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NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
No Broncos player attracted more media attention as he left the practice field on Tuesday than running back Willis McGahee. But few spent more idle time during the first practice of the Broncos' three-day mandatory minicamp.
"You know, I was just actually seeing what was going on, seeing how things were operating out there," he said. "I got a couple of plays in."
McGahee anticipated more work would come his way in subsequent minicamp practices, but the light workload offered the strongest indication yet that his absence from voluntary organized team activities the last three weeks had put him behind the other running backs, particularly rookie Montee Ball and second-year veteran Ronnie Hillman.
McGahee cited "family reasons" as the basis for his absence from OTAs and said he told Broncos coach John Fox that he wouldn't take part.
"He had his issues and stuff he had to take care of this offseason and everybody knew that so it was fine," defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said. "We knew where he was. He's coming back in shape. If he was out of shape, then it would be a problem. But he looks the part and he looks in shape, so he's good."
Still, even an in-form McGahee can't turn back the clock. He turned 31 last season, and even though he has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, he knows he's treading where few other running backs roam.
Ball and Hillman were drafted with the intent of being used heavily. Both were second-day picks in the last two drafts. The Broncos' investment in the pair -- and their lack of NFL wear and tear -- could leave McGahee's place in peril. But McGahee figures he would have been in a tenuous situation regardless of whether he showed up for OTAs or not.
"I probably would have been behind the eight-ball either way," McGahee said. "But at the end of the day I'm going to go out there and be Willis McGahee. I can't worry about what other guys are doing."
Another factor that leaves McGahee in the lurch is the team's salary-cap crunch. If the Broncos cut McGahee, they would be left with $1 million in dead money -- $1.342 million less than the dead-money figure if they release 2009 first-round pick Knowshon Moreno, who started in place of the injured McGahee for the final six regular-season games of 2012. The rest of the Broncos' running backs are low-cost players either on their first contracts or earning close to the league minimum for their experience level.
"Because the guys are younger, I'm going to always be on the bubble, so there's not too much you can do," McGahee said. "It's a business. If something happens, it happens."
And if it doesn't, there might not be any chances left for McGahee, who has posted 1,000-yard seasons with three different teams -- the Bills, Ravens and Broncos -- and has made a habit of comebacks since overcoming a horrific knee injury in his final college game for the University of Miami.
McGahee shredded multiple ligaments in that Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State but was still selected in the first round by Buffalo, which knew he would likely sit out his rookie year. His delayed debut was outstanding; in 2004, he ran for 1,128 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season back and averaged 1,143 yards in his first four seasons.
In the following three seasons, his workload declined as the Ravens, who acquired him in 2007, emphasized Ray Rice. He was thought to be over the hill when the Broncos signed him in 2011 and then responded with a Pro Bowl season, gaining 1,199 yards. But nagging injuries dogged him late in 2011, and in 2012 he missed the final six games with a knee injury after fumbling a career-worst five times in the first 10 games.
Nevertheless, McGahee plans to make one final stand.
"I plan on starting Sept. 5," he said.
"About the last seven years, I've been written off. Getting too old. I love it, though. I think if I didn't have that motivation, I probably would be done by now. But you know there's people out there who have their doubts and I'm out to prove them wrong."
With McGahee back, just two healthy Broncos did not practice: offensive tackle Ryan Clady and defensive end/linebacker Shaun Phillips. Clady is not eligible to practice because he has not signed his franchise tender, although he is expected to do so before training camp. Phillips was granted an excused absence for personal reasons.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
--As the Broncos wrapped up their OTA workouts last Thursday, the game and business of football seemed to take a back seat.
The Broncos, from players to owner, were doing what they could to comfort running backs back Eric Studesville as he grieves from losing his parents, who were killed in a Texas motorcycle accident on Tuesday.
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen provided a private plane to Studesville and his family so they could fly to Madison, Wis., to be with relatives and work on the memorial service for Al and Janet Studesville.
"First off, I want to offer my -- and our organization's -- condolences to Eric Studesville and his family for the loss of both his parents, Al and Jan, " coach John Fox said Thursday after the team's final OTA workout. "They were tremendous supporters of Eric and us. I got to know them pretty well over the years. They're very active and his family was here a bunch of times. So our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families."
On Wednesday, Fox said, "We view ourselves as a family. Those things need to be talked about and brought out. This is a well-liked coach on our staff."
According to the Amarillo Globe-News, Al and Janet Studesville were riding together on a Honda Goldwing traveling east on U.S. Highway 54 when a tractor trailer headed westbound crossed into the their lane. The Studesvilles were pronounced dead at the scene. The driver, Dewayne Buck, was uninjured.
