By Chad Jensen
(247 SPORTS) – July has finally arrived, which means that the Denver Broncos are only a few short weeks away from returning to football activity. Most players, like the fans, capitalize on this time away to go on summer vacations and recharge the ol’ batteries.
But once the players report to training camp at the end of this month, that’s when the rubber will meet the road and football season will go into full swing. This coming season is particularly compelling, bringing with it an increased sense of excitement, because of how badly the last couple seasons have gone for the Broncos.
Denver went 9-7 in 2016, which is above .500, but failed to make the playoffs. Gary Kubiak stepped down as Head Coach following the season, giving way to the new-hire, Vance Joseph.
What began as a 3-1 start for Joseph last season quickly devolved into an eight-game losing streak. The Broncos finished 5-11 and heads rolled, just as you would expect them to.
Multiple coaches were fired and veteran mainstays like Aqib Talib and C.J. Anderson were shown the door in one way or another. The message the front office was sending was clear; failure won’t be tolerated and everyone’s on notice.
It’s put up, or shut up. And that’s as it should be in a league that is the epitome of a meritocracy. The NFL is a production-based business, and in that vein, there’s a new sense of urgency at Dove Valley.
So, heading into camp, which players have the most to gain and which have the most to lose? Let’s get started.
Despite the fact that he’s one of the most tenured players on the Broncos offensive line, Max Garcia is under the gun. He started 32 consecutive games at left guard for the Broncos, but heading into a contract year, the team has decided not to ‘grandfather’ him a starting position.
One of the starting guard spots is tied up absolutely by Ronald Leary. Leary will likely end up starting at left guard this year.
That leaves right guard open for business. Garcia will be competing with a few different guys for the opportunity to start. In a contract year, the pressure is on Garcia to make the most of his opportunity.
If he wins the job, and goes on to play well, it could translate into a big second contract on the open free agent market. If he fails to win the job, the Broncos might choose to cut bait, as the team is focused more on versatility at the backup spots along the O-line, and Garcia is a one-trick pony.
Cyrus Kouandjio was signed off the street last November, and after a few weeks of acclimating to the system, started at right tackle in Week 17. He played well, but the sample size was too small for the front office to feel completely confident in Kouandjio as a future solution at right tackle.
The Broncos would go on to consummate a trade with Arizona for Jared Veldheer, who will start at right tackle, barring injury. So where does that leave Kouandjio?
A battle for the coveted swing tackle job will take place in training camp. Kouandjio will square off against veterans like Billy Turner and Menelik Watson, and up-and-comers like Elijah Wilkinson and Andreas Knappe for the gig.
At this point, Turner might have the upper hand, because of his position versatility (he can play inside or outside). But Kouandjio played well at right tackle during OTAs, in place of the still recovering Veldheer.
If Kouandjio can win the swing tackle job, he’ll have a place on the team and perhaps a new lease on his NFL life. If he fails to win it, he could find himself without a roster spot, as he doesn’t project well at this point as an interior O-lineman.
There’s no need to recapitulate the rookie struggles of Isaiah McKenzie. His exploits last season have been well documented.
Despite his past foibles, he’s being given another opportunity to win the punt returner job by the coaching staff. He’ll battle the likes of Phillip Lindsay and DaeSean Hamilton — two rookies.
If McKenzie fails to win the punt returner job, his spot on the roster will be in jeopardy.
Even though he was a fifth-round pick a year ago, his offensive utility has been next-to nonexistent. The coaching staff has given him some longer looks on offense this past spring, but with 12 other wideouts currently on the roster, including two 2018 draft picks and a 2017 third-rounder in Carlos Henderson, there’s a log-jam at the position.
If McKenzie can’t win the job, I see little chance that he’ll remain on the roster. There’s a lot of pressure on him this summer, so hopefully last season’s tribulations gave him a stronger mental constitution.
Jordan Taylor’s plight is similar to McKenzie’s, in that there’s a log-jam at the wideout position. The difference, however, is that Taylor has been able to create a utility for himself on offense whereas McKenzie has not.
Last year, Taylor served as Denver’s de facto punt returner when McKenzie was eventually benched for good. But he also contributed on offense as the fourth receiver.
Heading into training camp, Taylor’s biggest obstacle will be availability. Recovering from bi-lateral hip surgery, he is expect to miss the first week or two.
That means that when he returns to action, Taylor’s going to have to truly shine in order to fend off the groundswell of young talent at the position. He does bring a veteran savvy to the competition, but time is not on his side.
Carlos Henderson, despite having all the raw potential in the world, has struggled in his jump to the pros. Between injuring his thumb and spending his rookie year on injured reserve, and getting arrested for marijuana possession in January, his pro career has built up it’s fair share of negative momentum.
To add insult to injury, Henderson suffered a tweaked hamstring during the late stages of OTAs and mini-camp, which caused Head Coach Vance Joseph to publicly call him out. Henderson represents a high-round draft investment, so it’s likely the Broncos will be long-suffering with him.
