DENVER — Fake games can give real impressions. The NFL preseason has evolved from a Lord of the Flies battle for supremacy to a delicate balance of scant starter snaps and a gaggle of backups competing for a few roster spots.
Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson will not play vs the Cowboys on Saturday night, joining a long list of starters watching from the sideline.
Hackett has leaned into relationships, teaching and technology as a first-time head coach. He dove headfirst into analytics to form his training camp plan of two days on, third day light day. He has emphasized mental reps in jog throughs. In the end, he has prioritized health — "that's all that matters," he said — while believing the half-speed reps can create muscle memory to prepare the players not only for the opener at Seattle on Sept. 12, but for the 17-game marathon.
"They really have done a good job. Again, you’re always hoping that the guys — when something goes wrong —are the ones that want to correct it, they’re the ones that feel those mistakes, and they’re the ones that want to get the extra rep. We’re trying to make everything perfect," Hackett said. "If you can’t walkthrough it perfect, how do you expect to do it on a field perfect? Like I’ve said in the past, the amount of reps they get — when we split the field, so everything you do is doubled. I think it’s been really, really good."
Hackett saw this plan work in Green Bay, and the Rams have patented not playing starters in August. That said, Hackett is new to this job, and he has first-time defensive (Ejiro Evero) and special teams coordinators (Dwayne Stukes). Evero explained there is no better teaching tool than gameday experience. I have advocated that Wilson should play 2-3 series this preseason just so the first time he's talking with Hackett in his helmet in a stadium is not at rabid Lumen Field.
I asked coach about it.
"I was just in his headset for about 55 plays in this practice that we had (Wednesday), so I think he’s heard my voice quite a bit. I’m not really worried about that," said Hackett, hinting that if Wilson plays at all this preseason, it will be sparingly.
Even with most high-profile players in sweats, there remains plenty at stake for young players and backups.
My Denver7 Things to Watch in the 7 p.m. opener vs. the Cowboys at Empower Field At Mile High:
With Tim Patrick (torn right ACL, surgery complete) lost for the season, it opens up one spot at receiver and leaves several vying for a fifth. Two starters are set in former Pro Bowler Courtland Sutton, who has stepped up in Patrick's absence, and 2020 first-round pick Jerry Jeudy, who needs to demonstrate consistency to realize his potential. K.J. Hamler (hip/knee) believes he will be ready for the season opener as the team proceeds cautiously with practice and maintenance rest days.
Rookie Montrell Washington has opened eyes in camp. Drafted in the fifth round to serve as the punt returner, Washington continues to make big plays in the passing game. He is a favorite to win a roster spot, but can he show in the preseason he's more than a special teams weapon? As for a fifth receiver, Kendall Hinton shows improvement daily and will be hard to beat out. But there are plenty of candidates including Jalen Virgil, who has made several big plays, Brandon Johnson, a long, rangy target, Seth Williams, the 2021 sixth-rounder who is gaining traction, former Packer Darrius Shepherd, Trey Quinn and Kaden Davis, the first player on the practice field every day.
The ability to play special teams could be the determining factor for the final receiver to make the team.
Outside looking in
Well, hello, Nik Bonitto. The Broncos' second-round pick was experiencing an uneven training camp. Then the Cowboys showed up and he showed out. He could have had as many as four sacks in Thursday's scrimmage. He seemed to be trailing Baron Browning for reps, but that is no longer the case. Some rookies play better when the lights are brighter. Is Bonitto that guy? He and Browning should get plenty of time vs Dallas. Remember, Randy Gregory, who was in the middle of every skirmish on Thursday yelling at his former teammates, is supposed to return for the Seattle game. Even if he does, he will likely be on a play count, meaning he and Bradley Chubb will need to be spelled by Malik Reed and Browning or Bonitto.
By Josh By Gosh
If Wilson misses time, the Broncos' chance of ending their streak of five straight losing seasons and six years without a playoff berth nose dives. But Wilson requires a backup. Josh Johnson, after a clunky start to the summer, hit his stride last week. He throws a beautiful deep pass, and is a plus in any locker room. Rypien lacks Johnson's arm strength, but has been more accurate. Rypien is considered a coach in uniform. Both will play plenty vs. the Cowboys.
The Broncos secondary aims to rank as tops in the league — health willing. With K'Waun Williams working back from a knee injury and Ronald Darby sidelined with a chest contusion, the Broncos' backups have been picked on. Michael Ojemudia and slot Essang Bassey have shown flashes, but must become more steady. Rookie Damarri Mathis is starting to show real progress understanding the zone scheme after playing press coverage in college. Keep an eye on him.
Oline, fine line
The Broncos starting offensive line could use some reps this preseason as Hackett introduces the new outside zone run scheme. While Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon might not play in the exhibition games, Mike Boone should after getting four carries last season. A backup lineman to watch? Center Luke Wattenberg and possibly guard Graham Glasgow, who is returning from a nasty ankle injury. Among the runningbacks looking to turn heads: former Pomona High legend Max Borghi, Stevie Scott and JaQuan Hardy.
The Broncos boast two stalwart safeties in Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. Who will secure spots behind them. Caden Sterns has real potential and is healthy. If he can stay on the field, he offers strong depth. P.J. Locke has had strong camp, leaving Jamar Johnson chasing a roster spot.
Special teams battles
Stukes admitted that this game is huge for young players. He has created a new mentality on special teams. He is looking for core guys who want to be physical. And will a punting competition develop? Sam Martin is the solid incumbent. Corliss Waitman has had some booming punts. Can he do it in a game to make this an interesting battle? We should find out Saturday night.