ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Vic Fangio requires no filter. A whistle has hung around his neck for 40 years. He knows the game, and is comfortable in his skin as he tries his first head coaching gig on for size. His press conferences typically feature a zinger, intended or not.
After Saturday's workout, attended by 21,234 fans, frustration overlapped optimism. The Broncos practiced without three of their top players -- Von Miller and Emmanuel Sanders attended a funeral, and Phillip Lindsay was limited with a pinched nerve in his neck -- and it was the equivalent of The Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger. Lindsay's absence irked Fangio because it seemed avoidable.
"Phillip was getting treatment and the guy overdid it. To hell with chiropractors, let's just play football," Fangio blurted.
Fair enough. With the first depth chart released today, let's look at where the Broncos stand with the Hall of Fame game approaching on Thursday against Atlanta. My Denver7 observations:
1) The defense is legit
The Broncos lived in the past the previous two seasons, using a heavily-reliant man coverage scheme that no longer matched the personnel. Fangio is creative in his looks. Pressure comes from all places, and the use of zone matchups will free cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Bryce Callahan to make plays. Callahan had his foot stepped on Saturday, the same foot he injured last season, but X-rays were negative so he shouldn't miss much time, if any. If the pressure is consistent from Miller and Bradley Chubb -- and having a lead once a while would help -- the takeaways will come in bunches.
2) Von Miller is buying in
It's a little thing that can translate to something more meaningful. Von Miller is no longer the last player out for practice during training camp. Last summer, I watched him multiple times walking onto the field after stretch had begun. For death by inches to matter, it must take hold with the team’s best player. That message has been communicated to Miller, and in camp he’s following the plan.
3) Jury out on Flacco
Broncos fans are not falling for the banana in the tailpipe anymore. After the failed auditions by Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler and Case Keenum, the savvy fans are taking a wait-and-see approach with Joe Flacco. He is better than Keenum. That is obvious, but not saying much since Keenum refused to take chances last season and when he did he threw picks (his 15 ranked second in the league). However, Flacco receives the benefit of the doubt from the players. The gravity of his resume resonates in the locker room. And after a rough first week, Flacco has strung together three straight solid days, and is developing chemistry with second-year receiver Courtland Sutton. Flacco is calmer than a lagoon, a notable quality given the turmoil surrounding this team the past two years. I don’t expect him to play vs. the Falcons, but I do believe Flacco is making progress in a prove-it season for him and this offense.
4) Sanders, Lindsay needed
The Broncos offense looks and feels different when Sanders is out there. He stretches the defense, runs precise routes and has sticky fingers in a camp where you’d think Crisco is coating the gloves. All signs point toward Sanders being ready and productive in the season opener at Oakland. As for Lindsay, he creates endless mismatches in space. The Broncos best play in camp is Lindsay lined up wide or receiving the ball on a checkdown.
5) The O-line questions remain
Mike Munchak’s job ranks with Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster as the hardest in Denver pro sports. The offensive line lacks depth, draws too many penalties, and for good measure, has a center in Connor McGovern who is struggling with shotgun snaps. Garett Bolles and Ja’Wuan James, who has missed the last few practices with a leg issue, need to start building momentum and consistency, starting with the Seattle game. Dalton Risner, the rookie pictured above, has shown plenty of promise at guard. The Broncos boasted 12 overall penalties on Saturday. That’s too many for a team that ranked 31st last season in that category. Fangio isn’t going to stand for the mistakes. At some point there will be consequences. Keep an eye on left tackle Elijah Wilkinson to challenge for a starting job.
6) Catch and release
Receivers not catching passes is the equivalent of a pitcher not throwing strikes. It’s a basic requirement of the job. And it has to improve. The drops aside, there are several intriguing receivers contending for likely one or two spots. The upcoming weeks are critical for Kelvin McKnight, Trinity Benson, Juwann Winfree, River Cracraft, Brendan Langley and recently-added veteran Nick Williams. The player who sticks needs to be a factor on special teams, preferably punt return. The Broncos can no longer being satisfied with someone who just doesn’t fumble. That’s a losing mentality.
7) Tighten it up
For the Broncos offense to function at an optimal level, the tight ends must produce. Rookie Noah Fant is gaining traction after a slow start. He needs to blossom into a weapon on third down and in the red zone. Troy Fumagalli looked good early, but has been slowed at times by injury. Jeff Heuerman is a trusted blocker. And the surprise of camp has been former Wyoming standout Austin Fort. With Jake Butt out since July 20 with soreness in his knee, Fort has capitalized. The preference is for one tight end to emerge in the passing game. But aggregate production can work as well if it involves at least eight touchdowns from the group.