Broncos Country accepts your apology, Nathaniel Hackett. But if Russell Wilson gets smushed in December, you’ll be sorry starters sat this preseason.


You’ll thank the Bills, one day. Once the bruises heal.

Because while a woodshedding in any NFL game — Buffalo 42, Broncos 15 smelled uncomfortably like Alabama vs. Kent State, especially in the trenches — raises as many red flags as it does eyebrows, it also drove home a couple of painful Dove Valley truths:

1. The Broncos’ backups need all the work and reps that they can get, in real-time, full-contact game conditions.

2. A handful of players at UCHealth Training Center are too vital to risk in a meaningless August exhibition.

We’ll give you three biggies, in order, none of whom figure to play Saturday in the Broncos’ preseason finale against Minnesota at Empower Field: quarterback Russell Wilson, left tackle Garett Bolles and cornerback Pat Surtain II.

First-year coach Nathaniel Hackett might be new at this. But he’s no fool, either.

“The first thing I’d tell the fans is I’m sorry for that game (in Buffalo) two days ago, because that is not what we’re looking for,” Hackett replied Monday when I asked him about giving Broncos Country a taste of Wilson against the Vikings.

“But, I mean, I think the fans will understand more with (the methodology) when we get all the way to Week 17 … It goes with all those guys, Courtland (Sutton), Jerry (Jeudy), all those guys, we want to see them in real games. We want that to happen.”

Look, I’d love for DangeRuss to get a series before the home fans with the starters Saturday, just to shake off the cobwebs — but there’s a method to Hackett’s madness.

Namely, the fact that quarterback, left tackle and cornerback are the three spots in this locker room where the step down from the first option to the second is a doozy. In other words, the Broncos are about three serious injuries away from 11-6 turning into 6-11.

With Michael Ojemudia out four to six weeks thanks to an elbow injury suffered in that Buffalo debacle, general manager George Paton’s roster feels especially thin at corner right now. And that’s not good in an AFC West where bad corners have everywhere to run … and nowhere to hide.

“You lose two guys for an extended amount of (time) just in this Bills game,” Hackett mused. “I don’t want (my Saturday starters) to be anybody that potentially could be in that Seattle game.”

This point’s been made, but it bears repeating: The Bills are to the NFL what the Avalanche were to the NHL last fall — a contender who’s been banging on the door for a few years now, on the cusp of kicking that bugger down.

Whether that makes the Broncos the Preds, Blues or Oilers of the NFL is open to debate, but this much is understood: Buffalo, from top to tail, is two or three draft/talent cycles ahead of the current core at Dove Valley. The Bills of present are what the Broncos aspire to be, and, given Big Russ’ age, as swiftly as conceivably possible.

From a fundamentals-vs.-safety standpoint, it’s a fine line. And as rightfully careful as the NFL is about limiting contact in a violent sport, especially where the head is concerned, Silicon Valley has yet to invent a better substitute for practicing or simulating collisions than tackling, blocking and shedding contact at game speed, in game conditions.

Injuries are an inevitable occupational hazard, and elite quarterbacking can paper over a lot of sins. But a team that’s poor or sloppy at the game’s physical rudiments is going to be tested early and often. There are as many Vic Fangios as Hacketts in the NFL, still, and those Fangios are going to hit you in the mouth, repeatedly, until you make them stop.

“Football is a dangerous sport, so any chance you go out there, there’s a chance of getting hurt,” offered tailback Javonte Williams, who gives punishment just as well as he receives it. “I respect what the coaches are doing with the starters, so I can’t complain.”


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