A Sunday drive: Broncos roundup

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If a person was to make the short list of football questions Peyton Manning isn't all that enthused to answer from time to time it would look a little something like this:

  • Whether or not he is "all the way back'' from multiple neck surgeries that kept him on the sideline for the 2011 season.

  • Much of anything about how his experiences in Denver thus far compared to his storied run in Indianapolis, something that usually falls into Manning's "I don't really like to go down memory lane'' category.

  • About wearing a glove on his throwing hand when the weather turns sour.

And this could make the days leading up to the Broncos' Oct. 20 game in Indianapolis, Manning's first trip back for a game since his release by the Colts, a fairly long week for the future Hall of Famer.

So, while Manning has routinely been at his deflecting best so far in this training camp about the relative strength in his right arm, his teammates say he looks, sounds and throws with far more comfort in the Broncos offense this time around than he did last season.

His neck injuries and resulting surgeries also affected a nerve that runs into his right triceps. In his long and arduous comeback, the relative strength in that right triceps at different points in his recovery had a lot to do with how he threw as he worked to return to the field. It also has affected his ability to grip the ball.

And the amount of work Manning does, and has done, with the Broncos training staff as well as the stength and conditioning staff to prepare himself to simply practice and play each week is vastly under-appreciated in the public domain in many ways because he simply doesn't talk about it all that much.

But he's continued to put the work in and his teammates say they see the fruits of those labors.

"He's a 100 percent healthy now,'' said Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard. "He's having a lot of fun, enjoying the time with his teammates.''

So, while a fierce summer storm that rolled through Denver Saturday night curtailed what was to be a two-hour practice/scrimmage at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Manning had more than enough time to show his teammates' optimism has been well placed after the rains came.

With the glove on and in conditions that will likely come up in whatever becomes of the 2013 season, Manning was sharp and efficient in his lone full drive of work. He went 4-of-6 on the 10-play drive, finishing things off with a 4-yard scoring pass to Demaryius Thomas on a play that saw him roll to his right and throw back, with power and accuracy, to the middle of the field.

Thomas was the third option on the play and it was just the kind of throw that, last summer, presented a far higher degree of difficulty.

"To be able to go out and play in that, it counts,'' Thomas said. " ... It was good to see what we could do.''

More notes from Broncos camp:

  • With the Broncos expected to get plenty of nickel and dime looks from opposing defenses this season, how the team constructs an impact running game against those lighter defensive fronts will likely determine how efficient the offense really is when all is said and done.

Wes Welker, with Thomas and Eric Decker, gives the Broncos as potent a three-wide receiver look as an offense can have and the team's tight ends are, almost top to bottom, tough matchups in the passing game.

But the best way to protect Manning, slow down opposing pass rushes and close out games, especially if the Broncos hold the lead as often as they hope to, will be to grind it out.

San Francisco's and Seattle's defensive front sevens will offer a quality gauge as to where the Broncos are in that regard. If they can't move the chains from time to time by running the ball the offense won't be what they'll need it to be to go deep into the postseason.

  • Tight end Julius Thomas will get plenty of opportunities to show what he can do in the starting offense in the coming practices. Jacob Tamme is working back from a thigh injury and Joel Dreessen did not participate in Saturday night's scrimmage after experiencing pain in his surgically-repaired knee.

Dreessen had surgery in June, but had practiced through camp's early going. However, following Friday's practice, Dreessen met with the trainers and was then held out of the scrimmage.

It will give Thomas some premium snaps in a camp when he has continually moved up in the rotation and earned Manning's trust.

  • A look at the Broncos' salary cap figures for the just under 90 players they have in camp at the moment, shows a decidedly top-heavy look.

Three players -- Manning, Champ Bailey and Ryan Clady -- comprise 33.4 percent of the team's $123 million salary cap. That total does impact how the remainder of the Broncos roster is constructed.

It could also impact future deals for Decker -- up after this season -- and Thomas Von Miller, whose deals will be up following the 2014 season. Woodyard's deal is also up after this season as is guard Zane Beadles'. Both Woodyard and Beadles, like Thomas and Decker, would be scheduled for unrestricted free agency next March.

With three players eating up 33.4 percent of the cap, the Broncos will have some financial issues to wrestle with that won't get any easier with the demand that will be created for their players if they go deep into the postseason. And they are issues they will have to give a great deal of thought to as they move through the next few months.

Manning sports a team-high $20 million salary, but a $17.5 million salary cap figure because the league informed the Broncos following a "re-negotiation'' of the deal earlier this year that included an insurance policy to cover potential injuries, it was changing the way two salary advances in the deal were calculated in the Broncos' cap figure.

That gave the Broncos some $2.5 million worth of relief on Manning's deal against the cap this year. Clady has a $12.6 million cap figure after signing his deal just before camp opened and Bailey has an $11 million cap figure.

The Broncos also have 54 players on the current camp roster with salary cap figures under $1 million, including starters like guard Manny Ramirez ($815,000), linebacker Nate Irving ($728,750), cornerback Chris Harris ($555,668), safety Duke Ihenacho ($480,000) and kickoff/punt returner Trindon Holliday ($480,000).

  • Following Saturday night's scrimmage, Manning offered the hope newly-signed center Ryan Lilja gets up to speed quickly in the team's offense.

Asked about starting center Manny Ramirez' performance, Manning said, "I thought Manny did good, we went primarily shotgun the whole night with the weather, the snaps were good. This was a good situation for he and I, and you can't get enough situations probably with a new center in a training camp or in the preseason... we're going to try and get as many as we can and we're going to try to get a lot of work with Lilja as well.''

Asked about his time with Lilja in Indianapolis, Manning said, "Ryan Lilja was the best teammate a quarterback could have ... Tough as nails, always practiced, always played even when he was hurt.''

It's clear Ramirez is still the starter, but they want Lilja in position to be No. 2 on the depth chart sooner rather than later as well as in a position to push Ramirez.

  • The Broncos will practice Monday and Tuesday before leaving for San Francisco Wednesday. Their preseason opener is Thursday night against the 49ers.

  • Woodyard on Manning's "Bull Durham'' belly flops in the rain Saturday night, "I'm glad he didn't hurt himself, but Peyton likes to have fun.''