Monthly Archives: April 2012

Against the Lakers, Nuggets need a Plan B

On the bright side, the Nuggets were the only professional basketball team — in fact, the only professional sports team — to be mentioned at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ dinner in Washington.

Jimmy Kimmel, the evening’s entertainment, noted the one-year anniversary of the secret mission to get Osama bin Laden, then speculated who might be next:

“Right now, Navy SEAL Team six is outside the Kardashian compound in Beverly Hills disguised as the Denver Nuggets so they can sneak in undetected,” he said. It was not his biggest laugh line of the night.

Anonymous as they may be to fashionable Angelinos such as Kimmel, the Nuggets, alas, were detected all too readily when they arrived at the Staples Center, just down the road from Beverly Hills, on Sunday afternoon to begin their first-round playoff series. The Lakers were ready and waiting. They blocked an astonishing fifteen of Denver’s ninety shots, including a playoff record-tying ten by center Andrew Bynum. Even the final score, 103-88, understated the Lakers’ dominance. Bynum finished with a triple double (ten points, ten blocks, thirteen rebounds) and his fellow seven-footer, forward Pau Gasol, was two rebounds and two assists short of matching the feat.

The Nuggets do two things extremely well, and the Lakers were ready for both of them. They run and they get to the rim. On Sunday, when they ran they found the Lakers waiting for them. And when they got to the rim, their shot attempts were swatted away with annoying regularity.

“We’ve got to adjust a little bit for the second game,” said Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari, who led the visitors with nineteen points. “We’ve got to change something.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. The Nuggets are now facing approximately the same problem they face almost every year at this time: The tactics that work so well for them during the regular season, outrunning and outscoring opponents, suddenly stop working. Given time to prepare, their playoff opponents emphasize getting back on defense and limiting the Nuggets’ opportunities to play in the open court. After leading the league in scoring at 104.1 points per game this season, the Nuggets were held to sixteen points below their average in Game 1.

They also permitted the Lakers to make half their shots, meaning they were taking the ball out of the basket half the time, which is not a good way to start the fast break. Point guard Ty Lawson, their leading scorer during the regular season with an average of 16.4 points per game, had just seven.

A week ago, when coach George Karl appeared on the Dave Logan Show, I asked him about the Lakers as a potential playoff opponent.

“The Lakers give everybody in the West a different matchup than every other team,” Karl said then. “They’re big. They play a power game, they play an inside game, which is so unusual in our game today, with Bynum and Gasol and Kobe (Bryant) on the perimeter. That would be a fun challenge. It would make us probably a better basketball team if we played the Lakers and figured out how to beat them because our big guys have come a long way this year, but giving them the test to beat the Lakers in the playoffs would be a tremendous final exam.”

It’s a good thing Game 1 didn’t determine the final grade.

The Nuggets are one of the few teams in the NBA capable of matching up with the Lakers’ size. They have three seven-footers of their own in Kosta Koufos, JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov. The problem is the Nuggets’ big men are not anywhere near as skilled as Bynum and Gasol. Sunday, Karl didn’t even try to match the Lakers’ size. The three Nuggets seven-footers played a combined thirty-seven minutes. Bynum and Gasol played seventy.

Rookie Kenneth Faried, listed generously at 6-8, got the lion’s share of Denver’s minutes at power forward, meaning the Nuggets looked very small against L.A.’s twin towers. Lakers coach Mike Brown deployed basically a zone defense down low, with Bynum retreating to the paint whether the player he was nominally guarding was there or not. Karl claimed he should have been called for about thirty illegal defenses. In theory, defensive three seconds should be called when a defender is in the paint at least that long without actually guarding anyone. In practice, it’s seldom called more than once or twice a game.

Informed afterward that Karl had made the complaint, Bryant smirked. “Of course he did,” he said.

“We’ve got to find a way to score the ball before (Bynum) gets to the paint because once he gets to the paint, he’s a big presence inside,” Gallinari said.

There is a tendency after the first game of a playoff series to believe that absent major changes in strategy, every game will go the way that one did, which is seldom the case. Lawson is bound to play better than he did Sunday, and the Lakers’ role players — Jordan Hill, Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks and Ramon Sessions — are unlikely to play as well.

Still, the Nuggets would do well not to serve up their shots to Bynum on a silver tray the way they did Sunday. If the Lakers’ center continues to frustrate their efforts to get to the rim, they’ll need a Plan B. Their shooters are not good enough to win the series from long distance. Generally, the best way to neutralize a shot-blocker is to go right at his chest, getting him into foul trouble, or drive toward him and and kick the ball to open teammates.

“I’m not going to criticize my team, but the start was disappointing,” said Karl, whose squad was outscored by thirteen points in the first quarter and by only two the rest of the way. “The start was too NBA regular season-oriented and not NBA playoff-oriented. We were kind of in cruise control trying to pick and choose, figure out what we’re going to do instead of just going at people. I thought we gave them seven, eight minutes of basketball where we weren’t aggressive and assertive. But there’s a lot of guys that haven’t been out there before, haven’t played a lot of playoff games.”

The second-youngest team in the postseason tournament, maybe the Nuggets will grow into the series. Maybe their young big men will give the Lakers’ bigs more competition. Maybe Lawson will rediscover the elusiveness that frustrated NBA defenses for much of the regular season.

This much we learned from Game 1: If the Nuggets hope to make the series competitive, they will have to do a better job of avoiding the Lakers’ goaltender.


