While tonight's match-up against the Arizona Cardinals may not mean all that much to the casual fan, it means everything to those guys in the Broncos locker room who will suit up and play. Mike Shanahan's pre-season strategy has always included a virtual night off for his starters in Week 4 of the pre-season and this year is no different. It basically means for most of those players dressing tonight that this could be their last chance to make an impression on the coaches, and one final look at some of the roster battles that have been going on over the last month.
The Training Camp battles for starting spots have all but been decided, with Todd Sauerbrun winning the punting/kick-off duties over Paul Ernster, Montrae Holland overtaking Chris Kuper for a starting spot along the offensive line and Elvis Dumervil taking over, for the time being, for the injured Ebenezar Ekuban at right Defensive End.
That leaves spots on the 2nd and 3rd team up for grabs, and how a player performs tonight could go a long way towards determining who stays and who goes on Saturday when the Broncos have to go from 75 to 53 active and 8 practice squad players.
Bill Williamson breaks down the position-by-position battles that remain --
Running backs: This is an intriguing group. The Broncos want to keep five running backs but may feel forced to keep six.
The certain keepers are Travis Henry, Mike Bell and Cecil Sapp (who can switch between fullback and tailback).
The Broncos signed Paul Smith for special teams consideration. Fullback Kyle Johnson also is a special teams standout and has played with the first team, even catching a touchdown pass from Cutler last Saturday against Cleveland.
The Broncos also like undrafted rookie Selvin Young and second-year player Andre Hall, whose chances of making the team are hurt because he has been injured recently. Young's future may hinge on his performance tonight.
"I know there is a lot of talent here," Young said. "I know I still have work to do."
Wide receivers: Javon Walker, Brandon Marshall and Brandon Stokley are entrenched as the team's top three receivers.
Second-year players Domenik Hixon and Brian Clark also should be safe. Rod Smith will start the season on the physically unable to perform list because of a hip problem, and he will be evaluated again in October.
Returner and receiver Quincy Morgan is on the bubble. Because of logjams at tight end and on the defensive line, the team will keep only five receivers.
Tight ends: If the Broncos keep a combined total of 10 running backs and receivers, it may be because they will keep five tight ends, including veteran long snapper Mike Leach.
Obviously, starter Daniel Graham and pass catcher Tony Scheffler will be on the roster. Nate Jackson has been one of the standouts of camp and preseason. He has caught everything that has come his way and the Broncos have confidence in him. Jackson's presence could be a reason the Broncos keep only five receivers.
The team also likes the experience and blocking ability of Stephen Alexander. He may be a bubble player, but the veteran would be hard to let go.
Offensive linemen: Behind the starting five, the Broncos usually keep only two or three backups. They probably will keep three, but could keep four this season. Chris Kuper is the top backup and the team loves rookie Ryan Harris, who is expected to be back in two to four weeks after minor back surgery. If there are any setbacks, Harris could be put on injured reserve.
Chris Myers will make the roster and is working with the first team at left guard because concussion problems have sidelined Ben Hamilton. That leaves Adam Meadows and Greg Eslinger looking to fill the final spot or two on the line. Meadows has been injured and Eslinger could lose out because Hamilton and Myers can play center if Tom Nalen were to be injured.
Defensive linemen: The Broncos could keep 10 players here.
After the starters, rookies Jarvis Moss, Tim Crowder and Marcus Thomas will fill roles. Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, who is in the rotation, will be on the roster. The team also likes versatile Alvin McKinley and second-year tackle Antwon Burton.
Kenny Peterson likely has a role, but he will be suspended for four games by the NFL for violating the league's steroid policy.
"We like what we have on the line," Broncos defensive boss Jim Bates said. "We have a lot of numbers there."
Linebackers: The Broncos likely will keep six linebackers.
The top backup choices behind D.J. Williams, Ian Gold and Nate Webster are D.D. Lewis, Louis Green and Wesley Mallard. All three are solid players on special teams.
Defensive backs: The Broncos may keep only eight in the secondary, despite sometimes having kept 10. Behind the starters, the sure keepers are cornerback Domonique Foxworth and safeties Hamza Abdullah and Curome Cox. They are three valuable backups who will get playing time behind a strong starting four. The other top candidates to make the roster are cornerbacks Jeff Shoate and Karl Paymah. Shoate could emerge after a strong summer. The team also likes safety Steve Cargile, who can play linebacker if needed.
Specialists: With the Tuesday release of Paul Ernster, it is certain the Broncos will go with only two kickers: Todd Sauerbrun, who will punt and handle kickoffs, and Jason Elam.
An interesting take, to be sure, though for the most part Bill and I seem to agree about the look of this team after Saturday.
What are your thoughts?