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Broncos lean on defense as young offense grows around Lock

By Arnie Stapleton
Associated Press
Denver Broncos quarterback and Lee's Summit native Drew Lock takes part in drills during NFL football practice at the team's headquarters in August in Englewood, Colo.

DENVER – Watching Drew Lock dominate December after a paucity of practice snaps convinced Broncos general manager John Elway he'd finally found a worthy successor to Peyton Manning.

So Elway bypassed the deepest free agent class of quarterbacks in our lifetime and built around his swashbuckling quarterback from Lee's Summit High School who went 4-1 his rookie season after spending three months on IR with an injured thumb.

With new offensive architect Pat Shurmur penning the playbook, Elway added guard Graham Glasgow and running back Melvin Gordon in free agency. 

In the draft, he used his first two picks on receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, and added center Lloyd Cushenberry III and Lock's University of Missouri teammate, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam.

Elway tempered his enthusiasm, however, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, robbing the NFL of its normal offseason and erasing the preseason. 

Especially hard hit were young teams like the Broncos who are adjusting to a new coordinator and fitting in a handful of new starters.

"I don't think we can expect with no offseason for us to come out and be hitting on all cylinders," Elway said, adding "it's going to be a slow build."

"The expectations of Drew — I mean, he did play well for five games, but that was only five games last year," Elway added. "He didn't have the offseason this year, which for young football players is always very, very important. I know he spent a lot of time throwing to the receivers and getting the timing and doing what they could do away from the facility. We're very young on the offensive side."

Lock agreed that "it may not be the prettiest at first," but insisted his own ambitions for 2020 haven't abated one bit.

"Not being able to be with the guys as much as you normally would is not going to change how I feel going into the season," Lock said. "I still want to do the things ... I thought we could do this year."

Namely, making the playoffs, somewhere the Broncos haven't been since Von Miller's MVP performance in Super Bowl 50.

The superstar linebacker was eager to end four years of frustration and reshaped his body and his mindset in the offseason, but suffered a potential season-ending ankle injury in practice Tuesday.

Other pressure points for the Broncos as they try to reverse their slide that has seen them average seven wins a season since winning it all:

MIGHTY CASEY

Miller is coming off a disappointing eight-sack season, and pass rush partner Bradley Chubb is coming off a torn ACL last September. The acquisition of D-tackle Jurrell Casey from the Titans should help both of them stack up sacks again.

"It'll be incredible," Miller said of playing alongside Casey. "I'm looking forward to it. He's a great player, five-time Pro Bowler. I've been around him at the Pro Bowl several times. ... We can do all sorts of things together."

TERRIFIC TIGHT ENDS

The Broncos have one of the deepest tight end corps in the NFL with the additions of Okwuegbunam in the draft and Nick Vannett in free agency joining last year's first-round pick Noah Fant and oft-injured holdover Jake Butt and Troy Fumagalli.

Okwuegbunam and Lock have built-in chemistry from their time together at Missouri, and it showed during red-zone drills at training camp when the two hooked up time after time for touchdowns.

"We've been pleased with his play," coach Vic Fangio said of Okwuegbunam, who caught 17 TD passes from Lock in their two seasons together in college. "He's obviously a big target at 6-5½. He runs well. He's got good hands."

Fant figures to serve essentially as the Broncos' No. 3 receiver, especially with Hamler's hamstring injury that sidelined him in August.

JUDGE JEUDY

Jeudy was considered the best pure route runner in this year's deep draft class of wide receivers, and he wasted no time dropping jaws at practice this summer.

"He can get in and out of his breaks better than anyone I've ever seen before," Broncos safety and fellow Alabama alum Kareem Jackson said. "For him to be a rookie, his tempo and his routes, the way he can change his pace, the way he sells things, it's very rare."

Rarer still is the rookie who can garner praise from veterans who say his presence will hone their own skills.

"To be able to see him on a day-to-day basis is definitely going to help us," Jackson said. "But he's going to pose a challenge for other defenses."