ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The most notable sight during the early moments of Thursday’s practice was virtually the same as it was Wednesday: six starters and the Broncos’ first pick in the 2010 NFL Draft standing on the sideline, taking in practice and occasionally talking with coach John Fox.
Only defensive tackle Ty Warren — whose recovery from triceps surgery is measured in months rather than weeks or days — hasn’t strolled onto the field during the first periods of practice. The others — cornerback Champ Bailey, wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Demaryius Thomas, defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, defensive end Elvis Dumervil, linebacker D.J. Williams, running back Knowshon Moreno — remain “day-to-day.”
The wrap on Demaryius Thomas’s left hand to protect his injured pinkie means that he can’t be reasonably expected to play. But for the other six, participation in Friday’s practice looms as a likely demarcation point, although John Fox is likely to keep open the window of possibility until the last possible moment.
“I don’t like making deadlines and exacts all the time, but I’d feel way more comfortable if they’d practice some,” Fox said. “There are some veteran guys I’ve played in the past that we haven’t (practiced during the week), so, again, that’ll be day-to-day.”
The phrase “next man up” has been uttered so often by players and coaches in interviews this week that it has passed from slogan to mantra. But when the potential absences for Sunday include a future Hall of Famer and two others who made the Pro Bowl in their most recent seasons, reality dictates that there will likely be a drop-off, no matter how brave a front is erected.
That’s where the first-teamers left standing must do their parts.
“Obviously, it’s a moot statement for me to tell you what ‘E’ (Dumervil) and Champ mean to us as a team,” said safety Brian Dawkins. “But for those individuals that are going to have to step up, they’re going to have to step up and play.
“We’re not saying that you need to step up and put the whole world on your shoulders. No, you need to step up, do your job at your spot and we’ll do our job on our spot and we’ll come out and see if that’s good enough.”
THERE WILL BE SOME ADJUSTMENT, however, if none are ready to play Sunday.
At running back, if Moreno’s hamstring problem prevents him from playing, the Broncos would be left with only Willis McGahee — who hasn’t had more than 20 carries in a game since Nov. 9, 2008 — and Lance Ball, who had 41 carries for the entire 2010 season. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said that McGahee can “without a doubt” handle 20 to 25 carries, but with the Broncos in run-platoon mode, they might need a third option, which might entail Jeremiah Johnson being promoted from the practice squad.
At wide receiver, the potential absence of Lloyd and the expected absence of Demaryius Thomas would leave the Broncos with only three healthy wide receivers: Eric Decker, Eddie Royal and Matthew Willis. But that would be enough, McCoy maintains.
“We’ve got plenty of players,” he said. “The fortunate thing is that we’ve got three good tight ends that can play in different formations and sets that we want to get them into. (Fullback) Spencer Larsen can do a lot of things; I’m not saying that he’s a receiver, or that the tight ends are the same as receivers, but we’ve got plenty of talent around here.”
Defensively, the Broncos got a glimpse at the adjustment needed on Monday against the Raiders. Wesley Woodyard filled in for Williams; Jason Hunter took over for Dumervil in the base package and Cassius Vaughn filled in for Bailey. If the two Pro Bowlers can’t play Sunday, Jonathan Wilhite could see more playing time as a nickel back with Vaughn filling in at cornerback.
Wilhite has only been with the Broncos for 10 days, but defensive coordinator Dennis Allen believes he’ll be ready if needed.
“He’s picked up a lot,” Allen said. “Football’s football. Its terminology more than anything else. The things you do, the schemes you run, there’s only so much you can do. I think he’s up to speed on all that.”