Peyton Manning's first full practice in pads in 18 months drew rave reviews from his coaches and teammates — and at least one suggestion that his health is no longer even an issue.
Manning put on an aerial show with Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker and others Saturday morning in the latest milestone to his comeback from a nerve injury that cost him all of last season and led to his release from the Indianapolis Colts.
Although Manning threw in full pads during his tryouts at Duke University for the Broncos and other suitors during his first foray into free agency in March and again at times while working out in Denver, this was his first real action in full pads since the Pro Bowl following the 2010 season.
Manning didn't address the media afterward, but coach John Fox said he thought Manning's performance was excellent.
"The guy comes to work every day whether it's in that building or on that field, he attacks it like no other," Fox said.
Although the defenders weren't allowed to hit the Broncos' new $96 million man, Manning seemed to have an extra pep in his step in his first practice at Dove Valley that wasn't in shells or shorts.
"It was great," wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. "It was like the first day of school. Football without pads, it's not football. So, when you put the pads on, you know you're getting close to the season."
Through three days of training camp it's become obvious that Manning's health isn't much of an issue, although it could be some time before he takes his first hit, another big signpost on his comeback from four neck procedures.
"I said this when I was working out with him five months ago — he looks great," Stokley said. "So, for us now, it's kind of a non-issue of how Peyton's feeling, how he's doing. That's kind of so three months ago. Now he's fine. There's nothing wrong with him."
Stokley, who played with Manning in Indianapolis from 2003-06, said his old friend looks as good today as he did back then.
"He looks like he's just gotten better and better," Stokley said. "He looks normal."
"He looked good when we first got him, to be honest with you," offensive coordinator Mike McCoy concurred. "I knew some things he had told us before he got here, what he thought of where he was, and he's gotten better every day. He's worked extremely hard to get to the point he's at right now."
The next mile marker in Manning's return will be when he takes his first big hit. Just when that will come is a mystery.
Manning threw precious few passes in the preseason in Indianapolis, and the Broncos haven't revealed how much he'll play in their exhibitions. They open at Chicago on Aug. 9 but Manning, whose quick release and cerebral play doesn't lead to very many hits on the quarterback anyway, might not take his first blast from a defender until the season opener against Pittsburgh on Sept. 9, or even later.
"I have no concern over that," Manning told ESPN's Tom Jackson. "I'm not begging James Harrison to blindside me by any means, but I feel I'm going to be able to handle that."
Manning missed all of last season with a nerve injury in his neck that weakened his throwing arm. He has said he'll continue his rehab work throughout the season but has quit "giving percentages" about his health.
Beginning with offseason workouts, Manning has looked sharper and he's been even sharper during the opening days of training camp. Going against a live defense Saturday, he looked even better.
One of his best plays came when Decker found the slightest separation from perennial Pro Bowler Champ Bailey and Manning fit the pass right into the tight window, drawing the biggest ovation from the crowd of 4,443, which broke the two-day-old record for the biggest non-stadium training camp practice in team history.
Manning and Decker hooked up plenty of other times.
"As of right now, we don't like those guys. I'm not on board with their show or whatever that is," deadpanned defensive end Elvis Dumervil. "But those guys are good, give them credit. They're going to make us better, so we've got to compete, and that will be good for us."
Despite watching Manning pick apart his defense, new coordinator Jack Del Rio said it was nice to see his players in pads.
"I was one of the players that benefited from being in pads throughout my career. A lot of times I was beaten out in the spring and I'd take my job back in the fall when we put the pads on," Del Rio said. "So, you can't really settle too much until you get the pads on. This sport is played in pads."
Notes: RT Orlando Franklin missed the last 20 minutes of the morning practice with what Fox said was a crick in his neck. ... Starting S Quinton Carter (right hamstring) sat out.