This Broncos preseason worth a closer look

Dress Rehearsal season in the National Football League usually is largely a formality, despite the full-price tickets. 

Guys you’ve never heard of, for the most part, play a lot then disappear. And the ones you’ll watch on Sundays, once the games count, play sparingly. 

But this preseason is different in Denver, for several reasons.

First and foremost, of course, is the new man under center. That voice in the huddle belongs to Russell Wilson, whose act in Denver since coming from Seattle in March rivals the hustle of Music Man’s Harold Hill.

Because he’s new and still putting his stamp on these Broncos, how Wilson leads the first-team offense in August games, for however long he plays, bears closer-than-usual preseason scrutiny.

There’s also Nathaniel Hackett, who is the head coach for the first time in his NFL sideline career. He’s already shown himself to have more personality than Vic Fangio. But can he direct a team worthy of Broncomaniacs’ passion?

And, due to the unfortunate practice injury to Tim Patrick, who is lost for the season, the competition among pass receivers to fill the hole Patrick leaves in the lineup will be the most compelling position battle to be decided in these mostly meaningless (from the fan’s point of view) contests.

The contenders include Tyrie Cleveland, Travis Fulgham, Seth Williams, Kendall Hinton, newly signed Darrius Shepherd and rookies Montrell Washington and Brandon Johnson.  The leading contenders heading into Saturday’s game seem to be Shepherd and Washington.

Shepherd, who was added after Patrick went down, previously played 14 games for Hackett’s former employer, Green Bay. He also caught 27 balls in the United States Football League earlier this year, and most significantly, made a favorable impression in his first practices with the Broncos.

Washington, a fifth-round pick out of Samford (undergraduate enrollment: 3,607), has been the early talk of camp for showing he can be more than just a kick returner. It’s too early for such comparisons, but at 5-feet-10 and 170 he’s already been likened to Tyreek Hill, who tormented Denver while he played for Kansas City.

Adding to the unusual appeal of this year’s warmups is the schedule itself.

The Broncos play only three “exhibition” games this year, beginning with Saturday’s joust with the Dallas Cowboys at Empower Field at Mile High—which, by the way, may not look obsolete but likely will be replaced as soon as the new owners decide the best location for its successor. 

The potential benefit:  Fans should see more of those players who will be household names during the 18 weeks that lead to the playoffs, because the time for them to get ready for prime time is compressed. It also means the newcomers with best chances of making the final cut are likely to get more time to impress the new sheriff.

If preseason games can be an indication of anything, this tilt with the Cowboys affords discerning Denver fans a possible glimpse into the not-so-distant future. Besides the Broncos, Dallas matches up with the Seahawks, two weeks later.

Even though it’s only practice, maybe there’s still something to be learned about the Broncos’ first opponent by comparing Denver’s and Seattle’s performances against “America’s Team.”

While the Broncos are squaring off with the Cowboys Saturday night, Russell Wilson’s old team begins the process of deciding his successor. Seattle’s first preseason game is against Pittsburgh—another team whose starting quarterback is to be decided, now that Big Ben has called it a career.

As one would imagine, Drew Lock is attracting a lot of attention in Seattle as he challenges journeyman Geno Smith for the opportunity to throw the first pass of the post-Wilson era.

“Drew Lock Finishes With a Flurry,” read the headline on one report after a practice last week.

“ . . . Lock used his legs to extend the drive twice as a runner then rolled out to his right to connect with Penny Hart on a nine-yard touchdown,” read part of the account of action during the scripted-plays portion of a practice.

 “ . . .Capping off a stellar finish, Lock . . . worked down the field with a 15-yard completion on a dig to Hart and a touchdown to Aaron Fuller on a crossing route,” the report concluded.

Nothing has been decided, and in all likelihood, Pete Carroll won’t choose his starter until the last preseason game, at the earliest.

For pure theater, let’s hope it’s Lock.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 14 books, eight of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.