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3 things to watch during the Broncos-49ers preseason game

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These are the three big things I’m looking for during the Denver Broncos home preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers.

A little over a week ago, Coach Vic Fangio has said that outside of 40 or so locked in guys, the other roster spots are up for grabs. We’ve reached that point in the preseason where a little clarity has come to some position battles. I wrote about how the Broncos’ stocks are trending last week and while there’s still enough time to halt the ax, this game is huge for the future of guys on the back end of the roster.

If you read my questions prior to the Broncos game with the Falcons or Seahawks, you’ll know that some questions remain.

You may notice for this week’s projection how I reordered the position battles. This is where I expect players currently stand based on snaps, tape, and reports out of camp. Guys marked yellow are players who’ve intrigue me going into this game, while red guys are players I’d bet are headed towards the practice squad or the street.

Where things stand as of August, 18th.

These are the three things I’m really keyed in on tonight:

1. Can a backup lineman (or two) earn Munchak’s trust?

I’ve probably watched the first two preseason games more than any sane person would recommend. One of the biggest concerns I have coming out of game two with the Seahawks is porous second and third lines.

Before you panic, this is pretty standard across the NFL. If you’ve read my work for long, you know I’m an ardent believer in Bill Parcell’s planet theory, the idea that there’s simply a short supply of big people who are also athletic enough to thrive in the NFL.

It’s why guys like Chris Lindstrom go in the top half of the 2019 NFL Draft despite playing guard: he’s an incredible athlete.

What’s most concerning about the Broncos’ shaky depth along the offensive line is when you add in the starting right side’s troubling injury history. Ronald Leary’s health concerns are long past well documented at this point, but Ja’Wuan James has played in 62 of a possible 80 career games and started every game just once since his rookie year in 2014.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Elijah Wilkinson’s currently seen as the primary backup behind four of the five spots. Down the 2018 stretch, he started 7 games for the Broncos at right guard and has worked at both tackle spots under Munchak.

Behind him, Don Barclay looks like the primary depth inside after playing in place of Ron Leary for the majority of camp. Since coming into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Barclay has worn Packers, Lions, and Saints uniforms in addition to his current orange and blue. So far this preseason he’s had a couple promising moments which have helped to keep most in the media at bay.

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One player who did disappoint me was Don Barclay, who got a lot of praise for his block on Muhammad’s touchdown run and proceeded to miss a number of blocks. Here’s hoping he can improve next week.

Make no mistake, his position as OL7 is a bit of an indictment for the younger competition for spots. It would be huge if any of them can show out in week 3.

2. Can any of the linebackers push Alexander Johnson?

The 27-year old second year pro has quietly been one of the best stories of camp so far. With Todd Davis, Josey Jewell, and Joe Jones all going through various ailments Johnson has locked down a roster spot and impressed with his play on defense.

Watching him play, Johnson reminds me of both Davis and Jewell in that he’s more adequate than solid in space, but brings it against the run. Fangio’s scheme and the superstar duo of Bradley Chubb and Von Miller should work to hide the stack linebacker’s athletic limitations in 2019, but I’m curious if any of the younger guys can push Johnson.

Justin Hollins looks most likely to. The 2019 5th-round pick has been working at both edge and stack linebacker and shows a ton of promise. Here’s hoping he can get to where Fangio uses him in sub packages. He offers an enticing blend of athleticism, length, and comfort in space to potentially thrive as a chess piece in nickel personnel.

However, as exciting as he’s been, it’s important to remember he’s a rookie learning two positions, as Fangio said last Friday:

“I see a lot of stuff, some good and some not so good, but I do think he can play in there eventually. He’s obviously going through a major learning experience and we’re teaching him outside linebacker at the same time, so he’s got a lot on his plate. I think in light of all that, he’s doing good, but he’s still got a ways to go.”

3. Can the young Quarterbacks make a jump?

After the first preseason game, there was a bit of pessimism in the air about Drew Lock mixed with his ardent believers arguing it was just one game.

After the second preseason game, there was a lot of optimism in the air about Drew Lock with the realists arguing it was just one game.

You probably see where I’m going with this. I’ve made a point to study Lock’s first two games so far this preseason and can see many of the promising things that had me rank him as my Broncos’ QB2 last April, as well as many of the reasons he scared me to death.

Brian Baldinger highlighted Lock’s 10 great throws, which led to even more rampant speculation that the 2nd rounder is well on his way to Canton. It was easy to dismiss Lock’s safety, interception, and his throws into the dirt because of the struggles of the offensive line.

This is on Lock as much as anyone.

One big reason I’ve held off on any sort of definitive, sweeping statements about Lock thus far is the fact that it’s still so early in the process. He’s still working out how to get the verbiage out in the huddle, for goodness sake. John Elway hit the nail on the head when asked about it Saturday:

“He continues to get better. He’s been overloaded. Anytime you have young guy like that, he’s going to have his good days and he is going to have his bad days. Obviously, we’re excited still about the talent that he has and what he has showed. He is flashed a lot, but it’s a big jump for him, especially with what we are doing offensively and the verbiage that goes along with it. It’s going to take him some time, but he’s done a nice job.”

So going into Monday night with the 49ers, my hope is to see Lock make another jump in his performance as he did from the Hall of Fame game to Seattle.

My hope for Rypien is even more simple: I hope to see him. Many of his most ardent fans continue to believe that Hogan’s struggles make Rypien’s chances at the roster far more likely. This simply ignores the reality that Rypien played 0 snaps last Thursday.

I continue to believe the Broncos are looking to stash Rypien on the practice squad this year while they carry Hogan or even just two quarterbacks, but the former Boise State Bronco could make that impossible for them if he can string together a few plays like this.