Broncos 53-Man Roster Projection

August 18 2012; Denver, CO, USA; General view of the helmet of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (not pictured) in the fourth quarter of a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks at Sports Authority Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

With two games left in this 2012 preseason, the majority of the roster feels settled. Sure there are interesting situations brewing on the defensive line and amidst the offensive skill positions, but for the most part we know where the major 2012 contributions are going to come from.

Peyton Manning? Check. Miller? Check. There won't be any surprises at the top, unless you think keeping Ball as the #2 RB is a surprise (Note that all former Indianapolis offensive players are at or near the top of the depth chart...).

But that raises the question of how much value players have from their time in Indianapolis, and whether that is scheme related (the Manning/Moore 1 back offense in hurry-up mode), or simply a matter of familiarity with Manning himself (Stokley, for example, is as familiar with Manning as any player still playing today. FB Gronkowski, on the other hand, while learning the Manning system in Indy, never actually got to play with Manning.)

Which in turn raises scheme questions about Fox/McCoy's preference for a 2-back offense (and this IS their offense after all), and the ability of Manning to run the hurry-up with two backs instead of one, as he did for his entire career (Manning IS the hall of famer here, after all). Will the mesh of the two leave hopefuls like Omon, Johnson and Julius Thomas looking up the depth chart at players like Sylvester and Gronkowski? And is that what would be best for the team?

In addition, suspensions give the Broncos effectively 2 bonus players, while injuries to Hunter and Kuper are currently costing roster spots. How and when does all of that shake out?

The best way to start answering these questions, and others, is probably to dive in, get our hands dirty, and start structuring and cutting. Let's make a depth chart.

A 30-Man Core

To start with lets establish the 30 man core. These are the immovable objects, the starters at their positions who will no doubt make the team, who ARE the team. Not that it really has to be 30 men, but I certainly wouldn't want to have a team with significantly fewer than that, because the lower the number the more likely to be experiencing roster overhaul you are.

The number is 30 because it includes more than your standard starters; it includes the OTHER starters, the guys who get as many, if not more reps than the guys "ahead" of them on the depth chart, even if they aren't listed in the gameday starters section of the Gamebook each week. These are guys like your nickel corner, slot receiver and #2 running back. You aren't guaranteed to like or agree with the 30-Man core, but you will need to get over it. These guys WILL be on the 53 for reasons we will look at. I'll set out my list below (players with an asterisk by their name do not count against the 53, as they have been counted elsewhere) :

Offense

QB: Manning

RB: McGahee, Ball

FB: Gronkowski

WR: Thomas, Decker, Stokley

TE: Tamme, Dreesen

OL: Clady, Franklin, Walton, Kuper, Beadles

Defense

DT/NT: Warren, Bannan

DE: Doom, Hunter

LB: Miller, Mays, Williams

CB: Bailey, Porter, Harris

SAF: Carter, Moore

Special Teams

K/P/LS: Prater, Colquitt, Paxton

KR: Ball*

PR: Decker*

Gunner/Protector: Bruton

Highlights and Sidelights

First off, lets talk about some of the things we may or may not agree with. Lance Ball for example, who seems to be universally regarded as lacking the kind of excitement that warrants being allowed near a roster. You might think this and I might think this, but it doesn't matter, because he is the #2 back behind McGahee, and is a lock barring injury. I mentioned old-time Indy familiarity, and Ball fits that description. Denver signed him primarily on the strength of one game at Indy, where he was explosive, catching, blocking and breaking off huge gains. I remember glimpses of that here, but I wouldn't consider him a 'creator,' and I have my doubts regarding the ability to do now what he did then. But a familiarity with Manning, and an all around solid game will keep him where he is at for now.

