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2020 way-too-early Broncos’ roster prediction

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Who makes it to the final 55? Here is my way-too-early Denver Broncos roster projection.

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos
#3 is a Lock.
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Now that the NFL Draft is behind us, it’s time to take a stab at what it all means. Coming into the weekend there was a lot of speculation that the Broncos should trade up in the NFL Draft to secure the top player on their board. The thinking went “they don’t have room for 10 draft picks anyways.”

With that line of thinking and now 10 rookies, the Broncos should have no holes right? I decided to take a look at each position group to find out.

Special Teams

Never forget that from March 25 until the week of the NFL Draft, the Broncos carried three punters. It looks like Sam Martin won the competition without a single swing of the leg. Casey Kreiter was let go, and there will be a competition between Wes Farnsworth and Jacob Bobenmoyer to replace him. Brandon McManus is the only kicker under contract.

3 make the final cut

Sam Martin, Brandon McManus, Wes Farnsworth

Defensive Back

Right before the draft Elway said that the Broncos are in negotiations with Justin Simmons, so I fully expect him to sign a long term contract and be a stalwart on the back end for years to come. Next to him Kareem Jackson returns after missing the end of 2020 due to a DUI suspension. Behind them Trey Marshall will almost surely be the third man.

For the first time in almost a decade Chris Harris Jr. is no longer a Denver Broncos and has been replaced by A.J. Bouye. The hope is Bryce Callahan can return from missing all of the 2020 season due to a foot injury, but Elway didn’t exactly sound positive that the former Bear will get back to 100%.

The boundary corner position could be a battle. Isaac Yiadom enters year three after entering the league as a third round pick from Boston College. He showed promise in the preseason last year, struggled early and got benched, then came in and showed some growth late. I suspect he’ll be locked in competition with De’Vante Bausby and rookie Michael Ojemudia through camp.

So long as Callahan and Bausby are back to full health, I expect all eight to make the final roster. Bausby showed real promise in the Packer’s game last year, and Callahan was one of the best slots in football back in 2018. Ojemudia looks like a hand in glove scheme fit and could see reps at both corner and safety. At worse, Yiadom’s shown enough to keep him around as depth if the progress he made last year continues.

What’s going to be fascinating to watch is the battle behind them. Alijah Holder had some moments back in camp and earned reps at both cornerback and safety. Duke Dawson logged about 400 snaps at nickel and brings second round pedigree. The darkhorse that could really make things interesting is Essang Bassey, who signed as an undrafted free agent. The only reason I had trouble finding a spot for him is he’s almost definitely a nickel only. That said? He could find his way to real playing time quickly.

10 make the cut

A.J. Bouye, Bryce Callahan, De’Vante Bausby, Isaac Yiadom, Michael Ojemudia, Duke Dawson, Alijah Holder, Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Trey Marshall

Practice squad

Essang Bassey (?)

Linebacker

You could argue no player on the Broncos’ defense had a better offseason than Todd Davis. Fangio admitted at the Combine that there was a desire to upgrade at linebacker, and yet when the dust settled all Elway did was grab a fifth round rookie out of Wake Forest. Entering the last year of his contract, Davis looks like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.

Starting beside him will be last year’s revelation Alexander Johnson. I’d argue by year’s end he was the third best player on the defense and while his age caps his athletic ceiling, he should improve with more time to learn and master Fangio’s more mentally demanding scheme.

Fangio typically carries four or five off ball backers and it’s hard to believe Justin Strnad won’t get every opportunity to make an impression. I believe Justin Hollins sticks based on the all of the rave reviews he earned last year and the fact that he offers positional flexibility, so Josey Jewell, Joseph Jones, Josh Watson, and Tre Crawford are facing a numbers crunch.

5 make the cut

Todd Davis, Alexander Johnson, Justin Hollins, Josh Watson, Josey Jewell

Practice squad

Justin Strnad

Edge

The hope has to be Von Miller can recover from COVID-19 and be his dominant self. While he had less than 10 sacks for the first time since 2013 last year, he also wound up with more than 50 individual pressures by Sports Info Solutions’ charting. There also needs to be hope that Bradley Chubb can come back from a torn ACL and deliver on the promise he showed in his rookie campaign and the first four games of 2019.

