Breaking Down the Denver Broncos' Depth Chart After the Peak of Free Agency

Travis WakemanCorrespondent IIMarch 24, 2013

Breaking Down the Denver Broncos' Depth Chart After the Peak of Free Agency

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    Nearly two weeks into the NFL free-agent signing period, the Denver Broncos have brought in some key pieces for a run at the Super Bowl.

    Landing (ESPN) Wes Welker was obviously the biggest splash, but the signings of defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie should not be understated either.

    There is still time to bring in a pass-rushing defensive end, but the team may look to the draft to add depth to the linebacker and running back positions.

    Though early, this gives us a chance to consider the current team and how the depth chart may appear at the moment.

    Here is a position-by-position look into the current lineup along with some reasoning as to why certain players may be listed higher than others.

Quarterback

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    Starter: Peyton Manning

    Backup: Brock Osweiler

    This is probably the easiest position to diagnose, because it is obvious that Manning is the starter in Denver for as long as he wants the job.

    The Broncos released (Pro Football Talk) Caleb Hanie when they parted ways with D.J. Williams, leaving Osweiler as the only other quarterback on the roster.

    Osweiler completed two passes for 12 yards in 2012, brought in only if the Broncos were in full control of a game. That won't change this season.

    Still, Osweiler is in a good position in his NFL career, learning under one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.

    The question is, will the Broncos draft another prospect in April or will they turn to a journeyman quarterback, such as Hanie, to compete for a backup job in training camp?

Running Back

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    Starter: Willis McGahee

    Backup: Knowshon Moreno

    Third String: Ronnie Hillman

    Fourth String: Lance Ball/Jeremiah Johnson/Mario Fannin

    Denver will likely draft at least one running back in April, with guys like Stephan Johnson, Christine Michael or Le'Veon Bell being some possibilities.

    McGahee and Moreno played well last season, but both come with big durability concerns.

    McGahee has run for 1,930 yards in two seasons with the Broncos, but will be 32 years old in October and missed the last six games and the playoff loss last year.

    Moreno seemed to be all but done last season until McGahee went down. He then leaped Hillman and Ball on the depth chart and performed very well, running for 510 yards and three touchdowns in his absence.

    Still, Moreno went down with an injury in the divisional round loss to Baltimore, forcing Denver to change its play-calling with Hillman in the game. His injury was a big factor in Denver's defeat.

    Hillman ran for 330 yards in his rookie season but averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. He will also have to be much improved in pass protection, especially in Denver's no-huddle offense. If he's not, he'll rarely be subbed in. Still, Denver invested a high draft pick in him and will likely want to see what he's capable of in his second year.

    Ball, Johnson and Fannin will all be longshots to make anything more than the practice squad if Denver selects a running back in the draft, as expected.

    Ball is a good pass-catcher out of the backfield and that gives him the edge over Johnson and Fannin. Fannin is an interesting prospect, but he has missed the last two seasons with injuries in training camp. His NFL career may end without playing in a single game.

Wide Receiver

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    No. 1: Demaryius Thomas

    No. 2: Wes Welker

    No. 3: Eric Decker

    Fourth String: Gerell Robinson

    Fifth String: Andre Caldwell/Greg Orton/Trindon Holliday

    The Broncos will likely line up in three wide receiver sets regularly, so Thomas, Decker and Welker should all be considered starters.

    The signing of Welker changes the offense because of what he can do out of the slot. He has caught 100 passes or more in a season five times in his career.

    Brandon Stokley played well for the Broncos last season, making 45 catches for 544 yards and five touchdowns. Welker could easily double that output.

    Gerell Robinson is a guy who was part of the team last year but was part of the final cuts in camp. He was signed to a futures contract after the season and will be given a chance again next year.

    Not only should Robinson make the team, he should be the No. 4 receiver. At 6'4", he provides a big target that can get behind the opposing secondary. Look for Robinson to emerge in preseason.

    The final backup spot would go to either Greg Orton or Andre Caldwell, who was very disappointing last season.

