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Cuts finished, Broncos aim to end playoff drought with improved offense, elite D

Lock's play key to executing U-turn
Posted at 3:45 PM, Sep 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-06 14:42:40-04

DENVER -- For the past month, the Broncos traced the performance, effort and fit of players in the most unusual training camp in NFL history.

There were no preseason games to serve as moving days on the depth chart. No scrimmages before curious and loud fans. This summer was about staying safe, and turning practice evaluation into a final critique, not unlike in college.

The Broncos settled on their 53-man roster Saturday, featuring stories of resilience (tight end Jake Butt), emergence (undrafted cornerback Essang Bassey) and consistency (seventh-round receiver Tyrie Cleveland). With an improved offense, steered by quarterback Drew Lock, and the potential for an elite defense, the Broncos aim to end their four season playoff drought, while posting their first winning record since 2016.

"I still have confidence the offense can score a lot of points They have talent on that side, and had a good camp I think we’re explosive. I think with the youth we may see some inconsistencies. Hopefully, not too much," said Elway, more optimistic than he was before camp as Lock hit his stride over the final three days of workouts. "I like the players we have on the defensive side, their instincts. A.J. Johnson’s had a great camp (at linebacker). Plus, I like our ability to get after the quarterback.”

Broncos recap for 9/5/20

The most scrutinized decisions came at linebacker. The Broncos cut ties with four-year starter Todd Davis. Fangio believes Davis can still play, but beyond the veteran's $5 million salary, belief in Josey Jewell paved his exit. Multiple sources said Jewell was pushing to start even if Davis returned healthy from his calf injury. The Broncos will open with Johnson and Jewell at linebacker. As such, the Broncos were not inclined to keep Davis as a potential backup, especially after signing Mark Barron for coverage duties in sub packages and acquiring versatile Austin Cilatro from the Bengals.

"Barron has a lot of experience and he can move around and help us. Austin Cilatro started the last five games for Jacksonville last season. He can play the game and is a great special teamer," Elway said. "Josey had a really good camp as well as A.J. And Joe Jones played well, too."

Fangio faced a tough choice at cornerback. The Broncos spent the past five weeks trying to determine their best options at nickel. Devontae Harris created separation this week, and Bassey made the team with his strong practice reps.

Fangio said Bassey is even better in his first camp than Bryce Callahan was as an undrafted rookie in Chicago. Duke Dawson also finished strong, making DeVante Bausby, who played well before suffering a neck injury against the Chargers last season, expendable. The ability to play special teams also helped Harris and Bassey, who gives the Broncos an undrafted rookie free agent on their 53-man roster for the 16th time in the past 17 years.

"You can see if a guy has instincts. He showed that," Fangio said. "We let (Bassey) work with the first team the other day, and it wasn’t too big for him."

The first week of September boasts a flurry of feel-good stories in the NFL. Few are better than Butt's rebound. Viewed as a longshot to stick before camp because of knee issues, the former Michigan star looked like a different player this summer, more closely resembling the star he was in college. He ran crisp routes, never missed a practice and showed toughness in 11-on-11 blocking drills. Can Butt withstand the bumps and bruises of an NFL season? That is the question. But, he has earned the right to try.

"I have not seen him limp once. He hasn't been in the training room. He's had a terrific camp, not just playing wise, but he's actually 100 percent healthy," Fangio said. "He's moving around good, you'd never know he had the injuries with his knees. He looks as good as new to me."

The housekeeping items over, the focus shifts to the Monday night opener against the Titans. Tennessee reached the AFC Championship Game last season, making a surprising postseason run. The Broncos would like to mirror those results and it starts with a revamped offense. Denver averaged 15 points before Lock and 21 with him in his five starts last season.

The offense added receivers Jerry Jeudy, in line to start as a rookie, and K.J. Hamler, who will not begin on the injured reserve as his strained hamstring is almost healed.

After a concerning stretch in training camp, bottoming out in last Saturday's scrimmage, the offense found its traction last week. It was highlighted by an alarmingly efficient performance by Lock in Friday's stadium practice.

"I think Drew was a little inconsistent (in camp), but that's what we expect. You have to get challenged. You have to have bad days in practice. How you bounce back from them is important. You learn from those days," Elway said. "I think he had a really nice last night, finishing camp strong."

Added Fangio, "I am excited to see where it goes. I am not going to put a floor or ceiling on it. I like the roster and if you can get it going — I think we’ve got the ability to throw it, and I think we’ve got the ability to run it."

For the defense to become elite, Von Miller must rebound. He appears poised for greatness after adding strength and muscle this offseason, while becoming a more assertive leader. Having the offense secure some leads and Bradley Chubb on the opposite side would help Miller. Chubb, 11 months removed from ACL surgery on his left knee, will be eased back into the mix, and will be on a play count if he plays against the Titans.

"He’s not 100% yet,” Fangio said. “We’ll just see how it goes."