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#BroncosCamp preview: Ranking the three biggest training-camp battles

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos are still several days away from trotting out on the UCHealth Training Center fields for a full-speed practice, but when they do, several competitions will begin in earnest.

As the team races to get ready for its "Monday Night Football" opener on Sept. 14 against the Titans, there are several starting jobs and key roles for the taking.

We previously took a look at where each position group stands as the team enters training camp, and now we'll turn our attention to the top three position battles across the entire roster.

Two of the competitions will determine starters, while the third will help select a critical role player. And while there are battles all across the roster for playing time and roster spots, these are three we'll be watching most closely.

3. MICHAEL OJEMUDIA vs. THE RETURNING VETS

Third-round pick Michael Ojemudia arrives at UCHealth Training Center with the opportunity to earn what is essentially a starting role on defense. With as much nickel defense — five defensive backs — as team's play in today's NFL, a team's third cornerback is as valuable as many other positions on the field. And with starter Bryce Callahan presumably set to slide into the slot corner role in the team's nickel package, there's an open spot at the outside cornerback position opposite A.J. Bouye. The rookie from Iowa will face stiff competition for the spot, as the Broncos return plenty of young players at cornerback who are eager for playing time. De'Vante Bausby, Davontae Harris, Duke Dawson Jr. and Isaac Yiadom will all compete for the spot.

The case for Ojemudia:

Ojemudia is a physical, talented player who should fit well in Fangio's zone scheme. He intercepted six passes during his final two seasons at Iowa, and he added an additional 15 passes defensed during that span. At 6-foot-1, 200-pounds, Ojemudia has the frame to play cornerback. With a 4.45-second 40-yard dash, he also has the speed.

"Michael brings size, he brings speed and he can judge a ball down the field deep," Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said in June. "Those are very important parts to a DB. He's really on schedule as a tackler and a hitter, which we know is very important to the Broncos' style of defense. How he fits in — we want him to do as much as he can as a rookie. Time will only tell that. What I can tell you is he's really, really in the top part of the class as far as his learning curve. He's picked up our scheme in a virtual sense and about as good as you'll find in a rookie. He's off to a good start. We're just really eager to get him on the field and get started coaching him in a physical sense."

Where Ojemudia needs to improve:

Experience — plain and simple. Through no fault of his own, Ojemudia simply hasn't had the offseason reps that would better position him to play early in the season. He'll face a tremendous challenge to implement a new defense and adjust to NFL speed on the practice field. He's already lost valuable OTA reps, and he won't have the benefit of the preseason to gain game experience. It will be a tall task for Ojemudia to be ready for a Week 1 game against the Titans.

The case for the returning vets:

There is seemingly a higher chance of a veteran winning this job, from purely a numbers perspective. Bausby, Harris, Dawson and Yiadom all have a shot at earning snaps, and they would each bring valuable experience to a secondary that we still don't know much about. Each player has different valuable attributes, but all four players started at least two games for Denver in 2019. Yiadom may have the edge among the veterans, as he started eight games last season, including the final five games of the year. Bausby, who led the short-lived Alliance of American Football in interceptions last year, also played a key role before suffering a season-ending injury. 

Where the returning vets need to improve:

The Broncos are likely searching for consistency, and each of the veterans struggled with that in some way in 2019. Yiadom earned snaps early and then lost his role until late in the year. Bausby suffered the season-ending injury that knocked him out of the lineup. Harris, whom the Broncos claimed off waivers ahead of the season, started several games in a row and made a pair of big plays in a win over Cleveland. He then played just four defensive snaps over the final five weeks of the year. Dawson also saw few snaps in the final four weeks of the year after holding a bigger role earlier in the season. In order for the Broncos' secondary to thrive, one of these young players — or Ojemudia — must emerge as a consistent option whose play doesn't fluctuate week to week.

2. MELVIN GORDON III vs. PHILLIP LINDSAY

Arguably the Broncos' highest-profile offseason addition, Gordon will enter camp with his eyes on the starting job. Lindsay, meanwhile, will aim to maintain his hold on the spot after rushing for 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. No matter how this competition unfolds, both players should have a strong presence in Denver's offense in 2020. Both Head Coach Vic Fangio and Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur have spoken about the need to have two dynamic running backs in today's NFL, and Gordon and Lindsay both have Pro Bowl selections to their names. As training camp progresses, we should get a feel for if the team plans to feature one main back and one complementary back or if Lindsay and Gordon's roles could shift on a week-to-week basis. Both players are intense competitors, which should make this a highly entertaining battle.