"Everybody's got parents and we all understand what a tragedy this is," Fox said. "We're a large group that's a microcosm of society. Good things happen, bad things happen, and you rally around each other."
--The Broncos signed cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in March, hoping that the 2008 first-rounder's potential could finally be met after five seasons of fits and starts with the Cardinals and Eagles.
If he plays like he practiced on June 3, the Broncos might be the team to find out why he earned that lofty draft status. Early in practice, he ran step-for-step with Eric Decker and broke up a deep pass from Peyton Manning. An hour later, he swatted away a pass for Demaryius Thomas, again preventing a touchdown.
"I have Champ (Bailey) on one side and then I have him on the other side. I'm thinking every time I come to the line about what I have to do to beat these guys," said Thomas.
Rodgers-Cromartie is competing with Chris Harris for the starting role at right cornerback opposite Bailey, who is entrenched at left cornerback. Harris started on the right side, but his smaller size is better suited to lining up as a third cornerback against slot receivers.
--Running back Ronnie Hillman has bulked up from around 175 pounds at the end of the 2012 season to the 190s this offseason. Now, he must find a way to keep it on -- and play as fast at that weight as he did at 180 pounds, where he spent much of his rookie season.
"I feel a lot more explosive and I feel like this is going to be a good thing," Hillman said.
Just as crucial for Hillman has been the manner in which he's running. With deeper knowledge of the system, he's thinking less. He's also following the persistent message of running backs coach Eric Studesville, who preaches a one-cut-and-go style from his players.
"I feel a lot more comfortable this year," Hillman said. "I feel like I came into camp -- it's a little different when you're going into OTAs and not knowing anything, rather than coming in the second year, and you're familiar with the terms and how things read and how things work. I feel like it's a lot easier now."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's real good. He's probably one of the best I've seen that can recover if he gets beat because his hips are so fast. He is good. He is one of the best - besides Champ (Bailey), of course." -- WR Demaryius Thomas, on CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FRANCHISE PLAYER: T Ryan Clady (tendered at $9.828 million).
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--DT Justin Bannan (not tendered as UFA).
--LB Keith Brooking (not tendered as UFA).
--C Dan Koppen (not tendered as UFA).
--WR Brandon Stokley (not tendered as UFA).
--DT Ty Warren (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
--DE Quanterus Smith (5/146): $2,352,000/4 YRS, $192,000 SB.
--WR Tavarres King (5/161): $2,331,480/4 yrs, $171,480 SB.
--T Vinston Painter (6/173): $2,277,932/4 yrs, $117,932 SB.
--QB Zac Dysert (7/234): $2,208,200/4 yrs, $48,200 SB.
--RB Lance Ball: RFA tendered at $1.323M with no compensation); $1.323M/1 yr.
--S David Bruton: Potential UFA; $4.5M/3 yrs, $1.2M guaranteed.
--CB Tony Carter: ERFA; terms unknown.
--OT Chris Clark: RFA tendered at $1.323M with no compensation; $1.323M/1 yr.
--P Britton Colquitt: RFA tendered at $1.323M with no compensation; $1.323M/1 yr.
--DT Mitch Unrein: ERFA; $555,000/1 yr.
--DT Kevin Vickerson: UFA; $5M/2 yrs, $1M guaranteed.
--LB Stewart Bradley: FA Cardinals; $1.2M/1 yr, $300,000 guaranteed.
--CB Quentin Jammer: UFA Chargers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Terrance Knighton: UFA Jaguars; $4.5M/2 yrs, $500,000 guaranteed.
--LB Shaun Phillips: UFA Chargers; $1M/1 yr.
--CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: UFA Eagles; $5M/1 yr, $5M guaranteed.
--G Louis Vasquez: UFA Chargers; $23.5M/4 yrs, $5M SB/$13M guaranteed.
--WR Wes Welker: UFA Patriots; $12M/2 yrs, $12M guaranteed/$6M fully guaranteed.
--DE Elvis Dumervil (released).
--FB Chris Gronkowski: Not tendered as RFA/Chargers; terms unknown
--QB Caleb Hanie (released).
--DE Jason Hunter: UFA Raiders; terms unknown.
--S Jim Leonhard: UFA Saints; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Tracy Porter: UFA Raiders; $2.5M/1 yr.
--LB D.J. Williams (released).
--WR Matt Willis: Not tendered as UFA/Lions; terms unknown.