ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — By most standards, Lloyd Cushenberry III recorded a successful rookie season.
The 2020 third-round pick beat out a pair of veterans to earn the team's starting center spot, becoming just the second Broncos rookie since the 1970 merger to make a Week 1 start at center.
Cushenberry then proceeded to play all 1,100 of the Broncos' offensive snaps and was one of just two rookie offensive linemen last season to not miss a play.
The LSU product earned All-Rookie honors, and Head Coach Vic Fangio identified him as one of the players who made significant improvements over the course of the year.
"He was a guy that constantly got better inch by inch," Fangio said of Cushenberry at the end of the 2020 season. "He never made a big jump one week to the next, but he just kept getting better in small increments and by the end of the season was playing his best football."
Yet for all that Cushenberry did right, he didn't live up to his own expectations.
"Throughout the course of the year, I [became] more confident [while] believing in myself a little more and playing faster," Cushenberry said Tuesday. "To end the year, it was better. It wasn't to the standard that I set for myself or what this team expects. Going into this year, obviously, it needs to be better. I look forward to achieving that."
Cushenberry said he went "straight to work" after the season, given his "unacceptable" level of play. He focused on strength training and "getting twitchier," but his improvement in 2021 may also stem from an increased understanding of the playbook.
"Just to continue that growth mainly from a mental standpoint," Fangio said in early June of the strides he needs to see from Cushenberry. "He needs to play stronger and stouter, and I think that will happen after he's had a good offseason of working out and having a better understanding of the offense, his job and his position. I think that confidence that he'll have will allow him to play stronger and more physical along with the extra work he's put in during the offseason. I expect him to improve mentally, and that will help him improve physically along with him getting stronger."
There's certainly at least some room for improvement. Cushenberry allowed four sacks, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the third-highest total in the league at his position. He also faced challenges with consistency early in the year, but Cushenberry said Offensive Line Coach Mike Munchak helped him work through those difficulties.
"Working with 'Munch,' it's amazing," Cushenberry said. "He's a Hall of Famer, and he obviously knows what he's talking about. He's worked with a lot of great offensive linemen and a lot of great centers. I just try to soak in and take in everything that he's taught me. … There was one thing I told him at the end-of-the-year meeting: Throughout the ups and downs, he always had confidence in me, and he always instilled confidence in me, even when I was struggling, and everybody knew I was struggling. When I was down on myself, he always believed in me to keep sticking with me. He allowed me to go through a rough patch. This year, and years down the road in my career, I'm going to look back on this and say, 'All right, I learned from that. It made me better.' I can't thank him enough and I look forward to him continuing to help groom me into the center I want to be."
As Cushenberry tries to mold himself into that type of player, he may face some competition. The Broncos drafted Wisconsin-Whitewater's Quinn Meinerz in the third round, and Fangio said Meinerz would begin his career at center. Cushenberry said the move was "expected" after his play last season, but he's prepared for the challenge.
"Competition is good for everyone," Cushenberry said. "We're going to push each other, and we're pushing each other already in OTAs. He's a great guy off the field and he's a great player. We're going to make each other better. Whoever steps up, that's who's going to get the job."