The case for Lindsay:

As Lindsay crossed the 1,000-yard mark in the Broncos' season-ending win over the Raiders, he became the first undrafted player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. An explosive, between-the-tackles runner, Lindsay has the speed and athleticism to break through small holes in the line of scrimmage and turn 3- or 4-yard runs into game-changing plays. Lindsay has been tough and reliable during his first two seasons, as he's appeared in 31 of the team's 32 games. He also hasn't fumbled during his two-year career.

Where Lindsay needs to improve:

The third-year back will need to find a way to regain his 2018 explosiveness, when he averaged 5.4 yards per carry. A season ago, that number dropped to 4.5 yards per carry, and his longest rush was 40 yards compared to 65 yards in 2018. He also had just 22 rushes of at least 10 yards after recording 30 such rushes in 2018. In Shurmur's offense, Lindsay will also need to become more efficient in the passing game. His yards per receptions, receptions per game and catch percentage all rank below Gordon's.

The case for Gordon:

Gordon has a nose for the end zone, as he's the only player in the NFL with at least eight rushing touchdowns in each of the last four seasons. And while Lindsay's game relies upon his speed, Gordon uses his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame to run through tackles and gain extra yards. The two-time Pro Bowler also makes an impact in the passing game; he's tallied at least 1,300 total yards in three of his five seasons. 

Where Gordon needs to improve:

Gordon has produced at a relatively consistent rate during much of his career, but his yards per carry dropped from 5.1 in 2018 to 3.8 in 2019. His yards per reception also fell from 9.8 in 2018 to 7.0 in 2019. Gordon's main task, though, will be to remain healthy. During an otherwise prolific start to his career, Gordon has struggled at times to remain on the field.

1. GARETT BOLLES vs. ELIJAH WILKINSON

After another penalty-plagued season, Garett Bolles will have to earn the starting left tackle job in training camp. The former first-round pick will battle Wilkinson, a fourth-year player who has spent time at both right guard and right tackle in the NFL. Wilkinson started 12 games at right tackle last season in place of an injured Ja'Wuan James, and he'll aim to take on a full-time role in 2020.

And while Drew Lock was sacked just once per game during his five games as the starting quarterback, the team seems committed to solidifying the left tackle position.

"We have to get better there, there's no question about it," John Elway said of the tackle position in April. "That's a position we have to get better at."

The case for Bolles:

For as maligned as Bolles has been by the Broncos' fan base, he has been a reliable presence at left tackle and improved late in the season. Bolles has started all 48 games since the Broncos drafted him the 20th-overall pick in 2017, and he got better with Lock in the lineup. Bolles graded out as Pro Football Focus' fourth-ranked tackle among those who played at least 200 snaps during the final five weeks of the season. And while Bolles' technique suffers at times, he allowed just four sacks in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. The Broncos also were among the best in the league at running to the left; Denver ranked third in runs off left tackle, according to Football Outsiders.

Where Bolles needs to improve:

 Penalties. It's a simple answer, but it's one that has plagued Bolles since he entered the game. He leads all players in holding calls over the previous three seasons, and he seems prone to let one bad play lead to the next. In the Broncos' Week 2 loss to Chicago, Bolles was whistled four times for holding violations. He'll need to continue to improve his technique under Offensive Line Coach Mike Munchak. One note: Bolles' penalties did drop to a .6 penalty-per-game average after Lock entered the lineup.

The case for Wilkinson:

Wilkinson was a cleaner player than Bolles in 2019, as he was whistled for just eight penalties compared to Bolles' 17. Of those eight penalties, four holding penalties were enforced against the Broncos. Wilkinson, whose positional versatility make him a valuable piece for the Broncos even if he doesn't start, would represent a fresh start for the Broncos at left tackle.

Where Wilkinson needs to improve:

While Wilkinson wasn't penalized nearly as much as Bolles, he did allow more than twice as many sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, he gave up 10 sacks in 2019, which is the fourth-highest total among all NFL tackles. Bolles, in comparison, gave up just four. Wilkinson also must prove he can handle switching over to the other side of the offensive line. Dating back to his college days, Wilkinson has worked exclusively on the right side of the line. Transitioning to left tackle — where the footwork and hand placement is essentially reversed — may not be easy.

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