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Through two days of training camp, Broncos seem to have "weapons" to be a big-play offense

Henry Chisholm Avatar
July 30, 2018

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When the Broncos broke into 7-on-7 drills halfway through Sunday’s practice, Case Keenum stole the show with three deep balls against the first-string defense.

First, DaeSean Hamilton beat Chris Harris Jr. down the sideline before reeling in a 25-yard, over-the-shoulder grab.

Then Keenum found Demaryius Thomas on a deep crossing route, placing the ball in into Thomas’ outstretched arms, allowing him to tap his toes along the boundary.

Keenum capped the drill off with a bomb over Emmanuel Sanders’ shoulder, deep down the left sideline for the third time. Sanders pulled the ball in with one hand.

“DaeSean started it off first with the one-hander,” Sanders said after practice. “Then Demaryius came and made one. So, I was like, ‘Alright let me join the party,’ and they invited me.”

Case Keenum’s practice performance will be the lead story every day of training camp. That’s because, for the first time since Peyton Manning left town, the Broncos appear to have a true number one quarterback and he may have the potential to take a 5-win team in 2017 to the playoffs in 2018.

But Keenum’s breakout performance on Sunday camp wasn’t just a one-man job. His receivers put themselves in position to make plays and then capitalized when their new quarterback gave them an opportunity.

The Broncos are only a few years removed from possessing the possibly the best receiving duo in the league in Thomas and Sanders. Inconsistent quarterback play combined with celebrating their 30th birthdays opened the door for fans and pundits to say that their best days are behind them.

Thomas, who is now 30, and Sanders, 31, both took big hits to their production last season. Thomas’ string of five straight 1,000-yard seasons—and an average of 1,374 over that span—was snapped. Sanders battled injuries for most of the year and only notched 555 receiving yards, his fewest since 2011 and his first time under 1,000 since arriving in Denver.

Part of the reason, according to Vance Joseph, was the lack of alternate receiving threats. Before training camp started, he told reporters that opponents were able to double-team Thomas and Sanders because the Broncos offense couldn’t force them to account for any other threats.

“In this league, it’s about matchups. It’s about getting one-on-ones,” Joseph said during the media barbecue Friday night. “Those two guys should get more one-on-ones. The better your players on the field, the more one-on-ones you can get.”

Prior to camp, Joseph sounded confident the Broncos’ tight ends, running backs and depth receivers could take some of the load of the star wideouts’ backs. Through two practices, he seems to be right. While Thomas and Sanders have still been the focal point of the Broncos’ passing game, nearly all of the third receivers who have rotated in with the first unit have left their mark.

“We have great depth,” Joseph said of his receivers after Sunday’s practice. “We have six or seven guys who have made plays.”

One of those guys is Courtland Sutton. The Broncos’ second-round draft pick who has feasted on defensive backs whenever a quarterback has thrown the ball above his head.

Another is Hamilton, whose ability to change directions on a dime gives him the potential to shake past any defender and get downfield.

Philip Lindsay, an undrafted running back out of Colorado, has shown that he can be the type of receiving threat out of the backfield the Broncos haven’t seen in years. If defenses try to match him up with a cornerback, he can shift into the backfield and run the ball against an undersized defense. But if defenses try to match him up with a linebacker, he can split him out wide and burn the defender with his 4.39 speed.

That’s how he scored a 50-yard touchdown against Brandon Marshall, who lined up outside against Lindsay on Saturday.

“He has sauce, so to speak,” Marshall said afterward. “He has some good sauce to him. I like him.”

The unofficial motto of last offseason was “juice.” Vance Joseph and John Elway wanted to bring in offensive playmakers who could make things easier for their inexperienced quarterbacks. Most of the additions, such as the NFL’s all-time yards per carry leader Jamaal Charles, busted.

Carlos Henderson, the Broncos’ third-round pick in 2017 who led the FBS in missed tackles forced during his final year at Louisiana Tech, missed his entire rookie season with a thumb injury and isn’t with the team so far in training camp. Joseph said Henderson is dealing with personal issues and that it’s up to him to return to football if he so desires.

Sanders said after Sunday’s practice that he reached out to Henderson recently but didn’t get a response.

“I texted him and told him this is bigger than football,” he said. “I just want to talk to him about life. I don’t care if he plays another down of football, I just want to make sure he’s all right.”

Sanders also mentioned that his former teammate at SMU, Cole Beasley, went through similar struggles in college but now has over 2,500 total receiving yards in the NFL.

“He’s got to find his happiness,” Sanders said of Henderson. “I hope he finds it.”

There’s no guarantee that this year’s dose of juice will be any more productive than last year’s. Two practices is a small sample size and undersized speedsters like Lindsay and Isaiah McKenzie—who has also flashed during camp—are exactly who you’d expect to take advantage of the lack of physicality without pads.

Justin Simmons could have taken a run at Sanders and cracked him in the back when the receiver tried to pull in an ill-advised Case Keenum pass on a crossing route. The safety pulled up.

We’ll get a clearer look at the Broncos’ passing attack when the team puts on pads on Tuesday. For now, everything is going as well as Elway could have hoped when he signed Keenum in March.

But the new quarterback isn’t doing all of the work on his own.

“He’s a guy who will push the ball down the field,” Joseph said on Sunday. “We have the weapons to do that for him.”

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