But you can’t make the club from the tub, as the old NFL cliche goes, which puts the onus on Henderson to fight through his injury (if it’s still bothering him) when camp opens. Learning how to take care of one’s body, and how to fight through injury, is part of becoming a pro.
Here’s to hoping Henderson can at least begin to figure that out this summer.
Leading up to the 2018 Draft, the talking points out of Dove Valley were very flattering of Devontae Booker. With C.J. Anderson released, all signs pointed to the torch being passed on to Booker.
And then the Broncos went and invested a third-round pick in Oregon’s Royce Freeman. The selection sent a very clear message to Booker; don’t get too comfortable.
Booker is 100 percent healthy for the first time entering training camp as a pro, which means we might see a different version of him than we’ve seen heretofore. The Broncos might be envisioning a running back by committee, but Vance Joseph has also talked about the importance of having a ‘bell-cow’ at the position.
Heading into year three, Booker will never get a better opportunity to lay claim to Denver’s starting job. But he’ll have some stiff competition in the aforementioned Freeman and the second-year De’Angelo Henderson.
Win the job, and Booker could go on to build a solid NFL career. Lose it, and he could end up lost in the shuffle when his rookie deal expires.
Like McKenzie, we need not take the time to detail out the underachieving career of Jeff Heuerman. It is common knowledge in the fanbase.
But as a 2015 third-rounder, it would be good to see Heuerman show out in a contract year, and provide the Broncos with a modicum of return on investment. With Virgil Green gone, Heuerman is the elder statesman in the tight end room and he started off OTAs as the incumbent starter.
However, Jake Butt has picked up momentum and it’s hard to see him relinquishing it when training camp opens. On top of that, the Broncos invested a fifth-rounder in yet another Big Ten tight end this past spring in Troy Fumagalli.
With Austin Traylor also factoring in, the Broncos have a very competitive tight end corps. Heuerman will have to dig in and separate himself at least from Fumagalli and Traylor, even if he does end up playing second fiddle to Butt in the offense.
Heuerman is in a contract year, which means he could parlay a good 2018 campaign into a solid pay-day next spring.
The Broncos may have not given up on Paxton Lynch quite yet, but the team hasn’t exactly given him a strong vote of confidence either. The front office hedged it’s bet by signing Case Keenum to be the starting QB in 2018.
Rather than ‘grandfather’ Lynch the backup role, the team has publicly pitted him against the first-year firebrand Chad Kelly. The approach seems to be working, as Lynch had a very strong spring, but he’ll need to translate that momentum into training camp.
If Lynch fails to win the backup job, which I have a hard time seeing the Broncos allowing to happen, it would render him completely moot in year three. If Kelly proves to be the more capable player under the preseason lights, what point would there be to keeping Lynch on the roster as a former first-rounder?
Where Lynch has much to lose, Chad Kelly has even more to gain. If Kelly can be the next seventh-rounder to vanquish Lynch in an open competition, it could be how he gets his foot in the door as a viable NFL QB.
However, don’t expect the Broncos to make it easy on Kelly. The team will give Lynch every opportunity to win the job, as a means of protecting their investment in the court of public opinion.
That means that Kelly can’t just be a little better than Lynch. He’ll have to be leaps and bounds better.
He might be a completely unknown quantity in the NFL, but I expect that if the switch is going to flip for Kelly, it’ll come under the preseason lights. Kelly hasn’t had the best practice sessions thus far, but he’s known for being more of a ‘gamer’ than a perfectionist at practice.
If Kelly wins, he’s in like Flynn and will hold the clipboard for Case Keenum. If he loses, he’ll likely be waived and re-signed to the practice squad.
Bradley Roby is in no way in jeopardy of losing his roster spot. However, he is entering a contract year with the most pressure and responsibility he’s ever had to bear.
With Aqib Talib gone, Denver’s succession plan for Roby has already begun. As a cornerback who’s essentially played starter’s snaps throughout his four-year career, Roby has experience in spades. That won’t be the issue.
The issue will be how he responds to competition behind him. The Broncos signed the veteran Tramaine Brock to compete, and a pair of third-round cornerbacks — Brendan Langley and Isaac Yiadom — will throw their hats into the ring, too.
If Roby crushes the competition, and gets off to a great start during the season, I’d be shocked if GM John Elway doesn’t offer him a rare in-season contract extension. But if Roby doesn’t dominate the competition, and kind of meanders to open up the season, the Broncos will have to wait and see how 2018 shapes up before deciding on offering him a long-term extension.
Will Parks was a 2016 sixth-rounder and saw a significant up-tick in snaps on defense last season. Unfortunately, playing in that ‘dime-backer’ role, Parks was more of a liability on defense than an asset.
There was a reason the Broncos traded away some draft picks to acquire Su’a Cravens from the Redskins. Cravens’ arrival in Denver puts Parks on notice.
Complicating the issue for Parks is the continued rise of Jamal Carter and Dymonte Thomas — two undrafted rookies from 2017 who’ve continued to impress the Broncos coaching staff. Parks won’t be able to beat out the uber-talented Cravens, but if he’s unable to fend off the two young upstarts, I have a hard time seeing a place for him on the roster.