In the days that followed the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl loss, John Elway said one of the early bright spots to the start of the offseason was “moving the names."
The names Elway moved were on the rather hefty list of players who had finished the 2013 season beneath the heading of “injured reserve."
“And when I took those names and put that back under the roster, I felt a little better about our team right there," Elway said. “Getting those guys back on the field makes us better … and if their recovery keeps going as they have, we’ll continue to feel good."
Now, the caveat here, and anywhere you’re talking about the recovery of an injured NFL player, is that no team, no player, ever says anybody is behind schedule in his recovery. As in ever.
But there is no question the list of players the Broncos had on injured reserve in 2013 was impressive in its depth, especially considering the team still finished 13-3 on the way to a Super Bowl appearance. Still, the Broncos have plans for 2014, plans that require a select group of recovering players to be all they can be.
When Broncos coach John Fox says the team will play the best five as the starting offensive line, that usually means some shuffling is on the horizon to get those best five on the field. Montgomery, who has stared at guard and center in his career, will get a long look to be the starting center. And at the moment, the left guard spot -- where Zane Beadles has played -- will be filled by Orlando Franklin or Manny Ramirez.
The decision will eventually come down to whether bumping Franklin inside and moving the more mobile Chris Clark to right tackle makes for the best five.
But none of those plans will mean much if Clady isn’t himself as he returns from last year’s foot surgery. Clady, the final first-round pick of Mike Shanahan’s tenure in Denver, is the football gift that has kept on giving.
He is one of the best, and for a team that would like to work out of open formations as much as the Broncos do, Clady is key to opening up more of the passing game. Quarterback Peyton Manning can always get the ball out and did last season on the way to a pile of offensive records with Clady out of the lineup, but he would have more choices in the pattern with Clady on the blind side.
Elway has said Clady will be ready for the season, but he has now had knee, shoulder and foot surgery over the past four years.
CB Chris Harris Jr. Again, a lot of plans hinge on Harris’ recovery. He did tear his ACL all the way through and did not damage any of the other ligaments in the knee, so he has publicly said he believes he’ll be ready to go for the regular season despite suffering his injury in January.
The Broncos signed Aqib Talib in free agency, and Talib projects as the other starter alongside Harris. But the Broncos spent more time in the nickel last season than they did in any other defensive package. The Broncos say Kayvon Webster, a 2013 draft pick, is ready to enter the rotation, but the Broncos still need some attention here in the draft and more size at the position as a whole.
But if Harris isn’t ready to go, it’s an issue, especially when you consider Talib. He has the ability to match up on any receiver he would face, but Talib has yet to play 16 games in a season in his NFL career.
LB Von Miller. At his best, Miller is a game-changer in the Broncos defense. Trouble is the Broncos haven’t seen his best since the 2012 season after a suspension, an intentional weight gain he said was to add more power to his game and his knee injury all turned 2013 into a difficult run.
With Miller’s contract set to run out after the 2014 season, the Broncos are faced with a rather large decision to make on the guy they made the second pick of the 2011 draft. On the business side, they need to see a player on and off the field worthy of the long-term commitment Miller’s representatives will be looking to secure.
On the football side, Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s master plan on defense would require DeMarcus Ware and Miller in the formation. Miller’s timetable to return will depend on his knee, but the Broncos need him to be all-in on getting back and having things in order off the field as well as on it.
The D-line three-pack. Ware’s signing changes the dynamic in the Broncos’ defensive front. Adding a 100-sack guy will do that.
But Del Rio would like to use plenty of people in plenty of roles. “Our guys know if you show you can help us, we’ll put you in a position to do it," he said.
Malik Jackson has made the most of his time on the field when others have not been in the lineup, and he’ll get more snaps in the coming season at the expense of others. Jackson can play the power (left) end when needed and move down inside when the Broncos go to nickel and dime looks. That versatility affords him plenty of opportunities.
Vickerson is largely an early-down player at this point, but the combination of Vickerson and Terrance Knighton in the middle of the formation gives Denver plenty of bulk. That said, Sylvester Williams should push for more snaps this season or he isn’t the prospect he showed himself to be before last April’s draft. Those snaps would most likely come in Vickerson’s spot.
But until Miller comes back, the Broncos need Smith to be the guy who put in a three-sack game against Alabama in his final season at Western Kentucky and at least be ready to be a situational rusher. Smith’s injury -- a torn ACL -- happened in that season, so he will be almost two years out when the regular season begins.
“Those things are always uncertain until they’re all back," Fox said. “But we feel good about where everybody is there, and your defense is going to look a lot different, play a lot different if all of those guys are in it. That’s not an excuse, just a fact."