What to watch in Broncos-49ers

DENVER -- Questions about the composition of the Broncos' first-team offense and defense are scarce. It's a different matter for special teams.

And while three key roles -- punter, kicker and long snapper -- have no roster competition, questions linger on returns, protection and coverage units. In coverage and protection, injuries to fullback Andy Janovich and linebacker Joe Jones altered the landscape.

Punt and kickoff returns, however, are a different matter entirely.

"It’s wide open," Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon said. "We haven’t had any production. Somebody has to produce and separate themselves.”

McMahon knew that the return competition might take some time to resolve. So he isn't entirely surprised that the Broncos will head into their third preseason game with the 49ers without any clear answers in this area of special teams.

"Zero frustration," McMahon said when asked how frustrating it was to not have clarity. "We still have three [preseason] games left, [and] we have a long camp left on returns. Most teams are just getting into their second game right now, so we have three opportunities to define this and separate, so I have no frustration."

On kickoff returns, the Broncos have the option of turning to running back Devontae Booker, who led the team with a 23.4-yard average last year. He has a 21.3-yard average on 24 kickoff returns in three seasons as a Bronco, although he did fumble the opening kickoff last week at Seattle.

Five offensive players have returned punts for the Broncos so far this preseason: wide receivers Kelvin McKnight, Nick Williams, River Cracraft and Brendan Langley and running back Devontae Jackson. Others have fielded punts in practice, including wide receiver Trinity Benson. Wide receiver Fred Brown fielded punts from a JUGS machine after practice this week.

Two others who saw brief punt-return work last year are on the roster: running back Phillip Lindsay (three punt returns for a 7.7-yard average in 2018) and wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton (three punt returns for a 10.3-yard average). Neither of them has seen any work there in the 2019 preseason.

McKnight has the only punt return of longer than 5 yards for the Broncos this season; he ran a first-quarter punt back 18 yards against the Atlanta Falcons. But the average per return does not reveal everything; sometimes, it's simply a function of other factors. So a big return might not move the needle if it's a low punt and good blocking exists. A short return of a high, hanging punt with poor blocking might not hurt a candidate, either.

"A lot of that is that the punt returner looks good, but it's the guys up front, they get a good holdup, that's sometimes matched up with a bad kick, and that's when big plays happen," said Williams, who was a punt returner at Connecticut and averaged 11.8 yards on four punt returns for the Tennessee Titans last season.

And that's where the "little things" of which McMahon often speaks come into play.

"There's a little bit of a nuance in terms of having a feeling for which direction the ball is going to be kicked, what the situation is -- is it a pooch, is it a backed-up punt," Williams said, adding that being able to read these aspects of a punt can help you "get a jump on things."

The Broncos need someone to get a jump on the returner derby Monday night.

What else will be worth watching?

CAN THE OFFENSE SUSTAIN MOMENTUM?

A balky, inconsistent performance for the Broncos' offense on Friday gave way to a confident, dynamic effort on Saturday. With Joe Flacco and Drew Lock handling the bulk of the plays, the Broncos stretched the field with connections from Flacco to Courtland Sutton, Emmanuel Sanders and Noah Fant, while dicing the 49ers up for a slew of touchdowns during a team red-zone period.

If the offense plays like it practiced Saturday, it will have a solid foundation on which to work heading into the regular season. It will also show that the unit can handle plenty of pressure from the front seven, as the 49ers' pass rush should be as active as it was during the two joint practices.

A BOUNCE-BACK GAME FOR COLBY WADMAN?

Wadman has not had competition on the roster since the Broncos waived Justin Vogel earlier in training camp, but he still needs solid performances to solidify his position on the roster. During the second preseason game with the Seahawks, he struggled with hang time, as two of his four punts traveled through the air for fewer than 3.70 seconds.

"He didn’t hang the ball very well, I didn’t think, and then directionally right down the middle that causes some issues," McMahon said. "Distance was good. The gross [average] is good, but he’ll play better this week. [He] didn’t have a good game but had a much better week of practice."

SETTLING THE DEPTH ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE

With Ron Leary still limited to approximately half of the team-period snaps in practice during the joint sessions with the 49ers, the Broncos still need to make sure their interior offensive-line depth is settled. Elijah Wilkinson is on track to be a swing backup at offensive tackle and has experience at guard, but the team needs at least one player from the trio of Don Barclay, Jake Brendel and Austin Schlottmann to emerge. All three have seen first-team repetitions at center or right guard during training camp.

LEARNING MORE ABOUT THE INSIDE LINEBACKERS

Josey Jewell returned from injury to practice in recent days, but with Jones and Todd Davis still out, Josh Watson, Alexander Johnson, Justin Hollins, Keishawn Bierria, Joe Dineen and converted safety Jamal Carter will see plenty of repetitions.

Carter's case is perhaps the most intriguing of the group, as his skill set and instincts could lend themselves well to playing in the box, even though his frame (215 pounds) does not. Carter probably needs another seven to 15 pounds to hold up at the position, which is why the Broncos may have to play the long game with him to see if he can make the transition.

At this point, Carter is still learning the nuances and checks of his position, so mistakes are inevitable. But if his instincts and reaction result in some solid tackles and a big hit or two, then he will earn a longer look.

"This is a guy who likes physicality," Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said. "Being down around the action is something that plays to his strengths. Everything is a plus-plus at this point."

THE ONLY WORK AGAINST STARTERS

The preseason usually gives a team's No. 1 offense a chance to work against first-teamers for approximately one full game of work -- a chunk of the first quarter in one game, into the middle of the second quarter the following week and typically for a full half in the next-to-last preseason game.

The Broncos do not have that opportunity this year. Atlanta rested nearly all of its No. 1 offense and defense in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 1. Seattle did the same seven days later. The Los Angeles Rams are expected to sit their starters on Saturday -- as they have for every preseason game the past two seasons.

It's not that the Broncos can't measure their own progress over the course of training-camp practices and preseason games, but with this being their only opportunity to work against a No. 1 offense and defense, a good performance is essential for building another layer of confidence in their new schemes heading into the regular-season opener at Oakland.

Related Content

Advertising