Playing football in a pandemic means more than ever, the 2020 NFL season will be one defined by depth. There’s no arguing how COVID-19 has dramatically impacted every aspect of life, and that doesn’t stop at football. No preseason means John Elway and the Broncos’ coaching staff will need to make decisions on roster spots with no live action against other teams.
It also means I’m making this roster prediction with even less information. As a general rule, I expect the lack of game action and less practice time to favor veteran players. Coaches will want to know they can count on someone who knows how to perform at an NFL level consistently, even if it means sacrificing potential upside.
For the sake of clarity, this prediction covers 53 roster spots. When deciding on the numbers at each position I tried to keep in mind historical trends from both Vic Fangio and Pat Shurmur, as they’ve been in position to make roster decisions for multiple years. The need to test incoming free agents will mean teams are going to lean more on “in-house” free agents like never before, so if I believe a player has a really good shot at the practice squad I will also list them.
Never forget that from March 25 until the week of the NFL Draft at the end of April, the Broncos carried three punters. Sam Martin was always going to be the choice, so that drama lama never left the stable. The competition this year will come down to which rookie long snapper can replace Casey Kreiter? I’m throwing darts here, but lean Farnsworth over Jacob Bobenmoyer.
3 make the final cut
Sam Martin, Brandon McManus, Wes Farnsworth
It was Vic Fangio’s Chicago Bears that offered the most money to free agent A.J. Bouye in 2017, which gives me hope the former Jaguar will hit the ground running in 2020. If Bryce Callahan can return to his 2018 form following a season lost to a bent screw in his foot, it’d go a long way in patching up the secondary. After him there’s a wide open battle at cornerback.
Safety is going to be interesting. Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are one of the best duos in the whole NFL, but after them depth is a huge question. Trey Marshall showed more promise following Jackson’s DUI arrest than I dared hope, but it was against David Blough and Derek Carr.
Every report has signaled Michael Ojemudia will play at corner, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he also sees practice reps at safety. Alijah Holder swapped spots between the two last preseason. In a year where it’ll be harder than ever to bring in outside help, that versatility could help both find playing time.
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
Alexander Johnson and Todd Davis are locks for this year’s roster, and it’s exciting to think about what a full offseason could do for the pair. Lest we forget, Johnson didn’t start until week five in 2019 and Davis fought through an early injury to return to the field. If a second year in the Fangio defense helps the game slow down for Johnson, he could emerge as one of the very best off ball backers in the league.
Behind them are a litany of questions. Josey Jewell returns after serving as LB3 a year ago, but will need to improve in coverage and processing the field to be anything more than a liability.
Josh Watson had moments around this time last year and could make a jump with a full offseason in an NFL strength and conditioning program. Justin Strnad is this year’s hope for another Al Wilson, but comes with questions about his tackling and the lack of a preseason games won’t hurt him acclimate. Joseph Jones looks like the odd man out right now with no guarantees on his deal, but he also played close to 300 special team snaps in 2019.
4 make the cut
Todd Davis, Alexander Johnson, Josh Watson, Josey Jewell
Von and Chubb are key parts to the improvement Fangio’s defense should take in year two. Reports from the Broncos are Justin Hollins has worked at outside linebacker leading up to camp, which makes the depth battle an interesting one. Derrek Tuszka was drafted out of North Dakota State in April, while Jeremiah Attaochu was brought back after a nice run in 2019. Malik Reed lost playing time after his debacle in Buffalo, but flashed promise as an undrafted rookie.
5 make the cut
Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Jeremiah Attaochu, Malik Reed, Justin Hollins
If he stays healthy, Jurrell Casey will be one of the biggest steals of the offseason. Shelby Harris and Mike Purcell weren’t brought back to get cut now, while both McTelvin Agim and Dre’Mont Jones were draft picks since Fangio’s become coach.
The final spot is probably going to Christian Covington, who was brought in this spring from the Dallas Cowboys. I know some will point to DeMarcus Walker’s four sacks a year ago, but the reality is after two coaching staffs across three seasons the Broncos still don’t feel comfortable enough to give him substantial playing time. Injuries along the defensive line were not enough for Fangio or Bill Kollar to ever give him more than 34 snaps in any game last season.
6 make the cut
Jurrell Casey, Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, Dre’Mont Jones, McTelvin Agim, Christian Covington
When you stop and think about all that went wrong with the Broncos’ offense last season, it’s really exciting to think about what Courtland Sutton will be able to do in year three. The additions of Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler will make the Broncos’ receiving corps more dynamic. Pat Shurmur will find more ways to scheme him open on easy touches. It’s also hard to imagine Drew Lock won’t be an upgrade on 11 games of Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen.
