ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In a vocation where scouting matters a lot, Juwan Thompson has had a better up-close-and-personal look at what the Denver Broncos' offense has to offer than almost any other undrafted rookie.
Thompson is a former Duke running back and one of many first-year hopefuls being put through the offseason paces in Denver. Duke University happens to be where, because of head coach David Cutcliffe's presence, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and the team's pass catchers have gathered in each of the past two offseasons to get a head start on their work.
"I was able to see those guys, see their practice habits, see how it correlated back to them," Thompson said. "Those guys going full out, they went twice a day, they made sure they got their rehab in so they were good to go the next day. ...
"I met the guys a couple times when I saw them around. But just to watch them, it was a great feeling. It would kind of like a home fit for me at the end of the day. There is opportunity here ... and I know my special teams ability can help."
And while there are few job openings on a fairly young team that also had the salary cap room to dive into free agency, the running back position is another story. This past week offensive coordinator Adam Gase threw open the doors on competition for each of the slots after starter Montee Ball.
"Right now, it's an open competition for that spot -- all those spots," Gase said. "So we need to see who is going to be the guy to step up."
That's because the Broncos allowed Knowshon Moreno -- who finished with his first career 1,000-yard rushing season in 2013 to go with 60 receptions -- to test the market. Moreno signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins. The Broncos also did not select a running back in the draft.
Ronnie Hillman, a third-round pick in 2012 who went from starter last offseason to a game day inactive much of the time, faces a get-it-done summer to keep his roster spot. C.J. Anderson, who made the Broncos roster as an undrafted rookie last season, and this year's class of undrafted players make up the rest of the depth chart at the position -- Thompson, Jerodis Williams, Oklahoma's Brennan Clay and Colorado State's Kapri Bibbs.
In some ways Thompson is a little bit an outlier in that group. Williams, who went to training camp with the Minnesota Vikings last season, Clay and Bibbs were all work-horses in college. Thompson, in Cutcliffe's spread-it-around philosophy, was one of six players on the Duke roster to have at least 60 carries last season.
And none of those Blue Devils had more than 113 carries.
"But at the end of the day we had one goal and that was just winning," Thompson said. "I had to put that selfishness in the backseat so we could have that record we had."
Cutcliffe, who was Manning's offensive coordinator at Tennessee and one of Manning's closest confidants in football, spoke highly of Thompson to the Broncos coaches when it was time to sign rookies who were not selected in the seven-round draft. At 225 pounds Thompson is the biggest back on the roster. He ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at his pro day to go with a double-take worthy 35 1/2-inch vertical jump. He also played plenty of special teams in his career at Duke and is well-versed in pass protection.
Last season Moreno went from a shaky roster spot to starter for the Broncos because, at least initially, he was the most reliable in pass protection. Moreno then kept the job because of the way he handled his business running the ball as well.
Thompson says, having seen Manning and the team's receivers work up close, he also understands just how detail-oriented things are in the Broncos' offense.
"They wanted to make sure they were precise at the end of the day," Thompson said. "It will be very beneficial to me … . Most importantly in pass protection."
Gase said Ball is slotted as the starter as the Broncos work through their offseason team workouts, just as Hillman was this time last year. Ball went on to pass Hillman on the depth chart and carry the ball 120 times for 559 yards as a rookie in the highest-scoring offense in league history. The Broncos will share the work at least some in the running game this time around as well, but who gets those carries after Ball is still to be sorted out.
"We drafted [Ball] to be a guy that was going to be a big contributor for us," Gase said. "But at the running back spot, it's hard to just have one guy and say, 'Hey, we're going with him for 350 carries.' It's really not what we're looking for. We're looking for a guy that can start those games out, be consistent all year, make sure that he's great in pass protection, great in route concepts, which he's shown us that he has the ability to do. We just need to make sure that he continues that through this season."