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Who among the Broncos’ rookies have the best shot at early playing time?

The 2021 class should push a number of veterans.

We’ve got a summer between us and the NFL’s first cutdown date on August 17th, which means there’s 80 days before George Paton begins to trim the Broncos roster in preparation for the 2021 season.

There’s still plenty of time for new faces and veterans alike to make an impression, but it isn’t too early to speculate on how the Broncos’ 2021 rookie class could make it’s presence known. On this week’s Cover2Broncos I spoke with Sports Info Solutions’ Nathan Cooper and John Todd to get an outside perspective on how Paton’s first draft will impact roster battles. What follows are some early thoughts on the battles ahead for the Broncos’ rookies.

Patrick Surtain II

George Paton called the Alabama corner the safest player in the 2021 draft, and I definitely believe he was the safest prospect on defense by a country mile. The son of a Pro Bowl corner who has received NFL quality coaching dating back to Junior High, Surtain started at Alabama as a true freshman. He’s used to seeing the field, and it sounds like Von Miller’s impressed.

Fangio also seemed pleased with what he’s seen from the 9th overall pick.

“I’ve been pleased with his work so far, although it’s very early. We thought highly of him to pick him where we picked him. He’s got all the measurables you’re looking for. The thing I like most about him up to this point—I like his demeanor. I think he’s got an NFL demeanor, especially the type of demeanor you need to play corner in this league. I think he has some versatility which we’re going to need to take advantage of. Everything has been good so far with Patrick, but we were expecting that.”

One of the big reasons there’s been less fanfare than you’d expect from such an exciting prospect is George Paton made cornerback a priority in free agency. With Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, and the Bryce Callahan’s return to health from a season ending foot injury, it doesn’t look like Surtain has a clear path to playing time.

There’s a number of ways he could surprise, some more likely than others. If George Paton trades for Aaron Rodgers or Deshaun Watson, the Broncos could find a need to create cap room if the cost opens a hole somewhere on the roster. Callahan’s good enough I don’t see a cut as probably, but moving him creates $7,176,471 in cap room and only carries a $1,333,334 dead cap hit. If Surtain is good enough Fangio wants to play him as part of the starting trio in the Broncos’ nickel, Paton could see Callahan as redundant with Michael Ojemudia, Essang Bassey, Duke Dawson, and others as suitable depth.

Barring a Callahan move, Surtain’s way to playing time looks like it will be based on his play, Fangio’s personnel packages, and the Broncos’ health luck.

Per Sports Info Solutions’ charting, the Broncos used five or more defensive backs on 75% of their plays in 2020, even as 10 different corners made starts due to a plague of injuries. Surtain’s ability to win at the line of scrimmage and control the deep parts of the field lend itself most to playing on the boundary, but 23% of his snaps with the Crimson Tide came in the slot. Like Darby, Fuller, and Callahan, the rookie’s capable of playing inside. If the cornerback room is whole, I expect Fangio to deploy more dime in 2021.

There’s also the possibility injuries give Surtain a starting role he never hands back. Remember, Callahan and Darby have combined to play one 16-game+ regular season since 2015 due to a variety of ailments and injuries. Bassey and Dawson are working their way back from season ending ACL tears.

Javonte Williams

When I spoke with J Moyer about Pookie on last week’s Cover 2 Broncos, he raised a good point about the Broncos’ backfield: we could be sleeping on the snaps Mike Boone carves out for himself. Thanks to Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison he’s touched the ball 78 times in the NFL, but in a very limited role he’s shown promise. This means there’s a very real possibility the Broncos’ backfield could be a three headed monster in 2021.

For all the faults with the 2019 and 2020 Broncos, there’s definitely promise of a very good run game as the offensive line develops around Garett Bolles. Mike Munchak and Pat Shurmur incorporate one of the more diverse attacks in the league and ran gap concepts at the fifth highest rate in the league last year. With Williams’ contact balance and Dalton Risner’s ability to block on the move, I expect Power, Counter, and Pin and Pull to become some of the more dangerous in the NFL.

