ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It's been a tough week in Broncos Country, as Denver dropped a one-score game to the Steelers and lost Courtland Sutton and Drew Lock for extended amounts of time.
With Sutton out for the season and Lock expected to miss several weeks, that means players like Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler and Jeff Driskel will be thrust into the limelight.
In this edition of "Ask Aric," I focus in on each of those players, how Noah Fant got the upper hand in Pittsburgh and why the Broncos threw the ball on fourth-and-2.
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Do you think Jeudy has what it takes to be the No. 1 guy now ? — Daniel L.
I certainly hope so, and there are signs that suggest he's ready to assume a bigger role. Through two games, he already has five receptions of at least 15 yards and has tallied eight total catches for 118 yards. There is still room for him to grow, obviously. He needs to get more comfortable catching passes across the middle, and his timing on deep passes needs to be shored up. The rookie clearly has talent, though. He's created great separation and is hard to bring down after the catch because of his elusiveness. I'm sure he'll have some ups and downs throughout the season, but when the Broncos trot out for Week 1 in 2021 with Jeudy and a hopefully healthy Sutton, I think they'll be better for this experience. It's a crash course that no one wanted him to undergo, but Jeudy will get invaluable reps and experience as the team's No. 1 option because of Sutton's injury.
Hey Aric, I'm a big fan of KJ Hamler. Do you think he can become a big piece of what we're doing this year? — Martin S.
Martin, I was definitely impressed by the second-round pick in his first NFL action, and it's clear his speed can do wonders for this offense. I'll give you a couple of examples: On his first catch, a 17-yard gain late in the first half, his vertical speed challenged the cornerback, and Hamler was able to gain plenty of separation on an out-breaking route to the sideline. Later in the game, in the fourth quarter, he again closed the distance between himself and the cornerback. Because the cornerback has to respect Hamler's ability to blow by him, that means Hamler gains the upper hand with any type of comeback route. He also made a contested catch on third down as he lined up on the outside. Drops were a bit of a knock on Hamler coming out of college, so I was impressed to see him make that catch. Finally, his positional versatility makes him interesting. He lined up in the slot and on the outside, and he set up in splits that were both close to the offensive line and along the boundary. When he's lined up with a short split from the offensive line, I'd imagine that increases what the Broncos are able to do. He has the speed to get out to the boundary, so you want to give him room to run and create separation. He also can push a defender deep and work back to the middle of the field. The Broncos will need to take an occasional deep shot to Hamler to keep defenses honest, but they're always going to respect a player's ability to take the top of the defense. Especially with Sutton out, Hamler should gain valuable experience and be a featured part of this offense.
In the 2018 draft, the Broncos moved down in a trade with Pittsburgh to select Noah Fant. The Steelers took Devin Bush. In Sunday's game, Fant repeatedly exposed Bush in coverage (at least 3 big plays by Fant, including a TD). What do you see for the future of the two players? - Bill R.
I'm not going to crush Devin Bush here, because it's clear he's a solid inside linebacker that the Steelers are high on. Noah Fant definitely had the upper hand on Sunday, though, as he caught four passes for 57 yards and a touchdown. He also had a reception on a two-point conversion that isn't counted in that stat line. On both his touchdown catch and the two-point conversion, Fant beat Bush in a one-on-one matchup. Part of Bush's appeal coming out of the draft was his ability to cover tight ends, and it's clear Fant got the better of him in this game. Evaluating this trade is about more than just one game. It's about what the Broncos neededwhen they traded back to take Fant. They were desperately seeking a dominant playmaker, and Fant looked like he could be a mismatch at the tight end position. Through two weeks, he's been exactly that, as he's caught nine passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Football Outsiders lists Fant as the top tight end in the league according to its Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement statistic and the fourth-best in its Defense-adjusted Value over Average. It's not a stretch to say that Fant could soon be viewed as one of the top tight ends in the league, especially if the Broncos go to him on a more consistent basis. Plus, as you evaluate this trade, you can't forget that the Broncos secured additional picks that would be used to draft both Drew Lock and Lloyd Cushenberry III. As time goes on, I suspect the Broncos will be very pleased they traded down on draft day.
With the loss of Von, Drew, and Courtland, and with a hard schedule, it's looking like this might not be our season. And with Drew Lock getting hurt every season his played so far, would it be too crazy to start shopping for a Trevor Lawrence jersey? — Chris L.
Chris, I don't blame you for being discouraged by the start to the season, but we're a long ways off before we reach that stage. The losses of Von Miller and Courtland Sutton will sting — there's no denying that. Lock will be back, though, and the team still has every reason to be encouraged about his potential. He played well in Week 1, and I plan to reserve judgement on where the team goes from here until after we see him play later this season. Fangio suggested Lock would miss three-to-five weeks, which would put him back somewhere between Week 6 and Week 8. Even if he doesn't return until after the bye week, that still gives the Broncos nine games to evaluate the second-year quarterback. I don't expect he'll be flawless, because he's going to miss key games that would help him find a rhythm in Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur's system. I do think he'll continue to take strides, though, and that would be helpful when we arrive at next year's draft. If the Broncos feel comfortable at the quarterback position, they can use their picks to address other needs. Based off Lock's performance in Week 1, I still feel confident that he can be the quarterback of the future. Does he need to stay healthy? Definitely. But he clearly has the talent. Before we worry about next year's draft, let's see if the Broncos can steal a few games with a reserve quarterback and get to their bye week with a few wins. If so, Lock could have the chance to return and lead a push to put the Broncos in playoff contention.
Why do we not have a QB coach consistently working with our back-up QBs so they are better prepared for situations that happened Sunday against the Steelers? — Jeff P.
Jeff, a couple of points to make here. First, I'm sure Shurmur and Quarterbacks Coach Mike Shula have worked extensively with Jeff Driskel to get him ready. The fact of the matter is, there's just not that many reps to go around during a practice week, especially when you're working to get a young quarterback in Lock ready to play. That's just the reality for any NFL team. Second, I thought Driskel filled in admirably, given the circumstances. He rebounded from a tough couple of series to start the game and completed 60 percent of his passes for 139 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 114.4 rating in the second half. He wasn't perfect, as he took a couple of sacks in the second half, but he looked better and better as he got more comfortable. I think it's reasonable we see an improved Driskel this week against the Buccaneers.
Why didn't the Broncos try to run the ball on Sunday to pick up the 3rd and 2 with two great opportunities? They had the same problem the previous week on the goal line. Are they missing the fullback? To me, those two series are why they lost both games. — Frank D.
Frank, I hear ya. Fangio agreed after the game that in retrospect, he wished the Broncos would've called different plays in that situation. I do think that you have to consider the situation on Sunday, which I think is entirely different from the first-and-goal from the 2-yard line in Week 1. After Lock went out, the Steelers seemed to sell out to stop the run and force Driskel to beat them. And with the exception of a couple plays, they were extremely stout against the run. Here are the results of Melvin Gordon III's second-half rushing attempts: 2 yards, 1 yard, 3 yards, 0 yards, 1 yard, 10 yards, 2 yards, -1 yard, 3 yards. That's just 2.3 yards per carry, and that includes the 10-yard gain. If you take that carry out, he averaged just 1.4 yards per carry in the second half, which means it was no sure bet to pick up 2 yards if you lined up and ran straight ahead. The third-down play appeared to break down a little bit, but the fourth-down play worked from a design standpoint. Gordon, DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick were wide open at the first-down marker nearly immediately after the snap. The Broncos didn't convert, but it wasn't because of the play design. If Jeff Driskel is able to get the ball away to Gordon, we could be talking about how the Broncos pulled off a stunning comeback.