After a week riding high off a 33-6 victory over a Vikings team that sat 30 players, the Broncos are on to the second week of the preseason. With Teddy Bridgewater set to get his turn to start a game before Fangio decides on the week one starter, the big question is: will Pete Carroll play his starting defense?
With three days until George Paton has to cut the roster down from 85 to 80, these are the things I’m looking for.
1. Who stands out in the secondary?
2. How do Jewell and Browning impact the linebacker battles?
3. Is McTelvin Agim ready to breakout?
4. Is ED4 Jonathon Cooper’s job to lose?
The surprise star of the Minnesota game was undoubtedly P.J. Locke III. The second year safety joined the Broncos out of Texas in 2020 and saw the field for almost 80% of the special teams snaps. He entered camp this year as a relative unknown on defense after playing just six snaps there as a rookie. He displayed a quick trigger with good range and flashed good ball skills during his snaps against the Vikings, and to make the roster, he needs to build on it.
While the broadcast angle makes it tough to fairly evaluate secondary play, it shouldn’t prevent anyone from getting a good look at the Broncos’ linebackers. One big story this week is Baron Browning’s return after a lower body injury during OTAs knocked him out of almost the entirety of training camp. The lack of reps could surely hurt his performance, as he’s had precious little time to build muscle memory in the Fangio system, so I hope he gets an opportunity to play before the scoreboard matters.
When Browning isn’t on the field, my focus will remain on the second level of the defense. Like the third round pick from Ohio State, Josey Jewell has missed significant time after he suffered a groin injury at the end of July. How he looks leading up to week one could have a significant impact on the makeup of the linebacker corps. and put stress on Justin Strnad to fill in. Even if he’s ready, I’m curious if Fangio trusts the second year backer out of Wake Forest enough to give him time over Jewell or Alexander Johnson.
The status of Browning and Jewell could also impact how many linebackers George Paton keeps on the active roster. Typically Fangio carries four, but if two of the “big names” aren’t ready to compete at a high level out of the gate, Denver may have to carry an extra body. That element hangs over the bubble battle between Josh Watson, Curtis Robinson, and Barrington Wade.
For the moment, there isn’t a whole lot of drama around the Broncos’ defensive line. So long as health luck shines on the group, it’s pretty obvious who will make the rotation. Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, and Dre’Mont Jones will play in the base with Shamar Stephen, DeShawn Williams, and McTelvin Agim as key reserves. The second year Razorback is one I’m eager to get my eyes on, as reports suggest he was blowing up camp before an injury knocked him out of the joint practices in Minnesota.
Looking along the edges, there’s no question Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, and Malik Reed are expected to suit up against the Giants. Behind them we have what looks like one of the tighter battles in camp, only the way has been paved for the 239th pick in this past draft to run away with things. Jonathon Cooper and Andre Mintze had some promising moments in the Vikings game a week ago, but the undrafted rookie now sits in concussion protocol. Pita Taumoepenu and Derek Tuszka remain to push the former Buckeye, but it sure looks like he’s got the lead.
5. What can Trinity Benson do for an encore?
6. Can any of the depth receivers push Diontae Spencer?
7. Is Netane Muti one of the best five?
8. How do Calvin Anderson and Cameron Fleming look? Will anyone else step up?
9. What does Shurmur’s offense look like?
10. Beck vs. Prentice
11. Is Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater “the guy”?
It didn’t seem to matter who was throwing Trinity Benson the ball last week as he caught everything thrown in his direction and tossed in a nice return to boot. The third year pro has been a standout in camp and looks like he should be the favorite for WR5, but the receiving corps. is still deep enough that he needs to continue making plays to stay safe.
With questions remaining about Paton’s willingness to trade Tim Patrick as well as Courtland Sutton’s recovery, it’d be huge for some of the younger receivers to have a nice game today. Diontae Spencer’s knee injury and subsequent absence left the door open for the unproven receivers to catch the eye of the coaching staff. It remains to be seen if any of them made a favorable impression.
