Broncos veterans walk fine line between competition and mentorship

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos grind their way through training camp, experience and youth work side by side, one pushing back against the other.

And as several of the team’s veterans find themselves trying to keep their jobs, they also feel the responsibility to help younger players around them try to take it.

“In this league when you get a certain age, you know they always think the cliff is coming that you can’t play," safety Kareem Jackson said. “It’s my job to prove them wrong … but I think it’s also my job to help guys, on and off the field, no matter what. It’s all just part of it."

Sean Payton, the team’s fifth head coach since the start of the 2016 season, has made it clear from the start of the team’s offseason program in April that every player started with a clean slate. The past was the past and “we are going to go by what we see.’’

That will include what they see in practice, meetings and preseason games, including Friday’s preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals in State Farm Stadium.

Given the number of draft picks the Broncos surrendered over the last two years to acquire quarterback Russell Wilson and to sign Payton to one of the most lucrative deals in the league -- five first- or second-round picks combined -- the Broncos made just five picks in April and had just two picks among the top 114 in 2022.

But despite not having a first-round pick from the last two drafts on the field, the Broncos do have some spots where veterans are being pushed by newcomers.

The trick is for the coaching staff to find veteran players who keep playing at the highest level while paying it forward.

“It’s competition, so that’s just how it plays out,’’ third-year Broncos safety Caden Sterns said. “Competition is across the league. Personally, I want to be one of the best safeties in the league. I just keep it that way, I compete against everybody. But the room that we have, we all want to see each other do well.’’

Safety and linebacker are two of the most prominent veteran/youth decisions the Broncos will make anywhere on the roster. At safety, Sterns is working with Kareem Jackson, now in his 14th season.

Jackson, 35, played a career-high 1,139 snaps last season for the Broncos and was the only player on the defense to start and finish every game. He and the Broncos slow-walked his return a bit in the offseason as he didn't sign a one-year deal until May after he had spoken to Payton about his potential role with the team.

Jackson knew Sterns, a fifth-round pick in the 2021 draft, was going to get a long look with the starters in some of the personnel groupings this time around. And he knew the Broncos selected a safety -- JL Skinner -- among their five picks in April’s draft.

“At the end of the day … I’m always a guy who’s going to come out and let his play do the talking,’’ Jackson said. “I love Caden to death, he’s a huge part of this team as well. I’m sure they’re expecting big things from him, as am I,’’ Jackson said. “ … I’m going to still help Caden no matter what, on the field and off the field. I feel like it’s my responsibility to give my knowledge to the guys in that room.’’

“That’s big bro -- or uncle -- he’s old,” Sterns said with a smile. “I look up to him, I’m blessed to have somebody with a lot of knowledge of the game. There’s no animosity or whatever, it’s just the nature of the beast.”

At inside linebacker, rookie Drew Sanders, a third-round pick last April, has the kind of talent that’s hard to ignore, especially in a defense that has watched plenty of tight ends excel in the middle of the field in recent seasons. But it’s also where Alex Singleton led the team in tackles last season -- his third consecutive year to lead the team he was playing for in tackles -- and where Josey Jewell has been a fixture over the last four seasons.

The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Sanders has 4.6 speed and the armspan of some offensive linemen. That length and movement, in addition to his college stats (103 tackles, 9.5 sacks), intrigued many teams in the wind-up to the draft.

The Broncos liked his potential as a long-term fit at ILB in their 3-4 defense, which is where he has worked with the second-team much of the time. But he has gotten some snaps in with the regulars, too.

“I’m just a football player, I just enjoy playing football,’’ Sanders said. “Wherever the coaches think I can play, I’ll play … There are great veterans [here] to learn from to try and mirror my game to.’’

“He’s doing pretty good so far, but I’m sure there’s some small hiccups like everybody else,” Jewell said of Sanders.

And when asked about the competition of it all, Jewell added “I don’t care about that stuff, it’s fine, I’m still here, I’m going to play my butt off, give them all I got. It doesn’t matter what happens, whatever they want to do is whatever they want to do I’m just going to out there and do my job.’’

Or as Jackson put it: “If I didn’t believe I couldn’t play at the highest level, I wouldn’t be out here. It’s my 14th training camp, I’m not out here because of the payday, I’m out here because I love the game.’’