Going into Denver Broncos training camp this week, there will be plenty of talk about who needs to stay and who needs to go. Rather than wallow in the unknown, let’s take some time to revisit camp battles from last year and see how they turned out.
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.
Joe Rowles wrote this in his article from July 29, 2020. Not much has changed since then, unless you count relaxed COVID protocols for vaccinated players, the ascension of George Paton as general manager, the return of a shorter preseason, and an expanded 17-game NFL schedule. Which is to say, it’s a whole new ballgame in 2021.
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.
The fan favorite, Phillip Lindsay suffered a toe injury in the season opener against the Titans and never really got on track. After back-to-back 1,000-yard+ rushing seasons, Lindsay only played in 11-games, starting 8, and amassing only 503-rushing yards with 1-rushing touchdown. He missed the final two games of the season on injured reserve.
Melvin Gordon played in all but one game, missing the week 5 win against the New England Patriots due to strep throat. While Gordon failed to match Phillip Lindsay’s previous rushing watermarks, he did manage to amass 986-yards on 215-attempts and 9-rushing touchdowns.
After placing a restricted free agent tender on Phillip Lindsay in mid-March, the Broncos reversed course two days later and rescinded it, making him a free agent. He later signed with the Houston Texans. Melvin Gordon is now the clear starter going into 2021 and is joined by rookie running back Javontae Williams and veterans Royce Freeman and Mike Boone. LeVontae Bellamy and Damarea Crockett round out the rest of a crowded running back room.
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.”
I will always be the first one to say that Joe was wrong about Garett Bolles... and maybe the rest of Broncos Country... Including myself. Bolles played in all but one game, missing the Broncos week 13 game at Carolina. Never before has Broncos Country seen a turnaround like Bolles’ in 2020. He was named 2nd Team All-Pro following his breakout performance.
Elijah Wilkinson started the first three games of the 2020 season before a fractured shin landed him on injured reserve from weeks 4-10. He was activated in week 11 against New Orleans and finished out the rest of the season. A free agent going into this season, he signed a one year contract with the Chicago Bears in March.
It’s fun to look back at what was the unknown with 2020 hindsight (see what I did there?). Everyone was sure that Drew Lock would dominate, Garett Bolles would embarrass us all, and Phillip Lindsay would show the old Charger what it was expected as a Broncos running back. How wrong we all were. There’s much more in Joe’s 2020 camp battle article with regard to center, wide receiver, edge, and corner that worth reflecting on. If only we can go back in time to temper expectations and warn of unprecedented injury. Bah! Who cares about the past when Broncos training camp opens on Tuesday.
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