It took a whole town to raise Derek Wolfe

The Broncos’ newest defensive tackle has a story made for the movies. Not quite as extreme as that of Michael Oher, the homeless kid who became an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens and inspired the movie The Blind Side, but pretty close.

Derek Wolfe doesn’t remember being homeless, exactly. He does remember staying at various friends’ houses growing up in Lisbon, Ohio. The closest he came to family were the sisters of his stepfather, not blood relatives but women who helped out when they could. He remembers one of them providing Christmas presents when he was little.

“I’ve never met my real father,” Wolfe told the Cincinnati Enquirer last summer as he prepared for his senior season at the University of Cincinnati. “I couldn’t even tell you his name.”

That fact contributed to his estrangement from his mother. “My mom just won’t tell me anything about him,” he said then. “I guarantee he doesn’t even know I exist. I’ve given my mom chances and chances and chances, but she obviously has some issues.

“I lived with my mother only when she was married to my stepfather. My mother married him when I was only about three months old, but after they got divorced, I moved out and lived with him. My stepfather and I got along well when I was young, and even after he got divorced from my mom, but when he got remarried, that’s when everything fell apart.”

Wolfe’s best friend was a kid named Logan Hoppel. “His family told me if I ever needed a place to stay, I could stay with them.”

When he found himself a child on his own, he took the Hoppels up on their offer. For the rest of his childhood, he stayed with various friends. Getting him to adulthood became sort of a community project.

“That’s who I was raised by, is my friends,” Wolfe told me Saturday just after his introductory press conference at Dove Valley. “I have great friends. They’re like brothers to me. Anytime I needed advice or needed some structure, they gave it to me. I can’t pick one out. I have a lot of friends, a lot of families. I’ve got two aunts that helped me a lot. There’s a ton of families that helped me; my whole town.”

As it happened, Hoppel had an older cousin, Adam, who ended up playing football at the University of Cincinnati. Wolfe didn’t know it at the time, but the generosity of his friend’s family had set him on a career path.

“My childhood, it was what it was, and it formed me into the man I am today,” Wolfe said less than 24 hours after the Broncos made the 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound defensive tackle their first pick in the 2012 draft, No. 36 overall.

“It’s never where you start, it’s always where you finish. Just like the draft. I may not have been a first-round pick, but I was their first pick. Now I’ve got to live up to that. I’m happy about it. I could dwell on the past if I wanted to, but what is that going to do? Just forgive and forget. That’s the way I like to look at it. If you sit around worrying about things, it’s just going to tear you down and tear you apart.”

As far back as he can remember, football was his escape from a life that was hard and frustrating in almost every other area. When I asked when he started playing, he knew exactly.

“I was seven. I liked to watch Reggie White. Don’t tell Mr. Elway this, but I liked Brett Favre. I wanted to be a quarterback and a defensive end. So that’s what I did. I played quarterback and defensive end my first year. Then they moved me to running back. I played running back until I got to like eighth grade or something.

“I actually cried when Elway beat us. Wait, I can’t say ‘us’ anymore. When we beat them. I was going to write hate mail to Mr. Elway because I was so upset. I told him that upstairs, too. I said, ‘You made me cry when I was eight years old.’ He just laughed at me and said, ‘Well, welcome to the good side.'”

It didn’t take Wolfe long to realize that playing football was what he wanted to do. His only other sport was wrestling, and he wrestled mainly to achieve better body control for football.

“When I was a junior in high school, I was like, ‘I want to play this forever; I don’t ever want to stop,'” he said. “Once I really started focusing on players and what to do, I started watching guys like J.J. Watt, guys like Justin Smith, just those guys that played every snap like it’s their last. Those are the guys I watched.”

Which is exactly what the Broncos saw in him — a motor that never stops. Some scouts have issues with him, which is why it was something of a surprise when the Broncos took him ahead of better-known defensive linemen such as Kendall Reyes of Connecticut, Jerel Worthy of Michigan State and Devon Still of Penn State. Not athletic enough, some say. Doesn’t deal well with double teams. Short arms.

The Broncos love his fire, his will to compete.

“On some testing things we do, he’s a high character guy and a guy that I think will bring a great attitude to our defense,” coach John Fox said.

“His background, you can see it in the way he plays,” Elway said.

“He’s really hungry,” Fox added.

“And that’s what makes him the player that he is,” Elway said. “And that’s why he’ll make us hungry on defense and he’s going to rub off on a lot of guys because he’s got a motor that doesn’t stop.”

A year ago, Wolfe almost made what he calls now “the worst decision of my life.” He nearly left school a year early to enter the draft, mainly to get a paycheck and escape poverty. He remembers sitting on his bed staring at seven dollars, all the money he had in the world.

“It was just like a breaking point,” he explained. “I was hungry. I was a month late on rent. Thank God one of my best friend’s mom owned the house we were staying at. I was just looking at it, like, ‘Seven bucks? Come on.’ I always have somebody I can go to, I’m never going to be without, but it’s like, when is enough enough? I’m tired of asking for things, you know?  I’m tired of having to go ask my friend. It’s demoralizing when you have to do that because I’m a very private person. I don’t like asking for anything. So it hurts when you have to do stuff like that. I was just tired of it.”

Cincinnati football coach Butch Jones used the most practical of arguments to change his mind: He told him he’d be costing himself a bundle by coming out early.

“I decided I came this far, why stop now?” Wolfe said. “Why cut it short? Why not just ride it out? I can do one more year, grinding and eating nothing but what they give me, basically. It all worked out.”

Adam Hoppel, whom he followed to the University of Cincinnati, was signed to the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad for a while but never played in a regular season game. Wolfe, the kid his family took in, now has a chance to compete for a starting job on the Broncos’ defensive line. How his skills play out remains to be seen, but he will never need motivation.

“If you could see my area, it’s dead,” Wolfe said. “There’s not a lot going on. I was on my own for a little while and I didn’t have anything. That’s the best way I can say it. Growing up, I didn’t have anything. It was hard to get cleats sometimes. It was hard to get wrestling shoes. It was hard to do anything. You had to fight for everything you had. That’s why I fight so hard. I’ll play this game as long as I possibly can because it’s my escape from what’s really going on.”


Fans hate, love second day of Broncos’ draft

The magic of the NFL draft, the thing that turns a soporific scouting exercise into must-see TV, is simple:

When it comes to football, everybody knows everything, and nobody knows nuthin’.

Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes around the game acknowledges you can’t actually judge a draft for a minimum of two or three years. Nevertheless, the entertainment imperative means everyone is going to grade it immediately anyway.

With that in mind, I invited reaction on Twitter (maximum 140 characters) to the Broncos’ second day, in which they selected defensive tackle Derek Wolfe of the University of Cincinnati, quarterback Brock Osweiler of Arizona State and running back Ronnie Hillman of San Diego State. Here’s a sample:

“C- minus for today, at best.”

“Quality draft so far, good picks for next year and the future, I really like the choices.”

“I would give them a D for the draft so far.”

“I’m not impressed either, but since I don’t pretend to be smarter than EFX, I’ll let the pros do their jobs.”

“In Elway I Trust. Go Broncos!!”

“I think Wolfe is excellent, Hillman is underrated and Osweiler is quizzical. EFX knows more about football than I do GO BRONCOS”

“McDaniels.”

“I’ll give you a single word… nonsensicle.”

“No cookie jar is out of the Broncos reach.”

“Unknown pig farmer to stuff the run, Small forward for a QB, and a firecracker RB. I am confused, not optimistic, but hopeful.”

“Drafting Plan B.”

“Puzzling – even if you like Osweiller he doesn’t help us win now – thought plan was to go all in while Manning here.”

“Did someone let Josh McDaniels back in the bldg?”

“Draft grade D-. Elway needs water wings as he is completely out of his depth with this debacle.”

“1) Need filled – DT 2) wasted pick on friend of Elway’s son – QB 3) Need filled – RB”

“Peyton Manning is the tree, the lights, and the stand. Now looking for tinsel. I’m happy.”

“I love how media experts think Elway was saviour for getting PM, but they now compare his draft to McDaniels.”

“All good except Osweiller. WTF? Need help now with Manning, not 4 yrs from now! He will never play. Hope I’m wrong.”

“Really, what does anyone really know at this point??”

“Need, toy, project…I had no idea the #Broncos were that close to a championship?”

“Broncos got who they wanted, not who others thought they should want. Elway said they don’t view the team the way others do.”

“Draft 2012 as grade C. Like DT Wolfe but really a QB and RB? NEED DEFENSE. Got lit up too much last year. Need CB SS LBs”

“East Coast brawn meets West Coast skills”

“it seems everyone knows better than those making decisions for the Broncos.”

“reminded me of mcdaniels drafts. Reaching when you don’t need to, leaving obvious picks on the board. Qb pick a waste”

“love it. Reached a lil on Wolfe, Qb of the future, and we have the next Lesean McCoy at RB! Not to bad.”

“whet a joke. Osweiler is a 4th round pick. @Denver_Broncos have so badly mismanaged this draft it’s incredible.”

“Underwhelmed. Could have waited for Wolfe and Hillman, no one would have picked them up…”

“Underwhelmed. Hoping time will tell, but we could have obtained each of these three later in the draft.”

Yes, those last two were different people, even if it doesn’t sound like it.

Anyway, you get the idea. I started fixing the spelling mistakes, then I stopped, so please don’t point them out.

The fact is, despite what people say, none of them can actually see the future. If they could, they’d be breaking the sports books in Vegas, not hanging out on Twitter. There have been hated picks on draft day that turned out well and picks greeted orgasmically that turned out poorly. Boring as it is, the tweet that comes closest to my own view was this one:

“I’ll let u know my reaction to the Broncos draft picks in 5 years. Because at this point, nobody really knows.”

Before we get to the Broncos’ take, here’s a sample of commentary from the players selected:

“There wasn’t a lot of contact like there was from the other teams,” said Wolfe, the 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound defensive tackle selected with the 36th pick after the Broncos had traded down twice, from Nos. 25 and 31. “It was kind of put under wraps; there was kind of a shock when they took me. I’m pretty excited.”

By the way, if you want to hear the interview Dave Logan and I did with Wolfe on KOA shortly after he was selected, you can find it here.

“I’m just absolutely ecstatic to be a Denver Bronco,” said Osweiler, the 6-foot-7, 242-pound quarterback selected with the 57th pick. “It’s a dream come true. I absolutely can’t wait to get to Denver and can’t wait to get to work and give everything I have to that organization.”

As for holding a clipboard behind Peyton Manning for a while, Osweiler said he was unconcerned: “A lot of quarterbacks might be upset about having to sit behind somebody, whereas I look at it as a tremendous opportunity to learn from one of the best, if not the best, quarterback to ever play the game.”

Personally, I like any draft pick who uses the word “whereas,” but that’s just me.

And, yes, Osweiler called Jack Elway, John’s son, one of his best friends at ASU, so if you want to believe the elder Elway used a second-round pick to do a favor to one of his kid’s pals, well, I’m guessing you may also think aliens killed President Kennedy.

Finally, we have Hillman, the 5-9, 200-pound running back that was perhaps the most electric offensive player in the Mountain West Conference. He played last year at 189 pounds, but weighed in at the NFL Combine at 200.

He is a man of few words. Asked if he had any contact with the Broncos prior to his selection, he replied: “Not that much.” Asked if he was therefore surprised to be selected by them, he replied: “Yes, I was. I was very surprised.

“I’m just going to come in and try to help win, that’s all I can do,” he added. “I’ll just bring my versatility to the team and being able to create more on offense.”

The Broncos gave the media wretches a change of pace when the second and third rounds were finished, sending coach John Fox downstairs in place of Elway, who had the duty the night before. So these comments are all from Fox.

On Wolfe:

“Derek’s a guy that played both 5-technique (defensive end in a 3-4 defense) as well as 3-technique, defensive tackle. He’s got good length, he’s got good speed for that length, 6-5, 300 pounds. He’s got a great frame. He can get bigger. Very, very productive as far as creating havoc on the quarterback mostly because he does a great job with his hands as far as snatching off things. I think the most productive sack guy of all the tackles in the draft. He’s got a great motor. On some testing things that we do, he’s a high character guy and a guy that I think will bring a great attitude to our defense.”

On Osweiler:

“He’s a guy that when we went to visit I thought had an outstanding interview, outstanding workout. I think he has a bright future. I don’t think you can ever have too many quarterbacks. I don’t think it’s going to be one of those things where Peyton Manning’s going to feel threatened by any stretch. He’s got great mobility for a guy that big, he’s got quick twitch. A tall body helps you see through some of those lanes you get in this league. All in all, I thought he was what you’re looking for in a prototypical quarterback in the National Football League.”

On who Hillman reminds him of:

“One of the big things was, no offense to Marshall (Faulk), but he broke all his records there at San Diego State. He fared pretty well. I think (Faulk) would be an example. That’s the first one that comes to mind. That’s pretty big shoes to fill. He’s kind of (Darren) Sproles-like. Very explosive. He’s dynamic when you hand it to him, check it down to him or even long passes to him. So he’s a pretty all-around running back.”

Fox was asked what separated Osweiler from the other quarterbacks available late in the second round in his mind.

“Everybody has their own evaluations,” he said. “The thing that was most impressive to us was his accuracy and mobility for a big guy and just his production in a young guy coming out. I’m sure he’ll learn a lot from Peyton Manning.”

I mentioned to Fox that Elway said the Broncos’ goal this year, like last year, was to find three starters in the draft. So I wondered if Fox had any misgivings about using the club’s second pick on a quarterback who obviously would not be starting.

“To create that competition, grooming a guy, bringing a guy in, I think is always good because it’s such a premium position,” he said. “And you never know what happens. It’s important to have depth. That’s an important position moving forward in time.”

Several questions tried to get at why the Broncos had Wolfe rated higher than a number of better-known defensive linemen who were available at No. 36, including Kendall Reyes of Connecticut, Jerel Worthy of Michigan State and Devon Still of Penn State.

“We evaluate it,” he said. “We look at a lot of tape. We work at it probably in most cases harder than most people who talk about it on TV. So we’ll stay true to what we do, not so much public opinion, and obviously we thought very highly of Derek.”

Was his high level of effort, his constant motor, a big part of what set him apart on the Broncos’ board?

“When we have our first team meeting, everybody that has one of those chairs obviously has some God-given talent or they wouldn’t have one of those chairs,” Fox said. “From experience, it’s the makeup of a guy that makes the difference. So we put a lot of stock in that.”

Just before he headed back upstairs, I asked if the Broncos took Osweiler with their second pick, at No. 57, because they had information that he was about to be taken by somebody else.

“Again, you just stay true to your board,” he said. “You don’t get all upset about that. That guy’s there, you like him, you’re committed to him, we’re committed to him and you pick your guy.”

The Broncos traded two picks to move up in the third round to take Hillman, so they are back to seven picks overall, meaning they have four remaining today: two in the fourth round (Nos. 6 and 13), one in the fifth (No. 2) and one in the sixth (No. 18). Tracking them by their overall numbers, they have Nos. 101, 108, 137 and 188 still to exercise.

Let me leave you with the line of the night. Janoris Jenkins, the cornerback from North Alabama by way of Florida, was taken by the Rams in the second round. He’s had some off-field issues, so someone asked him what made him different from the talented but troubled Adam “Pacman” Jones.

Replied Jenkins: “I never shot up a strip club.”


Broncos duck first day of NFL draft

Well, he wasn’t blowing smoke.

Here’s John Elway’s quote from Monday when I asked him about trading away the 25th pick in the NFL draft:

“We’re open,” he said then, at his pre-draft press conference. “I think that preferably, we’d like to go back. If there is somebody that likes somebody in our position at No. 25, we’re fine there, but we’re always open to go either way.”

Turned out that New England liked somebody at No. 25, Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower, so Elway moved back to No. 31, picking up a late fourth-round pick in the bargain.

Then it turned out Tampa Bay liked somebody at No. 31, Boise State running back Doug Martin, so Elway moved back again, to No. 36, trading in the late fourth-rounder he’d just obtained for an early fourth-rounder as part of the exchange.

