LOS ANGELES — Vic Fangio turned 61 this week. Broncos players, his first as a head coach, showed their connection to Fangio by singing "Happy Birthday” and gifting him a gray sweatshirt.
Fangio embraces this opportunity. He enjoys the view from the cockpit, implementing plans for his team by blending modern nuance (commenting on players’ Instagram posts and using virtual reality for learning) and a meat-and-potatoes approach with three-hour practices, no music and candid assessments.
What would Fangio prefer for a present? Clarity at several roster spots with the Sept. 9 opener at Oakland looming.
The Broncos starters look decent, especially on defense. But the lack of depth, particularly on special teams, is alarming. Fangio has elected not to play most of his starters Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams, who don’t use their 1s in the preseason. It is a calculated risk. Quarterback Joe Flacco logged four drives and 30 snaps in preparation for his first season in Denver. That doesn’t seem like enough, but it is plenty when you consider the forecast if he suffers an injury.
With that, let’s look at the Denver7 Things to Watch vs. The Rams:
Hogan: To QB or not QB?
When Drew Lock was tripped up on a sack and jammed his right thumb into the turf on Monday, it muddied the quarterback picture. Lock might open the season on the IR with a severe sprain. That leaves Kevin Hogan to secure the backup job tonight. He’s competing not just against Lock’s health, but an outside competitor. Hogan is smart, and trusted to run the offense, though the results are lacking (13-for-30, 104 yards). Could the Broncos call the 49ers about Nick Mullens or C.J. Beathard, both of whom worked under Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello? It would not be a shock if Hogan struggles vs. the Rams. The Niners are determined to take their backup job until the final cut with no guarantee three QBs make their final roster. So, it bears watching.
Can a real inside linebacker please stand up? Fangio remains unsure Todd Davis (calf) will be ready for the season opener. If he can’t go or is on a limited play count, the Broncos need a suitable reserve. Rookie Justin Hollins shows intriguing potential, especially in coverage on tight ends, but is learning two positions. Alexander Johnson has leveled off a bit since a strong start. Can he regain momentum or will Josh Watson or Keishawn Bierria separate from the pack?
The starting offensive line, low key, is the most prepared for the season. The group played 62 snaps over the first three games, save for right guard Ron Leary (Achilles, knee), who has not participated. He could use a little work vs. L.A. Austin Schlottman was OK in his absence last week, and has logged 133 snaps this summer. Tackle Elijah Wilkinson could be used at guard since the reserves need to play multiple positions on game day.
Catch punt, run punt
The Broncos lack of punt return prowess last year was staggering. Do you realize Denver averaged 4.4 yards per return, worst in the NFL? The Broncos’ long was 20 yards. Only four teams were worse. This summer it hasn’t improved. River Cracraft owns 17 yards on four returns. Nick Williams, who muffed a punt last week, has seven yards on three attempts, and rookie Kelvin McKnight sits at three attempts for 20 yards. It’s fair to wonder if the punt returner is on the roster if the Broncos don’t see improvement tonight. The team doesn’t have the luxury of conceding punt returns to a player who can only catch the ball.
What’s going on at tight end?
Jake Butt is expected to make his preseason debut, returning from his third ACL surgery. If he shows he’s healthy, or close, he should open on the 53-man roster. The Broncos added veteran Orson Charles this week. He is an option to make the team as a tight end/fullback hybrid. Troy Fumagalli falls into that category as well. And rookie Noah Fant could use more seasoning. He has shown progress, but has played 46 snaps. Another 15 or 20 tonight could help.
The Broncos special teams’ issues go beyond punt return. The coverage units have sputtered. Fangio suggested twice this week that a few starters could play on special teams during the season. I understand his premise, but it’s a huge risk for a team that lacks depth on a top-heavy roster. Can the backups convince Fangio they are ready over the next two games?
This is the game where a player can make a team. Will it be fullback George Aston, running back Devontae Jackon, receiver Fred Brown or Steven Dunbar? Former AAF star corner De’Vante Bausby has made a strong case to stick, capitalizing on Bryce Callahan missing the games as the team takes a cautious approach with his foot injury.