Broncos OTA report: It’s much different with Russell Wilson around
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — This is the 21st consecutive year in which I’ve written voluminous packages of notes on an NFL team’s offseason and training-camp practices.
After one day of watching Russell Wilson, I might have to ditch one of my most commonly-used phrases — at least when it comes to evaluating the Denver offense:
“Would have been a sack under game conditions.”
Sure, when Dre’Mont Jones gets home — which he did multiple times Monday in the no-pad practice, making life miserable for the Broncos’ interior-offensive-line pass protectors — you can assume that such a move will result in a sack against, say, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford or Jimmy Garoppolo, to name three of the quarterbacks likely to be staring across from Denver’s defense in the 2022 season.
But Wilson has made many of his best plays dating back to his years at North Carolina State and Wisconsin when escaping pressure and buying time.
Monday’s practice was no different. Wilson showed off his mobility, with his skills most evident on a touchdown pass to Travis Fulgham. On the play, Wilson generated separation from edge rusher Aaron Patrick by deking and spinning before moving right to find space and locate Fulgham for the touchdown.
“Even when you’re out here and everybody thinks that they sacked him, you just laugh because when you watch the tape and there are a lot of times he gets out of things,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said.
At one point during a team red-zone period, Jones whipped into the backfield past Quinn Meinerz. Last year, that’s a sack. Jones even danced. But with Wilson in 2022, escape is a possibility — although on that play, Jones was in the backfield so quickly that even Wilson might have been hard-pressed to find an escape route.
“He bobs and weaves, and then all of a sudden, scores touchdowns,” Hackett said. “I think it’s from the standpoint of having covered all the different schemes, but they do have to understand that Russell Wilson is back there and can take off at any time and extend the play. It definitely adds a whole other threat.”
But Wilson’s mobility also prepares the defense for games when they face quarterbacks who provide a dual threat. That will happen far more often than games featuring opposing quarterbacks who prefer to remain static in the pocket.
“We’re going to see that with [Patrick] Mahomes twice a year. We’re going to see that with [Justin] Herbert. [Derek] Carr has the ability to extend plays. I’m just thinking in our division. I can go down the list of teams that we’re going to play,” safety Justin Simmons said. “It seems like the game each and every year is just elevating more and more to quarterbacks that are more mobile and can extend plays with their legs, and that’s great. Especially in the red zone because it’s not about the length, but the width and you can get open.
“… Defensively for us, it’s great reps because you’re always like, ‘Oh, that was a sack,’ but in real life, he can probably make some people miss right there and keep the play going.”
And then there’s the pace at which Wilson and the offense moves. This is another factor that puts stress on the defense even before the snap.
“The way he commands the offense, they get to the line fast,” Simmons said. “There are times where we’re breaking our shell as a defense a little early, so, he’s figuring out pre-snap where he wants to go with the ball. It’s clean, it’s quick, it’s crisp — so, it’s fun. I love it. It’s the game within the game. It’s going to be fun, and it’s not going to do anything else but make us better defensively.”
And this offers a daily reminder that what may seem like a sack isn’t actually one.
It’s a new era, indeed.
PLAY OF THE DAY:
Wilson was the focal point, but it was a play made at his expense that stole the show. During a seven-on-seven red-zone period, Wilson located Courtland Sutton in the back of the end zone, but safety P.J. Locke raced over, lunged and got his hand on the football to force an incompletion.
Locke got plenty of work Monday with Kareem Jackson not on hand.
“Obviously, there’s no replacing a Kareem or replacing other players, but it was easy-flow communication with [Locke],” Simmons said. “You can see his instincts kind of just take over when he’s out there playing. He’s always been a special player and I’m glad [he’s getting noticed] … he’s going to be a special player for a while.”
- Red-zone work was the primary point of emphasis Monday, with three team and one seven-on-seven period devoted to work inside the 20-yard line. “Because it’s the first day of OTAs, we want to save their legs, but also practice a very, very important situation, and I thought the guys did a really good job,” Hackett said.
- No player up front on defense was more consistently disruptive than Dre’Mont Jones. He quickly blew up multiple run plays and forced Wilson to scramble with a strong rush at the expense of the interior offensive line. It’s a good sign for Jones, of course … but a test for the interior offensive linemen, particularly Meinerz and Netane Muti. “It’s the competition we have, and it’s a good football team all around. Anytime our young guys or old guys can compete against each other, we’re going to make each other better,” Hackett said of the challenge Jones brings to the young O-linemen.