I do believe Williams could quickly emerge as the clear RB1. There’s also a distinct possibility he wins the spot by default. 9News’ Mike Klis reported that if Melvin Gordon receives discipline from the NFL for his October 2020 arrest, the Broncos will void his guarantees. As I write this, that hasn’t happened. If Gordon remains on the roster, his experience on passing downs will give him a rather large advantage in a fight for the starting job.

Quinn Meinerz

There are two big things working in the Belly’s favor.

  1. He’s a fantastic scheme fit if the Broncos intend to rely on gap concepts as they have over the last two seasons. His play strength and grip power will really shine on down blocks leaving the guards to pull.
  2. Lloyd Cushenberry was a notably problematic liability for the better part of his rookie season.

I want to make clear I’m not about to write off Cushenberry improving in his second NFL season. Before the Broncos drafted Meinerz I was cautiously optimistic he’d find his footing this year. Like every rookie in the NFL last season, he came into the league without OTAs or a real preseason due to Covid-19. Despite his struggles, Cushenberry was the only lineman on the Broncos’ roster to play every offensive snap, all 1,076 of them.

There’s certainly a rather large jump in complexity and speed in the NFL, so I do believe what Meinerz can do vs. Cushenberry in pass pro will ultimately decide the competition. The Broncos quarterback may also play a role in who wins the starting center job as the coaching staff could prefer Cushenberry’s experience with protection calls.

Things look a bit murkier for Meinerz in the guard competition. If Graham Glasgow’s on the roster, I expect him to start. He’s a good puller who’s reliable in pass protection. Dalton Risner should push for the Pro Bowl in the near future. Behind them Netane Muti shows promise. It still makes sense for the rookie to learn all three spots, as the Broncos will ultimately carry as few as four interior offensive lineman into games.

Baron Browning

I think the sky’s the limit for the Paton’s first Buckeye, but it may take some time for us to see it. Alexander Johnson is one of the better run defenders in the league and good in coverage, while Josey Jewell’s 2020 probably gives the coaching staff faith in him for his contract year. Browning’s probably relegated to special teams and spot plays as a rookie behind them. There is a remote possibility Jewell is moved as part of or after an Aaron Rodgers trade, as it’s an easy way to create $2.183 million in cap room against $178,496 in dead money.

Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson

If Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons are healthy, the Broncos’ fifth round safeties won’t see many snaps on defense this year. Both could find themselves fighting to make the final roster if Fangio trusts P.J. Locke, Trey Marshall, or Chris Cooper over them.

Seth Williams

The Broncos receiving corps. has four locks and a battle to make what I expect to be two spots in the final room. If he does so, he’d be an injury away from a sizeable role if Shurmur runs 11 personnel on two thirds of the Broncos’ offensive plays as he did in 2020. Williams will have to stand out amongst the crowd that includes Tyrie Cleveland, Warren Jackson, Trinity Benson, DeVontres Dukes, Damion Willis, Isaiah Mack, Branden Mack, and Diontae Spencer.

Kary Vincent, Jonathan Cooper, and Marquiss Spencer

This far out it looks like the Broncos’ seventh round picks have an uphill battle to stay on the active roster. Paton drafted a lot of defensive backs and the Broncos look deep at edge backer and defensive tackle. Odds are Vincent, Cooper, and Spencer find their way to the practice squad after camp.

There’s a chance Cooper emerges over Derrek Tuszka in the battle for ED4 behind Miller, Bradley Chubb, and Malik Reed. He’ll have an adjustment to the NFL after playin 98% of his snaps at Ohio State out of a three point stance. The bigger question is his health as he underwent minimally invasive heart surgery.

Shaun Beyer

An undrafted free agent rookie has made the Broncos’ season-opening roster for 17 of the last 18 seasons. Gun to my head, I’d guess Beyer makes 18 in 19 this season. After Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam, the Broncos are woefully light on Y-tight ends who can hold their own inline. After three receiver sets, there isn’t a personnel grouping Shurmur likes more than 12, so Beyer’s ability to block at the point of attack should give him a real shot.

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