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Broncos Camp Notebook | Day 7: TEs Step Up to Bridge the Tim Patrick Gap

What did we learn from Day 7 of Broncos Camp?

Englewood, Colo. — When Broncos Country awoke this morning, it hoped that losing starting WR Tim Patrick to a torn ACL had been just a bad dream. 

On Wednesday, the Denver Broncos marched on, taking the practice field for the second week of training camp without No. 81, whose season was lost after he made a phenomenal catch on a back-shoulder fade that was followed by an unfortunate step, collapse, and torn ACL.

The 2022 Broncos are facing their first test of adversity in the wake of Patrick’s devastating injury. I detailed in my Day 6 camp notebook how the energy of practice changed on Tuesday following the strike of the injury bug, and a contagious wave of fear and distraction swept through UCHealth Training Center.

As harsh as it may sound, the NFL is truly about adaptation, so this is truly a next-man up scenario. The work cannot stop for first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett and his team. 

If the injury had happened in the first quarter of a football game, the rest of the contest would still need to be played along with the original mission of obtaining victory.

With that said, how'd the team look on Day 7? Let’s review my key observations from Wednesday's practice session. 

Hackett Didn’t Flinch in Wake of Patrick’s Injury

It would’ve been easy and completely justifiable for a first-year head coach to rein in practice after QB Russell Wilson’s most reliable target suffered a season-ending injury. The nerves, fear, and overall tone of practice turned from jovial to extremely cautious, yet the Broncos starting offense and defense continued to work in team and positional periods.

Wednesday morning’s practice was no different. While the workload of 100-percent maximum effort was not the goal for Day 7, players were coached to focus intensely on the installation details, plays, and their respective assignments. The morning as a whole operated smoothly and without hesitation from a team that has averaged approximately six to seven wins per year over the last half-decade.

Had the unforeseen injuries to Patrick and running back Damarea Crockett, who also tore his ACL on Day 6 and is out for the season, occurred under the watch of ex-head coaches Vance Joseph or Vic Fangio, perhaps all hope would have been lost. But this is the NFL, for crying out loud. 

Even Wilson, known as ‘Mr. Unlimited,' was sidelined last season with a finger injury. There's not a single player in the league who manages to avoid the vagaries of the injury bug completely.

Team drills were still carried out on Wednesday, as players and coaches alike are creatures of habit. The mantra of Hackett’s coaching staff has been that of educators, mainly teaching players the ins and outs of offense, defense, and special teams. 

Wednesday, however, it was also clear that the young coaching staff is also there to guide and assist players through the uncertain anxiety of losing a locker room leader of Patrick's magnitude. Day 7's lighter, 'jog-through' pace wasn’t a reaction to Patrick’s injury, but instead a methodical decision to emulate a regular-season game week.

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Tight Ends Will Compensate for Patrick’s Loss

Honestly, I wasn’t sure how the tight ends would look for the Broncos headed into training camp. Starting TE Noah Fant was dealt to Seattle as part of the Wilson trade, leaving Albert Okwuegbunam as the prime candidate to start in Denver.

Through seven days, ‘Albert O.’ has been working on transitioning to Hackett’s new-look offense. Okwuegbunam has shown flashes during team periods, but it's been mixed with mental errors and missed assignments at times.

This year’s training camp has been all about the 28-year-old Eric Saubert, who’s making a strong case for a starting position right now. A 2017 fifth-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, Saubert spent time with multiple teams before landing in Denver last season.

Saubert had a good training camp last summer, and I can remember him dunking the football and prodding starting safety Kareem Jackson after a nice score. Saubert has caught nearly every ball thrown his way and understands the fundamentals and details of his blocking assignments.

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Then there’s Eric Tomlinson, another NFL journeyman tight end. He was originally undrafted out of UTEP in 2015 and has become a reliable special teams player in the league.

However, there’s been nothing journeyman-esque about Tomlinson's diving catches in team period, drawing attention from teammates and fans alike. Nor has there been anything boring about his 100-percent, all-out effort on every play, which has been highlighted particularly in the running game.

Tomlinson has set the edge multiple times in addition to sliding over for additional pass protection.

Over the last two days, rookie third-round pick Greg Dulcich has transitioned nicely from the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list into practice after battling a hamstring injury. His route running, while limited, has been smooth, and he’s been very locked into what Wilson is expecting of him in both team and positional drills. There are many reasons for excitement about Dulcich, but right now, the rookie appears to be learning the NFL ropes.

All of the above-mentioned tight ends saw reps with the starting offense on Wednesday. In a multitude of formations with variations in personnel, it could be speculated that tight-end utilization could benefit the Broncos' offense, and help to mitigate the sting of losing Patrick.

Patrick wasn’t just an offensive playmaker for this team — he was a Swiss Army Knife, willing to do whatever his team asked of him, whether that meant blocking in the run game or chasing down punts/kicks on special teams.

Lloyd Cushenberry Poised for a Breakout

The second week of NFL training camps is usually a better indication of how offensive and defensive linemen are performing in practice. Without shells, pads, or whatever we want to call those funny black pads on the helmets these days, the big men of the trenches are cautioned ad nauseam not to engage one another at 100%. 

After all, these men are big, powerful, and sometimes the most sensitive of personalities. But where does Denver's 24-year-old center stand in the team's current offensive line room with new position coach Butch Barry?

Cushenberry, a former 2020 third-round pick out of LSU, was immediately thrown into the fire as a rookie and finished his greenhorn year by taking every single snap and starting all 16 games. The man could be seen identifying tut the ‘Mike, Will, and Sam’ linebackers pre-snap former QB Drew Lock. ‘Cush’ continued his streak of reliability by starting 16-of-17 games last season, giving him a wealth of on-the-job training as an NFL center.

Through seven practices this summer, Cushenberry has looked like a different player. The 6-foot-3, 312-pound Louisiana native has shown an advanced level of comprehension in Hackett’s new-look offense. Cushenberry is prepared, always the first member of the O-line to hustle over for team drills, and looks more confident than ever. 

The third-year center has also shown some increased strength and a level of attitude and aggression that should be a welcomed sight for Broncos Country. Despite being known for being humble, reserved, polite, and extremely intelligent, I’ve witnessed Cushenberry pancake multiple defenders in both running plays and pass protection sets over the past week. 

That’s right, folks, your starting center has a newfound mean streak. While he’s hardly the second coming of Ryan Jensen in terms of scrappiness after the whistle, Cushenberry has played with a heightened sense of intensity and pressure thus far. 

After all, Cushenberry has been preparing to snap footballs to Wilson as the only O-lineman in attendance at the veteran quarterback's offseason throwing camps in San Diego, which featured most of the Broncos' receivers and tight ends. The fruits of Cushenberry's labor have been revealed thus far in training camp.

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