DENVER – The Denver Broncos’ decision to move Baron Browning from inside linebacker to the edge is working out exactly the way coaches and management envisioned when they first approached him with the idea this spring.
The second-year linebacker from Ohio State showed natural pass-rush ability during training camp and carried the momentum through Denver’s 17-7 preseason win against the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night. Browning recorded a tackle for loss on the opening play of the night, a sack and batted down a pass on third down before opening the second half with a special teams tackle. He played into the fourth quarter.
“His acceleration on the ball and ability to bend on the edge is really good to see,” head coach Nathaniel Hackett said afterward. “He played free and it was awesome to see. We’ll evaluate it more, but he’s doing a great job.”
Browning's made the transition look easy in recent weeks.
“I think for normal people it would be pretty tough, but Baron, he’s an athlete and he’s a freak,” inside linebacker Jonas Griffith said recently. “Seeing him fly on the edge and his bend, it’s freakish to see. I’m excited for him. I think he’ll have a great year.”
The 2021 third-round draft pick has turned himself into a factor on the edge, where the Broncos have what appears to be budding depth.
Bradley Chubb, a healthy scratch along with most of Denver’s starters Saturday, has spent camp and Thursday’s joint practice with the Cowboys looking like the disruptive force that burst into the NFL with 12 sacks as a rookie in 2018. Randy Gregory has not yet participated as he recovers from spring shoulder surgery, but the Broncos signed him to a five-year deal worth up to $70 million because they believe he'll be an impact player if he stays on the field. Malik Reed is steady and has shown signs of continued progress this summer and general manager George Paton added to the mix by selecting Nik Bonitto in the second round in April with the franchise’s top draft pick.
“I honestly love our room,” Browning said. “There’s so many talented pass-rushers in our room and for me, it’s been a blessing being in that room because every day they’re pushing me to be better. You can’t show up to work and not get better. I’m loving it, for real. …
“I was happy to be moved outside, I wanted to be there last year and I’m glad things worked out the way they did.”
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The question for the Broncos, though, could end up being whether they can afford to keep him there or if they will need his services, even in the relatively short term, in the middle. That thought entered the equation in earnest on Saturday night when Griffith, a likely starter at inside linebacker, suffered a left elbow injury on the second snap of the game and went straight to the locker room for evaluation.
Hackett didn’t have an update after the game, but Griffith was sporting a sling in the locker room. A person with knowledge of the injury told USA TODAY Sports, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose medical information at this time, that the timeline for Giffith's return from what multiple outlets reported was a dislocated elbow is likely to be several weeks. Assuming the medical imaging reveals no further damage, he is not expected to miss a major chunk of the regular season.
“I saw him go down, but I wasn’t even aware of the injury until about 15 minutes ago when I saw him in the sling,” Browning said. “I was like, ‘damn,’ especially since we played inside together last year at the end of the season. We have a good relationship and Jonas is a great guy. You hate to see your brother go down, but I know he’ll be back better and stronger.”
Denver signed Alex Singleton in the offseason, and he has been the third man so far in camp behind Griffith and Josey Jewell. After that come Justin Strnad and Barrington Wade. That apparent depth, though, didn’t stop Paton and company from working out veteran free agent Joe Schobert recently.
Could the Broncos feel forced to move Browning back inside if Griffith isn't ready for the opening games of the regular season with their trip to Seattle now just four weeks away?
“I just control what I can,” Browning said. “I just continue showing up for work every day and trying to be the best version of myself and whatever happens, happens.”
Race for wide receiver roster spots heats up
Denver signed free agent wide receiver Darrius Shepherd after Tim Patrick suffered a season-ending ACL tear last week, but the staff has expressed confidence in the young group of pass-catchers after the trio of Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler.
None of those three played Saturday – Hamler is still working back from hip and knee surgery – and neither did Tyrie Cleveland (throat), but several young receivers put a good foot forward against Dallas.
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Rookie Montrell Washington, who is a safe bet to make the 53-man roster thanks not only to his strong training camp but also the fact that Denver drafted him in the fifth round this spring to be its return specialist, continued his strong summer with a pair of punt returns for 45 yards. He also had three offensive touches.
The bubble players produced, too.
Undrafted rookie Brandon Johnson reeled in a 40-yard reception up the sideline and created separation a number of times, though he also logged a drop en route to four catches on six targets for 64 yards. Kendall Hinton made a leaping touchdown catch in the back-left corner of the end zone and finished with three catches for 53 yards. Seth Williams, the second-year man out of Auburn, caught all four targets for 29 yards, including a jump-ball touchdown. Jalen Virgil caught a 42-yard pass, following up a similar hook-up with quarterback Brett Rypien during Thursday’s joint practice and logged a team-high 83 yards on three catches.
“It’s a great competition,” Hackett said. “All of those guys are making plays when they have to. … Everybody stepped up and got a couple of catches. That’s what you want to see in the preseason.”
Assuming Hamler is healthy enough to be on the opening 53-man roster with Sutton, Jeudy and Washington, there are perhaps two receiver spots up for grabs. The staff likes Cleveland’s special teams ability, which will weigh into who makes the team, but it appears the race is going to be a good one.
“I’ve played with some good receiving corps, but for this amount of young guys to be stepping up like this, I don’t think I’ve been around that,” said quarterback Josh Johnson, who started and played the first half. “It’s a credit to their work. … It’s going to be a tough decision when it’s all said and done, but all of those guys deserve opportunities.”
Josh Johnson starts slow, heats up
The Broncos’ first unofficial depth chart had Josh Johnson, the 36-year-old veteran quarterback, as the No. 2 man behind starter Russell Wilson. Wilson went through warm-ups – he said he was looking forward to doing so in a Denver uniform for the first time after 10 years in Seattle – but did not play. Johnson started 3-for-9 for 27 yards but then caught fire beginning with the 40-yarder to Brandon Johnson.
Josh Johnson completed 13 of his final 14 in the first half for 145 yards and a pair of touchdowns, engineering three scoring drives. The final covered 51 yards in 56 seconds and got a helping hand from the Cowboys, who were penalized at a prodigious rate, for an extra five yards to set up a 52-yard Brandon McManus field goal to close the first half.
The Cowboys committed 17 penalties for 129 yards on the night.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Broncos takeaways: What stood out from preseason win over Cowboys