Projecting Denver Broncos' Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason
The offseason is rolling along, and the Denver Broncos just wrapped up rookie minicamp on Sunday. Up next in the near future are offseason training activities, minicamp and then training camp.
They added quality talent through veteran free agency, the 2014 NFL draft and undrafted college free agency. This influx of talent has created question marks on the depth chart.
After the draft, general manager John Elway talked about the challenges of building the 53-man roster:
“We’re trying to do the best we can to find the best football players that can help us. And that tough day that we come to every year at the end of August where we have to cut down to 53 is the worst part about this business. What you want to do is you want to find the best players you can to create the competition and when you do that, then it makes all the players better on your football team and it makes you as a whole better as a team.”
The roster is full, but the pecking order is unsettled at certain positions. The Broncos have a few position battles that will be worth watching as the offseason progresses.
Here’s a look at the most heated roster battles for the Broncos this offseason.
Nate Irving Versus Steven Johnson Versus Lamin Barrow
The Broncos went into this offseason with a need at middle linebacker. They had interest in a few veteran free agents like D’Qwell Jackson, Jon Beason and Daryl Smith, but they were unable to sign any of them.
Many expected them to address the position with a premium pick in the 2014 NFL draft—and they tried to do just that. Denver wanted to move up for C.J. Mosley, but they were unable to find a reasonable deal.
The Broncos enter this offseason with Nate Irving as the most likely starter at middle linebacker. The 2011 third-round pick has been groomed for the position during his time with the Broncos. He failed to win the starting job in training camp last year, but he did fill in nicely for an injured Von Miller as the strong-side linebacker late in the season.
Before the draft, Elway supported Irving as a middle linebacker.
“We feel pretty good about [LB] Nate [Irving], especially on first and second down. When we look at it, we’re more concerned on third down—the nickel ‘backer on third down. We have several options there. [S] T.J. Ward can step down in the box, does a tremendous job in the box, so he could be that nickel ‘backer.”
After the first two days of the draft concluded, Elway restated his belief in Irving.
“Like I said, we’ve been comfortable with Nate the whole time. We drafted Nate as a ‘Mike’ linebacker three years ago, and like I said, we filled that position on first and second down the last couple of years, and I’m sure Nate will step up to that challenge.”
On the third day of the draft, the Broncos finally added a middle linebacker when they selected Lamin Barrow in the fifth round. He has standout ability in coverage because of his length, athleticism and nose for the ball.
He needs work as a run defender, but he added about 10 pounds of muscle since the 2014 Reese’s Senior Bowl in order to hold up better against the run. Barrow is going to get a chance to compete for the starting job at middle linebacker.
Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio talked about him.
“From what I see right now, he’s (Barrow) got plenty of size. He’s got room to grow. He’s a guy that at LSU was allowed to wear number 18, which is significant there for their program. That means he’s a guy that does things right. A team leader, a guy that you can count on. We expect him to come in here and compete and earn his way.”
A sleeper candidate for the middle linebacker job is third-year pro Steven Johnson. He’s been a strong player on special teams and is known as a sound tackler. If he can prove himself in coverage, he could be a surprise starter at the position.
Michael Schofield Versus Chris Clark
Last year Chris Clark spent most of the season as the starting left tackle. The Broncos turned to him after Ryan Clady was lost for the year due to a Lisfranc injury in the Week 2 game against the Giants.
With Clady back in the lineup, the team is looking at moving Clark to right tackle. The spot was vacated because last year’s starting right tackle Orlando Franklin is sliding inside to play left guard.
Earlier this week, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase talked about Clark competing for a new starting job:
“He’s competing at that spot with a couple other guys. I think if he does what he’s shown us last year, he’s going to have a good shot of competing and maybe taking over that spot. But as for right now, I can’t say, ‘Hey, he’s our automatic starter.’ We’ve got some good players that we’ve brought in or are returning that are going to compete for that right tackle spot.”
One player the Broncos added to the mix at right tackle was Michael Schofield, the team’s third-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft. He is a versatile player who started 10 games at left guard and 26 games at right tackle for the Michigan Wolverines.
He plays with a good combination of athleticism and power. He is a difficult player to move when he gets his feet set, and he anchors well as a pass-protector. His size and large wingspan make it difficult for defenders to get around him.
With an aggressive mentality, Schofield can also excel as a run-blocker. He plays with a mean streak and does a good job of playing within tight quarters.
Schofield needs to improve his ability as a “sticky” blocker at the second level. He will struggle with latching onto defenders when asked to make blocks on the move.
Clark is not as ferocious as Schofield, but Clark has the experience to give him an edge in the competition. Earlier this week, Schofield talked about the biggest difference from college to the pros:
“Just how complex the playbook is. It’s just totally different than what it was at Michigan. Michigan, it was pretty much zone left, zone right, you know exactly what you’re doing. Here, like pass pro is my biggest thing, because at Michigan it was pretty simple, and here, you’ve got to figure out what the ‘Mike’ is, and you’ve got to figure out if you’ve got the ‘Will’ or the ‘Sam.’ Just all stuff like that.”
