News & Info/Headlines

Broncos Working Late; Bell Ready To Prove Himself...
As Rocky Mountain News beat man Jeff Legwold initially reported Wednesday, Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan is taking one last look at his squad in the team's final collective on-field workouts before training camp.

And Shanahan is going deeper into summer than anyone else in the league to get that look.

"I like the schedule, I like the way things have worked out," Shanahan said recently of the later than usual mini-camp. "We've never done it this way before, but I thought we'd give it a try."

For the record, Denver began their final off-season mini-camp Wednesday. It runs through Friday.

While most of any team's off-season program technically is voluntary -- although as Legwold suggested, "coaches around the league, however, usually are unforgiving to those who miss much of it" -- the current collective-bargaining agreement allows coaches to make three days of each off-season mandatory for players.

This three-day mini-camp represents the Broncos' allotment of mandatory workouts, so the unexcused can be fined. It also makes Denver the only team to have a mini-camp in July.

It also is the first time Shanahan has taken full-team, on-field workouts into July during the off-season since he became coach in 1995. Broncos players will report for training camp July 28, with their first practice scheduled for July 29.

"But I like the pace we've had so far," Jake Plummer said. "I think everybody's been able to stay at it, get a lot done, and then we'll have a nice little break before we come back for what we hope is a good long run."

In fact, team officials were quite pleased with the overall success of their off-season program.

Always one of the better-attended programs in the NFL, observers have reported that this year has been Denver's best ever. On a given day, there were 60-65 players working out.

According to Legwold, Shanahan and his assistants have spent most of the off-season tinkering with two major trouble spots -- trying to create more turnovers on defense and solving the slowdown on offense last season inside opponents' 20-yard line.

The latter is a concern because, though the offense ranked fifth in the league in yards a game, it finished ninth in points and scored touchdowns only 49 percent of the time it got inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

Legwold offered a litany of reasons for the shortcomings, citing opposing defensive coordinators as his source.

First, the Broncos lacked an impact playmaker in the scoring zone last season; then, even after piling up the yardage between the 20-yard lines, they did not have a running back who consistently could punch the ball in; and the Broncos did not have a receiver who won enough one-on-one matchups on a short field if Rod Smith was double covered.

The Broncos are hoping 42-year- old Jerry Rice can help in that regard and players such as tight end Jeb Putzier, who often was removed when the offense moved inside the 20, and free-agent tight end Stephen Alexander can add a little more pop.

"And we have to find some of those touchdowns," Plummer said. "We do some good things on offense, but when we get down there, we have to finish those drives. That's on me and everybody else in the offense, and I think we can be a lot better down there. ..."

Meanwhile, as Pro Football Weekly advised readers last Monday, don't be fooled by the fact Mike Anderson was listed as the No. 1 running back for the team's previous mini-camp.

The Broncos are excited with the way Tatum Bell has committed himself to the weight room (adding 10 pounds of bulk) and to learning the playbook, and he's all but certain to be given first crack at the starting job.

And while he might not sound as quite as brash as he did prior to his rookie campaign -- "My goal is to lead the league in rushing," Bell said on the day he entered the NFL, the second-year man remains confident. He also better understands the preparation and work necessary to make a more serious run at his goal.

"It's easier said than done," Bell told staffer Andrew Mason late last month. "You've got to go out and pay the price in the offseason, and the cards have got to fall down the right way for you to be one of the top backs."

According to Mason, the off-season work starts with a change in diet. Steaks, once a staple of Bell's palate, are only occasional visitors to his plate -- once a month and no more, he insists.

"I'm trying to cook healthy stuff instead of eating all the junk food," Bell said.

It continues in the weight room, where Bell was limited to lower-body work until the shoulder injury he suffered late last year healed early in the offseason. In the months since, he's been at full speed, believing that more time in the weight room will not only help him avoid injuries, but will allow him to carry the ball 20-25 times per game.

Bell never had more than 17 carries as a rookie.

"I'm hitting the weight room hard, and I'm trying to be in the best shape so coach won't have to pull me out unless I'm tired," Bell said. "I feel like I've just got to keep proving myself to the coaches that it's mine and that I've got what it takes to last all 16 games. It will all hit the fan when training camp comes."

If his body's in the shape it needs to be, the mental aspects of the game should cause him no problems, he maintains.

"I know all the plays," Bell said. "I know everything that's going on, so there won't be any surprises.

"I'm just not nervous as I used to be last year," he added. "I still get a little nervous when the coaches come out and they start getting on me. I've just got to calm down, because I know the plays, I know what I'm doing, I don't have to think as much. I know what I'm doing."

As Mason summed up, "Bell is certain of what he should be this year, showing that his confidence may be tempered with restraint, but it hasn't vanished."

"I feel like I'm the man," he said. "It hasn't been said; I just feel that deep inside."

