It feels like a lifetime ago since we saw Shelby Harris knock down a Derek Carr pass to give the Oakland Raiders one last “L”.
The world has changed in drastic ways since and the NFL isn’t immune from the impact of COVID-19. The preseason is dead, and with its demise comes an early roster cut, expanded practice sqaud, and a litany of new procedures for teams to deal with.
At least for now, it seems the NFL is heading toward a Week 1 kickoff, which means the Broncos will spend the next month working out the kinks to prepare for meaningful football. Between now and then John Elway, Vic Fangio, and the coaching staff will need to whittle the roster down from 80 to a final 53. With new restrictions on reports out of camp, most camp battles will happen behind closed doors, but that doesn’t mean they don’t intrigue.
Here are the six I’m keeping close tabs on.
The most controversial decision Elway made this offseason happened when he signed former Charger Melvin Gordon to a two-year $16 million contract. I’ve already gone on a a rant about how that deal took talent from other parts of the roster, but what matters going forward is how he fits into an RB room where Phillip Lindsay’s been the alpha for two years now.
Lindsay is the more explosive runner and has been more efficient in his career to date, but Gordon gives the offense a bigger back who can bang inside, block, and serve as a reliable outlet receiver. We’re at that point on the calendar where coaching staffs and team executives will talk about the desire to split carries and find ways to get both backs on the field, but a look beyond the spin reveals Shurmur’s clear preference for workhorse backs over his career as a play caller.
Looking down the depth chart, even more questions pop up. A disappointment after he was drafted in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Royce Freeman could see his spot on the roster usurped by someone like LaVante Bellamy or Jeremy Cox. Odds are the Broncos carry three backs on the active roster and facing a shrinking 2021 cap, it’s impossible to ignore how dumping the former Oregon Duck could free up space.
Right after the NFL Draft the Broncos announced Garett Bolles would have to fend off Elijah Wilkinson to start at left tackle this year. Shortly after Elway declined the 2017 first round pick’s fifth year option, so the battle will occur ahead of a contract year for both players. I spent a few weeks digging into the tape from both and wrote about them here and here. Regardless of who wins, there’s a decent chance we look back on the 2020 draft as “the one where the Broncos had Josh Jones fall into their laps and chose K.J. Hamler.”
Since he was drafted, it’s been a foregone conclusion that Lloyd Cushenberry would become the Broncos’ starting center. The only problem is limited on-field work and a lack of preseason will leave the rookie with precious little experience against NFL opponents before Week 1. If Mike Munchak or Pat Shurmur don’t find him ready, Patrick Morris or even Graham Glasgow could man the pivot, and another round of shuffling could occur further down the road.
I expect Shurmur to carry at least six receivers on the roster. Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and K.J. Hamler are stone cold locks for the roster barring something catastrophic. After that it’s a guessing game.
Right now I expect both Tim Patrick and DaeSean Hamilton to be safe. The former will serve as the primary backup to Sutton and log snaps on special teams. The latter will either start over or serve as a primary backup for Hamler in the slot. What makes things dicier is the money Elway could save by moving one or both.
The battle for the last spot or two will come down to upside and versatility. Last year’s fifth round pick Juwann Winfree turned heads early in his rookie camp and drew comparisons to Sutton only to see Elway draft Tyrie Cleveland this year. Diontae Spencer was a dynamic return specialist and offensive role player who could lose snaps to Hamler. Fred Brown logged more than 200 snaps on special teams.
Trinity Benson and Kendall Hinton also lurk, though I wonder if no preseason makes their goal nigh impossible.
If they’re healthy, Von Miller and Bradley Chubb will log the vast majority of snaps along the edges of Fangio’s defense in 2020. The battle behind them has piqued my interest, however. While Malik Reed, Justin Hollins, and Jeremiah Attaochu all had moments in 2019, Fangio tends to carry just four outside linebackers on his rosters. To muddy the waters even further Elway added Derrek Tuszka from North Dakota State.
A.J. Bouye was acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a fourth round pick and presumably fills one boundary position. After that there are a lot of questions. Fangio didn’t mince words when he talked about the group after the NFL Draft.
“We have a bunch of young players that we acquired last year like [CB] Duke Dawson [Jr.] and [CB Davantae] Harris. Those guys all need to develop. They are at that stage where they need to prove whether they are worthy or not to play in the NFL and I think two of those guys will come through. how the roster is full of unproven guys who need to show they can play in the league this year a few months ago.”
First among them is the new guy Michael Ojemudia, drafted in the third round out of Iowa. He’s a long, physical corner who has earned positive reviews for his worth ethic and intelligence this offseason. If he isn’t up to the task as a rookie it would probably fall to Isaac Yiadom, Da’Vante Bausby, or Davontae Harris to log snaps on the boundary.
Duke Dawson should earn consideration, but his performance outside is a complete unknown after playing the slot last season. If he stays inside, he’ll face competition from Essang Bassey, a highly regarded college free agent from Wake Forest. Fangio also gave reps at both safety and corner to Alijah Holder a year ago, so it’s too soon to count him out just yet.
What complicates things even further are Fangio’s plans for Bryce Callahan. If he is back to his 2018 form after a lost 2019, he could factor into play as the boundary in base personnel and slide into the slot for nickel personnel.
In a league where nickel personnel is played on more than 60% of snaps, I’d say no position group has more uncertainty around it than corner.
Which camp battle are you most excited for?
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