How Broncos rookies can make an impact this season
Jul 19, 2023, 2:24 PM
(Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Broncos training camp doesn’t officially begin until July 28, but for the rookies, the orientation and preparation began Wednesday when they reported to Centura Health Training Center for work.
They’ll go about their business quietly, of course. But the extra time will give them a further chance to show their potential readiness. Broncos coach Sean Payton speaks often of the “vision” for each player; what happens in the next six weeks will help show whether the vision is a mirage or a realistic path.
Every player will get a look. But for the draftees and rookie free agents, their paths to contributing this year are different.
WR MARVIN MIMS JR.
THE PATH: Become the punt returner and show deep playmaking ability on offense
There’s a paved road for him to be the Broncos’ punt returner, if he can earn the job. But an OTA injury delayed his initial progress.
“We’re anxious to see Mims,” assistant head coach Mike Westhoff said. “He’s been a little bit banged up in these camps, and we want to make sure he’s back healthy. We want to get the kicker-punter thing all squared away. So, there’s a few things that we have to get worked on.”
On offense, he and KJ Hamler could be fighting for one spot as the Broncos’ vertical-speed threat. Health — or, to be more accurate, the projection of health this season — could end up a deciding factor if Mims can take the top off of a defense.
“He’s someone that can play at ‘Z.’ He can play at ‘X,'” Payton said in April. “He brings an element of speed you can feel on tape.”
LB DREW SANDERS
THE PATH: Show indispensable versatility
As noted earlier this week, the Broncos have a capable pair of inside linebackers. And the strength of Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton lies in their chemistry. But Sanders could be a plus player in pass-rush scenarios right away. If he can translate his burst to the training-camp field, he’ll earn some rotational snaps.
CB RILEY MOSS
THE PATH: Stand out from the young crowd at CB
Moss’ physical gifts are impressive. But Damarri Mathis — a fourth-round pick last year, so, thus, someone with a comparable draft value — has a year under his belt. Mathis’ steady improvement also made Ronald Darby expendable in the wake of his torn ACL last season. Further, Ja’Quan McMillian showed plenty of promise in last year’s season finale and appeared to pick up where he left off during OTAs. Mathis and McMillian probably have a leg up on Moss, but if the rookie can be around the ball and generate takeaways, he’ll have a road to playing time.
Moss has versatility, but as Payton said after the draft, the “clear vision” for the Iowa product is at cornerback.
“All the numbers, prototype—we loved the make-up,” Payton said in April after trading up for Moss. “We spent as much time on this player because this was one of these players that we felt like in the very beginning was going to be one of these decisions. Sure enough, he was.”
S JL SKINNER
THE PATH: Excel on special teams and show some thump on defense
A torn pectoral suffered in workouts leading up to the Combine sidelined the Boise State product. However, he is expected to be cleared for training camp, although the Broncos may choose to ease him back up to speed during the initial practices. When pads go on, Skinner should have a chance to show his strength, particularly in diagnosing runs and screen passes.
“The first thing you see is the size. He’s almost 6-4,” general manager George Paton said after the draft. “Then the athletic ability for that size. We thought was unique. The short-area quickness, the range and you see the ball skills on tape. The thing that really sticks out is his physicality and playing downhill in the run game.”
Special teams will be vital for him. To make the 53, he will need to dislodge P.J. Locke, Delarrin Turner-Yell — or both. They project to have extensive special-teams roles, and if Skinner is to stick, he’ll need to be a plus player there, too.
C ALEX FORSYTH
THE PATH: Beat out Luke Wattenberg for a reserve interior role
Forsyth and Wattenberg possess similar pedigrees — late-round draft pick, positional versatility, multi-year starter in the Pac-12. They even matriculated at Pacific Northwest rivals — Wattenberg at Washington, Forsyth at UCLA. There might not be room for both on the 53-player roster; this could be a battle for a single spot, with the practice squad a destination for the other.
“With Forsyth, we see him as a center who can flex,” Paton said after the draft. “… [He is] just tough and smart. [We just] love the way he plays the game.”
RB JALEEL McLAUGHLIN
THE PATH: Be versatile and explosive
The Youngstown State product will get chances. He has plenty of burst. He’s also an above-average receiving threat and a willing blocker. The question could come down to whether his upside can carry him past free-agent pickup Tony Jones Jr. and returning reserve Tyler Badie, who galloped for a 24-yard touchdown reception on one of his two touches in the season finale last January.
EDGE RUSHERS MARCUS HAYNES AND THOMAS INCOOM
THE PATH: Keep generating pressure when the pads go on
Both had flashes during the OTAs and minicamp practices. And while there are plenty of questions and potential fluidity on the first two lines of the edge depth chart, there is only a narrow path to sticking for both. Also in the mix will be one of last year’s undrafted players, Christopher Allen, who sat out his rookie season with a foot injury suffered at Alabama. This should be one of the more spirited under-the-radar roster battles of training camp.
FOR MANY, IT’S ALL ABOUT TEAMS
For the balance of the undrafted rookies, special teams will be paramount. And even though Westhoff has a good idea from OTAs and minicamp who could emerge, the opportunities to move up and down do exist.
“I believe that I can come pretty close to picking an active 48 — [including] my guys who are going to be active — when we play the Raiders. I really believe I’m close,” Westhoff said during minicamp.
“Now, exactly who’s going to make the team? I’m not 1000 percent sure. But I think I’m pretty close. And there will be some good battles, and then things will evolve as time goes on, we get pads.”
It’s the old lesson from Terrell Davis in Tokyo in 1995: Make a play on special teams, and you’ll separate from the pack. The Broncos had a new coaching staff then, just as they do now.