“Well, we didn’t get anybody yet, but we will tomorrow,” Elway said when the long night was over. “When we looked at where we were, obviously we had some guys targeted that didn’t quite make it to us at 25, so we had some opportunities to move back with New England to pick up a fourth. We liked that, thought that was great.

“Then, when we had a chance to move back from 31 to 36 with Tampa again, our board looked the same. We thought we’d be able to get the same people at 36 that we could at 31 — or have the same pool of players there at 36 as we did at 31. By doing that, we moved up 25 spots to the top of the fourth.

“We really believe this is a deep draft. It’s not real thick at the top, but it’s pretty deep through the middle rounds. We thought by adding another good pick it gives us more options going into tomorrow. Plus we’ll still be able to get the same people that we had targeted that made it to us at 25, at 36.

“We’re excited about the day. Obviously, it’s a little bit of a downer when you don’t have a new player. But we’re excited about where we sit and the next two days are going to be exciting.”

So it sounds like everything went according to plan. Except you could make an argument that the Broncos should have taken either of the players taken in the spots they vacated.

Hightower is a 265-pound beast who was a team captain and called the defensive signals for Nick Saban at Alabama. Adding him to a linebacking corps that already includes Von Miller could have given the Broncos’ defense a muscular middle and a potential long-term leader. With D.J. Williams facing a suspension to start next season, adding a stud linebacker seemed to make sense, particularly one as talented as Hightower. Consider that the Patriots, who have made a habit of trading back in the draft, actually traded up to get him.

Martin is a versatile running back who could have served as the complement to Willis McGahee that everyone thinks the Broncos need.

So the players selected with the two picks the Broncos got in exchange — Nos. 36 and 101 — are likely to be compared to Hightower and Martin as time goes on to see if these moves were wise.

The bottom line is the Broncos traded out of the first round altogether, moving back eleven spots from 25 to 36, and received that early fourth-round pick (No. 101) in exchange. According to the draft value chart, No. 25 is worth 720 points and No. 36 is worth 540. So the Broncos lost 180 points by moving down, then regained 96 by adding No. 101. That’s a net loss of 84 points, although, if the Broncos actually do take the same player at 36 they would have taken at 25, the point loss is purely theoretical.

Going into today’s second round, the Broncos are holding two second-round picks (Nos. 4 and 25), one third (No. 25), three fourths (Nos. 6, 13 and 25), one fifth (No. 2) and one sixth (No. 18). Tracking the overall numbers, they hold Nos. 36, 57, 87, 101, 108, 120, 137 and 188.

When Elway said the Broncos’ board at No. 36 looks pretty much like the board at 25, he was also saying that neither Hightower nor Martin was near the top of their board at 25. When I asked if he knew that Tampa intended to take Martin at No. 31, he said he did not. If he didn’t ask, it seems clear he wasn’t overly concerned whether Martin would still be around later.

If he’s looking at defensive tackles, his statement about the board makes sense. Once Dontari Poe (No. 11, to Kansas City), Fletcher Cox (No. 12, to Philadelphia) and Michael Brockers (No. 14, to St. Louis) went off the board, the next group of interior linemen — Kendell Reyes of Connecticut, Jerel Worthy of Michigan State and Devon Still of Penn State — was available at 25, still available at 31 and remains available when the draft resumes Saturday evening with No. 33.

“Everyone saw the talent that we saw too,” Elway said of the top three defensive tackles. “When those guys started going like that, they went in a hurry. We thought we were going to have to get a little bit lucky for them to fall to us anyways. They’re good football players, and when they didn’t get to us that gave us the opportunity to start moving back a little bit.”

If Elway is looking at defensive backs, which he suggested Monday was a priority against the spread offenses that exploited the Broncos’ secondary last season, the top group of cover corners was also gone by the time No. 25 rolled around. Morris Claiborne of LSU went to Jacksonville at No. 5, Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina went to Buffalo at No. 10 and Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama went to Cincinnati at No. 17.

Cover corners who remain on the board include Janoris Jenkins of North Alabama, Josh Robinson of Central Florida, Brandon Boykin of Georgia, Jayron Hosley of Virginia Tech, Trumaine Johnson of Montana, Leonard Johnson of Iowa State and Jamell Fleming of Oklahoma, although most of them would be considered reaches near the top of the second round.

Three offensive options worth considering near the top of the second round are Wisconsin center Peter Konz, Stanford tight end Coby Fleener and Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill.

One other note from the first round merits mention. When Indianapolis made Andrew Luck the first pick, he became the tenth quarterback in the last twelve years to be the first overall pick. That only confirms the primacy of the quarterback position in today’s NFL. So it’s worth remembering that whatever they do in the draft, the Broncos’ biggest offseason move by far remains signing quarterback Peyton Manning as a free agent.


Elway: Broncos open to moving back in the draft

John Elway didn’t give away much in his mandatory pre-draft meeting with the media wretches Monday, but then, why would he? If he were more Machiavellian — and one day he might be, you never know — he would have engaged in a little misdirection of the sort Mike Shanahan used to attempt.

But Elway is still trying to be as honest as he can, which includes explaining why it would make no sense for him to show his hand publicly just before the draft.

Knowing his willingness to entertain specific position questions probably wouldn’t last long, I did get responses on two, and they were pretty different.

