ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Sean Payton has mentioned in passing on more than one occasion during training camp that the early part of the Denver Broncos’ schedule will be critical in their stated quest to become a playoff team for the first time since 2015.
The team’s veteran head coach didn’t specify the reason — and everyone wants to get off to a fast start — but here’s one possible factor: The Broncos in their first four games are scheduled to face the following starting quarterbacks: Jimmy Garoppolo (Raiders), Sam Howell (Commanders), Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins) and Justin Fields (Bears). The four games after that: Aaron Rodgers (Jets), Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs, twice), Josh Allen (Bills).
The matchup at a single position is only one way to evaluate the challenge of a schedule, but it underscores the urgency the Broncos need to have in the season’s opening month, when all the quarterbacks they face reside in Tier 3 or below, according to league evaluators who discussed the position this offseason for the annual project by The Athletic’s Mike Sando.
That makes the hamstring injury suffered Thursday morning by top wide receiver Jerry Jeudy all the more significant for the Broncos, who are counting on the fourth-year playmaker to be a significant weapon in Payton’s offensive scheme. Jeudy was carrying the ball on a receiver end run in a joint practice against the Rams when he came up limping at the end of the play. He was briefly helped along the sideline by two trainers, unable to put weight on his right leg. A medical cart quickly arrived and drove Jeudy off the field and toward the locker room.
Broncos WR Jerry Jeudy was carted off the practice field on Thursday with an apparent leg injury.
The injury occurred on a run play and it appeared to be non-contact.
— The Athletic NFL (@TheAthleticNFL) August 24, 2023
Payton said afterward that Jeudy had suffered a hamstring injury and was due for an MRI later Thursday. The severity is unknown for now, but the standard hamstring injury in the NFL typically requires a recovery timeline of four to six weeks. Broncos tight end Greg Dulcich suffered a hamstring injury in training camp last season and did not make his debut until Week 6. KJ Hamler hurt his hamstring for a second time following Denver’s Week 8 victory in London against the Jaguars and didn’t play another game in 2022. Rookie wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr. missed much of this offseason program and two weeks of training camp with a hamstring injury. Each injury is unique, and it’s fruitless to speculate on Jeudy’s injury until more information is available.
Still, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that Jeudy won’t be available for the Sept. 10 home opener against the Raiders in a little more than two weeks. That could force Payton and his staff to begin drawing up a debut game plan that doesn’t feature arguably their most dynamic player, a receiver who piled up 523 yards receiving and three touchdowns across his final six games last season. It’s an injury that comes after the Broncos previously lost Tim Patrick (Achilles), Hamler (waived with a non-football illness designation related to a minor heart condition) and Jalen Virgil (torn meniscus).
“Typically, in our system, we bring receivers in and out,” Payton said Thursday when asked how the Broncos would cover for Jeudy’s absence if the 2020 first-round pick is forced to miss time. “But he plays ‘Z,’ plays in the (slot) position for us. We have a lot of guys (who can play those roles). Hopefully, it’s not anything that’s too long-term.”
Payton scoffed at the notion that the Broncos are snakebitten at wide receiver despite Jeudy presumably being the fifth receiver to miss time. Hamler was diagnosed with a mild heart irritation known as pericarditis as he finished rehab from a pectoral injury. Virgil’s injury occurred as he tried to finish a 50-yard pass play in the end zone. Patrick suffered his Achilles injury as he planted and began running a route against air.
In other words, there isn’t an obvious connective tissue among all the setbacks.
“I don’t believe in being snakebitten,” Payton said. “We had a really good offseason program. Beau (Lowery, vice president of player health and performance) and these guys have done a great job getting a number of players coming back (from injury). We have Justin (Simmons), (Mike) McGlinchey, you’re going to see all these guys healthy and ready for Las Vegas. I think if you looked around and truly tried to analytically evaluate the other 31 NFL teams, I think you’d see (similar injuries). I can’t speak for where (the Broncos) were a year ago at this time, but I don’t feel anything unusual.”
One receiver who could naturally see a bigger role in the immediate aftermath of Jeudy’s injury is Mims, who has seen his practice snaps increase over the past two weeks since fully returning from his injury absence. Payton said Mims would play more in Saturday’s third preseason game than he did in his debut against the 49ers when the second-round pick out of Oklahoma played 18 snaps on offense and three on special teams.
“He’s making progress,” Payton said. “This (practice) field is a little slick and he changed up his shoes today. I thought that helped him. … He’s doing well. It’s good to have him getting all these practice snaps and punt returns and he’ll play quite a bit on Saturday.”
The bottom line is that a loss of Jeudy, for however long he’s out of the lineup, will be a major blow. He has an explosiveness other receivers on the roster don’t possess and the Broncos have already demonstrated an ability to get him into space more frequently in training camp and during the preseason opener against the Cardinals. It hasn’t been a perfect ride for Jeudy since camp began. He’s had a bout of drops, including one against Arizona that was absolved by a next-play touchdown. But nobody has more talent at the position on Denver’s roster. There’s no minimizing how much it will sting not to have that element on the field.
Broncos show they are still working out offensive bugs in practice with Rams
via @TheAthletic https://t.co/3NEdyZjN4m
— Nick Kosmider (@NickKosmider) August 23, 2023
Broncos rebound with ‘more juice’
Before he went down with the hamstring injury, Jeudy caught a deep pass on an out route from Russell Wilson. Moments later, Jarrett Stidham hit Brandon Johnson up the sideline for a big gain. Later, Albert Okwuegbunam finished a catch from Stidham in the end zone with a dunk over the crossbar.
The highlights came more frequently for the Broncos offense in the second day of practices with the Rams, born of better efficiency in and out of the huddle and fewer pre-snap penalties.
“I felt like we had a little more juice today,” Payton said. “I was real pleased with the two days we got. Both teams did a good job handling the drills. We get better when we do this. We see other schemes, other thoughts. It kind of stimulates your think tank a little bit. It also changes the routine up. Those are a lot of team snaps. I don’t know if we tallied them up, but we were over 120 team snaps. That’s huge when it comes to the evaluation process.”
Linebacker Nik Bonitto continued to be a standout defensively, creating pressure on Matthew Stafford early that helped defensive end Zach Allen pick up a would-be sack. Linebacker Drew Sanders flashed against the run and in pass coverage, the rookie linebacker continuing to show greater comfort with his role in the middle of the field.
Watch back Drew Sanders’ 25 snaps against the 49ers and it’s easy to see why the Broncos are tantalized with the talent of the rookie linebacker.
The 22-year-old is quickly getting up to speed, and a unique role in Denver’s defense will soon follow: https://t.co/XfqV3lfIJh
— Nick Kosmider (@NickKosmider) August 23, 2023
Stafford came back with a pair of deep passes, including a 70-yard touchdown throw to Van Jefferson that just beat the rush of Jonathon Cooper. In a later period near the goal line, Essang Bassey intercepted Stafford in the end zone, another highlight in what has been an impressive camp for the fourth-year defensive back. Bassey has had an interception in each of Denver’s first two preseason games and has shifted to multiple spots in the defensive backfield.
“He’s a defensive back who can play nickel and safety and has played some (outside) corner in his time,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “He’s a guy who is very smart. He’s been in the system for a while with ‘CP’ (secondary coach Christian Parker) and we trust him. Sometimes you have players who are not what you want physically as a prototype, but you trust them. Those are guys you can win with. That’s half the battle in a team sport. You want guys you can trust.”
Plan for preseason finale
Given all the work the Broncos’ starters got against the Rams this week, many of them won’t play in Saturday’s preseason finale, Payton said.
“There may be a few” starters who play, he said, “because it’s a little trickier than just saying, ‘All the starters aren’t playing.’ You do have to play four quarters and you don’t want a certain half of your roster getting 60 snaps and risking injury either.”
Asked specifically whether Wilson would play Saturday, Payton said a final decision about playing time wouldn’t be made until a staff meeting Thursday evening.
(Photo: Kyle Terada / USA Today)
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