Hard to believe, but the Denver Broncos open their first training camp of the post-Mike Shanahan era in three short weeks.
Rookies report July 27, followed by the veterans on July 30, later than usual because the calendar pushed everything back (starting with Labor Day on Sept. 7, the latest possible day). That means Denver won't kick off its regular season until Sept. 13 at Cincinnati.
Most recent headlines have focused on whether Brandon Marshall, the Broncos' beleaguered star receiver, actually will play for Denver this season. One of the latest rumors has suggested Marshall going to Cleveland (perhaps for wideout Braylon Edwards, which might be good for both teams). In reality, Marshall can't afford to blow the final year of his first pro contract, with huge money looming in his future.
Regardless, new head coach Josh McDaniels has one factor totally on his side: Nobody can accuse Denver of having to deal with overinflated expectations. And that's understandable, with a rookie head man and so many other changes, not to mention the Broncos' foreboding schedule.
It's funny, because after so many years of having written about Denver and being far more realistic (in other words, negative) than the Broncomaniacs, I continue now to see this team as being potentially one of the NFL's biggest surprises of 2009.
How can that happen, you ask? Here's a quick list of five players who could make the most difference:
• Kyle Orton. Denver's new quarterback continues to be widely criticized, but he's never had so much speed and skill around him, and he's never had a system nearly as sophisticated as the one McDaniels has brought from New England. Also, being a level-headed, disciplined, gutsy leader will make him quickly stand out compared to Jay Cutler. As soon as Orton has one big game, even in the preseason, teammates and fans will totally embrace him. Count on it.
• Eddie Royal. Many have forgotten what a solid rookie season he had last year (91 catches, 980 yards, five touchdowns). He also fits the mold of receivers from New England's Super Bowl winners (Deion Branch, Troy Brown, David Patten, David Givens); remember, the Patriots still haven't won an NFL title with Randy Moss. Watch how Royal blossoms even more in McDaniels' system, along with rookie receiver Kenny McKinley, who could be as good as Royal.
• Brian Dawkins. All stats aside, Denver's biggest defensive shortcoming the past few years has been lack of leadership. Dawkins may be an aging safety at 35, but he'll set an example for everyone around him and make sure the younger guys stay focused.
• Knowshon Moreno. It's hard to imagine him having quite as much immediate impact as, say, Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, but it's possible. Moreno will deliver big plays and can catch the ball. His running instincts and explosiveness, though, are why Denver picked him in the first round.
• Andra Davis. Denver had to have a veteran inside linebacker, and Davis is that guy. If he and D.J. Williams mesh well as the inside tandem, along with Wesley Woodyard, that 3-4 defense could be decent.
Others will help determine how far Denver can go in 2009. Like rookie cornerback (and kick returner) Alphonso Smith, who might be an instant starter. Or kicker Matt Prater, coming off a lackluster 2008. Or fullback Peyton Hillis, another plugger who might make McDaniels look good, and vice versa.
Sure, the Broncos have concerns. But three weeks before veterans report, they don't look like pushovers in 2009. Not at all.