Englewood, Co.—The last training camp practice open to the public concluded on Thursday morning at UCHealth Training Center. Over the past few weeks, Denver Broncos fans witnessed multiple frustrating days from the team's top two quarterbacks, peppered with a few 'wow' moments from dynamic players on both sides of the ball.
I find myself having mixed feelings when I evaluate Broncos camp 2021. On one hand, there were significant improvements made in the QB room. Drew Lock has demonstrated maturity and improvement for most of camp, while his teammate Teddy Bridgewater stayed true to his nickname (‘Steady Teddy’) most days.
Both signal-callers ultimately put their teammates in a position for success in the joint practices last week with the Minnesota Vikings ahead of their preseason bout. Head coach Vic Fangio’s defense has often destroyed practice which should ultimately excite fans and produce big expectations this season.
The Pro Bowl pass-rushing duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are projected to wreak havoc in the AFC West and make opposing QBs like Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert very uncomfortable in the pocket. The NFL’s highest-paid safety (until recently) Justin Simmons has logged at least a half a dozen interceptions, while his rookie teammate Patrick Surtain II has already made his presence felt with a pick-six last Saturday night in Minnesota.
Then there’s the filled-to-the-brim receiving corps, a stacked running back room, and flashy tight end expectations due to the talented young players like Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, KJ Hamler, Melvin Gordon, and Noah Fant. It’s been years since I’ve seen the Denver offense so stacked at the skill positions to support a strong offensive line intent on running the ball.
Other players like WR Trinity Benson, RB Javonte Williams, and TE Albert Okwuegbunam have burst onto the scene, undoubtedly earning playing time in the regular season, and are challenging incumbent starters for valuable reps.
Thursday’s practice was very light and, in all truthfulness, had the feeling of a walk-through in preparation for Saturday night’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. It’s time to tie a big red bow on the QB competition and reflect on some of my biggest Broncos camp observations from the last three weeks.
Lock: The only real standout moment of camp today came when Lock started with the first-string offense against the scout team defense. For the first time in practice, Broncos defenders donned blue practice jerseys, replicating the Seattle defenders that will be seen this Saturday night.
While this may not sound like groundbreaking news, the optics suggest Lock is preparing to be the QB to face Seattle’s front seven and possibly beyond. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Fangio announce Lock as the starter before Saturday and reverse his decision last week to start Teddy for the second preseason game.
If we’re being honest, neither QB has put a stranglehold on this job. Strong days featuring impressive highs have been followed up by lows: rinse and repeat. However, going 5-of-7 for 151 yards and two touchdowns in preseason Game 1 gave Lock the confidence that he needed. Some might say he already had ‘swag’ but it’s important to recognize that confidence wins your teammates over in the locker room and ultimately football games.
After Tuesday’s abysmal outing from the incumbent, Lock bounced back with an impressive Wednesday practice demonstrating precision, a sense of urgency, and command of the offense. On Thursday, Lock continued to demonstrate a dramatically increased comfortability in the offense as the former second-round pick had full control. Lock's increased level of awareness to recognize multiple defensive fronts and schemes has proven that the Missouri native indeed put in the mental reps this offseason.
For the first time in his career, Lock was challenged when Bridgewater was acquired via trade last April. The transaction supported Broncos' GM George Paton’s declaration that there would be competition for the starting QB.
Lock responded to the pressure by showing his coaches and teammates a renewed energy, maturity, and mentality. That’s not to say Drew has been perfect in camp, as I’ve previously reported, there have been multiple ho-hum days with interceptions and old habits rearing their ugly head at times.
But Lock should be named the starting QB. His mobility and athleticism allow him to maximize the talents of his teammates. Lock plays best when operating play-action passes and has shown an increased football acumen, revealing a new awareness on the field. He's able to play loose when improvising, and while I fully expect him to struggle somewhat this season, every QB in the NFL does.
Lock has not been supplanted as the starting QB at Broncos camp. He’s been pushed and challenged, no doubt, so much so that I reported on Monday that OC Pat Shurmur pulled him from live 7-on-7 drills. While many in the Denver media were quick to reveal opposing narratives, the optics suggest that the Broncos care about Lock’s perception and image. Meaning, he has value to the franchise that’s seemingly willing to ride with him for at least one more season.
Will Lock finally reveal himself to be the QB that football president John Elway drafted three years ago? Broncos Country is hoping it'll be able to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the season and say 'better late than never' when it comes to Lock.
Bridgewater: We’ve all heard the nicknames including ‘Teddy-Two Gloves,’ and ‘Teddy Covers.’ While they may be cute and somewhat accurate, make no mistake about it, Bridgewater can play football.
He’s not only held in high esteem around the league but has become a beloved teammate in the Denver locker room. At practice, Teddy can usually be observed coaching up younger players and is likely to be talking scheme with veteran DBs like Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Kyle Fuller, and Bryce Callahan.
Bridgewater knows Shurmur’s offense, and it's finally time to put to bed the false narrative that he can’t throw a deep ball. The team previously released a video last week in joint practice that revealed the absolute dime Teddy delivered to KJ Hamler, which was eerily similar to Lock’s 80-yard touchdown to Hamler in last week’s preseason game.
Bridgewater is an NFL quarterback for crying out loud. They all have strong arms at this level, and while Bridgewater’s arm strength is significantly lesser than Lock’s, he has the mechanics and ability to make every throw on an NFL field.
