ENGLEWOOD—As the start of training camp draws within hours, the Denver Broncos are not burdened with their usual high expectations.
For the first time since 2011, the Broncos are coming off a season in which they did not qualify for the postseason.
Predictions have come in accordingly. A few have the Broncos eking into the playoffs. (I have them, 10-6 with a first-round playoff win). Many more have them finishing around .500, or 8-8.
There are questions greeting the Broncos as they begin camp practice Thursday morning and there are what-if questions.
The Broncos’ biggest what-if question of 2017: What if Jamaal Charles can play like Jamaal Charles again?
If Jamaal is Charles again, the Broncos’ offense can transform immediately from mediocre to very good. And if the offense is very good, and the defense can again be very good, the Broncos can be better than good. They can be very good.
Continuing with our 9News countdown on the top 9 things Broncos fans should look for as training camp opens:
No. 2: Jamaal Charles’ return to form.
Think of all the great NFL running backs. Jim Brown. Walter Payton. Terrell Davis. Barry Sanders. Adrian Peterson.
The career 5.45 yards per carry by Charles through his first nine NFL seasons in Kansas City beats all of them.
“When I left Kansas City, I was still at the top,’’ Charlies said on June 5. “It’s just the injuries. As long as I can control injuries—you really can’t control it. The best thing is just wishing for luck.”
When Charles is at his best, he is great. He had back-to-back seasons of 1,120 and 1,467 rushing yards in 2009-10, then tore his left ACL in the opener of 2011.
He came back to rush for 1,509, 1,287 and 1,033 yards in his next three seasons of 2012-14, then tore his right ACL in game 5 of 2015.
He did not bounce back in 2016, as in three games he had just 40 yards on 12 carries – a 3.3 clip that marked the first time he did not average at least 5.0 yards per carry in a season. He also had another knee surgery to repair a damaged meniscus.
After the season, the Chiefs released him. Two knee surgeries in two seasons and his 30th birthday last Dec. 27 ended Charles’ tenure in Kansas City.
“I was fired,’’ Charles has said more than once.
On May 2, the Broncos signed him on a one-year, nothing-to-lose, everything-to-gain contract. They kept Charles out of the team’s entire offseason program so training camp will be the first time anyone lays eyes on his comeback attempt.
If the team determines Jamaal isn’t Charles again, it can cut him and pay him nothing more than a $100,000 workout bonus he has already earned.
If Jamaal is close to being Charles again and dresses for the Broncos’ season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, he will make at least $1.328 million. If he plays in 16 games and does nothing spectacular, he will make $2.5 million.
If he plays in 16 games, accumulates 1,400 yards rushing and receiving combined, and the Broncos reach the playoffs, he will earn $3.75 million.
It’s the kind of contract where Charles first has to make the team. But if he does, he may well jump ahead, or alongside, C.J. Anderson as the Broncos’ top running back.
The Broncos’ new offensive scheme has Charles betting on the latter.
“I’m happy to be a part of that, to put me in space, to put me in at wide receiver, to catch the ball out of the backfield and even run the ball between the tackles,’’ Charles said.
No. 3: Stay healthy
We could have easily rated this No. 1 in the 9News countdown to Broncos’ training camp.
Late in training camp last year, the Broncos lost their starting left defensive end Vance Walker to a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee.
The Broncos slipped from No. 3 in run defense in 2015 to No. 28 in 2016. Walker wasn’t the only reason the Broncos tumbled from stout against the run to anemic. But he was a bigger factor than given credit for.
Other factors were the loss of the player Walker was supposed to replace, Malik Jackson, to free agency; a Super Bowl hangover; and injuries that caused the absence, or effectiveness, of inside linebacker Brandon Marshall, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and defensive end Derek Wolfe.
During the recent offseason, three key defensive reserves suffered significant injuries: Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett (hip), defensive tackle Kyle Peko (foot) and defensive end Adam Gotsis (knee).
Although those players are expected to return some time during training camp, it may be a few weeks into the regular season before they can contribute.
The Broncos can’t afford any more hits to their defensive depth. And an injury setback to any starting player would be difficult for a team projected to finish third in the four-team AFC West to overcome.
No. 4: New coach in charge
After paying his dues through 17 years as a coaching assistant at the college and NFL levels, Joseph is on a sudden ascent of authority. He was a first-time defensive coordinator for Adam Gase’s Miami Dolphins last year. He is a first-time head coach for John Elway’s Broncos this year.
Bronco players so far have been extremely complimentary of Joseph’s leadership style. He seems to have a nice feel for when to let things go, and when to firm up the message. When to keep it loose, and when to get serious.
Primarily, he takes a business-like approach.
There is still much left for Joseph to show, however. Beginning with how he uses training camp and the preseason to get the Broncos’ prepared for their opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, and the 16-game regular season.
Training camp is the only time all year Broncos fans sitting on the grassy berm can hear the coaching. Is Joseph a quiet sort during practice, or a yeller? Is he a hands-on coach like Gary Kubiak, or observe and delegate like John Fox?
There will be trouble throughout the season, both in the locker room and on game day. Is he a cautious-type from the sideline or will he be aggressive?
During camp, the players will come out with energy but the key is to keep them motivated when practices become drudgery during those hot summer mornings.
No. 5: Garett Bolles and the offensive line
The Broncos used their No. 20 overall draft pick on left tackle Garett Bolles from Utah. It does not appear the team will wait long to break him in.
Bolles began his offseason work lining up with the second-team offense as first, Donald Stephenson, and then, Ty Sambrailo played left tackle with the first team.
By the final minicamp in mid-June, Sambrailo and Bolles were rotating at left tackle with the first-team offense.
The expectation is Bolles will be the starting left tackle by the time the Broncos play their regular-season opener Sept. 11 against the Los Angeles Chargers. But Sambrailo will have a chance to alter those plans.
The offensive line was considered the Broncos’ biggest weakness last year as it ranked 24th in the league with 40 sacks allowed, and it’s running game averaged just 3.6 yards per carry to rank 28th.
The selection of Bolles was one upgrade, even if he may need at least half a season before he shows why he was a first-round draft pick. Broncos general manager John Elway also signed free agent guard Ron Leary from Dallas and right tackle Menelik Watson from Oakland to a combined $16.94 million in 2017 cash alone.
Returning two-year starting center Matt Paradis has been cleared for camp after missing the entire offseason to recover from surgeries on each hip. Max Garcia returns at left guard.
Sambrailo (if Bolles becomes the starting left tackle), Stephenson, Michael Schofield, Connor McGovern, Billy Turner, Dillon Day and Justin Murray will compete for the three or four reserve offensive line spots.
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: (Scratch the) Barbecue Fireworks
This had been about John Elway not having a contract extension and the possible media barbecue tension between the general manager and team president Joe Ellis.
Never mind. Elway and Ellis reached agreement on a five-year contract extension Monday. The barbecue will now include a healthy serving of Kumbaya.
Ellis had been trying to sign Elway to a new deal 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 was upon the Broncos and there was no deal. But as it turned out, all Elway needed to do was get to his office.
He took some time off as everyone associated with the NFL did the past five weeks.
Elway returned to his office Monday. Voila! An agreement on a new deal was reached.
It was not a surprise. Elway was not about to become a distraction to his team’s preparations for their regular-season opener Sept. 11 against the Los Angeles Chargers.
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.’’