Englewood, Colo.— An NFL training camp is not for the faint of heart. Camp practices may not feature the grueling two-a-days from yesteryear, nor are they replete with snot-rattling hits or tackling-to-the-ground, but the three-week window for teams to shape the identity of their respective 53-man rosters cannot be overlooked.
Just as the 2022 Denver Broncos are learning the ropes of new head coach Nathaniel Hackett’s style, coaching, and even schedule, so are we. Hackett’s practice schedule thus far has been very player-friendly, with veterans and starters in favor of the less labor-intensive ‘dog days’ compared to the utter waste of time in the sun in seasons past. It’s all about learning for this current Broncos squad, but by no means does that excuse away missed assignments, mental errors, or lackadaisical effort.
On Thursday morning, the Broncos took the practice field for a strong day of work that closely resembled scrimmage or game speed since next week will mark the beginning of the team's joint-practice sessions with the Dallas Cowboys. The preseason is right around the corner.
So how did the players respond to a hard day’s work in full pads? Here are my key observations from watching every second of Broncos camp, Day 7.
Wilson's TE Mythbusting | Servant Leadership
NFL fans should cherish the chance to see a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback vigorously working on improving his own performance on the field. To be honest, some NFL QBs have already settled into the narrative that they’ve 'arrived,' forcing teams to put study clauses in their contracts to ensure the work gets done.
Others have continued to lean into the strengths that propelled them into the league, relying on raw athleticism, speed, and unsustainable playmaking abilities as time marches on.
Then there’s nine-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson, who’s still going through drop-back and footwork drills with teammates Brett Rypien and Josh Johnson. Sure, Wilson could probably skip some of these warm-ups or the stretching period altogether, but when Wilson says "let’s ride," it’s more than a catchphrase (Keenan Allen).
It's an example of servant leadership. The distinguished QB, sees leadership as an opportunity to serve his team and continue strengthening that trust.
It'd be easy for Wilson to work on slant and go routes all day — things he’s already perfected in Seattle throughout his illustrious career, but instead, he’s asking for the gauntlet to be thrown his way, and the Broncos' coaches have obliged by creating a pressure-filled environment during team period.
Through more than a week of training camp, Wilson has dispelled the notion that he will not utilize the tight end position, as I explained in Day 7’s training camp journal. He’s also being tasked with utilizing the middle of the field, which has not been a strong suit up to this point in his career.
But who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks? Wilson isn't exactly old (turning 34 this fall), but as a 10-year vet, he's viewed by younger teammates as an older veteran.
While the specifics of camp practice prohibit the disclosure of everything that’s going on at UCHealth Training Center, I can tell you this: there’s nothing "corny" about an All-Pro using his own vulnerabilities to improve.
OL Quinn Meinerz Poised to Start at RG
It might be the second week of training camp, but the Broncos' starting offensive line has begun to reveal itself. Headed into camp, the proposed battle at right guard between a second-year Meinerz and a third-year Netane Muti had all the buzz and makings for a good competition.
But as we inched farther into the summer, it's abundantly clear that the outside zone running scheme aligns much more with ‘The Belly’ at right guard. The Broncos drafted the 23-year-old Meinerz in the third round out of Wisconsin-Whitewater after I scouted his monstrous performance at the Senior Bowl that offseason.
He quickly became a fan favorite for his authenticity, half-shirts, and quirkiness in interviews but earned the respect of his teammates and coaches as a road-grader on the field. In his rookie season, Meinerz played in 15 games and earned nine total starts on the season, in addition to racking up some ‘Angry Runs’ recognition from NFL Network.
But rather than falling back on his newfound celebrity status, the blue-collar lineman dedicated himself in the weight room and kitchen, losing 10-to-15 pounds of fat to transition from a power blocking scheme to Hackett's outside zone. Meinerz had some rough reps against DL Dre’Mont Jones earlier in camp but has come back with a vengeance to prove he can be counted on to help protect Wilson and pave the way for RB Javonte Williams in 2022.
Meinerz has utilized exceptional leverage, footwork, and agility to match the delicate timing that the new outside zone run scheme demands. Rather than raw power and mauling, this new-look offense depends on timing, and all five linemen being in synch for each running play. Rather than frantically climbing to the second level to take on linebackers, this scheme is based on blasting off the ball, moving laterally, and fundamental assignments beginning with the D-line.
Muti hasn’t had a poor camp in the least bit. The former Fresno State standout has seen reps at both guard positions and will absolutely make this team. Even starting left guard Dalton Risner said on Wednesday that Muti has been pushing him.
The bigger issue will be whether Muti can make an immediate impact in emergency situations when one of his teammates succumbs to sidelined time.
Can Trench Players Thrive Without One-on-One Drills?
I was about five feet from Hackett last Saturday when he explained his dismay for seven-on-seven and one-on-one drills in training camp, let alone practice. At the time I thought that Hackett’s answer was refreshingly honest, but I wasn’t quite sure how to take it.
He’s right in the sense that football is a team game with all 11 players working towards the same goal as a unit, so why focus on one-on-one situations when it's such a collective endeavor?
Then I started speaking with friends off the record who have played in the trenches of the NFL. The main concern, at least from the point of view of former offensive and defensive linemen, is that there’s no better replication of pressure than the live bullets flying from these routine drills.
Without full 100-percent padded plays, is it realistic to expect these players to automatically gel with the same gameday intensity as their opponents? I’m not sure.
It’s a delicate line to walk as a coaching staff in the modern NFL, especially in training camp with the realistic fear of injuries or in-fighting. Receivers and defensive backs can better emulate game-day scenarios without getting physical hands on one another, but what about the battle in the trenches?
Don’t get me wrong; it was very nice to see some physical contact in team period on Thursday. However, in the wake of the season-ending injuries to WR Tim Patrick and RB Damarea Crockett earlier this week, player health is at the forefront of everyone’s mind during practice. The boundaries are marked by either practicing too much or not enough, depending on who you ask and on which day.
Time will tell whether Hackett’s new practice philosophies will champion and promote a healthy, tough, and winning product on gameday.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.
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