Tough Calls For The 53-Man Roster Ahead

As we approach the final preseason game and the roster cutdown to 53, I wanted to examine the roster cutdowns to 53 in a different manner than just projecting the final 53.

Rather, I want to look at each position in terms of who is a lock to make the roster and the more difficult decisions the Broncos will have to make considering injuries and other factors.

The thing to keep in mind with each position is that the Broncos aren’t going to just sign or trade for any veteran at this point just to “win now.” They’ll only consider veterans at this point if there is not only a significant upgrade, but if it’s justifiable to take the player’s contract. If they want an upgrade over a younger player, they’ll look at the waiver wire for players who were caught in other position battles and just couldn’t get past others on the roster.

On the latter part, bear in mind that just about every team goes through this situation. A team that is lacking at one position can have a lot of depth at another, just like the Broncos have. So keep in mind that somebody who just couldn’t make the cut on a team that had lots of talent at one position might result in a player who provides an upgrade for the Broncos.

In some cases, we will probably find that certain players just aren’t going to make the cut for a reason based on what the coaches are looking for. I’ll do my best to explain that at certain positions. Also, I won’t go deeply into practice squad candidates, though a few of the players for whom tough decisions await are eligible and you’ll no doubt see some players who you would want to add there, should they not make the active roster.

With that in mind, let’s consider what the Broncos will look at with each position.

In: Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch
Headed to IR: Chad Kelly
Up in the air: Kyle Sloter

The Broncos’ plan to go with two quarterbacks on the active roster hit a snag when Paxton Lynch injured his shoulder and won’t be available for a couple of weeks into the regular season. Though Trevor Siemian has earned the starting job, the Broncos would be stuck with an inexperienced Kyle Sloter as the backup if they chose to keep him on the active roster. That’s a bit risky – it’s true Sloter looked better than Lynch, but it also came against backups and players fighting for roster spots and I don’t think the Broncos want to go with a backup with no NFL experience.

Chances are that the Broncos will keep an eye on the waiver wire for a backup who has some NFL experience, even if it’s just a season or two. Because the QB brought in would be a short-term solution as backup until Lynch gets healthy, chances are they’ll stick with somebody who is younger. Don’t bet on the Broncos trading for anybody because you don’t want to give up a draft pick just to get somebody you may only keep for three weeks max.

Running back
In: CJ Anderson, Jamaal Charles, DeAngelo Henderson, Andy Janovich
Likely sticking around: Devontae Booker
Tough cuts but gone: Stevan Ridley, Juwan Thompson

After Charles showed he has plenty left to contribute, it became clear that there wasn’t going to be a place for Ridley. I doubt he’ll get traded because teams can just wait for the Broncos to cut him (Ridley is a veteran, so he doesn’t have to go through waivers). Thompson, who will go through waivers, isn’t likely to be traded, either, because he is a depth player and no more than that.

Regarding Booker, the Broncos aren’t going to give up on him yet. Perhaps they put him on the PUP list and hope for the best for six weeks time, but if they do that, I don’t think they keep another player, but use the move to free up a spot for a player at a different position.

Wide receiver
In: Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Jordan Taylor, Bennie Fowler, Isaiah McKenzie
Should be safe: Cody Latimer
Headed to IR: Carlos Henderson
Tough cut: Kalif Raymond

Most of the other receivers who are fighting for roster spots aren’t likely to make it. Really, it comes down to Latimer or Raymond, and while the latter has been making a push for a roster spot, he has practice squad eligibility left while Latimer does not. I tend to believe the Broncos will roll with Latimer at this point, though if he struggles during the season, the Broncos could swap him out for Raymond.

Tight end
In: Virgil Green
Likely in, but maybe upgrades will be found: Jeff Heuerman, AJ Derby
Remember that this guy will be on the PUP: Jake Butt

Green’s job appears to be safe and there really isn’t a tight end who would go on the trading block who I would trade for – certainly not one who has a team-friendly contract. It’s true you wouldn’t take on the dead money charges from signing bonuses, but that doesn’t mean you are in the clear from a cap standpoint. Coby Fleener, for example, has a $5.8M salary due (all of it in base salary) and has $3.4M guaranteed for injury in 2018 that becomes fully guaranteed the day after the Super Bowl. No way will John Elway accept a contract stipulation like that and he’s not going to spend time getting the contract restructured because Fleener and his agent would hold too much leverage. I’ve seen Charles Clay mentioned elsewhere but he really isn’t an upgrade over Green, even if fantasy football pundits pretend otherwise.

Heuerman and Derby haven’t been terrible but they haven’t been inspiring, either. So it’s not out of the question that the Broncos seek a young tight end who they think is an upgrade over one of the two. But keep in mind that Jake Butt is right there and, in six weeks’ time, he could be ready to claim a roster spot. From my standpoint, I’m fine being patient to see which of Heuerman or Derby can contribute, then when Butt is cleared to play, decide what comes next.

