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DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 13: Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans stands on the field during player warm ups before a game against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High on October 13, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
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Mile High Monday: Early rumblings from the Scouting Combine

(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

The NFL has descended upon the city of Indianapolis once again for the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. It’s this event that will help cement the draft stock of the players entering the 2020 NFL Draft. This is the biggest job interview these young men will ever have, as the Combine is a pressure-packed event that lasts for days.

I like being in Indianapolis to pick up on the vibes throughout the week. There is a lot of action here and not all of it happens on the football field. In fact, even though the Combine is an important part of the pre-draft process, there is a ton of work in free agency that gets done here, too. Agents talk with general managers and coaches while at the Combine with the idea of getting business done – or getting done quicker in the case of a team’s own free agents.

I also like contemplating life and sports when driving around with the top down on my old Jeep TJ – even in February! The following is a result of those trips during the week.

Buckle up, let’s take a ride through my thoughts.

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Larger Tree

Broncos tight end Noah Fant needs to add some “diversity to his route tree” by improving his short-to-intermediate routes, according to Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com. I agree with that and fully expect that to happen for the talented second-year tight end.

There is going to be a large opportunity for Fant to build off the numbers he posted as a rookie under new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Fant was a big part of the offense in 2019, sometimes out of necessity as no other wide receiver other than Courtland Sutton was stepping up to help. This season, even if the Broncos add a wide receiver in the first round of the draft, Fant could still be a key cog in the machine.

Shurmur’s offense has regularly featured a tight end. Fant will be asked to work the middle of the field, even the deep middle seam, to keep defenses on their toes. He will also get more looks in the red zone under Shurmur. All of these things are great for his potential production, but he has to become a better route-runner and more adept at running the full tree.

Fant is a hard-worker and he is accountable for what he does on the field. I expect him to put in the work this offseason to become a more well-rounded player. In fact, with guys like Austin Hooper (Falcons) and George Kittle (49ers) about to reset the market at the tight end position, don’t be surprised if Fant’s rise to the top of the tight end position is more meteoric than some think.

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The Best Backup?

Tennessee Titans impending free-agent quarterback Marcus Mariota likely will not re-sign with the team this offseason, in the opinion of TitansOnline.com’s Jim Wyatt. That’s no surprise after Mariota was benched last year in the game against the Broncos for Ryan Tannehill. While Mariota was on the bench, the Titans went on a playoff run with Tannehill at the helm.

Tannehill, a former first-round pick (2012), was trying to find a new home after failing with the team that drafted him – the Dolphins. He did just that with the Titans where he began the year as a backup to Mariota. When Mariota was not winning, the team made the move and that catapulted them into the playoff chase – well, that and feeding Derrick Henry the ball as much as possible.

Mariota is now looking for a backup job, and some speculate that could be here in Denver. The buzz from the Combine is that Mariota knows that he’s in the backup portion of his career and he may have to be patient for the opportunity at another starting job.

The Broncos are going to answer some questions about Joe Flacco at the Combine – and we probably won’t learn anything official about his fate with the team. That being said, nobody should be expecting Flacco to return as the backup to starting quarterback Drew Lock.

Could a move for Mariota make sense? Well, it would make more sense than Flacco returning as the primary backup. Mariota is certainly more mobile than Flacco and would give the Broncos veteran experience at the position behind their second-year starter. We’ll see if they are in the market for his services, and I could pick up some clues about that this week in Indy.

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Tons of Help

There are many things I’ve already learned in Indianapolis, but the buzz is strong about a potential free-agent target for the Broncos on the defensive line. Buffalo Bills impending free-agent defensive tackle Jordan Phillips plans to test the free-agent market this offseason.

This information is contrary to what was reported earlier by Jason La Canfora just about 10 days ago. Things are constantly moving in the NFL, and teams are looking seriously to what they can and can’t do with their own free agents. Perhaps the Bills were considering the franchise tag for Phillips at the time, but that has changed based on what I’m hearing.

If Phillips makes it to the open market, the Broncos and plenty of other teams will have a ton of interest. Phillips had 9.5 sacks last year from the defensive tackle position. Now, he’s only got 15.0 sacks during the course of his five-year NFL career, but he’s seen as a player who can duplicate what he did last season.

The Broncos need help on the defensive line, mostly at the defensive end position. However, a player like Phillips would provide an upgrade inside. They need to get pressure by sending four players as much as possible – especially against a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes. By getting a DT who can create interior pressure, it allows the defense to be more creative. They don’t just need a run-stuffer in the middle, and having a guy like Phillips would help – for a price.

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My Kind of Place

I’ve been to the Scouting Combine for a decade-plus and have seen things change throughout the process. The one thing that hasn’t really changed is the city of Indianapolis. I know where all the best places to get some coffee and something to eat are located, and the people here are really hospitable. Having the Combine here is a big deal for the community and everywhere you go, someone wants to ask you about what’s going on at Lucas Oil Field (and the Convention Center). The NFL is a creature of habit, and I can see why they keep coming back to Indy for this event.

I’ve been all over this great country of ours on my “All-Star Road Trip” and I’m not done yet. I will be going to some Pro Days across the country at various dates during March and April. After that, I will be in Las Vegas for the 2020 NFL Draft.

This is a routine I’ve done every year and I love it. It’s my favorite time of year when I get to travel, watch prospects, talk to my friends in the scouting community and dig for information. I certainly appreciate the opportunity I have to do this each and every year, and I thank you fans out there for following along.

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