Along the same lines, Chris Gronkowski is a guy that has appeared woefully deficient in the area of blocking, perhaps his primary area of contribution. But that is according to this preaseason. In Indianapolis and Dallas, he enjoyed a hybrid role as a FB/TE, flaring out, or occupying the role of a single-back in shotgun protection schemes. There are mixed reviews in both areas, with his first catch going for a TD on the one hand, but allowing Romo to get "declavicled" (forgive my Smithiness) on a blocking assignment. And while he doesn't have a lot of familiarity with Manning himself, he did get an introduction to the Manning/Moore offense which will be the backbone of our hurry-up attack (which will likely be an early feature of most games, especially at home.) But what is that I hear? You would rather have McGahee/Moreno/Ball blocking for Manning? You would rather keep a more talented player in Thomas, and flex him and other TEs into the backfield when a FB is needed? Well, shout it to the sky partner, 'cause Foxy ain't listening.

In keeping with the Indy thread, I don't think anyone here has much of an issue with Tamme at the top of the depth chart, or Dreesen for that matter. However, some may feel that putting Brandon Stokley's creaky old bones in the starting lineup is going a bit too far. His familiarity alone can explain this situation, and as we will see, it doesn't really seem to be bumping any hyper-talented player out of the picture, at least at the WR spot. While the connection between Stokes and Manning clearly neeeds tuned up, I don't think there can be any doubt that of all the options on the roster, no one outside of Manning is as likely to know what Manning is thinking than Stokley.

The OL is an interesting situation because Chris Kuper is out around 4-6 weeks, and will count as a roster spot during that period while Manny Ramirez replaces him. Thus our 30-man core is now a 31-man core to start out the year. As we progress with our analysis, we will be looking at keeping about 5 more guys on the OL, due to scout team requirements, so Kuper's injury has a depth chart ripple effect.

Defense has fewer question marks and the highlights include a huge attaboy to former undrafted rookie Chris Harris who continues to make a case for some kind of Rod Smith Award in the future. Also, Jason Hunter's injury currently has him taking up a roster spot, however, I expect him to get IR'd, which will free up a spot that currently Derek Wolfe occupies, much to collective Broncos fans' delight. However, until that actually happens, I will leave him counting against the 53-man limit. And not to be forgotten is the suspension of DJ, which adds Woodyard to the 30-man core at no cost, for now.

On Special Teams it is worth noting that while Decker and Ball are currently the starters listed at PR and KR, respectively, and while I expect that we will see them actually doing those tasks more than we might prefer, backups at both spots are critical and will be a feature point in the next step of the depth-chart projection. And who could forget the anonymous, lonely gunner/punt protector? David Bruton has developed into the central cog of all 4 special teams units, something we haven't enjoyed since current STs coach Keith Burns was on the field. As such, Bruton makes the team before any of the other backup safeties. And though he isn't my first choice to replace a starter on defense ahead of Adams, he is still a part of the 30-man core, while Adams is not.

Critical Backups and Gameday Actives

The next phase of the roster projection involves identifying the clear cut backups and players that are critical to the Gameday 45, such as the best special teamers and the swing tackles. There is lots of room for debate with these selections, but I have tried to make a case for talent in the selections below (newest additions to the list have been added in italics, and if you see parentheses, it means the player is a likely gameday inactive):

Offense

QB: Manning, Osweiler

RB: McGahee, Ball, Moreno

FB: Gronkowski

WR: Thomas, Decker, Stokley, Caldwell, (Willis)

TE: Tamme, Dreesen, Green

OL: Clady, Franklin, Walton, Kuper, Beadles, Ramirez, Clark

Defense

DT/NT: Warren, Bannan, Unrein, Vickerson

DE: Doom, Hunter, Wolfe, Ayers

SLB: Miller, Irving

MLB: Mays, ?

WLB: Woodyard, Trevathan

CB: Bailey, Porter, Harris, Florence

SAF: Carter, Moore, Adams, Bruton*

Special Teams

K/P/LS: Prater, Colquitt, Paxton

KR: Ball*, ?

PR: Decker*, Willis*

Gunner/Protector: Bruton

Highlights and Sidelights

Well, this latest influx has pushed the roster number up to 45, though with two injured players who would be inactive on gameday as their status stands now. Lets really quickly jump through each position grouping.

