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16 things I think I think after the Broncos’ preseason loss to the 49ers

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I broke down the film of the Denver Broncos’ third preseason game in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Here’s what I learned.

It’s always a bit of a trip to go back and review tape after a game. Slow motion and the ability to stop, rewind, and look plays through multiple times makes things evident that you miss on the first glance.

All this to say, there’s definitely a few second and third team guys who looked better than I initially thought during the Broncos game with the 49ers. There’s also a couple who didn’t look nearly as appealing when I had the chance to break down a play here and there.

How things look as of 8/21

Offense

  • Elijah Wilkinson may be an upgrade on Bolles, but may not get a chance to prove it.
  • Aquaman intrigues.
  • Schlottmann looks worse the longer he plays.
  • McKnight offers the most promise among the WR6 candidates.
  • A little clarity in the RB battle. Maybe?
  • Lock’s injury is a real bummer.
  • Hogan. Woof.
Wilkinson saves the day.

First things first, I’m wavering in my reluctant faith in the Broncos’ 2017 first-round pick. Don’t write me down as calling for Garett Bolles’ benching just yet, but it’s fair to wonder if Wilkinson would provide the starting unit a more consistent bookend. Best case scenario remains Bolles figuring it out in time for Oakland, but if Flacco’s getting something resembling Monday night’s Bolles, then that goes out the window.

Unfortunately, Ronald Leary’s continued health situation could take that possibility off the table altogether.

Looking out across the rest of the offensive line, I definitely owe Sam Jones an apology. In my initial reaction to the game on Monday, I called him out. He’s one of the big guys who looked a lot better with the benefit of rewind.

Jones (77) looked a lot better than I thought.

This isn’t to say Jones didn’t have some pretty bad plays mixed in with the good, but he offered enough promise that I’d say it wouldn’t be the worst thing to give him the Austin Schlottmann treatment and play him a few reps with more talented running mates around him.

Speaking of the starting guard, in GIF Horse yesterday I said:

Austin Schlottman’s starting gig was better than I expected. He was far from perfect and I’d be floored if Ronald Leary is sweating his starting job, but the first-year lineman out of TCU did enough to warrant some attention the rest of the preseason.

While this is true, the longer he saw the field, the worse things looked. I’ll sweat a bit if he plays on offense this year.

Run Drew run!

As I’ve said since months before camp first broke, the battle for wide receiver six is going to probably come down to special teams. Last week, a source told me Nick Williams and River Cracraft had the inside track, and neither did much to soil that Monday. Still, I believe Kelvin McKnight offers the most upside in both phases and hope the coaching staff stashes him on the practice squad if nothing else.

Meet the new RB3, same as the old RB3.

I mentioned this yesterday, but if performance is the end all, be all when it comes to the third running back spot, Devontae Booker’s got it locked up with a deadbolt. He’s far from perfect, which is why Theo Riddick was brought in to begin with, but he’s head and shoulders above of the younger backs.

One underrated area where he’s really shown out is as a pass protector. If he can carry it over into the regular season, he’ll be a valuable role player.

Hard to blame the back for this one.

Without being a fly on the wall in the offensive line room, it’s hard to say with complete certainty what the protection call is here. What is obvious is that the offensive line slid right, Bug Howard (85) caught the edge and the back moved left to pick up.

What gets murky is that Elijah Wilkinson got his hand on the rusher coming off his left, and because of it, Booker moved out to help on the edge. Wilkinson didn’t wind up stalling the rusher and Lock scrambled to his left.

Keep this general rule in mind.

At the end of the day, it is what it is, and now Lock will miss the remainder of his first preseason. As I mentioned Tuesday, it’s a bummer because he’s shown improvement in every game. With Flacco locked into the starting job, every additional game rep he could get now could help down the road.

Lock still has lots of room to improve.

One thing that goes to the back burner a bit with Lock’s injury and the quick turnaround for the Los Angeles Rams game on Saturday is a full film review of the rookie gunslinger’s first preseason. The long and short of it is, he’s clearly the second-best quarterback on the roster and remains a rather large work in progress.

The arm talent and athleticism that surely caught Elway’s eye is definitely still there, but so is the bad base and inconsistent mechanics. That’s okay! It’s his first preseason after all.

Two other areas Lock badly needs to improve on if he’s going to grow into an average+ starting quarterback in the NFL is his ability to identify pre-snap/post-snap looks and throwing with anticipation. Both are common issues for college quarterbacks as they hit the league, but separate backups from starters.

Lock still offers a tantalizing ceiling.

On the play above, Lock finds Tim Patrick in much the same way Flacco found Courtland Sutton in the first quarter. San Francisco is running a MoFC shell with the field split into thirds. Patrick’s in-route runs into the void underneath the safety. If Lock’s placement is a little better, the 6-foot-5 receiver is off and running after the catch.

