Things to watch in Broncos' preseason opener vs. Cardinals

Starters will play 15 snaps. Time for backups to shine vs. Cardinals
Broncos Camp Football
Posted at 12:18 PM, Aug 11, 2023

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Fake games give real impressions.

Welcome to the NFL preseason, where Broncos players engage in Hunger Games, attempting to make the roster, while the starters receive enough playing time to prepare for the season opener on Sept. 10.

Everything is different this August for the Broncos. Where Nathaniel Hackett viewed hard training camp practices and preseason games as something to be avoided, Sean Payton harkens to the past. He believes football players get ready by playing football. As such, when the Broncos face the Arizona Cardinals on Friday at 8 p.m. at State Farm Stadium, Denver’s starters are scheduled to log 15-to-18 snaps.

That includes quarterback Russell Wilson, whose recent spate of strong practices is creating embers of optimism after the worst season of his career. The offense entered the exhibition game with five consecutive good days, specifically in the two-minute drill and red zone.

“We need to keep ascending,” said receiver Courtland Sutton, the best player on the field on Wednesday.

This offers the first look for most of Broncos Country at Payton’s work. It is not meant as a place to draw a conclusion on his program, but it is fair to begin making evaluations.

My Denver7 Things to Watch:

Trust Russ
Wilson enters this season under tremendous pressure to produce or second season in Denver could be his last. His clunky start to camp – four picks to Justin Simmons – did not soothe concerns. But this past week of workouts has offered shades of Seattle Russ. He’s making plays on the move, climbing the pocket, and connecting on deep strikes. Tonight, the goal is simple – produce points. And if not, deliver a long drive or two with a balance of run-and-pass. Nobody will remember this game if the season goes well, but it will be brought up if it features three-and-outs.

Run With It
Everything the Broncos did this offseason screamed that they would run the ball more. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey (knee) won’t play – Cam Fleming and Isaiah Prince are the backups – but that will not prevent a focus on the ground game with guards Ben Powers and Quinn Meinerz. It’s unlikely Javonte Williams plays, but Samaje Perine, Tyler Badie, Tony Jones, and Jaleel McLaughlin will get plenty of work. The holes have not been consistent in practice. That should change vs. the Cardinals.

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Mims the Word
The Broncos opened eyes when they selected receiver Marvin Mims Jr. in the second round of the draft. Did they really need another receiver? Not really. Mims’ quickest path to contribute remains on punt and kick returns. He has looked comfortable and quick in practice. Can he continue that momentum in his NFL debut?

Outside the box
The Broncos began camp with concerns about their outside linebacker group. But defensive coordinator Vance Joseph believes it is one of the strongest he has ever coached. Frank Clark and Randy Gregory will start, but I am more interested in seeing Jonathon Cooper and Nik Bonitto. They rank among the best performers in camp, regardless of position. It will be disappointing if they don’t register multiple pressures and at least one sack. I would also take one from inside linebacker Drew Sanders, the rookie who profiles as a secret weapon on an already solid defense.

Wide open spaces
Even with Tim Patrick (Achilles) out for the season and K.J. Hamler cut (heart condition), the Broncos feature a crowded receiver room. Can camp darling Taylor Grimes translate practice into game success? What about Montrell Washington? Grimes is a precise route runner. And Washington looks like the fastest player on the field. Will he do enough to make it as a receiver if Mims is the top returner?

Safety dance
The Broncos list Caden Sterns and Kareem Jackson as co-starters at strong safety. I believe Jackson makes the team because of his leadership and ability. Also, Sterns’ versatility should allow them to be on the field together. But keep an eye on P.J. Locke and Delarrin Turner-Yell. Both are core special team players. If Turner-Yell plays well in the preseason, could they keep him and cut Boise State rookie JL Skinner?

Back it up 
Quarterback Jarett Stidham was a priority in free agency. He is the backup. He’s had a quiet camp. Could that change tonight? And I fully expect Ben DiNucci to play well. He’s not a backup, but overqualified as a third stringer. Having someone that good in games late should help evaluate the receiver battle between Marquez Callaway, Lil’ Jordan Humphrey, Grimes, and Washington. Brandon Johnson is not expected to play until next week after spraining his left ankle in practice.

Things to Watch in Broncos' preseason opener vs. Cardinals