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Broncos without a full-time quarterback on eve of game after COVID-19 losses

There'll be a new face under center on Sunday for the Denver Broncos, as regular starter Drew Lock is one of four quarterback ineligible to play against New Orleans due to COVID-19 concerns.
There'll be a new face under center on Sunday for the Denver Broncos, as regular starter Drew Lock is one of four quarterback ineligible to play against New Orleans due to COVID-19 concerns.Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos won’t have any of their four quarterbacks available Sunday when they face the New Orleans Saints because of coronavirus concerns.

One person told the AP that starter Drew Lock, backup Brett Rypien, and practice squad veteran Blake Bortles were deemed high-risk close contacts with No. 3 quarterback Jeff Driskel on Wednesday, the day before Driskel tested positive for COVID-19.

Another person, also speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic, said the four quarterbacks apparently weren’t wearing their masks the whole time they were together as required by the league’s pandemic protocols.

Late Saturday, the Broncos made a statement saying the NFL informed them shortly before Saturday’s practice that “new contact tracing information” required Lock, Rypien, and Bortles be identified as high-risk close contacts. All three, the statement continued, “have consistently tested negative for COVID-19.”

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The Broncos were scrambling to prepare practice squad rookie receiver Kendall Hinton and No. 3 running back Royce Freeman to share snaps at quarterback Sunday when Denver (4-6) hosts the Saints (8-2).

Hinton played quarterback for three seasons in college and Freeman is the team’s emergency QB.

The NFL cleared the Broncos to practice on Thanksgiving Day after Driskel tested positive for the virus, and again Friday after kick returner Deontae Spencer tested positive along with two staffers. But coach Vic Fangio decided to shut down the building Friday and the team conducted meetings remotely.

Lock, Rypien, and Bortles were loosening up before Saturday’s short walkthrough practice when they were pulled off the field and sent home.

They’ll have to quarantine for several days and in order to return next week will have to continue to test negative for COVID-19. The NFL isn’t allowing any teams to gather until Wednesday out of concern the Thanksgiving holiday might have exposed players to infection.

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After learning of their dire situation at quarterback, the Broncos’ brain trust of Fangio, general manager John Elway, and team president and CEO Joe Ellis spoke with officials from NFL headquarters.

The league decided not to force Denver to forfeit the game, or to postpone it like they did the Steelers-Ravens matchup that was pushed back from Thanksgiving to Sunday, and then again to Tuesday night after the Ravens’ virus outbreak.

A virus outbreak in New England last month forced the Broncos’ game at Gillette Stadium to get pushed back a week and essentially cost Denver its bye week because of the domino effect on the team’s schedule.

The Saints own the league’s second-ranked run defense and last week sacked Falcons QB Matt Ryan eight times, a daunting proposition for anyone who lines up under center on Sunday.

Some Broncos expressed frustration on social media about the NFL not pushing back their game like it did the Steelers-Ravens game, which would have at least given Denver’s makeshift offense a better chance to prepare.

Tight end Noah Fant tweeted, “I’m not one to complain, but @NFL y’all can’t possibly send us into a game without a QB. The most important position to a offense. We don’t even got a back up.”

He followed that tweet with this one: “Anyone know if Peyton Manning is busy tomorrow? Laughing but serious.”

Von Miller, who’s on injured reserve while recovering from ankle surgery, posted a photo on Instagram of him with about to toss a football and wrote, “Been waiting my whole life for this moment! ‘Von ELWAY.’ Imma passing QB don’t need to run much! Ankle is good for QB.”

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Fangio said Saturday morning before the developments at quarterback that there were no new COVID-19 cases and he reiterated that he had no worries about his other QBs getting sick because contract tracing had shown they hadn’t been within 6 feet of Driskel before he tested positive.

The league’s contact tracing protocols include checking electronic contact devices, interviews and review of surveillance, and the league has been busy investigating coronavirus cases on multiple teams.

The news on the quarterbacks broke Saturday about the same time the Broncos announced they had signed left tackle Garett Bolles to a four-year contract extension. Bolles, a 2017 first-round draft pick, has shown dramatic improvement this season after the Broncos declined his fifth-year option.