The Broncos are preparing to whittle down the most talented roster most fans have ever seen. Head Coach John Fox would agree.
"It's the strongest we've been in our tenure here," Fox said Thursday. "John Elway and his staff have done a tremendous job building that depth."
That depth stifled the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth week of the preseason to under 200 yards of total offense and only three points. Earlier in the preseason, this defensive depth shut-out the San Francisco 49ers with a fourth quarter goal line stand. This Broncos depth ranked tops across many defensive categories during the 2014 NFL preseason.
That says nothing of the offense, where rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer has made 50-plus yard catches in two different preseason games and would likely be a starter on many other NFL teams. In Denver, he's fifth on the receiver depth chart. Tight end Cameron Morrah made a couple of very nice catches late in Thursday's game, but there's barely a slim chance he makes the team.
The next 36 hours will be the toughest personnel period of John Fox's tenure as Broncos coach and John Elway's tenure as GM.
"Obviously, there are some very hard decisions we have to make over the next 48 hours," Fox said Thursday night after the game. "That's never the fun part of this job, but we will do our very best to take the best 53."
"Everybody played hard, and that's all you can ask for," defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said. "At the end of the day, play hard and lay it out on the line."
Below we revisit our earlier look at Denver's final six position battles following their final preseason game.
Defensive tackle is the toughest position the Broncos must settle, by far, with everyone who played Thursday doing nothing to make the decision easy. Kevin Vickerson has the height and size that you can't teach the likes of Sione Fua and Marvin Austin; now healthy, he co-led the Broncos defense with five tackles on the night.
"My body feels great," said Vickerson. "I'm not having issues with the hip. I'm not having issues with anything. All extremities are good. I'm just trying to put it all back together like it was before."
Marvin Austin had a smothering hit on Dustin Vaughan shortly after the Cowboys QB got rid of the football late in the fourth quarter, showing his hustle from the game's first whistle to its last. He started alongside Vickerson at DT.
Mitch Unrein had a brutal sack on third down in the third quarter. "I thought I had a safety, but a sack is fine with me," said Unrein. "I just have to work on my sack dance because I didn't have anything planned."
On the sack, Unrein found leverage and kept his feet pumping. The relentlessness of his pursuit this late in the third quarter, and on a third down, made it all the more impressive. Unrein started at defensive end and may have done enough to be that fifth defensive tackle, should the Broncos keep five.
Sione Fua had another solid outing, shooting past blockers on one Cowboys play to tackle the running back, but he appears be the odd man out in this group.
Backup strong safety
With the defensive line terrorizing Dallas quarterbacks, the Broncos' safeties didn't see a lot of opportunities for big-play action. For what it's worth, Duke Ihenacho, who led Broncos safeties in tackles with two Thursday, seemed pretty confident he is making the team.
Preseason is all wrapped up. Good win for the good guys. Blessed to be able to play this game at this level! On to the games that count!— Duke Ihenacho (@NachoLyfe) August 29, 2014
Also, a lot of guys will be waived tomorrow. Some are people you know. Don't bash or make jokes or gossip. This isn't easy. Be encouraging.— Duke Ihenacho (@NachoLyfe) August 29, 2014
Zac Dysert's final line: 4 of 7 for 43 yards. He led one scoring drive at the end of the game, where he was asked to kneel for two plays in order to set up Brandon McManus' 39-yard field goal attempt. One wonders if he could have found the end zone given the chance. A few inaccurate deep throws were compensated with a nice checkdown to Cameron Morrah in the fourth quarter that showed him go through his progressions nicely.
Still, I'm not a big fan of Dysert's, and I'm definitely not a fan of keeping three quarterbacks for the sake of keeping three quarterbacks. I'm hoping the Broncos make better use of this roster spot than a weekly inactive in Dysert, but it's worth noting that John Fox has always kept three quarterbacks on the roster in Denver.
Backup running backs
Did things get a little cloudier at the running back postiion?
Kapri Bibbs is making things interesting between him and Juwan Thompson.— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) August 29, 2014
I've been on the Juwan Thompson bandwagon since Week 1 of the preseason,. But since that explosive 9.8-average debut, Thompson has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Kapri Bibbs has averaged 4.4 yards per carry in the same span, all while tallying three preseason touchdowns to Thompson's zero.
Thompson has the size edge on Bibbs. He lined up as a fullback on at least one snap, a tantalizing possibility for the rookie and a feather in his cap as he aims to lock a roster spot. I also saw him impressively pick up a blitz on Brock Osweiler's red zone scramble. Big Brock actually didn't have to run; Thompson had it locked down.
But there's something just as impressive about Bibbs. His vision and fearlessness when running into small running lanes leaves defenders blind to his position and vulnerable to his speedy bursts into the second level - in this case, the end zone.
"This is the last game," Bibbs said Thursday. "Only God knows if this was my last one, but I wanted to make sure it was a good one. I left it all out there and wanted to have fun too."
Bibbs said he wanted to make his coaches' decision hard, and in my opinion, he succeeded in that goal. Other teams will see that touchdown; they'll see his 30 college touchdowns from 2013, and somebody will take a chance on him. I'm not sure I want to risk either Thompson or Bibbs on the practice squad. Perhaps it's C.J. Anderson who loses his roster spot to the similar Thompson and the speedy Bibbs.
Interior offensive line
The question remains whether the Broncos will keep eight or nine offensive linemen. In each of the two previous years, they've kept nine; however, I've argued that the versatility of Orlando Franklin, Chris Clark, Manny Ramirez, and Will Montgomery gives the Broncos a lot of flexibility. If anyone goes down on the first-team offensive line, Montgomery comes in, and you can shuffle the pieces to keep four of your five best blockers on the field. (Even if left tackle Clady goes down, it's Montgomery who comes in: you move Chris Clark back to left tackle, Orlando Franklin back to right tackle (where each player played in the Super Bowl), and Montgomery into left guard. You can follow that sort of starter-shuffle logic across every position of the offensive line).
I also think Michael Schofield makes this team as the Broncos' third tackle, despite his mostly rough game Thursday night, leaving one or two spots open for a center and/or a guard.
With that in mind, I was most focused on Ben Garland, and my overall impression was good. It was his first career start, and he had a number of good run blocks where he sealed the running lane for Kapri Bibbs, especially on Bibbs' first four-yard touchdown. He also missed on some blocks; one in the first quarter saw him struggle to get any movement against his opponent, and even lose ground behind the line of scrimmage on a running play. But I think Garland had more good plays than bad. I'm not comfortable with the idea of him playing at left guard anytime soon, but there's no one else on the roster that makes me feel any more comfortable.
Slot receiver/punt returner
Through three quarters of Thursday's game, I didn't think Isaiah Burse had done enough to earn a roster spot. While there wasn't anyone on the Broncos roster to push him, I didn't think he would survive the temptation that the hundreds of other players hitting the waiver wire would present.
A few punt returns and impressive catches out of the slot later, I saw enough to think Burse probably will keep his roster spot. It's not a sure thing; if a guy with more NFL return experience becomes available, the Broncos may come a-knockin'. But 151 all-purpose yards made Burse's position a whole lot more comfortable Thursday.
"I'm blessed. I'm happy. This is a dream. I got through a whole NFL training camp and four games of preseason," said Burse. "I know a lot of dudes would like to be in my position right now. I feel like I gave it my all out there. I'll be happy end with result just because I know I left it all on the field tonight. I did some pretty good things. If I end up not in Denver, I won't be heartbroken because I played my heart out tonight."
I'll be back with my final 53-man roster projection later today. In the meantime, tell me how you saw these Broncos position battles in the comments!