Patience is required for Broncos' Case Keenum, but it might be running out for Paxton Lynch

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Last week, Denver Broncos general manager John Elway had heard much of the glowing analysis. How the starting offense was clicking and quarterback Case Keenum was progressing nicely and how members of the rookie class were dropping jaws. Yet in one brief moment on Wednesday, for whatever reason, he felt inclined to pump the brakes.

“The jury is still out,” Elway said of the Broncos’ seamless start to camp. “Yeah, camp has started out well. But we’re a young football team. Let’s just see how we progress.”

While Elway didn’t know it in the moment, he was wading into one of the least popular training camp storylines. NFL fans and analysts rarely want to embrace caution in August. It’s far less fulfilling than toasting great practice sessions or griping over preliminary depth charts that don’t matter that much. Early in the preseason, optimism or pessimism is king. The middling gray doesn’t play. Yet that measured approach is what Elway seemed to be suggesting last week, before the Broncos offense had a sputtering first preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings and fans took to social media white-knuckling.

Case Keenum (L) has the No. 1 QB spot locked down in Denver, but things aren’t so clear for Paxton Lynch. (AP)
Case Keenum (L) has the No. 1 QB spot locked down in Denver, but things aren’t so clear for Paxton Lynch. (AP)

“I don’t have to predict,” Elway said of the Broncos’ path forward. “You guys predict. I get to analyze where we are.”

As fans might have realized in an instructive preseason loss to the Vikings, that analysis is ongoing. A study is measuring all parts of the franchise, especially the offense, which is expected to finally get itself on track. But there is a lot of work to do here. A lot of tweaking and wrenching and tuning that can’t be adequately accomplished without some preseason failures. That reality includes everyone on the roster, from Keenum to the rookie class to an imperfect running back spot. And lest we forget, an offensive line that is still syncing up and a defense that is young in some very key spots.

As Elway said of the rookies: “There are a lot of walls left to hit.”

He might as well have been talking about the entire offense, which is not yet the finished product that everyone is hoping for. So here are some truths about Denver’s offense in these early stages (some of which Elway and the coaching staff will say out loud and some of which they won’t) …

Patience required for Case Keenum

Fans are going to have to be patient while the offense finds a groove. I know nobody wants to hear that after last season’s debacle, but it’s a reality. Despite the struggles against the Vikings, fans should know that everyone in the building is overjoyed to have Keenum in the fold. It has reinvigorated parts of the staff and roster that were frustrated by last season’s quarterback situation.

Head coach Vance Joseph put a fine point on it at one point, speaking to Yahoo Sports: “It was refreshing for all of us, from myself to John [Elway] to the veteran players, to know that we’ve got a guy in place. At quarterback, it’s obvious if you don’t have one that can operate and manage the game for you. It’s hard to win in this league [like that].”

On some level, all quarterbacks are timing and rhythm guys. That aspect is absolutely essential for his success. And it takes a solid amount of snaps – both in practice and real-game situations – to get into the groove. That’s the trade-off the Broncos made with Keenum. His arm is adequate. His size is doable out of a shotgun scheme. But his timing will make him worth the “show-me” contract that he signed, and may ultimately make him worth an extension next offseason.

Getting that timing down involves becoming familiar with a lot of the moving parts around him, then figuring out which parts of his game he has to accentuate (like pocket mobility) to maximize every play. Part of this can be done in practice. But the Broncos will have to expose Keenum and the starters to some failure in the preseason games to help that process along, too. Fans won’t always like that.

As Joseph put it when speaking about Keenum, “Everything is fit.”

Denver is finding that fit. But it’s still a work in progress.

Paxton Lynch went 6-of-11 for 24 yards, was sacked once and threw an interception in Saturday’s preseason game against the Vikings. (AP)
Paxton Lynch went 6-of-11 for 24 yards, was sacked once and threw an interception in Saturday’s preseason game against the Vikings. (AP)

What’s up with Paxton Lynch?

The backup quarterback spot is a larger concern beyond who actually wins the job. First, Elway and the staff won’t say it, but Paxton Lynch looks like a player who is on the roster bubble. If you’ve stood by the crowds of fans in training camp, he has not been immune to some smattered booing … in practice, no less. He has been outplayed by Chad Kelly.

Asked if he would potentially look at other veteran options at the backup spot late in the preseason, Elway said he’d treat it just like other spots: If there is a better player available, they won’t hesitate to have that conversation and potentially add someone else (should someone come available). Arizona Cardinals backup Mike Glennon comes to mind, as does New York Jets quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Elway wants two things out of his backup spot: Someone who can win games in a pinch (this is by far the biggest priority); and someone who can play the role of valuable supporting piece for Keenum. That last part shouldn’t be undersold. The best quarterback rooms have a synergy between the starter and the backup that is good for both players. And Keenum could be greatly aided by a player who studies and works just as hard as he does. At some point, Elway and the staff will need to ask themselves whether Lynch or Kelly is the right fit. If neither does and a better player becomes available, there is a possibility that a veteran gets added later and the loser of the Lynch/Kelly battle doesn’t make the final roster.

Running back spot still up for grabs

There are some other pressing concerns for the Broncos that concern Keenum. First, the wide receivers will have more depth and competition with rookies Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton both looking capable of playing roles this season. Tight end Jake Butt also has a chance to come out of camp with a starting job and contribute immediately. Timing will be a factor, but the abundance of talent is in place to make this passing game work far better than what fans saw against the Vikings.

The running back spot, on the other hand, is still searching for a clear-cut impact guy. Elway and the coaches have been optimistic about the position, but right now it’s looking like a wide-open rotation. This suggests that Devontae Booker still hasn’t taken the big step the staff wants. Whether coaches say it or not, some hope that Royce Freeman takes control of the position. His performance against the Vikings may have been a step toward that.

Blame can’t all fall on QB

As it does on most NFL teams, the offensive line may make or break this entire effort. The staff and front office are pleased with the talent level, but it has been hard to get a read on whether there will be dependable depth or even if the starters will have all completely locked themselves into place by the regular season. The hope is that the depth chart is at least reliably sorted in September.

A good example of this: Backup offensive tackle Menelik Watson was scratched from the Vikings game with injury. He’s a player whose preseason should offer clues to depth. Instead, he’s looking like the same oft-injured player who constantly frustrated the Oakland Raiders with his lack of availability and consistency. The Broncos need both of those things from the depth chart on their line: availability and consistency. And Keenum didn’t look comfortable behind the starters against the Vikings.

Joseph was as on point as he could be when it came to this unit last week when he spoke to Yahoo Sports. Either it gets better from last season’s disappointment, or changes will be made.

“Last year, the quarterback took a lot of heat [from critics],” Joseph said. “But he was hit a lot.”

This year, with the money invested in Keenum, that won’t be a forgivable outcome.

If that all sounds like a lot of moving parts, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. The goal remains simple. As Keenum put: “We’re looking to attack and we’re looking to score a lot of points. That’s important to us.”

But the results … well, they’re going to be elusive in the early going. Largely because a fit takes time. Buying a quarterback in free agency doesn’t solve every problem. But it’s part of the answer key. The rest will have to be figured out over the next four weeks of success, failure and analysis by Elway.

If anything, his early evaluation last week was correct. Regardless of all of all the optimism about this offense, the jury is still out.

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