There really is nothing quite like it. That first morning of Training Camp in the NFL. Every team has hope. Sure, Spring Training in baseball is fun for prosperity's sake, but does anyone really think the Kansas City Royals can compete with the New York Yankees? No way. In the NFL, everyone has hope -- teams and fans alike. That is why each year the fresh-cut grass calls me back to Denver when the Broncos start camp.
That doesn't mean all is well, or there aren't issues to be addressed while the Broncos are getting down to business. Far from it. In fact, picking the Top 5 was rather difficult since there are so many questions surrounding the Broncos. With Aug. 1 fast approaching, let's take a look at the five biggest questions surrounding and Orange and Blue as the 2010 NFL Season rushes at us.
5. Change On Defense
The Broncos stormed out of the gates in 2009, starting 6-0, raising expectations to unrealistic levels. The resulting slide -- the Broncos finished 2-8 -- resulted in a further shake-up, both on the roster and coaching staff. Mike Nolan left the team, heading to Miami to become the defensive coordinator of the Dolphins. The Broncos decided to replace Nolan - a veteran of the coaching ranks -- with Don 'Wink' Martindale. With just seven years of coaching experience in the NFL, Martindale has taken the fast track to a coordinators job in the NFL. The players respect him, and more importantly, seem to respond to him as well. How quickly Martindale can get up to speed as a DC, however, will go a long way with how well the Broncos defense performs.
Martindale will have plenty of veteran leadership at his disposal, however. With short-yardage shortcomings befalling the Broncos once again, the team went out and revamped the defensive line. Jamal Williams comes over the San Diego to provide the Broncos with a proven anchor in the middle. The Broncos also poached from other successful 3-4 schemes, grabbing DE Justin Bannan from Baltimore and Jarvis Green from New England. While neither player was a full-time starter on their former teams, both come from programs that have become synonymous with winning. Their knowledge in the locker room could be just as valuable as their impact on the field.
It is about time the Broncos put the 'D' back in the Denver. 2010 seems to be the start.
4. Quarterback Quandary
I could make five questions just about the quarterback position. Perhaps another Top 5 for another time. For now, let's focus on the 50,000-foot view. The Broncos, on paper at least, have depth at the position they haven't had for years. The question is, can any of these guys step up and become solid NFL starting quarterbacks? Kyle Orton will go into camp as the top guy. He should. Orton was having his best season as a pro before injuring an ankle against Washington. He never was really the same after that. Unfortunately for Orton, injuries have been an issue his entire pro career. Each time he seems to be finding a rhythm, something happens. One has to wonder too, as Orton heads into his late 20's, if we haven't already seen the ceiling of Orton's potential.
Perhaps we got the answer to that question when the Broncos acquired Brady Quinn from the Browns for Peyton Hillis and a six-pack of Orange Crush. Like Orton, Quinn has yet to firmly grab a hold of any opportunity he's been given. Unlike Orton, Quinn comes to Denver to play in an offense very similar to the one he starred in at Notre Dame. Questions about Quinn remain, however, the same questions that existed when he came out of college - can he make all the throws, is he accurate enough down-field, can he read a defense, is he a good leader in the huddle. All those still need answered. There is little doubt to me, however, that Quinn will be given every opportunity to unseat Orton.
Of course, how can I talk quarterbacks without talking about Tim Tebow. All eyes will be on Tebow when camp opens and that in and of itself could be another question on this list. Tebow has said and done all the right things since high school it seems and I doubt that changes now. Tebow possesses every intangible you could want from a quarterback, now he needs to translate all that to the field. It was enough in high school, it was enough in college. My guess is it isn't if Tebow can do the job, it is when, or, how soon.
3. Who Will Catch the Ball?
Some might say that having the quarterback question all the way at No. 4 is a bit low. Perhaps, but starting with No. 3, these questions will have a direct impact on whoever is taking snaps under center in games for the Broncos. It starts with the receiving corp. Brandon Marshall and his 300+ catches the past three seasons were sent to Miami. That is a lot of production to replace -- even if there will be fewer headaches. The Broncos addressed the position in the Draft, starting with top pick Demaryius Thomas. Thomas is as talented as any receiver to come out the past few years but he is rough around the edges. Thomas is also coming off a foot injury. The other rookie wide receiver has some injury concerns of his own. Eric Decker, from Minnesota, is a far-more refined receiver than Thomas, while not as gifted. I hate to make the 'white-receiver' comparison, but Decker will remind a lot of people of another WR to wear No. 87 for the Broncos -- Ed McCaffrey. Like Easy Ed, Decker won't blow anyone away with his speed, but Decker knows how to read a defense, knows how to get open, and catches just about everything he gets his fingers on.
