TRAINING CAMP 2022

Ask Mase: How Nathaniel Hackett showed he’s a coach for the entire team

Aug 7, 2022, 8:38 PM | Updated: 8:39 pm
Nathaniel Hackett, Brandon McManus...
(Photo by Andrew Mason / DenverFan.com)
(Photo by Andrew Mason / DenverFan.com)

Believe it or not, training camp is almost over. The Broncos have just four practices left that are open to the general public. Barely three weeks separate this moment from the 53-man roster deadline.

It’s early, but the season is already zipping right along.

At this point, it’s obvious how coach Nathaniel Hackett is different than his predecessor, Vic Fangio. Different in demeanor. Different in the side of the ball that is his speciality. And also different in how he interacts with his players.

But one significant difference is this: Hackett has a full-team, big-picture perspective that seemed to elude Fangio. And that became apparent Saturday, in the wake of the first notable fight of training camp.

Now, as far as training-camp fisticuffs go, it wasn’t much. As an eyewitness to Steve Smith breaking Ken Lucas’ nose and bruising his eye with a punch at Carolina’s training camp 14 years ago, the tussle between defensive end McTelvin Agim and guard Ben Braden moves the needle about as much as a 2.1 tremor on the Richter scale.

Hackett stepped in and sent off Braden and Agim for a moment. And then, when practice was done, he had a clear, thorough and full explanation of the aftermath:

“I just kicked those guys off the field. In the end, that’s what happens in a game. If something like that happens in a game — if someone is out, potentially for the whole game, it hurts the team. In the end, we talk about the team. It’s all about the team, and I know there’s heated battles out there, but it’s all about controlled aggression.

“No matter what happens, you can’t throw a punch. You can’t do anything like that. That’s not what we want, that’s not what we coach. After that, we talked, cleared the air and made sure they were all good. Then they were able to come back onto the field.”

Contrast that to 364 days earlier, when Bradley Chubb and Garett Bolles fought. Here’s what Fangio said after that day’s practice:

“You know, I didn’t see any of it. I was on the other side of the field. I don’t know what precipitated it. We’ll talk about it when we go inside.”

Never was the difference between the two more clear.

Fangio is a brilliant defensive tactician. But two things helped doom his stewardship in Denver.

One was largely beyond his control: the Broncos’ issues at quarterback. When he offered this assessment after his last game of what separated the other AFC West teams from the Broncos, he was on-point.

But another thing was within his control: the big-picture sensibility to be on top of everything that mattered regarding the entire team.

Also, take note of the fact that Hackett wore a shirt representing the defensive line at Saturday’s practice.

Hackett admits that he is “kind of hard on the offense” given his background and the fact that he calls the offensive plays. But from repping his D-line to visible and long chats with his linebackers, his special teamers and his defensive backs prior to practice, you get the significant sense that Hackett is going out of his way to make sure he has his finger on the pulse of the entire team. He’s going the extra mile.

For those who feared Hackett might focus too much on the offense, fret not. He’s guiding the whole show. And so far, he’s doing it well.

Let’s dive in for some questions:

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This is a tough call right now, because preseason is going to have a significant impact on the back end of the roster — specifically because of its impact on special teams.

That said, we can gauge a few things:

  • 1. From the dispersal of snaps, Netane Muti has the inside track on the swing-backup guard job ahead of Graham Glasgow. And with Luke Wattenberg getting a few first-team reps Monday, the Broncos are taking a long look at him as Lloyd Cushenberry’s backup at center. If Muti and Wattenberg are ahead, Glasgow is clearly on the bubble.
  • 2. There shouldn’t be any surprises at running back unless one of the top three backs — Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon and Mike Boone — are injured.
  • 3. Wide receiver is wide-open beyond the top three players: Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler. Keep your eyes on Trey Quinn and Brandon Johnson, both of whom emerged last week. Quinn is on his fourth team since 2019; Johnson is a rookie from Central Florida.
  • 4. If D.J. Jones’ back continues to flare up, the Broncos probably need to keep Mike Purcell, since they’ll need his experience. Cutting Purcell would save $2,799,361, but the Broncos might not be able to afford that.
  • 5. The Broncos look like they have a surplus of depth at edge rusher. And while they have high hopes for Christopher Allen and Jonathon Cooper, injuries for both could leave them ticketed for the practice squad.

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Before we move on to point No. 6, a hat-tip to Mike from Salt Lake City, who asked about the young cornerbacks I’ll note here:

  • 6. Damarri Mathis is on the rise. He was making the roster regardless, but if he’s the No. 4 cornerback, he could put Michael Ojemudia on the fence. Bless Austin has also played well. And the last week was a rough one for Essang Bassey filling in for K’Waun Williams at slot cornerback, which could give some other players chances — including seventh-rounder Faion Hicks. Being the No. 2 slot corner is likely a ticket to a roster spot. Williams should be good to go in the coming days.
  • 7. You can’t discuss punter without discussing the fact that the Broncos gain a net of $1.425 million of cap space if Corliss Waitman beats out Sam Martin for the job.

But another looming factor is the trade market. The Broncos need draft capital for next year — even if it is toward the end of the draft.

Denver has just five picks in the 2023 NFL Draft.

“We’ll have a lot more than that — I guarantee it — by the time the draft comes around,” Broncos GM George Paton said earlier.

