ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Shaq is back.
After missing the last three months due to a serious hip injury, Denver Broncos’ outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett returned to the practice field Tuesday in the team’s preparation for their third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.
Although Barrett is certainly not expected to play on Saturday night, his return to the active roster in August is monumental for a defense with their eyes set on another great season.
His physical presence doesn’t quite matchup to the more famous “Shaq”—NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal standing at 7-foot-1, 325 pounds—but his presence on the football field extends significantly beyond the “back up” designation that is placed on him.
“If it was any other team in the National Football League, he would be starting,” fellow outside linebacker Von Miller said about Barrett on the day he returned to the field.
The reason Barrett doesn’t receive the “starter” label is because he’s behind two first-round draft picks—No. 2 overall in 2011 Miller and No. 23 overall in 2015 Shane Ray. While being a first-round pick doesn’t guarantee a starting position—as the Broncos’ quarterback position can testify for—both Miller and Ray have lived up to their first-round designation, putting Barrett as the odd man out.
Fortunately for Barrett, an undrafted rookie out of Colorado State in 2014, the outside linebacker position is a rotational one, meaning although he’s not the starter, he’ll receive plenty of playing time.
“It’s good to have him back. That group looks different with Shaq out there,” head coach Vance Joseph said. “He’s day-to-day right now. But he’s looking good. He’s feeling good.”
Although Joseph didn’t have a specific timetable for Barrett’s return, citing, “It’s his first day back,” he did have a more-than-optimistic idea of when he could return. When asked if there was hope for him to return for the first game of the regular season, Sept. 11 against the Los Angeles Chargers, the coach said, “Absolutely, there is hope for the opener.”
After Barrett suffered the hip injury in May, it wasn’t certain if he would need surgery or not. If he did, he could have missed six months. Since he didn’t, his timetable put his return right around the regular season, with the first game in question.
Barrett participated in individual and team drills on his first day back, and with 20 days until the opener, Joseph has reason to be optimistic about Barrett’s return. His return signifies more than just a player that played in 36.5 percent of the team’s defensive snaps a year ago, too.
With Ray undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist, which puts his availability for the start of the regular season in jeopardy, Barrett becomes all that more important. Especially for his counterpart, and best player on the team, Miller.
“Just looking across and seeing a guy that you’ve played with three years, a guy that you’re familiar with, it helps me out, too,” Miller said. “I’m comfortable with my rushes and comfortable with where I’m at on the other side of the ball. It’s great. Having Shaq back is great.”
In his three seasons in the NFL, the previous two on the active roster, Barrett has complied seven sacks, 86 tackles, five forced fumbles and six starts. But Miller believes Barrett’s talent goes further than what the stat sheet suggests.
“He would be the premier rusher on any other team,” he said. “So to have him back and have him start for us and have him back on the field, it means a lot. It gives us a little bit of security over there. He’s a great pass rusher, great in coverage; he does everything that I do.”
The Broncos don’t need Barrett to be Miller—and frankly, that’s unrealistic to expect. His healthy presence alone is nearly enough with the season just shy of three weeks away.