ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the most important test to date, a record 7,085 fans attended the Broncos scrimmage on Saturday. Likely most, if not all, were locked in on Nos. 12 and 13, understandably so.
While determining the starting quarterback is undoubtedly important to the success of the team, the other 88 players on the field, specifically the other 21 starters on offense and defense, will be crucial to how the team bounces back from their first missed playoff season since 2010.
During Saturday’s scrimmage, the “other guys” started to take shape with less than a week before the first preseason game. Here’s what came from the roughly 40-play scrimmage, outside of the quarterbacks.
Play in the Trenches Improving
Without a doubt, the Broncos’ greatest weakness in 2016 was the play in the trenches on both sides of the ball. In the offseason, John Elway and Co. made both the offensive and defensive lines their number one priority to improve.
Throughout the first week of training camp, it’s been difficult to get a true assessment of how improved, if at all, each unit is because the competition hasn’t been live. On Saturday, while it wasn’t “full go” it was the closest to game action to that point. After practice, Vance Joseph was “most impressed” by these two units.
“I liked the run defense. It was really stout, it was really sound,” he said. “I liked the pass protection today by the offensive line. It was solid for the most part. Those two things I was impressed by.”
Since players weren’t supposed to tackle during the scrimmage — at least with the first and second-team unit — it was difficult to get an exact evaluation of the run game. However, it was apparent the defensive line didn’t allow big running lanes like they dida lot last year. In fact, nearly every run was held to a 2-3 yard gain — a dramatic improvement from the 4.3 yard per carry Denver’s defense allowed last year.
A catalyst of this improved play was second-year defensive end Adam Gotsis. Not only was Gotsis involved on a few of the run stops in the short scrimmage, he batted down a pass from Trevor Siemian on 2nd-and-long.
“He’s bounced back. He was doing really, really good job until he banged his thigh against [Donald] Stephenson one day and lost yesterday’s practice,” Joseph said. “But he came back today and did well. He’s had a great spring. He’s had a great camp. Keeping him healthy is obviously a must for us so he can show what he can do.”
Search for Pass Rush Continues
A week after discovering that both Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett will miss the entire preseason, and potentially the start of the regular season, the search for finding their replacements is still in full swing.
Initially, it seemed as if Kasim Edebali would be the natural replacement — as he was the veteran of the group and has two career starts — but during the scrimmage, Vontarrius Dora started opposite Von Miller at outside linebacker.
“Dora has stepped up to be the No. 2 behind Von while Shane and Shaq are out right now,” Chris Harris Jr. said after the scrimmage. “He’s improved. I think he’ll be ready to roll if he has to take that chance to be our starter for a game. I’m excited. Danny Mason is playing well. It’s pretty open now. Until Shaq gets back and Shane gets back, I think those guys will be in a big competition.”
With Ray and Barrett’s status for Week 1 of the regular season uncertain, rookie DeMarcus Walker, Dora, Mason and Edebali are in a competition likely to last many weeks of the preseason. Joseph called Dora’s first-team reps on Saturday “significant.”
“We are trying to find the best guy to play opposite of Von.Week 1 maybe — a Week 1 starter,” Joseph said. “Who’s the best play opposite of Von? We don’t know yet. They are competing. Walker’s had some good days. Obviously, Dora had a good day. He’s had two good days. Yesterday was really good for him.”
Regardless who starts, especially if Ray and Barrett aren’t available for Week 1, every player in this competition could likely see the field. The true competition will start in less than a week, according to Joseph.
“Thursday in Chicago, that’s where the true evaluation starts for a lot of positions.”
McKenzie Named Starter
After receiving plenty of reps at punt returner during the scrimmage — due to the offense finding difficulty moving the ball into scoring position — Isaiah McKenzie impressed Joseph so much so he named him the starter.
“He’s the punt returner. That’s why he was drafted. He’s the first guy out,” Joseph said. “He’s been the guy who can catch the ball — that’s critical as a punt returner. We’ve all seen guys who are really, really fast but can’t catch the football. But he can catch the football. I trust him to be our guy Week 1 against the [Los Angeles] Chargers.”
When asked if this was an official end to a positional battle, Joseph gave an emphatic “Yes.”
At 5-foot-8, 173 pounds, the rookie from Georgia is also in play for the third-receiver position currently held by Bennie Fowler. With the way he’s impressed the head coach up to this date, and an impressive first week of training camp at receiver, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him creep up that depth chart too.
“He’s so mature for a rookie. He is headstrong. Nothing bothers him. He’s had some bad days and you can’t tell,” Joseph said. “He’s as even as I’ve ever seen a rookie.”
Paradis Progressing Fast
Less than 24 hours before Saturday’s scrimmage, Matt Paradis wasn’t supposed to participate in the team’s scrimmage.
Oh, what a difference a day can make.
With the first-team offense, Paradis was under center for the first rep of the day and while he only played a limited number of snaps, it was significant progress in his recovery from double-hip surgery during the offseason.
“He’s progressing fast,” Joseph said. “He felt fine this morning to play four or five plays so we allowed him to play. Again, the first two units were a controlled environment, it was more thud. But for him, it’s live. For offensive linemen, it was no different than it was going to be on Thursday for him. I’m proud of where Matt is at in terms of his health.”
With over a month left until the first regular season game on September 11, all signs point to a healthy Paradis in the center of the Broncos’ offensive line on opening night.
In what was a surprise, right tackle Menelik Watson sat out the team’s scrimmage due to “a strained hip muscle or ab muscle,” according to Joseph. It was unclear when Watson sustained the injury, but Joseph expects him back at practice on Tuesday — he'll miss Monday’s practice — and available to play in Thursday’s preseason game.
It was also revealed that T.J. Ward suffered a “minor hamstring injury” during Friday’s practice and “probably” won’t play against Chicago on Thursday. Joseph set the timeframe for Ward’s return for the practices against the San Francisco 49ers leading up to their Week 2 preseason game.
Todd Davis (separated shoulder) and Bernard Pierce (hamstring) both did not participate in the scrimmage. Davis is listed as “day-to-day.”