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Broncos camp observations: A fight ends in a hug, O-line shuffle and more

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett said Friday that he has been a hugger since the day he was born. The man who wraps family members and everyone else in his orbit into big-armed embraces before, after and during nearly every training camp practice insists it’s always been a part of his personality.

“I think I came out trying to hug the nurse,” Hackett said. “It’s one of those things, it’s just who I am.”

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the Broncos’ first scuffle of training camp — a blink-and-you-missed-it scrap that came on the 10th day of practice — ended the same way.

Hackett threw defensive end McTelvin Agim and offensive lineman Ben Braden off the field after the two players exchanged blows at the end of a run play during an 11-on-11 period midway through practice. But when that session ended, giving way to a special teams period, Hackett brought Agim and Braden together to discuss walking the fine line of “controlled aggression” in a competitive environment.

Hackett laid out three main rules for his team during the spring: don’t make excuses; protect the team; and be on time.  Though he said Saturday “there’s no hiding” from the reality that fights will pop off from time to time in practices, they also violate the “protect the team” tenant he believes in strongly.

“No matter what happens, you can’t throw a punch,” Hackett said. “You can’t do anything like that. That’s not what we want and not what we coach. Going over there with those guys after that, we talked and we cleared the air and we made sure they were all good, and then they were able to come back on the field.”

But not before the three men embraced in a group hug as the whistles and shouts of camp buzzed around them. Not your typical training camp scene.

“I got it from my grandma,” Hackett said Friday of embracing with hugs. “She was the same way, (and so was) my mom. That’s how I grew up, and I’m not going to change. I’m going to be me. It throws the guys off at first because you come in hot. But hey, it’s me.”

Chalk it up as another way training camp looks different in Hackett’s first season as head coach. From turning all team periods into 11-on-11 drills to using “regeneration days” to keep players fresh while zooming through play scripts and spicing up the hordes of meetings in between, the first two weeks of camp offered a view of an approach that, at least to this point, has been a hit with players.

“I’m really appreciative of how he looks after us as players and gives us a day off,” third-year tight end Albert Okwuegbunam said of Hackett’s philosophy of splicing the “jog-throughs” into the team’s training camp schedule. “I think it’s important and it’s really good because he’s going to make sure everyone comes out (the next day) feeling great and we can have a really good, competitive practice.”

What’s not yet clear is how Hackett’s philosophy of keeping players fresh while also cramming in important work will translate into the preseason. With the Broncos set to open up their exhibition schedule at home against the Cowboys next Saturday — which is preceded by a joint practice between the two teams Thursday — Hackett has provided few details about how he’ll handle playing time in the preseason.

“Every player is a little bit different and every situation is a little bit different,” Hackett said. “The preseason is always hard on a coach. You win one and you feel great, but it means nothing. You lose one and you feel like crap. That’s just how it is. As a coach, looking at the full picture, I want to do what’s right for the team. That’s all I care about. What happens on the field, we just want to get great evaluations on whoever is out there.”

The biggest question is whether new franchise quarterback Russell Wilson will see the field during the preseason. He did not participate in any of Seattle’s exhibition contests in 2021 and there was no preseason in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He played in two preseason games in 2019, throwing a combined 18 passes. Will it be necessary for Wilson to get at least that amount of work ahead of the Sept. 12 regular-season opener as he steps into a new offense? Will Hackett make starting decisions on a case-by-case basis?

“Right now it’s totally open,” Hackett said. “We still haven’t made that decision. It’s still a week away. The way I look at is we still have two more practices and then we want to great a great practice against Dallas and then we’ll go from there.”

Rookie O-lineman gets shot

Hackett has said since the start of training camp that he wants to consistently shuffle offensive linemen during training camp, allowing him and his staff the chance to evaluate different combinations as they not only land on their starting five for the opener but also decide how to best stock the roster outside of those starters.

That approach on Saturday led to rookie Luke Wattenberg, a fifth-round pick out of Washington, snapping to Wilson for the first time as he worked with the top offensive unit for a series. Wattenberg returned to Washington for a final season in 2021, in part, to get more snaps at the center position after spending the early part of his college career at guard. He’s played both positions during camp, but Saturday was his first opportunity with the top unit.

“You’re only going to find out how those young guys are if they are thrown in there,” Hackett said. “How does it feel when, all a sudden, Russell Wilson is taking the snap from you? We’ve got to work through that. Those guys have to get on the same page so that if we do need him, he’s ready to rock.”

