Walker excited to be in Denver

Mike Shanahan has built a winning program in Denver and with the addition of Javon Walker, expectations are high again heading into 2006, writes John Clayton.

Updated: August 3, 2006, 5:04 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Javon Walker's heaven is Ashley Lelie's hell. What Walker happily accepted in being the Broncos' go-to receiver has come at Lelie's expense.

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Years from now, Walker and Lelie will have plenty of time to reminisce about two of the most interesting trade demands of the past year. Walker wanted out of Green Bay because the team didn't want to open negotiations on a contract extension. Lelie, simply wants out of Denver, and his unwavering position is what opened the door for Walker's trade to Denver.

"Everything works out for the best," Walker said. "I have no regrets. I'm on a great team that is reloading to win that second game in the playoffs, that championship game."

Lelie's future is unsettled. Lelie wants to be a No. 1 receiver and is convinced he'll never be one in Denver. He became upset with the Broncos' offseason interest in Terrell Owens and skipped offseason workouts, asking to be traded. The Broncos want a third-round choice or a good running back for him. All Walker knows is how delighted he is to be in Denver, and it's not just the mile-high air that appeals to him. From Mike Shanahan to the players to the facility to owner Pat Bowlen, Walker feels as though he's soaring above the clouds as a Bronco.

How can he not? The Broncos are a great franchise to play for. Bowlen is willing to spend to acquire talent. Shanahan is one of the best coaching minds in the game. The players all get along. Most importantly, they win. Shanahan has made seven trips to the playoffs in the past 11 years, and he has a good feeling about this team.

Unlike most coaches, Shanahan thinks Super Bowl every year. He's always tweaking the roster to make it better suited for a Super Bowl run. Folks thought he was crazy a year ago for bringing over five members of the Cleveland Browns' underachieving defensive line. That line, featuring the inside power of Gerard Warren and the outside threat of Courtney Brown, helped to carry the Broncos to the AFC Championship Game last season. To complete the set, Shanahan added two more Browns linemen: Kenard Lang and Amon Gordon.

Despite winning 13 games, Shanahan cut his leading rusher, Mike Anderson, and is replacing two of his top three receivers: Lelie and tight end Jeb Putzier. And if that wasn't enough, he traded up in the first round to draft quarterback Jay Cutler, who might eventually end up replacing starter Jake Plummer.

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While the Tatum Bell-Ron Dayne camp battle is making news, what should fantasy owners make of Jake Plummer? Is he a top 10 quarterback? Plummer was a totally different player last season, as his interceptions dropped, but so did his other fantasy stats. Look for a bit of a bounceback this season, especially with Jay Cutler being groomed to start eventually. That should motivate him.
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"Early in the offseason, we heard Ashley wasn't very happy," Shanahan said. "In the back of my mind, I thought he might hold out. If he did hold out, we had to get a receiver, and we got Walker. I felt good about that. Mike Anderson (the Broncos' leading rusher last season) was going to make close to $3 million. With the wear and tear on his body, we felt like we could use the money better elsewhere."

Everything came down to the draft, and the Broncos were prepared. They waited out the Packers and ended up potentially stealing a No. 1 receiver for a second-round choice. The Broncos still had another second-round choice to use on promising tight end Tony Scheffler. They drafted two other receivers, including fourth-rounder Brandon Marshall, who is the early favorite to be the No. 3 receiver.

"Potential is a scary word, it's what you do with it," Shanahan said. "I tell our guys there are about 10 teams that are going to have a chance to win the Super Bowl every year. We're one of those teams."

Shanahan has a winning formula that has worked for 11 seasons. His running offense is the envy of the league. He always finds running backs who can be effective in the Broncos' zone blocking scheme. He puts together a group of light, athletic blockers who work well together. For the past two years, he's had a defensive coordinator (Larry Coyer) who loves to blitz but has also built a defense that can stop the run.

Players come and players go in Denver, but Shanahan always seems to piece enough together to get them to win.

"Losing Mike Anderson and Jeb Putzier hurts, but we've got guys coming in here now that spots are open," Plummer said. "Everybody plays hard, so there is no drop-off. That's the way it goes in this league. [Running backs coach] Bobby Turner is a great coach, so someone is going to come in and get it done."

Plummer doesn't seem to be upset about the drafting of Cutler. For Shanahan, it was one of those rare opportunities. A franchise-caliber quarterback dropped out of the top 10. The Broncos had plenty of draft choices and a limited number of spots for all of them to make the team, so Shanahan traded up and grabbed Cutler. It's still Plummer's team. While Plummer and the Broncos stumbled in the AFC title game, last year was important because the Broncos won a playoff game, silencing critics who said Shanahan couldn't win in the postseason without John Elway.

"Jake is getting better and better," Shanahan said. "He had one of the best offseasons he's had here. He's getting used to the system after years in Arizona where he played for a lot of offensive coordinators. Plus, when you've got better players around you, you are going to look better."

Plummer and the Broncos are excited by Walker's arrival. He has 1,400-yard, 10-touchdown potential, and he showed all of that two years ago in Green Bay before contract troubles entered the mix last season. The Packers refused to talk about a contract extension during his fourth season and Walker fumed. Quarterback Brett Favre then publicly suggested Walker should stop talking about a holdout and report to camp. Walker ultimately did not hold out, but his relationship with the team had clearly soured. He admitted he was going to play mad. Then, in the first game of the season, he blew out his knee. Walker spent his time rehabbing and waiting. The Broncos came to the rescue, and he couldn't be any happier.

"I'm excited how Coach Shanahan is using us," Walker said. "My knee is feeling great. I'm only eight months after surgery. They say you really start feeling good after a full year. I'm starting to feel good."

Walker says he's about 80 percent back in terms of explosion off the line and is getting better every day. What he also likes is how Shanahan uses his players in practice. Anywhere between 15 and 20 veterans will be given afternoons off in two-a-days to keep them fresh. Coaches also track the number of times Walker goes deep to make sure he's not overdoing it on his reconstructed knee.

"Javon is a good football player," wide receiver Rod Smith said. "He's coming back to put his game back together, he is working on a lot of areas. He can bring a new dimension to our games."

Years from now, it will be interesting to check back on the Walker-Lelie situation. Was Walker right in trying to get out of Green Bay? Did Walker end up striking gold and getting a Super Bowl ring in Denver and then becoming the long-term No. 1 receiver? Where does Lelie end up and does he ever end up being a true No. 1 receiver?

Shanahan isn't worried about the questions. His eyes are on the Super Bowl. Once again, he reloaded his roster for another shot.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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