Denver Broncos preseason preview: schedule, analysis, players to watch

By The Sports Xchange  |  July 26, 2017 at 11:05 PM
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - As the Denver Broncos convened at the UCHealth Training Center here beginning July 26, the same story that dominated the offseason will remain the top headliner.

There is a new head coach (Vance Joseph), a new offensive coordinator (Mike McCoy) and a new defensive coordinator (Joe Woods). But the focus will be on quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch to see which one will open the season when the Broncos host the division-rival Chargers in the second game of a Monday night doubleheader.

Siemian has the advantage in terms of experience, having started 14 games in 2016, but the offense has been tweaked to play more toward Lynch's strengths, and he appeared to gain confidence during offseason work, particularly in his timing with starting wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

Joseph has said that he wants consistency from his starting quarterback, and with a veteran team, that is a priority. However, upside has to come into consideration, and if Siemian can't break free from Lynch, he could find himself as the No. 2 quarterback by Week 1 behind Lynch, whose first-round pedigree and raw arm strength could give him an advantage despite his scattershot moments.

For the time being at least, Joseph announced Wednesday that Siemian will be the first unit for the opening practice of camp.

On the defensive side, Woods, the defensive backs coach last season, takes over for the departed Wade Phillips and promised only minor changes from the way Phillips ran the defense.

"I don't want to come in and change the fingerprints or the foundation of our defense," Woods said in the offseason. "All I said is, I want to sprinkle a little sugar on it. It's something that will give us a little change-up, make offenses work at the line of scrimmage. That's all we're doing."

Said cornerback Chris Harris Jr., "Our defense, we made little tweaks. We're not as simple as we have been in the past. In the past, we played so much man and just making it so easy for the quarterbacks. So now we're going to sprinkle in (some) different little things and make them think."

TRAINING CAMP: UCHealth Training Center; Englewood, Colo.

COACH: Vance Joseph

1st season as Broncos/NFL head coach

THE BREAKDOWN

2016 finish: 3rd AFC West (9-7-0)

STATISTICS

TOTAL OFFENSE: 323.1 (27th)

RUSHING: 92.8 (27th)

PASSING: 230.3 (T21st)

TOTAL DEFENSE: 316.1 (4th)

RUSHING: 130.3 (28th)

PASSING: 185.8(1st)

2017 PRESEASON SCHEDULE

All times Mountain

Aug. 10, at Chicago (Thu), 6:00

Aug. 19, at San Francisco (Sat), 8:00

Aug. 26, GREEN BAY (Sat), 7:00

Aug. 31, ARIZONA (Thu), 7:00

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Trevor Siemian. Backups - Paxton Lynch, Chad Kelly, Kyle Sloter.

Siemian and Lynch are expected to split first-team repetitions until there is enough separation for head coach Vance Joseph to name one of them the starting quarterback. Kelly is expected to begin throwing at some point during training camp, but this is likely to be a redshirt year for the seventh-round pick as he learns the system. Sloter was signed to handle third-team repetitions while Kelly heals; if Kelly is up to speed by the end of the summer, there might not even be a practice-squad place for him.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - C.J. Anderson, FB Andy Janovich. Backups - Devontae Booker, Jamaal Charles, Juwan Thompson, De'Angelo Henderson, Bernard Pierce.

Anderson was in shape during OTAs and looked stronger than he did in previous offseasons, even though he spent the early part of the year rehabilitating from a torn meniscus. Janovich is the only fullback on the roster and he might find himself in a utility role, even seeing some tight-end-type work. There is a significant crunch on the depth chart. Henderson, a sixth-round pick, seems a good bet to make the team as a potential third-down back of the future. Booker could push Anderson for a starting role. The wild card is Charles. If he's healthy and can put his recent injuries behind him, he could start; if he struggles to overcome his issues, he might not make it out of camp. If Charles' knee responds, he could create a crunch that leads to a trade of one of the veteran runners.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- A.J. Derby. Backups - Virgil Green, Jeff Heuerman, Jake Butt, Henry Krieger-Coble, Steven Scheu, Austin Traylor.

Butt will begin training camp on the non-football injury list, but when he completes recovery from a torn ACL, he could represent the future of the position, as he can line up in an in-line or stand-up alignment. Derby provides an interior target who should help the quarterbacks get the football out quickly. Heuerman is finally healthy and could provide a down-the-seam presence. Green is a solid blocker, but could be on the bubble in the new scheme. Krieger-Coble, Scheu and Traylor will have their chances to impress.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders. Backups - Bennie Fowler, Jordan Taylor, Cody Latimer, Marlon Brown, Carlos Henderson, Isaiah McKenzie, Kalif Raymond, Hunter Sharp, Anthony Nash.