Wattenberg may have been feeling some nerves as his first snap to Wilson in the team period came in low, leading to an aborted play. Wilson quickly took Wattenberg aside to rep a couple of snaps before leading the rookie back to the huddle. The snap was good enough on the next play for Wilson to collect it cleanly, drop back in a clean pocket and hit Jerry Jeudy up the right sideline for a long touchdown.

The Broncos have some fascinating decisions to make about who to keep on the offensive line as the preseason nears. The starting line at this point looks like Garett Bolles at left tackle, Dalton Risner at left guard, Lloyd Cushenberry III at center, Quinn Meinerz at right guard and Calvin Anderson at right tackle. The battle for interior positions beyond that is fierce with veteran Graham Glasgow, third-year player Netane Muti and Wattenberg among players who have shifted among center and the guard spots. Billy Turner and Tom Compton, two veterans currently injured, will also figure into the mix.

For Wattenberg, getting an early shot to run with the first team, brief though it was, registers as an encouraging sign about his progress.

Jonas Griffith continues to impress at linebacker

During a two-minute drill period on Tuesday, Jonas Griffith had a chance to win the session for a defense. He read Wilson’s eyes perfectly as the quarterback threw for Okwuegbunam up the seam. But as the ball hit Griffith’s hands, the inside linebacker couldn’t haul it in, and he threw his head into the sky in disbelief. A few plays later, Wilson made the defense pay when he hit Trey Quinn for a touchdown.

Part of the reason the play stood out is that it has been rare to see Griffith make a mistake since he began taking the bulk of the first-team reps at linebacker during OTAs. The player who arrived in Denver from San Francisco at the end of training camp last year to provide depth on special teams is barreling toward a key starting role in new coordinator Ejiro Evero’s defense, a development that would have been hard to foresee at this time last year.

“I’m really, really happy with what Jonas has done so far,” Evero said last week. “We’re feeling really good about where he’s progressing to.”

Griffith, who impressed during a four-game cameo as a starter at the end of last season, said he focused intently this offseason on how to more quickly diagnose offensive formations to help him know “what they’re going to do before it happens.” He has credited veteran Josey Jewell with expanding his growth in the nuances of play recognition.

“Just today, we were talking about a play on the sideline and we read it perfectly off of each other’s mind,” Griffith said after Saturday’s practice, referring to a play where the two made a run stop in the backfield. “It’s, ‘OK, I’m here and you’ll be here.’ Having that live rep with each other gives us that confidence that we can develop that trust in each other.”

Griffith has recently taken the snaps with the first team in Denver’s sub-package looks that feature just one linebacker, another sign that he is being trusted with more responsibility in the middle of Denver’s defense. It’s a far cry from one year ago, when he was told after the Broncos traded for him that he was in Denver specifically to play special teams. Consistent injuries to the linebacker spot in 2021 finally gave Griffith the opportunity to see the field on defense. Now, he is starting to look like a key piece of that unit.

“I always had faith in myself to get to this position,” said Griffith, a 25-year-old who went undrafted out of Indiana State in 2020 and was cut three times before getting making his debut with the Broncos last season. “I didn’t think it was going to happen this quick, but I was always ready for it to happen. I just stayed prepared and ready to, once my number was called, make a play and show the coaches I was capable.”

Extra points

• Wilson and the first-team offense put together another strong two-minute drive at the end of Saturday’s practice, marching 51 yards and six plays before finishing the end-of-half series with a 31-yard field goal Brandon McManus field goal. The key play on the series was a 30-yard pass down the right sideline to wide receiver Brandon Johnson on third-and-5. It put a cap on a strong week for Johnson, an undrafted rookie out of Central Florida who is making a play for the roster spot created by Tim Patrick’s ACL injury.

• The Broncos conducted one-on-one drills, receiver vs. defensive back, for the first time in this camp. Some highlights: Jerry Jeudy got a half-step on cornerback Pat Surtain II on a fly route to the end zone, but Wilson’s throw went just long; Wilson hit wide receiver Jalen Virgil on a similar route for a touchdown over cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian; rookie cornerback Damarri Mathis had a great coverage on Brandon Johnson on a deep ball from Josh Johnson, leaving the quarterback no space to place the ball.

(Photo of Nathaniel Hackett hugging Trey Quinn on July 27: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

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