Depth behind the starters will look a lot like who finished out the string last year. Malik Reed and Jeremiah Attaochu combined for about 800 snaps. I think Derrek Tuszka is going to be too promising to risk on waivers and could push Reed towards the bubble, but both will make it.

5 make the cut

Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Jeremiah Attaochu, Malik Reed, Derrek Tuszka

Defensive Line

I doubt Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell, Shelby Harris, and Dre’Mont Jones are going anywhere. McTelvin Agim was a 2020 third rounder and he’s safe.

Agim’s addition does not appear to bode well for DeMarcus Walker. Both are gap shooters who take a bit off the table when it comes to double teams and their ability to stack and shed, but one is a rookie under the current coaching staff while the other is entering the last year of his contract and at least 20 lbs lighter.

Kyle Peko, Deyon Sizer, Jay-Tee Tiuli, and Joel Heath are competing on the back end of the roster. None offer the kind of pass rush upside the majority of the initial group does but I’d think Fangio will try and find the most versatile among them to serve as the injury fill in. That bodes well for Heath, who was a collegiate defensive end before filling out to become a 6’6 and 300 lbs. Sizer also makes sense and the Broncos could try to sneak him onto the practice squad.

Last year Fangio consistently had six defensive lineman on the roster until November last year when it floated up to seven. Looking back to his time with the Bears six seemed to be the magic number.

6 make the cut

Jurrell Casey, Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, Dre’Mont Jones, McTelvin Agim, Joel Heath

Wide Receiver

John Elway took a page out of Mike Shanahan’s playbook for the 2005 Draft and threw a boatload of resources at a position in hopes something sticks. The good news is, there isn’t a position in modern football that makes more sense to do this at than receiver and it could wind up having a huge impact on an offense that is likely to run 3-wide close to 70% of the time in 2020.

Courtland Sutton is the established alpha dog. Jerry Jeudy has all of the makings of becoming an elite WR1B quickly. K.J. Hamler comes in as a gadget weapon, slot, and role player who should be a nigh impossible cover in off-man coverage.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what Pat Shurmur means for the rest of this group, because both Jeudy and Hamler confirm my prior belief that the ability to create separation will be prioritized. I suspect this is good news for DaeSean Hamilton. He’s one of the better route runners on the roster, even if his long speed is marginal. I’d think this creates an uphill battle for Tim Patrick because he’s more of a bully ball player who wins at the catch point and above the rim.

One thing that should help Patrick when it comes to the final roster is that he’s also an plus on special teams and offers the size and physicality of an X-receiver. At least from this side of a GIF Horse or Cover 2 Broncos study on him, he looks like the perfect backup to Sutton. I think he’ll find a way to stick but Tyrie Cleveland could make things difficult.

After those five, things get really tight if only because the last three years seems to point to Shurmur carrying six or maybe seven receivers at the very most. This is why I’m skeptical of the talk that Diontae Spencer will stick as a returner. He simply doesn’t offer enough to the offense because of his size. Based on upside I lean towards Juwaan Winfree. Elway thought enough of him to trade up and grab him last year, and he was getting rave reviews out of training camp in 2019. Maybe a year of NFL coaching helps him make the jump and he sees more playing time when the games matter this year.

6 make the cut

Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, DaeSean Hamilton, Juwann Winfree

Practice squad

Tyrie Cleveland

Offensive Line

I said this about a month ago:

The line is another group that is almost surely getting an infusion of young talent after Connor McGovern left for the New York Jets. If the season started today, some combination of Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Patrick Morris, Graham Glasgow, Elijah Wilkinson, and Ja’Wuan James would start. While they’re nowhere near the best lines in the league, there are worse.

I expect the starting offensive line to go: Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Ja’Wuan James. The rookie third rounder will beat out Patrick Morris for a starting job inside. Netane Muti will round out the interior depth after beating Austin Schlottmann for the spot in camp.

For all the debate and talk about Elijah Wilkinson pushing Garett Bolles, the reality is he was overmatched as a right tackle and exposed against any edge rusher who was better than average. Look around the AFC West, I’m sure Mike Munchak has. The fact that the Broncos did not bring in real competition is a vote of confidence in the 2017 first rounder, even if they won’t come out and say as much. What’s going to be fascinating to watch is how things go down with the fifth year option deadline on May 4th and if that decision proves correct in 2021.

