We have endured the summer months, the coach-speak, the “best shape of his life” claims, the promises of grandeur, and the deepest of deep dive rumors. The Hall Of Fame Game, tonight at 8:00 pm EST on NBC, is the first step in a one-month preseason where we will see many veterans resting to avoid the risk of injuries before the games matter. These preseason games are crucial opportunities for young players to make a name for themselves and earn a roster spot. So who should we be watching in this first game between the Broncos and the Falcons?
Royce Freeman – RB
“Rolls-Royce” is a bruiser. At 5’11” and 238 pounds, he is a punishing running back with surprising agility. Entering his second season, his rookie year was hampered by injuries which put him behind the learning curve, and allowed Phillip Lindsay to take hold of the starting gig. Averaging 4.0 YPC on 131 attempts last season, he has the upside to contribute in this offense. Training camp reports have been very optimistic and it sounds like the Broncos would like to have he and Lindsay split touches. A strong statement in the preseason would go a long way to carve out a role for himself, starting tonight.
DaeSean Hamilton – WR
Hamilton, a second year wide receiver out of Penn State, is listed second on the depth chart behind Emmanuel Sanders, but he by no means has a firm grasp on that spot. Posting only 243 receiving yards last year, the Broncos brass is going to expect Hamilton to take a big step forward into a real receiving threat, and he will need to fend off some young talent behind him. Joe Flacco lining up under center helps Hamilton – I guess, sorta – but Hamilton is going to need to create separation, and establish himself as a reliable member of this passing attack. Watch his route running, his understanding of defensive coverages, and if he is creating separation early and often.
Noah Fant – TE
The Bronco’s first-round draft pick this year should in no way stay second on the depth chart for long. A 6’4,” 249 pound tight end that can catch, and has 4.50 forty yard dash speed, is what we like to call a problem. He is too fast for linebackers, and too big for corners. There is a highlight from his game last season against Purdue where he dragged a smaller defensive back 39 yards down the field, before finally being tackled. If he can demonstrate in the preseason that he can hold up against the more physical defenders at the NFL level, he should quickly climb the depth chart and could be the go-to target for Joe Flacco. Flacco thoroughly enjoys throwing to his tight ends (reference Dennis Pitta with 86 catches in 2016).
Ito Smith – RB
When Devonta Freeman missed time last year to injuries, Ito Smith was called upon as the secondary running back to Tevin Coleman. In his opportunities, he poached a few short TD runs, but was otherwise largely ineffective. He carried the ball 90 times on the season with an average of 3.5 YPC. Not great. Most people assume that with Coleman, now taking up residence in the bay area with the 49ers, that Smith will be the de facto RB2 on this roster. But, he could easily be in jeopardy of losing it to a young back behind him. Smith needs to play bigger than his 5’9,” 195 pound frame, and demonstrate an ability to finish on close runs and contribute in the passing game in the preseason. Speaking of young running backs…
Qadree Ollison – RB
Ollison is a rookie drafted out of Pitt, where he redshirted his freshman year behind James Conner. He went on to have some ups and downs throughout his college career, but put together a solid campaign in his senior year – 1,213 yards, 11 TDs at a strong 6.3 YPC. Oh, and he is big. At 6’1,” 228 lbs, he has the measurables to serve as the thunder to Freeman’s lightning. If Ollison can do the little things right – like pass protect, pick up blitzes, and run strong behind his larger frame – he could be a real challenge to Ito Smith.
Olamide Zaccheaus – WR
Here is a wide receiver that is fighting for a roster spot. An un-drafted free agent out of the University of Virginia, Zaccheaus is a quick, agile, shifty athlete with the ball in his hands, but lacks some natural receiving ability. He was able to produce solid numbers in his final season in college – 93 catches, 1058 yards at an 11.4 yard average, with 9 TDs – but at this point, he does not appear ready to make a significant dent in the offense. If he can show that he has good hands and can win in traffic, he might be able to work his way onto the 53-man roster. He will have a lot of work to do to earn that spot.
There is plenty to watch in this first preseason game of the year. Enjoy, and relish in the simple fact that football is back.