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Training Camp Takeaways - Day 4: Russell Wilson starts hot in the last practice before pads

Henry Chisholm Avatar
July 30, 2023

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos had a special guest roaming the sidelines on Saturday.

Let’s see if you can guess who it was…

“It was the first time I met him,” Broncos head coach Sean Payton said of his guest. “Really, it was fantastic. I didn’t realize his history here in Denver and in Colorado, but [Vice President of Player Development] Ray [Jackson] introduced me to him. He’s going to come up, and [we’ll] give him tour. I’ve been a fan watching him play and he’s doing the same thing—he’s a head coach and I’m a big fan of his. It was good to meet him.”

Any guesses?

A couple more hints…

NBA Hall of Famer…

Colorado Buffaloes legend…

Current head coach of the Portland Trailblazers…

Chauncey Billups.

Saturday’s practice was the final part of the Broncos’ ramp-up to full speed. On Monday, following the first off day of camp, the team will hold their first fully-padded practice.

While the team rests and recovers, the coaches have a couple of pieces of business.

“We will get another seven days of practice planning, we’ll look at cutups, we’ll talk about the first four or five days and look at the depth chart,” Payton said.

Sean Payton observes stretches during Saturday’s practice. Credit: Ryan Greene

Reevaluating the depth chart after less than a week of practice might seem rash, but the Broncos are constantly keeping score.

“We’re evaluating everything,” Payton said. “The key is to not come to the conclusions right away. All of these snaps, reps and stuff that we’re seeing, it’s all going into the evaluation process.”

We’re still firmly in the “take it with a grain of salt” phase of football season, but there’s still plenty to be gleaned from these early practices.

Here’s what went down on Saturday…

Participation report

  • RT Mike McGlinchey missed a third consecutive practice while tending to a death in the family. He will be back in town Sunday and at practice on Monday, according to Sean Payton.
  • LT Garett Bolles, RT Cam Fleming and S Kareem Jackson participated fully on Saturday after resting on Sunday.
  • WR Marvin Mims continues to work on a side field during most of practice. He’s scheduled to be back sometime next week.

Russ tears up seven-on-seven drills

The Broncos’ seven-on-seven drills didn’t last long on Saturday, but Wilson didn’t miss a single throw. A drop from Jerry Jeudy on a short pass kept him from a perfect showing.

Wilson’s first throw was a rocket. Tim Patrick sat down in the middle of the field and Wilson split a pair of linebackers and hit him in the chest. If Wilson had taken any heat off the pass, the linebackers might have converged on the ball, and the safety crashing into the play might have gotten a hand in there too.

Wilson hit Semaje Perine on a wheel route up the sideline. Damarri Mathis was probably supposed to mirror him up the boundary, but he committed to a receiver in the flat instead, leaving Perine wide open. Wilson didn’t hit Perine in stride, but the underthrow wasn’t egregious. I marked it as a touchdown in my notebook, but Justin Simmons may have been able to make up ground from his deep middle zone and prevent the score.

Wilson also hit Jerry Jeudy on an out route about 15 yards downfield. Essang Bassey was in coverage, but Jeudy lost him on the break and had a step or two of separation. Wilson could have hit his tight end in the flat but was patient enough to let Jeudy get open.

Wison’s patience paid off in the seven-on-sevens, but the lack of pressure is why the offense almost always comes out on top in the drill. Carving up the defense is the expectation. Still, of the six seven-on-seven sessions Broncos quarterbacks have run—one for each of the three quarterbacks in each of the two practices—none of the others came close to what Wilson did on Saturday.

(The low point for the quarterbacks in seven-on-sevens came when Montrell Washington ran a return route—where the receiver breaks out quickly and then cuts back inside on a drag route—but Faion Hicks mirrored him perfectly. Jarrett Stidham forced the ball into a nonexistent window, and Hicks wrestled it away and ran off for an interception.)

While Wilson was sharp in seven-on-sevens, he didn’t make much noise in full-team drills. Wilson only threw one pass in the first team session, and it was a corner route to Courtland Sutton off of play action. Sutton separated from Pat Surtain—you read that correctly—and tapped his toes on the sideline for a great catch on a perfect ball. He picked up 15 yards.

Courtland Sutton catches a ball during position drills on Saturday. Credit: Ryan Greene

But Nik Bonitto torched Garett Bolles off the left side and probably would have gotten his hands on Wilson before he could throw. It looked like Bonitto could have reached out and knocked the ball out of Wilson’s hand from behind as he tried to throw.

From that point forward, the story of Wilson’s day was pressure. Jonathon Cooper and Jonathan Harris—both of whom previously had great days on Friday—converged with a blitzing defensive back for a sack. More pressure probably would have resulted in a sack on the next play. Another ball was batted away at the line.

Wilson’s worst play of the day came near the end of practice when he lobbed a deep ball up to Jerry Jeudy, but Surtain climbed the ladder to knock it away. Surtain got both hands on the ball and was upset that he didn’t intercept it.

Wilson hit Patrick in the middle of the field once again, and Sutton had a seven-yard grab, but notable plays were tough to come by.

