The Broncos took a little bit of a break after the 2019 NFL Draft. With a week to reflect on what they did in the draft, and to secure undrafted free agents, the team is back to work at UC Health Training Center on Friday. We will see 47 players working out at rookie minicamp from Friday through Sunday.
I’ll be in attendance as the Broncos rookie class kicks thing off in practice and orientation.
The entire draft class is going to be there, plus the 17 undrafted free agent players the Broncos added after the draft, four first-year (non-rookies) and 20 players attending on a tryout basis. These players will actually go through a practice on all three days.
This is contrary to what the Broncos have done in recent years. Ever since tight end Jeff Heuerman injured his knee on the first day of rookie minicamp back in 2015, the Broncos have more or less run through some drills and did an orientation more than actually practice.
New head coach Vic Fangio wants to get just a bit of work in this weekend. By Sunday, we will have seen parts of the three practices and there will be some interesting tidbits therein. Sure, it’s just practice but there are things to monitor as the rookies get introduced to the Broncos way.
Here are the five most intriguing storylines to monitor in rookie minicamp:
1. Drew Lock vs. Brett Rypien
Okay, it’s not really “versus” when it comes to the two rookie quarterbacks. However, all eyes will be on the young passers as they go through drills for the first time wearing the orange and blue.
Lock is the second-round pick and seen as the potential future franchise quarterback of the Broncos. His upside is higher than that of Rypien. However, Rypien has much more experience working from under center and does not have the mechanical issues (footwork, release point) that Lock needs to work on.
Rypien’s ceiling as a pro is not as high as Lock, but perhaps his floor is just a tad higher at this time. I’ve scouted these quarterbacks in back-to-back weeks earlier this year at the East-West Shrine Game (Rypien) and Reese’s Senior Bowl (Lock), respectively.
Starting Friday, I’ll get to watch them in back-to-back reps.
It will be interesting to see if Rypien can hang with Lock. There’s a reason why Lock could be the future; the kid is incredibly talented. He’s got to get used to playing in a pro system – and ironically might learn a thing or two from watching his new teammate Rypien.
2. Justin Hollins in Coverage
I graded Oregon linebacker Justin Hollins as an edge player this year – and a good one at that. The Broncos thought highly of the young prospect and picked him up in the fifth round of the draft, but he may not be playing on the edge in the pros.
In the post-draft press conference, Broncos general manager John Elway stated that he believes Hollins can play inside linebacker.
“We thought Justin [Hollins] could play inside or outside and that’s when we talk about inside backer.” Elway said.
Fangio liked the versatility Hollins brings to the table.
“No. 1, I like his versatility. He’s played primarily outside linebacker, but he has played a little bit of inside linebacker, particularly in one of the all-star games. We’re going to try him at both spots while he’s here and see where he’s got the best future at or the best fit for us at this time.” Fangio said.
I was at those East-West practices where Hollins was tried at inside linebacker. He did not look as comfortable in that spot as he did playing on the outside.
In fact, Hollins was the defensive MVP of the Shrine Game with 10 tackles, three tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks in the game.
We all know Hollins can rush forward, but I want to see more of how he handles working in space and dropping back in coverage. We’re unlikely to see any sort of scrimmage, but if I do get to see Hollins in coverage it will help give me a better idea of whether or not he can play inside linebacker for the Broncos.
3. Long-Shot Tryout Players
If you’re here on a tryout basis, you are the ultimate long shot to make it in the NFL. One player I’m going to be watching closely is Littleton’s very own Bernard McDondle. A graduate of Columbine High School, McDondle continued his playing days just down I-25 at CSU-Pueblo.
McDondle does a good job of creating his own space. He can use a stiff arm to get away from an oncoming defender or McDondle can use a juke move to freeze a would-be tackler. He’s got great footwork and does a good job of keeping his legs moving upon contact, leading to plays that stay alive that normally wouldn’t.
He’s not the fastest back, but McDondle gets by on heart, vision and instinct for running the ball.
The Broncos depth chart at running back dries up after Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. Sure, Devontae Booker is there as the third back, but that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t unseat him with a strong spring and summer.
McDondle is most certainly a long-shot to make the Broncos team, but it will be fun to see what kind of effort he puts forth over the next three days.
4. Highly Paid Rookie Free Agents
The language of the NFL is money – always has been, always will be. Follow the money and you can get a clue as to who the Broncos really like from the pool of undrafted rookies.
One player who stands out because of his play – and his pay – is undrafted Stanford cornerback Alijah Holder. The big corner received the biggest signing bonus ($18,000) and second-highest guarantee ($30,000) of any college free agent the Broncos added this year.
Holder has good size, measuring in at 6-foot-1, 191 pounds. He uses that size to bully smaller receivers off course in the route tree. Holder can work in a zone defense, and he’s good against the run.
In coverage, Holder does need to work on his hip swivel and transition from backpedal to sprint. He’s good when the play is in front of him, but he can get a little grabby if a receiver sets him up to run by him.
Injuries knocked his college career off course, so Holder needs to show he can be durable in the pros. His physical traits as a corner could be outstanding with the right polish. We’ll see if Holder can live up to the hype (and paycheck), starting at rookie minicamp.
5. Noah Fant’s Fit
Is Noah Fant the most under-hyped first-round pick in recent Broncos history? The kid is an absolute playmaker and can be the most impactful player from this rookie class in 2019. Yet all we hear is about potential future franchise quarterback Drew Lock or fan favorite Dalton Risner.
I like both of those players, but let’s not forget about Fant.
I’ll keep beating the drum that I think Fant could catch 50 passes as a rookie. This offense is going to have a Shanahan/Kubiak feel under new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. Last year as the quarterback coach for the San Francisco 49ers, Scangarello was part of an offensive staff that put tight end George Kittle (an Iowa alum like Fant) in the best position possible on a weekly basis. Kittle turned in one of the greatest seasons for a tight end in the history of the game (88 catches, 1,377 receiving yards).
I don’t think Fant hits those lofty numbers in 2019, but I do think his game and production could resemble what we saw from New York Giants tight end Evan Engram during his rookie season in 2017. That year, Engram snared 64 passes for 722 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Those sound like numbers Fant could reach as a rookie.
Not only is Fant a fit for Scangarello’s system, but quarterback Joe Flacco absolutely loves throwing to the tight end. The pick of Fant was a huge plus for Flacco as it gets him a dangerous weapon to attack defenses over the middle with.
We won’t see Flacco to Fant until minicamp next week.
However, I do want to see how Fant is working catching passes from Lock and Rypien this weekend. Fitting this offense for Fant is nothing but a good thing. I can’t wait to see how he looks at rookie minicamp.
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