SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Denver will continue its preseason campaign against the 49ers on Saturday, and the Broncos will aim to get on the other side of the ledger after a last-second loss to the Cardinals.
While the evaluation process remains a critical part of Denver's game in Santa Clara, Head Coach Sean Payton made it clear that the game result will still matter when the Broncos take the field.
"It does matter," Payton said. "It's a mindset. You have to be able to get the evaluations done, but it would have been a better feeling last week if we had won that game. I probably would have been a little cheerier in the postgame presser. I think it matters."
There's more to look for, though, as the Broncos' starters perhaps see their last extended game action before Sept. 10. Payton said his first-string units will see 20-24 snaps, and the offense and defense will each look to improve upon their initial outings.
As Denver looks to find team success, a number of individual players will look to leave their mark on the football game. Whether a proven starter returning from injury or an undrafted player looking to make his case for the roster, there will be plenty of players to watch on Saturday at Levi's Stadium.
Here, then, are a few of the top players to watch against San Francisco:
The Broncos' starting running back is expected to see his first live action since suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 4 last season, and his return is likely the biggest storyline of the game. Payton and the Broncos will be smart with Williams, meaning he'll likely only see 10-12 snaps and carry the ball three or four times. Still, those limited carries will provide the first look at Williams, who has shown plenty of burst during training camp. And while there would be no reason to overreact to such a small sample size, a chunk play would certainly suggest that Williams is all the way back.
"I think more than anything, it's someone coming off of an injury like that and getting back on the horse again and playing — not only physically but mentally," Payton said Thursday. "… It will be good to see his uniform a little dirty, and him feeling a little better about the second game and getting back out there."
MARVIN MIMS JR. & JL SKINNER
Denver's top pick in the 2023 NFL Draft will make his debut on Saturday, and he's ready to join his teammates on the field after missing Denver's first preseason contest. Mims has started to make plays in training camp, and his speed could be a big advantage for the Broncos. Against the 49ers, it will be interesting to see how much time Mims gets with the first-team offense and if he can break free for a big play. Mims also figures to get reps as a returner, as he's listed first on the depth chart at both punt returner and kick returner.
Skinner, meanwhile, should have a chance to make an impression as Denver's safety group deals with injuries. Justin Simmons has not practiced after injuring his groin, and P.J. Locke has not returned after being carted off during Tuesday's practice. Skinner posted just one tackle in his preseason debut, but perhaps he can improve in his second opportunity and show what he's capable of in the defensive backfield.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Rather than single out a player here, it's worth keeping an eye on the entire offensive line. Denver allowed pressure in the early stages of last week's game, and Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi said some of the mistakes were related to players falling into old habits.
"You go through practice, and you have a couple of weeks," Lombardi said. "Guys are working on their technique. Sometimes we ask them to do things a little bit differently. I think it's natural that the first time under live bullets, sometimes they revert. [It was] just some technique things, and guys went back to old ways of doing things. I think your best learning experience is when you do it wrong in a real situation. You can kind of reflect as a player and see how going back to the fundamentals that we're working on are going to help them."
For Denver to succeed, the Broncos must give Russell Wilson time to operate in the pocket and clear running lanes for their stable of backs. Against a talented 49ers front, the Broncos won't have an easy test — and perhaps that's a good thing ahead of the regular-season opener against Maxx Crosby and the Raiders.
BRETT MAHER & RILEY DIXON
After splitting kicking duties against Arizona, Brett Maher is the only player at his position for Saturday's game against San Francisco. Maher will look to improve upon an 0-for-2 performance — though one was blocked following near immediate penetration — and build on a strong week. In a two-minute period this week, Maher knocked home a 59-yarder and another from 50-plus.
"We're very happy with what we saw yesterday," Special Teams Coordinator Ben Kotwica said a day later, "and we're confident that it's going to continue. He's done a nice job. I'm just excited about the opportunity that he's going to have."
Dixon, meanwhile, will look to translate his practice performance to the game field after a difficult first punt in Arizona. Both Payton and Kotwica have full confidence that Dixon will demonstrate the ability that led Denver to sign him this offseason.
"We didn't punt it like we thought," Payton said Monday. "We've had a good two weeks punting the ball when you guys watch out here. I think he'll be much better the next game we play."
Denver has several undrafted rookies pushing to make the team, and McLaughlin may have helped his case with a fourth-quarter touchdown against the Cardinals. Lombardi said during training camp that McLaughlin seems to make a play a day — and that's how undrafted players find their way onto the roster, according to Payton.
"I just finished talking about the younger players finding advocates to make the roster," Payton said Thursday. "Generally speaking, in the preseason, it's pretty common where a guy returns a kick, blocks a punt, does something on defense or offense, and they kind of help make the decisions for you. That's what we're looking for, especially from Week 1 to Week 2 with this young class."
McLaughlin didn't enter the Broncos' first preseason game until the late stages, but he could see increased time in Saturday's contest; Tyler Badie has not practiced in recent days, and Payton said the team would limit newly signed running back Dwayne Washington's snaps.