ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the preseason ended and the regular season began, KJ Hamler learned that his locker was now in a new place.
He'd not requested the change, but his quarterback had. Teddy Bridgewater wanted Hamler to be his new locker-room neighbor.
"He just wanted to take a young dude under his wing," Hamler said. "That's all."
But what may seem like a small move could be an important one now that starter Jerry Jeudy is sidelined for several weeks with an ankle injury that he suffered during Denver's Week 1 win over the Giants. Head Coach Vic Fangio said Wednesday that Hamler will get more playing time in the wake of Jeudy's injury, and Hamler could certainly be a beneficiary as Bridgewater spreads those would-be targets around.
Bridgewater looked for Hamler on four passes on Sunday, completing three of them. The most notable of those four plays, despite one very impressive scramble drill to convert a third down in the third quarter, may have been the one Hamler didn't catch.
As Bridgewater dropped back to pass from midfield, Hamler streaked down the middle of the field and found space far downfield. Bridgewater unleashed the deep ball and Hamler turned around to catch it for what would have been a 50-yard score. But Hamler couldn't hang on to it. He admitted Wednesday there was no reason; he simply dropped it.
As Hamler looks to turn the page on that mistake, he's determined to put in the work to correct his mistake and move on from it. The day after the game, Hamler said, he went to the practice field with a staff member and asked him to throw 100 over-the-shoulder passes.
"All the great ones have had their dropped passes," Fangio said. "It's how you react to them."
For that, Hamler will rely on his skills, his knowledge and his chemistry with Bridgewater to continue growing as a player and to become the kind of receiver that he needs to be help the offense with Jeudy out.
"KJ's just got to be KJ," Bridgewater said. "He's a special player and he's here for a reason. He's explosive, he's dynamic, he's shifty. He can catch the ball well, he runs great routes. And that's what we expect of him this week. We don't need him to try to come in and be something that he's not, and he doesn't have to pretend to be something that he's not. If KJ can be the best version of KJ, he'll help this offense go and he'll continue to grow in this system and in this league."
In that way, Bridgewater's locker-room request could prove invaluable to the Broncos over the next month.
"Teddy's been awesome and amazing, like a big brother to me," Hamler said. "He told the guys to move my locker next to him just so he can take me under his wing. And I ain't never had that before. … I've never been next to my quarterback. I'm always talking to him, picking his brain. Just him doing stuff like that and talking to me after the drop, I was disappointed in the drop, you know. Even in camp, I don't drop 'tuds' [touchdowns] and deep balls and stuff like that. That's my thing. I'm a deep threat. It just slipped through. And he just told me, 'Hey, we're fine.' He was just very calm, relaxed and just keeping my head up. Even though I'm hard on myself, I still wish I could get that one back, but you've just got to move on from that play."
With considerable stakes with Broncos hoping to get a second consecutive road victory and build a 2-0 start, Hamler will have the chance to prove he's ready to do just that.
"I think when you look at guys like Michael Jordan and Steph Curry, those dudes are gonna miss shots," Hamler said. "But they're gonna keep taking them. A shooter's gonna keep taking shots. So I think just 'cause of one drop don't mean things of that nature. Just got to keep shooting and keep going."
SURTAIN STEPPING INTO A STARTING ROLE
Like Hamler, rookie cornerback Pat Surtain II will get a bigger role on Sunday against the Jaguars.
Veteran Ronald Darby was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday, and Fangio said Wednesday that Surtain will move up into that starting cornerback spot. Even in sub-packages, Fangio said, Surtain will stay outside.
"I'm going to approach it like a regular week, getting out here and getting prepared, taking it day by day and working hard in practice," Surtain said. "I guess it's a new opportunity for me to step in and fill in the role, so I'm going to be ready."
Surtain's first game experience was certainly one he'll learn from. While most of his 16 snaps were largely uneventful, he allowed Sterling Shepard to make a 37-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
On Wednesday, Surtain said that his study on Shepard had prepared him for that route and that he should have anticipated it to play it tighter.
"I should have known that route was coming based off his stem," Surtain said. "I could have squeezed it and sort of, like, initiated it earlier and made it, you know, had tighter coverage on it."
Now, Surtain will face an even bigger test as an outside cornerback that will play on most, if not all, of the defensive snaps. And regardless of that one error, he'll have to trust himself to be the player the he knows he can be and that his teammates know he can be.
"Just be you. Do what's got you here," safety Justin Simmons said Wednesday when asked what advice he would give Surtain ahead of his first start. "He's proven that he can play at the highest level with the best of 'em his whole career, his whole football career. And playing in the NFL's really, for him, going to be no different. He's got a great pass rush. The ball's going to be having to come out fast. He's got guys like Kareem and myself to be able to kind of direct traffic and make sure he's comfortable. And communication is going to be the biggest thing that keeps him at ease. Any part of him being out there in large part is not just on him. It's on us as a secondary, and we've got to make sure that we're doing all that we can to help him."
TAKING ON THE 2021 TOP PICK
One area where Surtain already has a jumpstart on everyone is experience playing against Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
When they were both freshmen — "both young pups," as Surtain said — Surtain's Crimson Tide and Lawrence's Tigers went head to head in the College Football Championship. Lawrence and Clemson came out ahead as the 2021 first-overall pick threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns.
Nearly three years later, Surtain said he sees the same kind of player he saw then.
"He's the same," Surtain said. "The same fundamentals, the same poise. I think they've got a very young team out there, a very talented team as well. So we're expecting it to be a good game. He's a great quarterback in his right, so it should be a good game."
As good as Lawrence is and as good as he's expected to become, every rookie makes mistakes as they adjust to the NFL. In his Week 1 debut, Lawrence threw three touchdowns but also three interceptions. And while the expectation may be that a defense should throw wild looks at a rookie quarterback to hassle them into a poor performance, Fangio said Denver won't rely on that in preparing for Lawrence or other rookie passers.
"We play the defense that we're comfortable playing," Fangio said. "No sense making our guys uncomfortable for the sake of that. And hopefully we do a good enough job disguising our intentions, and that helps. A lot of people think that pressuring a rookie quarterback is the way to go, but sometimes that makes it easy for him. It identifies the coverage, gets the ball out quick. So you just need to have a good mix of pressure and coverage."
Fangio's methodology appears to be working; he has an 18-9 record against rookie quarterbacks as a defensive coordinator or head coach.