Paton wants darts — even if they are in the later rounds. And at this moment, the Broncos appear to have more quality depth than they can keep on a 53-man roster at cornerback, edge rusher, interior offensive line and perhaps even tight end. So, just as they were able to trade Trinity Benson to the Lions last year at the roster deadline to find more draft capital, I expect at least one such deal — and likely more — in the weeks before the Broncos cut to 53 players.

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Certainly, the backup-CB battle between 2020 third-rounder Ojemudia and 2022 fourth-rounder Mathis is worth monitoring. 2020 third-round pick Agim is one of a number of defensive linemen rotating in for some first-team snaps. But don’t expect the Broncos to keep more than six defensive linemen, and with D.J. Jones, Dre’Mont Jones, DeShawn Williams, Enyi Uwazurike all roster locks and Purcell potentially necessary because of the afore-mentioned back issues for D.J. Jones, that could leave just one spot for a group that includes Agim, Jonathan Harris and 2022 sixth-rounder Matt Henningsen, among others. And 2020 seventh-rounder Tyrie Cleveland might fall victim to the “can’t make the club in the tub” conundrum if other receivers step up during his injury absence.

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From Mitchell in Cañon City, Colo:

There’s this narrative out there that Russell Wilson rarely works the middle of the field due to his height/inability to see over the linemen. His passing chart seems to back this up but perhaps that was due to the scheme he ran in Seattle. Is this a fair criticism of him and if so, is he working all areas of the field now as a Bronco?

It is a fair critique given the passing charts you cite. But it is also something into which he’s put plenty of work this training camp. To me, his camp looks much like those of Peyton Manning when he was a Bronco: He’s working on the areas of his game that need refinement. And to operate in this scheme, with receiving options at multiple levels, you need to work the short-to-intermediate range across the middle. So, you’ve seen Wilson take the time to work on these routes in individual and team periods.

He’s a Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterback who is trying to make his game a bit more complete.

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From Reuven in Hillside, N.J.:

Love all your coverage and tweets! Two questions: any insight into how the coaches are handling special teams differently this year? Aside from the lack of music. It’s been such a sore spot for the Broncos for years and arguably tanked the Packers season last year. On a different note, I don’t understand the career trajectory of Wade Phillips. He’s one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL but out of the league for a second year in a row. Any idea if that is by choice? Is he seeking more money than what teams are willing to pay? Looking for another head coaching job? Or is some other factor in play?

First, thank you for the kind sentiments.

The proof will be in the pudding of the games. And one thing that will benefit Dwayne Stukes is a roster that appears more fortified for players 36 through 53.

One thing I like is the efficiency of the sessions. For example, during a punting period, Martin and Waitman punted in one direction, and then, after the punt-protection team ran downfield, Stukes went “riverside” — i.e. turning play in the opposite direction — for the next snap so everyone didn’t have to waste time walking back to the previous line of scrimmage. There is more clarity to special teams this year.

That said, I think former coordinator Tom McMahon was better than most people think.

To plenty in these parts, McMahon was a pincushion for insults. The truth is that he is among the most knowledgeable special-teams minds walking the earth. Within the Broncos, there was a healthy respect for the intelligence and humanity he brought to his role.

However, where McMahon struggled was in keeping things simple — and in projecting how his concepts would translate from the design in his mind and on a computer translated to real, live human beings executing the plan. (See the Broncos’ attempt at a fake punt against the Chiefs in 2019 as an example; the result saw Colby Wadman rolling left with two Kansas City players bearing down on him unblocked.)

The best example of this came in Week 17 last season. Decimated by COVID-19 absences, the Broncos faced the Chargers. If there was ever a moment for simplicity — in calling for Brandon McManus to simply kick it out the end zone — it was right then and there. But in the fourth quarter, McMahon called for a kickoff to the right to try and tackle the Chargers inside their own 20-yard line. Brandon McManus had what he described as a “bad kick by me,” and Andre Roberts returned it 101 yards for a touchdown. McMahon’s call was an example of over-thinking the situation.

As for Phillips, age works against him, and that’s completely unfair. But at this moment, young is in, even though Phillips has always related well to the players who are are 40 or more years younger than he is. There isn’t a connection gap. He took a job in the rebooted XFL, guiding the Houston Roughnecks for next year’s spring season. I have no doubt that Phillips will do well.

This is why I cringe at the broad, superficial notion that older coaches can’t relate. The truth is, it’s all about the individual abilities of each coach. Some of the best at relating to players are old enough to cash Social Security checks. And some of the worst are in the millennial generation.

Just because some older coaches struggled at this doesn’t mean that other coaches will. And all you have to do is look at the Broncos’ sideline, where 69-year-old Bill Kollar continues to work, now as a defensive/special-projects consultant. Always a terrific position coach going back to the 1980s, he did his best work in his 60s. Players like Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris become emotional when they talk about the impact he had on their careers — and more importantly, their lives.

Imagine if the Broncos had said in 2015, “Kollar is 62; he’s too old.” Imagine if they had said the same thing about Phillips at that time, too.

If they had, they wouldn’t own a third Lombardi Trophy.


Got a question? Submit it here to be a part of the next edition of the “Ask Mase” mailbag, dropping weekly at DenverFan.com!

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