Seth Williams had perhaps the best play of the bunch a week ago, securing the ball in traffic and holding on through contact. Kendall Hinton had a nice block in the Vikings game, but his holding penalty wiped out Benson’s return. Branden Mack and Tyrie Cleveland need to do a better job creating separation in their routes so they aren’t forced to win against tight coverage at the catch point. De’Mornay Pierson-El needs to do something, anything, if he’s going to stick around.
Thanks to the broadcast angles on a live game, we’ll have limited insight into the receivers’ work downfield outside of when they get the ball, which should encourage everyone to keep an eye on Netane Muti. When I spoke with The Gazette’s George Stoia on Cover 2 Broncos, he mentioned that the second year guard out of Fresno State has been the best guard in camp. His work at the point of attack was very good in Minnesota, even if I hope he shows more as a puller this week.
Outside of Muti, I have some other questions about the offensive line I hope to find answers to today. Calvin Anderson looked like a vastly better player than Cameron Fleming, who showed some issues with recovering after oversetting. There’s mounting evidence that the veteran was a poor signing by George Paton, enough that he could become a late cut when the roster is trimmed to 53 players. The decision will come down to Fleming’s performance, Paton’s willingness to admit a mistake, and the continued development of younger lineman like Drew Himmelman and Quinn Bailey.
Beyond the individual players, one big thing I hope to glean from today’s matchup is hints as to how Shurmur will mold his scheme to maximize the talent on hand. After running three receiver sets on 66% of their offensive plays a season ago, the Broncos leaned on heavier personnel groupings last week. I’m curious if that had more to do with the lack of Courtland Sutton and a desire to evaluate players or perhaps a sign of things to come if Drew Lock is the starting quarterback. A run-heavy attack or at least the presentation of one would help to open up the play action game, something that could simplify reads for Lock and help to create easy completions against biting linebackers.
If the Broncos really are moving towards an offensive attack that leans on multiple tight ends and the use of a fullback, Adam Prentice would be a direct beneficiary. He was a pleasant surprise on offense with the kind of blocks that should remind fans of Andy Janovich, and I was quite impressed with his work in pass protection. If Shurmur’s intention is to go back to business as usual with his personnel, there’s going to be an inevitable numbers crunch that pits the undrafted rookie against Andrew Beck, last year’s fullback who offers tight end versatility to go with his reliability on special teams.
Obviously, the biggest development to watch for in today’s game is the quarterback competition. Drew Lock appeared to take a lead after his performance last week. He did a much better job setting the hallway than expected, tying his upper body to his lower, which led to better ball placement than he showed in 2020. His decision-making and poise also looked to have improved in the limited action.
In the week since, Fangio has poured cold water on the idea that Lock’s won the job. The Broncos’ head coach mentioned on Monday that Lock and Teddy Bridgewater remain close in play and that their performance over the full week that included joint practices with the Vikings will be a part of the decision.
“I thought they both played [well]. When you talk about last week, you think about the whole week in its totality. The two practices against Minnesota were important because [it was] our [No.] 1’s against their [No.] 1’s for the most part, and then the game. To me, it was a three-day trip in that regard, and I thought both guys did well.”
While I believe Lock should get the starting job if the two are so close in play that the preseason games serve as the only separation, it’s worth remembering how reports out of camp as well as Noah Fant point to Bridgewater being the more accurate passer. That could be important to a coaching staff that knows they have the playmakers and defense to compete with any team in football.
Ultimately, today’s game against the Seahawks is just one piece of the QB puzzle. It could also be the final one. Will Bridgewater do enough against the Seahawks’ starters to muddy the waters and emerge as the starter, or can Lock show enough to give Fangio and the coaching staff confidence he may yet develop into a franchise quarterback? His age, arm talent, and potential should give him the edge if all else is equal.
I look forward to finding out.
Do you think the Broncos 2022 QB1 is on the current roster?— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 20, 2021
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