On Thursday, Bridgewater operated the offense much as he has all camp, with confidence and focus. There’s no doubt that he’s familiar with Shurmur’s playbook and has the acumen to manipulate defenders in the passing game. His energy, including his new 'bounce around' in the pre-huddle, has become infectious, with O-line teammates Dalton Risner and Garett Bolles embracing the QB's energy.
But turnovers have largely plagued Bridgewater’s performance in camp. While it’s important to note that not every interception is the same, there were some ugly passes that were off-target or the result of poor decision-making that harmed his stock in practice. I’ve previously speculated that Fangio prefers Teddy as the veteran QB so as not to lose football games and empower his stacked defense.
I’d hope that in his third year as head coach, though, Fangio would realize the safer option at QB doesn’t win football games. Especially with an offense that hasn’t averaged over 18 points in consecutive years. Opposing teams know what to prepare for against Bridgewater, and if the short-to-intermediate options are taken away, I become concerned about the potential of Shurmur’s offense.
Broncos Country should expect to see Bridgewater start this season. After the league approved a 17-game regular season, the probability of the Broncos having to use both QBs at some point climbed. The long, grueling haul of the season rarely allows QBs to play in every game, let alone stringing together 17 consecutive starts. Right now, Teddy is a better QB than Lock but that could be largely in part because he’s played longer.
While it might sound like I'm predicted the eventual benching of Lock after just proclaiming he should be designated as the starter, I'm not. All I'm saying is, considering the new length of the season, and Lock's injury history, it’s only a matter of time before Broncos Country sees Teddy under center on Sundays.
The question is, will Bridgewater’s start come at the expense of Lock, or will it be relief of him due to injury?
2021 Camp MVP: Jerry Jeudy | WR
Jeudy has silenced all his critics, including me, with his outstanding training camp performance day in and day out. After being selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft (pick No. 15), there was the presumption that he would immediately step into the NFL and dominate as an elite route runner. However, his 10 drops garnered intense criticism for the 22-year-old.
There may have been one dropped pass from Jeudy in all of training camp, and as I feverishly reviewed my notes for this article, it’s hard to say whose fault it was. In essence, Jeudy has caught everything thrown his way regardless of the QB throwing him the ball, including third-stringer Brett Rypien. The Florida native brought contagious energy to an offense that has been asleep at the wheel for years.
Just ask the Vikings tasked with guarding Jeudy every day last week. The second-year wideout has consistently put DBs on skates in the open field showing his famed route running, agility, and playmaking ability. While he’s known for being a technically sound wideout, it’ll be nice to see him play meaningful football games compared to some of the dancing he’s done to shake defenders off the line in practice.
The best part of Jeudy’s camp performance has been his consistency, though. Every single day he suited up and worked hard for his team. While other teammates took veteran days and limited snap count reps, Jeudy quietly chipped away, earning him the title of training camp’s most valuable player.
Shurmur Empowers his Offense
One of the biggest surprises in Broncos training camp for me came in the form of Shurmur’s play calls. The second-year coach seemingly changed his scheme last offseason to better support the talents and strengths of Denver’s current personnel.
For example, Shurmur was often criticized last year for his stale and expected use of formations usually coming in the form of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). This year, he’s introduced a variety of packages to not only support the passing game but build a rushing attack as well.
Complementary football is a term that’s no stranger to Fangio. The third-year head coach uses the term nearly every press conference when referring to the offense. But what does that look like for Shurmur’s offense?
Expect to see an overwhelming dose of ground-and-pound football, reminiscent of the good ole days in which Broncos ball-carriers turned out 1,000-yard seasons on a regular basis. RBs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams have looked strong in practice, though Gordon is recovering from a groin injury but still practiced this week.
Then there’s still Royce Freeman, who’s hanging around after having a consistent camp and will likely make the team while Mike Boone recovers from a quad injury. I’m telling you, Broncos Country, you will fall in love with the team's second-round draft pick from North Carolina. Nicknamed ‘Pookie,’ Williams has not only developed chemistry among coaches and teammates but from the most important group on his side of the ball — the offensive line.
With an NFL top-100 and All-Pro LT in Garett Bolles and a former second-round pick LG Dalton Risner, the Broncos' O-Line looks dominant. Not to mention the new and improved center Lloyd Cushenberry III, who’s gained at least 10 pounds of muscle in addition to the wealth of knowledge gleaned from RG Graham Glasgow this offseason.
Finally, the Broncos can breathe a sigh of relief in having an unresolved competition between two good players in Bobby Massie and Calvin Anderson at the right tackle position. While the starter has yet to be announced for RT, I’ve observed Anderson taking the majority of the starting reps this week, with Massie still rotating in. I’m not 100 percent sold that the position battle is over between the two players, so it's something fans should keep an eye on against Seattle.
Shurmur has had a rough start in Denver, to say the least. Through play calls, unfavorable press conferences, and ultimately coordinating an inept offense, the veteran coach didn’t do himself any favors in 2020.
But in this year’s training camp, it feels as if there’s been a 180-degree turnaround in the offensive philosophy. Eliminating turnovers, controling the clock by running the ball, and getting the ball in the hands of the numerous number of playmakers that Denver has acquired seems to be the priority for Shurmur’s new-look offense.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.
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