The Broncos receivers run routes against air during position drills on Saturday. Credit: Ryan Greene

The pressure continued when the reserves were on the field, like when defensive tackle Elijah Garcia blew up undrafted rookie guard Henry Byrd for a would-be sack of Jarrett Stidham.

Stidham progressed through his reads quickly, frequently hitting checkdowns. (Fullback Michael Burton was on the receiving end of a surprising number of checkdowns on Saturday.) He hit Lil’Jordan Humphrey on a dig that Tremon Smith almost knocked away. He hit Dulcich on the sideline for a double-digit gain, too.

Linebackers make noise

The Broncos’ secondary was the story of Friday’s practice, but the depth at linebacker stole the show on Saturday.

In seven-on-sevens, Drew Sanders ran stride for stride with Greg Dulcich on a deep out route and came away with an easy breakup of a Jarrett Stidham pass. He probably could have picked the ball off if he had gotten his head around.

A few plays later, Justin Strnad laid out and fully extended to knock a ball away from Dulcich in the flat.

Later in practice, Sanders showed up again when he blitzed up the middle. Running back Tony Jones Jr. tried to pick him up, but Sanders blew Jones up and probably would have gotten himself a sack in a game situation.

For the second consecutive practice, Jonas Griffith stood out on Saturday. He hasn’t gotten his hand on a pass yet, but he would have had several big hits on short throws through two practices.

Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton are the solidified starters at linebacker, but the Broncos seem to be in good hands if they need to call on the reserves. A couple more practices like Saturday, and we might call linebacker one of the deepest positions on the team.

Ben Powers makes the play of the day

The Broncos spent big money on Ben Powers this offseason, and they’re already seeing the results.

On Friday, Powers helped open up a hole for a 20-yard Russell Wilson scramble.

On Saturday, he made an even more impressive play on the first team rep of the day. Undrafted rookie PJ Mustipher lined up at nose tackle, and Powers pushed him five or 10 yards out of the way, opening up a massive running lane behind him. It almost looked like the scene from The Blind Side. Powers made his name as a pass-protecting guard, but he’s far from one-dimensional.

Fans look on during Saturday’s practice. Credit: Ryan Greene

The Broncos still aren’t wearing pads, so any analysis of the trenches requires a grain of salt, but the running game seemed to be in great shape on Saturday. A couple of hiccups occurred—like when DJ Jones beat Lloyd Cushenberry for a stuff, or when undrafted rookie Marcus Haynes knocked Albert Okwuegbunam into the backfield on his way to a tackle for loss—but the investments seem to be paying off, even before Mike McGlinchey’s training camp debut.

Sean Payton wants to emphasize the running game.

“I think it has to be part of our DNA, and we felt that way in New Orleans, as well,” Payton said after practice. “I think the two greatest allies for a good quarterback player are a running game and good defense. I think it’s a tough position to play if you’re not running the ball well, and then obviously it becomes tougher if you’re not stopping anyone. That’s going to be important to what we do as long as I’m here. I just think it’s that important to winning in our league.”

A scuffle!

The offense and defense came together following some disagreement during team drills. I didn’t see the cause, but Randy Gregory came from the sideline with his helmet off and was in the center of everything with tight end Tommy Hudson. The scuffle was nothing serious, about as minor as a training camp scuffle can be.

“It’s an emotional game and you have to play it that way,” Sean Payton said after practice. “I think the key is identifying what you’re wanting in each period.”

For what it’s worth, Hudson had a great block to open a hole earlier in practice. Garett Bolles sealed the other side. Hudson is still a longshot to make the roster, but crazier things have happened.

Problems at punt returner

On Friday, Montrell Washington misjudged a punt and couldn’t recover in time. The ball hit the ground just in front of his feet and bounced off his shins.

Kendall Hinton dropped the first punt return of camp with coverage.

(Jonathon Cooper came within a step of a block, too.)

Jonathon Cooper talks with Randy Gregory during Saturday’s practice. Credit: Ryan Greene

It’s too early to be concerned about the Broncos’ return game, but it’s off to a rough start. As you might expect, Sean Payton’s priority on punt return is protecting the ball.

“The first thing is reliability and ball security,” Payton said after practice. “There is nothing worse than when the ball is in the air and you have that ‘I hope he catches it’ [feeling]. That is something where the preseason will help show its hand a little bit. I kind of get back to [Assistant Head Coach Mike] Westhoff, [Special Teams Coordinator Ben] Kotwica and even [Assistant Special Teams Coach Chris] Banjo, but the investment we’ve made in our special teams, both on the field and upstairs, is significant. We’re going to have the opportunity to return in the kickoff, and hopefully—I know it’s tough here because of the altitude—when we get those return opportunities in the punt game. We’re going to have great schemes and designs to give these guys a chance. The key is, then, we have a great producer; let’s find someone that can take advantage of that. That will be important.”

Trending up

Nobody has won themselves a starting job or a roster spot in four days of practices, but, as Sean Payton noted, the evaluations have already begun.

Here are the seven players I think have done the most to improve their standing through two open practices:

  1. Jonathon Cooper
  2. Jonathan Harris
  3. Caden Sterns
  4. Ben Powers
  5. Greg Dulcich
  6. Marcus Haynes
  7. Faion Hicks

Click here for a recap of Friday’s practice.

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