ENGLEWOOD – At this point, Carlos Henderson would have to pull off an upset to make the Broncos’ 53-man roster.
Rarely does a third-round draft picks entering his second season confront such long odds. But it’s clear head coach Vance Joseph's patience is strained with Henderson, a receiver who put up enormous stats in his junior year at Louisiana Tech, but sat out the minicamp practice Wednesday with a lingering hamstring problem.
“It started in Phase 2 and hasn’t gotten better,’’ Joseph said. “He’s got to get back on the field if he wants to make this football team.”
Phase 2 was a month ago. It's not just the hamstring. It's that the hamstring is the latest of many things. Henderson was already in trouble after he came along slowly last year as a rookie. He suffered a thumb injury in the opening preseason game that required surgery, but the Broncos didn’t wait for him to come around, deciding to place him on season-ending injured reserve before it began.
Soon after the season, Henderson was arrested in Louisiana on a pot possession charge that included a juicy police report detail that he swallowed much -- but not all -- of the evidence.
Then came the NFL Draft in which the Broncos selected receivers Courtland Sutton in the second round and DaeSean Hamilton in the fourth.
Henderson badly needed a strong offseason, but hamstrings usually only heal through rest. Kenny Bell was another Broncos receiver facing long odds to make the team who missed practice Tuesday.
“Same deal there,’’ Joseph said. “Kenny, he’s been nicked also all offseason. Again, you can’t make the football team on the sideline, so those guys have got to get back on the field, especially in that room. It’s a competitive room and it’s a full room. If you’re not practicing, your chances of making the team are slim to none.”
Luckily for Henderson and Bell, the Broncos will go on a six-week break after their final minicamp session Thursday.
Another receiver with a nagging injury is considered a different circumstance. Demaryius Thomas is a proven star who had been participating in the Broncos’ offseason program until he suffered a minor toe injury during the first minicamp session Tuesday. Thomas said he wanted to practice Wednesday, but Joseph held him out.
Out of the Woods
Joseph wasn’t the only Broncos’ coach in his first year in a position of authority in 2017. So was defensive coordinator Joe Woods.
Although the Denver defense ranked No. 3 in the league in total yards allowed, it slipped in other areas like points allowed (22), sacks (22) and forcing turnovers (26).
Those numbers should improve as Woods gets a better feel for play calling.
“I definitely got more comfortable as the season went on,’’ Woods said. “The biggest thing is learning the stunts, learning what pressures you want to run versus different protections. Having [assistant coaches] Bill Kollar and Reggie Herring in the room helped me tremendously. Right now, I have a better grasp on everything, so I feel extremely confident going into my second season calling [plays].”
*Last year, about the only production the Broncos got out of their rookie class was Garett Bolles, their first-round pick who started all 16 games at left tackle.
Based on reps throughout this offseason, rookies will log considerably more minutes in 2018.
“Hopefully, yeah,’’ Joseph said. "It was a good class. It’s a mature class, so hopefully, we get more guys playing. Last year’s class, we had three or four guys that we thought would play for us, but last year’s team was pretty much intact. This year, we’ve got more spaces for young players."
All three rookie running backs – Royce Freeman, David Williams and Phillip Lindsay – are getting first-team reps. As are rookie receivers Sutton and Hamilton and inside linebacker Josey Jewell.
The Broncos have the youngest running back group in the NFL. Are the Broncos concerned they are too young and might need to add a veteran?
“We're very comfortable with the group,’’ said offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. “It's a young group. When our two veterans [Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson] are hurt, like they have been — we're young at wide receiver, too.
“We've got some young tight ends as well, but we're definitely young at running back. But those guys are really developing and we're looking forward to them making a big contribution.”
*Paxton Lynch has shown overall improvement this offseason but his two minicamp practices have served as a reminder he is still inconsistent with his accuracy on throws he must complete.
Working mostly in the red zone Wednesday, Lynch overthrew some receivers who had cleared in the end zone.
He had a fabulous scramble left and throw right down the sideline Tuesday that maybe no one other than Aaron Rodgers could have pulled off. But it’s not the “wow” plays that make the quarterback but reliability on plays that should be made.
“Down in the red area, Paxton continues to make good decisions, which is good,’’ Musgrave said. “We want those decisions, those habits to become part of his fabric so they can just be natural and reactive.’’
*This year’s Shelby Harris might be DeShawn Williams. A sleeper who has quietly impressed the coaching staff during the offseason, Williams is a 6-foot-1, 292-pound defensive tackle/3-4 defensive end who spent his first three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals as the understudy of six-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins.
Williams, 25, spent most of the 2016 season on the Bengals’ 53-man roster, although he only played in four games. He spent most of 2015 and 2017 on the Bengals’ practice squads. Joseph was on the Bengals’ defensive staff in 2015.
*The new standing start kickoff rule is going to make executing the on-side kick almost impossible. Covering the kickoff will also be a tougher challenge.
“It really slows you down,’’ special teams coordinator Tom McMahon said of the standing starts. “We saw it in the Senior Bowl … It was my first experience with having to start on the line, and both [assistant coach Chris] Gould and myself were on the side thinking, ‘We have the slowest team in football.’
“But it’s just simply because you have to start from— basically he has to kick it before you go.”
*There was the occasional nice runback by Omar Bolden and Cody Latimer, but for the most part, the Broncos haven’t had a dynamic returner since Trindon Holliday in the 2012-13 seasons.
They’ll need one this year as the standing-start kickoff rule could open return possibilities.
“I think we have a stable of guys that can do it for us,’’ McMahon said. “It’s going to be interesting to see who pops and who separates themselves. That’s what I’m waiting for. Nobody has separated themselves yet. You really can’t until you get into preseason games and it’s a live ball, it’s coming down the field. We’ll know then, but I like what they’re doing. They’re catching the heck out of the ball.’’