ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — During the first practice of Denver Broncos training camp in late July, Javonte Williams took a handoff from Russell Wilson during a half-speed team drill and ran to his left. By the time he emerged from the crowd of defensive players and jogged toward the end zone, the roughly 3,000 fans in attendance were cheering in united approval. It was a clear recognition of the work Williams, the third-year running back, had done to get to that point, taking that handoff, in the 10 months since he suffered a torn ACL and other damage in his knee.
“He knows how I feel about him. He’s our little superstar,” outside linebacker Randy Gregory said when asked for his own impression of a recovery for Williams that surpassed initial expectations. “Getting to play against him with the Cowboys (in 2021) was big. I didn’t know who he was beforehand, and to see his knees always going up and down, it was neat to see. The way he’s been able to jump back so quickly from an ACL is pretty cool. I expect big things from him.”
Williams first must take one more step before he makes his official return in Week 1 against the Raiders — the same team he was playing against when he suffered his injury last season — on Sept. 10. He will see the field for 10 to 12 snaps against the 49ers in Saturday’s road preseason game. It will be the first time Williams has been fully contacted since crumpling to the ground last Oct. 2 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
In the grand scheme, it’s a significant benchmark for Williams, who was initially expected to miss at least a calendar year before returning to the field. Instead, he’s on pace to play in a regular-season game a little more than 11 months after the injury. But the Broncos aren’t trying to make Saturday’s return for Williams something bigger than what it is: another steady step in a long road that now has the finish line in sight.
“I’m going to be smart,” head coach Sean Payton said when asked how Williams would be used in his preseason debut. “He’s not going to get 20 plays. In a perfect game, I’d like to see him get three or four carries, maybe a pass, and just get him going.”
“I’ve never seen anyone roll like that fresh off a knee (injury). That’s dope, man. I love it for him. He’s going to be ready and I can’t wait to see it.”
Javonte Williams’ recovery has boosted the Broncos run game and inspired teammates along the way: https://t.co/DJTSdFKNSg
— Nick Kosmider (@NickKosmider) August 8, 2023
Williams, in other words, will have a seat Saturday before the rest of the starters, who are expected to play somewhere between 20 and 24 plays, leave the field. It will be a brief cameo, a chance for him to take hits and see how his body responds. More important than any stats Williams may produce against the 49ers is how he feels when he wakes up Sunday. How he feels when he returns to practice on Tuesday. Williams said in late July that any pain he’s felt at this stage of his rehab “is usually gone in the morning,” but Saturday will be his biggest physical test to this point.
“I’m ready to see what I’m going to do,” he said.
There is plenty of intrigue at running back beyond Williams. When the presumed stater sits, he’ll give way to Semaje Perine, who will be followed in some order by Tony Jones Jr. and undrafted rookie Jaleel McLaughlin. The Broncos this week signed running back Dwayne Washington as Tyler Badie deals with an undisclosed injury, but Payton said Washington probably won’t see much action against the 49ers because he’s still being brought up to speed.
This is a big audition for McLaughlin, who has captured attention with his daily habit of breaking a big run in practices. He also scored a touchdown in the preseason opener and was a constant presence during the one drive he was on the field. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said this week that roster hopefuls who grade out well in their preseason debuts are typically in line for bigger opportunities the next time out, and that could apply to McLaughlin.
“Over the years, we’ve had kind of a joker player in (Reggie) Bush and (Darren) Sproles and (Alvin) Kamara,” Payton said when describing how McLaughlin could fit into Denver’s offense. “Those guys are running backs, and yet they do some other things in the passing game that gives them that tag. You could call it a change-of-pace-type player. Certainly, McLaughlin is one of those candidates, where he’s a different-style runner.”
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The most anticipated preseason debut outside of Williams on Saturday will be that of wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr., the second-round pick out of Oklahoma who is rounding his way into form after dealing with hamstring injuries during the offseason. Mims did not play in last week’s exhibition opener against the Cardinals, but his team reps have steadily increased in practice, and he recently made a 40-yard-plus catch on a throw from Wilson during a two-minute drill that helped set up a score for the offense.
“He’s had a really good week,” Payton said of Mims. “He’s healthy.”
The Broncos are in need of healthy bodies at wide receiver. They lost Tim Patrick for the season due to an Achilles injury on the fifth day of camp. Brandon Johnson is recovering from an ankle injury, leaving his status for the Week 1 opener in doubt. And speedster KJ Hamler was waived three weeks ago with a non-football illness designation due to a heart condition he’s remedying with medicinal treatment. Hamler could potentially return to the team at some point, but he’ll face an extended ramp-up period if and when he does.
The bottom line is the Broncos would like to see encouraging signs from Mims during the rest of the preseason as they figure out the pecking order at wide receiver — with cuts looming in about two weeks.
“I’m a lot more comfortable, just adjusting to the speed of the game,” Mims said. “Everyone out there is smart and it’s a whole other ballgame from college. It’s adjusting to the little things and getting more in tune with the huddle, getting in and out, seeing your keys. That’s something I’ve grown on the past week and a half.”
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Mims, Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Marquez Callaway are probably safe bets to be on the roster at wide receiver. But who will take the fifth spot? Will there be a sixth receiver? Players like Kendall Hinton, Montrell Washington, Jalen Virgil and Taylor Grimes are approaching a critical audition Saturday in their respective quests to make the initial 53-man list early next month.
(Photo: Andy Cross / Getty Images)
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