I couldn't agree more. ... In case you weren't paying attention last year, a series of minor injuries (finger, hamstring and rib) slowed him throughout the spring, summer and early fall. But Bell came on strong when given the change, and he rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns against Miami late in the season.

Unfortunately, he ended that breakout game on the sideline with the above-mentioned shoulder separation.

Still, Bell continued to hit the field and play a limited role despite that painful injury, impressing coaches and teammates alike -- and making him the favorite to earn the starting spot this summer.

In an interview published in this year's Football Diehards Magazine, I asked Plummer for teammates to watch this fall and Bell was among those identified.

"Bell showed everybody kind of a glimpse of what he can do (last year)," Plummer explained. "How he can run, and if he can play for the whole 16 games, I mean that kid has got amazing potential."

Again, I couldn't agree more. All he has to do now is stay healthy. ...

For what it's worth, Shanahan isn't certain how much work the remaining halfbacks will get this summer.

The other prime contenders for reps are: Quentin Griffin, who began 2004 as the starter before suffering a season-ending right knee injury; Ron Dayne, a Heisman Trophy winner and New York Giants first-round pick; and Maurice Clarett, a third-round pick in the April draft.

"And you really don't have a pecking order," Shanahan said after Wednesday's session. "You give people as many reps as you can and once you go through the preseason games and practices, you try to figure out who is the best player. ..."

Other news and notes of interest out of Denver this week. ...

For the record, Plummer's first choice when asked for teammates on the verge of breaking out, went with Putzier, who ranked 12th among AFC tight ends with 36 receptions last season, but was fourth in yardage, amassing 572 yards for an average of 15.9 yards per reception.

That average was first in the AFC among tight ends, just 0.2 yards shy of the league-best 16.1-yards-per-catch pace set by Alge Crumpler. No other NFL tight end averaged more than 12.3 yards per catch last season.

All of which explains why, the Broncos, who had seven days to match the Jets' offer for Putzier, a restricted free agent, this offseason, only took six. ...

Bottom line? I'm looking for Putzier, who has shown he can get downfield and make plays, to continue his emergence and provide Plummer with a big target that can go deep over the middle. ...

In a related item. ... Nate Jackson was told early this offseason that he was switching from wide receiver to tight end. He had to put on weight quickly, so he started upping his daily calorie intake.

According to the Sports Xchange, Jackson said he ate well and had three protein shakes a day. His last protein shake, before he went to bed, usually included eggs, ice cream and chocolate sauce.

He put on 20 pounds in a few months, and is now 235 pounds.

"I put (the weight) on pretty quick," Jackson said.

Jackson, who had eight catches as a receiver last year, is like Shannon Sharpe and Putzier, a couple of former receivers who switched to tight end and had success in Denver.

Jackson's main strength was his size. He was adept at using his body in the passing game, so he won't be bothered by the physical nature of going over the middle for passes.

Jackson also has more of an advantage with his speed at tight end. At wide receiver he couldn't run by many of the cornerbacks in the league, but he can get past most linebackers. Jackson's season ended last year when he suffered a broken ankle, but he said neither the injury nor the extra weight have slowed him down.

Jackson will have to get used to blocking at tight end. Denver's receivers are expected to be adept in the running game, but it's much different blocking defensive ends than cornerbacks.

"For me, my technique is not so great right now, so I need to take advantage of this time (the offseason)," Jackson said. "I need to get my head in there."

Not that I'd be looking for Jackson to make an immediate or significant contribution this fall. Not with Putzier around. ...

In an article published last Monday, Denver Post staffer Patrick Saunders reminded readers that Smith, the leading receiver in club history, turned 35 in May. And while he's clearly lost a step or two over the years, the veteran still has sure hands, remains a superb route runner and an excellent downfield blocker.

Saunders went on to note that Smith is excellent making catches on quick slants across the middle, but he no longer turns those quick 10-yard slants into big gainers -- at least not on a regular basis. Smith is the unquestioned leader of the team -- a locker room guy whose work ethic is unmatched. He is almost a player-coach without the official title.

Saunders summed up by advising readers: "Even with the arrival of Rice and the emergence of Ashley Lelie and Darius Watts, look for Smith to be Denver's leading receiver again in 2005. ..."

Also on the outside. ...

According to PFW, the coaching staff has spent a fair bit of time analyzing receiver Watts' play as a rookie, when he caught 31 passes as the team's No. 3 wideout. And despite some typical first-year mistakes, they like what they saw and envision a bright future for him.

Meaning, the Broncos won't impede his progress in order to keep Rice happy. ...

And finally. ... According to the Sporting News, there was a lot of speculation that Denver would pick up a veteran backup quarterback during the offseason, but those inside the organization say that's not likely at this point.

First, there's not enough money left, and the team has expressed confidence that Danny Kanell can do the job if starter Plummer gets hurt.