A day before they were scheduled to open the preseason against San Francisco, the Broncos will finally have their first training camp practice on Friday.
Since ending last season with a win over the Raiders to finish 7-9, the Broncos have hired a new offensive coordinator (Pat Shurmur), signed or traded for cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive end Jurrell Casey, right guard Graham Glasgow and punter Sam Martin, and drafted center Lloyd Cushenberry and receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, among others.
In this roundtable, beat writers Ryan O’Halloran and Kyle Newman and columnist Mark Kiszla weigh in on six questions:
1. This camp and this season is all about quarterback Drew Lock. A) What should give fans confidence No. 3 can be the guy? B) What does the next step look like for Lock?
Kyle: There’s a certain swagger necessary to handle the expectations that come with being the Broncos’ quarterback, and through his 4-1 start last season, Lock appears to have that moxie. Whether the momentum from “Drewcember” carries over to a full 16-game slate is another question, but he shows promise. The next step for Lock is to rise to those high expectations — and if he somehow can’t lead the Broncos back to the playoffs, he can’t be a major reason they didn’t get there.
Kiz: Playing quarterback for the Broncos can be the best job in town. Ask John Elway or Peyton Manning, who will be adored forever in Denver. But if you struggle as the Broncos’ quarterback, it’s among the worst jobs in town, as Joe Flacco and Paxton Lynch know all too well. Yes, “Drewcember” was a blast, for Broncos Country and Lock alike. But the next step for Lock will be the real test of his swagger and poise. How will Lock react when he throws multiple picks in back-to-back losses, the honeymoon is over and everyone from the media to fans begin to grumble?
Ryan: Broncos fans should be confident in Lock for as much as who he is (a confident, athletic passer) as who he isn’t (Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Joe Flacco and Case Keenum). Seriously, the biggest reason why Lock can have success is he is fearless — he’s going to throw into the tight windows on third down or get seven yards by scrambling, traits that will benefit the offense.
2. Coach Vic Fangio is back for a second year. What is Uncle Vic’s biggest challenge heading into the Sept. 14 opener?
Kyle: After instability on the offensive line clearly agitated Fangio last year, I’m afraid he’ll have to deal with more uncertainty this season. The Broncos’ choice to pass on a tackle high in the draft, coupled with Ja’Wuan James’ decision to opt out due to coronavirus concerns means Garett Bolles is the projected starter at left tackle and Elijah Wilkinson is the projected starter at right tackle. That’s a lot of faith in those two still-unproven players to protect Lock.
Kiz: Trust. Do the Broncos in the locker room really believe Uncle Vic has their back and also has the right schemes to get this team back to the playoffs? I think players respect Fangio. But like him? I’m not so certain. I know what you’re thinking: What does liking a coach have to do with anything in a league where grumpy Bill Belichick is the gold standard for success? Well, before Belichick won all those rings in New England, he was fired in Cleveland. Fangio still has significant work to do in order to establish the complete buy-in any coach needs to thrive, or even survive, in the Not For Long.
Ryan: Not overtaxing his players during the lead-up to the roster cuts on Sept. 5. I felt last year that the Broncos reached Week 1 exhausted and they started 0-4. To agree with Kiz, Fangio should trust his veterans to get themselves ready mentally and physically, which means curtailing their practice snaps. That will also allow the coaching staff to evaluate the back of the roster candidates.
3. Two years ago, it was Phillip Lindsay and Tim Patrick, and last year, it was Malik Reed. Who will be this year’s undrafted free agent who rises up to make the team?
Kyle: I’m going with running back LeVante Bellamy, who went undrafted despite consecutive seasons of at least 1,200 yards rushing at Western Michigan, where he averaged 6.0 yards per carry during his career. Injuries caused him to miss large parts of a couple seasons in college, but if he stays healthy during camp, the 23-year-old is liable make the team while challenging Royce Freeman (the Broncos’ primary backup in 2019) for the No. 3 spot on the running back depth chart.
Kiz: I get why fans love the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Broncos at training camp. It’s a cool day of football under the Colorado sun. But can I make a little confession? I’ve never been super-fond of summer camp, because to quote my old buddy Allen Iverson: We’re talking ’bout practice! In this strange year of the coronavirus, however, I’m missing the chance to thoroughly evaluate prospects that can rise from the bottom of the depth chart to make the team. I know coaches miss it, as well. So I’m throwing darts in the dark here: The Broncos could use help in the secondary. Maybe there’s a place for cornerback Essang Bassey from Wake Forest.
