The National Football League has seen devastating injury numbers throughout the first three weeks of regular season play. The NFL was forced to scrap the preseason due to the pandemic, resulting in fewer reps and time for players to get their bodies up to game speed, creating more injuries than we normally see.
The Broncos have been bit by the injury bug perhaps the hardest. Superstar Von Miller and top wide receiver Courtland Sutton are both out for the season with an ankle injury and ACL tear respectively.
Broncos top cornerback and the team’s biggest offseason acquisition, A.J. Bouye, is on the short-term injured reserve list with a shoulder injury. Quarterback Drew Lock’s injured shoulder is going to keep him out for 2-6 weeks.
Phillip Lindsay is also sidelined with a toe injury. And now, after the week 3 loss to the Buccaneers, former pro-bowler Jurrell Casey will also be lost for the season with a bicep tear.
That is five of the six pro bowl players on the team who are expected to see significant time on the sideline. With six of Denver’s probably 12 best players hurt, we get to know who will step up and make good on the next-man-up mentality in replacement of the injured stars.
Jeff Driskel: QB, 5th season
Jeff Driskel is technically a veteran, having come into the league as a sixth-round pick in 2016. However, his starting experience is very limited.
He is 1-8 in his nine career starts. Driskel has bounced around the league and saw most of his action in 2018 with the Bengals where he went 1-4 as a starter but saw action in nine games.
His other three starts before this season came last year as a replacement for the Lions’ starter Matthew Stafford. Driskel even faced Denver, where he had one of his better games.
After coming into the game when starter Drew Lock got hurt in week 2, Driskel had his moments but looked like a backup who hasn’t received many reps.
He passed for 256 yards on 18 for 34 attempts. The chemistry with young bucks like Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant seemed to be there. His touchdown pass followed by a successful two-point conversion to Fant pops out as a bright spot from week 2.
However, Driskel did have many crucial errors that ultimately led to the defeat at the hands of the Steelers.
On the final offensive play that Denver needed to score on when they were down 21-26, Driskel took a sack on fourth down, giving the Steelers the ball and the game with limited time left on the clock.
This was a common theme for Driskel throughout the game. He isn’t nearly the mobile quarterback that Lock is, and when the pressure got to Driskel, he sometimes looked confused and held onto the ball too long without an apparent receiving target in mind.
Driskel is from Oviedo, Florida, and played his college ball for four years at Florida University before transferring to Louisiana Tech for his final season. He was ironically high school rivals with Blake Bortles, who was just signed to be the new Broncos backup.
Before his week 3 performance, Driskel had a 12-7 touchdown to interception ratio and 1,944 passing yards through his career. Driskel has solid arm strength and accuracy when he gets his feet set, but he is somewhat limited when it comes to extending plays, making big-time throws and getting creative; all things that Drew Lock excels at.
Driskel should be a solid backup who can hold his own until Lock returns. But for now, the spotlight will be on Driskel to shine on the biggest stage at the biggest position in football.
This is, of course, assuming he remains the starter. Brett Rypien came in as a replacement for the struggling Driskel in week 3 after Driskel went 17-30 with a touchdown and an interception. Rypien didn’t look much better and had a turnover on his first series.
Head coach Vic Fangio has yet to name a starter for the Broncos next game, and Bortles is bound to eventually be given a chance if Lock’s recovery takes longer than anticipated.
Jeremiah Attaochu: Edge, 7th season
Replacing a future Hall of Famer and former Super Bowl MVP like Miller is not an easy task but Jeremiah Attaochu has looked great through three weeks as the starter. A journeyman who was originally a second-round pick in 2014, Attaochu has spent time with the Chargers, 49ers, Jets and Chiefs.
In week 14 last season, Attaochu had a big game that included two sacks and a fumble recovery in which he lateraled to Kareem Jackson for a score. That game was probably a big reason he was re-signed to a 1.5 million dollar contract for this season.
It ended up being a blessing for the Broncos that he was brought back, as the team ended up becoming very thin at the linebacker position.
Injuries to Miller and Justin Strnad and the release of veteran Todd Davis have made Attaochu essential. He constantly supplies pressure and quarterback hurries and would have likely been a big part of the rotation even with a healthy Miller. He already has a sack and nine total tackles on the year.
