ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos wrapped up their final training camp practice open to fans last week, but coach Sean Payton made sure nobody thought the preseason work was done.
"We’re in camp still," Payton quipped. "There’s no light, even at the end of the tunnel, it’s dark."
Most of the Broncos starters likely got their last significant work of the preseason Saturday night against the San Francisco 49ers, but joint practices with the Los Angeles Rams and the preseason finale await. With the roster clock ticking, here are five things the Broncos need to address:
Quarterback Russell Wilson
Of course Wilson’s on the list.
No player has been subject to the same scrutiny as Wilson has been throughout the offseason. The start of training camp was fairly mediocre as Payton and the staff drilled down on the new offense.
There were some interceptions and sluggishness by the offense in the two-minute and red-zone drills in early camp practices. Even in the preseason opener, Wilson and the starters didn’t move the ball well until the fourth possession of the game -- a touchdown drive.
But the last two weeks have marked a bit of a turning point for Wilson, so much so that after Thursday’s practice Payton said, “I think the last week and a half, two weeks, have been really impressive.’’ And Wilson showed Saturday he’s making progress. Payton hopes Wilson can consistently choose the right time to run vs. climb the pocket and make a throw.
He moved the ball quickly in the passing game in a 12-play cameo against the 49ers and ran three times for 25 yards.
The team's offensive line is the area of greatest concern.
The group's depth looks challenged at the moment. The Cardinals had eight quarterback hits in the preseason opener and Denver's starters surrendered a sack in the first quarter against the 49ers.
After the preseason loss to the Cardinals when Wilson and backup Jarrett Stidham both took multiple eyebrow-raising hits, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said, “Sometimes we’re asking them to do things a little bit different and I think it’s natural the first time under live bullets, sometimes they revert, just some technique things, I think some guys went back to some old ways of doing things.’’
There is a preseason caveat the Broncos and Payton will be able to game-plan their way out of certain issues, especially if Wilson is consistent in getting the ball out quickly. But it is one position where the Broncos will take a hard look at the waiver wire, especially at left tackle to get some additional experience as a backup to Bolles.
Defensive end Randy Gregory
There is certainly some hand-wringing about the Broncos' third-teamers letting two leads get away in the Broncos' first two preseason games, but in the big picture, Gregory is one of the players the Broncos are hoping will come through. They've seen his potential in every drill and hope he can show it in as many games as possible.
“You want rushers, Randy is a unique rusher, his best days are ahead of him hopefully,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “He’s having a solid camp … he’s made some splash plays in the run game -- that’s been surprising to me, that’s what you want.’’
But Gregory has yet to play a full season and the Broncos really need this one to be his first. He missed 11 games last season following knee surgery after he was injured in Week 4 and was pulled from the Broncos’ dismal Christmas Day loss in Los Angeles after multiple penalties (unsportsmanlike conduct and roughing the passer).
Gregory has a rare openness about his off-the-field struggles -- he’s had multiple suspensions in his career -- something he has said is important to him. And his offseason priority was not only getting his knee right, but the rest of himself as well.
“Big thing for me this offseason is getting the mental down, being able to fight those mental battles,’’ Gregory said. “You’re going to have bad plays, put them behind and move on to the next one … Anyone who knows my history knows mental health is a big thing for me."
No matter how the season plays out, the release of kicker Brandon McManus in May will always appear odd.
The first kicker the Broncos signed to replace McManus -- Elliott Fry -- is already gone, waived earlier this month. Payton has said the kicker who remains in camp, Brett Maher, should feel like he’s competing against anyone else the Broncos could sign after rosters go to 53 players at the end of the month.
“He’s competing, he’s competing with himself because he’s got 31 other teams,’’ Payton said. “There are probably seven teams that have a real kicking battle, so he’s competing with those guys that come out of those clubs. That doesn’t discount us, possibly, if we wanted to bring in another player.’’
Maher is 2 of 4 in field goal attempts in two preseason games -- both makes were Saturday -- with one attempt blocked.
No. 3 WR
With Tim Patrick’s season-ending Achilles tendon injury in the first week of camp, one of the positions the Broncos felt the best about suddenly lost a key part of its production and deep-ball speed.
KJ Hamler also has a heart ailment he’s treating with medication and Jalen Virgil, who played in nine games last season as a rookie, suffered a knee injury Saturday and had to be helped to the locker room.
Rookie Marvin Mims Jr., who missed some of the offseason program as well as early training camp practices with hamstring troubles, has gathered some momentum of late. But Payton said he needed “to see more’’ from free agent arrivals Lil'Jordan Humphrey and Marquez Callaway.
The Broncos figure to be in the two-tight end and two-back sets extensively, especially if they can’t protect better than they have in three wide, but the Broncos need to find at least some production behind Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy on the depth chart.