First I asked about defensive tackle, routinely listed by outsiders as the team’s greatest need. That need seems to dovetail nicely with a pick late in the first round because the class of 2012 is judged so deep at defensive tackle that as many as seven prospects have first-round grades from one analyst or another. Peter King of Sports Illustrated is not alone in matching the Broncos with LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers in his mock first round, although other observers have Brockers coming off the board well before the 25th pick.

Outsiders have been calling defensive tackle the Broncos’ greatest need ever since Elway and John Fox took over — in fact, since before that — and the Broncos’ brain trust has given no indication it agrees. It was widely expected to take Alabama tackle Marcell Dareus with the second pick last year, but chose Texas A&M linebacker and pass rusher Von Miller instead, judging him a higher impact player. The decision was vindicated in the short run: Miller was named the Associated Press defensive rookie of the year.

They signed veteran Ty Warren to play tackle, but when Warren went down in training camp, they picked up Brodrick Bunkley from the Eagles at the last minute. He played well enough to earn a five-year, $25 million free agent contract from New Orleans.

“We wanted to keep him but couldn’t do that,” Elway said of Bunkley. “We don’t feel as bad about our tackles as everybody else does. I think that we feel OK there. Ty Warren will be back coming off an injury and (Kevin) Vickerson is coming back and then we have some young guys in there where we feel like we’ll be OK. It’s not nearly the need in our minds that people think it is.”

Elway didn’t even mention veteran Justin Bannan, signed to return a year after being released just prior to the lockout. That doesn’t make the Broncos deep in talent in the interior line, but there’s a popular theory that when Peyton Manning is your quarterback, you’re going to be facing the pass a lot more than the run.

For that reason, the other area I asked about was the defensive secondary. I might have mentioned that Tom Brady toasted Broncos defensive backs in the playoffs last season with New England’s spread passing attack.

“We struggled all last year against anybody that spread us out,” Elway said. “That’s the thing. Every team has needs. It’s just a matter of the impact of the people you can find to help solve that need.

“You can never have enough good corners; you can never have enough good pass rushers. There is no question corner is another spot that is very vital if you’re going to be good on the defensive side because of where the game is going and the amount of spread offense that we’re seeing now, you have to be good in the secondary. But you’re only as good as your pass rush, too. You have to combine both of those. Obviously, our pass rush is better than it’s been, but we have to get better when people spread us out.”

In other words, unless Elway was blowing smoke, the Broncos’ interest in cover guys is greater than their interest in defensive tackles.

Since well before he took over the front office fifteen months ago, Elway has believed the modern NFL is all about the passing game. Offensively, he responded by wooing and winning Manning to play quarterback.

Defensively, he knows his team needs more capable defensive backs. He hopes free agent Tracy Porter will play a more physical style than released starter Andre Goodman, but changing the name tag opposite Champ Bailey didn’t affect the numbers game. Three young players — Chris Harris, Syd’Quan Thompson and Cassius Vaughn also figure in the pre-draft depth chart.

Still, as Elway reiterated several times, it all depends on how the board falls. He is determined not to overlook a potential difference-maker by reaching for a lesser player who would fill a need.

“The bottom line is we want to come out with players that are impact players,” he said. “As I said last year, you have a lot more misses in my mind when you draft to need. So we’re going to find the best players in positions of need but also try to find those impact players that are going to come in and help us right away.”

Repeatedly, Elways was asked to predict who might be available at No. 25. Repeatedly, he said he had no idea, which explains not only why attempts to predict the course of the draft are so entertaining, but also why they’re so futile.

“It’s just fluid,” he said. “It’s always changing. There are always surprises and you never know. Even though you know everybody has their mocks and everybody has their opinions on where different players should go or different viewpoints, when you have 32 teams, they are going to have different viewpoints on different players. I think No. 1, it’s very fluid and No. 2 is that you can’t rely on anything. It is going to be changing all the time. I think that’s probably the fun part about it. It’s so unexpected.”

So Elway views the draft pretty much the way he viewed playing the game. You go in with a game plan, knowing it may be turned on its head by an early surprise or two. Ultimately, success or failure is very likely to rest on the ability to make good decisions on the fly.

Offensively, speculation centers on the need for a running back to complement Willis McGahee and the possibility of adding a young quarterback to develop behind Manning. By the time he was asked about running backs, Elway had retreated to a general assurance that the club will consider players at every position. He was not much more forthcoming on the quarterbacks.

“There are some good prospects,” he said. “You never know. When you look at the two guys at the top (Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III), everyone kind of has them as franchise guys. I think for the most part it’s always a crapshoot, especially lower in the draft—not only that position, but all the different positions. You want to try to find the best packages that you can. There are some guys that are good athletes that are going to have a chance to be successful in the league. It’s just a matter of them getting in the right situations.”

The Broncos currently have Manning, Caleb Hanie and Adam Weber on their depth chart at quarterback. If they don’t draft one, they’re likely to bring in a street free agent or another undrafted college free agent (like Weber a year ago), at least for training camp.

When I asked if he was open to trading the No. 25 pick, Elway said he was. He also volunteered he is more likely to trade back than trade up.

“We’re open,” he said. “I think that preferably, we’d like to go back. If there is somebody that likes somebody in our position at No. 25, we’re fine there, but we’re always open to go either way.”

