10 Camp Battles with Biggest Implications on Broncos 2020 Season
The Denver Broncos will kick off training camp on Monday, July 27. After a couple of rounds of COVID-19 testing that began last Thursday and will end Sunday, those rookies, quarterbacks, and rehabbing vets who pass will be allowed through the doors of UC Health Training Center to begin camp.
From there, players will be required to test for COVID-19 every day but they'll be focused more on the business of football and attacking the 2020 season. The Broncos are a young team on the rise, which means that several key positions and starting jobs are up for grabs.
Which battles will factor most into the ultimate destiny of the 2020 season? How will the dust settle? Only time will tell but let's highlight the camp battles fans should be monitoring closest.
Phillip Lindsay vs. Melvin Gordon | Running Back
Lindsay is the back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing incumbent while Gordon is the high-priced free-agent newcomer. Lindsay will be on a mission to prove to the front office that the $16 million Gordon received should have gone to him.
Because of the money, the Broncos brass will be bent on getting a return on investment, which means, no matter which way the cookie crumbles in camp, Gordon's going to see the field. But a strong showing from Lindsay and proof that he has developed more as a receiver, can swing the lion's share of the RB1 snaps his way.
Garett Bolles vs. Elijah Wilkinson | Left Tackle
At this stage, it's difficult to ascertain if the Broncos are genuine in their desire to pit Bolles in an open competition with Wilkinson for the starting left tackle duties, especially considering that the team has grandfathered the job to the former first-rounder for three consecutive years.
Besides Bolles' draft pedigree, the other reason to doubt the sincerity of the team on this front is Wilkinson's obvious shortcomings as a tackle. Inside at guard, Wilkinson's ceiling is much higher. As he proved last year in all those starts at right tackle, he lacks the footspeed and quick-twitch athleticism to contend with speed rushers on the edge.
However, in the off-chance that Denver is dead-serious about this being an open competition, obviously, with Drew Lock entering Year 2, whom the Broncos tap to protect his blindside will be big. My honest assessment of this battle is that, combined with the team's decision not to exercise Bolles' fifth-year option, the team is trying to motivate the beleaguered tackle in every way that it can, which hints at perhaps a sense of entitlement that Bolles has developed since arriving as a first-round pick back in 2017.
Patrick Morris vs. Lloyd Cushenberry III | Center
Morris is a Mike Munchak acolyte who has followed his O-line Coach over from Pittsburgh. Before the draft, Morris was projected to be the Broncos starting center with Connor McGovern departing in free agency.
That was before the Broncos spent a third-round pick on Cushenberry, whom many draftniks had pegged as a first-round-caliber center. Joe Burrow's college center is long, strong, and very smart.
Similarly to the left tackle battle, center is crucial because of it's implications and influence on how Lock will perform in 2020. The right guy needs to win this job, regardless of draft pedigree or Munchak ties.
DaeSean Hamilton vs. KJ Hamler | No. 3 Wide Receiver
Hamilton frustrated the Broncos in his second year, failing to take the steps forward in his development that the team expected, although, it's worth mentioning that he did elevate his game down the stretch after Lock was inserted under center. But the failure of any wide receiver not-named Courtland Sutton to emerge and demand opposing attention necessitated a rehauling of the entire depth chart.
Enter Hamler, who arrived one round following Jerry Jeudy. Hamler and Hamilton were teammates at Penn State so there is a bond and familiarity there but with how much OC Pat Shurmur runs 3-WR sets, the Broncos have to get good production out of those snaps and routes run.
With a canceled Offseason Training Program and no preseason games, Hamler will have a harder time leapfrogging Hamilton this summer but as an uber-talented wideout that brings a purported 4.27 speed to the table, we can't eliminate it as a possibility.