Thomas and Sanders should see the football plenty of times in what is expected to be a "pass-happy" offense, and Henderson and McKenzie will help provide depth and could be good change-of-pace options. McKenzie, in particular, could provide some explosive plays in limited use, and could be utilized on jet and fly sweeps. From there, it gets interesting, because a roster crunch looms. Fowler, Taylor, Latimer, Brown and Raymond are all returning veterans from last year's roster, but if the Broncos avoid injuries, no more than two of those five are likely to make the 53-man roster out of the preseason. Fowler and Latimer could stick because of their roles on special teams, but Taylor had the most receptions of that group last season, and his flair for spectacular catches and outstanding body control in mid-air could allow him to steal a roster spot once again.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Ty Sambrailo, LG Max Garcia, C Matt Paradis, RG Ron Leary, RT Menelik Watson. Backups - LT Garett Bolles, C/G Connor McGovern, G/T Michael Schofield, RT Donald Stephenson, G/T Allen Barbre, G Billy Turner, C Dillon Day, G Chris Muller, T Justin Murray, T Cedrick Lang, T Elijah Wilkinson.

Once again, the Broncos are starting over on the offensive line, and if Bolles can earn the starting job, they will likely start Week 1 with 60 percent of the line comprised of players who were not on last year's roster. They have already moved Leary from left guard, which he played in Dallas, to the right side; this allows Garcia to return to left guard, where he started last year. Leary has said he doesn't care which side he plays on. Paradis did not take part in OTAs, but is expected to return from a pair of hip surgeries. With so much change up front, his health is crucial to the unit's success. If his hips don't hold up, it's hard to imagine the Broncos getting any kind of improvement unless McGovern makes a big leap in his second season. As camp opened, the Broncos acquired versatile backup Barbre from the Eagles.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DE Derek Wolfe, NT Domata Peko, DE Jared Crick. Backups - DE Zach Kerr, DE Billy Winn, NT Kyle Peko, DE Adam Gotsis, DE DeMarcus Walker, NT Tyrique Jarrett, DE Shakir Soto, DE Shelby Harris.

Wolfe is the proven commodity and enters training camp poised for a big year after an outstanding spring. Domata Peko, a team captain with the Bengals, brings leadership, even though he will probably be limited to base-package work only at this point in his career. The question revolves around who will help generate a pass rush along with Wolfe. Crick and Gotsis both added weight, but Gotsis suffered a knee injury late in OTAs and underwent a knee procedure; he is expected back early in camp. Walker was a prolific pass rusher at Florida State, but at 280 pounds, is he strong enough for an interior role at the next level? Kerr should also be a part of the rotation.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Von Miller, OLB Shane Ray, ILB Brandon Marshall, ILB Todd Davis. Backups - OLB Shaquil Barrett, OLB Vontarrius Dora, OLB Kasib Edebali, ILB Zaire Anderson, ILB Corey Nelson, OLB Ken Ekanem, ILB Josh Banderas, ILB Jerrol Garcia-Williams, ILB Kevin Snyder, ILB Quentin Gause, ILB Deon Hollins.

DeMarcus Ware's retirement pushes Ray into the starting lineup; he had eight sacks last year and should be ready for an expanded role opposite Miller, a perennial All-Pro who is the unquestioned ringleader of the defense. Marshall is effective when healthy, but has dealt with injuries in each of the last two years; he and Davis are an effective tandem. Anderson and Nelson provide experienced depth. The questions are with depth on the outside. Barrett is injured and out until the regular season, and with Ware retired and Dekoda Watson having departed for San Francisco in free agency, either Dora or Edebali will have to step up.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Chris Harris Jr., CB Aqib Talib, FS Darian Stewart, SS T.J. Ward. Backups - CB Bradley Roby, CB Lorenzo Doss, FS Justin Simmons, SS Will Parks, CB Chris Lewis-Harris, CB Brendan Langley, FS Orion Stewart, SS Jamal Carter, CB Dontrell Nelson, CB Marcus Rios, FS Dante Barnett, SS Dymonte Thomas.

The starters have all been Pro Bowlers at some point in the last three seasons, and represent the best secondary in the AFC, if not the NFL. But Harris, Talib, Stewart and Ward are all in their seventh season or later, and Talib in particular is in his 10th year and coming off a season in which he battled back issues. Roby had his fifth-year option picked up and will continue to work at least 50 percent of the snaps as the No. 3 cornerback. Simmons is an emerging center-field-type safety who intercepted a pass in each of the final two games last season; he and Parks provide solid young depth. Doss, Lewis-Harris and Langley will battle for the No. 4 role; Lewis-Harris' experience gives him an edge. Langley should see plenty of special-teams work right away. The Broncos signed four undrafted safeties -- Stewart, Carter, Barnett and Thomas -- and at least one of them should stick on the practice squad.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Brandon McManus, P Riley Dixon, LS Casey Kreiter, KOR Carlos Henderson, PR Isaiah McKenzie.

Kalif Raymond, Cody Latimer and Hunter Sharp could all factor into the competition on returns, but general manager John Elway drafted Henderson and McKenzie with the intention of using them on returns right away. Henderson's straight-line speed, long stride and running-back build make him a good fit for kickoff returns, while McKenzie's quickness made him one of the best punt returners in college football last year. McManus and Dixon are one of the best young kicker-punter combinations in the league.

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