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Broncos vs. Cardinals: 7 things to watch for tonight

With the roster cutdown T-minus 72 hours away, this is what we should watch for during the Denver Broncos’ game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Denver Broncos v Seattle Seahawks
Can Linden Stephens snag a roster spot?
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Oakland is 11 days away. It will cross my mind every time someone complains that there’s no starters playing tonight. Denver can’t afford for Joe Flacco to stub a toe tonight.

Besides, there are still jobs to fight for. It may not excite in the same way Von Miller or Bradley Chubb tearing off the edge, but championship rosters are built to survive the inevitable injuries that come with a 16+ game grind. Finding the right players for these jobs on the back of the roster makes a huge difference in the upcoming playoff race.

Here’s what I’m looking for tonight.

39 players look like locks, but Fangio mentioned Tuesday that there are still “double digit” job openings. Who will emerge as the final 14?

1. Who stands out on special teams?

I’ll be completely honest with you, Broncos Country. Kick coverage is nowhere near my favorite part of football.

I’ve long believed that special teams won’t necessarily win you a game most of the time, but it sure can lose you one. If the Broncos make the playoffs in 2019, it will come down to maximizing every single area where they can gain an edge. They can’t afford crap special teams.

On Tuesday, Fangio said special teams will be a critical component for the roster battles.

“We need to see the guys that are competing for those last 10 or 15 spots that we alluded to play good in special teams because they have to play special teams. Especially some positions are more critical than others: linebackers, safeties, wideouts, running backs. We’re still evaluating that.”

Here’s a few who could force their way onto the roster through special teams play:

  • Jamal Carter has played 55 total snaps there this preseason, 8 more than DyMonte Thomas to lead the Broncos.
  • Rookies Josh Watson and Ahmad Gooden have both shown promising play in their reps.
  • Shamarko Thomas has lasted in the league in no small part because of his prowess on special teams.
  • George Aston has logged a lot of punt coverage snaps. Combined with Janovich’s injury, it could help him sneak into the conversation.

2. Who wins the return job?

None of the Broncos candidates for returner has done much on the special teams units when they don’t have the ball in their hands. Devontae Jackson has looked the best. Right now it looks like if Khalfani Muhammad can’t make it as a returner, he probably isn’t going to make the final roster unless Elway dumps Devontae Booker to save a little money.

Muhammad didn’t practice Tuesday, so he’s about as big an X-factor as there’ll be tonight.

So who gets the chance to field kicks and punts tonight will give huge hints as to where the Broncos’ coaching staff is on deciding this spot. River Cracraft looks to be running away with it, but don’t bury Kelvin McKnight just yet.

There remains a possibility Fangio looks outside the final roster for this position as well. He was asked Tuesday if the Broncos’ return man is on the current roster:

“We possibly do, but like most positions we’ll look to upgrade.

3. Who survives in the secondary?

As I mentioned way back at the beginning of the preseason, the fact that I’ve been limited to watching broadcast angles for film study has made it really difficult to separate the corners and safety groups.

At the time of my writing this, the Broncos’ CB5 battle looks to be Linden Stephens or Alijah Holder if Elway doesn’t add an outside player. Both have had promising moments this preseason as well as some big mistakes.

Safety is even tougher to discern. I could see any or all of the Shamarko Thomas, Dymonte Thomas, and Su’a Cravens trio making it. News that Dymonte Thomas was on crutches yesterday complicates it even further.

Tonight may be a big factor in moving the needle one way or another for them.

4. Does Fumagalli play fullback?

It’s strange to think how big these reps could potentially be for the final construction of the roster. I kept coming back to the tight ends and fullback spots when I was working on my roster projection, though. Jano’s injury and Jake Butt’s health concerns leave both spots in a bit of a lurch.

There’s no doubt Fant and Jeff Heuerman are locked in. Troy Fumagalli looks certain to make it, and he’s offered some flexibility in how he can line up in recent weeks. If Scangarello makes an effort to work him there during the game tonight, it may be a sign that Aston and Orson Charles are on the chopping block.

If he doesn’t, it’d hint that one of them still has a chance.

Fumagalli’s versatility could provide the Broncos some roster flexibility.

5. Eyes on the O-Line

Two or three of those guys have to be able to play more than one position. So, he’s going to have to back up the tackle, and be a guard. Somebody’s going to have to be able to be a backup center in there, out of those seven.

Elijah Wilkinson’s locked in as the 6th offensive lineman and offers both tackle and guard versatility. There remains a possibility he’ll start if Ronald Leary can’t suit up for the Raiders. After him, questions remain.

Sam Jones’ best position looks like left guard and he’s looked like the next best offensive lineman. John Leglue has started at guard and right tackle. Most of Jake Rodgers’ snaps have come at right tackle, and he played on the left side last Saturday. Jake Brendel and Austin Schlottmann can fill in on the interior spots and look like centers.

Given the injury histories of Ju’Wann James and Ronald Leary, as well as the long-term questions about Connor McGovern and Garett Bolles, the line depth is even more important this season.

Early in camp there was some talk of carrying as many as 10 players. I expect 8.

6. The stack linebacker reps

At this point I’d bet money Alexander Johnson’s on the final roster. After him the linebacker battle is hard to nail down with Joseph Jones’ injury hanging over everything. If the Broncos hold onto him or move on and carry just four backers, the battle looks like it will come down to Keishawn Bierria and Josh Watson.

Bierria has a year of experience after coming to the Broncos as a 7th rounder in the 2018 draft. He’s had trouble in coverage, but had his best game of the preseason against the Rams. Watson came as a rookie free agent out of Colorado State and has been the better player, but looked like a complete liability against the 49ers.

Tonight could settle the debate.

7. Will Hogan lock down the backup job?

It speaks to how little Hogan has done to separate himself from an undrafted rookie quarterback that this remains something to watch for. As I mentioned Tuesday, I’d think if Drew Lock had been healthy, the Broncos would have simply carried two onto the final roster.

Hogan is going to have to perform if he wants to remain in orange and blue.

“I just want to go out and make some big plays, put on a show for the fans and have fun. I think we need to be able to open it up a little bit. I think that’s what we’re going to do. I’m expecting some successful drives and some points on the board.”

It was rumored that the Broncos talked with Kyle Shanahan about the 49ers’ backup quarterbacks, and I suspect Elway will have an eye on arms as other teams submit their cuts.

Your Broncos Links

Denver Broncos: Projecting final 53-man roster - Mile High Report

Time’s ticking for the bubble guys. Who will survive and make the Denver Broncos final 53-man roster?

Broncos’ backup QB job still a big question mark for Fangio - Mile High Report

The fight for No. 2 QB is still up in the air as Kevin Hogan and Brett Rypien need to show Fangio more in final preseason game.

The last week of preseason is a harsh mistress - Mile High Report

Jake Butt missing the final Broncos preseason game and Charley Casserly waxes poetic about the GM cut down process

Broncos’ first-team offense is a concern, but starting defense looks dominant - Mile High Report

Mile High Report’s Jeffrey Essary appeared in his weekly segment with the “Morning Blitz” to review the previous game but also look ahead to the start of the regular season - is it a problem that the offense can’t score a touchdown?

McVay, Shanahan, LaFleur on QBs, playbooks, learning in D.C.

Which coach’s defense is the toughest to read and attack?

LaFleur: There are so many guys and every system is different, but I look at Vic Fangio. Just the fronts and the multiple looks you get from him. That’s incredibly difficult.

Shanahan: My hardest has probably always been Vic Fangio. He does so many things with his personnel groupings that he puts you in a bind with protections. He ties a lot of stuff together. Playing against him, I feel he packages stuff very similar to how I would think.

McVay: For us, I think Fangio and the Bears did an outstanding job of a sound scheme with versatility mixed with great players.

Denver Broncos: 6 bubble quarterbacks who may interest team

Many teams in the league opt to keep just two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster. That will lead to many quarterbacks being released before the regular season starts, and there could definitely be some better options than Hogan.

Broncos’ 53-man roster projection blurred by injuries, waiver claims - Denver Broncos Blog- ESPN

Even after the Broncos make their initial cuts, there are several positions at which they could make further moves based on who is available.

2019 NFLRank - Predicting the NFL’s best 100 players for this season

Miller has continued to refine his game, but first-year coach Vic Fangio has made it clear he believes there’s even more to come from Miller. With Fangio’s track record with pass-rushers over the years, Miller should flourish in the new defensive scheme.

Seven Tight End Options The Steelers Should Consider - Steelers Depot

If you’re hoping the Broncos add a tight end, these are names to keep an eye on.

