Five things that actually matter in the Broncos-Cowboys preseason opener
By Saturday morning, the buy-in price for the Broncos’ preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys had dropped to $35. Not even the allure of a spotlight opponent and Russell Wilson in a Broncos uniform for the first time is enough to overshadow the fact that a) it is preseason and b) if Wilson plays, it won’t be for long.
But the truth is, Saturday night won’t be about the opponent or the Broncos’ core starters — unless the unthinkable happens in terms of injuries.
Thursday’s joint practice was mostly about the first 38 players.
Saturday night will be about determining the last 15.
1. IT STARTS WITH SPECIAL TEAMS
These next three Saturdays mean the world to special-teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes. No assistant coach will have more sway over the back end of the roster than Stukes. That’s because many of those players will represent the core of his punt-protection, kickoff-coverage and return units.
And he needs full-speed repetitions to truly know what he has.
“Obviously, we base our reps based on the offense and defense for when we can play guys, but it is an important evaluation for those guys,” Stukes said. “We’re trying to put the guys in the best positions to allow them to make plays, but it’s up to them to execute our techniques and fundamentals from practice and apply them to the game. It’ll be big for a lot of guys to show what they can do.”
And to that end, Stukes does not plan to have Brandon McManus blast kickoffs out of the end zone. Look for shorter kickoffs so Stukes can get a look at his players.
“That would be the smart thing to do,” Stukes said. “If we boot the ball into the endzone and if we take a knee, how can we evaluate some of the younger guys to see if they can contribute at a high level for special teams?”
Then there is the punter competition between Sam Martin and Corliss Waitman. Stukes noted during training camp that if it were up to him, he’d have two long snappers and two placekickers, too. And while the Broncos worked out long snappers this week, Stukes has just one competitive situation among his three specialists. Placement will be key for both Martin and Waitman.
And if they are close, the cap savings of $1.425 million if they go with Waitman could matter in the overall roster-building perspective.
2. CORNERBACK DEPTH
As the Cowboys showed Thursday, whoever is not named Pat Surtain II will be a quarterback’s key target. Much of the Cowboys’ first-team passing success came in the direction of No. 4 cornerback Michael Ojemudia.
Ojemudia, Essang Bassey, Damarri Mathis and the balance of the cornerback corps won’t have to deal with CeeDee Lamb on Saturday night. But this will be a key audition for them — as it will also be for the rest of the room, including Bless Austin and seventh-round pick Faion Hicks. Hicks and Bassey appear to be battling for the backup slot corner spot.
To Hicks’ credit, he was able to stay step for step with Jerry Jeudy when facing him earlier this week.
But the injuries to K’Waun Williams and Ronald Darby are a reminder that at any point, the Broncos’ hopes could ride on CB4, CB5 or even CB6. The coaches have seen sparks from their young CB depth, but they need more consistency.
3. MONTRELL WASHINGTON AT FULL SPEED
While he has impressed as part of the wide-receiver depth, his first ticket to playing time is on kickoff and punt returns. He’s listed as the first-teamer in both disciplines.
But until the 170-pounder returns a kickoff or punt at full speed in the NFL, everything is theoretical.
“We drafted him to be our returner — there’s no secret in that, either. But he has to win the job,” Stukes said. “Him making plays on offense can only help him on special teams.
“Again, we have to see what he does on Saturday when it’s live bullets. We haven’t had a live tackling period, so we want to see if he can take contact. We want to see his balance, we want to see him burst, explode and make plays. All of that will help him.”
4. SETTING THE EDGE DEPTH
Baron Browning’s strong camp and Nik Bonitto’s 4-sack explosion Thursday show that the two recent Day 2 draft picks are headed in the right direction. Any snaps they get Saturday probably won’t be as notable as the ones they’ve had against first-teamers in practices.
But for them, Aaron Patrick and Jonathan Kongbo, this is the best chance to show their value … and potentially change the roster equation as to how the Broncos stack up behind Bradley Chubb and Malik Reed. Even with Christopher Allen on injured reserve, the Broncos appear to have more quality than they can keep.
5. ROOKIES DISLODGING VETS ON THE 53-MAN ROSTER?
Players picked in the fifth round or later are much like second-round picks in the NBA. There is no guarantee that they stick. In the NBA, it’s because second-rounders’ money isn’t guaranteed. In the NFL, it’s because the cap hit is so minimal — and the chances of slipping late-round picks to the practice squad are decent.
So, players such as Luke Wattenberg, Delarrin Turner-Yell, Matt Henningsen are effectively playing to show that they can, with time, be more valuable pieces than veterans currently sitting ahead of them on the depth chart.
Henningsen’s case is intriguing. He hasn’t worked his way into the regular rotation for first-team practice snaps in the way that veteran Jonathan Harris and fourth-round pick Enyi Uwazurike have. However, the Wisconsin product had flurries in camp where he burst through the line and breached the pocket on multiple plays within a relatively short span.
A practice-squad spot appears to be the likely destination for him. But these next three games are the best chance for him — and others — to show that they can be more.