ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – For those who make personnel decisions in the NFL, it amounts to a football generation.
From the time the first draft class of a new regime is selected to when those initial contracts are set to expire. That’s where the Denver Broncos are as they work through their mandatory minicamp this week with the last contract of John Elway’s first draft class – linebacker Von Miller – set to enter its final year.
“I just know Mr. Elway has done a great job since he picked me,’’ Miller said this past week when asked about some of the Broncos’ recent picks such as cornerback Bradley Roby and outside linebacker Shane Ray. " ... We've got guys growing up together. I think they're always going to sign players [in free agency] here, but we have a lot of guys who were picked here.''
And this is a pivotal season for the Broncos in terms of the quest to be what Elway has wanted since Day 1 on the job – Jan. 5, 2011 – which is a “homegrown team that stacks those draft classes with players who know what it is to be a Denver Bronco.’’ In the transition of new coaching staff and in Year 5 of Elway's tenure, the Broncos are attempting to fill plenty of their openings in-house in the quest for a fifth consecutive division title.
When Elway accepted Pat Bowlen’s offer in ’11 the Broncos were coming off a 4-12 season, had fired Josh McDaniels and endured their own Spygate scandal. In the most extreme of makeovers that followed, with far more needs than draft picks to fill them, the Broncos were active in free agency, especially when they signed Peyton Manning in ’12 and the free agency binge in 2014 when it was clear with every check they signed the Broncos didn't believe they had prospects ready to fill out the starting lineup.
Overall, the Broncos have just six players who were on the roster for the 2010 season opener – Ryan Clady, Britton Colquitt, David Bruton Jr., Chris Clark, Demaryius Thomas and Ryan Harris. Of that group Clady is on injured reserve after he suffered a torn ACL in an OTA workout and Harris was just re-signed when Clady went to IR and Harris has not appeared in a game for the Broncos since that 2010 season.
But the Broncos are trying very hard overall to live up to the homegrown efforts this time around. With Clady’s injury, they now have four jobs open in the offensive line.
They are looking at two homegrown players – rookie Ty Sambrailo at left tackle and Ben Garland at left guard – to fill the openings. They signed a center in free agency – Gino Gradkowski – who is working as the starter and Clark is working at right tackle.
But the Broncos have said Michael Schofield – a third-round pick in 2014 – could find his way into the competition at right tackle.
“They drafted me to play,’’ Sambrailo said. “ … I wanted to come in and compete, that was my approach before [Clady’s injury] and it is now, too.’’
With injured linebackers Danny Trevathan (left knee/leg) and Brandon Marshall (foot) still not participating in practice, Steven Johnson, who made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2012, is working at one of those spots.
Cody Latimer, the Broncos second-round pick in 2014, is poised for plenty of plenty of playing time as the team’s No. 3 receiver and is working with the starters with Thomas having skipped the Broncos’ offseason program in the quest of a long-term contract.
But overall coach Gary Kubiak said he is attempting to get a look at the Broncos’ younger players by pushing them into more prominent practice roles in the recent offseason practices when Kubiak gives the veterans an occasional day off. It is a practice Kubiak has said he will likely stick to in the regular season in some fashion.
But for the long-term success to come in the draft-and-replace form of roster building, when the Broncos let their own free agents move on – like Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin, Nate Irving and Julius Thomas did this past March from the draft Class of ’11 alone – the picks they’ve made since have to rise up the depth chart to play. If they don't the Broncos are back to checkbook personnel decisions, trying to repair draft shortfalls with free agency signings.
“These young guys, we have to get them coached up and ready to play,’’ Kubiak said. “We want to see what they have, kind of throw everything at them and see. That’s part of the work this time of year … We’re going to have those decisions to make.’’