EAGAN, Minn. — Ahead of Thursday's practice, General Manager George Paton spoke highly of wide receiver KJ Hamler's potential impact on the Broncos' offense.
"If you saw yesterday, he looks like he's 100 percent," Paton said. "He has stacked up a few really good practices, and if this guy can stay healthy, he's going to be a big-time weapon for us."
It didn't take long for Hamler to illustrate Paton's point.
On an early-team period play, Hamler took off down the field on a deep post route and broke free from a pair of defenders. The second-year player was at least five yards ahead of the nearest defenders and extended to make the catch for a 45-yard score from Teddy Bridgewater.
Hamler's big play was the sort of highlight he made twice against Carolina last year, and it hopefully is a sign of the impact he can have in Denver. Yet while it looked impressive, it was quite simple in Hamler's mind.
"I ran fast and ran past the defense," Hamler said. "… That was about it."
If the Broncos consistently feature a player who can just run past the defense, it should both give Denver the home-run threat it needs while also opening up the underneath passing game.
That element of the team's passing game should be available regardless of which quarterback is under center, according to Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur.
"You saw Teddy throw a nice crossing post today," Shurmur said when asked about the deep passing game. "I think offensively, all the throws within our offense are really designed — at least in our mind — for both quarterbacks that we have. We don't call them differently as you compare Teddy to Drew. Their styles are probably a little bit different, and their attributes are a little bit different, but I think you can call any play with both of those guys."
As the season approaches, Hamler's biggest challenge will be to string together strong practices. He did that in Minnesota, as he laid out for a diving catch on Wednesday and also caught a touchdown on a seam route.
Head Coach Vic Fangio hopes the positive stretch continues.
"He's definitely got the speed and quickness and the elusiveness that we liked when we drafted him," Fangio said after Wednesday's practice. "… He's got to stay [healthy] and put a clump of practices together because you can only get better by practicing. It's never more exemplified than these guys that we just got the last few days who are playing out there. It's really unfair to put them out there because they really don't know what to do. They're hanging on to their ass because they haven't practiced. Everybody needs practice. KJ needs a clump of practice that he's really not been able to have yet last year. He's had it right now. He's going, and hopefully he can keep it going."
SECONDARY STANDS STRONG
For the second consecutive day, the Broncos' defense held the Vikings' passing game in check.
While Minnesota connected on a few passes — wide receiver Adam Thielen was quite active — the Denver defense made its share of big plays.
The Broncos' second-team defense began team-period work by forcing three consecutive incompletions from Vikings starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, and cornerback Nate Hairston intercepted reserve quarterback Jake Browning shortly into practice.
Kyle Fuller recorded a pass breakup against the starting Vikings offense, as he broke toward the receiver and was physical as he knocked the ball out of the receiver's hands. Second-year player Michael Ojemudia also made a couple of plays, including a pass breakup against fellow Iowa product Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the end zone.
During the same seven-on-seven red-zone period as Ojemudia's pass breakup on Smith-Marsette, Denver forced Cousins to throw the ball away because of the tight coverage.
Denver's defense was similarly stifling on Wednesday, as they forced the Vikings' first-team offense off the field in a move-the-ball drill and allowed few big plays.
"It was excellent work," Fangio said Wednesday. "They did some things that we hadn't seen yet, so [it was a] good learning experience for us defensively. We had some of those newer guys in there that just got here the last few days. They've obviously got a lot to learn. I thought overall it was really good work on the defensive field."
Added Justin Simmons on Wednesday: "It was nice to get out and go up against a different scheme, different color jersey. Anytime you can go up against a quarterback like Kirk, it's always great work for the defense, especially the safeties. We operate so much off of what the quarterback does, and he's been proven in this league for a while now, so it was great work. I thought we did a lot really well, and I thought that were a lot of things we can improve on communication-wise, execution-wise, and obviously takeaways as well."
WATCHING THE OFFENSE
After spending the first day of joint practices leading the Broncos' defense, Fangio turned his attention to the offense on Thursday. Fangio, who normally calls the team's defensive plays, said it was nice to have a different perspective.
And after watching the Broncos' Wednesday offensive performance on tape and their Thursday snaps in person, Fangio seemed pleased with the work the team got in against the Vikings.
"I liked watching it today there," Fangio said. "I thought we did a good job. [It's] nice being over there with the boys. A little different perspective but I thought there were a lot of good things yesterday, also. Way too many pre-snap penalties, the center/quarterback exchange, I think we improved on that today. We only had one over there but overall, I was pleased with the work offensively."
After Paton said earlier Thursday that Denver had a “hell of a competition” at quarterback, Fangio got an up-close look at the battle during practice.
Bridgewater made the biggest play of the day, but he also made a few mistakes. In red-zone seven-on-seven work, Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks undercut Bridgewater's throw to the end zone for an interception. On the next play, Kendricks deflected Bridgewater's pass. Later in the afternoon, but again in the red zone, Kendricks secured his second interception during a team period. Bridgewater's pass to Melvin Gordon III was a bit low, and it hit Gordon's hands before bouncing off his foot and up into the air, where a diving Kendricks made a play.
Bridgewater also was victim of a poor snap during that same red-zone series. The veteran still managed to complete a large percentage of his passes, despite the errors.
Drew Lock, meanwhile, was most successful in the red zone. He found Eric Saubert for a pair of catches — including a touchdown — in a red-zone team drill. Lock also threw a touchdown to Royce Freeman during seven-on-seven red-zone work. It wasn't all perfect, though. Near the end of practice, Drew Lock and the Broncos' offense were unable to advance the ball down the field in a scenario in which they trailed by six points with 90 seconds to play. Early in practice, he narrowly overthrew Hamler on a deep route similar to the one Hamler caught from Bridgewater.
- First-round pick Pat Surtain II and second-round pick Javonte Williams continue to impress, and it's become common to see the two rookies making plays each day.
"They're exactly what we thought they were when we drafted them," Paton said. "Nothing fazes either player. They both work hard, they go about [their] day-to-day. They don't let all the media stuff go to their head. They were pros the day they walked in. They attack it every day. They love the work; they love the process. We know they are highly talented."
- Mike Purcell would have had a tackle for loss on an early run play during a team period. He returned to team drills this week after missing more than a week of practice with an ankle injury.
- Bridgewater found rookie Seth Williams for a nice gain during an early team period.
- Branden Mack took a hard fall as he leaped into the air to make a catch and then was undercut by a defender. Mack hopped up immediately and appeared fine.
- Before Mike Boone suffered an injury, he caught a red-zone pass from Bridgewater in seven-on-seven that would've been a touchdown under game conditions.
- Second-year tight end Albert Okwuegbunam had a nice day, as he caught at least three passes. His longest play of the afternoon came on a long pass from Brett Rypien.
"I think he's doing well," Fangio said of Okwuegbunam. "I mean, he has had a great recovery from his ACL. He's not letting it affect him at all [with] the way he's playing, or it doesn't seem to me like it's in his head either. He's just letting it loose out there. I've been very impressed with his play and his play in light of coming off that injury."
- Rypien's best throw of the day came on a long pass to Trinity Benson, who hauled in the throw down the right sideline.
- Fangio has not yet ruled out any players for Saturday's game against the Vikings. He said he planned to solidify that list on Thursday night.