KUSA—A game of word association was played with various recesses in my mind.
Training camp: Hot.
Training camp: Blazing sun. (Two words. Some parts of my brain do not strictly follow orders).
Training camp: Misery.
Training camp: Fight! Fight! (Sometimes, a word must be repeated).
Training camp: Derek Wolfe. (Nuff said).
To the central figure in my brain, when it thinks of training camp, it thinks of fights. Broncos offensive players vs. Broncos defensive players.
There are but six days left until the Denver Broncos conduct their first training camp practice. We at 9News began our countdown to camp with 9 days remaining by giving Bronco fans 9 topics to look for – one each day.
No. 6: Fight! Fight!
It will be a couple days before Broncos coaches can put their players in pads so there may not be a skirmish in the first practice or two.
But there is almost certain to be an intramural dust-up or four before the Broncos play their first preseason game in Chicago on Aug. 10 – which, by the way, is less than three weeks away.
And chances are, Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe will be directly involved as tempers flare. There aren’t any more two-a-days in training camp, as the afternoon session is restricted to a walkthrough. Still, put 90 guys together in the same locker room or practice field all day, every day and it’s natural for grown men to get sick of each other.
The Broncos are especially scrappy on defense, where Wolfe, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and T.J. Ward have all been known to mix it up.
And that’s just the starting players. An added battle element to camp is all those no-hoper reserves who will scratch, claw, bite and kick – anything it takes to draw the coaches’ attention.
Team general manager John Elway tried to bring some edge to his offense this offseason by signing guard Ron Leary and right tackle Menelik Watson and drafting former bad boy left tackle Garett Bolles in the first round.
In fact, the early odds have Bolles and Wolfe going at each other at least once before the players get a second day off on Aug. 6.
No. 7: No. 3 receiver competition
Not since Wes Welker’s final healthy season of 2013 have the Broncos had a legitimate No. 3 receiver threat.
Welker had 73 catches and 10 touchdowns that season. His production fell to 49 catches and two touchdowns in 2014.
Jordan Norwood was the Broncos’ No. 3 receiver the past two seasons. He had just 22 catches and zero touchdowns in 2015; 21 receptions and one touchdown in 2016.
The Broncos must get more production from their receivers behind their Pro Bowl tandem of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders this season.
And they will, if only because new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy figures to employ more three-receiver sets than Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison did in 2015-16, when there were often two tight ends and a fullback.
So who will be the No. 3 receiver in 2017? The Broncos drafted Carlos Henderson in the third round this year to eventually fill that role.
“At this level, everybody can run and jump,’’ Henderson said two months ago. “It’s the small things that you do that separates yourself from the rest of the greats. Once I continue to work on the small things and critique the errors and mistakes that I make, the rest will take care of itself.”
Rookie receivers, though, often take a while to emerge. Thomas had just 22 catches as a rookie. Former Broncos’ standout No. 2 receiver Eric Decker had six catches as a rookie, then 85 by his third season of 2012. Sanders had 28 catches for Pittsburgh in his first season of 2010. It wasn’t until his fourth season in Pittsburgh and fifth season overall, first with the Broncos, that Sanders broke out.
Cody Latimer was the Broncos’ second-round draft pick in 2014. He has just 16 receptions total in three seasons.
Latimer is a contender for the No. 3 position this year, as is Bennie Fowler III, Jordan Taylor and rookies Isaiah McKenzie and Henderson.
Among the returning receivers, Fowler is the most accomplished. He had 16 catches in his first season in 2015, but he slipped to 11 last season as he struggled to overcome two separate injuries.
McKenzie was primarily drafted as a returner, but he also had 44 catches with seven touchdowns as a junior last season for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Broncos head coach Vance Joseph has seen enough of the 5-foot-8, 173-pound McKenzie to vow to use him as an offensive multi-threat weapon who could line up in the slot and the backfield.
The Broncos’ preferred blueprint, though, would have Henderson come on at some point this season. As a Louisiana Tech junior last year, Henderson had 82 catches for 1,535 yards – an impressive 18.7-yard average – plus another 133 yards rushing on 9.5 yards per carry.
He had 23 touchdowns total last season – 19 receiving, two rushing and two off kick returns.
At 5-foot-11, 199 pounds, Henderson is strong after the catch, and smells the goal line.
Perhaps, Henderson can become the next Eddie Royal, who set a franchise rookie record with 91 receptions in 2008 – 40 more than the next-best rookie receiver Vance Johnson in 1985.
No. 8: Barbecue Fireworks
The next time the Broncos are expected to have media availability is on veteran report day, next Wednesday with the annual media barbecue. Expected to speak at this luncheon are Elway, the Broncos’ general manager, Ellis, the team’s chief executive officer, and head coach Vance Joseph.
Ellis has been trying to sign Elway to a contract extension since shortly after the Super Bowl. Initially, both parties talked confidently about a deal getting done.
