It’s not quite Super Bowl 50—where the Denver Broncos were crowned world champions for a third time in the organizations history just a year and a half ago—or even Sept. 11, when the Broncos will face the Los Angeles Chargers in the first regular season game of 2017, but for a preseason game, Saturday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers does carry significant importance.
It’s not for the typical cliché reasons about how numerous players NFL futures are on the line, either.
Thanks in large part to an epic quarterback competition, the Broncos’ second preseason game has some sort of actual meaning in an otherwise meaningless game. But it’s not just the uncertainty at quarterback that gives intrigue to the mid-August game.
The Broncos have many unknowns along their starting roster that need to be cleared up, including nearly every spot along the offensive line—where no starters have officially been named—and a defensive front seven that has been nearly decimated by injuries, specifically the past week, leaving plenty of movement on the depth chart come Week 1 of the regular season.
During Denver’s second preseason game on Saturday, some, if not most, of these uncertainties will start to take shape. Here are the five players to key in on during the game.
QB Paxton Lynch (No. 12)
There are numerous reasons why Lynch will, and should, be the most watched player on Saturday night. Not only will he get the start—and play the first quarter and a half before being relieved by fellow competitor Trevor Siemian—but Lynch is the talented first-round pick that has the physical tools to be the franchise quarterback that John Elway drafted him to be just over a year ago.
On Saturday specifically, Lynch’s play will be much more important to the quarterback battle than what Siemian does. Throughout training camp, there was a consensus that Siemian was the better of the two quarterbacks between he and Lynch.
However, in a last-minute push, Lynch put together two impressive days during practice against the 49ers on Wednesday and Thursday leading up to Saturday’s preseason game, thus tightening the competition.
If Lynch is able to put together an impressive game, the competition could be back to neck-and-neck. If not, his two eye-catching practices against San Francisco will be all but forgotten, and Siemian would maintain a significant lead.
According to Vance Joseph, the key for Lynch’s success will be similar to what Aaron Rodgers echoed in 2014: R-E-L-A-X.
“I want Paxton to relax and go out there and play his game,” Joseph said. “I don’t want him to feel pressure. I want him to be himself and be an athlete when he’s called to be an athlete. Just play quarterback for us. Simple as that.”
OG Allen Barbre (73)
During training camp, it’s been no secret that the Broncos’ offensive line is far from finalized. With lineman rotating in and out nearly every play of practice, Denver has been living the philosophy offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has preached: the best five will play.
However, one shift that is starting to become clear is Max Garcia’s time at starting left guard could be coming to an end. After struggles during the offseason, Denver acquired veteran lineman Barbre in a trade on the eve of training camp. Three weeks later, it appears Barbre is finally making his push into the starting lineup.
Joseph wouldn’t tip his cap as to which of the two would get the start on Saturday, but if the new Bronco plays well, it would be an uphill climb for Garcia to remain the starter come Sept. 11.
WR Kalif Raymond (19)
Just when nearly everyone wrote off Raymond’s time with the Broncos, he had potentially his biggest performance in his one-year NFL career during the team’s first preseason game against the Chicago Bears. He had such an impressive performance, in fact, that Joseph said Raymond had the three biggest non-defensive plays of the game—a kick return, a punt return and a pass from Kyle Sloter.
With Isaiah McKenzie already named the starting punt returner for the regular season, Raymond will have to prove his worth to the Broncos first and foremost as a wide receiver. Leading up to the second preseason game against San Francisco, Raymond has done just that, too.
During Tuesday’s practice, Raymond was on the receiving end of arguably the two biggest plays of the day—a third-down reception from Lynch and a 40-yard touchdown pass from Siemian.
“Kalif has been really, really solid in all phases of the game, return game and third-down slot,” Joseph said. “So he’s been impressive.”
Earlier in the week, Joseph said the 5-foot-9 receiver was “competing” to make the team. If Raymond wants to earn one of the 53 spots on the team, he’ll need to put together more than just one great game during the preseason. With Emmanuel Sanders questionable for Saturday’s game and Carlos Henderson out, Raymond will get his opportunity.
S Jamal Carter Sr. (20)
It didn’t take long for the Broncos’ highest-paid undrafted rookie of 2017 to make an impact. In the first preseason game, Carter Sr.’s six tackles were the most in the game by either team. He also tacked on a quarterback hit and a fumble recovery.
The rookie safety has impressed throughout the entire offseason, too, catching the eyes and attention of the No Fly Zone. Chris Harris Jr. compared Carter Sr. to Arizona Cardinals linebacker, and former first-round pick, Deone Buccanon for his ability to play both safety and linebacker.
During Wednesday’s practice against the 49ers, Carter Sr. put his playmaking abilities on display with an athletic interception during a one-on-one period.
On nearly any other team in the league, Carter Sr. would already have a great shot at making the team. However, with as deep of a secondary as Denver already has, he will have to either beat out one of the younger safeties, Justin Simmons or Will Parks, prove he is versatile enough to play all over the field, including special teams, or simply show that he is too good of a player to let go.
Which ever route he takes, he’ll have to do it on a consistent basis in the preseason game, thus making Saturday night that much more important for him and his future with the Broncos.
RB De’Angelo Henderson
Coming out of Costal Carolina, Henderson scored a touchdown in 35 consecutive games, setting the Division-I record. In his first NFL game, albeit during the preseason, Henderson continued the streak with a 41-yard touchdown run, which ended up being the game-winner. Denver’s 2017 fifth-round pick ended the night with seven carries for 54 yards on the ground with one reception for one yard.
Henderson continued to turn heads during training camp, as well, so much so that he’s in the process of climbing Denver’s depth chart. The question with Henderson has turned from IF he will play this season, to how much he will play.
As proven by the numerous records he set in college, Henderson is a gamer—meaning he performs well in games. If the rookie continues to shine in the preseason, he’ll only continue to climb the Broncos’ deep running back depth chart. Week 2 of the preseason can be another step up for him.
Bonus—Defensive front seven
With injuries to outside linebackers Shane Ray, Shaq Barrett and DeMarcus Walker and defensive lineman Billy Winn (season ending), Kyle Peko, Derek Wolfe and Jared Crick, the Broncos are desperate for help along the front of their defense. They would ideally like to find help within their own team.
On Saturday, watch for Zach Kerr (92), Shelby Harris (92), Adam Gotsis (99) and Tyrique Jarrett (98) along the defensive line and Kasim Edebali (91), Vontarrius Dora (59) and Danny Mason (47) at outside linebacker to see if any of these players step up in wake of the injuries.