  • QBs: Osweiler is far more talented than Weber, and I don't think Hanie gave the staff much confidence with his non-hurried Hurry-up drive (ask in the comments if you care what I mean by that). They are probably a bit wore out on the whole "one read and GO" thing, so I have a feeling Hanie is slipping behind Osweiler a bit. Note that I don't think the decision to run Osweiler for an entire half is relevant here. Looking forward to the next game, I expect that Hanie will get a drive with the ones after Manning comes out, certainly with the starting OL, to be followed by a similar situation in game 4 for Osweiler. At that point there should be some pudding with some proof in it.
  • RBs: Feel free to make the case for Hillman over Moreno here, but in a strange twist of fate, I think that a player not being able to show his stuff due to chronic Hammy problems will actually help Moreno in this instance, for a change. I like Hillman's potential, I think he is a real talent, but at this point he hasn't got a chance to show it. (I'll take a moment to point out that I may, indeed, harbor some bias against Hillman, though I doubt it. I have long held that Denver was actually targeting Central Florida CB Josh Robinson (he of the Champ-like agility and combine tests) when they traded up, and got piked by Minnesota. Hillman was sort of a "Now what?" pick at the time (but like I said, I think I like it). Adding to the cosmic confluence of weirdness centered on Hillman, last I heard Robinson was missing vital practice time with a hammy pull...)
  • WRs: Nothing surprising in adding Andre Caldwell at this point, but the addition of Willis bears a moment's discussion. See, activating 5 pure WRs on gameday is exceptionally rare, because that kind of depth is exceptionally rare. However I feel like Willis is the ideal punt returner currently on the team. How to balance the two ideas? I don't know, but I think it is important to figure out, because every time Decker returns a punt I will likely soil myself. In the meantime, I felt that it was ok to include Willis at this point since the dropoff after the #5 WR (unlike other positions on the roster) is steep, while Willis is clearly among the keepers on the team, and will be a key contributor later in the year. So consider Willis added a step early.
  • TEs: Virgil Green is developing nicely, and the only thing worth noting here is that his suspension leads to another freebie player for the first 4 weeks. Yay for freebies!
  • OL: Ramirez is already a starter for now, and Clark sees plenty of reps in-game in unbalanced lines, coming in as a "TE". At this point we are carrying 8 OL. Typical roster numbers mean we have one more OL (likely a G/C) to find for the 53, as well as a T and G/C for the PS.
  • DL: The DL is primarily interesting because of the talent ready to burst on the scene at the bottom of the order, in guys like Malik Jackson and Jeremy Beal. Day to day, however, teams tend to carry 8 DL, and with Hunter taking up a roster spot, Jackson and Beal aren't likely to displace the established guys I have listed ahead of them. Teams also tend to roll with 7 active DL on gameday, so stashing them on the backend of the 53 isn't an option without cuts elsewhere. This will be an interesting dilemma, since I doubt either one can clear waivers at this point. (I always think that, and then guess what? They clear easily. Orange colored glasses I guess.)
  • LBs: I like this group, guys and gals, even absent DJ, and I'm not nearly as down on DJ as most. Irving has been looking great in coverage, Miller is awesomeness, Woodyard is my kind of scrapper, and Mays has made some huge strides and will likely get the chance to prove himself on third down. (He and Irving are the only mic'd players at this point. Unless Steven Johnson makes the practice squad, in which case he is a third mic'd player, although on gameday that will amount to being in plainclothes and being allowed to open the helmet trunk for the other guys...). Last week saw missed tackles all over, practically on cue since Del Rio specifically mentioned prior to the game that they had been focusing on that, but I still am high on this group. It needs a little more depth, specifically behind Mays where Irving is sort of pulling double duty at SLB and MLB. Mike Mohamed doesn't inspire the confidence for me to move him into this second group of critical players, despite the importance of the role. Danny Trevathan is one of my favorite players in camp this year, and he is my bonus player in DJ's absence, and easy call since he plays the same position.
  • DBs: I'll list them together here since it is one of the most easily assembled groups on the roster at the top of the order. With the additions of Drayton Florence and Mike Adams we are now at 8 DBs, and the real discussion begins in the next phase when we decide who to carry at the 9 or even 10 spot. I should note here one of the annual mystic nuances of roster construction. Teams always seem to start the year relying on a group of 9 DBs, but by the end of the year the group has ballooned to 10 or even 11 DBs... It is like some kind of natural law. Maybe it has to do with the development curve of young DBs, or lack of depth at other positions, since the addition of the extra DB usually has to do with roster shortfall elsewhere, not among the DBs themselves. (For example, last year Tebow's promotion and Orton's trade led to the addition of an 11th DB, since we were only carrying 2 QBs at the time.)
  • STs: Lastly a note on special teams, before we get to the final cuts. Perhaps one of the most significant battles still remaining is that backup KR job. To date, it has been hard to gauge anyone on the ground that there have been so few returns. A handful of guys may only make the roster if they manage to impress in this area (Squid, J.J., Carter), so over the next two games hope for opportunities to find the backup. As it stands we may be going in with an unproven commodity.