A little more than five months later, training camp is upon the Broncos and there’s no deal. Elway has one year left on his current contract so if he were any one of the other 31 NFL GMs, no would give a flip about his contract extension talks.
But he is John Elway, the franchise’s icon since he battled his way here in 1983. Elway, it seems, loves a good fight at the bargaining table. Starting with the beginning when he refused to play quarterback for the Baltimore Colts and forced a trade to Denver.
As a GM, he initially asked Peyton Manning – Peyton Manning! – to take a $10 million pay cut before settling on a $4 million reduction. He got Von Miller so infuriated during contract negotiations last summer, the Broncos’ pass rushing linebacker hinted at a trade demand while defiantly trimming his boss out of a group photo that was posted on his Instagram account.
There have been other contentious negotiations involving Elway but let’s stop with the two greatest Bronco players of the past two decades.
There have also been reports of strained relationships with his past two head coaches, John Fox and Gary Kubiak. All they did is combine for two Super Bowl appearances and five division titles in six years.
And several of his top front-office staffers have either left, or were fired, including former general manager Brian Xanders.
Even assistant coaches haven’t been immune from the wrath of Elway. Where have you gone, Wade Phillips? It was nice knowing you, Adam Gase.
And now Elway is sitting across from Broncos’ management at the negotiating table. There has been speculation Elway is asking for more than just a salary. Rumors that Elway wants an ownership stake, however, don’t make sense because unless he can secure 51 percent, he won’t have controlling interest. All 10, 20 or 49 percent ownership would get him is a nicer suite. It would not get him voting rights on team matters.
And while Elway has done well with his various business investments over the years, he probably doesn’t have the $1.22 billion necessary to secure majority interest of a team that Forbes recently valued at $2.4 billion.
Besides all that, it appears the team’s trust does not have authority to grant a part ownership stake.
If Elway is asking for more than a straight salary, some people might say, “Who does Elway think he is?’’
To which thousands may retort on social media: “He’s John Elway! That’s who!’’
All Elway has said, in a text to 9News, is reports regarding his contract situation have not been true.
It would be a surprise if the Broncos haven’t submitted an offer that would make Elway the league’s highest-paid GM – a distinction many publications have reported as belonging to Seattle’s John Schneider at $3.75 million per year.
It would also be a surprise if Elway and Ellis didn’t reach an agreement before the regular-season opener Sept. 11 against the Los Angeles Chargers. The more attention Elway’s contract situation draws, the greater distraction it becomes.
How can management expect the players to play as one on the field if there’s dissent upstairs?
No. 9: Isaiah and the returners
The first time Isaiah McKenzie ever returned a football for keeps was his freshman year at American Heritage High School in Plantation, Florida.
It was the season opener against Clewiston High School. McKenzie had played football from sunup to sundown with about 100 kids on the street outside his apartment in a poor, crowded section of Miami. But this would be his first big moment on a football field. He was raw, an oh so small – he was listed at 167 pounds by his senior year, but he appeared even scrawnier as a freshman -- so his coaches didn’t let him play receiver or running back much at first. But he made the varsity team as a returner.
“It was the very first kickoff return,’’ he said. “And I took it to the house.’’
You can look it up, as we did. He went 78 yards for a score in a 26-21 win on Sept. 3, 2010.
Seven years later, McKenzie is a fifth-round rookie out of Georgia, listed at 5-foot-8, 173 pounds, and the favorite to handle the Broncos’ return duties this season.
McKenzie is especially stellar as a punt returner. He had five touchdowns off punt returns at Georgia, one off a kickoff.
“I would say kickoff return you have to have a scheme, you have to have a setup, you have to have people in place to get the right timing to hit a hole,’’ McKenzie said. “Punt return, anything can happen. It might be a right return that turns into a left return. They’re very different, but they’re both good. I like them.’’
Carlos Henderson, the Broncos’ third-round rookie receiver from Louisiana Tech, will also get a chance to handle the kickoff role, as will returning receivers Kalif Raymond and Cody Latimer.
Henderson returned two kickoffs for touchdowns as a redshirt junior last year.
The Broncos desperately need some juice in their return game. One reason is because they haven’t had excitement in their return game since Trindon Holliday in 2012. Another is the Broncos’ offense struggled to score, averaging just 20.8 points per game to rank 22nd in the league.
The offense could use either the occasional score from special teams, or the chance to start a couple drives a game past their 30.
There are plans to use McKenzie as an offensive weapon, both as a slot receiver and running back, much as Kansas City used fifth-round rookie Tyreek Hill last season. This is a copycat league. But for starters, McKenzie must concentrate on making his mark as a returner.
“Yes. And I try to show them every day I can be a receiver as well,’’ McKenzie said in a sit-down interview with 9News during the Broncos’ final offseason week of minicamp. “But I love punt return and I love special teams all together. And then saying I can be the No. 1 punt returner coming in, I take heed to that and do the job the best way I can.’’