Drawing Conclusions from An Incomplete Picture

Beware of drawing too many definitive conclusions from a limited glimpse of work at Dove Valley in recent weeks.

Steven Johnson

We have a good idea that Steven Johnson is the second-team MLB, but at other positions, the picture discerned from OTAs and minicamp is hazy at best. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / MAXDENVER.COM)

When you have a void, it’s only natural to grasp at something — anything — to fill it. In an NFL offseason, organized team activities and minicamps serve that purpose.

During his years as Panthers coach, John Fox often downplayed the details of the offseason work, reminding inquisitors that the work was just “in underwear” and that the true test loomed later in the summer, when players could actually hit. Today’s OTA stud was often tomorrow’s forgotten man after absorbing the first hit in training camp. So it goes.

Where the players shake out on the depth chart does have a little more meaning, but even then, discerning their true place can be like peering into a smoky haze.

Those of us credentialed to watch the open-to-media sessions only had a glimpse of what took place. Just one practice was open each day of the week until the mandatory minicamp. Six days were open over the last four weeks; seven were not. Aside from what can be extracted from players during interviews, we don’t have a good idea what took place on those other days. So our picture is, admittedly, incomplete.

All we can do is analyze the trends on the days we watch, and try and put the pieces together. For instance, take the case of defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, who worked with the first team on the open day of the second and third week of OTAs, then remained there for minicamp. That’s enough to make a reasonable deduction that — for now — Siliga is atop the depth chart at his position, along with fellow defensive tackle Justin Bannan. The same can be said on the second team for Nate Irving at strong-side linebacker and Steven Johnson at middle linebacker; both held down those spots throughout OTAs, thus, it’s a safe assumption that’s where each actually stands on the pecking order.

But that’s not always the case, such as at quarterback behind Peyton Manning, where there’s nothing definitive to discern on the depth chart.

Some days, Caleb Hanie was the second quarterback to take repetitions behind Manning; this was the case on Wednesday, for example. On others, it was returning practice-squad passer Adam Weber. Along with Brock Osweiler, the quarterbacks rotated among the backup teams; you’d see each leading the second and third units periodically. Just because Weber was the second quarterback up on the last day of minicamp doesn’t mean that he goes into training camp as the No. 2.

Since Manning can be expected to receive the majority of the training-camp snaps, you can expect this competition to likely be decided in the preseason. Osweiler’s place on the roster is secure; Hanie and Weber are likely battling for one spot on the 53-man roster, with the practice squad still a potential landing spot for Weber, since he’s eligible to return to it for another season.

And what can you really discern from these practices? Perhaps the best answer came from Bannan, when I asked him about the progress of younger linemen like Siliga, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson. He began by noting they were “coming along great” before getting to the true point from an 11-year veteran’s perspective:

“I think all you can do during these types of practices is run hard. Try and do your job, try and learn the playbook,” he said. “When we get the pads on at training camp, then they’ll get a taste of the NFL.”

The last four weeks, we saw some football drills. We saw some players make an impression. We saw offenses and defenses installed, working on paces that will be repeated — albeit with pads and more vigorous contact — during the first few days of training camp. But to take these practices as anything but a glimpse is fallacious.

Yes, it’s all we have, and the sights and descriptions of Manning, Champ Bailey, Willis McGahee, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are enough to tantalize and spur optimistic salivation and expectations of greatness after the Broncos’ longest run without a winning season since their opening 13 seasons prior to their 7-5-2 breakthrough in 1973.

But it’s not the be-all, end-all — and not even close to it, really.

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About Andrew Mason

Andrew Mason has covered the NFL since 1999, when he worked as an editor on NFL.com when the site was managed by ESPN.com. He worked six seasons (2002-07) covering the Broncos on their official website and two (2008-09) on the Panthers' site. He began MaxDenver.com in 2010 and now contributes to CBSSports.com, The Sporting News and The New York Times.
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