CANTON, Ohio -- With a new coach, new schemes and the frustration of back-to-back losing seasons fading into the distance, the Broncos open their first five-game preseason in 15 years with myriad questions -- and an extra game with which to start answering them.
And while a score will be kept and the competitive juices will flow among those taking part in the game, the process and development are the priorities for both the Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons.
“As we stand here today it’s not that important, but invariably when we get on that sideline Thursday night it’s like playing a game of Horse in the backyard. You still want to win," Head Coach Vic Fangio said.
"We want to win but we know there’s bigger fish to fry in the game, meaning we’ve got to get evaluations of these guys to help us pick the best 53 for the team."
What are some areas to watch Thursday night?
THE ROOKIE QUARTERBACKS
Kevin Hogan will start the game, but this is his fourth preseason with his fourth different team. He knows the drill.
But it's all new to Drew Lock and Brett Rypien, the two rookies who will follow Hogan into action. While both want to show their capability, Lock noted that a key aspect of his work will be to remain calm -- and to help his teammates do the same.
"There's going to be a lot of young guys, a lot of draft picks, a lot of [former] free agents," Lock said. "Juices will be flowing, people will be riled up. Let’s calm down. Let’s show that we can drive it on the field. Be crisp, be smart, [and] no penalties before the snap.
"Just be a really clean quarterback that doesn't force a ball downfield, that can check it down and keep moving the sticks.”
FACING A DIFFERENT STYLE OF DEFENSE
The offense found its rhythm more as practices progressed, trimming its mental mistakes in recent days. Hogan, Lock and Rypien became comfortable executing the play-action fakes that are likely to be an offensive staple, and the rookies in particular grew more precise at throwing above the free defender on the edge, leading to a slew of solid gains on passes to running backs, tight ends and wide receivers on short drag routes.
"In the end, they’re seeing an entirely different defensive scheme, which is a huge challenge for a lot of these guys because is going to be completely foreign to what they’re seeing out here," Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello said.
COMPETITION AT INSIDE LINEBACKER
Alexander Johnson and Josh Watson took most of the base-package first-team repetitions since Todd Davis' injury, typically alternating days with the No. 1 defense. Joe Jones saw most of the sub-package work in place of Davis, and stood out with his ability to make plays on the ball in coverage.
"Our linebackers fit into our scheme. We’ll coach the next guy up," Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said. "There are some young guys that are showing some promise. There are some veteran guys [showing some promise]. So, it is really helping us."
FINDING DEPTH UP FRONT
Connor McGovern, Garett Bolles and Dalton Risner are expected to start at center, left tackle and left guard, respectively. But with Ron Leary and Ja'Wuan James missing some practice time because of their injury recoveries, Jake Brendel, Don Barclay and Elijah Wilkinson have seen plenty of first-team work.
Wilkinson could be poised to be a primary backup at both tackle spots. The duel between Brendel and Barclay could be one to watch, as they jockey to provide interior depth. Both possess starting experience. Both have filled in for Leary in the last two weeks.
"I think at every position [on the line] there's competition. It never ends. It's what you do today and what you do today," Scangarello said. "We have such a long way to go. ... There's a lot of things that can happen. There's injuries. There's an opportunity when guys take days off, and there's good quality depth at a number of positions. There's always a battle going in."
WILL IT TRANSLATE?
If you've been reading the daily camp reports, watching the highlights or listening to our podcasts, you've noticed undrafted rookies who are drawing attention -- Watson, Trinity Benson, Austin Fort, Devontae Jackson, Kelvin McKnight and Malik Reed, just to name a few.
But every year, the preseason games alter the outlook. Some standouts fade into the background. Others who haven't jumped off the page at camp explode under the lights.