ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Three months from today, the Broncos are slated to open the 2020 regular season against the Tennessee Titans.
Before we get there, though, there are plenty of questions to answer about this year's Broncos squad. Among them: How will the lack of on-field work this offseason impact the team? Is Bradley Chubb ready to go? Why doesn't Vic Fangio coach from the box?
I answer those questions and more in this edition of "Ask Aric" — as well as provide a look at the funniest player on the Broncos.
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As a fan I still want Orange Crush 3.0 and Vic's best coaching was when he was in the booth. Is it an NFL rule head coaches can't be in there? Because we now have two ex-head coaches on the sideline, can't they take care of what needs to be done on the field? – Travis S.
Travis, as far as I know, there's no rule that explicitly prohibits head coaches from being in the coaching box during the game. Sean Payton, the Saints' head coach, worked from the box briefly in 2011 after suffering a leg injury. It's clear that the value of being on the sideline, though, clearly outweighs the benefit from being up above. On the playing surface, coaches can communicate with officials, manage timeouts and challenges, speak more easily with the players and manage all the moving parts that go on during an NFL game. It's great to have two former head coaches on the sideline in Mike Munchak and Pat Shurmur (we haven't heard if Shurmur will be in the box or on the field), but Vic Fangio is the head coach of this team. It's worth pointing out that Fangio did just fine calling the Broncos' defense from the field in 2019; The Broncos ranked 10th in scoring defense in his first season in Denver. He still has assistants in the box he can rely on when needed, and he said at the 2020 NFL Combine that he was able to make the adjustment just fine from the box to the field.
"We got better at that," Fangio said. "I got better at that. I never felt it was a problem. I just got more comfortable with it. When I had that kidney stone in the preseason, I should have gone in the box that day because I had an excuse. I'll be down there [on the field]."
Expectations are high this year. The schedule, on the surface, is daunting. Can we expect a playoff run with one of the youngest teams in the league, who has its third OC in three years, numerous new players, and whose development has been slowed by the aftermath of COVID-19? – Ian M.
Ian, the schedule is definitely a concern, as ESPN's Football Power Index recently rated the Broncos' slate as the toughest in the league. And it will be challenging for the Broncos to implement Pat Shurmur's offense with no on-field work until training camp. Competing for a playoff berth still seems attainable, though, for several reasons.
Let's start with Drew Lock, who got invaluable experience at the end of last year in his five starts. We heard from Shurmur this past week, and he said he's been impressed with Lock's ability to grasp the concepts of the new offense. Plus, we've seen the reports that Lock has organized off-campus throwing sessions with his teammates. In a recent video circulating on social media, it appeared like Lock had gathered enough of his teammates to run plays with a full offensive line, too. The quarterback is seemingly doing everything possible to help Denver return to the postseason.
As for the rest of the young players on the Broncos' offense, Noah Fant, Dalton Risner, Courtland Sutton and Phillip Lindsay all have plenty of experience. Experts describe Jerry Jeudy as the most pro-ready wide receiver in years. If Lloyd Cushenberry III starts at center, he should be able to rely on Risner and Graham Glasgow. Could it take a few extra weeks for the offense to click because of the missed reps? Sure. Even with the unusual circumstances, though, it's safe to assume the Broncos' second-year players will take a jump forward.
And the Broncos certainly aren't the only ones dealing with this challenge. In Tennessee, the Titans' defense will feature plenty of new faces. Ben Roethlisberger hasn't played for Pittsburgh since Week 2 of 2019. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense is radically different. In short, the COVID-19 restrictions will impact every team in some way or another. Shurmur mentioned Thursday that the biggest change may be that teams lose the ability to test out a bunch of different plays. Instead, they'll have to be more focused and only rep the plays that they'll likely run in a game.
Despite the challenges of a very unusual offseason, I like what the Broncos have done this offseason to try to mitigate the impact.
Who is the funniest player on the team? - Leland Z.
It kind of depends on your sense of humor. Von Miller is a fun-loving guy who likes to mess with his teammates and crack jokes during press availability. Drew Lock has delivered some zingers of his own. Shelby Harris has a dry sense of humor might have the best laugh, which is loud and booming. My pick, though, is Kareem Jackson. He's got great comedic timing and knows how to get his teammates laughing. Just watch any episode of KJack TV — you'll see.
How is one of our homegrown boys here in Oceanside, California, Alijah Holder doing? – Eduardo G.
When Holder signed with the Broncos last season as a college free agent, he initially competed for a roster spot at the cornerback position. While he didn't make the 53-man roster, he signed onto the Broncos' practice squad immediately after roster cutdowns. He stayed there until Week 16, when the Broncos elevated him to the active roster as Kareem Jackson served a two-game suspension. Holder didn't get any defensive snaps, but he played 23 special teams snaps across the final two games of the season. Now listed as a safety, Holder could have a path to a roster spot. Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are arguably the league's best starting safety duo, but the reserve spots behind them should be wide open after Will Parks left for Philadelphia in free agency. I'd expect Trey Marshall to earn one of the two backup spots, but Holder should compete with undrafted rookie Douglas Coleman III, P.J. Locke and Kahani Smith for the last role. It's quite possible you see more of Holder in 2020.
The Broncos have done a lot in the offseason and draft to improve their offense (which they needed to do) but what have they done to improve their defense and special teams? – Doug C.
With all the splash moves the Broncos made on offense since the end of the season, it's been overlooked that they also improved a defense that ranked 10th in points allowed in 2019. The Broncos made their two biggest moves via trade, as they added five-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey for a seventh-round pick and 2017 second-team All-Pro A.J. Bouye for a fourth-rounder. Denver also re-signed Shelby Harris to a team-friendly contract late in free agency and kept Mike Purcell after they assigned him a second-round tender. Bradley Chubb and Bryce Callahan are also set to return from injuries. There are still questions, as the Broncos' cornerback group is somewhat unproven, but this group could be better than the 2019 defense.
On special teams, the Broncos let Casey Kreiter walk in free agency and will now turn the long snapping responsibilities over to either Jacob Bobenmoyer or Wes Farnsworth. Rookie KJ Hamler could return punts for the Broncos, though it seems like incumbent Diontae Spencer still holds the advantage. He was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2019. And while punters don't often get much publicity, Sam Martin could be an important addition to this team. Martin ranked 10th in the NFL in net yards per punt among players with at least 50 attempts, and he landed more than 40 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. With Martin as their punter, the Lions allowed the fourth-fewest punt return yards of any team in 2019. The Broncos, meanwhile, gave up a pair of punt return touchdowns last year. If Martin can give the Broncos more consistency — and be "boring," as Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon puts it — Denver should have an edge in the punt game that they haven't had in a while.
Is Bradley Chubb 100 percent healthy? – Michael W.
Michael, we may not know until September when regular season games begin if Chubb is back to his 2018 form when he recorded 12 sacks and set a franchise rookie record. All indications, though, are positive. The Broncos previously posted a video of Chubb running on a treadmill, and Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said Thursday that Chubb was "full speed and ready to go." The Broncos' additions of Bouye and Casey have gotten a lot of attention — and deservedly so. Chubb's return, though, could be the Broncos' most impactful move of the offseason. I expect a massive year for the 2018 fifth-overall pick, and it sounds like Donatell does too. "You'll see a really good year from him," Donatell said.