The Broncos will need the veterans on the unit to step up until the rookies are ready, however. That starts with Jabar Gaffney, whose 14-catch performance in the season finale gave fans a sneak peak at what he can do. Gaffney is under-rated and can be effective in 2010. Eddie Royal will be looking to bounce back after struggling in his sophomore campaign. Expect Royal to lineup more inside where he can take advantage of slower defenders. Brandon Lloyd will also get a look at camp.
All eyes that aren't on Tebow will be focused on this group. For better or worse, the Broncos chose not to pay Brandon Marshall. How well the guys left behind and added to the receiving corps perform will go a long way towards determining if it was a mistake.
2. 2009 Draft Class Needs To Perform
If there are any eyes left not watching Tebow or the receivers, they will likely be watching members of the 2009 draft class. While solid, the 2009 Draft for the Broncos needs to be more. Whether or not it will be starts this season. It starts at the top. The Broncos drafted RB Knowshon Moreno with the 12th overall pick. Sure, he showed flashes, but Moreno seemed to get a bit lost as the season went on. Some of that can likely be attributed to his holdout. Moreno then got injured in his first pre-season game. Now, in serious cram mode, Moreno never seemed to catch up. With a full off-season, in a NFL program, look for Moreno to do more running, less thinking, and become a top-10 running back.
The Broncos are also expecting big things from the 18th overall pick in the 2009 draft, DE/OLB Robert Ayers. The Broncos don't have the veteran protection on the other side of Elvis Dumervil they did last season. It is up to Ayers - or Jarvis Moss - to step up and take pressure off Dumervil and put it directly on opposing quarterbacks. Ayers seemed to get better as the season went along, but will have to take a big step in 2010. If the Broncos cannot generate a pass rush -- or defend the run for that matter -- with their front four or five, it could be a long season.
In many people's minds, the Broncos actually had three first round picks in 2009. That's because they traded a first round pick in 2010 to move up in the second round for CB Alphonso Smith. Smith, a gifted defender and return man, never seemed to take that first step as a rookie. The game seemed too fast for him and the Broncos were forced to bring in veteran Ty Law. The Broncos aren't going to make the same mistake this year, having already signed veteran nickle-man Nate Jones. Smith is going to have to earn his way back on the field. This is a huge season for Smith - was he getting a head start in 2009, or is he a bust?
1. Offensive Line 'If's'
The biggest question facing the Broncos heading into Training Camp 2010? Who is going to play on the offensive line?! Sure, we think we know. IF Ryan Harris is fully healthy, he'll come back to play right tackle. IF Ryan Clady comes back from offseason knee surgery, he'll be at left tackle. IF rookie J.D. Walton can pick up the line calls and protections, he'll be the starting center. You get my drift?
The Broncos have plenty of talent along the offensive line, but until the injured come back and prove their healthy, no one knows for sure. Until the young guys come out and prove it on the field, no one knows for sure. That is the question surrounding the line, and it is a HUGE question. Let's face it, even if the answers to the previous four questions were answered with a best-case scenario answer, the entire season can get derailed fast if the Broncos don't get consistent play up front.
Think about it. The Broncos downward spiral started in Baltimore. That happens to be the game Ryan Harris was injured. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. There is little doubt that it affected the Broncos the rest of the season. Even the veteran depth, Russ Hochstein, is coming off knee surgery. As it stands, the Broncos have one position that could be considered something close to a sure thing -- Chris Kuper at right guard. The rest is a complete toss-up.
That is, of course, what Training Camp is for. The Broncos have plenty of questions. Sure, it is fun for guys like me to try and answer them. It passes the time until the real answers show themselves, starting this Sunday. All we really know right now is we have hope. Enjoy it, because reality, whatever it is, is rapidly approaching.