In just a few hours, the Denver Broncos and the Chicago Bears kick off their respective preseason campaigns and the weather is likely to be a bit unkind, with rain in the forecast. Starters are expected to play a series or two before giving way to the backups late in the first quarter. But it's the return of football for the first time since February. And making it even better is that it is Denver Broncos football -- led by Peyton Manning!
Here are five things to watch for:
1. Peyton Manning and his potential backups: Manning will play just one or two series, mostly depending on how well the offensive line (more on that later) protects him. We all want to see Manning zip the ball into a tight seam or watch him air one out to see how his arm strength is. Maybe John Fox will want to do that early on, or maybe just wait until Manning can get into a longer rhythm when he has extended playing time in the second or third preseason games.
Beyond Manning, we'll need to settle on watching Caleb Hanie, Brock Osweiler and probably Adam Weber for most of the night. Hanie, a Colorado St. alumnus, returns to Chicago after backing up Jay Cutler there for a few years. Osweiler, the rookie, is looking to put together a solid showing following a start to camp filled with the usual rookie mistakes. Weber is in his second camp with the Broncos, but the practice squad is his likely destination.
2. Jason Hunter and Robert Ayers: With the release of the first depth chart, Jason Hunter surpassed Robert Ayers as the starting defensive end on the left side. As it stands, Ayers is Dumervil's backup on the right side and rookie Derek Wolfe is behind Hunter. Ayers, while not a bust, has just 4.5 career sacks in three seasons since being a first-round draft pick. While moving around from defensive line to linebacker and then back to the line, Ayers needs more consistency. Hunter, meanwhile has also experienced that same shift as Ayers and has impressed defensive Jack Del Rio during camp.
3. Champ Bailey vs. Brandon Marshall: We likely won't see much of a battle between these two on Thursday -- and we saw them against each other last season in Miami -- but one of the league's top wide receivers against one of the cornerbacks? Even in preseason football that's bound to be good for however little they do go up against one another.
4. Manny Ramirez at right guard: Chris Kuper is participating in team drills during camp, but he's not yet ready to see any game action yet. He dislocated his ankle and broke his leg back on Jan. 1 against the Chiefs. Ramirez has only suited up and been active on game day for the Broncos twice since he joined the team in 2010. Can he help protect Peyton Manning and the other quarterbacks until Kuper returns?
5. Mike Adams at safety: Quinton Carter was listed as the first-team strong safety when the depth chart came out. That put him ahead of Adams, who signed a two-year, $4 million contract during the offseason as a free agent. Carter, if you haven't heard, is out two weeks after having surgery, which was known before the depth chart release. But Adams will start on Thursday and be paired with second-year safety Rahim Moore, who struggled mightily at times in 2011. Safety was an issue in 2011, but no one wants to see that happen again.