Broncos Practice with Heavy Hearts

DENVER (AP) - The Denver Broncos returned to practice for the first time since the deaths of two teammates in the offseason and insisted they weren't trying to move on from the tragedies.

Both Darrent Williams and Damien Nash died in the offseason.

"Their memories are going to stay here for a long time," coach Mike Shanahan said.

"We're going to embrace it and no be afraid to talk about it."

Williams, a starting cornerback and one of the league's rising young stars, was slain in an unsolved drive-by shooting on New Year's morning, and Nash, a backup running back, collapsed after a charity basketball game in February and died of unknown causes.

Both were 24.

"Two young guys that meant a lot to this organization that died at an early age, we don't understand why, but their memories are with us," Shanahan said.

"We talked about it a little today. Their memory will go for a long time.

As I told our players, 10, 15, 20 years from now, we'll have a number of things up over at that stadium that people can remember."

The Broncos plan to honor their fallen teammates in a number of ways this season, perhaps with decals or patches and maybe a banner and ceremony at Invesco Field, among other things.

Many of their teammates gathered for both funerals and most have been working out at the team's headquarters for the last several weeks.

Wednesday marked the start of a seven-day passing camp that included their four draft picks and several new free agents.

Taking the field for the first time without the gregarious Williams and Nash was both melancholy and cathartic.

"It is a good thing to come out here," said second-year receiver Brandon Marshall, who was with both Williams and Nash in the moments before they died.

Autopsy results on Nash were released last week and found no drugs or unnatural substances in his system and an exact cause of death couldn't be determined, the St. Louis County medical examiner's office said.

Nash collapsed and died Feb. 24 after a charity basketball game he hosted in his hometown of St. Louis. Nash arranged the game at his high school to benefit The Darris Nash Find a Heart Foundation, which was named after his 25-year-old brother, who had a heart transplant last year.

Williams was shot once in the neck after leaving a nightclub in his rented stretch Hummer following an altercation between members of his party and suspected gang members.

His slaying remains under investigation.

On Monday, a man whose SUV has been linked to the killing was ordered held without bail on federal drug charges.

As for football, there was a different vibe with Jay Cutler, last year's top draft pick, running the offense Wednesday.

He took over the starting quarterback duties for the final five games last season from Jake Plummer, who announced his retirement rather than report to Tampa Bay following a trade over the winter.

Shanahan said he sensed the dawning of a new era in quarterback-crazy Denver.

"It isn't often that you get a quarterback at that age with that type of ability, with that type of leadership skills and with that type of playing skills.

Just hoping that he grows and grows," Shanahan said. "He's been working out of here for about six weeks.

He's done a great job with our players and with our players in general. Hopefully, he can keep on leading.

"He can't do it by himself. That's why we got what I'm hoping is a pretty good supporting class."

Cutler was glad to get back on the field.

"It was good to get away from the conditioning and lifting and I get to play a little football," he said.

"I thought the day went really well. Mentally, I feel a lot more comfortable.

I have a good feel for what is going on.

I think I'm able to help (new backup quarterback) Patrick Ramsey a little bit. That's a little bit of a different change.

I'm usually the one at the other end.

"It feels good. It feels good to be back."

(Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved)