ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Marvin Austin was an afterthought in the Denver Broncos' $110 million defensive makeover this off-season.
Long after fellow free agents DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward signed their mega deals and posed with their orange jerseys, Austin slipped into town in May and quietly began his latest comeback.
The fourth-year defensive tackle who signed a one-year, $570,000 contract might just prove to be general manager John Elway's latest rummage-sale find to produce a big payoff.
"Camp has gone pretty good," said Austin, who moved up Tuesday to take snaps with the starters. "Most importantly I feel great, healthy, just going out there and playing with the guys. It's great to be back in football, back able to move around like I'm supposed to, like people know I can.
"And the coaches just want to see what I can do out there against the 1s. We've got the top offence in the league and they just wanted to see can I bring that tenacity and fire against the 1s."
He did, the latest step in his return from career-saving back surgery last November that he feared at first would end his playing days.
"Oh, my spine works now," Austin said. "It feels great. I've been humbled throughout my career, so I know what type of opportunity I have. So, I'm just grateful to be here. I'm grateful to be able to say that I can still play football and especially at the NFL level."
Austin (6-foot-2 and 319 pounds) said this is as good as he's ever felt, and the Broncos believe he looks better than ever, too.
"He was a good acquisition," coach John Fox said. "I think John and his staff did a good job in that evaluation process. He has come off of a fairly significant injury and he looks like he's got that explosiveness and quickness he had when he came out of Chapel Hill."
Funny that Fox should say that because Austin said, "I feel like college again."
He was a second-round draft choice of the New York Giants in 2011 but he missed his rookie season with a torn chest muscle. He played in eight games in 2012 while dealing with a bad back that resulted in a weak right leg. And he played in a total of three games last season for Miami and Dallas. The Cowboys released him after just one game and one tackle when his bad back acted up in practice.
Told he needed surgery, "I just cried my eyes out," Austin said. "I knew my career was over, being a second-round pick, being cut, and then coming back to that situation. It was over with for me in my mind."
He underwent surgery to remove a herniated disc in his lower back and to take out part of the vertebral arch in order to decompress the corresponding spinal cord or spinal nerve root. The surgeon also "took out some of the bone in my spine to open up my spinal canal because I was born with a little bit of stenosis," Austin said.
"I feel 10 million times better now," he said.
He said his surgeon told him his back was in such bad shape it's a wonder he wasn't paralyzed. "And I played with that for two years," Austin said.
Able to work out as feverishly as he once did, he attacked his latest comeback dripping with gusto.
"Now, to be out here playing and feel good, this is easy," he said as sweat drenched him after Tuesday morning's practice. "I was out there playing with a bum back, a bad leg. I'm a grinder. At the end of the day, they ain't going to say I didn't work. Regardless of whatever happens, if I'm here or if I'm not, if I'm playing football or if I'm not, you're not going to be able to say that Marvin Austin is lazy."
He said he looked out at the crowd during the Broncos' stadium scrimmage last weekend "and I was like, I love football again. I had lost the love for it, man, because I was dealing with so many injuries and they were so frustrating."
Notes: The Broncos signed DL Brian Sanford, a 6-2, 280-pound fifth-year pro who appeared in a dozen games with Cleveland (2011-12) and Oakland (2013).