The Broncos rookie class is set to report to UC Health Training Center on Tuesday. It’s an exciting time of year, as football is ready to get things underway. If all goes as planned, training camp will start soon, with an abbreviated (or eliminated) preseason schedule leading up to the start of the regular season in September after Labor Day.
The Broncos have one of the most-exciting rookie classes in the entire league. The team is going to be relying on a few of those players to make big impacts in year one.
Denver has a young team, but they’ve drafted well during the last three years and this year looks to be no different. These young players will get plenty of experience if they can start soon and stay healthy.
So, who are the players and the situations to monitor? Here are the top five rookie storylines to watch entering training camp.
1. Can Michael Ojemudia start from day one?
This is a huge question, and I believe this is the most-important rookie situation to monitor in camp. The Broncos secondary has new look at the cornerback position with Chris Harris Jr. gone in free agency and former Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye taking over as the No. 1 corner. Opposite of Bouye, the Broncos should be lining up rookie cornerback Michael Ojemudia.
That’s a ton of pressure for a rookie cornerback, especially considering that Vic Fangio’s defense isn’t exactly easy to pick up. Ojemudia has his work cut out for him on the field and in the film room. The Broncos play a “zone dog” defense, which fits Ojemudia’s game, as he mostly played zone coverage in college at Iowa.
At the Scouting Combine earlier this year, Ojemudia did test like a man corner, but he has little experience in that system. He’ll have to be rock solid to make the work of the pass-rushers in front of him pay off. This team is getting Bradley Chubb back healthy and Von Miller looks like he could get more sacks this year – that doesn’t happen if the rookie Ojemudia is an easy target in the secondary.
2. Will Jerry Jeudy be the No. 1 WR for the Broncos?
There is no doubt that the Broncos picked up the best wide receiver in the 2020 NFL Draft when they selected Jerry Jeudy out of Alabama with their first-round pick. This was arguably the best wide receiver draft class in NFL history and Jeudy has the makings of a superstar in this league. So, the question has to be asked – can Jeudy be better than Courtland Sutton this season?
My pro comparison for Jeudy coming out of college was Odell Beckham Jr. I feel that’s a fair and accurate comparison of the skill set both displayed against the best competition in the SEC. As a rookie back in 2014, Beckham snared 91 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns – incredible numbers for a rookie receiver. I’m not projecting Jeudy for that level of production, but seeing him catch around 75 passes for 1,000 or so yards with 7-9 touchdowns seems fair.
Those numbers are lower than what I’m projecting for Sutton in 2020. That means Jeudy won’t be better than Sutton – yet. It’s a situation to watch closely because if Jeudy can be the superstar he could be, then the team may not want to pay a premium price for Sutton when his contract is up after the 2021 season. Jeudy is going to be must-see TV for NFL fans, but I feel that Sutton will post career-best numbers (and better stats than the rookie) in 2020.
3. How much does Albert Okwuegbunam produce in 2020?
The Broncos snared one of Drew Lock’s favorite targets from college when they selected tight end Albert Okwuegbunam out of Missouri. The two were teammates in college and Lock threw Okwuegbunam 17 touchdowns across two seasons with the Tigers. Can they rekindle that chemistry in the pros?
One big thing standing in their way is 2019 first-round pick Noah Fant. He had a strong rookie campaign with flashes of big-play ability sprinkled in with some poor performances. Fant is not going to go quietly into the background with the Broncos and could take another step forward in his sophomore season. In fact, Fant doesn’t get as much credit or as much hype as I believe he should based on what he showed last year and his natural skill set/upside.
However, Okwuegbunam is larger, faster and a better red-zone threat than Fant. Okwuegbunam is going to be the secondary target at the position (free agent addition Nick Vannett is mostly a blocker) and many of those passes thrown his way may come when the team is close to pay dirt. I could see a scenario where Fant has more catches and yards than the rookie, but Okwuegbunam might have more touchdowns. Either way, it’s a good problem for the Broncos to have such a logjam of talent at the tight end position.
4. Is Lloyd Cushenberry the answer at center?
This team has been looking for a quality center ever since they let Matt Paradis move on in free agency. They had Connor McGovern there last year, but the results were not what they wanted. This is why they selected LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
It’s a steal for a natural talent like Cushenberry who could have easily been picked up at the end of round one. Instead, the Broncos get a value pick who can step in and start from day one. Cushenberry is athletic, strong and knows how to quickly mirror the moves of an oncoming defender. Let him get coached up by Hall of Famer Mike Munchak and watch him thrive at the pro level.
The main knock I had on Cushenberry before the draft was that he’s not a nasty player. I’ve asked around to players and coaches around the league and they all tell me that’s not a big deal for your center – who is the leader of the offensive line and the “quarterback” of his group. Cushenberry can embarrass an opponent, but he’s not the type of guy to get into a fight in the trenches. I’ve also heard from people around the players’ workouts that Cushenberry has been one of the most-impressive players in attendance. He could be the best center the Broncos have had since the days of Tom Nalen.
5. Who are the sleepers to watch?
The Broncos have done a great job over the years of finding late-round talent, and even undrafted talent, who can make big plays in the NFL. Once again, the Broncos were able to find some potential gems that most other teams overlooked. During training camp, this is the first time for these players who are automatically on the bubble to make their first and most important impression.
I’m going to be monitoring the progress of defensive lineman McTelvin Agim. He was one of my favorite sleepers in this draft class; I loved the way he performed earlier this year at the East-West Shrine Game practices. Agim was picked up in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft and he has the upside to be a quality starter someday. The big man has six moves to get after the passer, a rare number for a young player – especially on the interior of the line. Middle pressure makes every quarterback appear mortal, so I want to see if Agim can make an early impact as a part-time pass-rusher this season.
There are so many other players I could list here, but I’m going to just mention running back LeVante Bellamy to wrap up. Bellamy played his college ball at Western Michigan and his skill set always reminded me of Phillip Lindsay. Like Lindsay, Bellamy is a smaller back who is tough when running inside. He’s quick, fast and can make defenders look silly in the open field. Bellamy was added as a college free agent after the draft and may be bound for the practice squad in 2020 – but he certainly has my interest.
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