There are players on the Broncos roster who should see their role expand in 2019. The team lost key free agents this offseason, but they’ve also acquired starters through trades, free agency and the draft.
However, there are players already on the roster who need to elevate their game in a new or expanded role. Offseason training activities have started this week, and it’s time for these players who need to “step up” to prove they can handle increased responsibility.
Broncos head coach Vic Fangio knows what he is looking for during OTAs.
“Really, OTAs is the beginning of training camp, albeit under a different set of rules than training camp is. 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.
The Broncos have worked diligently behind the scenes to get this team back on the winning track. A run at the postseason is not out of the question, but in the tough AFC West, it would likely have to be as a wild card team. To do that, the team needs players like those listed below to play and produce like never before.
Here are five players who could have much larger roles for the Broncos this season.
5. Will Parks
The Broncos have some young talent in the secondary at the safety position. We might see free safety Justin Simmons get to the Pro Bowl for the first time this year under the guidance of Fangio and new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.
We should also see Parks potentially turn into a quality starter at strong safety.
Out of a total 1,077 defensive snaps in 2018, Parks played only 53.1 percent of the time with 572 snaps. It’s possible that he plays more this year either at strong safety or free safety.
Parks started three games last year in Weeks 8, 9 and 15, and on the season, he compiled 39 tackles, one forced fumble and one interception. He didn’t play poorly and seemed to improve as the season went on.
Early in the 2018 season, Parks looked lost at times when he was on the field. It’s not like former defensive coordinator Joe Woods put his players in the best positions and often had schemes that were too complex. Parks should have a much better season under Fangio and Donatell.
Parks is athletic enough to stay with receivers down the field, but coverage is not his strongest suit. That comes in the form of tackling and diagnosing plays as they unfold in front of him. As we saw last year in the game against the Steelers, Parks does not give up on a play and can separate the ball from an opponent with a big hit.
We’ll see Kareem Jackson play some cornerback and safety for the Broncos this year and that could cut into Parks’ playing time. That doesn’t mean Parks won’t see an increase in snaps, he just may not play 100 percent of the time.
4. Connor McGovern
A team’s center is the quarterback of the offensive line. Not only do the Broncos have a new starting quarterback in Joe Flacco, but they’ve got a new quarterback on the offensive line in McGovern.
McGovern isn’t brand new to the position, as he started 15 games for the Broncos last year, but only seven of those came at the center position. When last year’s starter Matt Paradis went down with a leg injury in Week 9, we saw McGovern take over in the middle of the line.
He’s certainly strong enough to move big defensive tackles out of the way and McGovern is athletic enough to shadow opponents who are quicker and penetrating. But he is not a finished product at the position.
Several times last year, McGovern would have trouble getting a shotgun snap back to quarterback Case Keenum. The snaps were sometimes too low, causing Keenum to reach down around his ankles just to secure the snap. This problem obviously and immediately impacted the play in a negative way.
If he wants to stay as the starting center, McGovern has to clean up that part of his game. Flacco is a lot taller than Keenum and would likely be even more awkward trying to gather in low snaps because of his height.
The Broncos offensive line has to play better if they want to make a run at the postseason and get the most out of this new offense. That begins with McGovern playing better in the middle. It’s a huge responsibility placed upon his shoulders for the 2019 season and I hope he’s up to the challenge.
3. Andy Janovich
We should see an increased role for Janovich in the offense run by new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. Coming from the 49ers, Scangarello learned under Kyle Shanahan and his offense features their fullback quite a bit more on offense.
Last year, 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk played a total of 662 snaps on offense. He ran the ball sparingly, only toting the rock eight times for 30 yards. But Juszczyk was targeted 40 times as a receiver in 2018, snaring 30 passes for 324 yards and one touchdown.
By contrast, Janovich only played 239 offensive snaps for the Broncos. He ran the ball twice for five yards. He was only targeted 10 times and had eight catches for 112 yards and one touchdown. The Broncos use Janovich as a “four-phaser,” meaning that he plays on every special teams unit.
That role might have to decrease just slightly if this team wants to use Janovich on offense more in 2019. Janovich has always been a somewhat underrated athlete and can be successful if used more as a goal-line or short-yardage runner. I also believe that Janovich is more capable as a receiver than his 17 career catches show.
Janovich may not play over 650 snaps on offense like Juszczyk did last year, but playing around 300-plus on offense could be in the cards for the Broncos fullback.
2. Royce Freeman
The team needs Freeman to do more this season, even though they’ll eventually get 2018 Pro Bowl running back Phillip Lindsay back as their starter. Lindsay is coming back from the wrist injury that ended his phenomenal rookie season and is quite limited in offseason workouts.
In fact, we may not see Lindsay near full strength until the start of the regular season. Don’t be surprised if the team limits him all the way until training camp starts. Even then, the Broncos are likely to ease him back into action and may not play Lindsay much in any of their five preseason games.
This creates a huge opportunity for Freeman to show he can be the featured back the Broncos envisioned when they selected him out of Oregon in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Freeman has the skill set, size and determination of a bell-cow running back.
Freeman is a powerful runner who looks more comfortable in this new Broncos offense. He’s the type of player who can grind down an opponent as the game goes on. Freeman is what scouts call a “rhythm runner” and needs plenty of carries to get a good feel for the game.
While he gets this large opportunity this offseason, Freeman needs to stay injury free.
He had a somewhat disappointing rookie season and was outshined by Lindsay. Freeman just didn’t look like himself after suffering a high-ankle sprain around the midway point of the 2018 season. He did come back perhaps sooner than expected and tried to play with the injury but didn’t quite have the same “juice” as a runner that he did earlier in the season.
It’s time for Freeman to stay healthy and grind.
As great as Lindsay is, he might have peaked after one season. Freeman has not peaked and could actually be the leading rusher for the Broncos in 2019. It’s not a bad thing if both second-year running backs go for nearly 1,000 yards each.
In fact, it would be a great help for Lindsay if Freeman can carry a larger portion of the workload. Lindsay is a smaller back and fearless when he runs. Keeping him fresh by using Freeman more can be a win-win for the Broncos this season.
1. Courtland Sutton
There is a new No. 1 receiver for the Broncos and his name is Courtland Sutton. Last year as a rookie, Sutton did have some flashes with 42 catches for 704 yards and four receiving touchdowns.
However, he did not quite flourish the way some thought he would once Demaryius Thomas was traded away to the Texans and Emmanuel Sanders went down with an Achilles’ injury. Sutton didn’t seem ready for the increase in coverage and attention from better defenders. He beat up on third-string corners last year, but had some learning curves to get around when going against better opponents.
Sutton looks like he’s in midseason form during recent OTAs and minicamp.
While last year there were passes that Sutton couldn’t get to, this year he seems to be finding his way to the ball even more. He is making adjustments mid-route in practice that you just didn’t see during his rookie season in 2018.
In addition to better adjustments, Sutton also seems to be running better routes. This was something nearly everyone, including his own teammates, pointed out last year as a deficiency in his game. Sutton was a “Go” route guy, where he could run in a straight line, get by defenders and track passes over his shoulder. To be a No. 1 receiver, Sutton needs to run the full route tree effectively.
He’s getting plenty of top-notch coverage in OTAs while Sanders continues to recover and Sutton is flourishing. He looks un-coverable at times on the practice field and he needs to translate that over to when the games matter later this year.
The arrow is certainly pointing up for Sutton’s career, and he could become Flacco’s favorite target in 2019.
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