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Broncos’ roster prediction: A way-too-early ‘Final 53’

JoRo considers which players will stay and which will go. Here is my final 53-man Denver Broncos roster projection.

NFL: Denver Broncos-OTA
Will Ryp make the final 53?
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

With all of the buzz coming out of OTAs, and Training Camp slowly moving closer, I thought it couldn’t hurt to take a stab at the roster.

This will almost definitely change between now and the final cut down but may help to give you an idea where things could get tight, who to keep an eye on, and what position groups look strong (and weak).

Let’s get going.

Special teams - 3

Kicker - Brandon McManus

Punter - Colby Wadman

Long snapper - Case Kreiter

Little drama here as the veterans stick. The kicking competition with Brandon McManus won’t really heat up until 2020 when the Broncos can move on from him without a significant cap hit. This season will be a prove-it one for him. Over the course of 2015 and ‘16, he converted 85.5 percent of his field goals, including 8 of 13 from 50 yards or more. Since the beginning of 2017, he’s converted 77.2 percent of his field goals, including a ghastly 38.4 percent from 50+.

Defense - 26

Defensive Line - 6

1. Derek Wolfe

2. Shelby Harris

3. Adam Gotsis

4. Zach Kerr

5. Dre’Mont Jones

6. Mike Purcell

I’m a bit surprised at how light the Broncos are choosing to go along the defensive line after Fangio had Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman with the Bears. It may just be accepting the reality that nickel personnel will play 60 percent-plus most of the time.

Zach Kerr is the only prototypical nose prospect as far as size/length goes. Harris has a lot of tape where he does it and does it very well, but as I mentioned for GIF Horse back in February, where he’s really going to surprise people this year is as a 2i. The truth is, this is a really loaded group, at least until Wolfe, Gotsis, and Harris’ contracts all expire in 2020.

The brawl to watch will be for the #6 spot. DeMarcus Walker is in a battle for his professional life this camp, and I think he does enough to stick. Billy Winn could make things interesting as he tries to get his career back up off the mat following a 2017 ACL tear. My sleeper is Mike Purcell, who signed with Fangio’s 49ers to play nose tackle back in 2013. He’s played a number of places since and signed with Denver from the Salt Lake Stallions of the AAF. He’ll serve to make up for some of the bulk the rest of the line lacks.

Harris should emerge as a stud on the Fangio D.

Edge Rusher - 5/6

1. Von Miller

2. Bradley Chubb

3. Jeff Holland

4. Dekoda Watson

5. Justin Hollins /LB

6. Aaron Wallace

Coming out of college, Wallace was the kind of toolsy athlete who needed to get better at the mental side of the game. An injury ruined his sophomore season with the Titans and he played out 2018 on the Bengals practice squad.

I expect he and Malik Reed will battle it out for the final edge spot, unless the Broncos see Hollins primarily as an inside backer. Reed may be the final cut in camp I cry about (like Holland last year) because I’m worried he’ll have trouble sneaking through waivers.

As I detailed for GIF Horse a few weeks back, he brings some of the same versatility to the linebacker corps. Hollins does and could make a strong impression if given the opportunity. If Elway and Fangio feel the same, he’ll get the edge on Wallace.

Linebacker - 4/5

1. Todd Davis

2. Josey Jewell

3. Justin Hollins / Edge

4. Joe Jones

5. Josh Watson

Looking back at Fangio’s old depth charts, he routinely carries four inside (or off-ball) linebackers. With Davis and Jewell sure bets to make the roster and Hollins’ positional flexibility, that is probably the case in year one with the Broncos.

The final two positions will probably come down to special teams play, which will favor Joe Jones unless a rookie comes on strong. I expect Joe Dineen, Kewshawn Bierria, Josh Watson, and A.J. Johnson to duke it out for the last remaining spot here.

Dineen has a reputation for being a tackling machine at Kansas, but his 4.65 speed could be a liability on kickoffs and punt coverage. Bierria has some of the same questions, but the 2018 tape proves he can contribute.

The Broncos outbid a number of other teams for Johnson’s services after he was acquitted of rape charges last year. Prior to the case, he was a three-time All-Southeastern Conference selection at the University of Tennessee from 2011-14. Still, he’s an older player who lacks the experience and may find it hard to make a dent in the numbers game. Watson is my sleeper pick here, but it’ll be really close.

Cornerback - 6

1. Chris Harris Jr.

2. Kareem Jackson

3. Bryce Callahan

4. Isaac Yiadom

5. De’Vante Bausby

6. Trey Johnson

Fangio has carried six corners his last three years with the Bears, but this may be one instance where he could deviate.

There’s a bit of a numbers crunch at receiver, linebacker, and edge, so it looks like the Broncos could be better served carrying an extra player at one of those spots. I’m pretty certain Kareem Jackson is a corner, as well.

If the Chris Harris contract impasse doesn’t get resolved come camp time, it looks like a certainty. Bausby has a pretty good chance to stick to the roster because the numbers game favors him. Bausby brings NFL experience to the equation, something that few of the other names offers.

Johnson is currently sixth on the CB depth chart - in part because of the interest Fangio and the Bears showed in him back when he was coming out of Villanova. Undrafted in 2018, he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers last April and wound up on IR after injuring his shoulder during training camp. He signed with the Broncos after the new coaching staff came on.

