GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Fake games provide real impressions.Everyone wants young players to get more reps, intrigued, if not hypnotized by potential. The benefit of the unknown remains powerful. As the mystery fades, the reality can be sobering.
The Broncos young players need work. It doesn't mean they can’t and won’t help at some point – evidenced by every draft pick expected to make the final 53-man roster on Saturday. But in the desert where Cacti reside within eyeshot, NFL kids provided a reminder they aren’t Chia Pets. Apply water. Watch them grow. Their development is not predictable, not linear.
Denver’s final preseason game -- a 38-17 loss to Arizona -- provided a microcosm of the life of a prospect. Lynch looked, well, like a kid. He pushed the Broncos ahead with a 57-yard touchdown on his first pass – Jordan Taylor shed a tackle and ran to daylight – then stammered through nearly two quarters. Then late in the third, he illuminated skeptics. He ran outside for yards, drilled lasers over the middle, and kept throwing to that man again, Taylor. Then, as if to even out his assessment, Lynch threw a 29-yard pick six to linebacker Gabe Martin.
"They changed the coverage on him. He has to make a better decision with the ball. He continues to make great plays because of his ability, but it continues to be about consistency," said coach Gary Kubiak, who anticipates cutting the roster by 53 players by Friday, rather than wait for Saturday's 2 p.m. deadline. "The strides he's made have been very good."
Taylor eclipsed 100 yards before the fourth quarter, all but securing his roster spot with two touchdowns.
"Hopefully I did enough," Talyor said. "I am so much more comfortable now with the scheme."
Few other conclusions were as easy to draw.
Lynch (13 of 22 for 214 yards) raised hope and doubt that he’s ready to be one snap away in the opener as Trevor Siemian’s backup. Neither player has thrown an NFL pass.
"I am just going to keep doing my job. I am going to ready for whatever they need me to do," Lynch said.
Yet, this seems the most predictable route given the complications of keeping Mark Sanchez. Sanchez has made it clear to Broncos management he wants to stay. He reiterated that after Thursday's game. He has been open to a paycut, even as the team weighs cutting him to save $3.5 million and a seventh-round draft pick. The Broncos have reached out to multiple teams, finding no takers yet. Even if Sanchez returns to the Broncos after week one at a reduced rate, Denver would have to send the Eagles a draft pick. Sanchez should have resolution as soon as Friday.
"We are going to find out soon," Sanchez said.
Lynch made a case he could take snaps in more than “In case of emergency, break glass situation.” Through three quarters, he completed 12 of 19 passes for 205 yards. Kubiak keeps a keen eye on how players respond to adversity. Lynch stood in the pocket, absorbing multiple big hits without changing his mechanics or resolve. He stood out on a night when Kapri Bibbs made a strong push to make the final roster. Bibbs delivered a team-best 51 yards on 10 carries, but didn’t return after bruising his right thigh.
"I gave them a lot to think about it," said Bibbs, noting his improvement on special teams.
Though he only had three carries, Ronnie Hillman could still join him on the team given his change-of-pace speed. He boasted confidence after Thursday's game like a player who was on the team.
If Lynch’s play brought optimism, several other elements raised questions. Let’s start with the special teams. Perhaps no player was under more pressure Thursday than rookie Riley Dixon. The Broncos cut Britton Colquitt – he shared an emotional goodbye with teammates last week at the facility – over his salary. Colquitt said he would take $1 million less. The Broncos wanted a $1.6-million shave. They chose Dixon and his $530,000 salary, and he didn’t respond. He uncorked an 18-yard punt in the second quarter and averaged 37.4 yards on five punts. Kubiak said Dixon needs to be "better," but indicated he changed his technique at the behest of the coaches and that it didn't work.
Brandon McManus, who has had an erratic preseason, missed another field goal. He finished 5-for-8 in the preseason after going 30-for-35 a year ago.
"He has been good the last few weeks," Kubiak said.
Dixon holds appeared fine on McManus’ two attempts Thursday. For a team that will attempt to win ugly early in the season, McManus’ accuracy prompts concerns. So, too, does the Broncos offensive line depth. It’s lacking. Darrion Weems (concussion) is expected to start the season opener at right guard, Ty Sambrailo (right elbow) is making progress. The Broncos are vulnerable at guard and thin at tackle behind starters Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson.
Defensively, this game offered a series of disappointments. Beyond strong play from defensive lineman Darius Kilgo and linebacker Zaire Anderson, there was little to like. Cornerback Lorenzo Doss, so strong in training camp, looked lost in coverage. Rookie defensive lineman Adam Gotsis spent the night getting mauled at the point of attack. And Henry Melton hurt his knee, though it wasn’t serious.
The Broncos face tough choices for their final three-to-four spots. Injuries to receivers Bennie Fowler (elbow) and Cody Latimer (knee) and tight end Jeff Heuerman (hamstring) – all worked out in pregame – could clear a path for Taurean Nixon and Juwan Thompson to make it on special teams. Latimer and Heuerman said they could have played on Thursday, and Fowler remains optimistic he will be ready for the season opener.
The rehearsals are done. The roster will shrink to a more manageable size on Friday. Some dreams will be crushed. But only one matters: chasing another championship, a road that begins next Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers.