DENVER (AP) – The 2016 NFL season starts the same way the last one ended, with Von Miller staring down Cam Newton.
Denver’s star linebacker got the best of Newton in Super Bowl 50, stripping both the football (twice) and the Lombardi Trophy from the Carolina quarterback’s grasp in the Broncos’ 24-10 win over the Panthers.
The sequel won’t feature Peyton Manning, who retired a month later. When longtime backup Brock Osweiler signed with Houston two days after Manning’s tearful goodbye, GM John Elway embarked on a months-long search for a successor.
He didn’t find him in the draft, free agency or via trade, but right there on his roster in Trevor Siemian, a seventh-round draft pick in 2015 from Northwestern who’ll be making his first NFL start Thursday night.
Siemian has never thrown a pass as a pro. At least he won’t have to face star cornerback Josh Norman, who signed with the Redskins after the Panthers rescinded their franchise tag in the offseason.
Instead, Siemian will square off against two rookie cornerbacks in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, the biggest changes on the NFC champions’ roster that returns 18 starters.
“I’m not going to look at them like they’re rookies,” Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “I’m going to treat them like they’re Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman.”
While the Panthers were restocking, the Broncos were busy rebuilding. They return just five offensive starters from the Super Bowl.
The massive makeover didn’t take away from their championship celebration. When they visited the White House, receiver Demaryius Thomas got to personally thank President Barack Obama for commuting his mother’s drug sentence, and successfully pleaded for the release of his grandmother this summer, as well.
Nobody basked in the limelight quite like Miller, who skipped the offseason program before signing a record-breaking contract. He embarked on a six-month jet-setting junket of television and dance studios.
Miller’s torment of Newton in the Super Bowl was just the start. He made him the butt of his jokes on “SNL” and trolled him on Instagram, photo-shopping himself knocking another ball out of Newton’s hands when the QB posted a picture of himself playing with the U.S. water polo team.
Miller said this week it was all in good fun and called Newton “the best player in the league.”
Newton insisted he took no offense and called Miller “one of the great players in this NFL.”
There are plenty of other story lines drawing attention as the teams meet 215 days after Super Bowl 50:
RESTOCKED PANTHERS : Two factors that could help slow down the Broncos’ pass rush are the return to health of WR Kelvin Benjamin, who missed last season with a torn ACL, and RB Jonathan Stewart, who was held to 29 yards rushing after hurting a foot early in the Super Bowl. Coach Ron Rivera said he wants to limit his 6-foot-5, 245-pound receiver’s snaps to 30-35 per game, down from about twice that as a rookie in 2014.
REBUILT BRONCOS : Siemian isn’t the only new face. The Broncos now feature a fullback along with three new linemen and two new tight ends. Elway also replaced two specialists, including punter/holder Britton Colquitt, in favor of rookies. But the Broncos return nine starters on their dazzling defense, 10 if you count CB Bradley Roby; they’re in the nickel package most of the time.
REMMERS NIGHTMARE : Sure, RT Mike Remmers got beaten twice on the edge by Miller last February, resulting in a pair of strip-sacks against Newton that led to 15 points. But Rivera has staunchly defended Remmers, saying the criticism is absurd and declaring, “I have absolute confidence in Mike Remmers.” GM Dave Gettleman is quick to point out the Panthers are 22-4 since Remmers took over as their starting right tackle.
DEMARYIUS DO-OVER : Thomas had 105 catches for 1,304 yards last year. But he only had six TDs to go with 18 drops and a forgettable Super Bowl performance. His dogged determination to have a bounce-back year was on full display this summer. “D.T.’s had one of the best camps I’ve been around,” coach Gary Kubiak said. It earned the soft-spoken Thomas offensive captain honors.
DOUBLING DOWN : Denver’s dazzling defense was one of the best ever, and it doesn’t look like the Broncos will retreat minus Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan. “We know what we can do,” safety T.J. Ward said. “We’ve got the same defense as last year. We plan on picking up right where we left off. We’re not trying to prove nothing to nobody. We did that already. And we’re trying to do it better this year.”