Projecting the 53-Man Roster

DENVER – Final cuts are due Saturday, but given the compromised state of the Broncos depth that was on full display Thursday at Arizona, the stress of the weekend won’t stop for those who are still on the team by Saturday evening.

Denver’s No. 2 waiver-wire priority — based on its 4-12 finish last year — provides the team a window through which it can improve the back end of the roster. Their front-end work in the draft and free agency brought five immediate first-teamers and two backups who will likely see first-team worthy repetitions (running back Willis McGahee and tight end Julius Thomas).

Their places are assured. For many others, the waiting will be excruciating.

Here’s a prediction as to how the 53-man roster will shake down after Saturday night:

QUARTERBACKS (3):

Starter: Kyle Orton.

Backups: Tim Tebow, Brady Quinn.

Breakdown: John Fox will keep the No. 2 competition going into the regular season, but after Quinn’s performance Thursday — which can be euphemistically described as skittish — it’s hard to imagine that Tebow wouldn’t be the second-teamer, especially given the additional weight that Fox and his staff give to preseason games compared with training-camp practices … Do not be surprised if Adam Weber lands on the Broncos’ practice squad. The Broncos are intrigued by his potential, although saying that he was the third-best quarterback on the roster during training camp, as Yahoo! Sports’ Michael Silver claimed via an unnamed source, was a massive stretch.

RUNNING BACKS (3):

Starter: Knowshon Moreno.

Backups: Willis McGahee, Lance Ball.

Breakdown: McGahee is a backup in title only. For all intents and purposes, he’s a co-No. 1; befitting that title, he didn’t play Thursday night … Don’t be surprised if Ball is with the team Saturday, but jettisoned for a waiver claim a day later. He needed to prove he could burst into the open field for a big run, but for various reasons (poor blocking, an open-field cut to the inside when the outside was more open), he couldn’t. Don’t be surprised if Brandon Minor claims a practice-squad slot after a solid effort in Arizona on Thursday.

FULLBACKS (1):

Starter: Spencer Larsen.

Backups: None.

Breakdown: In effect, the backup fullbacks are tight ends … Another question: do the Broncos like Austin Sylvester enough to justify devoting a practice-squad space to him? … Larsen had his best training camp at fullback, but playing a full season in an offense that will emphasize the position will test him as never before. For Larsen, is the season where the road diverges in the yellow wood; either he becomes a long-term answer for the Broncos or they spend the 2012 offseason looking for a true fullback.

TIGHT ENDS (3):

Starter: Daniel Fells.

Backups: Julius Thomas, Dante Rosario.

Breakdown: Expect Fells and Thomas to be busy in two-tight end sets this year … Thomas appeared to be dragged down by playing with backups in Arizona; after his best preseason game five days earlier against Seattle; the Cardinals game was his worst … Rosario’s greatest attribute is knowledge of the offensive system; he played four seasons under Fox in Carolina, with the first two coinciding with Mike McCoy’s last two seasons on the Panthers staff. They know what Rosario can do and trust him. They also know he can pitch in at fullback in a pinch … A rough Thursday night for Virgil Green — punctuated by an open-field drop — could give the Broncos a window through which they can push the Nevada product to the practice squad.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5):

Starters: Brandon Lloyd, Eddie Royal.

Backups: Eric Decker, Matthew Willis, Eron Riley.

Breakdown: The trade of Jabar Gaffney didn’t hinder the group’s depth too much. The top four as a collective are above-average; the team is optimistic Demaryius Thomas can be back by midseason and Gaffney fetched a versatile defensive lineman who is likely to stick not he 53-man roster. Riley appeared to be in a three-way scrum with Britt Davis and David Anderson; his 144-yard night Thursday — and two touchdown receptions in the preseason — could be the difference-maker. All in all, there’s not a single position group in better overall shape — or with fewer question marks — than this one … Do not be surprised to see D’Andre Goodwin stick on the practice squad after his special-teams hit Thursday.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8):

Starters: Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, J.D. Walton, Chris Kuper, Orlando Franklin.

Backups: Russ Hochstein, Manuel Ramirez, Chris Clark.