Safety - 4

1. Will Parks

2. Justin Simmons

3. Dymonte Thomas

4. Shamarko Thomas

What the Broncos decide to do with Jackson will have ramifications for this group. I still see him primarily as a corner, if only because the Broncos are relatively thin there, while Parks and Simmons give them an underrated starting group on the back end.

Looking at Fangio’s depth charts with the Bears, he tends to carry four safeties, so the competition here could get pretty tight. In the end, I think Shamako Thomas’ special teams prowess will help him stick.

Cravens has the pedigree, but is a bit of an all-or-nothing proposition. He has limited special teams experience, is essentially a safety-backer, and is a bit miscast in the Fangio scheme. Even worse for him is that his 2018 tape was pretty disappointing. He’ll have a chance, but will really need to make an impression.

Jamal Carter is the sleeper here. He had a promising 2017 for the Broncos, even starting in relief of Justin Simmons in week 15. Unfortunately, his 2018 campaign was completely wiped out by a knee injury. If he can return to the form he showed as a rookie, it may force the coaching staff to carry 5 corners and 5 safeties instead of the 6 and 4 I’m currently projecting.

Offense - 24

Offensive Line - 8

Left Tackle - Garett Bolles

Left Guard -Dalton Risner

Center - Connor McGovern

Right Guard -Ronald Leary

Right Tackle -Ja’Wuan James

OL6/T-G - Elijah Wilkinson

OL7/T - Jake Rodgers

C2 - Sam Jones

I’m pretty confident in Rodgers’ chances to stick to the roster. Since coming into the league in 2015, he’s been a member of the Falcons, Giants, Panthers, Texans, Steelers, and Ravens in some capacity or another. Munchak is well aware of what he can do, as he spent a big part of 2017 on the Steelers practice squad. Back in college, he originally signed with Washington State as a tight end before moving inside. Word coming out was that he needed to add strength to stick in the league. The Broncos are probably his last best shot, and I think Munchak holds onto him as depth behind Bolles.

Wilkinson started games at guard and could pinch hit at tackle if needed. Jones and Austin Schlottman are probably fighting it out to make the roster as the number 2 job behind McGovern. One wildcard in the equation is Risner. If Munchak prefers him as the backup center, it opens up the last roster spot for an offensive linemen considerably. That would help Don Barclay, John Leglue, and Ryan Crozier. Expect the latter two to make the practice squad if nothing else.

Wide Receiver - 6

X- Courtland Sutton

Z/Slot - Emmanuel Sanders

Slot/Z - DaeSean Hamilton

4. Tim Patrick

5. River Cracraft

KR/PR. Trinity Benson

Sutton and Hamilton are locks. Sanders could be a potential surprise cut or trade, but I expect him to play in orange and blue this season. Tim Patrick did a respectable job when presented an opportunity last year, brings special teams value, and looks like a really promising size/speed prospect at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds.

River Cracraft is in for one heck of a fight with eight other receiver prospects vying for touches. Juwann Winfree may well win out because of recent investment combined with what the coaching staff sees as his ceiling. If Fangio keeps seven receivers or finds a returner elsewhere, I fully expect him to make the roster.

Speaking of returners, this position group is going to be greatly impacted by how the Broncos decide that competition. Phillip Lindsay took the job out of the 2018 camp, but is unlikely to do so in 2019 because of his value to the offense. If he doesn’t, there aren’t many candidates better suited to the job on paper than the rookie Benson. He’s done it before and offers the kind of game-breaking 4.35 speed coaches look for. Although, Kelvin McKnight could make it interesting, my early money’s on the taller prospect out of East Central University.

Tight End - 3

1. Jeff Heuerman

2. Noah Fant

3. Jake Butt

In a perfect world, Noah Fant will blow everyone away in camp and earn the No. 1 job. It’s more realistic to expect him to come along as the year goes on, as tight end routinely proves to be one of the hardest positions for a rookie to grasp at the NFL level.

Heuerman gives Flacco a solid, if unspectacular outlet receiver and is a decent blocker. If healthy, Butt will blow away the competition for the No. 3 job. Troy Fumagalli will stick to the practice squad if he can stay healthy.

Running back - 3

1. Royce Freeman

2. Phillip Lindsay

3. Devontae Booker

Probably the hardest position group on the Broncos to make a dent at as camp opens. Barring injury or trading Booker to a team struck by injury, this will be the running back group Week 1 against the Raiders. The more interesting question is who will earn RB1 status. I fully expect the Broncos coaches to turn it into what amounts to a 1A and 1B division. Royce Freeman’s production fell off after injury last year, but he’s a great fit in the new system. The goal with Lindsay will be to maximize his big play threat and efficiency.

Fullback - 1

Andy Janovich

This battle is going to be a lot closer than many assume going into it. George “Juggerneck” Aston fits the Shanahan-style fullback to a T. I think on offense he may even prove to be a slightly better option, which could combine with Janovich’s contract expiring in 2020 to give him the spot.

What it comes down to this far out of camp is special teams experience at the NFL level. Janovich played more than 60 percent of those snaps last year, and fullbacks are routinely asked to contribute heavily there.

Quarterback - 3

1. Joe Flacco

2. Drew Lock

3. Brett Rypien

The QB3 spot is going to be interesting. If it’s based solely on performance, I fully expect Rypien to run away with the job. What could factor into things is the fact that Joe Flacco has a lengthy injury history that could spook Fangio into carrying two rookies behind him. If that kind of mentality plays into it, expect Elway to try to sneak the Boise State Bronco onto the practice squad.