Broncos' priority: Build supporting cast 

click to enlarge D.J. Williams (55), already well-acquainted with Denvers - opponents, faces a new challenge as Al Wilsons - replacement at middle linebacker. - GETTY IMAGES
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  • D.J. Williams (55), already well-acquainted with Denvers opponents, faces a new challenge as Al Wilsons replacement at middle linebacker.

Let's forget, at least for now, about trying to compare Jay Cutler to John Elway.

Fans and media in Broncoland will have many years to fall back on that storyline, but breaking down the quarterback situation isn't the smart way to begin analyzing the Denver Broncos as they report this weekend for training camp. Instead, as should be the case for any team with a promising, yet still unproven, second-year quarterback, the first order of business must be examining and evaluating the supporting cast.

Let's also make another point clear: Anyone who thinks the Broncos actually deserve the label of "legitimate Super Bowl contenders" in 2007 should give up the pipedream. It simply isn't realistic for Denver to think about vaulting past the defending champion Indianapolis Colts, with Peyton Manning freed from the burden and pressure of always coming up short.

Aside from Indy, the American Conference has several other teams with more reasons to feel hopeful: New England, with some new weapons for Tom Brady; San Diego, wanting to atone for going 14-2 and then imploding last year; and Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Jacksonville.

Denver's first thought should be trying to win the AFC West or perhaps just settling for a wild-card playoff berth. Especially with so many unanswered questions, not even counting Cutler.

Here are five major priorities to follow during preseason:

Receiver depth: There isn't much behind Javon Walker. Brandon Marshall, who probably should be a No. 3 guy, probably will be the No. 2 starter with Walker. Brandon Stokley, a free-agent signee from the Colts, brings character but is coming off injury problems (playing in just four games last year). Rod Smith simply can't be counted on anymore as a go-to star, but if he has one more good year left, it could make a difference.

Linebackers: D.J. Williams moves inside to replace Al Wilson, whose departure was a painful but correct decision by Denver's staff. Everyone expects Williams to come through, but it's not a given, and he needs to settle in quickly, also helping fill the leadership void left by Wilson. There's much more uncertainty at the outside spots, where veteran Ian Gold and free-agent signees Warrick Holdman (Redskins), D.D. Lewis (Seahawks) and/or Eddie Moore must establish themselves quickly in new coordinator Jim Bates' system.

Cutler's caddie: Head coach Mike Shanahan would never say so, but rest assured he expects backup quarterback Patrick Ramsey to provide a calming influence even a boost if/when Cutler is banged up, having a rotten day or needs a break. Ramsey could become that Gary Kubiak-type presence, and he'll have every chance in preseason games. It's interesting that the Broncos didn't sign any other quarterback with NFL experience, a clear indication of trust in Ramsey.

Offensive tackles: Veteran Matt Lepsis is coming off knee problems, so don't expect to see him playing much until September. That leaves obscure, untested backups, plus rookie third-round pick Ryan Harris (Notre Dame). If Lepsis makes it back to 100 percent and Harris comes through, all is well. If not, trouble.

Special teams: Amid uncertainty and competition at positions such as linebacker, the Broncos must show considerable improvement in the kicking game to become playoff-worthy. In some categories related to special teams, Denver ranked at or near the bottom of the league last year. The progress cannot wait until the regular season, especially for the coverage/return units. And with placekicker Jason Elam now a more fragile 37, he must protect himself better and might not be a given anymore.


Sports Shot

Almost here With perhaps 10,000 participants, the 2007 State Games of America runs from Aug. 2-5. Even for non-athletes, the opening ceremony at World Arena should be inspiring, with skating legend Michelle Kwan lighting the torch.

Rockies countdown Baseball's unrestricted trade deadline is Tuesday, July 31, and Colorado needs pitching help, a starter as well as another closer.

Miss the headline? NBA star LeBron James will be guest host for the Saturday Night Live season premiere in September.

Unconfirmed, but ... Golf legend Gary Player says some PGA Tour pros use steroids or other performance-enhancers, but he won't name names.

Worth watching Many NASCAR races look the same, but not the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard (that's Indianapolis), coverage starting 11 a.m. Sunday on ESPN.

Training camp info

Where: Dove Valley team headquarters, Englewood

Directions: I-25 north to Arapahoe Road, east three miles to Potomac Street, south to Broncos Parkway.

Parking: Free in Lot A across from headquarters, open an hour before practice starts. First come, first served.

Limitations: No video cameras, lawn chairs or umbrellas. Small soft-sided bags allowed for non-alcoholic drinks. Fans must stand in designated areas.

Concessions: Soft drinks and water, no food; souvenirs available.

Schedule: July 29 to Aug. 11 (except for Sunday, Aug. 5), two practices daily, 8:30 a.m. and 3:40 or 3:50 p.m.; scrimmage on Saturday morning, Aug. 4.

Admission: Free.

Tips: Still cameras allowed. Some veterans don't practice in afternoons, and half of the afternoons will be special teams only (including July 30, Aug. 1 and Aug. 3). Some players will sign autographs after morning practices on days when afternoon practices aren't designated solely for special teams.

Preseason games

Monday, Aug. 13 at San Francisco, 6 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 18 at Dallas, 6 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 25 Cleveland, 7 p.m.

Thursday, Aug. 30 Arizona, 7 p.m.


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