“Drew Lock is nowhere near ready.”
“Is watching Broncos rookies as painful as passing a kidney stone?”
“Fangio coaches despite kidney stone.”
Believe it or not, there was a lot more that happened in the Broncos preseason game with the Falcons than the first things that come up when you Google “Denver Broncos.” I spent an obscenely large part of my day staring at preseason football and drinking Mountain Dew.
Here’s what I learned.
1. Fant and Fort look like jokers. Fumagalli and Heuerman play inline.
3. Heuerman was really solid.
3. Austin Fort is no lock for the active roster.
4. Lindsay and Freeman will pass their 2018 reception totals.
5. Muhammad, Jackson and Booker(?) are fighting for (maybe) 1 spot.
6. Bolles won’t get benched.
7. Don Barclay fell off after the first TD drive.
8. McKnight and Dunbar stood out.
9. Hogan will be QB2 next week.
10. George Aston looks like an NFL fullback, even if it isn’t in Denver.
Fant’s drop and hold seems to be the prevailing story as I write this. His film is a lot more promising than it seems at first glance. He had a number of good blocks and would have had a few more catches if one of the quarterbacks had simply found him. I may sound like a broken record here, but he deserves patience. He’ll reward it.
Fort was a bit of a disappointment after all of the hype he’s earned since OTAs. This isn’t even his fault, as he’s simply a rookie trying to make the team, but it seems his good ball skills have led to reports inflating the rest of the skills he brings to the table. What I saw on tape is a young tight end who still needs to get stronger and refine his blocking technique, route running, and lacks the kind of top end athleticism his 1st round teammate brings to the position.
One tight end who quietly had himself a game was Jeff Heuerman. It sure looks like his role will lead me to saying that a few times this season, if he can stay healthy. He’s probably not going to log many catches, but his blocking was huge on the Broncos’ first touchdown run and a number of other plays.
Rich Scangarello toyed around with some of the sets that Jeffery Essary and I’ve been geeking out about all off-season. Specifically, he motioned George Aston, Devontae Jackson, or Khalfani Muhammad out into space.
These weren’t just dummy looks, either. Aston was open on a couple of plays, and both the backs were heavily utilized as receivers. This was an area where Khalfani Muhammad looked very intriguing.
“I think that the easiest matchup to create in the NFL is the halfback on a linebacker, and that’s what we try to do in this offense a lot." Rich Scangarello. #Broncos are going to attach mismatches this year. pic.twitter.com/B9bT4DMem8— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 2, 2019
If you can ignore my typo, you’ll notice Muhammad was matched up one on one with the linebacker on the play above. In fact, if Lock had managed to hit his receiver in stride, it would have been an easy touchdown.
With Theo Riddick reportedly signing, the Broncos’ backfield is going to be one of the more exciting battles to monitor over the next month. Devontae Jackson looks like a solid zone runner with the kind of vision the system demands, even if he didn’t show as many “wow” plays Thursday.
Regardless of who wins, I’d be shocked if Phillip Lindsay doesn’t exceed his 35 receptions from a year ago. Scangarello’s going to try to get him and Freeman in space where they can abuse slower players.
If you read my pre-game piece, you’ll know I had a close eye on Garett Bolles. He’s been radio fodder for the early part of camp as hosts searched high and low for drama. When Elijah Wilkinson earned praise, it was seen as a direct indictment of the starting left tackle.
The next time someone calls for benching Bolles in 2019, assume they didn't watch the backups.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 2, 2019
Elijah Wilkinson had himself a decent game on the right side Thursday, but Chaz Green came in relief of Bolles and struggled to keep up with speed rushers coming off the wide 9. Even more important is the fact that Bolles came off the field as soon as Hogan did, which implies the coaching staff meant every word of their support of him. Don’t get suckered by pointless drama, Broncos Country.
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.
On the flip side, Steven Dunbar Jr. looked a lot better than his biggest play made him appear. His fumble at the end of the first half earned him a spot in the losers column and got him a lot of flak on social media. It also shines a light on what poor quarterback play does to receivers. Dunbar had a number of plays where he got open and never had a QB look his way. He also led the receiving corps in receptions with three and took a nasty shot over the middle when Hogan found him late.
