After reaching last season's AFC Championship Game, the Broncos didn't havemany improvements to make. Wide receiver was one weak spot, so in April theytraded a 2006 second-round pick to the Packers for a big, speedy pass catcher:Javon Walker. The fifth-year veteran, who tore his right ACL in the '05 seasonopener and missed the rest of the year, gives quarterback Jake Plummer theweapon he needs to finally take Denver all the way to the Super Bowl.
It appears that the Broncos, indeed, got their man. Walker's rehab is ahead ofschedule. From the start of training camp he had no difficulty-and showed nohesitation-in leaping for balls in traffic and cutting sharply on routes,meaning he's already past the biggest mental hurdle of rehab: trusting that hisbody will hold up.
Coach MikeShanahan says Walker "has the complete game," and the wideout can'twait to put it on display. "I'm going to give them exactly what they tradedfor," says Walker, who hooked up with Brett Favre for a Pro Bowl season in2004, catching 89 passes for 1,382 yards. "I want to make big plays. I wantto be a physical blocker in the running game. And I want to change the momentumon any given play. I'm confident I can be that guy again."
The Broncosaren't asking Walker to be their go-to receiver; he just has to fit into anoffense that requires wideouts to run timing routes with discipline. When thegame plan is clicking, the ball gets spread around to everyone. That said, hispresence will make Denver more effective in another area in which they have toimprove: third-down conversions. The Broncos ranked 22nd in the league in thatcategory, converting only 36.2% of their opportunities last season.
Denver alreadyhad one crafty receiver it could depend on, 12-year veteran Rod Smith, butwithout a second reliable target for defenses to worry about, opponents couldkey on Smith in those third-down situations. To understand Walker's potentialimpact, consider that 31 of his 89 receptions in '04 came on third down-and 24of the 31 moved the chains. That season he also made 14 catches that went for25 yards or longer. "You want a guy who makes big plays in bigsituations," says Smith, "and Javon is one of those guys."
The Broncos werehappy to see how quickly Walker fit in with his new team, following thesquabbles he had with the Packers' front office. After his breakout 2004 seasonWalker wanted to renegotiate his contract, but Green Bay refused; Favrepublicly questioned Walker's right to make such a demand after only one ProBowl year. Walker became angry with the team, and after his kneeinjury-suffered when he was tackled on a pass play-he went to Houston forrehab. His one trip to Green Bay after getting hurt came in December, for anend-of-season interview with coach Mike Sherman (who was fired on Jan. 2).
When he reportedto the Denver camp, Walker was eager for a new beginning. He says he's not aselfish, high-maintenance player and wants to use his frustrating experiencewith the Packers as motivation. "I just want to show people why the Broncosgave up a second-round pick to get me," he says. "And I want the peoplein Green Bay to see what they're missing."
10 at St.Louis
24 at NewEngland
12 at Oakland
19 SAN DIEGO
23 at Kansas City(T)
10 at SanDiego
17 at Arizona
(M) Monday (T)Thursday
NFL rank T11
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage .516
Games against playoff teams 5
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES-UP THE BRONCOS
> I've neverbeen a Jake Plummer fan, but he played within himself last year. Now he has todo that again-not play better than last year, just play as well.
> I like themove up in the draft to get quarterback Jay Cutler. He's a good prospect whomthey can develop into their guy.
> Strongsafety John Lynch is living off his reputation. He's a good tackler, but he'sonly effective near the line of scrimmage. If you catch him covering somebody,it's like stealing.
> Losingdefensive tackle Trevor Pryce in free agency will hurt. He's a player you hadto account for because of his pass-rushing and run defense. I don't seeCourtney Brown, Gerard Warren or anybody else over there making up forthat.
Al Wilson casts abig shadow on defense. He does everything you want a middle linebacker todo.
The presence ofPro Bowl players Champ Bailey, John Lynch and Al Wilson is the only reasonWilliams isn't already the headliner of the Denver defense. At weaksidelinebacker in 2004 he became the second rookie to lead the team in tackles(114). Last year the 6'1" 242-pounder moved to the strong side, where hisrun-stuffing and coverage skills helped the Broncos hold opponents to 16.1points a game. Says one AFC scout, "This guy can cover, blitz and play therun, and he's only going to get better."
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COACH MIKESHANAHAN (122-67 in NFL), 12th season with Denver
MIKE BELL (R)(New Acquisition)
JAVON WALKER (NewAcquisition)
(R) ROOKIE(college statistics) *Suspended for first four games
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL) OFFENSE 2/18/5 DEFENSE 2/29/15
¬†HELP ONTHE WAY With Walker on board, defenses won't be able to key on Smith (left) onthird down.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BIRKWITZ