MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — The preseason is back, and so are the Denver Broncos.
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 preseason slate, the valuable exhibition games have returned to the schedule. Denver kicks off the preseason at 2 p.m. MT on Saturday in Minnesota, and the game could be a turning point for this team.
For the Broncos, who find themselves in the midst of a quarterback competition, the reps against the Vikings will be invaluable. Drew Lock will get the start before Teddy Bridgewater relieves him, and we'll look for the first true separation of the competition.
Of course, Saturday's game doesn't revolve solely around the quarterback position. Other players — at a variety of spots — will look to make an impact, and Denver will try to answer several different questions as the regular season approaches.
Before the Broncos kick off at U.S. Bank Stadium, here's a look at a few of the questions that will be answered on Saturday.
WILL LOCK OR BRIDGEWATER MAKE A MOVE IN THE QUARTERBACK BATTLE?
Don't worry, we weren't going to forget about this one.
Through more than two weeks of practice, Head Coach Vic Fangio has maintained that there hasn't been much separation between Bridgewater and Lock. On Saturday, we'll get to see if that changes during the first live action of the preseason. Lock, who will get the first snaps of the preseason, was adamant that his No. 1 goal against the Vikings is to avoid the big mistake.
"Just take care of the football, progress down the field, score some touchdowns," Lock said Wednesday of his goals. "But the main thing for me will be taking care of the football, showing that I can make the right decision with the ball, keep the offense on the field because we have enough guys on our team, on our offense, enough talent that as long as we're staying on the field, good things are going to happen."
Of course, Lock admitted that it's easy to preach in a press conference about the value of ball security. It's another thing entirely to be able to make the right decision in the middle of a play.
"You're in press conferences, you know, we talk about taking care of the football, but when you get out there, the actual instincts are going to have to take over," Lock said. "I think the more looks you end up seeing, the better you become with these plays, the more familiar you are, it almost just comes naturally — you being able to take care of the football. You know the looks. You've seen 100 looks on a certain play to know when, 'Eh, it's probably going to be there,' or, 'Maybe best to check it down.' So it's easy to say it on the mic, but it's another thing to go out there and do it."
Bridgewater, who will get the start in Seattle, will see his first action after Lock is done for the afternoon. It's unclear how many snaps each quarterback will take, but Bridgewater will look to continue his trend from training camp of moving the ball with a high completion percentage and series of efficient passes.
"The biggest part for me on Saturday is getting my unit to the end zone no matter who's out there with me," Bridgewater said. "[I'm] trying to encourage the other 10 guys in the huddle with me to be the best player that they can be each play. [I'm going to] take it one play at a time and not look too far ahead and not think about what happened in the past. [If] we can just focus on that one play and find purpose in every single rep, then we're accomplishing our goal."
WHICH VETERANS WILL PLAY VS. THE VIKINGS?
While we know Lock and Bridgewater will be out there on Saturday, it's less clear which other veterans will take the field vs. Minnesota.
Two years ago, in the Broncos' Week 1 preseason game against the Seahawks — the Hall of Fame game a week earlier was dedicated to young players — many of Denver's starting defenders played just 10 snaps, which equated to two series. That's the only real information we have from Fangio's head-coaching career about what to expect when the game arrives.
In that game against the Seahawks, starting quarterback Joe Flacco played 11 plays, while Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant played 15 and 16 snaps, respectively, and the starting offensive line played 17 snaps.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see the starters play a similar number of snaps on Saturday, though it's possible Lock gets more plays because of the quarterback competition.
In particular, it will be interesting to monitor if Bradley Chubb, Sutton and Von Miller make an appearance during this first game.
Sutton said before training camp began that he believed he would play in just one preseason game, and Chubb said his preseason snaps would be left up to the training staff. Miller, meanwhile, said this week that he'd like to "sharpen the knife" in preseason.
As of Friday, the team had not publicly confirmed which players will not play.
IS THE SECONDARY AS GOOD AS ADVERTISED?
Against the Vikings, the Broncos' secondary looked like a well-oiled machine. On Thursday, the second-team unit forced three consecutive incompletions from Kirk Cousins to start the day, and Denver's defense later put the clamps on in the red zone. In a move-the-ball period on Wednesday, the first-team secondary found similar success, as the group forced Cousins and Co. off the field.
Through the first two weeks of camp, Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan and Pat Surtain II have all made their share of plays. There have been interceptions and pass breakups, and no quarterback that they've faced has found consistent success. On Saturday, we'll get to see how that plays out in a game environment. Jackson, in particular, will get to show off his patented physicality for the first time.
In their few snaps, there are a couple things to watch for. First, it will be interesting to see how often all six defensive backs are on the field. Fangio suggested earlier in camp that the Broncos will use that dime look more often this year, but it will still be fun to see how the six players work in concert.
More important than the lineup is how the players perform when on the field. A year ago, the Broncos struggled to generate interceptions. The team had just 10 in 2020, which ranked 23rd in the league; only Justin Simmons (5) and Bryce Callahan (2) had more than one. The Broncos desperately need more takeaways from that group in 2021, and it would be a good sign if they could find one in their presumed limited action on Saturday.
WHICH PLAYERS IN POSITION BATTLES WILL STAND OUT?
The quarterback competition might be the most prominent battle on the Broncos' roster, but it's not the only position where players are fighting for a job.
At outside linebacker, seventh-round pick Jonathon Cooper will battle with Derrek Tuszka and Andre Mintze for a roster spot. Rookies Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson will both push for depth positions at safety. The wide receiving corps has spots open at the bottom of its group, as Tyrie Cleveland, Seth Williams, Kendall Hinton, Trinity Benson and several others could all be competing for just one spot.
Then, of course, there's the right tackle position, where Bobby Massie and Calvin Anderson have shared first-team reps. Fangio was not asked which player would start at right tackle, but it will be another opportunity for those men to put good plays on tape.
One other battle that bears watching is at punt returner. Diontae Spencer has held the spot for a couple of years, but Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon noted that KJ Hamler is in the mix for that job. It will be worth watching to see how many reps Hamler gets and if he's able to catch the punts without any issues. If Hamler is able to unseat Spencer, it could change the makeup of the wide receiving corps.
"Extremely interested," McMahon said in early August of watching Hamler return punts. "He needs to prove that to himself, not only us. He has to play with that confidence. To end up making this a true competition, if you hand them both the ball, him and 'Spence', they both can run with it. But he's got to prove he can catch it and he's got to prove it to himself and then take off with it. We shouldn't have to use Bryce in games to go fair catch when KJ is active. He's a weapon. So, he has to do that. The thing I'll be honest with you [about is] KJ's maturity is unbelievable right now. He has taken off. He wants that job. It's competitive — and there's others involved, but there's competition there."