Elway and his front office crew are generally credited with a pretty good inaugural effort in the draft. Of course, starting at No. 2 is a lot easier than starting at No. 25. Their first and third picks last year, Miller and offensive tackle Orlando Franklin, settled in as starters. Their second, safety Rahim Moore, was an early starter who played his way out of the lineup, to the benefit of their fifth, Quinton Carter. Their fourth, linebacker Nate Irving, was advertised as a middle backer but ended up mainly a special teams player.

(The order of their picks does not necessarily reflect the round in which they were selected; Moore and Franklin were both second-round picks; Irving was a third and Carter a fourth.)

Their last four picks of 2011 didn’t do much as rookies, but Harris, an undrafted free agent, became the nickel back.

Once again, Elway’s goal is to find three starters. To do that, he insists, the Broncos will have to stick to their board and avoid reaching to fill needs.

“I think you can look at a lot of different areas that we have, but the bottom line is that we’re going to take the best player on the board at that point in time when it comes to us,” he said. “That’s why I don’t want to get into what our needs are. We’ll let other people figure that out. Going into the draft it’s important that other teams are guessing where you’re going to go. We’ll continue to do that.”


Jim Tracy: Not so stubborn after all

Questioned about his deployment of the Rockies’ B team last Sunday, manager Jim Tracy refused to give an inch. But he changed tactics today, and it paid off.

A week ago, with a rare chance to sweep a three-game series against Arizona, Tracy wrote out a Sunday lineup that featured only three regular starters — shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, right fielder Michael Cuddyer and third baseman Chris Nelson. Inasmuch as Nelson had become the regular earlier that day when Jordan Pacheco was optioned to Colorado Springs, the lineup had even more of a spring training “B” game feel than even the numbers suggested. The Rocks managed only two runs and the Diamondbacks salvaged the final game of the three game set, 5-2.

The wholesale substitution policy was especially annoying to fans after last season’s horrendous record on Sundays, when the Rocks lost seventeen Sunday games in a row on the way to a record of 6-19 on the day many families choose to take the kids out to the ballgame.

After last Sunday’s game, which dropped the Rocks’ 2012 Sunday record to 0-2, Tracy was asked what he would say to fans who paid full price for admission only to see him empty his bench onto his lineup card.

“One of the things that they’re going to have to understand is we have some guys on this club that if you run ’em out there every single day, April, May and June, when you get to July, August and September, when you start analyzing the ages of some of our players and realize that we’re playing at altitude and that rest and recovery in the cases of several of those are going to be very, very important to the success of this club,” he said.

“This club is built that on certain days, we’re going to have to do some different things. That’s all there is to it, or those guys, there’s not going to be much left of them for the second half of the season.”

He had a point. With Todd Helton, 38; Marco Scutaro, 36; and Ramon Hernandez, 35, all members of the starting lineup — to say nothing of the effects of altitude on recovery times that Tracy mentioned — the Rocks’ older regulars will need more days off than those of many other teams. And last Sunday, the problem was compounded by Carlos Gonzalez’s case of strep throat, which forced him from the lineup.

Still, I followed up his answer in the post-game press conference by asking why he couldn’t rest his regulars one or two at a time, throughout the week, rather than all at once, in effect trotting out a B team.

“You have a good young catcher,” he replied, referring to rookie Wilin Rosario. “You have a first baseman that we’ve talked an awful lot about the last couple of days. You know that situation there. You’ve got another guy sick that’s not even here at the ballpark. There are some days where you’d like to have it a heck of a lot different than it is, but if that’s the situation on a given day, you have to deal with it, that’s all.”

Tracy is one of the few managers in baseball willing to take on pretty much any question, but he dodged that one. Rosario being a promising young player does not explain why Hernandez must sit when most of the other regulars are also out. This seemed especially questionable in the Arizona game, which was rookie pitcher Drew Pomeranz’s first big league start of the season. Common sense seemed to suggest he be given a veteran battery mate. As it was, Pomeranz struggled and Rosario was in little position to help.

And even if Tracy’s other points were correct — Helton will get day games after night games off, which is the case many Sundays, and CarGo was unavailable — that didn’t explain why he chose to give the same day off to Scutaro, Hernandez and Dexter Fowler. To be fair, Tyler Colvin has been better than Fowler so far this season, so let’s call that one a voluntary tactical decision. But resting the three veterans — Helton, Scutaro and Hernandez — all on the same day was unnecessary.

If Tracy’s replies suggested he would not change his mind, his lineup today showed more flexibility. With a chance to win their third series in a row in a rubber match at Milwaukee, Tracy gave days off to three, not five regulars, and only one of the three veterans he rested a week earlier. In fact, he started Rosario for Hernandez on Saturday night so he could start Hernandez on Sunday with Helton out. And he paid the price — Rosario was charged with two passed balls, and it could have been three, Saturday night.

The other two regulars who got today off — Fowler and Nelson — were replaced by players off to better offensive starts — Colvin and Jonathan Herrera. So they were arguably deployed on merit, as Colvin was the week before, not to rest Fowler or Nelson, two of the lineup’s youngest players. So Helton was arguably the only starter given the day off so he could rest.

The three subs — Colvin, Herrera and Jason Giambi — collected three hits, scored two runs and drove in one in Colorado’s 4-1 victory.

Of course, if baseball named three stars of the game the way hockey does, the top two for the Rocks would have been pitchers. Jeremy Guthrie enjoyed his best start of the young season, surrendering one run and three hits in seven innings. After Rex Brothers began the eighth by allowing the first two batters to reach base on a walk and a hit, Matt Belisle came on to retire the heart of the Milwaukee order — Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. Belisle has yet to give up a run in seven appearances this season and his WHIP — walks and hits per inning pitched — is a microscopic 0.15.