Final Cuts and A Complete 53-Man Roster

Well this is where the rubber meets the road. These spots are anyones guess, and the next two weeks will be the most important of these players careers. The eye test will run amok with the stat test, while the gut test will lurch as fan favorites fall by the wayside only to get secreted away in the next moment to clandestine practice squads. But rather than wax dramatic, lets set ourselves some goals during this final phase.

We have 9 roster spots open, and the 8 Practice Squad spots will likely play a role in close decisions. Here are what I feel are our critical goals, in order of position groupings:

  1. We need a 3rd QB (one roster spot, 8 left)
  2. With 11 current skill position players (remember Green is suspended), we can and should add 1-2 more for a total of 13. The most talent is in the TE and RB groups. (two roster spots, 6 left)
  3. We are at 7 OL and will need to carry 8 on gameday, and will likely keep a 9th on the 53 and a 10th on the PS. And since you need 10 available linemen to run a practice, expect to keep an 11th OL on the PS until Kuper's return. (2 roster spots, 4 left)
  4. The DL group is solid at 8, but I really want to look for opportunities to keep Jackson and Beal available each week.
  5. LBs can go shorthanded with a durable, solid group, but 5 is TOO shorthanded and we will need to add a 6th, preferably inside. A seventh during DJ's 6 week absence is a possibility. (2 roster spots, 2 left)
  6. At 8 DBs we will need to add at least one more, and we have room for a tenth if the talent warrants it. (2 roster spots, 0 left)

Now, lets take a closer look at the specifics:

Hanie vs. Weber: You might have Osweiler vs. Weber here, but I doubt it. We will carry a third QB, so someone has to win the battle. Despite my disappointment with Hanie's efforts in game one, the real test will be how he performs next week when he snags limited reps with the starting OL, and possibly starting WRs and TEs. Bottom line is he needs to continue to go through his reads even when he is being asked to pick up the pace. Anything less and his knowledge of his assignments will come into question. For Weber's part it isn't as desperate as that, but he doesn't have Hanie's experience to offset the lower expectations. He can earn a chance to fire some live bullets behind the starting OL if he does well this week, so HIS real test is likely to come in week four. As a practice squad candidate, he also has a fallback option, though PS space will likely be crowded this year.

Omon, Johnson, Hillman, J.Thomas, Ingram and Asst. Receivers: Adding 2 more skill position players really comes down to the 5 names listed here, and with the Asst. portion making up several PS spots. I like every name, and of interest is only Hillman is eligible for the PS, and he will never clear waivers, so the PS is of no help with this problem. Hillman is the most likely to contribute impact early, out of this group, while no one has run harder than Omon all preseason and camp. Thomas looks to be ready to blossom, with some huge plays in practice that are simply outside the scope of lesser players, while Johnson has shown tremendous perseverance, and adds an explosive element like Hillman. Do you keep the new guys and part ways with the investments of time and energy in Johnson and Thomas? Do you keep the investment of time and energy, but part ways with a high draft pick without ever really seeing what he can do? Can you say goodbye to arguably the most impressive in-game runner during the preseason in Omon? And Ingram was a Free Agent target, brought in specifically by Fox and Elway, and he has managed to flash in games. As far as the PS eligible guys in the whos-who at the bottom of the pile, Sylvester is an automatic, so that you have two FBs for running scout team, and I would like to keep Dell and Orton for 2 WRs.

