April 16th. The day that marks the start of the offseason workouts, and for many Broncos players their first opportunity to meet with quarterback Peyton Manning. However, under the regulations of the new CBA, off season workouts are much more limited in scope than in previous years.
Teams with new head coaches, such as the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins, started their workouts two weeks ago. For the rest of the league, players will be returning to facilities today. For the first two weeks, only strength and conditioning coaches can work with players on the field. Not until after the NFL Draft are coaches allowed to take players through limited football drills.
While the players will be spending less time on the field, there will be plenty of time for personal improvement. The Broncos have shown to be all in by the acquisition of quarterback Peyton Manning, and this means it is time for some of the younger players to step up in order for the Broncos to reach their goal: A Super Bowl win. The trend in the list of players who need a good spring? Most players will be going into their second season in the NFL and can blame their early career struggles on missing the off season due to the lockout last year.
1. Rahim Moore
Entering the 2011 season, the Denver Broncos had high hopes for second round pick Rahim Moore, the free safety from UCLA. Moore went into the season as the starting free safety, but found himself on the scout team by week 14.
Many will remember Moore for his hit on Buffalo Bills wide receiver Donald Jones during the preseason, and the rookie had a solid camp. However, he suffered a concussion after colliding with cornerback Andre Goodman, and though he returned to practice three days later, he never reclaimed the starting job. Some in the Denver media seem to have entirely given up on Moore, but it is too early for that. Nevertheless, the Broncos brought in Mike Adams to play free safety, so Moore has his work cut out for him if he intends to reclaim his position as a starter.
2. Julius Thomas
Julius Thomas was no doubt one of the most impressive players in training camp last season, but the former college basketball player saw his first year hampered by an ankle injury that ruined his rookie season. While some players would have bounced back from a sprained ankle in a week two, Thomas has struggled to make the transition to the NFL after only one season of college football. Thomas recently underwent surgery to repair ligaments in his ankle and this should limit him when the Broncos take the field for offseason workouts starting Monday.
With the acquisition of tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, Thomas seems to be buried on the depth chart, together with fellow second year tight end Virgil Green (who is facing a four-game performance enhancing drug suspension, which he is appealing). However, while tight ends were not frequently used in the offense that we have seen over the past few years, Peyton Manning traditionally likes throwing to his tight ends, so if Thomas can continue to work on his technique, there should be plenty of balls to go around to all four tight ends if Denver chooses to keep that many on the roster.
3. Nate Irving
One of the more incredible stories of the 2011 NFL Draft was that of Nate. Irving, the North Carolina State linebacker who was forced to miss the entire 2009 season after being severely injured in a car accident. He came back for the 2010 and recorded 92 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and six pass breakups that season. Joining the Broncos, many expected Irving to be the starting middle linebacker at the end of camp, but he was beaten out by Joe Mays for the position and mostly played on special teams during his first year in the NFL.
With an off season to work on his skills, Irving will again head into training camp with the expectation of becoming the starting middle linebacker. Shawn Zobel described Irving as "an aggressive, downhill defender in the run game with a non-stop motor and feisty attitude that simply can't be coached," which will all be great qualities to have on the field as Denver looks to improve the run defense. Unlike last year, Irving has several months of OTA's to go into training camp prepared for the new defense that Jack Del Rio will run.
4. Orlando Franklin
Orlando Franklin was somewhat of a surprise pick in the second round last year, but the offensive tackle held up well during his first NFL season. He proved to be a great run blocker, playing an important role blocking for Willis McGahee and the rest of the NFL-leading rushing attack that racked up 2,632 yards on the ground.
However, having to protect Tim Tebow's blindside in 2011, Franklin struggled at times, giving up eight sacks and multiple penalties. With Peyton Manning under center, the blindside responsibilities will return to Ryan Clady, who is in a contract year. With his success in the running game, Franklin should spend the majority of the offseason working on his pass blocking in order to become an all-round solid right tackle in the NFL.
5. J.D. Walton & Zane Beadles
Unlike the previous four players, Walton and Beadles were taken one year earlier, in the 2010 NFL Draft. Walton has started every game at center since joining the Broncos, and Beadles only missed two starts during his first season, though he was moved around several times until settling at the left guard spot this season.
Walton was graded by Pro Football Focus as the worst center in the league, allowing four sacks and 23 quarterback pressures this past season. There is no doubt that Walton struggled his rookie year, especially when Beadles settled in at left guard; the two were often faced with double A-gap blitzes and stunts. They improved at the end of their first year, but could not work on technique during the offseason, so some of the struggles continued in their second year as pros.
While I believe both players can be solid offensive linemen, the start of their third year will prove to be critical for their future success. It remains to be seen how long veteran guard Chris Kuper will be out after his horrific injury suffered in the regular season finale against the Kansas City Chiefs. Until then, Walton and Beadles will be counted on to solidify the interior of the line to protect Denver's ninety million dollar man.
Bert Jan Brands is a Broncos Zone contributor, follow him on Twitter: @bertjanb.