Tim Patrick: WR, 4th season
Tim Patrick has appeared close to breaking out for years. He was always stuck behind guys like Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Sutton on the depth chart. Now, with Sutton hurt, it’ll be up to Patrick to produce on a young offense.
The Broncos will try to get their star rookies like Jeudy and K.J. Hamler involved, but Patrick is now the most experienced player on the depth chart at the receiver.
Patrick is massive, at 6 foot 4 inches and 212 pounds. He is a big play creator and has proved that in the past.
With his frame, he is great at getting jump balls and making plays in the red zone. Throughout his career, Patrick has been known for catching contested balls in one-on-one situations against opposing cornerbacks. Broncos fans will hope for more of these stellar catches.
Patrick has 629 career yards to go along with 49 receptions. He caught his second career touchdown in week 3, and although Jeudy will likely be the number one receiver and reception leader, the Broncos will need Patrick to score and increase his production for the offense to stay afloat.
Michael Ojemudia: CB, rookie
After losing longtime lockdown cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to the Chargers, the Broncos invested a lot into the vacant cornerback position. Bryce Callahan made his Broncos redshirt debut after missing last season and Bouye was acquired for a fourth-round pick.
The two veterans were expected to allow rookie third-rounder Michael Ojemudia to get acclimated to the NFL before seeing big-time minutes.
Now he has been thrust into a starting role. It showed in week 2 that he may not be quite ready for that, as he was torched on multiple occasions against the Steelers.
Ojemudia also showed that he is one day going to be a great cornerback. He has the talent and is built for the modern NFL at 6 foot 1 inch with speed and athleticism.
After week 2’s not-so-amazing performance, Ojemudia bounced back big in week 3 against the Buccaneers who have one of the best crops of wideout talent in the league. He allowed only one reception to O.J. Howard and kept Mike Evans touchless when he was guarding him.
Ojemudia hails from the University of Iowa and is a guy the coaching staff love. He has looked really good and really bad at different points during the season, but until Bouye is healthy enough to return, he will have to limit the big plays he has allowed and turn his flashes of greatness into consistent performances.
Royce Freeman: RB, Third Season
The third-year back has been somewhat of a let down since entering into the league as a third-rounder from Oregon.
Royce Freeman, not the injured Lindsay, was originally expected to be the featured back in Denver. It turned out, the undrafted hometown kid Lindsay ended up becoming a pro bowler, but Freeman was originally considered the better prospect.
Freeman was on the roster bubble during camp, and touches were expected to be slim because of the Broncos signing Melvin Gordon. Lindsay’s injury now cements Gordon as the starter and will give Freeman a chance to prove himself.
Freeman is a big back and at 238 pounds, the bruiser runs hard and is a goal-line threat. We saw some of this in week 1, even with Linsday and Gordon healthy. He only has six carries thus far, but his usage is bound to increase until Lindsay is back on a full-time basis.
Freeman is also the emergency quarterback for Denver. When quarterback Drew Lock went down, Freeman was the new backup in case Driskel also got hurt. We likely won’t see that now since Bortles has been signed, but we should see plenty Freeman carries in short-yardage situations.
McTelvin Agim: DE, rookie
Dre’Mont Jones got injured in week 2 and was supposed to be the future of the defensive line for the Broncos. And now, in week 3, Casey was the newest big name Bronco to suffer a season-ending injury. The defensive line group is getting slim, and it may now be Agim’s time to shine.
The rookie third-rounder wasn’t supposed to see a lot of action this year as the front seven’s depth. After being a game-day inactive to start the season, Agim will now be relied on to be one of the top guys for Denver’s defense.
Agim wears number 95 because he was the 95th pick in the draft after his career at Arkansas. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and uses little facts like his number to stay motivated. That is exactly the type of player the Broncos could use right now after starting the season off without a win.
Agim is a force inside. He is a wrecking ball that supplies pass rush from the interior. He has great power and leverage as well as a killer swim move.
With all of these unfortunate injuries, the Broncos still have a host of players looking to outperform the doubters. Fans hope for a quick return of their injured pro-bowlers, but for now, the rookies will have to do.
Bailey Bassett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @baileybassett_.