Two passes from Russell Wilson during his first training camp practice as the Broncos’ new franchise quarterback on Wednesday morning, one that hit the ground and one that was caught in the end zone, offered a snapshot of what Denver hopes to be as it embarks on a bold new era.
Let’s start with pass No. 2. As was the case during Denver’s opening OTA practice back in May, coach Nathaniel Hackett began camp with a heavy focus on the red zone. There, Wilson’s scrambling element has given defenses fit for a decade, and the ease with which he ducked under a rush, moved to his right and found wide-open tight end Eric Saubert for a touchdown was striking. It’s simply an element the Broncos haven’t had the past six seasons as they produced the NFL’s second-worst red-zone offense.
But the pass that hit the grass may have been even more encouraging. During the second team series for the Wilson-led offense against the top defensive unit, Bradley Chubb screamed off the right edge and stood in front of Wilson as the quarterback worked off a play-action fake. Wilson looked for avenues to dip, duck and dodge, but Chubb turned himself into a wall on skates, giving the quarterback no where to turn. Wilson settled for a live-to-fight-another-down throw at the feet of Javonte Williams, making the most of a blown-up play.
When Hackett shook his head Tuesday, describing Chubb as “not fun to block,” scenes like that blink-and-you-miss-it rush showed why.
“We all know that he’s a dominant guy,” rookie pass rusher Nik Bonitto said shaking his head as he scanned over some of Chubb’s top offseason plays in his mind. “Injuries have been the thing that have held him back, but as far as the talent, not many people can stop him. You don’t see many guys walking around at 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, being as fast as he is and with his ability to power people off the edge as well.”
It’s still late July. The pads won’t be strapped on until next week. For all the talk that has already emerged about the Broncos being ready to embrace championship-level expectations, these are early days, hardly the time to draw up any grand declarations. Still, when Wilson declared Wednesday that the Broncos are “so far ahead” at the start of camp, those two plays served as a microcosm. To win in the AFC West in 2022, a top-flight quarterback is a requirement. But so is an ability to put the heat on the division’s other talented signal-callers. Denver was often missing both in 2021.
The Broncos at this time last year didn’t know who their starting quarterback would be. Now, the offense has had the equivalent of four minicamps — the voluntary veteran session in April, the mandatory three-day camp in June and two player-led huddles at Wilson’s compound in San Diego — with the unquestioned franchise signal-caller. As routine as the four or five touchdowns Wilson helped the offense score Wednesday may have looked, it is worth remembering that wins in that part of the field came sparingly for the offense this time last year — and that bled into the season.
“It’s the most important part of the field,” Hackett said, explaining the early emphasis in the area of the field he refers to as “The Gold Zone.”
Then there is arguably the team’s best defensive player. Chubb was limited throughout training camp last season after undergoing offseason ankle surgery. He was strained, mentally and physically, throughout August and a second surgery in September ultimately wiped out half of his season. The importance of Denver having a successful base pass rush can’t be understated. They struggled mightily to bring pressure without extra rushers in 2021, and it hampered the defense’s ability to finish close games. It’s why the Broncos spent big on Randy Gregory (five years, $70 million), who is still rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, and used their second-round pick on Bonitto, but it could be argued that a finally healthy Chubb could be the second-biggest “addition” for the Broncos this offseason behind Wilson.