May 28, 2009
ENGLEWOOD • When Mike Shanahan was fired, plenty of Denver Broncos players had reason to worry.
The old regime brought them in for a reason. They fit in specific offensive or defensive schemes, or had attributes the organization craved.
When coach Josh McDaniels was hired, everything changed. New offensive and defensive schemes were implemented, and there was a new criteria for players.
Some old Shanahan favorites quickly were deemed expendable. Defensive linemen Ebenezer Ekuban and John Engelberger, tight ends Nate Jackson and Chad Mustard, linebacker Jamie Winborn and cornerback Dre Bly were among the players released or not re-signed.
Only two of Denver's free agents, tight end Jeb Putzier and defensive lineman Kenny Peterson, were re-signed.
Running back Ryan Torain, compared to Terrell Davis by Shanahan last season as a rookie, is scarcely mentioned among Denver's tailbacks as he recuperates from a knee injury. And, of course, the team moved quickly to trade quarterback Jay Cutler after he refused to return phone messages.
Since the new coaching staff had no loyalty to the holdovers - and there was even less loyalty when Jim and Jeff Goodman, two of Denver's top front office officials, were fired in February - many players had to wonder if they would be retained.
"This is your livelihood, so you wonder what their plan is for you," said Spencer Larsen, who played huge roles at fullback and linebacker as a rookie under Shanahan last year. "Knowing I'm here, they must have liked something. That's encouraging, because you know they looked at everybody and kept the ones they liked."
Tight end Tony Scheffler was one of the more curious holdovers. He is a talented receiver who was used extensively by Shanahan in two tight-end sets. But McDaniels didn't use tight ends much when he was offensive coordinator in New England. Ben Watson, the Patriots' top tight end, had 58 catches for 598 yards the past two years combined. No other Patriots tight end caught more than 10 passes either of the past two seasons.
Scheffler was involved in trade rumors. He wasn't traded, and said he met with McDaniels to ask how he fit in. In the past couple of minicamps, Scheffler has lined up often with the first-team offense in multiple tight end sets and seems poised to be a big part of the offense.
"Nothing happened and it's in the past," Scheffler said about the rumors. "In this league, you've got to look forward to the next day and keep moving or else you'll get left behind. I'm on board, we're all on board."
McDaniels said Scheffler has made a good impression on him and the rest of the coaching staff this spring.
Some holdovers, stalwarts like D.J. Williams, Champ Bailey and Ryan Clady, had no reason to think they wouldn't be embraced. Others were evaluated by the staff to make sure they were tough, smart players, which McDaniels wants.
McDaniels said he noticed from last year's film which players made smart plays, and which ones didn't. He also tried to gauge physical toughness. If the players showed him those attributes, they stayed.
"There's been quite a bit of changeover, but most of the players that are here, if not all of them, hopefully will fit the same mold," McDaniels said.