By Chad Jensen
(247 SPORTS) – The NFL Draft is in the books and the Denver Broncos have already begun their offseason training program. This coming weekend, the Broncos will hold their rookie mini-camp.
It might be the offseason but things are happening. The rubber will soon meet the road and for certain players, that term comes with an immediacy that might create some discomfort.
GM John Elway and the Broncos scouting department hit the 2018 Draft out of the park, but looking back over the previous three Draft classes, many of the selections have yet to turn the proverbial corner and provide the team with a return on its investment.
As I see it, there are three Broncos who are facing a “make or break” summer. Between OTAs and training camp, these veterans have to prove that they’ve overcome whatever obstacles have held them back in the past and are ready to contribute.
This issue becomes even more pressing for these guys in the wake of Denver’s 2018 Draft class. Elway’s first seven picks are all guys who can come in and make an impact right out of the gates, which is going to put pressure on the vets above them on the depth chart.
The pressure’s on.
Jeff Heuerman, TE
The Broncos inexplicably invested a third round pick in Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman back in 2015. Alas, Heuerman’s pro career was derailed early, due to an ACL tear suffered in his rookie mini-camp (covering a kick return drill, no less).
He watched from the sideline as Peyton Manning and the Broncos fought and clawed their way through the AFC playoffs and emerged victorious in Super Bowl 50. Heading into 2016, which would really be Heuerman’s first season of pro football, expectations were high on the former Buckeye.
Two seasons later, Heuerman has yet to cash in on the high-round Draft investment the Broncos made in him. He has just 18 career receptions for 283 yards and two touchdowns, and when you consider that all three of his accrued NFL seasons have come post-Julius Thomas, with no real entrenched veteran tight end ahead of him to vulture snaps, his lack of statistical production becomes even more underwhelming.
This time around, there might not be a Virgil Green ahead of him on the depth chart, but there are two young tight ends in Jake Butt and rookie Troy Fumagalli poised to create a demand for snaps. Throw in Austin Traylor as yet another mouth looking to get fed, and you can see that eventually some tight end will be left without a seat when the music stops.
This is all by design. Competition breeds excellence and the Broncos brass know what they’re doing.
Heading into a contract year, Heuerman has become the elder statesman in Denver’s tight end room but its the opportunity of a lifetime. Can Jeff Heuerman capitalize?
I have my doubts, as the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. But this cliche is not absolute.
Regardless, Heuerman’s Draft pedigree will serve him no longer. It’s put up or shut up time for the big tight end.
Max Garcia, OG
The Broncos also drafted Max Garcia in 2015 — one round later than Heuerman. Coming out of Florida, it was a questionable pick at the time, due to Garcia’s power-scheme skill-set coming to a Broncos team under Gary Kubiak that employed the zone blocking system.
However, I understand why Garcia was selected. I was at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL that year and Garcia was one of the few offensive linemen who ‘popped’ off the field (so to speak) during the week of practice.
After each session, defensive linemen would consistently tell me about the ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’ Garcia, and how tough of a matchup he was in one-on-one drills. We’ve seen that skill-set during his time as a Bronco, but it’s never been consistent.
Garcia has started all 16 games for the Broncos over the last two seasons at left guard. In 2017, the Broncos paid Ronald Leary big money in free agency, only to inexplicably move the career left guard over to the right side.
The offensive coaches made that decision because Garcia struggled so badly at right guard. But the team was so intent on Garcia starting that they ultimately chose to sacrifice Leary’s comfortability for his sake.
Needless to say, it was yet another poor personnel decision made by the 2017 coaching staff. Garcia saw 869 snaps last year, but finished as the No. 59 offensive guard in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Garcia can be a mauler in the run game at times, but he’s a straight up liability in pass protection. Fast forward to 2018 and the honeymoon is over for him.
Garcia’s name has been conspicuously absent from the remarks of both GM John Elway and Head Coach Vance Joseph, when the two have been put on the spot publicly and asked to talk about the coming competition on the offensive line. Ronald Leary is being moved back to left guard finally, which has left a wide open competition for right guard.
Connor McGovern’s name has been floated by the brass publicly as a contender for right guard, as has Menelik Watson’s. Heck, even J.J. Dielman has received some praise from Coach Joseph but nary a word about Garcia.
For a backup swing guard, the Broncos could do worse than Max Garcia. But it would seem that his days as an incumbent starter are over.
If Garcia wants to maximize his opportunity to earn a big second contract from a team in 2019, he’ll have to enter this coming summer like a man with a mission and lay claim to that right guard job. The opportunity is there, but this time around, nothing will be given to him. Garcia will have to earn it.
Paxton Lynch, QB
When it comes to guys facing a ‘make or break’ year, no name emerges as more obvious than that of Paxton Lynch. In the wake of Peyton Manning’s retirement and Brock Osweiler’s defection, the Broncos were desperate to find an answer at quarterback in 2016.
Elway traded up to get in front of Jerry Jones and the Cowboys to take Lynch with the No. 26 pick in the first round. When his name was called on Draft night, and the broadcast panned to Lynch at home with his family, he was in tears and overcome.
The first images that accompanied Lynch as a pro were tears and ironically, it has become the most recent and defining snapshot in the minds of Broncos Country, too. After losing the quarterback competition to Trevor Siemian for the second straight season, and subsequently suffering a shoulder injury in the third preseason game, Lynch finally got his chance to start in Week 12 at Oakland.
After a rough start, Lynch left the game in the second half with an injury and could be seen weeping on the bench on the Broncos sideline. Considering the disappointment that had permeated his brief career in Denver, Lynch’s tears in the Black Hole came with a stark realization that this kid might never have what it takes between the ears to become the franchise quarterback he was drafted to be.
Questions of maturity and work ethic have plagued Lynch’s time as a Bronco, and might be the two biggest factors that have held back his development. Unfortunately, Lynch represents a significant investment by the front office, and heading into 2018, the team has little choice but to hold onto him — for now.
The Broncos were not willing to pin their hopes on Lynch, and so Elway went out and signed Case Keenum, anointing the former undrafted free agent as the starting quarterback right out of the gates. Rather than simply announcing that Lynch would serve as Keenum’s backup, the Broncos have chosen to publicly pit him against yet another former seventh-round quarterback in an open competition.
Two years in, you would hope that the QB you drafted in the first round could at least be trusted to serve capably as the backup. Not so in the case of Paxton Lynch.
He will compete with Chad Kelly for the privilege of holding the clipboard in 2018. Again, competition is key in mind’s of Denver’s brass
If Lynch fails to take his situation seriously and doesn’t attack this offseason in way heretofore unseen from him, the Broncos aren’t going to bend over backwards to accommodate him on the roster. The front office already has egg on their face with regard to Lynch.
If Kelly vanquishes him in an open competition, what use is there to keeping Lynch around? If that’s indeed how the dominoes fall, the Broncos will have nothing left to lose by waiving the Memphis product. For a team coming off a 5-11 season, those roster spots are invaluable.
However, it doesn’t have to end that way for Paxton Lynch. With Keenum signed on a two-year deal, the opportunity remains for Lynch to prove to this coaching staff and front office that he has the wherewithal and maturity to warrant a chance to start next year.
He has the talent. But does he have the drive? I don’t think anyone is holding their breath — both inside and outside Broncos HQ.