Denver Broncos football is back. Well, kind of. The defending Super Bowl champions play their first preseason game of the season Thursday against the Chicago Bears.
Starters will get limited snaps. The hits don’t figure to be as big. So….Football Light? Yeah, let’s go with that.
Football Light might not be as entertaining as the real thing (and tends to draaaaaggg by about the third game), but it’s not totally inconsequential. There is plenty we can glean about this Broncos team from the preseason before they take on Carolina on Sept. 8 in the regular-season opener.
Here’s how you can watch Denver on Thursday night, plus five storylines to monitor.
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Soldier Field in Chicago
TV: KTVD — Channel 20
Five things to watch for
The rock fight that is the quarterback battle
Question: Hey, have you heard that the Broncos are searching for Peyton Manning’s successor at QB?
Question that probably answers that question: Does Von Miller like to dance?
Veteran Mark Sanchez, second-year player Trevor Siemian and rookie Paxton Lynch are all trying to win the job. Sanchez, who appears to be a nose ahead in the competition, will start Thursday. Then the plan is for Siemian to get the second-quarter reps, and for Lynch to play the second half.
The most important thing a Broncos quarterback can do this year is not turn the ball over. Denver figures to have a phenomenal defense and solid running game. What it needs from its QB is simple: Don’t give the ball to the other team.
Unfortunately, that is not Mark Sanchez’s strong suit. In seven seasons, The Sanchize has thrown 84 interceptions and fumbled 51 times (24 of which were lost). So that … is not great. The problem is that the other two options are Siemian, a seventh-round draft pick last year who was not a particularly good college QB, and Lynch, who has promise but needs time to develop.
The QBs’ performances Thursday could go a long way in determining who is under center in Week 1.
The new-look offensive line
Championships often mean roster turnover. Nowhere is that more apparent with the Broncos than on the offensive line. Three of the five starters from last year’s team are gone.
Former Seahawk Russell Okung, who moonlights as an NFL agent, will start at left tackle. 2015 fourth-round pick Max Garcia, a backup last year, will start at left guard. Then it’s returning starters Matt Paradis at center and Michael Schofield at right guard, and newcomer Donald Stephenson at right tackle.
On paper, it looks like a solid group. But on paper doesn’t always translate to real life.
The backup running back battle
During the second half of the 2015 season, C.J. Anderson shook off his slow start to the year and finally looked like a No. 1 tailback. He rushed for 540 yards and five touchdowns over the Broncos’ final nine regular-season games. In the Super Bowl, he tacked on 90 more yards. He’s firmly entrenched as the starter.
Who will be his backup on Sept. 8 remains a mystery, though.
Ronnie Hillman, entering his fifth season in Denver, and rookie Devontae Booker are battling for the second spot. They were listed as co-No. 2s on the Broncos’ latest depth chart. Both are 24 years old — an interesting tidbit when you consider the disparity in NFL experience.
Don’t be surprised if Booker wins the backup job. He rushed for 2,773 scores and 21 touchdowns in two seasons at Utah. He’s a capable pass catcher and blocker, too. And if he does, that could mean the end of the road for Hillman in Denver. It’s rare for an NFL team to have a No. 3 running back who doesn’t play special teams also, and it’s unclear if Hillman can.
Can Kalif Raymond earn a roster spot?
If you were to see Kalif Raymond walking around LoDo at night, you’d probably think he’s just another guy — not someone who’s got a decent shot at making the defending Super Bowl champions’ 53-man roster. Raymond, an undrafted wide receiver and kick returner out of Holy Cross, is listed at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds.
He’s fourth on Denver’s depth chart at slot receiver. If he hopes to make the team, he’ll likely have to prove he can handle kick-returning duties full-time. Raymond, who’s got 4.34-second 40-speed, fulfilled that role at Holy Cross. In his college career, he averaged 7.5 yards per return on punts, 22.6 yards per return on kickoffs and scored three touchdowns in return situations. He should get several return chances Thursday.
Is this Shane Ray’s year?
The Broncos used their 2015 first-round on the pass rusher out of Missouri. In his rookie season, Ray recorded four sacks in 14 games as Demarcus Ware’s backup at weakside linebacker. Now with Ware hurt — a back injury has sidelined him for the entire preseason — Ray has a golden opportunity (pun intended).
He is full of potential: At Missouri (a school known for producing pass rushers) he set the single-season sack record with 14 ½ and won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award in 2014. Ray’s also, per The Denver Post’s Nick Groke, looking swoll. We could be in store for a breakout year from him.