One wildcard that could throw a wrench into everything is if Elway goes out and signs a veteran tackle like Jason Peters, Cordy Glenn, Kelvin Beachum, or Greg Robinson.

8 make the final cut:

Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Ja’Wuan James, Netane Muti, Elijah Wilkinson, Patrick Morris

Tight End

No player this side of the quarterback benefited as much by Rich Scangarello being fired for Pat Shurmur as Noah Fant did. Jeff Essary and I discussed it a few times on Cover 2 Broncos, but Fant profiles as a bigger Evan Engram type. The former Shurmur tight end was a mismatch weapon in New York and I expect Fant to see snaps in what amounts to a big slot as well as in and off the line of scrimmage. The days asking him to look like George Kittle are behind us and we should all be thankful for that.

Nick Vannett was brought in this offseason to be the blocking tight end. The move was panned about as much as a TE2 type of move can be, so in the middle of watching Glasgow, Driskel, and Gordon I tried to get an idea of what the Broncos were getting. What I saw from a few games last year is a player who should be a servicable outlet receiver. He’s a better drive blocker than anyone the Broncos had last year, but is a downgrade blocking on the move and he’ll get Lock killed if he’s asked to pass block.

One of my biggest critiques of the Albert Okwuegbunam selection in my initial thoughts on the Draft was how clogged this position group is. That still stands, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a veteran is shown the door to open the road to playing time. Heuerman’s contract carries a $500 thousand cap hit if he’s cut or traded.

Looking back over the last three years and Shurmur tends to carry three tight ends and a then a fullback/H-back type. Denver did sniff around the H-back market, but didn’t come out of it with anyone once the UDFA dust settled. That leads me to believe Andrew Beck is safe as the fourth tight end if Heuerman moves, but he’ll get squeezed off the roster if he isn’t.

4 make the final cut:

Noah Fant, Nick Vannett, Albert Okwuegbunam, Andrew Beck

Running backs

I expect there to be a lot of lip service between now and week one that Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay will split carries. If both are healthy and do become a timeshare, it’d be the first time in Pat Shurmur’s career where he didn’t have a true workhorse number one and backup. My guess is Lindsay will be relegated to RB2 and forced to make due with whatever touches Gordon doesn’t eat, as they paid the former Charger to be a starter.

Elway did bring in Levante Bellamy after the draft, giving him a rather large guarantee to do so. The former Western Michigan Bronco should look comfortable in Munchak’s hybrid blocking scheme. He’s 5’9 and under 200 lbs, but runs angry with a low center of gravity and has intriguing vision on stretch plays. Khalfani Muhammad could also factor into the competition with his long speed and decent hands.

The Broncos’ “1-2 punch” comments right after Gordon’s signing do clearly leave out 2018 third round pick Royce Freeman. It’s going to be interesting to see if he can survive his third offensive coordinator because things are trending away from him. Consider this one last bit of homerism because I really did believe in that pick back when it happened. Freeman’s got the size and receiving skillset the others lack.

3 make the final roster:

Melvin Gordon, Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman

Quarterbacks

Before free agency and draft season really got moving, we spent an episode of Cover 2 Broncos digging into Drew Lock’s five starts in order to figure out how optimistic fans should be going into 2020. I was very nervous after the Chargers game and even the Houston game left questions on the table, but Lock showed a lot of growth over his final three starts.

One of the things I love most about Elway’s approach to this NFL Draft was how every piece of it was to provide an answer on Drew Lock. He has no excuses but perhaps Garett Bolles. There are now weapons at every position on offense and he should be able to flourish. If he succeeds, Denver’s in position to compete for a playoff berth this year. If he fails, the Broncos will be able to surround a rookie passer with a talented group in 2021.

Jeff Driskel will back up the 2019 second round pick. If he has to come in for a half or even a game, all hope isn’t lost. If he’s starting more than that draft season has started early.

It wouldn’t be a complete shock if the Broncos carry a third quarterback on their roster. Shurmur did so a good bit in his past and if Brett Rypien shows enough in camp it’ll probably become tricky to hide him on the practice squad. Elway did sign Riley Neal out of Vanderbilt right after the draft, but it’ll be a surprise if he’s more than a camp arm.

3 will make the final roster

Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien

What do you think the Broncos’ roster will look like?