One of the benefits to the infusion of talent at receiver is it will push both Tim Patrick and DaeSean Hamilton into roles where they’ll be more effective. Patrick’s a boundary receiver and legit number two X while Hamilton could see early playing time while Hamler finds his footing in the slot.
The battle for the last spots in the room will be interesting. Backup receivers generally need to contribute to special teams, which opens the door for Cleveland. Hamler’s explosiveness as a returner puts a squeeze on Diontae Spencer’s skillset as a returner. Meanwhile Elway traded up for Juwann Winfree a year ago and he drew some early comparisons to rookie Sutton.
6 make the cut
Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, DaeSean Hamilton, Juwann Winfree
Demar Dotson is in after Ja’Wuan James opted out. The decision to add veteran talent hits home how fragile the tackle depth is on the Broncos. With Dotson now in orange and blue, a chance remains Elijah Wilkinson could push Garett Bolles or even find his way to starting on the blind side if the former first round pick falls back into old habits. The trio also works to protect Drew Lock from more snaps with Jake Rodgers at tackle.
While tackle is the bigger question mark, the starting center job also needs an answer. Lloyd Cushenberry looks set to battle with Patrick Morris to man the pivot, but it’s hard to say how ready the former LSU Tiger is after such a strange offseason. Fortunately whoever wins the job should have Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow beside them.
9 make the final cut:
Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Demar Dotson, Netane Muti, Elijah Wilkinson, Patrick Morris, Calvin Anderson
The writing was on the wall for Jeff Heuerman when Elway signed Nick Vannett from the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason. Vannet steps in as the blocking tight end in two tight end sets to allow Shurmur to flex Noah Fant around the formation. Expect to see him play more slot snaps this year, and he’ll probably earn a fair share of looks on screens.
Albert Okwuegbunam is the “F” tight end in waiting. His physicality and athleticism could make him an intriguing option near the red zone, but he’ll have his fair share of rookie struggles. Keep in mind that tight end is among the hardest adjustments for any draft prospect in a normal year.
The rest of the tight end room is going to come down to Pat Shurmur’s priorities for his personnel. Over the last three years there’s usually a guy on Shurmur’s offense that fits an H-back type of role: a tight end who looks like a fullback. The battle for the spot probably comes down to Andrew Beck and Troy Fumagalli. The former is a stronger lead blocker, while the latter has more experience at tight end.
As for the rest of the group: Denver hasn’t given up on Jake Butt yet, but he’s fighting Austin Fort and roster limitations for a spot this year. If the Broncos want extra depth for the receiving tight end role, one or the other could make it.
4 make the final cut:
Noah Fant, Nick Vannett, Albert Okwuegbunam, Andrew Beck
Melvin Gordon’s salary and skillset as well as Shurmur’s past affinity for bigger backs points to a diminished role for Phillip Lindsay. Managing the two will make for an interesting situation all season as the third year back has proven himself to be the superior home run threat.
Economics could complicate the situation behind them. Gordon was signed in part because Freeman has failed to impress. The former third round pick’s burst and vision leave something to be desired. His athleticism and well rounded skillset make him an intriguing third option. Last year’s coaching staff trusted Freeman over Lindsay in obvious blocking situations, and he displayed more reliable hands.
Undrafted rookie LaVante Bellamy will battle with former Charger Jeremy Cox to force Shurmur to keep a fourth back. Bellamy is a diminutive speedster who has some experience as an outlet receiver. Cox is closer in size to Gordon, with startling athleticism.
3 make the final roster:
Melvin Gordon, Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman
Drew Lock is the 11th starting quarterback since John Elway became the general manager of the Broncos. At that introductory press conference, Elway spoke about a need to “win from now on.” It became forgotten when Peyton Manning was climbing the mountaintop and laughable when Trevor Siemian pushed Paxton Lynch to the bench, but it remains a guiding principle to the Duke’s run at the helm. Look no further than his past three drafts, where he laid out the foundation for a starting offense just in time for a QB to emerge.
In a normal year there would have been a battle between Brett Rypien and another arm at the back end of the roster. People would spend too much time arguing about it over the month long preseason. There would be speculation that the Broncos could keep two quarterbacks because the season’s lost if there’s that many injuries anyway.
This year the Broncos cut Riley Neal in order to drop the roster from 90 to 80. It’d surprise me if Pat Shurmur went with less than three QBs since COVID or injury could easily knock out two players and leave him in a lurch.
3 will make the final roster
Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien