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11 things to look for in the Broncos’ preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams

Can the Broncos escape the preseason without serious injury?

The regular season is almost upon us, and with the conclusion of the preseason comes the inevitable end of a dream for hundreds of men across the NFL. After today’s matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, the Broncos will begin the process of trimming the roster from 80 players to meet the 53-man deadline by Tuesday at 2 PM MT. With the looming cutdown comes the reality that while today’s matchup doesn’t matter in the standings, it could be the most important game of player’s lives.

Here’s what I’m watching for.

Defense

  1. Hairston vs. Motley vs. Smith vs. Vincent
  2. How does Jamar Johnson look?
  3. How do Strnad and Browning look?
  4. Will Tuszka make a late push?

Michael Ojemudia’s injury could mean the Broncos decide to place him on Injured Reserve for the beginning of the season, but NFL rules demand they carry him through cutdown on the active roster if there’s any hope he can return to play this year. His injury creates a bit of a number crunch on defense, as the Broncos will surely play five or more defensive backs the vast majority of the time. O.J. looked set to open the season at CB5 behind Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan, and Patrick Surtain II, and if he can’t play early I expect the coaching staff to carry an extra slot defender.

When you look at the current roster there are five players who may remain in the race to be a backup corner.

If the idea is to grab a boundary corner who can help on special teams, it could open the door for Parnell Motley or Saivion Smith. Both have had their moments in game action, even if they’ve also been toasted a few too many times in camp for my liking. Motley’s more familiar with the system after signing off the 49ers practice squad last December.

Journeyman Nate Hairston’s had a some nice moments in camp, played in the nickel, and contributes on special teams. If the priority is depth in the short term he makes a ton of sense. If the Broncos’ decision makers are willing to take some lumps as a prospect tries to figure things out, the choice is blurrier.

Kary Vincent and Jamar Johnson are rookies with experience in the slot, though the vast majority of Johnson’s came when he was at Indiana. Both had a late start to training camp because they landed on the Covid-19 list, however. Vincent’s also done very little on special teams so far. Assuming Johnson can pitch hit as a nickel, it could make a lot of sense to roll with him as it’d help justify five spots being allocated to safety when Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Caden Sterns, and P.J. Locke have all outplayed the former Hoosier.

While linebacker doesn’t look like it has the same type of drama hanging over it, today probably marks the last time we see Baron Browning on defense for awhile. His injury during OTAs caused him to miss so much camp there’s little doubt he’s behind Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, and Justin Strnad on the depth chart. Today is a great opportunity for him to further acclimate to the Fangio system and work on making his reads on the fly. I plan to focus on him during the broadcast.

Both the defensive line and edge rotation look like they’re penciled in, which means there isn’t a lot of intrigue to be found barring an injury. This is Derek Tuszka’s last best chance to convince George Paton to stash him on the practice squad or convince a rival NFL team to bring him in.

Looks like they made the 53

6 DL: S. Harris, Jones, Purcell, Agim, Williams, Stephen

4 ED: Miller, Chubb, Reed, Cooper

4 LBs: Johnson, Jewell, Strnad, and Browning

8 DBs: Fuller, Darby, Surtain II, Jackson, Callahan, Simmons, Sterns, Ojemudia+

3 ST: McManus, Martin, Bobenmoyer

Seem safe

1 DB: Locke III

Still fighting in a bubble battle

3 DL: Spencer, J. Harris, Mack

2 ED: Mintze, Tuszka

2 LBs: Robinson, Wade

7 DBs: Johnson, Vincent, Hairston, Motley, McCain, Smith, Marshall

Offense

5. How does Sutton look?

6. Can any of the depth WR push Spencer?

7. Will Anderson steal RT1?

8. Is anyone on the line safe after the “big eight?”

9. How much action does Prentice see?

10. Will Lock create a bigger QB controversy?

On Thursday Fangio confirmed Von Miller, Albert Okwuegbunam, and Courtland Sutton would make their 2021 debuts against the Rams. He shared that while he believes all three are ready to go, they need some game action. While Okwuegbunam’s injury came later in the season, I have little concern about his recovery thanks to conversations with The Denver Posts’ Ryan O’Halloran and The Gazette’s George Stoia. Sutton and Miller are different stories.

We haven’t seen the 32-year-old Miller suit up since 2019 at this point, and if the Broncos had no questions about his return from a season ending dislocated peroneal tendon there would have been no drama leading up to the extension to pick up his team option. We know that wasn’t the case. While Miller’s return is already paying spades for the locker room because of his leadership, there’s no guarantee this year’s Von is able to reach the generational level of play we’ve come to expect from him. It’s going to be something to keep an eye on all year.