It’s important to note that last part, as well as the fact that both the Broncos and 49ers are running stripped down versions of their schemes. As I’ve been saying since March, I’m dubious of Lock’s ability to pilot the first team against the kind of variety that will come in the regular season.

However, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t beat Kevin Hogan out for QB2 once he’s healthy.

Yikes.

It’s easy to pile on Kevin Hogan, so I’ll keep this short. When Chad Kelly was released last year because of his off field issues, Hogan made sense as QB2. After all, he’d been in the system long enough that he’d be the best short-term answer if anything happened to Case Keenum.

In the spring, it made a lot of sense to re-sign him to a one-year, $1.29 million contract as Elway and the Broncos searched high and low for better options. Fast forward to training camp and he made sense as a veteran alternative to two rookies behind Flacco.

Realistically, he’s a QB3. Over the first couple weeks of the season, he’d probably offer more stability in a handful of snaps than Drew Lock would in a pinch. Maybe. By the end of September, I doubt even that would be the case.

If Lock’s injury had been season-ending, I’d have made the argument that Elway should try to pry Nick Mullens away from the 49ers.

Defense

  • Send Todd Davis a “Get Well Soon” card.
  • Josh Watson had his worst game as a pro.
  • Jamal Carter’s playing on borrowed time.
  • Justin Hollins had a rough game at edge.
  • San Fran went after Dre’Mont Jones.
  • DeMarcus Walker should make the 2019 Broncos.
  • Mike Purcell will be tough to cut.
  • Shamarko Thomas looks at home on D.
  • Linden Stephens is probably CB5.
  • CB6 is....?

If you missed my concerns over Josey Jewell, I’d recommend clicking here or here. With news that Davis may not be ready for the Raiders in week 1, I sure hope the Broncos’ 2nd year backer or Alexander Johnson can settle in after both had uneven games against San Francisco. In fact, every stack linebacker on the Broncos did.

It’s impossible to dismiss the fact that Kyle Shanahan’s run designs are the most studied in the league, however.

Watson really struggled Monday.

On Raheem Mostert’s touchdown run above, Josh Watson was the primary culprit. With Dre’Mont Jones taking the inside gap, Watson’s responsibility was the C-gap. Instead, he hesitated to fill, which gave the tight end prime opportunity to hook him in, springing the back into the open field.

The 49ers abused Dre’Mont Jones & Jamal Carter.

Back when Dre’Mont Jones was drafted, I had this to say about his worst case scenario:

Lost in the shuffle in camp behind Derek Wolfe, Harris, and Adam Gotsis, Jones struggles to do much with the reps he has and doesn’t do enough to convince coaches he’s a good fit for the nickel defense. Even worse, all the problems he had at Ohio State with gap discipline continues to play him. Because he’s not an ideal fit for the 5 technique and is too light to play the nose, he’s a player without a home and some begin to wonder if he’s another DeMarcus Walker.

Going into his second year, he shows some improvement but fails to adequately replace the three veteran defensive lineman Elway let walk in the off-season. Journeyman and rookies pass him on the depth chart and he fails to make any sort of noticeable impact with his time on the field except for when he proves to be a complete liability against the run.

Obviously it was just one game in his first preseason, so don’t panic by any means. He’s the same guy who did this in his first game. My point is that he still looks like a sub-package interior rusher who will need to improve against the run. The 49ers gashed Denver’s defense in the 3rd quarter by running at the rookie defensive tackle. On the play above, they also caught Jamal Carter, who had a fair share of struggles in his new position.

Walker did a nice job shedding to make plays in the run game.

One sub-package guy who did a lot better than anticipated was DeMarcus Walker. Like Sam Jones, I owe Walker an apology because he was an asset against the run last Monday. As I mentioned yesterday, he’s been good enough that the competition between Walker and Mike Purcell is compelling.

Purcell fits as a nose tackle type and has quietly had himself a very solid preseason. At this point, I’d bet money on one or even both making the roster, depending on how everything else fits.

Walker keeps up with the pulling guard to press the boundary.

One thing that stood out on first viewing and only got more glaring under review is the pecking order in the secondary. Many in Broncos Country lamented Denver’s lack of depth, and I suspect part of that was the big plays that happened late in Monday’s game.

With Will Parks, Su’a Cravens, Kareem Jackson, and Bryce Callahan out, Trey Marshall logged 35 snaps. Trey Johnson played 26. To say they struggled is an understatement. Dymonte Thomas was quiet, which comparatively is a very good thing.

One player who did flash was Shamarko Thomas, who had a really nice pass breakup and was active in pursuit. He’s had a pretty good preseason to date and the 2018 special teamer has done everything right to keep himself alive in the bubble battle.

Another player who should make it onto the final roster is Linden Stephens. Life as a corner means his two big mistakes have been the moments everyone probably remembers, but he’s been aggressively sticky in coverage. At present, I’d think he’s Fangio’s fifth and final corner.

Right now, I suspect the Broncos carry an extra safety since Kareem Jackson offers them insurance at both positions.

What do you think Broncos Country?