Ah, training camp. Where hope springs eternal, and every team is undefeated. Where rookies sing their college fight song, and vets try to pull a muscle or renegotiate a contract to get out of those hot afternoon practices. Where fans like me who just can’t wait for the season to start are greeted by the smell of the grass, the pop of the pads, and the grunts of the linemen. It’s great to get that dirt n’ sweat, hittin’ somebody, football feeling again. The NFL season is almost here, Sharks. I have seen it, and it is good.
Well, it’s not all good. At least not for my beloved Broncos. I watched camp on day two, (Saturday, July 26th) and already two of the Broncos top draft picks are out with injuries. George Foster, a first-round pick at tackle out of Georgia, sprained his ankle and won’t be taking the field for a few days. Fourth-round running back from Oklahoma, Quentin Griffin, broke his fibula and could be out for 4-6 weeks. It’s a bummer for the fans, and for this article, as these were the two rookies I was most looking forward to seeing in action. But two-a-days roll on without them, and there was plenty to see in spite of these notable exceptions. Let’s break down the important positions and see what my boys in the orange and blue have to offer this year.
Topping the list is Jake Plummer. Bronco fans and fantasy owners are wondering, is he the next John Elway? Or the next Brian Griese? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I can report that he’s getting a lot of practice snaps and spending a lot of time with the coaches going over plays. That’s to be expected on the second day of practice for a guy learning a new system. Plummer throws the ball hard – he zipped some bullets to the sidelines on short out routes, and fired some missiles across the middle that bounced off hands and pads. He also evaded the pass rushers and picked up some yards on the ground. What I saw was encouraging, but it’s going to be a while before I have a good read on Jake. Steve Beuerlein looked sharp, drew the defense offsides a few times with the hard count, and made some good throws. He’s a vet who knows the offense and he definitely looked the part.
A weird thing happens at training camp when it’s a hot afternoon, and guys are out there for their second practice of the day. All the rookies that are fighting for a spot on the roster look spectacular. They’re flashing sprinter speed, leaping in the air for balls, and basically doing everything they can to catch the coaches’ attention. The vets and superstars all look bored. They know the plays, they know they have a job, so they just go through the motions. Except for one guy – my man Clinton Portis. Maybe it’s those orange shoes he wears that just make him look faster, but Portis was charging hard, putting moves on the linebackers, and sprinting all the way to the end zone every play. He didn’t run many plays, but everything I saw tells me that he is the real deal and he is out to prove something this year. A couple of rookies, Ahmaad Galloway of Alabama and Cecil Sapp of Colorado State, also looked very good running the ball. Galloway displayed good field vision and good speed bursting through the hole. If Griffin has problems coming back from his injury or doesn’t impress the coaches, Galloway could find himself with a backup job.
Ashley Lelie is generating a lot of excitement this year in fantasy drafts. Unfortunately, I just didn’t see much urgency in his practice. He looked just as bored as many of the veterans, not like a guy who thinks he has a chance of taking Ed McCaffrey’s job. It’s only one practice, and very early, but from what I saw Lelie is still a year away from having that breakout season. McCaffrey and Rod Smith both looked fine, making plays on the few passes that came their way. One other player who caught my eye was undrafted free agent Darcy Levy. He has that prototype receiver size at 6-2, 200 pounds and he was flying all over the field, leaping for passes and drawing some oohs and aahs from the crowd. In the grand scheme of things, he probably doesn’t have much chance at making the roster, but certainly not for lack of effort. If the coaches take notice in the same way the crowd did, he could find himself in the mix come September.
There wasn’t much to see here. Shannon Sharpe was hanging out in shorts and a fishing hat, joking around with the linebackers. I really have no idea why he wasn’t suited up. He’s not hurt, so the best guess I can venture is that he gets VIP treatment as the elder statesman of the team. Dwayne Carswell is a very large man. That’s why they call him “house”. He didn’t catch a single pass in team drills, but he seemed to be blocking just fine. Backups Patrick Hape and Jeb Putzier didn’t see much action other than blocking duties.
Last year’s defense ranked 6th in the NFL, based on yards allowed per game. But the tendency to give up big plays in crucial situations, and a bad habit of allowing 3rd down conversions, led to some serious changes this year. Ray Rhodes is out as defensive coordinator and former assistant Larry Coyer is in. The Broncos also made great efforts to improve their pass rush, drafting four defensive linemen and paying big bucks to sign free agent Daryl Gardener. Gardener has already been a big disappointment, breaking his wrist in a late-night fight in the parking lot of an IHOP. And as I write this, I see that rookie defensive tackle Nick Eason did not show up for practice on Tuesday. Eason was one of the players I was impressed with on the defensive line, but I don’t think an unexcused absence will impress coach Shanahan very much. (Update on Eason – he returned to practice on Friday, and the team seemed to welcome him with open arms. Only time will tell if his “personal issues” will affect his chances of making the team. The competition is tough on the D-line this year.)
The picture is not much better in the secondary, with both of last year’s starting corners gone, and as many as six guys competing for those spots. 2001 Pro Bowler Deltha O’Neal will likely man the right side, while the left could be taken by Lenny Walls, Kelly Herndon, or Willie Middlebrooks. The safety positions are up in the air as well – all I can report is that coach Shanahan spent a few minutes ripping into Kenoy Kennedy during Saturday’s practice, and then took a short break to bring the whole team together. You don’t want to be that guy, Kenoy. No, you don’t. At least I know that the linebackers can be counted on – the Broncos have one of the best tandems in the league with John Mobley, Al Wilson, and Ian Gold. These guys are proven and they can sense fear coming from opposing running backs. Also impressive during practice was 2nd rounder Terry Pierce out of Kansas State.