Originally written on BroncoTalk  |  Last updated 11/3/14

DENVER - SEPTEMBER 03: Linebacker Robert Ayers #56 of the Denver Broncos warms up prior to facing the Arizona Cardinals during preseason NFL action at Invesco Field at Mile High on September 3, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Cardinals 19-0. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

As a friend recently reminded us on Twitter, in Broncos Country, Josh McDaniels‘ surname is a four-letter word. The sound “McDaniels” is fingernails on the chalkboard, a teeth-clinching, shoulder-buckling, neck-hairs-standing-on-end reminder of the worst two-year period in franchise history.

Four digits that claw at the brain with nearly the same intensity are 2-0-0-9: McDaniels’ first draft class with the Broncos. Collectively, the players of the Broncos’ 2009 draft class have been a disappointment since they entered the NFL. Consider:

  • Of the ten players selected, only three remain on the team.
  • Of those ten players, five were selected in the first two rounds — the spoils of the Jay Cutler trade.
  • Of those five players, only two remain on the roster. And after the events at camp this week, neither are projected starters.

Running back Knowhon Moreno, the Broncos’ first pick of that draft, is on the roster bubble following another injury-riddled season. Defensive end Robert Ayers, thought to be the ’09 draft’s decent-if-not-spectacular consolation prize, has been jumped on the depth chart by Jason Hunter.

So as it stands now, by the end of this Broncos’ 2012 training camp, the ghosts of McDaniels’ 2009 draft might be exorcised from the Broncos roster completely. But no one wants that. The Broncos want these players to rise to original expectations, not fall to the wayside like the Alphonso Smiths and Richard Quinns before them.

This 2012 training camp is Knowshon Moreno’s and Robert Ayers’ last chance. 

NOWHERE TO RUN

Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, seen here wearing a knee brace on the first day of the team's training camp, July 26, 2012. (BroncoTalk.net photo)

Moreno’s battle is uphill for two reasons: he must recover from ACL surgery, and he must hold off rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, among others.

Regarding his knee, Moreno is hopeful.

“It definitely helps to come out here and run on it,” said Moreno. “Every day is getting better…. This kind of injury, you’ve got to just get confidence in it, so every day I come out here just trying not to think about it and try to just make those moves that I normally make.”

Regarding the competition, Moreno is aware, but can do nothing but compete every day. If healthy, Willis McGahee is a lock to make the roster. If healthy, Hillman is as well. The Broncos are very likely to keep a fullback, likely leaving only one roster spot for Moreno, Lance Ball, Jeremiah Johnson, Mario Fannin, and others to claw over.

Moreno is clawing. No running back has set himself apart in camp yet, but Moreno has looked as good as any.

“Knowshon deserves a ton of credit for the way he has approached this offseason,” offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said.

If Moreno continues that approach through training camp and the preseason, he’ll make the roster, and then he’ll have the 2012 season to try and resurrect his career.

NOWHERE TO HIDE

Denver Broncos defensive linemen Robert Ayers and Derek Wolfe participate in training camp on July 28, 2012. (BroncoTalk.net photo)

Ayers’ demotion isn’t so much a function of talent as it is effort in practice. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was careful not to be overly critical of Ayers, but it’s clear that Jason Hunter earned starting defensive end reps through consistency and tenacity in practice, something Del Rio felt was missing from Ayers.

“I love Jason (Hunter),” Del Rio said. “Jason is a rugged defensive lineman. That’s what we’re looking for with our defensive line. He plays with great temperament, toughness and attitude. Every day, he brings it with passion. I haven’t seen him yet not be ramped up and ready to play hard and tough. That’s why he’s running with the ones right now. He’s kind of played his way into that spot. We’re going to play the guys that are the most dependable, the toughest, the most physical up front. He’s being all that right now for us.”

On Ayers, Del Rio was less glowing: “Like everybody here, we’re looking for a certain mentality, a certain approach every day consistently applying yourself. The way I was just praising Jason Hunter, more of that (from Ayers).”

Could Ayers work his way back into a starting spot? Absolutely, Del Rio said. But Ayers’ demotion is an indicator of accountability that he hasn’t yet seen in his career.

“Robert has talent,” Del Rio said. “He’s working hard. He’s probably working harder than he has in awhile…. But at this point, a week into it, Jason has had a stronger start to camp. That’s all.”

TURNING POINT

Indeed, the spoils of the Jay Cutler trade are on the verge of being spoiled. Yet a glimmer of hope remains.

Both Ayers and Moreno have two years left on their respective contracts. Each could theoretically land on the 53-man roster in 2012 without necessarily finding himself among the starters. With another season comes another opportunity to live up to their draft expectations.

But 2012 is, without a doubt, each’s career turning point. Either they rise to the occasion or begin the slide out of Denver.

Whether that slide finds completeness in two weeks or two years is being determined in this camp, right now.

Ironically, it may be fourth round pick David Bruton that turns out to be the saving grace of McDaniels’ 2009 draft class. Among he, Moreno and Ayers, Bruton has had the best camp so far, and the depth chart at the Broncos’ safety positions is far from settled.

Should Bruton rise while the others fall, it would make the Broncos’ fourth-round pick the only non-four-letter-word in the McDaniels’ 2009 bunch.


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