ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – The Three Amigos in Denver Broncos lore were all wide receivers: Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson and Ricky Nattiel.
This eclectic trio became fast friends after going on injured reserve last August, the vanguard of an injury epidemic that would sideline five defensive starters by the Super Bowl.
All are back and making strong early impressions at training camp, just as they’d envisioned during those arduous days of rehab together.
“Man, it’s a great feeling, especially to see those two guys,” Carter said. “Lerentee’s been making a ton of plays. Quanterus is doing great. And last year if you were in the weight room with us, it would have been comedy because literally every little thing we were being competitive. Especially with not being able to be out there with the guys, we were just super competitive in the weight room and then talked about how we can’t wait to get back out there. And then here we are right now.”
Carter missed most of the last two seasons after getting hurt inside the team’s practice bubble during a rainstorm in 2012, blowing out a hamstring and a knee while avoiding a soccer goal after defending a deep pass. After starting 10 games as a rookie in 2011 and intercepting Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs, Carter needed microfracture surgery. He wasn’t ready to go last season, so the Broncos placed him on injured reserve Aug. 27.
Four days later, he was joined by Smith and McCray, casualties of the final cut-down.
Smith, a fifth-round draft pick out of Western Kentucky, flashed speed and nifty moves, but as camp wore on, it became apparent his surgically repaired left knee wasn’t quite ready.
McCray, who went undrafted out of Florida over medical concerns, was a lock to make the 53-man roster, but that changed when he sprained an ankle in the fourth quarter of the last preseason game.
All three are making up for lost time this summer.
Smith stepped up with the first-team defense this week when DeMarcus Ware was sidelined with a bruised right leg and had an impressive sack. McCray has shown up over and over with big stops.
Cutting sharply and running smoothly, Carter has been getting snaps at strong safety with the first-string nickel packages after seeing plenty of action in the base defense during offseason workouts when newcomer T.J. Ward was limited by a tight hamstring.
“It’s relieving knowing that you have guys like that who know the playbook and are ready to go,” Von Miller said.
With most of training camp closed to the public because of a construction project at their training complex, the Broncos were excited to play in front of fans at their stadium Sunday – and none more so than this new version of the Three Amigos.
“It’s back to leaving the dream, you know?” said Carter, whose versatility is coveted by defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
“I definitely feel like I’m a big part of the defense and a playmaker on defense, whether I’m playing free safety or strong safety,” Carter said. “I can interchange and I feel like that’s kind of where my strong point on the team, I can play in the box or play back.”
During their season of rehab together, Carter, Smith and McCray envisioned making an impact together in 2014.
“We talked about coming out here this season and doing our thing,” said Smith, who is flashing the speed and skills similar to what he showed on that three-sack day at Alabama that first put him on the NFL radar back in 2012. He was leading the nation with 12 1/2 sacks when he tore a ligament in his left knee two months later.
Like Carter, Smith said he doesn’t even think about his rebuilt knee anymore.
“It feels good,” he said.
Del Rio said Smith is “clearly light years ahead of where he was last year.”
So is McCray, who has capitalized on his work with the starters this offseason while Miller rehabs from ACL surgery.
“It’s just a great feeling because all last year, all 19 games we talked like, `I wish I was out there,’ and we just had to sit back and watch,” McCray said. “And now the opportunity is finally here to go back and do what we love and what we all talked about doing last year.”
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
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