Which OL to keep?: I don't think there is a lot of suspense to be had here, and from watching the games you might have a pang of disgust and just say no to all the backup-backups. But there is development and talent here, and it should be easy to protect. I like the idea of keeping Davis and Hills on the 53, likely deactivating Hills on gameday, and then eventually doing the same with Davis once Kuper returns. For the PS I want to keep Blake, and I think he could clear waivers easily, though he has been an interesting watch during games, and he could displace Davis with a strong showing. The practice squad should be set with Grant and either Blake or Remmers. Remmers could be cut loose once Kuper is available to practice.

Linebackers On Board: All available LBs are also PS eligible, so this is sort of a luxury area to do some roster math. Steven Johnson has been solid, and I think some time on the 53 has been earned, while Mohammed will be the fallback MLB option for now. Either player can be retained on the PS, likewise for Danny Trevathan (though he may not clear), so options abound upon DJs return.

Battling It Out For the Last DB Spots: With almost no viable PS eligibility in the group, the battle at the bottom of the DB depth chart is looking to be intense over the next two games. I will definitely be making a note of every screwup, every hands-on-hips moment, every attaboy, because they will likely make all the difference as Carter, Thompson and Bush battle for a tenth spot. Omar Bolden may find himself in the thick of things as well, but I believe he is a first round talent that just needs to get free of the doldrums that come from missing a season with injury. Now is not the time to bail on Mr. Bolden. Behind this group is another whos-who of DBs, from which I would like to stash Joshua Moore and Duke Ihenacho.

So How Did It All Shake Out?

Offense

QB: Manning, Osweiler, Hanie

RB: McGahee, Ball, Moreno, (Hillman)

FB: Gronkowski

WR: Thomas, Decker, Stokley, Caldwell, (Willis)

TE: Tamme, Dreesen, (J.Thomas)

OL: Clady, Franklin, Walton, Kuper, Beadles, Ramirez, Clark, (Blake), (Hills)

Total of 25 players, plus TE Green available after Week 4.

Defense

DT/NT: Warren, Bannan, Unrein, Vickerson

DE: Doom, Hunter, Wolfe, Ayers, (Beal)

SLB: Miller, Irving

MLB: Mays, (Mohammed)

WLB: Woodyard, Trevathan

CB: Bailey, Porter, Harris, Florence, (Bolden)

SAF: Carter, Moore, Adams, Bruton*, Bush

25 total defensive players. The very real possibility of sending Hunter to IR opens up the ability to move Malik Jackson on to the 53, or removes the need to move Mohamed or Trevathan upon DJs return.

Special Teams

K/P/LS: Prater, Colquitt, Paxton

KR: Ball*, ?

PR: Decker*, Willis*

Gunner/Protector: Bruton

So 25 offense, 25 defense, 3 STs, and the hardest cuts weren't really that hard. I really wanted Beal and Jackson both on the 53, but in the end it will come down to which one shines the brightest the next two weeks. Right now I think Beal is a little more of an attention grabber, though I feel Jackson would be an easier option to activate from week to week on the 53, due to his ability to play DE or DT.

Here is a Bonus Practice Squad. It is a function of talent, scout team necessity, and unbridled rage. Upon Kuper's return, feel free to remove Remmers and add Weber back on. Or don't add Remmers in the first place. I've never been able to tell you what to do.

  1. WR Dell
  2. WR Orton
  3. G Grant
  4. T Remmers
  5. LB Johnson
  6. CB Moore
  7. S Ihenacho
  8. DT Jackson
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