ENGLEWOOD – Peyton Manning looks great. Ditto Champ Bailey and Elvis Dumervil. In a training camp marked by precision and predictability and devoid of any real drama so far, one move has stood out for the Denver Broncos: the promotion of perennial backup Jason Hunter to starting strongside defensive end.
It says as much about the Broncos’ appreciation for Hunter’s technique and tenacity as it does about the fall of former first-round pick Robert Ayers, who’s also watching rookie Derek Wolfe work ahead of him at tackle.
New defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio loves Hunter’s “temperament, toughness, attitude,” and said he’s going to play the guys who are the most dependable, toughest, and the most physical up front.
“He’s being all that right now for us,” Del Rio said.
Ayers certainly isn’t.
“I love Jason,” Del Rio said. “Jason is a rugged defensive lineman; that’s what we’re looking for with our defensive line. ... Every day he brings it with passion. I haven’t seen him yet not be ramped up and ready to play hard and tough. So that’s why he’s running with the ones right now. He’s kind of played his way into that spot.”
And Ayers has done little to fend him off.
“Like everybody here, we’re looking for a certain mentality, a certain approach every day, consistently applying yourself,” Del Rio said. “... But Robert has talent. He’s working hard. He’s probably working harder than he has in a while. We’ll just continue to let camp play out and let things sort themselves out.”
It’s not that Hunter doesn’t appreciate his promotion, but he’s not so sure he was having a great camp to earn it, so he’s keeping things in perspective.
“I’m not thinking about being satisfied right now because I could come out here and have a bad practice and be bumped down to the twos or threes,” Hunter said.
Such reservation is a natural byproduct of his status as a reserve through most of his NFL career since going undrafted in 2006 after helping lead Appalachian State to the Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) national title.
He’s made 23 starts in six NFL seasons with stops in Green Bay, Detroit and Denver, and 12 of those came in 2010 when the Broncos signed him after Dumervil tore a chest muscle in training camp, sidelining him for the season.
Hunter has played in all 32 regular-season games and both playoff games since joining the Broncos, who made re-signing him over the winter a priority because of his versatility, sound technique and work ethic.
“He’s definitely a blue collar type guy, he brings his lunch pail in, comes in to work hard each and every day,” linebacker Joe Mays said. “He’s real humble. We’re all fortunate to be in this position, and he actually knows that.
“He’s working his way up the depth chart. He’s trying to do whatever he can to get in the coaches’ good graces. So far, so good.”`
In the team’s first depth chart released Monday, Hunter was the starter on the left side, with Ayers backing up Dumervil on the right.
Hunter said his goal is to be the starter Sept. 9 when the Broncos open the season against Pittsburgh, so he’s not putting much stock into his starting status just yet.
“It’s camp life,” Hunter said. “Right now, no positions are set. They’re still moving guys around to try to see who could fit where.”
Instead of basking in his promotion, Hunter is looking at this as a chance to get better going against other starters in camp.
“Just getting me better,” he said. “It’s competition. Competing against those guys hard every day.”
Indeed, his play last weekend almost went over the line as he got into several scuffles with teammates during 11-on-11 drills. He might have been flagged if his actions were in a game, but that’s the tenacity that made Del Rio take notice – and which might make him hard to unseat.
The Broncos are curious to see how Ayers responds to his demotion.
His career numbers haven’t justified his selection as the 18th overall player taken in the 2009 draft by former coach Josh McDaniels, but he is coming off his best season. He had three sacks in 13 starts last year and dumped Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger twice in the AFC wild-card playoff, including on the final play of regulation to force overtime.
That, of course, set up one of the most electrifying finishes in playoff history when Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime.
That seems so long ago now, and Ayers knows he has his work cut out for him.
“A lot of things to work on, a lot of things to get better on, correct mistakes, this, that and the other,” Ayers said. “Everybody wants to be a starter. Nobody wants to be second, third, fourth.”