NFL Links

Final 53-man roster projections for all 32 NFL teams

If you’re looking to project who becomes available this may be a good resource.

48 pass interference replays in 49 preseason games – ProFootballTalk

First, it’s almost pointless to try to get a ruling of offensive or defensive pass interference reversed. In nearly every instance, the flag results from contact. Unless it’s clear that there was no contact at all — or, in the case of DPI, if it’s clear that the contact happened before the ball was thrown — coaches should not waste their precious few red flags on trying to make calls of interference go away.

Second, the success rate for getting a flag dropped for defensive pass interference is high enough to make it worth the risk to initiate a challenge. Almost 20 percent of the contested non-calls of defensive pass interference became DPI via replay review; that percentage may be even higher when coaches are more judicious with the use of their challenges. Considering that it’s a spot foul that could swing 20, 30, 40, 50 yards or more of field position, it’s worth the risk of losing the red flag, especially late in a game when either trying to erase a deficit or to rack up some insurance points.

Barnwell - What actually matters this NFL preseason, from AB to Jimmy G

When L.A. places James on injured reserve, he won’t be able to return until Week 9 of the regular season, and even that would be ahead of his prescribed timeline. It’s more likely that we don’t see him in a uniform again until November.

The Indianapolis Colts bad Luck is the Denver Broncos gain - Mile High Report

It’s a gut-wrenching bit of news, and we hope the best for Andrew Luck in his future, but the contention window just opened a bit wider for the Broncos, and they must take advantage of it.

Andrew Luck’s retirement points to potential problems for the NFL - Mile High Report

When Andrew Luck chose retirement he chose himself over the NFL and fans. It was the right choice.

Tom Brady and Drew Brees vs Father Time — old men in a young man’s game - Mile High Report

Refreshing my look at the performance of active “old” QBs and recently retired QBs.

49ers release ex-Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith

Malcolm Smith lasted just two disappointing and injury-plagued seasons for the 49ers after signing a five-year deal in 2017.

2 Air Raid coaches tell us what to expect from Kliff Kingsbury’s offense | SB Nation’s 2019 NFL Preview

Hal Mumme and Sonny Dykes broke down what Kingsbury’s offense will look like and the challenges he’ll face with the Cardinals.

Carli Lloyd serious about pursuing NFL chance — in 2020 – ProFootballTalk

There was apparently a team in the NFL willing to make a gimmick of Carli Lloyd, to give the soccer star a chance to kick in Thursday’s preseason finale (which would raise the number of reasons to watch them to one). But if Lloyd’s going to do this, she’s going to take it seriously.

The UDFA, Part 1: The Climb - Pride Of Detroit

C.J. Moore’s journey to the NFL

Report: DeSean Jackson broke his finger, expected to play in opener – ProFootballTalk

Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson reportedly picked up an injury in Tuesday’s practice, but it shouldn’t keep him from being on the field against Washington on September 8. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Jackson broke his left ring finger during the session.

Panthers: “No doubt” Cam Newton plays in opener – ProFootballTalk

The Panthers have left “cautiously optimistic” in the rear view mirror. Via Joe Person of, Panthers coach Ron Rivera just said there was “no doubt in my mind” quarterback Cam Newton would play in the regular season opener against the Rams.

Reports: Miami interested in Jadeveon Clowney, who prefers Seahawks or Eagles – ProFootballTalk

The Texans can’t trade pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney until he signs his franchise tender. Texans coach Bill O’Brien said Saturday night “the ball’s in his court.” Clowney recently fired his agent, so maybe the ball will start rolling.

Trading For Jadeveon Clowney Is The Perfect Move For Rebuilding Dolphins | The Draft Network

Former number one overall selection Jadeveon Clowney was widely regarded as the best thing since sliced bread back in 2014.

NFL Draft Links

2020 NFL mock draft: Early 2-round projections

This defense already has one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing tandems in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, but they need another stud at the heart of their defense to pair with Josey Jewell. Moses is the latest in a long line of elite linebacker prospects to come out of Tuscaloosa, and he’s got perennial All-Pro written all over him.

Jonah Tuls’ 2020 NFL Draft Big Board/Positional Rankings | The Draft Network

The college football season has already kicked off, and before you know it, so will the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine. Thus, now is the perfect time to start getting an idea of the talent in pool in this upcoming draft class.