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2021 Pre-camp Broncos roster prediction

Who will make the final 53?

We finally made it through the long, arduous dead season intact. Broncos football is upon us, and with it comes the hope that this is the year Denver’s historic losing streak is broken. Maybe Fangio can navigate a softer schedule towards a playoff berth. Heck, the nerds at Football Outsiders say there’s a realistic shot at the Super Bowl.

However, before all that can happen, players need to make the team. If you’ve kept up with Mile High Report, you probably remember I took a very early stab at the final roster at the end of OTAs. There’s been a couple changes since then, with the biggest one being all the time I spent reviewing every single player on the current roster. When necessary, I tried to outline why my thoughts have changed.

Odds are a few of the predictions below don’t come true and that’s okay. Don’t confuse my early thoughts for a rooting interest. I’m happy to be wrong if George Paton and the coaching staff are right. Either way, I look forward to your own predictions in the comments.

Specialists - 3

P Sam Martin, PK Brandon McManus, LS Jacob Bobenmoyer

  • As I write this, there’s no competition for kicker, punter, or long snapper.

Per Football Outsiders’ Alamanac, Sam Martin finished 30th out of 34 qualifying punters in gross punt value last season. The Broncos already gave undrafted rookie Max Duffy a shot this summer, so Paton may add yet another leg to compete before week one.

Defensive backs - 10

Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, Patrick Surtain II, Bryce Callahan, Michael Ojemudia, Kareem Jackson, Justin Simmons, Kary Vincent, Caden Sterns, Jamar Johnson

Linebackers - 4

Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, Justin Strnad, Baron Browning

  • With Browning set to open camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, the door opens for Josh Watson, David Curry, and rookie Curtis Robinson. Odds are Browning isn’t getting cut regardless of his status, which means the Broncos may elect to carry more than four linebackers through final cutdowns if he can’t get right early. It could also make this a spot to add a veteran from elsewhere.

I remain very optimistic about Browning’s future in a Fangio system based on his traits, versatility to play in space, rush, and run sideline-to-sideline as well as his character. Unfortunately, the lower body injury he suffered in OTAs could severely limit his impact this season. Without the practice time to learn the defense, he’s could be headed towards a few special teams snaps and little else. Hopefully he can recover and participate in the preseason.

Edge - 4

Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Malik Reed, Derrek Tuszka

  • With both Miller and Chubb working back from injury, the Broncos will probably give a lot of preseason snaps to the players duking it on the bubble.

I somehow forgot to write about Pete Kalambayi in my edge room breakdown and I’m still kicking myself. He was my original ED4 and could still make sense because of his experience on special teams, but I suspect the most impressive prospect gets the nod. Jonathan Cooper’s return from heart surgery has me giving the nod to the last edge John Elway will ever draft.

Defensive Line - 6

Shelby Harris, Dre’Mont Jones, Mike Purcell, McTelvin Agim, DeShawn Williams, Shamar Stephen

  • This line could surprise the NFL. Shelby Harris and Dre’Mont Jones are both quick enough to create issues on stunts and the return of Miller and Chubb should create one-on-ones for the interior defenders. Purcell and Stephen are both plus run defenders who can win at the point of attack or crossing face to disrupt zone runs.

I have my eyes on McTelvin Agim this preseason. Despite all the injuries around him, he rarely played and when he did, he struggled in run defense. The 2020 third round pick needs to start to deliver on his promise this season or he’ll risk being overlooked by a new general manager.

Wide Receivers - 7

Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, Tim Patrick, Tyrie Cleveland, Kendall Hinton, Diontae Spencer

  • While I expect Spencer to retain a spot on the roster as the Broncos’ proven returner, Tom McMahon did say Hinton, Boone, Cleveland, and LaVante Bellamy were getting work. Spencer’s limited contributions on offense could leave him vulnerable if someone else shows out in the preseason. It could also lead the Broncos to carry seven or even eight receivers. The Broncos are carrying 14 into training camp and George Paton’s Vikings prioritized the position.

