The Denver Broncos entered the 2020 NFL Draft with three third-round picks. The first was CB Michael Ojemudia, while the last was DL McTelvin Agim.
Sandwiched in between was OL Lloyd Cushenberry out of LSU. The Broncos let Connor McGovern, the man who'd started their last 23 games a center, depart in free agency, leaving a gaping hole at the pivot point on the offensive line.
Patrick Morris, a carryover from 2019 and one of Mike Munchak's pet projects, was the next-best option the Broncos had — that was until Cushenberry was drafted. Cushenberry's collegiate career was prolific and he ended it by blocking for the Heisman Trophy winner — now Cincinnati Bengals' QB Joe Burrow — and winning a National Championship for his alma mater.
At 6-foot-3, 312 pounds, Cushenberry has the size to hold up at center in the NFL, with long arms (for a center) and big hands that provide a powerful punch. In a traditional offseason, fans would have a solid bead on this rookie but with the entirety of the Offseason Training Program canceled by a pandemic, only now is buzz beginning to emanate on him from Dove Valley.
On Thursday, Broncos starting left guard Dalton Risner took to the virtual podium. Risner provided insight on multiple topics, including a potential position change, and the 2020 outlook for Garett Bolles and Drew Lock.
Among the topics, Risner dished on his initial impressions of Cushenberry. Suffice to say, the rookie has raised some eyebrows (in a good way).
"Lloyd Cushenberry has been extremely impressive," Risner said on Thursday. "You can tell that he knows his stuff. I wanted to think that I came in and I had it down really, really quick, but that guy has it down really quick."
One of the quickest ways to ingratiate oneself within the hallowed brotherhood of a professional O-line room is to provide refreshments and nootropics. Such is the rite of passage for most NFL rookies. Bringing snacks and chewing tobacco to the meeting room goes a long way towards establishing a bond with the veterans.
"He’s getting it and he’s making sure we’ve got some snacks in the O-line room," Risner said. "He’s had some dip for me as well, so I really appreciate him for that (laughs). He’s doing a heck of a job and he’s got a lot of talent."
Those film sessions can be dark after all, and a few extra calories, maybe a little sugar, and some nicotine can provide the boost these big fellas need to stay focused and sharp. PSA: Kids, stay away from chewing tobacco.
Cushenberry's football IQ and commitment to his craft have made an impression on his new teammates but as a second-year pro, Risner has been around long enough to know that only so much can be gleaned about a guy without the pads on — especially for O-linemen.
"It’s kind of hard right now because we don’t have helmets on," Risner said. "We’re kind of going through walk-throughs and trying to get the plays down, so it’s kind of hard before you get padded up. I think he will be a really good player for us.”
Although Cushenberry won't be handed the starting center job, it's a relatively safe bet at this stage to pencil him in. He'll have to vie with Morris for the right to snap to Lock this coming season.
I say 'pencil' and not 'sharpie' because no one has a crystal ball and there's no way to predict exactly how each rookie will acclimate to the NFL and at what pace. But based on what we already knew about Cushenberry, and now what we're hearing from Risner, I doubt the rookie will be vanquished by Morris in an open competition, even though Morris is a Munchak acolyte and even though Cushenberry hasn't had the traditional offseason reps.
Both Cushenberry and Morris are learning a new offensive system, though there will be some carry-over in the blocking philosophy with Munchak entering his second year as the Broncos' O-line Coach. That continuity might give Morris a slight advantage but it's not too tall an obstacle to overcome.
The pads won't go on for another week or so. From there, the Broncos will have to work furiously to get into fighting shape in time for the season-opener vs. the Tennessee Titans on September 14. Cushenberry still has a long fight ahead of him to win the center job.