By Chad Jensen
(247 SPORTS) – The Denver Broncos just wrapped up three weeks of Organized Team Activities. Peppered throughout were 10 voluntary practices, as mandated by the NFL.
Compared to training camp, OTAs might not be as immediately affecting, but they are a piece to the greater puzzle the Broncos are putting together in 2018. With a Draft class of 10 players, plus a crop of undrafted rookies, the Broncos are rolling into this summer with a wealth of youth on the roster.
Combined with the Draft classes of 2016 and 2017, the Broncos are no longer one of the oldest teams in the league, as they were when the likes of Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware were around. This is a young Broncos squad, replete with unknown quantities.
But that’s a good thing. And it could be the impetus of a monumental turnaround.
Coming off a 5-11 season, the Broncos are sandwiched between a World Championship and a new era. But in order for Denver to emerge from this awkward period, realize it’s goals, and make some new entries in the franchise annals, the youth of the roster has to carry it’s weight.
With that in mind, which players stood out over the last three weeks of voluntary OTAs? While it isn’t easy to distinguish oneself without pads and without contact, several players found a way to do so.
PHILLIP LINDSAY, RB
The Broncos have Phillip Lindsay listed at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, but that must be soaking wet, as he played out his collegiate career closer to 170. Despite coming off back-to-back seasons of 1,000 yards rushing and double-digit touchdowns at Colorado, Lindsay wasn’t invited to the Combine.
It was due to his diminutive size. Between getting snubbed for the Combine and going undrafted, Lindsay — as you can imagine — has developed a world-sized chip on his shoulder.
Thus far he’s been able to parlay it into some momentum at OTAs. Lindsay has earned some praise from Head Coach Vance Joseph, and is officially in the mix for the punt returner duties, even as a UDFA.
“I think it went pretty well,” Lindsay said last Thursday. “I’ve got a lot of things to brush up on, but I was pleased with what I had done so far. I just have to go back to work now, clean up the little things, get back into the playbook and do things right. You can’t ever have a lot of miscues. You’ve got to go in there and be perfect. So, that’s I want to try to do.”
JAKE BUTT, TE
As a first-year player, Jake Butt was allowed to participate in Denver’s rookie mini-camp last month where he made it known that he’s in the best shape of his playing career. Coming off a torn ACL and a rookie season lost, it’s encouraging news.
As OTAs plowed ahead, it’s clear that Butt is back to feeling like himself because he’s making plays left and right.
“He looks healthy, finally,” Vance Joseph said last week. “We brought him back last year hoping he was going to be healthy and he wasn’t ready to play, so we put him back on the shelf. Right now, he’s totally healthy…. He’s working hard and he wants to be a great player. We haven’t played a game yet, so I don’t know what Jake is going to be, but he’s very engaged, he’s worked hard and he’s here every day.”
Last week Butt made an eye-popping one-handed catch that earned him some praise around the blogosphere. It shouldn’t take him long to establish himself as the No. 1 tight end in training camp, and wrest the job away from the incumbent Jeff Heuerman.
JOSEY JEWELL, LB
The Broncos considered themselves fortunate to have Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell fall to them early in the fourth round of the Draft. While Jewell failed to blow scouts away with his athletic testing at the Combine, he’s already making it clear in his short time with the Broncos that his playing speed and football instincts more than make up for it.
“I’m starting with Jewell,” fellow linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “I like Josey. He’s a smart, smart kid. He’s intense. He’s a hard worker, a blue-collar worker. You see him out there going full-speed all the time. He knows what he’s doing already. Obviously he’s still young, so he still has some learning to do.”
Jewell’s serious-minded approach to the game should help him to assimilate the playbook quicker than most rookies, and allow him to do what he does best — fly around the field and make tackles.
PAXTON LYNCH, QB
It’s only OTAs, yes, but Paxton Lynch has thus far acquitted himself well. At this stage, he seems to be the more capable QB, compared to Chad Kelly.
But with two full years in the NFL under his belt, that’s as it should be for Lynch. We’re all still cautious in our expectations of Lynch, but it’s nevertheless good to see him doing well at OTAs.
“Paxton’s growing every day,” Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “He’s doing a nice job late in the down and being real smart with the football. We have our times out there at practice where the ball doesn’t go where it’s supposed to. We’ve got to learn from when we stub our toe. But to Paxton’s credit, after six OTAs, he’s doing the best of the three in terms of protecting the football and making smart decisions, especially late in the down.”
Encouraging, no doubt, but the caveat is that Lynch was earning rave reviews from coaches and teammates alike this time last year. And we saw how that eventually came out in the wash.
For now, I’ll maintain a modicum of optimism with regard to Lynch, but he still has a long ways to go in earning the trust and belief of not only the fanbase, but the Broncos as well. When things heat up in training camp, that’s where the rubber will meet the road in the Lynch vs. Kelly battle. Can’t wait.
BRADLEY CHUBB, OLB
Bradley Chubb arrived in Denver with the high expectations of the No. 5 overall pick but they’ve been cranked up a notch in the wake of Shane Ray’s injury. The good news is that Chubb seems to be equal to the opportunity and is already settling into his role on the Broncos defense.
“Bradley Chubb is a hard worker,” left tackle Garett Bolles said last week. “I’m very grateful he’s on our team. He’s a great guy to go against. We have Von Miller, which, he’s always a leader and a teacher. It’s a bummer about Shane Ray, but he still teaches, he still leads on that sideline. But you have Bradley Chubb who brings in a whole different demeanor to the game. And knowing how fast he is and explosive he is, is going to help me and help him in the long run. I’m grateful to have him as a teammate. I sit right next to him in the locker room. So, watching him work in the weight room and doing everything possible, and knowing the pressure that he has—he’s done a great job with all of that and I’m just excited to see his future.”
As are we all, Garett. The early returns on Chubb are exactly what you’d hope they’d be.
He’s big, powerful and surprisingly ‘twitchy’ for a 270-pound edge defender. When hard work is combined with rare talent, great things tend to come of it, and no one will benefit more than the Broncos.
SU’A CRAVENS, S
Su’a Cravens was acquired via trade to step in and be the type of safety/linebacker hybrid T.J. Ward was in his prime Denver days. The upside with Cravens is that he might actually have the cover skills to be even better than Ward was against tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.
Thus far, the kid has looked good — good enough to garner some praise from his defensive coordinator.
“He’s a unique player,” Joe Woods said. “You can see he natural instincts when he’s in the box. When he’s in the box, he fits the run like a linebacker. Right now, you can see that. You can see it’s easy for him. We’re just really spending a lot of time teaching him how to play off the ball. Playing the deep safety position. But I think he’s going to really help us in terms of what we’re able to do with our sub-packages. I think there’s a few things actually we can do that we couldn’t do last year.”
The Broncos like deploying their ‘Big Nickel’ sub-package, with three safeties on the field. With Justin Simmons and Darian Stewart on the field, having Cravens available to drop down into the box and play some linebacker adds a versatile wrinkle to the type of coverages and blitz packages Woods can dial up.
BRENDAN LANGLEY, CB
Last year, Brendan Langley made Denver’s 53-man roster by virtue of his third-round Draft pedigree. But it wasn’t enough to keep him on the field.
Langley (6’0, 199) arrived in Denver extremely raw and inexperienced as a cornerback. But the Broncos loved his size and natural ability enough to pull the trigger. He’s got to master the playbook and understand his coverage responsibilities, but heading into his second year, the technique Langley’s been taught by his pro coaches seems to be paying off on the practice field.
“[Langley’s] definitely getting better,” Coach Joseph said. “He is such a talent. His problem won’t ever be matching up physically. His problem is getting reps enough to know what to do, and to have great technique every play. Physically, he’s what you want. He’s tall and long with great ball skills.”
Langley is being pushed by 2017 UDFA Marcus Rios, but perhaps even more imminently by 2018 third-rounder Isaac Yiadom. It’s good to see that the spirit of competition is having a positive effect on Langley’s execution.
DEMARCUS WALKER, DE
In his second year, DeMarcus Walker is back to his natural playing position on the defensive line. Working under D-Line Coach Bill Kollar could pay dividends for Walker in 2018 and he’s already earned some high marks from teammates and coaches.
“He’s improving,” Joe Woods said. “Last year, he was a versatile player for us. We feel like he could play outside linebacker and a defensive line position. With the injuries we moved him to outside linebacker. Right now, we said ‘Hey, you’re a defensive lineman’ So, he’s put the weight on. This morning I got on the scale with him or watched him get on the scale, he was up to 278, and he’s really making some tremendous improvements.”
Getting back to his natural playing weight will pay dividends for a guy poised to earn his living in the NFL trenches. Walker might not yet have the run-stopping chops to be a starter, but he should be able to make an impact as an interior pass rusher in obvious passing situations.
DAESEAN HAMILTON, WR
DaeSean Hamilton was Denver’s second fourth-round pick in the 2018 Draft. He left the college ranks as Penn State’s all-time leading receiver, and was coveted by many NFL teams for his route-running skills.
“DaeSean at the Senior Bowl—he’s a guy that has veteran presence as a route runner,” Vance Joseph said. “He is a sharp route runner. He gets route running. He is definitely ahead of his time.”
Being ahead of the typical learning curve portends well for Hamilton’s odds of seeing the field as Denver’s slot receiver in 2018. He’s already earned some first-team reps with Case Keenum when Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas skipped an OTA practice.
Hamilton has earned some praise from teammates thus far, but there’s another wideout who’s really found a way to shine early on.
COURTLAND SUTTON, WR
Courtland Sutton has arguably been the star of OTAs thus far. Yes, it’s ‘only OTAs’, but considering Denver’s Draft history with wideouts, it’s more than encouraging to see a second-rounder step in and immediately make an impact.
“I feel like you can throw Courtland in right now, throw Hamilton in, throw a couple more guys in right now and make plays for us,” Demaryius Thomas said. “Me coming in as a rookie, I was injured a little, it was hard learning the playbook and it was difficult because I had go up against [CB] Champ [Bailey] every day. They have to go up against [CB] Chris [Harris Jr.] and the rest of the guys. From what I have seen so far, they listen and learn what the coaches say—what me and Emmanuel are telling them. And they’re picking it up quick. It will only get better and better from there.”
Sutton is ridiculously talented. Combine his 6-foot-3, 218-pound frame with his ability to go up and get the ball, and the Broncos might have themselves a potent red zone weapon in 2018. Meanwhile, Sutton’s primary focus will be on honing his route tree, as Coach Joseph opined.
“With Courtland, he needs some work with it, but he is so physically gifted that once he gets that part, he’s going to be hard to defend,” Joseph said.
The good news is that both rookie wideouts are capitalizing on the opportunity the offseason program provides to work on the areas of their game that need polishing. With two Pro Bowlers atop the depth chart, and Sutton and Hamilton behind them, Case Keenum is going to have a smorgasbord of targets in 2018.