After serving as the Broncos’ QB5 last year in the week 13 loss against the New Orleans Saints, Hinton’s drew rave reviews from Fangio out of OTAs:

“The guy that has had a really good camp from the start of OTAs until now has been Kendall. He’s really looked good as a receiver and he’s improved a lot. He’s in the hunt for one of those spots.”

If Hinton can continue to impress at receiver, his additional contributions on special teams could give him the edge. There’s also a possibility he could win the job over Spencer and another receiver makes the team. This is going to be a bubble battle to watch.

With Sutton and Patrick playing on expiring contracts, Paton showed a clear preference for size in his receiver acquisitions this offseason. Seth Williams, Amara Darboh, Warren Jackson, Branden Mack, and DeVontres Dukes all stand above 6’2. A lot can change between now and cutdown day.

Offensive Line - 9

Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Bobby Massie, Cameron Fleming, Quinn Meinerz, Netane Muti, Calvin Anderson

  • The Broncos’ line is set at three spots and I expect Bolles, Risner, and Glasgow to receive limited action in the preseason to help them stay fresh for the 17+ game grind ahead.

The starting tackle job is one of the few wide open position battles on the team. I took a look at Massie and Fleming a few months ago. There also remains a chance Anderson steals the job.

  • Center could be influenced by the Broncos’ QB battle. If Drew Lock is the starter, Cushenberry’s experience last season could be more valuable.

Tight Ends - 4

Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Andrew Beck, Shaun Beyer

  • Okwuegbunam probably receives limited action throughout the preseason to help him hit the ground with fresh legs in week one.
  • If Eric Saubert knocks Beyer off the active roster, I expect him to make the Broncos’ practice squad.

Running backs - 3

Melvin Gordon, Javonte Williams, Mike Boone

  • If the Broncos are actively shopping Royce Freeman as reported by KOA’s Benjamin Allbright, I suspect he’s as good as gone. What remains to be seen is if he can be dealt when the league knows he won’t be long for the roster.
  • LeVante Bellamy has a good shot at the Broncos’ practice squad if he can’t make the active roster.

Quarterbacks - 3

Aaron Rodgers, Teddy Bridgewater, Brett Rypien

  • Over the weekend Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams both shared a photo from ESPN’s The Last Dance, which raises questions about what’s going to happen in Wisconsin. Veterans report to Packers camp on the 27th.

While I still believe Aaron Rodgers can successfully force his way out of the Green Bay Packers, the question becomes his commitment to sitting out. For every day he misses camp, Green Bay will fine him $50,000.

If the Packers trade Rodgers to the Broncos, it’s no guarantee Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater is traded to Green Bay, though I doubt both would stick around if Rodgers lands in Denver. An argument can be made that either could interest the Packers as a QB2 or potential competition for Jordan Love. If the Broncos don’t send a quarterback to the Packers in this scenario, I suspect Lock’s recent status as a second round pick, his arm talent, and potential upside could net Paton more in a trade to a third team.

If the Packers do not trade Aaron Rodgers to the Broncos, I expect Lock and Bridgewater to split the quarterback snaps as evenly as possible. Fangio has made it clear the competition for starting quarterback has only just begun and I expect it to drag out until there’s a clear-cut winner.

There’s definitely a bit of quarterback intrigue fatigue in corners of Broncos’ Country, and I definitely understand. At the same time, if Rodgers elects to sit out training camp or retires instead of showing up, the question about a potential trade could drag out all preseason. Or he could show up on the first day and the situation is then resolved.

The other recent development that warrants monitoring is Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans. On Sunday he reported to training camp, but multiple reports suggest he still wants a trade. In March, Aaron Wilson reported the Broncos remained interested despite the 22 allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

Last week NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Broncos as a potential option for Watson, but it’s hard to imagine Watson is traded until there is some sort of legal resolution. At the time I’m writing this, there’s no report of a settlement and his disposition will not happen until after Super Bowl LVI. There remains the possibility that the NFL could place Watson on the Commissioner’s Exempt list, but until they do, he could suit up this season.