Top 10 training camp questions
July 19, 2003
1 Will the real Broncos please stand up?
Denver started the first half 6-2 last season and established itself as an early Super Bowl favorite, only to collapse down the stretch in a string of close losses and near-misses. The company line is that the club was only a few plays from being a championship threat. But the reality is the Broncos weren't a playoff team, and have been only once since consecutive championships seasons in 1997-98. The attitude with which the players and coaches report Thursday will be the first sign whether the 2002 funk lingers or inspires.
2 How will quarterback Jake Plummer assimilate the offense?
The franchise's new poster boy has had his head in the playbook almost since signing with Denver, but the real nuts-and-bolts work starts now with the installation of the remainder of what is considered a complicated offense. Plummer needs to immediately show an ability to manage the offense efficiently without contributing the mistakes that plagued him with the Cardinals. He also must demonstrate big-play flair in tight spots.
3 Is the defense under Larry Coyer a destroyer?
Under former coordinator Ray Rhodes, Denver ranked sixth overall defensively, but 31st inside the red zone, 29th in third-down efficiency and 29th in takeaways. The Broncos could stop teams - just not when it counted. Enter Coyer, Rhodes' replacement. He's installing a defensive scheme that puts a premium on attacking the quarterback with the front four, pressing with his cornerbacks and, generally, creating confusion. Problem is, the Broncos defenders might have their heads spinning with only six weeks to work out the kinks.
4 Is the secondary a primary concern?
One Denver assistant coach maintains that the collection of talent at cornerback and safety eclipses that of the group last year. What the current crop doesn't have is much playing experience, which is the wild card. Scrappy Kelly Herndon and lanky Lenny Walls will be the two players mostly on the spot, trying to disprove the doubters who see their thin resumes and predict disaster. Second-year free safety Sam Brandon quickly must display polish to nab a full-time job.
5 How does Deltha O'Neal figure into the answer to question No. 4?
O'Neal has been an enigma. But with the question marks surrounding the rest of the secondary, he must produce consistently as a shutdown cornerback. Coach Mike Shanahan has said O'Neal has "more ability than anybody out there on the field," adding, "if he comes into camp possessed to be the best corner he can be . . . he'll be in the Pro Bowl again." But he's prone to bouts of pouting and loss of confidence, and he was benched last season as a wake-up call.
6 Will Ed McCaffrey hold off Ashley Lelie and regain his starting job?
McCaffrey turns 35 next month, and for the second consecutive off-season has been consumed by rehabilitation as much as preparation, after hernia surgery in March. The wide receiver won't relinquish his starting job without a battle. But Lelie's talents might be too great to overcome.
7 Will Tom Nalen and Dan Neil hold up?
It was a good-news, bad-news season for Denver's offensive line in 2002. The running game produced a team record 4.96 yards per attempt, yet Denver allowed 46 sacks last season, the most since 1994. The offensive line is expected to improve the latter number solely based on Plummer's ability to escape a rush. But a lot of that figures to depend on the health of two of the line's premier players. Right guard Neil, an underrated performer, underwent microfracture surgery after the season. Nalen, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, also required surgery. Both are expected to be full speed at camp.
8 How will some of the key special-teams jobs be divvied up?
The competition is wide open at punter, punt returner and kick returner. Micah Knorr is most accomplished at kicking off, and kicker Jason Elam hasn't excelled at that task. The job Elam covets, though, is a dual job as kicker-punter, and he'll get a look at the latter position. The dark horse is undrafted rookie Mat McBriar, an Aussie with a great leg but no experience at kicking off. Reuben Droughns will face competition from Chris Cole and Herb Haygood, as well as rookies Quentin Griffin and Adrian Madise, for his kickoff-return job. O'Neal sparkled as a punt returner in 2001 but never broke loose last season and could be displaced by Griffin, Madise or Haygood.
9 Will first-round draft pick George Foster get a real chance to displace Matt Lepsis at right tackle?
It's a long shot initially, particularly because Foster admits he knows just a fraction of the Denver playbook. But rehabilitation and a brace have helped Foster erase any concerns about the right wrist he dislocated in a car accident before his senior college season. And he has impressed so far with his range, power and size.
10 Will Clinton Portis put blinders on regarding his contract and concentrate on producing another monster season?
There's no question about Portis' starting status after he gained 1,508 yards and was feted as the league's top first-year player. More difficult to answer is how that performance ties into his contractual worth, given the star quality he displayed in 2002. In Portis' mind, he deserves a raise or at least incentives added to his contract. Shanahan quickly dismissed such thoughts at mini-camp and promised the Broncos would have "another back run for 1,200, 1,500 yards" if Portis were to be a no-show. It shouldn't come to that. The running back and his agent have promised that Portis will be at training camp on time. Still, Portis' mind-set remains to be seen.