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Four things to watch for during Broncos-49ers joint practices

(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Broncos are going to hold joint practices with the 49ers on Friday and Saturday. It’s something they’ve done the last few years, just like last summer when the Bears came to town to practice against Denver.

Having joint practices is a way to get extra work in during training camp. It’s a great resource for teams to utilize as they prepare for the regular season because they’ll get to measure their progress against an unfamiliar opponent.

This is going to be fun to watch across the next two days. Here are four things I’ll be watching for during these joint practices:

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1. O-Line Improvement

The Broncos offensive line is a work in progress this training camp. Specifically, the left side of the offensive line is the side that needs to be monitored closely as we get through the month of August. During these joint practices, it will be interesting to see if the left side of the line performs well against a different opponent in practice.

Garett Bolles is in a make-or-break year for the Broncos, but he has been showing improvement through training camp and two preseason games. Rookie Dalton Risner looks like the real deal and has emerged as one of the smartest players on offense with his infectious and intelligent play. Connor McGovern has at least one bad shotgun snap per day in practice. He needs to clean that up before the start of the regular season and has shown little progress in doing so. We’ll see if he can play better with the 49ers in town.

The 49ers will not have 2019 first-round pick Nick Bosa up front on their defensive line. Bosa is out of his walking boot, but dealing with an ankle injury that has put his status for Week 1 in doubt. Even veteran Dee Ford, who the 49ers added via trade this offseason, is not going to practice against the Broncos due to a lingering knee issue. The Broncos offensive line won’t get a full test against the 49ers, but I want to see them continue showing improved play over the next two practices.

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2. Buyer’s Remorse?

We are going to see Kyle Shanahan at Broncos headquarters and there will definitely be a feeling of “what might have been” this weekend. Shanahan interviewed for the Broncos head coaching job a few years ago, but the team ended up hiring Vance Joseph instead. We all know how that worked out, and many fans would have preferred a team run by Shanahan.

His record with the 49ers has not been great, as Shanahan owns a 10-22 mark during the last two seasons – a lower win total than Joseph (11-21) had with the Broncos during that time. The 49ers have not given up on Shanahan, mainly because the team had a void of talent and they knew it was going to take time to turn things around. The 49ers also have been without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for most of the last two seasons, as he’s only made eight starts for Shanahan.

We all should be happy that Vic Fangio is here to run the show for the Broncos and things look like they’re going to turn around for Denver in 2019. Fangio can be a great head coach for the Broncos, but seeing Shanahan out there at practice will make some feel a bit of regret that the team did not hire him in the first place.

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3. Coverage Problems

The Broncos defense is going to be elite in 2019, but they have to prove they can cover tight ends in order to reach that level. Last year, George Kittle nearly set an NFL record for a tight ends yardage total in a single game when he torched Denver for 210 receiving yards. It’s not just Kittle, although he did the most damage, but many tight ends have their best days against the Broncos.

The team has to find better options when it comes to covering the tight end position. They will be without starter Todd Davis at inside linebacker and second-year player Josey Jewell is known as a player who can struggle in coverage. The reserve players filling in for Davis, guys like Alexander Johnson and Josh Watson, have had their fair share of struggles in coverage during training camp and the preseason. That’s got to look better over the next two days with the 49ers in town.

Kittle is not going to practice against the Broncos due to a minor calf injury. He’s considered day-to-day with this injury and there is no need for the 49ers to rush him back into action. That’s unfortunate, as Kittle would be a great test against this Broncos defense. He’s one of the best tight ends in the game and would be difficult to slow down even if Davis was on the field.

Without Kittle on the field, we’ll see a couple of Stanford tight ends get plenty of looks against the Broncos defense. Veteran Levine Toilolo and rookie Kaden Smith should get a majority of snaps at the tight end position. If the Broncos struggle to stop a veteran who is known mostly as a blocker and a rookie who was a late-round pick, then it’s not a good sign for the formula they have in 2019 to slow down tight ends.

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4. Deep Shots

During the last week or so of training camp, we’ve seen the Broncos offense show a propensity to throw the ball deep downfield. At the start of camp, Denver’s O was generally dinking and dunking their way down the field – much to the chagrin of media covering the team or fans in attendance.

The Broncos have put on a show in recent days.

They can go deep with this offense due to play-action passing. As more of the offense is installed, the Broncos are launching the ball deep. That’s exciting to watch, even though it’s a low-percentage throw, but the team has the weapons in place to be effective when attempting those type of throws.

Quarterback Joe Flacco still has a rocket arm. His drop backs are smooth and his release of the football is still as fast as ever. He puts proper touch on the ball when throwing deep and this brings out the best of his game. I’ve regularly said that Flacco’s favorite target during training camp is the open guy. That’s still the case, but when going deep there is one guy who shines brighter than others.

Courtland Sutton has built strong chemistry with Flacco. Sutton is the preferred target for Flacco when he’s launching the ball downfield for a big play. I want to see these deep connections with Sutton – and other receivers – continue during these joint practices with the 49ers.