ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — If OTAs are purely for learning and training camp is for competition, then mandatory mini camp, which falls in-between the two, is competitive learning.
On Tuesday, the Broncos began their three-day mini camp, the only mandatory part of the offseason, before breaking for summer at weeks end. During the practice, everything was turned up a level — from the late-spring sun to the DJ’s tunes to the competition level, which was let loose.
As expected, the unofficial motto around the UCHealth Training Center during the final week of the offseason is “finish strong.” In a multitude of ways, that’s exactly how the first day of the final week unfolded on the field.
Quarterbacks living up to expectations
As physical specimens, Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian couldn’t be more opposite for players playing the same position. At 6-foot-7, 244 pounds, Lynch possesses rare stature for a quarterback in the NFL, or any position really, while Siemian has a more traditional stature of 6-foot-3, 220 pounds.
Instead of one player trying to mold their game to the other, they both are taking their unique styles to the field. Tuesday’s practice couldn’t have highlighted that more.
In what equated to a fairly even rep split between the two signal callers, Paxton was vintage Paxton while Trevor was vintage Trevor. Lynch was all over the field — from deep throws to scrambles — while Siemain was idle in the pocket heavily targeting shorter routes. Tuesday’s practice highlighted the differences between the two quarterbacks: Lynch is a risk taker, both in the air and with his feet, while Siemian is the safe bet.
On the day, both quarterbacks were fairly even with their respective production. During team periods, 11-on-11, Siemian and Lynch had similar numbers. The biggest difference in play came during 7-on-7.
As he typically is in pure passing drills, Siemian was flawless, while Lynch wasn’t as accurate, but still above average — throwing one interception and one touchdown. It was a series of four plays during that stretch that was most telling about Lynch’s progression.
On the first play, Lynch stared down his intended receiver on a 10-yard out and was heavily punished as cornerback Taurean Nixon jumped the route and took the interception to the house. However, on the very next play, Lynch didn’t lose confidence, connecting with Cody Latimer on a deep touchdown pass down the sideline. He then followed that up with a blatant overthrow near the sideline. Finally, following the trend, Lynch connected on another deep ball, this time with tight end Austin Traylor.
After practice, Vance Joseph said it is “very, very important” quarterbacks immediately bounce back after a bad play, indirectly pointing to Lynch’s up and down series.
“After a bad play, how do we correct that bad play and make it into a positive the next play? That’s critical playing that position,” he said. “There’s going to be some bad plays, but how do you bounce back from those bad plays is important.”
Joseph again downplayed the importance of the quarterback play during the offseason, including mini camp. When asked how the offseason performances of each quarterback will factor into the final decision, Joseph responded, “Probably zero to none.”
“It’s gong to be won on the football field. It’s going to be won in the games in preseason,” he said. “That’s when the evaluations start.”
As for a specific timetable, Joseph said he’ll make the call when he sees an obvious winner.
“I don’t have a timetable on it,” he said. “It could be the first week of camp; it could be the end of preseason, I’m not sure. When I see a clear separation, I’ll call it off.”
For now, don’t expect the most intense and intriguing positional battle in the league to come to an end until the fall starts to roll around.
Bolles seeing first action with the ones
During OTAs, first-round pick Garett Bolles was an afterthought when it came to playing with the first-team. Oh, how the tides have quickly turned.
Instead of Ty Sambrailo and Donald Stephenson rotating with the first team and Bolles only receiving reps with the second team, like it was during all of OTAs, it was Sambrailo and Bolles rotating with the ones on Tuesday. Not only were the two exclusively rotating with the first-team, Bolles received an even number of the reps with Sambrailo.
“He’s made a lot of progress,” Joseph said. “It’s a tough spot to play as a rookie and it takes a lot of football IQ to play left tackle in the NFL. When he knows what to do, he can block his guy. His talent shows. The ultimate issue is knowing what to do, not how to do it. He’s a first-round pick for a reason. He’s a talent.”
It appears the only thing standing between Bolles’ and the opportunity to be the starting left tackle come September 11, is his ability to continue to learn the game.
Tensions rising on the field
It didn’t even take until training camp for the first scuffle to break out between the offense and defense.
And it happened twice on Tuesday.
Fortunately, both instances were a war of words with players getting in each others faces, but no physical action beyond that point.
“It’s been the entire spring, it’s been back and forth,” Joseph said about the heated nature on the field between the two units. “The offense, in my opinion, today responded with a big stick. They’ve competed all spring. That’s what we want. We want both sides to compete equally.”
The first seemed to be an argument between Derek Wolfe, unsurprisingly, and second-year center Connor McGovern. When asked if he was surprised that Wolfe was in the mix, Joseph said, “I’m not. Not at all. That’s his personality. I’m excited to see our guys take a stand offensively.”
For a head coach, the scuffles couldn’t have gone better as neither turned physical and were broken up rather quickly, while they also showed competitiveness by both sides. As long as players stay smart in times of contention, the Broncos have no problems with them.
“It’s guys competing, and like you said, not crossing the line. We can’t cross the line. We are teammates and being a good teammate is important,” Joseph explained. “That’s going to happen. Guys are competing, guys want to win a role on this football team, and that happens from time to time. But it can’t be personal.”
McKenzie juicing up the backfield
Officially listed as a wide receiver, rookie Isaiah McKenzie will play many roles for the Broncos come the fall. On Tuesday, he showed this versatility.
At 5-foot-7, 173 pounds, McKenzie brings a rare element of speed to the field, which the Broncos hope translates to big plays. During practice, while returning a punt, No. 5 found a hole and exploded to the outside, burning past the punt coverage that underestimated his speed. If it were a game, McKenzie would have finished in the end zone untouched.
However, it’s what happened after that was even more impressive. Immediately after taking it to the house, McKenzie could barely walk as he is recovering from an illness that caused him to miss a rookie event on Monday. Yet the illness didn’t hold him back from being the fastest player on the field, and it wasn’t even close.
“He’s explosive. He is fast. He plays fast all of the time,” Joseph said. “He can do a lot of things for us as far as punt returning, playing some half back, being the slot guy. He’s a smart guy, and he’s very competitive. He’s a guy that should help us in the fall.”
According to Joseph, Mike McCoy will look to use McKenzie’s play making ability not only as a wide receiver, but in the backfield. Much like the Kansas City Chiefs used Tyreek Hill last year.
-Nose tackle Kyle Peko left practice after apparently suffering a leg injury. Joseph said he is being evaluated for a foot injury, but didn’t know anything further.
-A.J. Derby was present for practice but did not participate as he’s got a slight hamstring injury. Joseph said Derby’s hamstring wasn’t anything to worry about and if it were game week he could play, adding, “We are being smart there.”
-Rookie Jake Butt made a slight upgrade in his recovery from ACL surgery on Tuesday as he was wearing a helmet during practice. He still didn’t participate in practice and Joseph said the plan for him hasn’t changed, “He’ll probably be a PUP guy starting camp.”
-Matt Paradis (hip) and Kalif Raymond (hand) also did not participate in practice as neither did during OTAs.