I may be one of the weird ones, but I’m one of the few who gets very excited about pre-season football games. It’s not that I don’t understand the fact that they don’t count toward the standings, but there’s something about witnessing the unfolding of the hopes and dreams of prospective NFL players.
If not for the pre-season, where would Victor Cruz be? Or to make it a little more personal for Broncos fans, where would Terrell Davis be if not for a big hit on special teams in the pre-season when he was a rookie?
Obviously we’ll never know, and I’m not saying we have the next Victor Cruz or Terrell Davis on our hands, but you just never know. The Broncos have made a (very good) habit of picking up undrafted free agents and late round players over the last near decade that have stepped it up at training camp and in the pre-season and have earned spots on the team.
In fact, some of the team’s star players and even franchise players were undrafted players. You know the highest paid punter in the NFL, Britton Colquitt? He was an undrafted free agent. How about former franchise player Matt Prater, who is also one of the highest paid kickers in the league? Undrafted.
Not so convinced by special teams players? I’m sure you’ve heard of these undrafted free agents by now: Wesley Woodyard, Chris Harris, Tony Carter, Duke Ihenacho, Mike Adams…Wes Welker?
Better believe it. In fact, if having Wes Welker on the Broncos wasn’t great enough as it is, we not only stole him from the Patriots but the former Texas Tech Red Raider was an undrafted free agent signee of the San Diego Chargers, who let him go almost immediately before he was snatched up by the Dolphins. The rest is history.
So as you can see, my passion for the draft and young prospects extends into the NFL pre-season, where we get our first look at some of the best young talent in the NFL. And the outcome of the game doesn’t even count toward the final standings! That being said, there’s no reason we should lose these games. The Broncos’ depth is superior to most teams in the NFL.
Here are a few things I will be keeping an eye on as the Broncos get set to take on the Seattle Seahawks in a late-night (for us non-Mountain/West Coast time zone folk) matchup.
1. Brock Osweiler, 2.2
This is Osweiler’s second NFL season, and his second pre-season game. The Broncos maintain that Osweiler is the future of the franchise, meaning when Peyton Manning decides to call it quits, the reins will be handed over to the former Sun Devil star.
Osweiler is obviously well-known because of his being the height of an NBA small forward, but there are a lot of other things to like about the gunslinger. He is very athletic for his size, as was on display in the team’s first pre-season game. He has pretty good pocket awareness and despite the terrible protection of the O-line in the early goings of Osweiler’s playing time, he was able to make some things happen.
Osweiler also has a very strong arm and has had a great offseason, by all accounts. I am eager to see the improvements he makes week to week, and certainly will have a close eye on him against a stellar Seahawks defensive backfield.
2. Pass Rushers
Despite the loss of Elvis Dumervil, perhaps no position on the Broncos’ roster has gotten a bigger boost than the defensive end/rush linebacker position.
The Broncos added Shaun Phillips on draft weekend at a bargain basement price. Phillips cost the Broncos a base salary of $1 million, and he had nine sacks just a year ago. He’s not near the elite rusher he once was, but the guy can still play. His veteran teammates are excited to have him and he should provide the Broncos some form of stability at least, especially if Von Miller is unable to play in the team’s first four games.
In the same day the team added Phillips, they also drafted Western Kentucky pass rusher Quanterus Smith, who was leading the nation with 12 sacks before going down with a torn ACL. He is extremely raw and has an uphill climb in his rookie season. Not only is it his first year in the NFL out of a relatively small program, but he is also trying to recover from major reconstructive knee surgery. Still, his talent is undeniable, and his explosiveness was fully on display against the 49ers. Let’s see if he can put it all together against the Seahawks and notch a sack or two.
Additionally, the Broncos have seen emergence from second year DT/DE Malik Jackson and third year DE Jeremy Beal. Both guys have taken varying amounts of reps with the first team, but the guy to keep an eye on here is probably Malik Jackson. Jackson has been one of the big breakthrough stories at training camp, and his versatility will not only earn him a spot on this team, but he will see significant action with the first team defense. The former USC transfer to Tennessee was a fifth round pick just like the aforementioned Quanterus Smith, but his upside reaches far higher than that of most fifth rounders. At worst, Jackson will provide the Broncos with a physical bull rusher that can play inside or outside in a rotation.
3. Safety position
We’re all well aware of the emergence of “Nacho Libre” AKA Duke Ihenacho this offseason. His reps with the first team came as a bit of a surprise to fans and media, but his teammates were not surprised. Coming out of San Jose State, I had Ihenacho graded easily as a third or fourth round pick, and when he snuck out of the draft entirely, I was ecstatic when the Broncos were able to pick him up.
After a year on the practice squad and active roster for varying amounts of time, Ihenacho’s hard work has paid off and he is now almost firmly entrenched in the starting lineup with Rahim Moore. While Moore has developed his tackling to turn into a jack of all trades type of safety, Ihenacho is the type of guy who works best playing downhill, and the Broncos will be able to get creative in their usage of this young playmaker.
In addition to more Ihenacho, I am eager to see Quinton Carter. Carter looked like a potential starter before going down with a knee injury that kept him out of the 2012 season entirely. Actually, if I remember correctly, he was the starter going into camp before that knee injury happened. Here’s to hoping he returns to form, because he is a talented player who can be a big part of Denver’s safety rotation this year.
4. Rookie Receivers
Have I mentioned I love the draft? The Broncos drafted Tavarres King, a playmaker out of Georgia who has excellent vertical threat potential. The Broncos also picked up a trio of relatively unknown rookie receivers in Kemonte Bateman, Lamaar Thomas, and Quincy McDuffie. Bateman had a nice play in the team’s first pre-season game, while the hype has really been building for Quincy McDuffie. McDuffie is listed as the team’s #2 slot WR behind Wes Welker, and was also an All-American return specialist in college.
Lamaar Thomas has insane speed and quicks, so hopefully the Broncos’ young QBs are able to get him some looks against Seattle.
5. Lerentee McCray
The Broncos signed McCray as a UDFA out of Florida, and he was one of the guys that had fans buzzing. He has really solid raw pass rushing skills, and the Broncos have him in a good situation as a developmental SAM LB right now. He is probably a practice squad candidate, but if he blows up in the team’s final pre-season games, he could earn a roster spot.
Keep an eye on McCray, who wears #47 (Do not confuse him for John Lynch).