- It’s early in camp, but Broncos players sound confident that they’ve found their QB. Plus, a rookie receiver shines, Bradley Chubb draws comps to a Broncos legend, the back-up QB battle, Jake Butt’s time arrives, and grasshopper tacos
WHO: Denver Broncos
WHERE: Englewood, Co.
WHEN: Wednesday, Aug. 1
HOW: Uber. I live down the road, but I think the new family cat has hidden my car keys under a couch.
The three players creating the most buzz at Broncos camp:
1. Courtland Sutton. The 6' 3" second-round rookie receiver out of SMU has people thinking John Elway might have finally overcome his slump in drafting offensive players. Early in camp, Sutton has wowed with his athleticism in the red zone, rising up for at least one spectacular grab every day the fans have come out to the training facility. Denver’s passing offense might not be particularly complex in Case Keenum’s first year as the starter here, but Sutton is an early favorite to land the third receiver gig alongside veterans Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. “When he was first drafted I was like, Who is this guy,” cornerback Bradley Roby says of Sutton. “But I should have trusted them, because they picked me [laughs]. He’s really stepping up so far.” Not to be overlooked, fourth-round pick DaeSean Hamilton out of Penn State has looked strong in the slot—consistent if not spectacular—and Sanders is having one of the best camps of his career.
2. Case Keenum. It gets easier to evaluate wide receiver talent when a quarterback is consistently putting balls on the money in every area of the field, and that’s what Keenum has done so far in team scenarios. The former Viking, who signed a two-year, $36 million contract to join the Broncos after a deep playoff run with Minnesota last winter, has been impressive in his command of the offense and his understanding of the defense. For the first time since Peyton Manning commanded the huddle, there’s a clear-cut QB1 in Denver, which is music to Roby’s ears. “He’s a great quarterback, from what we’ve seen so far,” Roby says. “We haven’t had a QB of this caliber here in the last few years—just being honest, no shade. He’s next-level, definitely worth the money. He’s very accurate, he’s a leader. He commands the huddle. He diagnoses what we’re doing, makes checks and everything. We're gonna rally around him this year and make that push. We haven’t had anybody with that kind of experience since Peyton.”
3. Bradley Chubb. The No. 5 overall choice of the 2018 draft has made a strong impression on the offensive tackles he’s gone up against, and has pleasantly surprised with his cover skills and ability to move in space (something his pass-rushing counterpart, Von Miller, also excels at). Jared Veldheer, the former Raiders and Cardinals tackle who is all but sure to start at right tackle, compares Chubb to a former Bronco who just happens to be mentoring the rookie. “I think he's going to be a great player, just with how big and bendy he is,” Veldheer says. “He plays with really good leverage and he’s strong, and he’s got a high motor. I think he could grow into a Demarcus Ware-type player, where he’s tall, but really strong and bendy. I just remember playing him and his ability was very similar to Chubb’s.” Veldheer ought to know: The last time he faced Ware, in 2014, the nine-time Pro Bowler turned the corner on a second-and-9, swatted away Veldheer’s hands, and crumpled QB Logan Thomas for an eight-yard loss.
OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT!: I didn’t know just how much thought and reprogramming goes into a switch from left tackle to right tackle, as explained to me by Jared Veldheer, who spent the majority of his career at left tackle before being switched to the other side last season in Arizona. Veldheer struggled immensely in the first half of the 2017 season, but cleaned up his game and had strung together two months of reliable tackle play before tearing his triceps in late October. For the Broncos, he steps into a spot that’s been a revolving door of underachieving veterans of late. “Figuring out what I needed to do biomechanically was the biggest thing,” Veldheer says of his position switch in Arizona. “In the middle of the season I kind of changed my mindset a little bit to err on the side of being aggressive and physical instead of trying to be perfect on the mechanics. And as I was doing that the mechanics started to come along.” He says he got into the bad habit of collapsing his left leg inward at the knee at first. “That gave me a lot of power pushing off, but when I was getting to my guy, I was leaning outside and getting a lot of up-and-under stuff from rushers. And then if they slapped my hands off on the outside, they could run around me. Either way it was pretty bad. I balanced my weight and things started to click.”
STORYLINE TO WATCH: I'll be interested to see how Jake Butt, the former Michigan tight end, factors into the offense. Butt took what was essentially a redshirt season to heal a torn ACL suffered in his final game as a collegian, an injury that likely cost him millions of dollars as he slid to the fifth round of the 2017 draft. He looks healthy at the moment and appears to be the front runner to replace Virgil Green, the blocking tight end who caught all of 71 passes in seven seasons and 49 starts in Denver before departing for the Chargers in the offseason. Butt figures to see a far greater share of targets and could serve as a consistent bail out for Case Keenum in a division with Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack.
TOP POSITION BATTLE: The running back competition is an intriguing one, with Devontae Booker and rookie Royce Freeman fighting for touches, and the Broncos still have to decide between Max Garcia, Connor McGovern and Menelik Watson for the guard spot opposite Ron Leary. But the position race with potentially the most consequences is the one at backup quarterback, between former first-round pick Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly, the final pick of the 2017 draft after an injury-filled senior season at Ole Miss. Neither has looked strong early in camp, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Broncos brought in one more veteran arm to make it a three-way race. Granted, the coaches—in public comments—have been higher on Lynch and Kelly than the media is, but neither passer has done anything to suggest he’s more than a high-end third stringer. I don’t know if Lynch has been feeling the heat from the media as a former first-rounder who hasn’t lived up to expectations, but he did spin toward the assembled hacks after completing his first pass in a team session on Wednesday and scream, “Let’s f---ing go!”
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: This is first camp I’ve ever been to with crickets on the menu. At the Tacos with Altitude food truck in the parking lot near the fan entrance, one can purchase a chapulín taco filled with real grasshoppers (as the menu notes with emphasis—not those fake grasshoppers being peddled by the competition).
PARTING THOUGHTS: I left with the impression Keenum can be a long term solution and bring Denver back to postseason relevance. That’s if this team can solidify the offensive line and make up for the defensive production lost with the departure of Aqib Talib, the mercurial veteran cornerback who gave the defense much of its bite over the last few years.
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