Trey Marshall vs. Douglas Coleman III | No. 3 Safety
When Will Parks departed to Philly, the Broncos suddenly found themselves devoid of an experienced, bonafide third safety. With how often Vic Fangio runs sub-packages, depending on the personnel-grouping priority, that No. 3 safety can see a lot of snaps.
Marshall showed well in the two games to close last season when Kareem Jackson was serving his suspension for DUI and subsequently, has to be considered the leader in the clubhouse to succeed Parks. But Coleman is a converted cornerback and the quintessential Fangio safety, bringing tackling soundness, ball production, and versatility to the table.
Coleman might be an undrafted rookie but unless we here at Mile High Huddle completely miss our mark, he's got to be considered more than just a darkhorse for a 53-man roster spot — he's a threat to play starter's snaps on defense.
De'Vante Bausby vs. Michael Ojemudia | No. 3 cornerback
Similarly to the third safety, the No. 3 corner is basically a starter. As it stands, the top-two corners who'll be on the field in base packages are A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan. But when opponents go to 3-WR sets, Callahan will kick inside to the slot and another corner will take the field to play the boundary.
Bausby, because of his history in Fangio's scheme and momentum with the Broncos before he suffered a scary neck injury last year, is the leader for the job but third-round rookie Ojemudia will be given every opportunity to challenge him for it. Ojemudia is a corner Fangio liked a lot at Iowa but it might take him a little time to get up to NFL speed.
Although Isaac Yiadom and Davontae Harris will nominally vie for the same job, as it stands, it's hard to see anyone other than Bausby or Ojemudia winning it. May the best man win.
Jeff Driskel vs. Brett Rypien | Backup Quarterback
By virtue of Driskel's two-year, $5M contract, it's difficult to see anyone other than him garnering the right to hold the clipboard behind Lock. But the Broncos still have high hopes for Rypien, despite his most ardent supporter (ex-OC Rich Scangarello) being jettisoned in January.
Driskel has a little more experience and perhaps a little more arm talent but Rypien is very smart and savvy QB who brings a quiet confidence that shouldn't be underestimated. Considering the new practice squad rules, odds are, the Broncos will be able to afford to vacillate on Rypien. But this will be a battle.
Jeff Heuerman vs. Jake Butt | No. 4 Tight End
The top-3 tight end spots are basically spoken for by Noah Fant, Nick Vannett, and rookie Albert Okwuegbunam. If the team keeps four TEs, that last spot will be hotly contested.
Heuerman and Butt have the most team cache. Both are former John Elway draft picks and both have factored into the team's long-term plans at differing points over the years. Heuerman's contract is bloated while Butt's health remains in question but both will be given the chance to earn that fourth TE spot.
Diontae Spencer vs. Hamler/Cleveland | Return Specialist
Spencer is the incumbent punt returner but the Broncos really could use some production from this spot in 2020. Spencer has some upside but too often he made bad decisions with regard to fielding punts, although he was mostly solid and could be trusted to secure the kick.
Hamler is another human joystick while seventh-round WR Tyrie Cleveland has some upside in this department as well, especially as a kick returner. This battle might actually come down to Spencer vs. Cleveland and whichever can prove reliable to secure the catch and show the most twitch and explosiveness with the ball in his hand will get the job.
Royce Freeman vs. LeVante Bellamy | No. 3 Running Back
This will be a key battle because the attrition rate of the running back position is traditionally quite high. Odds are, at some point in the coming season, the injury bug will strike either Lindsay or Gordon (or both), requiring a reliable depth chart to step in and bridge the gap.
Freeman has the third-round draft pedigree but is lacking anything even remotely resembling momentum, while Bellamy is an undrafted rookie. At the end of the day, I see both of these backs making the 53-man roster but there will be a battle to determine which will be the first guy on the field in the event of an injury striking Lindsay or Gordon.
Push come to shove, I'm taking Freeman for more reasons than just his draft pedigree. He's an underrated receiver out of the backfield, even though he hasn't shown much twitch and explosiveness since the first half of his rookie season.