- Cornerback Donnie Lewis Jr. had an interception, picking off backup quarterback Josh Johnson during a team period.
- Rookie edge rusher Nik Bonitto showed explosion off the edge against the run during a team red-zone period. Bonitto surged into the backfield to arrived at Mike Boone just after he took a handoff from Johnson.
- Wilson worked the ball to his tight ends during a red-zone seven-on-seven period. At one point, Wilson hit Greg Dulcich and Albert Okwuegbunam on consecutive snaps.
- One touchdown pass by Wilson got taken off the board in a red-zone period when an official on-hand judged that Fulgham had interfered with cornerback Michael Ojemudia to gain separation. Ojemudia saw extensive work Monday.
- Johnson got do-it-all contributor Kendall Hinton involved, rolling out hitting him for a short touchdown pass in the left side of the end zone late in practice.
REMEMBER, FOLKS: IT’S “ALL VOLUNTARY”
So, don’t freak over the absences of players such as edge rusher Bradley Chubb, safety Kareem Jackson and running back Melvin Gordon.
“Yeah, this is all voluntary. It’s one of those things,” Hackett said. “The great thing is, a lot of those guys, they communicate and talk with me. That’s all I can ask. … Those guys reached out to me. It’s all voluntary.”
Simmons noted that Jackson was at a graduation ceremony for his daughter.
As for Gordon, here’s why I’m not concerned: He has his own offseason regimen, and he trusts it. The fact that he has remained highly productive — and healthy — at a high-attrition, relatively fungible position as he heads into his eighth season offers evidence that his methodology works. He has missed just two of his last 45 games since sitting out the opening four weeks of the 2019 season due to a holdout.
Gordon has gotten more durable as he ages, with two of the three best per-carry averages of his career coming in the last two seasons. He can’t be blamed for sticking with his own protocol.
“As long as they’re getting their bodies right and understanding the system, that’s all I can ask,” Hackett said of the players not on hand.
- Jerry Jeudy was on hand for practice, but was watching in a gray hoodie and a long-sleeved shirt while he dealt with back tightness, as first reported by Mike Klis of KUSA-Ch. 9. “We’re just making sure everybody’s good,” Hackett said.
- With Jeudy sidelined and KJ Hamler in uniform, but without a helmet, Washington and Kendall Hinton saw plenty of work. At one point, Washington caught a touchdown pass from Wilson in the back of the back of the end zone.
- With Graham Glasgow being brought along deliberately in his return from a fractured ankle, Quinn Meinerz and Netane Muti got work at right guard. Muti, who started three games last year — two at right guard, one at left guard — caught Hackett’s eyes. “He can run. For a big man, he can run,” Hackett said. “I think that’s one exciting thing about that — and he is a very huge person. So, just to be able to get off the ball, run sideline-to-sideline and be able to do the outside-zone stuff. We know that he can get everything downhill, but I think to be able to show that he can do outside zone, too, has been something really good.”
- Right tackles Billy Turner and Calvin Anderson were not on hand. This gave Ben Braden and Tom Compton opportunities to get some reps. Turner did not take part in voluntary-veteran minicamp last month. He hurt his knee in a Week 14 game against the Chicago Bears last December and missed the next four weeks. Turner returned and played in Green Bay’s divisional-playoff loss to San Francisco. “We’re playing it by ear,” Hackett said of Turner. “It’s one of those things that is day-by-day, and we just want to make sure we’re doing all the right stuff for him.”
- Defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero was not on hand. He is at the NFL’s spring meeting, taking part in the league’s first coach and front-office accelerator program. Evero and the team’s executive director of football operations, Kelly Kleine, are the Broncos’ representatives at the summit. “I can’t say how excited I am that he is at that summit,” Hackett said.
WILSON’S PANTS CHOICE? IT’S CATCHING ON
Wearing game pants for practice, as Wilson does, is starting to catch on with the players. Among the other Broncos donning their game-day pants for work Monday were Meinerz, cornerbacks Pat Surtain II, Ronald Darby and Faion Hicks, wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Tyrie Cleveland and running backs Damarea Crockett and Mike Boone.
Clouds covered Broncos headquarters for most of practice, but precipitation stayed away. Temperatures rose from 53 to 57 degrees during the session.
The Broncos will hold two more OTAs this week, on Tuesday and Thursday. These will not be open to the media. Selected players will answer questions from Denver-area reporters at Broncos headquarters after each of the practices.