Sutton’s recovery and subsequent play feels a little easier to wrap my head around. He doesn’t come with questions related to an age related decline, simply a season ending torn ACL. It’d be huge for the whole offense if he’s able to recapture his Pro Bowl form, and disastrous if the knee hinders his ability to create separation this year. The good news is the fourth year pro sounds confident he’s ready.

“Saturday, I definitely want to be able to go out and play fast and just not think about anything. That was one of my biggest things going into camp. I wanted to be able to go out and build that confidence in myself that my leg is completely fine and that I can go out there and be who I am at a high level. I think that’s exactly what I want to be able to do Saturday and moving forward the rest of the season, just that confidence. The ability is still there, I just have to go do it.”

Would you believe me if I told you right tackle is the last starting job up for grabs? On Wednesday Fangio said the job was Bobby Massie’s to lose before he came back on Thursday to say the competition between Massie and Anderson is “extremely close,” which may be coach speak to keep a young backup motivated. It could also point to a willingness to chase upside up front with a veteran quarterback under center to mitigate the risk.

After right tackle the Broncos’ starting group up front is secure, and yet the offensive line is one of the more intriguing position groups on offense. There looks to be eight locks for the roster when it generally makes sense to carry nine or even more players. Austin Schlottmann is probably among the best nine players, but he’s an interior lineman on a team flush with guards and centers. Cameron Fleming’s been a disappointment, but it costs $1 million in dead money to part ways which could give him the leg up on Quinn Bailey as a fourth string tackle. While Drew Himmelman’s a near lock for the practice squad, I doubt there’s much risk a team would poach him off waivers.

Throughout training camp and the preseason my favorite day for press conferences is Thursday. That’s because it’s the day the Broncos give the podium to their coordinators, which provides some really insightful tidbits mixed into the coach speak and clichés. The insight can be invaluable if you’re trying to figure out where guys stand in their respective roster battles, as it was this week when Tom McMahon confirmed three things to me: Andrew Beck and Eric Saubert have already made the 53-man roster, Diontae Spencer has not.

With Teddy Bridgewater securing the starting job, I expect Pat Shurmur to continue to run 11 personnel (3 receiver sets) around two thirds of the time. That combined with Fant, Okwuegbunam, Saubert, and Beck create a tough spot for Adam Prentice. The undrafted free agent has done everything you could ask for on offense with his ability to pave the way as a leader blocker and hold up in pass protection. Unfortunately it may not be enough if he can’t secure a bigger role on special teams because Shurmur so rarely uses a fullback.

The other big question I have about the game today is Drew Lock’s performance. Beyond the box score numbers, last week revealed the cracks that remain in the third year passer’s game. His mechanics remain inconsistent after he begins to feel a pass rush, and he hasn’t proven his decision making is close to where Bridgewater’s at to this point.

None of this could matter if he blows up the Rams backups like they’re a bunch of angry Norseman. Lock has the arm talent to put on a show when he finds time in the pocket as he did against the Minnesota Vikings. Given the reactionary nature of media coverage throughout the Broncos’ quarterback competition all offseason, a big day against the Rams backups could create a ton of heat on Fangio and Bridgewater before we’re in spitting distance of week one. I expect it.

Looks like they made the 53

2 QBs: Lock and Bridgewater

3 RBs: Gordon, Williams, and Boone+

4 TEs: Fant, Okwuegbunam, Saubert, Beck

8 OL: Bolles, Risner, Cushenberry, Glasgow, Massie, Anderson, Meinerz, and Muti

5 WRs: Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler, Patrick, Benson

Seem safe

1 QB: Rypien

1 RB: Freeman

Still fighting in a bubble battle

2 RBs: Crockett, Scott

3 TE/FBs: Prentice, Beyer, Fort

4 OLs: Fleming, Schlottmann, Bailey, Himmelman

5 WRs: Spencer, Cleveland, Hinton, Williams, Pierson-El

The harsh truth about this 2021 roster is there aren’t a lot of jobs left to be had. On Thursday Fangio said there were as few as five and as many as eight. By my count it looks like six. If it were up to me, I’d look to carry P.J. Locke, Royce Freeman, and Brett Rypien. I’d also want an extra offensive lineman, another cornerback, and another receiver. Special teams ability would factor heavily into those last two spots.

Keep in mind the Broncos could also elect to cut below the 53 before Tuesday and take advantage of their spot in the waiver claim order. George Paton spent 14 years building the Vikings’ roster and could lean into that familiarity.

The uncertainty around those last open spots provide the backdrop for today’s glorified scrimmage. We’re watching players fight to keep their dream alive, even if the biggest actual question hanging over this meaningless game against the Rams’ second and third string: Can the Broncos escape unscathed?

My last best guess at the Broncos 53 before the Rams game.

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