Ryan: I’ll go with Texas Tech safety Douglas Coleman. Any guy who has eight interceptions at the FBS level knows how to find the football. If Trey Marshall is the third safety, Coleman would have to beat out Alijah Holder.
4. The Broncos stayed put at No. 15 and still had receiver Jerry Jeudy fall to them. What kind of impact can Jeudy make as a rookie?
Kyle: A solid one. While Courtland Sutton had somewhat of a coming-out season in 2019, accumulating over 1,000 yards receiving while earning his first Pro Bowl nod, the Broncos struggled to find him a consistent complementary wideout threat. Enter Jeudy, who can stretch the field alongside fellow speedy rookie KJ Hamler, and the result will be something in the range of a 45-catch, 800-yard, 6-touchdown season for the former Alabama star.
Kiz: Jeudy, Jeudy, Jeudy! I’m making the call right now: On the first snap of the season, Drew Lock should fake a handoff to Phillip Lindsay (not that bum Melvin Gordon) and fire deep to Jeudy. Does new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur have the guts to throw caution to the wind and be aggressive? You tell me, and then we’ll all know how committed the Broncos really are to opening up the offense and maximizing Jeudy’s obvious potential.
Ryan: The Broncos have multiple skill players in the passing-game mix so Jeudy’s progress may not mirror his statistics. Where Jeudy will make his impact is by Shurmur creating mismatches like Jeudy against a sub-package corner.
5. The Broncos’ defense had some decent numbers last year and then added Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye and also get Bradley Chubb back. What is your biggest remaining concern about the defense?
Kyle: Cornerback is the biggest concern and it’s not even close. Yes, the Broncos traded for Bouye to replace No. 1 cornerback Chris Harris, who departed for the Chargers in free agency. And I believe he’ll be a solid addition. But depth is the big question mark, even if Bryce Callahan’s foot is as healthy as defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and the Twitter workout videos claim. After those two, Denver’s secondary is full of unproven corners such as Isaac Yiadom, Duke Dawson, De’Vante Bausby, Davontae Harris and rookie Michael Ojemudia.
Kiz: Von Miller. Is he still the Vonster? He stunk last year. Well, he stunk by his lofty standards. Eight sacks is not elite pass-rushing. And it seemed painfully obvious Fangio was not impressed with the impact Miller made in 2019. Miller has vowed to become a better leader and more dominant player, after being reminded by the tragic death of Kobe Bryant how fleeting athletic prowess — and even life itself — can be. How miserable Miller makes quarterbacks and how well he gets along with Fangio will tell much of the tale for the Broncos in 2020.
Ryan: Chubb’s health. I know he tore his ACL last Sept. 30, which gives him almost a full year of recovery before the Broncos face Tennessee. But he could have benefited from 25-30 preseason snaps (plus joint practices) to regain his rhythm. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chubb started semi-slowly as he gets his footing, but still ends up with double-digit sacks.
6. Every team is optimistic at this time of year, including the Broncos. Why should they feel confident they can go from 7-9 and out of the playoffs for four consecutive years to a winning record and back in the postseason picture?
Kyle: To sum up Broncos Country’s collective optimism: Drew Lock, the defense and expanded playoffs. The buzz around Lock is on a different level, one not felt around Denver since Peyton Manning retired. And in the second year of Fangio’s scheme, how could an orange-and-blue optimist not love the prospects of a defense with an uber-deep linebacking corps, a new veteran run-stuffer up front in Jurrell Casey and a pair of All-Pro-caliber safeties in Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson?
Kiz: Why should the Broncos feel optimistic? Because they’re nuts. OK, that’s not the answer anyone wants to hear. This might all work out splendidly. I loved the Jeudy pick and much of the work Elway did to reshape the roster. But I think COVID-19 did this rebuilding project no favors. It’s a young offensive team that will try to integrate a lot of new moving parts without much preparation time. Winning 10 games is definitely within the realm of possibility for the Broncos. But it’s not likely.
Ryan: The seventh playoff team! Expanding the postseason by one team per conference could create hope for teams like the Broncos, who aren’t expected to challenge for the AFC West title, but are capable of playing .500 football entering December, which now means they’re right in the hunt.
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