It happens every offseason. A player that no one expected makes a big impact during the preseason, uprooting an active roster “lock” with their spectacular play. Last season, undrafted rookie free agent Chris Harris stole the roster spot from Perrish Cox, the embattled cornerback. This preseason, a whole new set of young players who are ready to take the next step are rising up the ranks (and the depth chart) as players compete for coveted slots on the depth chart in 2012.
Let’s take a look at who is surprising coaches and fans alike this offseason.
Jeremy Beal was impressive in the Denver Broncos' opening preseason game of 2012 when he recorded two sacks against the Chicago Bears in the fourth quarter against fourth-string quarterback Matt Blanchard. While he was playing against a lot of players who won’t make the squad next season for the Bears, Beal was impressive. The coaching staff is taking notice.
Coming into the NFL at 262 pounds last season, Beal has put in work to add some bulk in Jack Del Rio’s defense since the NFL combine, now weighing 280 pounds a year later. After a season on the team’s practice squad last year, he is adjusting to the size and speed of NFL-caliber offensive linemen. Beal is saying all the right things (via The Denver Post).
"In college you might see one or two lineman a year, maybe one every three games, that's going to be a pro," Beal said. "The physical part was it for me. So I tried to use my time on the practice squad for something.
"You go against a Pro Bowler like (Ryan) Clady every day, it's going to get you better. Watching Elvis (Dumervil), guys like Champ (Bailey), Dawk (Brian Dawkins), how they (perform as) professionals, watching them work, (you) try to imitate what they do. I feel like I'm 10 times more comfortable right now."
Beal should continue to push for time on the line and could continue to inch up the charts. With Robert Ayers’ recent fall out of the starting spot, it gives him and his teammates a chance to wrangle for the spot.
Chris Clark has backed up Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady the last two seasons in Denver and seems to continue to press for time on the roster. Even before veteran guard Chris Kuper went down with a broken forearm earlier, Clark was in the conversation at right tackle if the Broncos went forward by moving Orlando Franklin to the right guard position.
Head coach John Fox is high on Clark, and Clark has been impressive in training camp thus far. Some believe he is outperforming veteran Ryan Harris on the offensive line, whose play seems to have regressed since he started for the Broncos in 2009.
Clark should see significant time this offseason with Kuper now out again after breaking his forearm. Watch for the Broncos to shift the line around some and make changes to fill the hole left by Kuper. Clark is a versatile lineman who has historically filled holes in the line when the Broncos have been plagued with injuries during his two seasons in Denver.
Xavier Omon is trying to finally stick with an NFL team this season. He has spent time with the Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns. Talk about a lot of transition. He already has 18 “transactions” that are signings, releases, etc. in what would be his fourth NFL season.
Omon led all running backs in the Broncos’ first preseason game against the Bears with 36 yards and 5.1 yards per carry. Omon is the prototypical size that John Fox likes, at 5’11” and 227 pounds. If he continues to play like he did in Chicago, Omon will carve out a roster spot, creating an opportunity that hasn’t yet existed before for him during his short NFL career thus far.
He is making an impression on running backs coach Eric Studesville who likes his size and quickness as a back.
"He's more like Willis (McGahee) than the rest of them," said Studesville via The Denver Post, who saw Omon in 2008 with the Buffalo Bills when he was a rookie. "He's a bigger body that's going to wear you down. He's athletic too. We run some outside plays with him too, so he's not strictly an inside-the-tackles guy."
He faces an uphill battle with four roster spots typically being devoted to tailbacks and being in a deep group consisting of Willis McGahee, Ronnie Hillman, Lance Ball, Knowshon Moreno and Jeremiah Johnson. If he can continue to produce, then the coaching staff won’t be able to ignore him.
Steven Johnson is likely to be this season’s undrafted rookie free agent who could make the squad when cuts are due in a few weeks. Head coach John Fox likes his skills, and he is a sound tackler, something that Joe Mays has been faulted for during his NFL career. If Mays struggles to make tackles, he will find Johnson breathing down his neck.
Johnson is a 6’0”, 239-pound linebacker from the University of Kansas. Last season as a senior with the Jayhawks, Johnson was a tackling machine. He led the Big 12 with 124 tackles as a team captain and second-year starter at weak-side linebacker.
While he is listed with the middle linebackers, Johnson’s versatility to play several linebacker positions will come in handy as D.J. Williams serves a league-mandated six-game suspension for PED use.
In the Broncos’ first preseason game against the Bears, Johnson also recorded a sack, something he has been routinely doing throughout training camp against the Broncos offensive line. Johnson is one of the Broncos’ many bright young players who could make a contribution this season.