Still, it looks as if Tracy decided to deploy a more competitive lineup than a week ago. Oddly, a mental mistake by Scutaro led to the Brew Crew’s only run. As Tony Soprano used to say, whaddya gonna do?

We’ll get a chance to see if Tracy’s change of tactics is permanent when the Rocks play host to the Mets at Coors Field next Sunday afternoon. But after today’s result, a more moderate pattern of substitution does seem advisable. Often accused by critics of stubbornness, Tracy should get credit for changing tactics that had been publicly questioned.

The Rocks have now won four of five and enter a series, in Pittsburgh, over .500 at 8-7, the first time that’s happened this season.


Elway: As a leader, Manning everything we thought

Almost a month after the Broncos announced the signing of Peyton Manning, the club’s brass is thrilled with the leadership role their new quarterback has assumed at Dove Valley.

Facing unprecedented restrictions in the new collective bargaining agreement on coaches working with players on the practice field, Manning immediately went to work organizing informal workouts with other members of the offense. When the rules prohibited them from working on the fields at Dove Valley, they scouted out high school fields they could use. As a result, he’s already had nearly a month of work with center J.D. Walton and receiver Eric Decker, among others.

“As a person, he’s everything that we thought he was,” Broncos executive vice president John Elway said Tuesday on the Dave Logan Show.

“As a football player, he’s a guy that is obviously a great leader and has taken control of that. Especially with the new offseason workout rules, with the coaches not being able to be on the field, we need a guy that takes control and Peyton’s done that Day 1. So he’s everything when it comes to the leadership side that we thought he was.”

Although neither Manning nor the Broncos are providing detailed updates on his progress rehabilitating from the multiple neck surgeries that forced him to miss all of last season, Elway confirmed the reports of other players that Manning is progressing well.

“He continues to improve and he’s out there throwing every day, so we couldn’t be happier,” he said. “I think the excitement in the building is extremely good and we’re looking forward to getting going. We’re looking forward to the draft and being able to find some guys there that can come in and help us this year. With the schedule coming out, we’re on our way, so we’re excited about it.”

When Manning met with reporters Monday, he was asked if he’d found time to get to know Denver and find a place to live or if it’s been all business. His reply:

“It’s been all business. Everybody’s asking me where I’m living. I been living over here, living here at the facility.”

The Broncos’ schedule, released Tuesday, is the second-toughest in the league based on the records of their opponents a year ago (139-117). But while the difficult early stretch jumped off the page — the Broncos play four playoff teams from last season in their first six games — Elway focused more on the road-heavy midsection of the schedule.

After playing three of their first four at home, the Broncos travel to seven of their next ten before finishing with two home games. That’s why, despite the degree of difficulty of the opponents, Elway believes the Broncos must get off to a quick start by taking advantage of the early home games.

“After the bye (following Week 6), we’re on the road five out of (eight) weeks,” he said. “That’s why it’s going to be so crucial to us to get off to a good start. I think we did a better job on the road last year than we have in the past, but we’re going to have to go in with the mentality of being able to win big games against good football teams on the road.”

The Broncos have five nationally-televised prime-time games — two Sunday night games, two Monday night games and a Thursday night game — including the first two, a Sunday night game at home against Pittsburgh in a rematch of last season’s playoff contest and a Monday night game at Atlanta.

It’s the first time they’ve had back-to-back prime time games since 2007 and the first time they’ve ever opened a season that way. They could also end up with a sixth national TV game if one of their Sunday games is flexed into a Sunday night game during Weeks 11-17.

“It’s going to be exciting opening at home against the Steelers,” Elway said. “Anytime you open at home on Sunday night there’s going to be great excitement with that, but we know that’s going to be an important football game for us because we’ve got to win those football games at home, especially the openers.”

In all, the Broncos play seven games against teams that qualified for the playoffs last year. Only the Super Bowl champion New York Giants’ opponents had a better combined record in 2011 (140-116).

“It’s an exciting schedule,” Elway said. “The fans should be excited about it. We’ll be ready for the challenge. We’ve got five playoff teams out of the first seven and the other two are San Diego and Oakland in our division. So we’re going to try to get off to a quick start. That’s why this offseason is going to be that important to us.”

Before any of that, of course, Elway and his front office and coaching staffs get a chance to fortify the roster further in next week’s NFL draft.

“With a year under my belt, I’m in a lot better shape than I was last year, even though I felt I was in pretty good shape last year,” Elway said. “But I think the experience and plus everybody working together, our personnel staff, Matt Russell, Brian Xanders, everybody’s done a tremendous job. And getting involved with the coaches and understanding the coaches, what we’re looking for on the defensive side as well as the offensive side, I just think that year of everybody being together is going to help us tremendously.”

Elway also said the club’s most recent addition, Manning’s friend and former teammate Brandon Stokley, should help other players adapt to the new quarterback and offense. Stokley is also a former Bronco and resident of Castle Rock. He was a workhorse slot receiver for Manning in Indianapolis from 2003-06, catching 68 passes for 1,077 yards in 2004.

“Obviously, he brings great experience,” Elway said. “He’s worked with Peyton before, he’s been in the type offense that Peyton has run. He understands what Peyton’s all about. Not only is he a fantastic receiver, he’s also going to be able to help everybody else, especially the receivers, understand the way the Peyton thinks and what he expects. So he’ll be a great leader for us in that room.”