KJ Hamler, football player, remains sidelined because of a torn ACL sustained last September against the New York Jets.
That has allowed KJ Hamler, football student, to engage in a crash course of new Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett’s offensive playbook.
As his teammates ran through 11-on-11 snaps during the first two days of training camp, Hamler watched from the sideline, white board in hand.
“He has the little board and he’s drawing up the plays and for him, it’s about getting those mental reps and continually pushing himself,” Hackett said after practice Thursday. “It’s been awesome watching him.”
Hamler, a third-year receiver, said he came up with the idea in 2020, when a hamstring injury cost him most of training camp.
“I couldn’t grasp the playbook at first so I started writing things down more and it became so natural to me,” he told The Denver Post.
What comes natural for Hamler, once he is fully cleared to participate, is an element equal parts rare and tough to defend: Speed. Game-breaking speed. Touchdown-producing speed. Difference-making speed. When he debuts, he wants to be ready to run every route and make every pre- and post-snap adjustment.
Hamler remains on the physically unable to perform list, but as soon as he is deemed fit, he can begin practicing at any time.
Is the Week 1 lid-lifter at Seattle on Sept. 12 realistic for Hamler, who would then be 50 weeks post-knee injury?
“I feel like I could play ball right now, but I would rather be safe than sorry so we’re taking it slow, building up strength and working on the other small things,” he said.
Is it tough being safe and smart?
“Yeah because I’m very hard-headed,” Hamler said. “I’ve wanted to do a lot more than I know my body is able to do, but sometimes, that’s not the best choice.”
Hamler said his hip is “fine,” leaving only the knee to fine tune. Two things can be true at the same time — having and not having urgency. He wants to return quickly, but knows the long game is to make sure he can withstand the full season.
The process for Hamler includes several more barriers … and the most important ones. Integrating into practice with and without pads. Responding to press coverage in 1-on-1 drills. Practicing on consecutive days without taking a step back. And finally, the games.
Broncos tight end Albert Okwuegbunam knows exactly what Hamler is going through. Okwuegbunam tore his ACL in November 2020, but caught three passes in last year’s final preseason game to show the coaches — and himself — he was ready.
“When he starts getting worked into practice, that will be a big thing and then getting action in a game, whether it’s preseason or Week 1, however the staff chooses to handle that, I know he’ll be ready and that will be a great hurdle to jump,” Okwuegbunam said.
The greatest hurdle and the biggest hurdle.
“You can get all the reps and do all of the rehab, but until you’re in the live action and catching balls and having guys come to tackle you, you need to do that and do it efficiently and that’s the last kind of hurdle,” Okwuegbunam said.
The key for Hamler, besides getting back on the field and staying there, is making sure he has kept up mentally. Thus, the white board.
“I probably mentally rep each play and draw it out two or three times because I can’t be out there running around with the guys so I have to be a student of the game and know everything in and out, every detail in and out, every concept and every play because when I come back, I probably won’t have as many reps as they do so I have to be tip top,” Hamler said.
Taking the top off the defense is Hamler’s specialty. He scored two touchdowns as a rookie at Carolina (37 and 49 yards). In last year’s preseason opener at Minnesota, he scored an 80-yard touchdown. The ability is there, it just needs to be met by availability.
“I’m ready to get back,” Hamler said. “I’ve been out for a year and it’s been eating me up alive just being away from football. I want to get back and make plays. Whatever (Russell Wilson) wants me to do, I’ll do.”