Offensive line
In: Garett Bolles, Ronald Leary, Matt Paradis, Menelik Watson, Donald Stephenson, Connor McGovern
Most likely to start: Allen Barbre
They might be fighting for a roster spot: Max Garcia, Ty Sambrailo
I’m afraid it’s not happening: Michael Schofield

The first six I’ve mentioned, I think we all know their jobs are safe. Each of them shares a common trait: They have done a good job, for the most part, with run blocking throughout the preseason. In terms of pass protection, they vary, but it’s clear the Broncos want players who, if they are good in one area but not as good in the other, that run blocking is the area they want to be good and that as long as pass protection is adequate with room to improve, they are OK with where they are at on the depth chart.

For somebody who struggles with run blocking, though, that player needs to be exceptional at pass protection. This is the problem Schofield is facing: He’s adequate as a pass protector but not as a run blocker. Clearing holes against third stringers isn’t a ringing endorsement, folks. It’s clear to me that Schofield just isn’t a good fit for what Jeff Davidson wants, so his days are numbered. Because he has to go through waivers, he could be traded to a team who needs help on the offensive line and doesn’t have a high waiver priority. Rumor has it the Giants need all the offensive line help they can get, so they might be willing to hand over a draft pick to ensure a team like, say, the Ravens doesn’t get Schofield first.

I suspect Barbre is more likely to start because he gives a veteran presence and a short-term solution this season. The Broncos have been patient with Garcia but I suspect their patience may be running out. And that brings us to Sambrailo, who I think too many people continue to examine with their 2016 glasses. Truth be told, Sambrailo has improved – not at the level of starter, but certainly to a level that makes it clear it’s not time to give up on him. More importantly, while Sambrailo has improved, Garcia isn’t showing improvement, which is troubling because he has started in previous seasons.

That’s why I believe the final roster spot for offensive linemen is between Garcia and Sambrailo. I don’t think for one minute the Broncos trying Sambrailo at center during practice is about trading him, but about determining how well he can handle other positions – something that Garcia really hasn’t demonstrated he can do. Garcia may very well have to perform at a high level in the final preseason game to keep the eighth offensive lineman spot, because if he doesn’t, he could easily lose his roster spot to Sambrailo.

This is a position, though, at which the Broncos could look for upgrades on the waiver wire. Again, I think the focus will be on younger players who would are considered a better fit for what the Broncos want to do and would allow them to part ways with Garcia or Sambrailo, depending on who claims the eighth O-line spot.

Defensive line
Defensive ends in: Derek Wolfe, Jared Crick, Shelby Harris, Adam Gotsis
Defensive tackle in: Domata Peko
Oh boy, will this be tough: Zach Kerr, Tyrique Jarrett, Kyle Peko

Let’s get one player out of the way first: Shelby Harris has done more than enough to earn himself a roster spot. It was tough to lose Billy Winn for the season, but Harris’ emergence has lessened that sting.

Kerr has shown he can be a good depth player but his recent knee injury means the Broncos may have to consider keeping an extra defensive lineman on the roster. That brings us to Jarrett, who has won over a lot of people with his play. At the very least, he’s a practice squad candidate, but he may cement his argument for a 53-man roster spot with a good showing in the final preseason game.

Kyle Peko, however, is somebody the Broncos have been patient with as he recovers from a foot injury. Now that he’s practicing, though, I don’t believe he can’t start the season on the PUP list. The Broncos wouldn’t have kept him around if they didn’t think he could contribute, so it begs the question regarding what they’ll do with him, given how good Jarrett has looked. While it’s true the D-line has seen several players lost for brief periods to injury, the Broncos have a bunch of players who are still forcing them to make tough calls as to who makes the final cut.

Outside linebackers in: Von Miller, Shaquil Barrett, DeMarcus Walker, Shane Ray, Kasim Edabali
Inside linebackers in: Brandon Marshall, Todd Davis, Corey Nelson, Zaire Anderson

This one is pretty cut and dry and I suspect the Broncos were going to keep five outside linebackers regardless of injuries. There’s a small chance the Broncos could put Ray on IR with a designation to return if they’d rather keep an extra defensive lineman around, given Kerr’s recent injury, but I’m not counting on that to happen.

Defensive backs
Cornerbacks in: Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Bradley Roby, Brendan Langley
One spot down to these two: Lorenzo Doss, Chris Lewis-Harris
Safeties in: TJ Ward, Darian Stewart, Justin Simmons, Will Parks
How I wish I could keep five safeties: Jamal Carter, Orion Stewart

Let’s start with the cornerbacks. Langley has improved throughout the preseason and looks like a keeper. That leaves us with one more spot to decide and Lewis-Harris has done some good things, while Doss has had a couple of moments (though one taken away by a penalty) but has had his issues, too. But Lewis-Harris is a veteran and so would be treated accordingly regarding salary payment, while Doss is still on his rookie deal. It’s possible the Broncos will go with Doss for that reason. However, Lewis-Harris could change that with a strong showing in the final preseason game.

As for the safeties, I really wanted to keep five because both Carter and Orion Stewart have impressed this preseason. However, with injuries at other positions, keeping five may be a luxury the Broncos can’t afford. With any luck, the Broncos will be able to fit one or both on the practice squad. But safety is yet another position at which a number of players are forcing the Broncos to make difficult decisions.

Published by

Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.