Speaking of Hogan and the quarterbacks, they were uninspiring. Don’t confuse this for doom and gloom, it’s just a fact. Lock and Rypien look altogether unprepared to face the kind of complex NFL defenses they’d face in regular season action, and Hogan isn’t going to win games without significant help from his teammates.
They have a month to improve, but I’d pray Flacco stays upright this year.
1. Dre’Mont Jones looked like a man among boys.
2. There are a number of promising pass rushers.
3. Hollins is going to be a fun chess piece.
4. LB battle looks like this: AJ - Watson - KB - Dineen.
5. Horace Richardson looks like CB5
Pass-Rush Win% #HOFGame— Connor Price (@PFF_ConnorPrice) August 2, 2019
(min 20 pass-rush snaps)
DEN - DeMarcus Walker 27.3%
DEN - Malik Reed 25.0%
DEN - Dre'Mont Jones 23.1%
ATL - Justin Zimmer 18.2%
I’ve criticized Pro Football Focus a number of times this off-season, but it’s hard to argue with their pass rush charting. Dre’Mont Jones was the defensive player of the game for the dominating performance he put on in the 4th quarter.
It’s almost a shame Jones looked so good because Walker isn’t getting the kind of love he deserves for his own standout performance. The 2017 2nd round pick finally looks like he’s found a home in the Fangio D and could provide solid depth as a pass rusher this year. Holland slipped under the PFF radar, but he and Reed also put some really encouraging play on the film.
Mike Purcell had a really nasty defeat, while Aaron Wallace and DeShawn Williams also caught my eye a couple of times. John Elway gets a lot of flak for his misses at quarterback, but he certainly knows how to stock up on defensive linemen and edge rushers.
Another rookie who looked like an ingenious pick early and often was Justin Hollins. I’ve gone on record saying he was my favorite pick in the 2019 draft, but even I couldn’t have foreseen all of the fun things Fangio’s cooking up for him.
Coming out of Oregon, Hollins showed a lot of comfort in space. In fact, it probably got in the way of him notching eye popping sack numbers last year because the Ducks asked him to drop into coverage. It made him a great fit for Fangio, who likes to drop his edge players more than your average 3-4 team. It’s still been a bit of a surprise how serious the Broncos coaching staff has been about giving him reps as an off-ball backer, but the injury to Todd Davis has given him an opportunity to really immerse himself in the team culture.
Later in the game, he logged snaps on the edge, as well. From there, he showed he’s still got a nice upfield burst and looks like he’s been working on his rush moves. If he can refine his pass rush plan, the sky’s the limit.
With news that Joseph Jones tore his tricep, the Broncos’ linebacker spots are starting to look like a battle of attrition. Davis, Jewell, and Hollins are surely locks for the 2019 roster, but if Fangio wants to carry five, he’ll have to hope some of the remaining contenders can stay off the meat wagon.
So far it looks like Alexander Johnson is running away with one of the spots. He brings a kind of physicality that seemed to go out the window when Davis got hurt. While he had lost a receiver once early, he came through in a big way when things got tight.
After him, Colorado’s own Josh Watson made the biggest impression. He looked best on blitzes and attacking the line of scrimmage, but brings the kind of athleticism to suggest he could turn into a player in space.
Questions remain in the secondary, though Horace Richardson looks to have really grabbed hold of that fifth corner spot. Against the Falcons, he played as a slot corner with Isaac Yiadom and De’Vante Bausby on the boundary and brought the kind of play it will take to stick around on Donatell’s D.
The fifth preseason game is both a blessing and a curse in NFL circles. It’s another glorified scrimmage where bubble wrap can get popped and the injury bug can wreck havoc. It’s also another opportunity for young players to compete against in live action to try to hang around the league while allowing more time for coaching staffs to install their systems.
On all these fronts, the Broncos are taking full advantage. Let’s hope they can stay healthy next week in their rematch with Paxton Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks.