On Monday, the Broncos kicked off “Phase 3” of the offseason with their first day of Offseason Training Activities at UC Health Training Center. After back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972, Denver wants to get back on the winning track.
In free agency, the Broncos went out and got the players they could afford. In the draft, they did a great job of adding quality talent, picking up four players from my top-50 prospects in the first three rounds. The team also made a trade to acquire who they hope is still a franchise quarterback in Joe Flacco.
Broncos head coach Vic Fangio knows what he wants to accomplish in OTAs.
“Really, OTAs is the beginning of training camp, albeit under a different set of rules than training camp. But it’s the start of the season. These guys have been here now for four or five weeks. We’ve installed a lot of our offense, defense and special teams, but having to go on air or walkthroughs, now we get a chance to go against each other and that’s just another step in the progression.” Fangio said.
Here are my day-one observations, interesting notes and revealing quotes from Monday’s OTA. I’ll have more observations as the week of OTAs goes on later in the week.
Flacco Looks Smooth
One thing is evident when you watch the four quarterbacks throw in practice: Flacco is the best one, by far. The veteran QB has always had a big arm, dating back to his days in college at Delaware. That arm strength is still there, but the way passes come out of his hand is the most noticeable.
Flacco’s delivery is a smooth as can be. He doesn’t have an elongated motion as some taller quarterbacks do. Instead, Flacco brings the ball up to throwing position and gets it out of his hand quickly without firing through a rapid motion.
There isn’t one spot on the field Flacco is scared to throw to. In fact, he likes to challenge the defense vertically and keeps defenders on their toes with passes that can fit into the smallest windows.
After struggling the last two years with injury (2017 back, 2018 hip), Flacco says he’s ready to go in 2019.
“I feel great. I feel 100 percent. Coaches were asking me about my hip the other day and I really didn’t even know why they were asking about that. I kind of forgot why I didn’t play at some points last year. I feel good.” Flacco said.
Flacco’s arm strength, smooth delivery and good health are all positives for this Broncos team.
Jake Butt Puts on a Show
I don’t think I saw tight end Jake Butt drop a single pass on Monday. He has physical gifts that make him stand out as a receiver and as a blocker, but injuries have slowed down his pro career.
Butt is currently working back from an ACL injury (the third one of his football career) that cut short his 2018 season. He’s not fully participating in practice yet, but the portions he did play in were standout performances.
Butt looks crisp in and out of his breaks, and shows no signs of slowing down with the knee brace he’s wearing. He may not be near full strength yet, but the young tight end is trending in the right direction.
At his post-practice press conference, I had a chance to ask Fangio about Butt’s progress.
“He’ll continue on the track that you saw him on today for the most part. Hopefully, we’ll have him ready by training camp.” Fangio said.
The Broncos selected tight end Noah Fant in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft with the idea that he would be the lead player at the position as soon as possible. If Butt is healthy and playing like he did on Monday, he could push Fant for playing time and targets in 2019.
Basketball Tight End
Speaking of Fant, I saw him use his large frame to box out smaller defenders. It’s a basketball skill set that Fant brings to the football field.
The last time the Broncos had a receiving weapon at tight end, Julius Thomas, he was a converted basketball player making plays across the middle of the field using hardcourt skills on the gridiron.
Fant can do those same things, only better.
Thomas was raw when he came out of Portland State, having only played one year of college football. Fant is more polished as a route runner and knows how to set up defenders before he makes his break.
The rookie was able to box out guys like safety Will Parks and cornerback Bryce Callahan on Monday. These smaller defenders just couldn’t reach around Fant when he squared up to the quarterback and the line of scrimmage.
It seems like a small skill in the arsenal, but it’s not. Fant knows how to use his size to his advantage and he should be able to use that quite a bit on Sundays.
Now, about his blocking….
Young Receivers Stepping Up
Courtland Sutton looks like he’s ready to take over as the No. 1 receiver for the Broncos. He’s big and fast and physical, just like he always has been – but Sutton looks more like a wide receiver than a huge athlete who catches passes.
Let me explain.
Last year, Sutton used his physical tools to run “go” routes and track passes over his shoulder. This year on the first day of OTAs, Sutton looked like a much more nuanced route runner. He had a better understanding of spacing, timing and the footwork necessary to get open consistently – not just on “go” routes – in the NFL.
I saw Sutton make adjustments after his break that he just wasn’t capable of as a rookie in 2018. It’s clear that he’s spent a lot of work studying his craft this offseason.
Fellow second-year pro DaeSean Hamilton is learning quickly about Flacco’s arm strength. There was one pass on Monday that seemed to take Hamilton by surprise.
He is a great route runner, so when he makes his break it’s clean and he’s open. Flacco anticipated Hamilton gaining separation and put the ball there in a hurry, right on the young receiver’s numbers. Hamilton turned and the ball was right there, almost materializing in front of him out of thin air. He seemed a bit startled after the break, but barely bobbled the ball as he secured the pass before turning up the field.
Not just Hamilton, but all the Broncos receivers are learning that Flacco gets the ball there on time and in a hurry.
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