Breakdown: The first team is pretty clear, and Hochstein’s versatility makes him an easy choice as the first backup offensive lineman. Beyond Hochstein, no position is relatively safe until after the Broncos have made their waiver-wire claims … Given the second-team line’s struggles in the preseason, it’s hard to envision the front office standing pat with its reserves. Look for the Broncos to add multiple offensive linemen to their practice squad; of the current Broncos, the top practice-squad candidates are likely Eric Olsen, Adam Grant and Jeff Byers.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9):

Starters: Elvis Dumervil, Robert Ayers, Marcus Thomas, Brodrick Bunkley.

Backups: Jason Hunter, Kevin Vickerson, Jeremy Jarmon, Ty Warren, Ryan McBean.

Breakdown: Linebacker Von Miller is effectively another starting defensive end, and Robert Ayers is effectively a three-position defensive lineman, able to line up anywhere but nose tackle … Jarmon is a particularly valuable backup because he’s swung from end to tackle during the summer … Hunter has been the best pure defensive end in working his way up from the third team and has generated pressure more consistently than Derrick Harvey, giving him the nod over the ex-Jaguar … There’s no reason not to keep Warren on the 53-man roster right now; the alternatives aren’t better at this point … Ronnell Brown, Mitch Unrein and Jeremy Beal are all legitimate practice-squad candidates.

LINEBACKERS (8):

Starters: Von Miller, D.J. Williams, Joe Mays.

Backups: Wesley Woodyard, Nate Irving, Lee Robinson, Mario Haggan, Mike Mohamed.

Breakdown: Woodyard is effectively a fourth starter, not just because he’s filling in for Williams but because the Broncos could use him as a third linebacker when Miller lines up at defensive end, providing another look to toss at opponents … Mohamed struggled at times in coverage on Thursday but is a sure tackler, a potential special-teams standout and can back up at all three linebacker slots (he lined up at all of them during training camp). Irving’s chest contusion and Haggan’s recovery from a shoulder injury also increases the value of Mohamed and Lee Robinson.

CORNERBACKS (5):

Starters: Champ Bailey, André Goodman.

Backups: Cassius Vaughn, Perrish Cox, Chris Harris.

Breakdown: With Thompson likely headed to injured reserve, Cox makes the team in spite of his looming court date in October that could sideline him for at least a week even if he is acquitted of sexual assault. Harris is the best special-teamer of the bunch, although he could find himself exposed to the waiver wire in advance of a move to the practice squad. Don’t be surprised if they make a waiver claim for another cornerback this weekend.

SAFETIES (5):

Starters: Brian Dawkins, Rahim Moore.

Backups: Quinton Carter, Kyle McCarthy, Darcel McBath.

Breakdown: The oldest player on the roster is surrounded by nothing but youth … McBath’s diving interception Thursday gives him the spot over Bruton, whose special-teams contributions are overshadowed by a horrendously-timed spate of injuries the last fortnight (a concussion against Buffalo on Aug. 20; a shoulder injury Thursday night) … McCarthy was beaten for a touchdown Thursday but his successes have far outnumbered his struggles.

SPECIAL TEAMS (3):

First-teamers: Kicker Matt Prater, punter Britton Colquitt, long snapper Lonie Paxton.

Backups: None.

Breakdown: Fox sent Prater onto the field Thursday for a 60-yard attempt that had the distance, but not the accuracy. Prediction: At some point this season, Prater will break the Jason Elam/Tom Dempsey record for longest NFL field goal, a record 63 yards set in 1970 and matched in 1998 … Paxton is solid and a professional, as usual. On a team with many concerns, long snaps aren’t one of them and likely won’t be for a long while … Colquitt is a Pro Bowler in the making and could end up as the best punter in his decorated family’s history.

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About Andrew Mason

Andrew Mason has covered the NFL since 1999, when he worked as an editor on NFL.com when the site was managed by ESPN.com. He worked six seasons (2002-07) covering the Broncos on their official website and two (2008-09) on the Panthers' site. He began MaxDenver.com in 2010 and now contributes to CBSSports.com, The Sporting News and The New York Times.
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3 Responses

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