OTAs are one of the first sincere looks at a team’s roster in the off-season process. It’s a time for young and old players alike to be able to demonstrate their abilities in front of their respective coaches and media for the first time after the grueling, prior season. Their bodies are well-rested and once again ready to take on the rigors of the forthcoming season.
On one side of the coin, seasoned veterans on each roster have little to prove. They have likely earned their starting roles and for the the most part, are there to learn the nuances of the new systems in place and shake off that off-season rust. For the younger players and rookies, it’s a learning experience — filled with ups and downs, but the potential to demonstrate their abilities. It is one of their first significant chances to show they have what it takes to play in the NFL, knowing that every little move of theirs will be scrutinized and one or two false steps in the wrong direction may hurt their ability to make the final 53 man roster.
With the team recently finishing their OTA activities, here is a brief summary of the top position battles that were on display and where we expect the most heated competition when training camp official rolls around.
Trench warfare: The biggest position battles are on the offensive line
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There is little doubt that the forefront of the roster battles is the offensive line. Heading into OTAs, left tackle Ryan Clady and right guard Louis Vasquez were the only sure-fire starters at each position, leaving a free-for-all brawl competition at left guard, center and right tackle. Already an area of concern, the strength of the unit took a severe blow with the loss of Clady to a torn ACL.
During the off-season, the Broncos made a wealth of investments in order to solidify their offensive line: they traded for Gino Gradkowski, picked up Shelley Smith in free agency and drafted Ty Sambrailo and Max Garcia with their second and fourth round selections respectively. Lest we forget second-year players Matthew Paradis and Michael Schofield, both of whom are held in high esteem by Gary Kubiak and John Elway, with the expectations that they can come in and earn a starting position. Veterans Chris Clark and Ben Garland are also in the mix, seeing reps at tackle and guard respectively.
Former third round selection in 2007, Ryan Harris was brought in as a contingency plan due to the loss of Clady and will provide competition and starting experience to the line. Harris has a strong familiarity with Kubiak and the zone blocking system and has the chance to be a quality player if healthy, though constant back issues have plagued his NFL career and have been a concern since his days with the Fighting Irish.
As of right now, the starting offensive line unit appears to be: Sambrailo (LT), Smith (LG), Gradkowski (C), Vasquez (RG) and Clark (RT).
Kubiak had stated that Schofield saw reps at both tackle positions in order to serve as a "swing tackle" in case he didn't earn the starting right tackle position, which seems to be Clark's to lose at the point in time. Either way, the Broncos have a healthy amount of veteran and young players who are working diligently in order to make sure their performance as a unit in 2015 is at a high level.
Back-up 'backers: A logjam of young prospect fighting for several spots
Linebacker is another position where there are a myriad of players battling for roles on the team. With incumbent starters Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall sidelined with injuries at inside linebacker, young players such as Corey Nelson, Todd Davis, Steven Johnson and Lamin Barrow received significant looks during OTAs and had the chance to show the coaches that they could be counted on to start if Trevathan and Marshall are not ready by the start of the season.
We already know that DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller will be the top pass rushing specialists from the outside linebacker positions. According to Kubiak, first-round selection Shane Ray is still sidelined with his toe injury suffered at the end of the collegiate season and will be called upon for action when the time is right. There is no need as of now to bring him back quickly and risk setting back his rehab further, especially when the Broncos have already lost a top pick in Jeff Heuerman for their year due to an ACL tear.
With the top three players at outside linebacker set in stone, the focus turns to their back-ups who are admit a fearsome foursome. Shaquil Barrett, Lerentee McCray, Kenny Anunike and Chase Vaughn are the names to look out for, with likely only two spots for the taking at the final roster. My personal speculation at this time would be that Barrett and McCray are the front-runners to lock down those final two spots moving forward.
Running for their lives: Stable of young backs eager to earn their spots
With the zone blocking scheme back in Denver, the group of backs on the roster are salivating at the chance to show they are the right man to lead the teams rushing attack in 2015.
C.J. Anderson has reportedly looked very good, coming into OTAs in better shape than ever and appears to be the front runner thus far. Third year pro and second-round pick Montee Ball showed flashes of glory, but according to ESPN Denver's Cecil Lammey, lacked the decisiveness and vision one would expect a back to have in order to be a starter for the squad. Juwan Thompson also earned praise with his one-cut, downhill running style with authority and may have the upper hand on the number two position heading into training camp.
On the outside looking in is fourth year back Ronnie Hillman, whose patience and vision as a runner have also been in question not only recently, but since he was selected out of San Diego State in 2012. Little has been said about 2014 undrafted free agent Kapri Bibbs, but it is far too early to count him out. With a year on the practice squad under his belt, the former Colorado State product who amassed 1,800 yards and 31 touchdowns in his final collegiate season definitely has a chance at making the final roster.
That being said, it is important to remember that running back is one of the hardest positions to evaluate properly in such team activities. The true battle for the top spots on the roster will begin once the pads are fully on and full contact is on the table during training camp. Until then, your guess is as good as mine in regard to who will be the major workhorses in the Broncos running back stable for the forthcoming season.
Once again, thanks for reading and be sure to sound off your thoughts on the teams top position battles in the comment section.