ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — First impressions last.
It can be argued they take on unnecessary significance. They are a small sample size, though many blind dates have ended on this premise. The Broncos held their first team practice Friday, allowing the media its initial peek into the most unusual training camp in NFL history.
As a concession to the COVID-19 pandemic that is gripping the country, there will be no preseason games. The Broncos have 23 days instead of 41 to prepare for the season opener. This ramp up includes 14 padded practices. Everything takes on added importance, even initial looks. Broncos coach Vic Fangio liked what he saw at UCHealth Training Center.
"Today was the first real-type practice that you would expect to see in training camp, albeit without pads. It was a good practice. We got a lot accomplished," Fangio said via Zoom since no in-person interviews are permitted. "I liked the urgency and focus of the players as we work through this. I thought it was a very good day."
Since it was our fresh look behind the curtain, the narrow vision is on players who pop. That's how days like this work. And one player stood out more than others: rookie receiver Jerry Jeudy. I have told you his routes have more polish than Pledge. It was more impressive in person. But don't trust me, listen to veteran safety Kareem Jackson.
"He has this unorthodox way of running routes. He can get in and out breaks better than anyone I've seen before," said Jackson, eye-opening praise for a veteran who was teammates with DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson, future Hall of Famers. "The way he sells things (on cuts) is very rare. It's definitely a challenge for opposing defenses."
A former star at Alabama, Jeudy arrives with enormous expectations. He told Denver7 his week he embraces them, and "can't wait to compete and show why they drafted me first." Even coach Vic Fangio, who throws around compliments like manhole covers, offered praise after watching Jeudy make four catches in 11-on-11 work, among them two long receptions in the middle of the field.
"I think Jerry had a nice day today. He had some good routes. He’s going to be a lot of help for us. Obviously, we have Courtland (Sutton) who’s doing big things for us. Jerry’s going to be a good addition to that," Fangio said. "He’s got good change of direction, good hands. It was nice to see him making a couple of plays today. I’m excited for that."
Lock, trying out a visor on his helmet like many players, completed roughly 70 percent of his passes, and showed command at the line of scrimmage, an indication of his increased comfort level in his first full season as a starter. Linebacker Alexander Johnson intercepted him on a play where Sutton stumbled. Lock connected multiple times with Sutton, who is aiming to achieve All-Pro honors after making the Pro Bowl in his second season.
Rookie K.J. Hamler, who told Denver7 that "he's a playmaker," delivered with the catch of the day. He made a diving grab down the sideline as he beat Duke Dawson on a strong pass from backup Jeff Driskel. Watching the explosiveness of the receivers, it suggests the middle of the field will open up this season. Tight end Noah Fant agrees when comparing last year's attack with new boss Pat Shurmur's scheme.
"Shurmur’s offense is more detailed," said Fant. who has added muscle, weighing 255 pounds. "Last year it was more conceptual things. This year it is much more detailed and about taking advantage of matchups (with nuanced routes)."
Defensively, one thing stuck out: cornerback Bryce Callahan practiced and practiced well. That sentence was not written a year ago. He missed the entire season after signing as a free agent. His second surgery with a new screw in his foot brought improved results. He worked outside and in the slot. The third corner was Isaac Yiadom, but Michael Ojemudia is poised to push him for that spot.
For the defense to become elite, having a healthy Callahan cannot be overstated.
"Again, I haven’t watched the whole day of practice, but he did make some plays out there today. It’s good to see him out there moving around. His foot feels fine," Fangio said. "He’s confident and ready to go.”
Some NFL players are experimenting with COVID masks, a protective shield inside the facemask. Six Broncos have tried it out during camp, but none Friday. It is not expected to catch on. However, many players wore visors on their helmets as an extra layer of protection. ... Outside linebacker Bradley Chubb did not look like a player returning from ACL surgery. He ran with the first team, showing first-step quickness in drills and 11-and-11 work. ... It was one moment, but I think it matters. Von Miller was first in a form tackling drill. First in line. First to do it right. This kind of stuff typically doesn't matter, but Von has vowed to become a better leader and this was an example of that. ... Tight end Jake Butt, who is facing tough odds to make the roster, looked good. Health has held him back. Could be this be the year his body cooperates and allows him to become a key reserve? .... Austin Schlottmann worked with the first team at center. Rookie Lloyd Cushenberry ran with the twos. In a normal training camp with preseason games, Cushenberry, in my opinion, would be a lock to win the job. But the race is on with only 14 padded practices. ... Garett Bolles faces no challenges at left tackle. It's his job. The right tackle spot features three candidates. Elijah Wilkinson was in with the starters briefly as he returns from offseason foot surgery. Jake Rodgers took most of the first-team reps and Demar Dotson worked on the side listening to coaches. He's in the mix, but has to learn the offense quickly. "We’ve got to get him caught up so he’s knowing what to do so we can see how good he is and where he might fit. Certainly, he has the license and the permit to win a starting job if he can, but that remains to be seen," Fangio said.