and rookie cornerback Aaron Hester had 11.

• Cornerback Tony Carter (knee), safety Quinton Carter (knee), tight end Jacob Tamme (thigh), wide receiver Greg Orton (ankle) and wide receiver Quincy McDuffie (hamstring) were held out of Saturday's practice.

Guard Chris Kuper, who has had multiple ankle surgeries over the last two years and is currently on the physically unable to perform list, did extensive work with strength coach Luke Richesson off to the side during practice. Kuper was in drills with Tamme and McDuffie in what was his most vigorous work since training camp opened.