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7 things to watch during the Broncos-Falcons HOF game

The score doesn’t matter, but these things do. Here are seven things I’ll be watching for during the Hall of Fame Game.

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It’s been all of 212 days since the Denver Broncos played against the Los Angeles Chargers. 212 days since Case Keenum threw his last pass in orange and blue. 212 days since Vance Joseph strolled along a Denver sideline.

It seems like eons ago, but in all reality it was less than a year. Since then, John Elway has worked overtime to completely overhaul the roster. Vic Fangio, Mike Munchak, Rich Scangarello, Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, Kareem Jackson, Noah Fant, the names go on and on.

While the faces will look significantly different, a slew of questions remain. These games will start to offer hints at those answers, and that’s why they matter. Adam Malnati and Ian St. Clair previewed today’s Hall of Fame game on the MHR Radio Podcast (ApplePodcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher).

1. Who is QB2, really?

I mentioned in Mile High Report’s round table how I’m looking forward to getting a first look at Drew Lock tonight. In truth, I’m eager to observe all of the Broncos’ arms. Hopefully one or more prove they’re the future for the position.

Early reports out of the first week of camp suggested Kevin Hogan looked like he was trending downwards. Since then, things have gone quiet. Is that because the breathless coverage of Lock, or because Hogan has rebounded back to halfway decent play? We’ll soon find out.

If he’s shaky, Brett Rypien’s chances at the roster increase exponentially. I was as high on him as anyone when he came out of Boise State (even ranking him above a certain New York Giant), but now he has to prove he can overcome his physical limitations. Here’s hoping.

2. Is Booker’s job in danger?

I’m sure you noticed Theo Riddick paid a visit to Denver recently. Did you see Elway brought David Williams back? Did you also notice Devontae Jackson and Khalfani Muhammad turning heads in camp? Let’s just say they aren’t here to take Royce Freeman or Phillip Lindsay’s jobs.

Now I’m not sure Booker’s on the outs if Rich Scangarello really is looking to utilize running backs in the passing game as much as reports suggest. In 2018, he was the best route runner out of the backfield. He was also more effective with limited carries than you probably remember.

What he wasn’t is a standout blocker. MHR’s Joe Mahoney opened my eyes to that this summer and it became all the more evident the longer I watched Denver’s offense. This is why Riddick could make a lot of sense. Not only is the former Lion one of the better dump off receivers in football the last couple seasons, he’s also an underrated pass protector.

If Booker wants to ensure his role as RB3, he needs to show he can pick up a blitz and serve as a reliable compliment to the younger duo. If he can’t do that, his job status becomes a lot more unstable, especially if Jackson and Muhammad can show him up as a returner.

Of course, if a decision has already been made, Booker may not play a snap.

3. Is Garett Bolles in hot water?

With Joe Flacco entrenched as QB1, Bolles has been the favorite whipping boy for a lot of local media the last couple weeks. Ever since Elijah Wilkinson earned praise from Rich Scangarello, the low hanging fruit to fill three or four minutes of dead air is to suggest Bolles is headed for the bench.

The truth is, Denver’s strongest potential offensive line features Bolles at left tackle in 2019.

On Tuesday, Fangio announced that Bolles, Dalton Risner, and Connor McGovern would start the Hall of Fame game. Risner makes sense as a rookie starter who would benefit from live action. Even McGovern belongs there, given the issues with snaps that seem to be plaguing him.

After the news broke, MHR’s Scotty Payne dismissed it, and he has a point. There’s a very real possibility the plan is to play the starting line minus Leary (recovering from an Achilles tear) and James (dealing with a leg bruise).

So it’s worth monitoring how many snaps Bolles logs.

4. Are the young receivers ready for their moments?

When camp opened, I identified the receiving corps as the biggest X factor hanging over the 2019 season.

GIF Horse - The pre-camp Denver Broncos’ preview - Mile High Report

It has to be the Broncos’ young hands. No position group has a wider chasm between national and local perception on the current roster. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell recently ranked the Broncos receiving group ahead of only Jacksonville’s, while USA Today’s Doug Farrar cited the receivers as a huge weakness in a podcast at the beginning of July.

It’s hard to blame them.

Reports out of camp have been a mixed bag. Drops have been an issue here and there, though part of that is to be expected as the young receivers go up against Chris Harris, Bryce Callahan, Justin Simmons and the rest of what looks like one of the best secondaries in the league. Tonight they play second and third string Atlanta Falcons, though. It’s time to put up or shut up.

Will any of them prove they can break open and hang onto the ball?

5. Who will emerge among the front 7?

If you took a look at my early roster projection, you’ll probably remember how my research into Fangio’s Bears have shown that he tends to carry 6 defensive lineman, 4 to 5 edge rushers, and 4 to 5 off ball linebackers.

A little bit of math (or a look at that projection) will reveal there’s maybe five open spots among those groups. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb aren’t going anywhere. Shelby Harris, Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsis, Zach Kerr, and Dre’Mont Jones are locks along the defensive line. Todd Davis, Josey Jewell, and Justin Hollins are going to be on the roster. Dekoda Watson was brought in to be a special teams standout and veteran presence on the edge.

There’s a few hints where things are going. If last year’s Bears are any sign of things to come for the Broncos, Fangio will employ Nickel personnel close to 80% of the time in 2019. Both Kerr and Harris are listed at nose tackle.

Chances are high that one, maybe two edge rushers stick to the roster. The defensive lineman is more likely to be an interior pass rusher than a run plugger. The linebackers will need to be able to play in space.

This is the closest thing to a battle royale out of this year’s camp roster. It’s going to be exciting to see who can fight their way to the 53.

6. Will Fangio keep five or six corners?

Every season he coordinated the Bears defense, Fangio carried six cornerbacks on the active roster. The versatility of Denver’s secondary puts that number in question because Kareem Jackson can move from safety “in case of an emergency.”

While the Broncos head coach dismissed the current depth chart, it’s worth noting that Linden Stephens and Horace Richardson are the fifth and sixth corners. Both are second year pros who spent time on different practice squads last year. Stephens spent time on the Saints and Rams before coming to Denver in November. Richardson, on the other hand, bounced from Minnesota to Detroit, Detroit to Kansas City, and KC to Denver last December.

All signs hint that they’ll fight with Trey Johnson and Alijah Holder to make it. The former AAF star looks like a soft lock for CB4 after a solid start to camp and previous experience in the Fangio D.

7. How will Parks be used?

The safety position is similar to corner in that four or five players will stick to the active roster. Currently Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons are locked into starting jobs and look unlikely to play tonight. That leaves Will Parks an opportunity to stand out.

Last year, the 3rd year pro quietly broke into the limelight playing the Vance Joseph Dimebacker role Elway had envisioned for Su’a Cravens. According to Pro Football Focus’ game charting, Parks played 224 snaps in the box, 198 snaps at free safety, 88 snaps at slot corner, 42 snaps at outside linebacker, and 20 snaps at outside cornerback.

Fangio’s D rarely used a dimebacker last year, so it’s going to be interesting to see if and how he makes use of Parks’ skill set. Up until camp opened, most of Broncos Country assumed he’d be a starting safety.

Will he still log a starter snap count?