Granted, the Broncos-Rams preseason tilt in Los Angeles has devolved into a JV game. On Denver’s side, Von Miller, Joe Flacco, Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Harris Jr. and the team’s other stars won’t play a down. And for L.A., it’ll be the same plan, with Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald and the other notable members of the defending NFC champs getting the night off.
But that doesn’t mean the game is meaningless. In fact, it might make it more useful.
If the starters were playing, what would that really tell anyone? It’s two teams playing very generic football, going through the motions in an attempt to not show anything and not get hurt. Nothing would be learned from the time when those groups were on the field.
When the backups check in, however, something is at stake. At that point, jobs are on the line, with players trying to stand out and flash for the coaches.
Instead of getting the interesting bit of football for a half, it’ll now be the entire game. So that’s a positive.
When the Broncos and Rams “B” teams square off, plenty will be at stake. For Denver, here are five riddles that need to be solved:
1. Who on earth is going to return punts?
Thus far during training camp and preseason games, plenty of players have auditioned for the role. Unfortunately for the Broncos, they’ve all looked more like understudies than leading men. Initially, Denver just needs to find someone who can reliably catch the ball; amazingly, that’s been an issue, with Brendan Langley and Nick Williams muffing punts during the preseason. From there, they’d like to find someone who can make something happen with the ball in his hands, which River Cracraft, Kelvin McKnight and other candidates have failed to do. As a result, the job remains wide open, just begging for someone to step up and seize it.
2. Who will be the backup middle linebackers?
With Todd Davis sidelined since the first day of training camp with a calf injury, and fellow starter Josey Jewell missing some time with an oblique issue, there have been plenty of first- and second-team reps for the Broncos batch of middle linebackers. Thus far, however, no one has stepped into the elevated role and appeared ready for the task. Alexander Johnson and Josh Watson, the two players who’ve gotten the most action, haven’t made any memorable plays. Keishawn Bierria and Justin Hollins haven’t shined. And converted safety Jamal Carter is still getting used to the new position. They all had a chance to beat out Davis or Jewell. Now, they’re just trying to avoid getting cut.
3. Is the DeMarcus Walker era over?
To some extent, the Broncos second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft has been a victim of circumstances. Denver quite knew what to do with the former Florida State star, so they’ve had him gain weight, lose pounds, move inside, jump outside, and more. It’s been a mess. As a result, the third-year pro has only posted 11 tackles and 2.0 sacks during his first two seasons combined; he’s only appeared in 13 total games. The Broncos still hold out hope that he’s finally found a home at defensive end, but there haven’t been enough good moments during camp and the preseason. The 51st overall pick should be a contributor. Denver has to decide whether or not to remain patient or cut bait.
4. How do the Broncos bridge the gap while Jano is hurt?
In Denver’s second preseason game, Andy Janovich was lost for six to eight weeks with a pectoral injury. That puts the timetable for the Broncos starting fullback to return somewhere between Week 3 to 6 of the regular season. In the meantime, who is going to fill that role, being a lead blocker in the running game and a target in the passing game. Rookie George Aston will get the first shot, as he’s the only other true fullback on the roster. But if he’s not up to the task, newly signed Orson Charles is an option, as is fellow tight end Troy Fumagalli. It’s a short-term problem, but still an issue, nonetheless. How will Denver solve it?
5. Is Kevin Hogan a viable backup?
He certainly hasn’t looked like it during training camp or the preseason, where he was about to get leapfrogged by Drew Lock on the depth chart. With the rookie injured, however, Hogan remains Denver’s No. 2 quarterback. That’s a concern, as he’s shown nothing that would suggest he’s capable of keeping things on track if Joe Flacco gets injured. His numbers (13-of-30 for 104 yards) in the preseason are anemic, but Hogan also hasn’t passed the eye test. He simply doesn’t throw passes that look like they come from an NFL quarterback. If he’s pitiful against the Rams, the Broncos will have to strongly consider a different backup option until Lock is ready to go.
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