What’s life without a little competition? The Broncos will be anything but short of it when training camp begins on Thursday.
After five weeks to get away from football and refresh during the summer, the Broncos will hit the ground running in preparation for the season opener September 11.
While players like Von Miller and Aqib Talib have little to nothing to prove to the coaches and fans leading up to that point, there are plenty of other players who will be fighting for their livelihood over the next month.
Although surprise roster moves toward the end of the preseason are fun to follow — I.e. which undrafted rookie makes the team and what higher-profile veteran gets cut — the moves that will likely have the biggest impact on the team in 2017 involve the players fighting for a starting spot.
With a new coaching staff and plenty of new players on the roster, there are many starting positions up for grabs in the Mile High City. As Vance Joseph has consistently preached during the offseason, he doesn’t care how much a player is getting paid or what they’ve done in the past; he will play the best man.
In a sport comprised of 22 starters on offense and defense combined, the Broncos enter training camp with eight potential spots up for grabs. While some may never matriculate to a dead-heat competition, others have been for months, even dating back to last season.
Without further ado, here are the positional battles to track during the next six weeks leading up to Monday Night Football.
Hot off the bat
Competitors: Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch
Need I say more?
This is not only the hottest positional battle in Denver, it’s the biggest in the entire country. For nearly the past year, the debate has been Trevor or Paxton, Siemian v. Lynch. A year ago, after the Broncos cut the third competitor, Mark Sanchez, Siemian was clearly the better quarterback between he and Lynch, and thus started 14 of the 16 regular season games, only missing two due to injury.
Now, entering “Quarterback Competition Season Two — Battle Royale” as a network television station may label it, Lynch has closed the obvious gap that was present last year during the team’s offseason training workouts, setting up for what will be a true competition in camp.
The key for Siemian will be to continue to show a mastery of the offense and take the significant step from his first year of playing to his second, by adding more dimensions to the passing game.
For Paxton, the key will be to show that he has learned the mental side of the game, something he struggled with mightily during his rookie season.
Break out the popcorn, blankets and weeks worth of food because this battle won’t be over anytime soon.
Edge: Siemian — Until Lynch can show consistency, Siemian remains the front-runner. Although the competition has gone from a 1 and 2, to a 1A and 1B race.
Competitors: Garett Bolles and Ty Sambrailo
Many people in football believe that the two most important positions on offense are quarterback and left tackle. For the Broncos, these are the two biggest positional battles entering training camp.
After failing to find their left tackle of the future since Ryan Clady’s playing career with Denver ended after 2014, John Elway used his first-round pick in an effort to try and find that man by drafting Bolles. However, with a young quarterback under center, whoever it may be, and goals of making the playoffs, Denver won’t just play Bolles because he was the first-round pick.
During the offseason workouts, Bolles made significant leaps up the depth chart — surpassing Donald Stephenson — but departed for summer break in a dead-tie with former second-round pick Sambrailo.
After two seasons filled with injuries, Sambrailo finally seems like the physical specimen the Broncos were hoping for when they drafted him out of Colorado State in 2015. If Sambrailo wants to fend off the rookie, he will need to first stay healthy, and second prove that he won’t get beat off the edge by the great pass rushers in the AFC West.
Edge: Bolles — If Bolles continues to develop his game as he did during OTAs, it will be hard for the coaching staff to keep the young talent off the field.
Competitors: A.J. Derby, Virgil Green, Jeff Heuerman and Jake Butt
In an offense that was supposed to allow tight ends to flourish under Gary Kubiak last season, the Broncos got very little production from the group.
Now, under Mike McCoy, the tight ends will be asked to play a much different role. While they will still be asked to block, being a versatile receiving option will be even more important.
After multiple disappointing seasons, Green and Heuerman will need to have impressive camps in order to catch the attention of the coaching staff. During OTAs, Heuerman showed glimpses of this, while Green didn’t help his standing.
Derby emerged as the top receiving option after the Broncos acquired him in a mid-season trade with the Patriots last year and he could flourish in McCoy’s offense as more of a versatile receiver than tight end.
Rookie fifth-round pick Butt could be a similar type of player as Derby and potentially even more dangerous. However, not only is Butt making the difficult transition from college to the NFL, he’s still recovering from a torn ACL and Joseph hinted that he may start training camp on the Physical Unable to Perform (PUP) list which could drastically set back his development for 2017.
Edge: Derby — If and when Butt is healthy, he will give Derby a run for his money in the passing game. At the end of the day, however, Denver could, and likely will, utilize both.
Guard opposite Ron Leary
Competitors: Max Garcia, Michael Schofield and Donald Stephenson
The Broncos are giving Garcia every chance to runaway with this spot, but early indications don’t look promising that he is doing so. After starting at left guard last year, Denver moved Garcia to the right side at the start of the offseason after acquiring Leary — who is an established left guard.
However, near the end of the offseason workouts, Garcia was moved back to left side and Leary to the right in an effort to accommodate to Garcia, according to Joseph. Although it was played off as a small move by the coaching staff, it means that Garcia wasn’t doing enough on the right side to hold the job.
If Garcia’s struggles carry over into training camp at either guard position, there will quickly be a heated competition. His competitors? Last year’s full-time starting right guard Schofield and versatile lineman Stephenson.
Throughout much of last season, Schofield actually outplayed Garcia, but a shift from a zone to power scheme gave Garcia the advantage going into this season. If Schofield is able to transition to a power scheme well, he could be a serious contender to start over Garcia even if Garcia doesn’t falter, especially on the right side since the Broncos would ideally like to keep Leary on the left side.
