Here's how the Denver Broncos will try and replace 14 players on the COVID-19 list

Andrew Mason Avatar
December 31, 2021

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When Drew Lock goes back to pass, he won’t see two of his top three wide receivers.

He also won’t have his No. 1 right tackle protecting his flank. The primary backup there isn’t available, either.

And when Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert sets up to pass — assuming that he does not test positive for COVID-19 on Saturday or Sunday morning — he won’t have to see three of the Broncos’ top four edge rushers, one of their starting inside linebackers and he won’t have to contend with perhaps the league’s most effective slot cornerback.

And the wave may not be over yet.

Friday, the Broncos added three starters and five players in total to an already swollen COVID-19 reserve list: wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, outside linebackers Bradley Chubb and Jonathon Cooper, inside linebacker Baron Browning and defensive lineman McTelvin Agim.

That increased the number of 53-man roster players on the COVID-19 reserve list to 14. Only two of them — nose tackle Mike Purcell and outside linebacker Andre Mintze — could return to the roster with negative tests in time for Sunday’s game.

But despite all of the positive tests, Broncos coach Vic Fangio said that postponing Sunday’s game had not been brought up to him as a possibility.

“I’m zeroed in on a Sunday kickoff,” he said. “My thoughts are irrelevant [regarding] those decisions and until I’m told otherwise, I’m ready for a 1:05 [p.m.] kickoff, West Coast time.”

Thus, the Broncos will play the game without two of their three starting wide receivers (Jeudy and Tim Patrick), their starting right tackle (Bobby Massie), their No. 1 backup offensive tackle (Calvin Anderson), a rotational defensive lineman (Agim) three of their top four edge rushers (starter Chubb and backups Cooper and Stephen Weatherly), a starting inside linebacker (Browning), their slot cornerback (Bryce Callahan), their dime back (Caden Sterns) and a core special-teamer (cornerback Mike Ford).

With Kenny Young (concussion) and Ronald Darby (shoulder) both questionable and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater still in the league-mandated concussion protocol and guard Graham Glasgow and inside linebackers Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell still on injured reserve, it’s possible that the Broncos could be without 10 of their intended 22 starters from the start of the season.

So, how will the Broncos adjust?

  • Quarterback: Lock will make his second consecutive start for Bridgewater, who has not practiced since suffering a concussion against Cincinnati on Dec. 19.
  • Offensive line: Quinn Meinerz will make his seventh consecutive start at right guard in place of Glasgow. Cameron Fleming, the Broncos’ No. 4 tackle, is expected to make his third start of the season with Massie and Anderson sidelined.
  • Wide receiver: The Broncos had feared that Courtland Sutton would go on the COVID-19 list, but he was not placed there Friday. So, Sutton would likely be joined by Kendall Hinton, with Diontae Spencer, Seth Williams and Travis Fulgham rounding out the position group. Williams and Fulgham were promoted from the practice squad as COVID-19 replacements on Friday. Fangio said that Williams was one of the players who has “been showing good on the practice field” recently. Tyrie Cleveland would have likely moved up from the practice squad, but he landed on the COVID-19 list earlier this week.
  • Defensive line: If Purcell can test off of the COVID-19 list in time for Sunday, the Broncos would have their starting defensive line available. “We’re hopeful that [Purcell] will be able to play for us,” Fangio said. But it gets dicey after that, with DeShawn Williams out for the season and Agim going on the COVID-19 list Friday. Justin Hamilton, who was signed to the 53-man roster Tuesday off of the Cowboys’ practice squad, would likely join Shamar Stephen in seeing extensive rotational work behind starters Shelby Harris and McTelvin Agim.
  • Edge rusher: Malik Reed is good to go, having dealt with COVID-19 earlier in December. But everyone else on the two-deep at this position is on the COVID-19 reserve list, along with third-stringer Andre Mintze, who could test off and return to the 53-man roster if he can test negative by Saturday. Aaron Patrick is likely to start; he, Reed and COVID-19 replacement Pita Taumoepenu are the only three edge rushers currently available.
  • Inside linebacker: Young and Browning have proven to be capable replacements for Jewell and Johnson, but now Browning is out Sunday and Young remains questionable after missing the last two weeks because of a concussion. Jonas Griffith, who has proven capable in relief of Young, will continue to start. If Young can’t go, Micah Kiser is likely to get the nod, with Justin Strnad providing depth.
  • Defensive backfield: If Darby plays, Kyle Fuller would likely work as the slot cornerback in place of Callahan, who will miss the game. If Darby is also out, look for Fuller to be the No. 2 cornerback with Michael Ojemudia and Nate Hairston seeing more work as the third corner and sixth defensive back, since dime back Sterns is unavailable.

And then there are the Broncos’ special-teams units, where the positive tests are likely to spur a chain reaction of changes.

The loss of Ford, a core special-teamer, will hurt by itself. But the need to move other players up leads to a domino effect that has special-teams coordinator Tom McMahon scrambling to ready his players. Exacerbating this is the fact that the Broncos canceled practice Thursday and had a mere walk-through Friday.

“Really, what you have to do is you have to do video reps and they have to go through their footwork from the video,” McMahon said. “You can get that with them. You have to do a lot of Zooming. These players have the ability to play, it’s just a matter of them seeing it and they have to know their competition.

“The biggest thing we’re trying to do is spend a bunch of time with the individual matchups so that they can see, ‘Hey, what’s this guy’s strengths? I’m going to block this guy’s weaknesses.’ [It’s] a lot if Zooming, and you have to put in time. If you want to win, win and work starts with a ‘W’ for a reason. We have to keep putting in that time in these next two days on Zoom with these young guys.”

And so it goes for a Broncos team that has been forced to improvise and adjust — as Fangio often said last year — and now could face a challenge second only to having to play a 2020 game without a quarterback.

THE CHARGERS can’t escape the wave of positive tests, either. They learned Friday that tight end Jared Cook will be unavailable after landing on the COVID-19 reserve list; with Donald Parham already on injured reserve, Los Angeles will play Sunday without their top two tight ends.

They must also wait and see on cornerback Chris Harris Jr., safety Nasir Adderley, kicker Dustin Hopkins, tackle Trey Pipkins, long snapper Matt Overton and backup cornerback Davontae Harris, all of whom went on the COVID-19 list Monday or Tuesday. Each of them could test out in time to play in the game, per the NFL’s revised protocols that allow vaccinated players to return within five days of their initial positive test.

But the Chargers will get safety Derwin James back from a hamstring injury. They also got 15 players back from the COVID-19 reserve list since Monday, most prominently running back Austin Ekeler, edge rusher Joey Bosa, cornerback Michael Davis, wide receiver Mike Williams, center Corey Linsley, defensive lineman Justin Jones and punt returner Andre Roberts.

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