    Caldwell had just one reception for 18 yards after signing with Denver as a free agent last year. Orton has been in camp with the team the last couple years but hasn't cracked the main roster. It's possible that Denver selects a wide receiver in the draft, realizing it could find a better option than both of these players.

    Holliday could be used in some wide receiver sets as well, but he is in no danger of not making the team due to his incredible skills in the kick return game.

Tight End

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    Starter: Jacob Tamme

    Second string: Joel Dreessen

    Third String: Virgil Green

    Fourth String: Julius Thomas

    The tight end position may not be as much of a focus next season due to the addition of Welker.

    Tamme and Dreessen will likely see equal playing time as Tamme is the better receiver, especially after the catch, but Dreessen is more valuable as a blocker.

    Together, they combined for 93 receptions last season, both playing their first years in Denver.

    Virgil Green and Julius Thomas are two players that will need to step up if they want to make the team next year.

    Green had five receptions for 63 yards on the season while Thomas didn't have a single catch and was on the inactive list most of the season.

    Green still has some upside, but Denver has so many options in the receiving game that he could become a camp casualty. It's hard to imagine a scenario where Thomas will make the team.

Offensive Line

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    Starters: Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, J.D. Walton, Louis Vasquez, Orlando Franklin

    Backups: Chris Clark, Manny Ramirez, Philip Blake, Chris Kuper, Paul Cornick

    Third String: Justin Boren (guard), C.J. Davis (center)

    Fourth String: Quentin Saulsberry (center)

    The tackle positions are both pretty clear cut with Clady and Franklin, as is the left guard spot where Zane Beadles is becoming a very good player.

    The questions start at center where the Broncos apparently won't be bringing Dan Koppen back. J.D. Walton will be given every chance to be the starting center after missing most of last season with an ankle injury.

    Behind Walton, the Broncos have three other centers. Philip Blake, C.J. Davis and Quentin Saulsberry will likely battle for the backup position. Blake might have a slight edge there, but the position could go to any of the three players.

    At right guard, the signing (courtesy of Denver Post) of Louis Vasquez is likely an indication that the team doesn't believe Chris Kuper will ever recover from injuries that ended his 2011 season and limited him to just seven games in 2012.

    Manny Ramirez, who started 11 games for Denver would start as the primary backup going into training camp with third-year player Justin Boren, who Denver signed to a futures contract in January, battling with him.

    It is possible that the Broncos will release Kuper, who is scheduled to make $4.5 million in 2013.

Fullback

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    Starter: Jacob Hester

    Once the Broncos decided not to tender a contract (denverchannel.com) to Chris Gronkowski, Jacob Hester became the lone fullback on the team.

    Hester was a late-season addition in 2012, signing with the team in late November after Willis McGahee went down with his injury.

    Hester was used sparingly, but he was very useful in short-yardage situations both as a blocker and a runner.

    Hester is a tough, gritty player who the Broncos can rely on to do the little things for them this season.

    They could bring another player in to give Hester some competition in camp, but there's really no need to as Hester fits perfectly on the team.

Defensive Line

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    Starters: Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson, Terrance Knighton, Jeremy Beal

    Backups:  Robert Ayers, Mitch Unrein, Sealver Siliga, Malik Jackson

    Third String: Ben Garland (defensive end)

    As Mike Klis of the Denver Post reported, it is now official that Elvis Dumervil will not be coming back to Denver, agreeing to a contract with the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Suddenly, a pass-rushing defensive end may be the Broncos' biggest need.

    Derek Wolfe had a strong rookie season even though defensive tackle is his most natural position. Wolfe had 40 tackles to go along with six sacks on the year.

    At the other end spot, it may seem surprising to see Jeremy Beal listed as the starter, but Robert Ayers is not the answer.

    Beal is a former seventh-round selection of the Broncos but he was once considered one of the best defensive prospects in the nation in 2011. The Broncos may like what they have in him or even Malik Jackson. If not, why were they so quick to let Dumervil go?

    Ayers has 6.5 sacks over his entire career, but he can be effective in certain situations. He is certainly not an every-down player, but if he is inserted at the right time, he can make a big play and that is how the Broncos need to use him.

    At the tackle position, the signing of Terrance Knighton was a big one. It allows the team to move on from Justin Bannan, giving it a solid young player who is great in run defense and also has the ability to get after the quarterback.

    Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio originally helped bring Knighton to the NFL in Jacksonville, so his signing makes sense for a lot of reasons. Del Rio will be able to get the most out of him.

    Kevin Vickerson was re-signed (NBC Sports) to a two-year contract extension. With his ability to collapse the pocket, it allows guys like Wolfe and Von Miller to be that much more effective off the edge.

    However, with the Dumervil news, it is almost certain the Broncos bring in a defensive end through free agency. Former Indianapolis Colts star Dwight Freeney would be a good bet at this point.

Linebacker

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    Starters: Von Miller, Nate Irving, Wesley Woodyard

    Backups: Stewart Bradley, Steven Johnson, Danny Trevathan

    Third String: Joe Mays

    Though Von Miller has become one of the best defensive players in the entire league, the Broncos are still a little thin at the linebacker position.

    Miller and Woodyard are entrenched as starters. It was Woodyard's solid play last season that helped make the decision to release D.J. Williams easier. Woodyard finished the 2012 season with 117 tackles, 5.5 sacks and three interceptions.

    Middle linebacker is where the team has a hole to fill. Joe Mays started the 2012 season in the position, but spent much of the year on injured reserve, forcing the team to turn to 37-year-old Keith Brooking.

    Mays will likely be let go at some point, paving the way for a guy like Nate Irving or Steven Johnson to step up. At this point, a slight edge goes to Irving due to him being a third-round draft pick while Johnson was undrafted and has played primarily on special teams.

    Irving has just 12 career tackles, but the Broncos believe in his abilities. He'll have to show he has the strength to play the position, but it's his to lose right now.

Cornerback

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    Starters: Champ Bailey, Chris Harris

    Second String: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (nickel), Tony Carter

    Third String: Omar Bolden, Mario Butler

    After the debacle in the divisional round against Baltimore, it came as no surprise to see the Broncos add secondary help (Yahoo.com) once the free-agent signing period began.

    The signing of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sets the stage for what should be one of the most interesting battles in training camp. Will he be inserted as the starter over Chris Harris, who is a very effective nickel corner?

    Harris is one of the most underrated players in the entire NFL and his 2012 season is proof he should be a starter. Harris tallied 61 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

    But the team raced out pretty quickly to snag Rodgers-Cromartie. Did it do that just so he could be a backup? Either way, Harris or Rodgers-Cromartie will be effective as a starter or as a nickel defender.

Safety

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    Starters: Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter

    Second String: Mike Adams, David Bruton

    Third String: Blake Gideon, Duke Ihenacho

    People were calling for the head of Rahim Moore following the divisional round playoff loss to Baltimore, but aside from an incredible blunder, he had a good season. Moore totaled 72 tackles, one sack and one interception and will be a starter in 2012.

    Quinton Carter will have to prove he can put the knee injury that sidelined him for most of the 2012 season as well as some recent legal issues (Denver Post) behind him. If he can, he should be able to unseat Mike Adams for the other starting spot.

    Adams was second on the team with 80 tackles in 2012, but he struggled in coverage, especially against tight ends. Carter would be able to perform better than Adams in that area.

    Carter and Moore may not become Steve Atwater and Dennis Smith, but they could certainly form a talented young duo in the defensive backfield.

Special Teams

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    Kicker: Matt Prater

    Punter: Britton Colquitt

    Kick/Punt Returner: Trindon Holliday

    These positions are all but set in stone.

    Prater still has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, especially at altitude. He is coming off a season in which he went 26-of-32 on field-goal attempts, kicking four from 50 yards or more.

    Colquitt recently signed a contract extension after finishing third in the league last season with a 42.1 net yard average per punt.

    Trindon Holliday turned into one of the league's most dangerous return men last season, returning a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the regular season before bringing back one of each in the playoff game against Baltimore.

    If there is one knock on Holliday, it is his ball security, but teams probably won't want to give him many chances to bring a kick back next season.

    Denver would benefit from trying to find ways to get the ball in his hands on offense as well.