First-year kicker Brandon McManus is making the most of his NFL tryout while Pro Bowler Matt Prater serves out his four-game suspension kicking field goals at a nearby high school.
McManus has made both of his field goal attempts and had touchbacks on 11 of 12 kickoffs in the Denver Broncos' 2-0 start. If he makes a pressure kick Sunday at Seattle or against Arizona after the bye week, he might just earn himself a longer stay in Denver.
"That's what I want to do, is put doubt in their mind about what they should do" when Prater's punishment is over, McManus said. "I don't want to come out here and think, 'Well, I'm only kicking for four games.' My mental preparation wouldn't be good. That's not the way I'm looking at it."
The Broncos traded a conditional 2015 seventh-round pick to the New York Giants for McManus last month after Prater was suspended for drinking. Prater has been in the NFL's drug program, which includes alcohol, since a DUI arrest in 2011.
Prater led the league last year by making 25 of 26 field goals, including a record-setting 64-yarder against Tennessee. He also led the NFL with 81 kickoff touchbacks.
His suspension put the Broncos in a tough spot as they open the season against four teams that averaged 11.25 wins last year.
Although the Bronco's 26 wins in Peyton Manning's first two years in Denver came by an average of 16.8 points, both of the their wins this year have been by seven. And the defending AFC champs are bracing for plenty more slugfests, some of which might come down to a clutch field goal.
A four-year starter at Temple, McManus spent the 2013 preseason in Indianapolis and the regular season preparing for another shot.
"It's tough because that's the first season that I hadn't played football since middle school," McManus said. "So, I just kept working to stay ready. I knew I was on a bunch of teams' short lists. And I was just waiting. So, I started my kicking business just to make some money."
He offered private lessons in the Philadelphia and New Jersey area through "Kickin' It With McManus," which also kept him in shape for another shot at the NFL.
He had two tryouts during the 2013 season, one with the Giants and the other with the Saints, who replaced longtime kicker Garrett Hartley with veteran Shayne Graham heading into the playoffs.
This summer, he pushed Giants incumbent Josh Brown just as he had Adam Vinatieri in Indy.
"He's one of those guys that's going to be a lifer," Brown said of McManus. "He's going to be a 10-year guy, easily. He's got that kind of talent and he's got that kind of head on his shoulders."
And a booming right leg.
"He's got a tremendously strong leg and he's got a lot of upside," Broncos GM John Elway said after trading for him.
Elway had several proven veterans to choose from but he went with the 6-foot-3, 201-pound novice with smooth mechanics and a bright future.
"The biggest knock on me it's hard to get regular-season experience for a young kicker," McManus said. "A lot of teams don't want to put their head on a line to get a rookie kicker out there. So, definitely the four games I knew would help me. I wanted to come in and perform well for those four games whether they keep me here or not when Matt comes back."
Last month, coach John Fox suggested Prater hadn't worn out his welcome in Denver, saying, "He's part of our family."
Then, a contrite Prater apologized and pledged to stay out of clubs to avoid the temptation to drink again, which could result in a yearlong ban.
His suspension is costing Prater $750,000 of his $3 million base salary.
There's the rub.
The Broncos are paying big bucks for their specialists — Prater will count $3.812 million against this year's cap and punter/holder Britton Colquitt another $3.25 million.
McManus signed a deal that would pay him $420,000 this year and $510,000 in 2015, when Prater's base salary jumps to $3.25 million.
That's no small consideration for a team that has several stars coming up for big long-term contracts, including Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Chris Harris Jr.
McManus wants to stay here with them. He sees Denver not as a stopover but as his destination.
"I think that's the only way you can look at it," he said.
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