After Stephenson was beat out by Bolles for the left tackle position, he was left without a true position. When asked what position Stephenson will compete at in training camp, McCoy gave no indication, only saying “We’re looking for the best five guys.”
With the left tackle position moving forward without him and the right side seemingly locked up with Menelik Watson, the only position for Stephenson to compete at is the one currently occupied by Garcia.
Edge: Schofield — While he won’t begin training camp as the starter, the fact that the coaches already tried to shake the line up to accommodate Garcia doesn’t bode well for him once the pads finally come on. Keep in mind that Schofield was the better guard of the two last season as well.
Defensive end opposite Derek Wolfe
Competitors: Jared Crick and Adam Gotsis
Even with a heavy emphasis placed on the defensive line in the offseason — the signings of Domata Peko and Zach Kerr in free agency and the drafting of DeMarcus Walker in the second-round — the frontrunners to start at defensive end opposite Derek Wolfe are actually returning Broncos.
After starting last season at the same position, Crick was given the starting role again during the offseason. Although his play was up and down at times, he is expected to take a different role with the hopes that it benefits his game more.
Last year, Crick played the most snaps among any Broncos defensive lineman and admitted he weighed under 275 pounds much of last season, an incredibly low weight for a 3-4 defensive end.
Now, with a deeper defensive line, it is expected that there will be a consistent rotation to keep the players as fresh as possible. One of those players will be second-year pro, Gotsis. As a second-round pick last year, Gotsis had a disappointing rookie season while recovering from a torn ACL during his final lap at Georgia Tech.
During the offseason, Gotsis received very high praise from the coaching staff, including Joe Woods describing his physique as that of a “super hero” and adding he’s a completely different player than last year. Gotsis did have a minor hiccup at the end of minicamp when he missed the final practice to have his knee scoped. He will be ready for the first week of training camp, according to Joseph.
If Gotsis can remain healthy, and his development translates on the field to what the coaches have been saying, he will give Crick a run-for-his-money on the starting position.
Edge: Crick — Gotsis’s ability to stay healthy remains a question and he hasn’t proved his play on the field yet. Since this will be a rotation, both players will still see significant playing time regardless of who starts.
Competitors: Carlos Henderson, Isaiah McKenzie, Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler and Jordan Taylor
This is as wide open as any competition out there. After Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos wide receiving corps is seemingly without a depth chart entering training camp.
With Latimer, Fowler or Taylor unable to lock down the job the past few seasons, Denver loaded up with firepower in the draft at wide receiver with Carlos Henderson and Isaiah McKenzie. While Henderson and McKenzie are clearly the team’s path for the future, it’s not a guarantee that either of them will be able to carry the full-time role their rookie season.
Among the three veterans, Latimer received the most significant time with the starting group during the offseason, but has proved very little during his career in the regular season. Additionally, Latimer, Fowler and Taylor aren’t the ideal type of player for a third, slot receiver role, while Henderson and McKenzie fit the description to a T.
Regardless of who the “starter” is at the beginning of the season, it is safe to say that most, if not all, will see action during the season.
Edge: McKenzie — It’s a toss up between Henderson and McKenzie, but McKenzie had a better offseason, so the early advantage leans his way. Don’t be surprised to see McKenzie and Henderson split reps and even play at the same time as the season progresses. Neither may start training camp as “the guy,” but it won’t take long for them to emerge.
Under the radar
Competitors: Matt Paradis and Connor McGovern
Entering the offseason, the one position on the Broncos’ offensive line that was set was center because of Paradis. However, after double hip surgery in the offseason and a move to a power blocking scheme instead of zone, there is a justifiable question around who will be starting at center in September.
All reports indicate that Paradis will be ready to go to start training camp, but he missed the entire offseason recovering from surgery. If he comes back as the same player he was last year, just healthier; it’s hard to imagine it’s not his job. If he’s slow to return, however, he leaves the door open for his backup, McGovern.
McGovern, a guard converted to center this offseason, is entering his second-season in the league as a fifth-round pick in 2016. During offseason workouts, McGovern took Paradis’s place along the first team unit. If Paradis is slow to return, McGovern has had all of the necessary reps in the offseason to step in.
Additionally, McGovern is much better suited for McCoy’s power scheme than Paradis as he’s bigger and stronger — he had the second-most bench-press reps at the combine for an offensive lineman and has squatted 700 pounds.
Edge: Paradis — Although McGovern is better suited for the scheme, Paradis is the better player. Barring a setback in his recovery, Paradis will take his spot back whenever he is healthy enough.
Competitors: C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles
Entering training camp, Anderson is predominantly viewed as the starting running back, even with the addition of Charles — a four-time Pro Bowler — mainly because Charles is coming off two seasons in which he started only five games due to injury.
However, Anderson himself has only started 13 games over that same time period — nearly a third of what he could have — due to injury, performance issues and he’s coming off meniscus surgery that ended his 2016 season.
While Charles didn’t participate in team drills during the offseason, he was cutting at full speed when the team left for summer break. It is entirely possible that the Broncos will limit Charles’ in the offense to keep him fresh all season in a complimentary role out of the backfield and as a receiver. However, if he’s healthy and anything like he was three years ago, he could get a shot to leapfrog Anderson.
The biggest question with both players surrounds their health. The deciding factor to this competition may come down to who is healthy and who isn’t.
Edge: Anderson — Even if Anderson and Charles are both healthy to start the season, the coaching staff will ease Charles back slower, but by the time the end of the season rolls around, Charles could very well be in charge.
Stay tuned to BSN Denver throughout training camp as we bring you up to the minute updates on all these battles and much, much more.