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KJ Hamler feels like ‘brand new me,’ could be key for Broncos offense – USA TODAY

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DENVER – KJ Hamler acknowledged earlier this week he had one last moment of doubt as he continued his return from knee and hip injuries suffered in Week 3 last fall.

The third-year Broncos wide receiver said that emotion flashed through his mind as he leapt a pass during his first day back in full team drills.  

“I was a little nervous, I ain’t going to lie,” Hamler said. Perhaps the trepidation shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering he suffered the injury doing the same thing against the New York Jets nearly 11 months ago.

Saturday night in his first game action since then, albeit a preseason match? No such worry.

“Nah, I just let it all go and let it flow,” Hamler said after the game. “As much as of a brand new me as I could be. I’m just blessed to be back out there.”

A potentially key part of Denver’s offense is, indeed, back out on the field.

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Hamler had operations on both his knee and his hip, which caused Denver to handle his offseason with caution. He participated some in OTAs, then started training camp on the the physically unable to perform list. He was activated after a week only to be slowed down considerably and held to only individual work for a couple of subsequent August weeks.

In recent days, though, Hamler’s cruised through most of the final milestones in a long journey toward a return to normalcy. First team reps in practice. First practice touchdown. Then Saturday night during the Broncos’ 23-13 win over Minnesota in the teams’ final preseason tune-up, his biggest step yet. Hamler played around 25 snaps, saw five targets and caught three passes for 18 yards, took a big hit and generally looked fast, confident and comfortable on the field.

“We had to take him out because he wanted to keep going and he was having such a great time,” head coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “I think it’s great for him to be able to catch the ball and take a couple of pops. And you want him to want to stay in in those situations. For a guy that hasn’t played for as long as he has, it’s very encouraging and we’ll just build off of that.”  

The 5-foot-9 slot receiver will be counted on to be a productive member of the Broncos’ passing game this fall, particularly after the franchise lost Tim Patrick to an ACL injury earlier in training camp. Whether Hamler is truly at full speed and available when Denver goes to Seattle remains to be seen, but Saturday night can only be counted as a step in the right direction.

“I feel like I’ve answered that question and I feel like I’ve been knowing that I’m going to be ready,” Hamler said.

The Broncos, too, continued to get a productive preseason out of rookie receiver and return man Montrell Washington. Washington is a safe bet to make the 53-man roster on Tuesday when teams have to cut down from 80 mostly because of his ability as a punt and kick returner, but he’s pushing his way into the receiving rotation as well. That can only help, considering Denver has other receivers like Tyrie Cleveland who, if he makes the roster after missing several weeks with a throat injury, will do so primarily on the strength of his special teams contributions.

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Washington played his college ball at FCS Samford, but in recent weeks has shown the ability to do a little bit of everything offensively, too. On Saturday, he took an end-around in for an 11-yard touchdown. Last week, he hauled in a tough, contested catch over the middle for a third-down conversion and absorbed a big hit while doing it.

“He really struggled learning the offense early, even early in camp,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said earlier this month. “It’s totally different than what he was used to, totally opposite. Like, on another planet offensively from what he was doing. And man, he’s really come along. Learning it. …

“He’s a playmaker, so if he can learn this system and this offense like he’s been doing, he can really help us.”

Top receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy are among the many Bronco starters who did not play a snap in the preseason. Hamler’s continued recovery and Washington’s offensive progress stand as two intriguing developments in a receiving group that has talent and promise but still needs to show it can be a consistent force in the regular season.

Bubble watch

A WR injury of note

Perhaps no player on the roster has improved his stock more over the course of the preseason than undrafted receiver Brandon Johnson. The former UCF standout worked his way into playing time with the top unit in practice and is making a push for a roster spot.

He suffered a high ankle sprain on Denver’s first offensive snap of the night and, after initially being ruled questionable to return, was downgraded to out.

Now, a long wait until Tuesday.

“I have a lot of confidence in what I’ve done and what I can do,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, it’s up to them. … It’s been fun. It’s been nothing but fun to compete with the guys in my group and these defensive backs. I’ve been getting nothing but great work this entire time.”

Later, second-year wide receiver Seth Williams suffered an apparent hand/wrist injury and was attended to by trainers, though he returned later and finished with a team-best 68 yards on four catches. He also had a bad drop on what would have been a 20-plus yard gain in the second quarter.

“Anybody with us can ball,” Hamler said. “I’m pretty sure the ones that don’t make it here will be on the field for somebody.”

Agim’s big night

Defensive lineman McTelvin Agim finds himself on the bubble along with several other Broncos up front. He answered the bell in the final outing before Tuesday’s roster cutdown with a pair of forced fumbles and a pair of batted passes.  

Agim, a third-year player from Arkansas, was credited with a strip sack on Sean Mannion in the second quarter that led to a scoop-and-score touchdown for outside linebacker Baron Browning.

Denver’s starting trio on the defensive line is set in D.J. Jones, Dre’Mont Jones and DeShawn Williams. Mike Purcell didn’t play Saturday, perhaps indicating his spot on the 53-man roster is also safe after Hackett said Purcell was held out, “because he’s old.” From there, there are perhaps two spots for Agim, Jonathan Harris and rookies Matt Henningsen and Eyioma Uwazurike.

“I think I’ve grown a lot, but sometimes it’s not about how much you’ve grown, it’s about numbers,” Agim said. “You’ve got to be prepared for whatever. Hopefully it’s with the Broncos, but you never know.”

Who’s No. 2 behind No. 3?

The Broncos have said all along that Josh Johnson and Brett Rypien are competing for the No. 2 job and their game performances through three preseason outings have been fairly similar.

Johnson outplayed Rypien against Dallas, Rypien had the upper hand against Buffalo and Saturday the pair played about even.

“It’s going to be a hard decision to see where we go with that,” Hackett said. “Both guys have worked hard.”

Rypien, the fourth-year player out of Boise State, finished the preseason 44-of-65 for 441 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The pick came in the red zone Saturday when he tried to force a slant to Hamler. He capped the preseason with a passer rating of 85.5.

Johnson, the 36-year-old veteran, finished Saturday 11-of-14 for 107 yards and the preseason 35-of-53 for 349, a pair of touchdowns and a 97.0 quarterback rating.

Hackett said he hadn’t considered whether the team might be able to sneak Rypien through to the practice squad and that he’s pleased with the work each of the quarterbacks has done in the preseason.

In reality, Denver has three options: Johnson, Rypien or somebody else after cutdowns on Tuesday.

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