Broncos' missing pieces mean questions for defense in training camp

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Throughout the offseason, the Denver Broncos' defense has handled plenty of queries about whether they can recapture all that went right in 2015.

Because plenty went right last season. The Broncos finished as the league’s No. 1 defense, leading many of the crucial categories that mean the most to opposing offenses.

Yet as they count down the days until the start of training camp later this month, the question about what’s to come for the Broncos' defense is still significant -- and unanswered. After all, the 11 projected defensive starters never lined up together during the team’s offseason program.

"We still know what we have," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "This is our second year in the system, we know the guys we have and what they can do. And we have training camp to put it together."

They do have training camp. But because of Von Miller's contract negotiations, DeMarcus Ware’s balky back and a gunshot wound suffered by Aqib Talib, the Broncos did not have those three players -- who have all been selected to multiple Pro Bowls in their careers -- take part in the same practice at any point in the offseason.

Miller skipped the team’s offseason work and has not signed the franchise player tender. The Broncos and Miller's representatives continue to race against a July 15 deadline to reach a long-term deal. The Broncos then took the better-safe-than-sorry approach with Ware and held him out of the team’s on-field work during organized team activities and mandatory minicamp.

Talib did not practice after he suffered injuries in an early June shooting incident -- a wound in his right thigh and right calf. Toss in the departures of two starters to free agency -- defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan -- and the Broncos' starting defense that did much of the work in the offseason program had a far different look than the one that powered the team to a Super Bowl victory.

Still, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips isn't searching for migraine medication. He said he's prepared to play mix-and-match if he must.

"That’s why they were successful last year. We had guys that didn’t play, we missed guys for games last year," Phillips said. "Those kinds of things came up, and we just go forward. Work hard and try do the right things, and good things happen for you."

Miller remains the key. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway reached out to Miller during the Fourth of July weekend. It was the first real contact the team has had with Miller or his representatives since the Broncos’ ring ceremony last month.

Miller has said he's in good condition. During the team’s White House visit, he said he has "stayed ready" -- and if and when the two sides iron out a contract, the expectation is that Miller will arrive ready to take his customary workload for the regular season.

Ware’s back is a concern as he missed five games last season.

The Broncos did not select a linebacker in this year’s draft. Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett were the starting outside linebackers in much of the offseason work. Even though Barrett and Ray were productive in spot duty last season, there is a significant difference in resumes if they have to replace Miller and Ware at the start of the season.

"I love Shaq, I love Shaq Barrett. … And Shane is explosive," linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "I think those two could do really great things for a long time. Everybody saw last year. Coach trusted them at any point of the game to be in. That shows the trust that we have in Shaq and Shane because we know that regardless of the time of the game, they can get it done."

The Broncos exited the offseason program believing Talib would take part in training camp in some fashion, but the circumstances surrounding his injury could still result in charges -- the police still have an open investigation -- as well as league discipline. And that would move Bradley Roby into the starting lineup and Kayvon Webster into the team’s specialty packages.

"I thought both of them played well for us last year," Phillips said. "Roby played a whole lot last year. Kayvon, I’d like to see more because he’s a good player. … We feel good about our players, we’ll deal with what we have and go play. Work hard, coach hard and go play. That’s what you do."