Clark could be better off as the team’s swing tackle. The Broncos are looking for the best five starting offensive linemen, and Schofield may be able to start from Day 1.
Will Montgomery Versus Manny Ramirez
The Broncos made several big splashes in free agency this year. One move that did not get as much attention as others was the addition of veteran center Will Montgomery. His experience, ability and previous working relationship with head coach John Fox make him an intriguing addition.
Montgomery is a ninth-year player who appeared in 90 career regular-season games with 63 starts. He’s spent time with Carolina (2006), the New York Jets (2007-08) and Washington (2008-13). He entered the league as a seventh-round pick in 2006 for the Fox-led Panthers.
During his career, Montgomery has started 46 games at center, 10 at right guard and seven at left guard. He opened every possible game for Washington over the last three seasons, competing at center in all but two of those contests. In those 49 total games, he participated in 3,387 of 3,393 (99.8 percent) possible snaps on offense.
Manny Ramirez started every game at center for the Broncos last year. He was almost a starter by default, as the Broncos kept signing centers like Dan Koppen, Ryan Lilja and Steve Vallos. Koppen was lost for the season only a few days after signing, and the other two failed to impress—thus Ramirez became the starter.
He looked better at center than most thought, and through most games he did a good job. Ramirez is stout at the point of attack and anchors well against big defensive tackles. However, he lacks athleticism, and that holds him back when he’s facing penetrating tackles up front.
With Orlando Franklin moving to left guard, the team is looking to start the best offensive linemen. There’s a chance that if Ramirez loses the starting center position, he could transition back to his more natural position of guard. If Franklin struggles with his transition, then that could create an opportunity for Ramirez.
Ronnie Hillman Versus Himself Versus UDFA RBs
It’s a make-or-break season for third-year back Ronnie Hillman. A year ago, he sat atop the depth chart. He spent most of last offseason as the team’s first-string back.
Things fell apart for him during the preseason. Fumbling problems in the Seahawks and Rams games gave the team pause with him as the top runner. This opened the door for Knowshon Moreno to eventually win the starting job.
Hillman rotated with Montee Ball as the primary backup behind Moreno early last season. His speed was an asset, and the team used him as a change-of-pace back. However, another fumble—this time near the goal line against the Colts in Week 7—put him in the doghouse.
He was active for only two games after that fumble, and he was inactive for every postseason game—including the Super Bowl.
Unlike Moreno in 2012, Hillman did not work harder to get himself back into the good graces of the coaching staff during the time he was inactive. That lack of focus may be attributed to maturity issues. He has to grow up this year and take his job more seriously if he wants to play up to his potential.
Last week I asked offensive coordinator Adam Gase if this was a make-or-break season for Hillman.
“We’ve talked to him, [Running backs coach] Eric [Studesville] and myself, as far as, ‘Hey, this is a new start to the year. Whatever happened in the past, you’ve got to build off it. We’ve just got to start over.’ His goal is to become the best running back he can.”
Gase continued, “I can’t say make-or-break, because I don’t know what that is. He’s just got to come out, he’s got to work his butt off and make sure he puts himself in a great position to contribute this year.”
Hillman will have plenty of competition for spots on the depth chart. Gase also commented on the battle for spots behind Ball. “Right now, it’s an open competition for that spot—all those spots. So we need to see who is going to be the guy to step up.”
One of those players is second-year pro C.J. Anderson. He’s the only true power back, and he should be able to win the primary backup job. After that, there are probably two more positions up for grabs.
Hillman will have to compete with a few undrafted free agents that the Broncos added this year.
Kapri Bibbs was a standout player in 2013 for the Colorado State Rams. He rushed for more than 1,700 yards and scored a whopping 31 touchdowns last year. He is an efficient runner who wastes little motion with the ball in his hands.
He’s not the biggest or the fastest back, but he’s patient and will let blocks fully develop in front of him before hitting the hole. He obviously has a nose for the end zone, and he can bounce off would-be tacklers because of his elite balance.
Brennan Clay gives the team a big-play option at running back. He has incredible foot frequency that allows him to change direction without losing much speed. He is listed at only 200 pounds, but he’s determined enough to run between the tackles.
His footwork and quickness make him dangerous when he gets to the second level of the defense. Clay has been the most impressive back in my eyes during rookie minicamp. His quick-twitch ability has been on full display, and he has looked outstanding as a receiver out of the backfield.
Juwan Thompson is arguably the best pass-blocker of the team’s undrafted running backs this year. He’s a big back who has a similar playing style to former Falcons RB/FB Jason Snelling.
Thompson can grind down an opponent between the tackles. His strong lower body helps him effectively run in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
In addition to power running, he can contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. He’s a consistent receiver with soft hands who regularly looks passes into his hands.
Hillman has his work cut out for him this offseason. He has to prove that he can hold onto the rock, work hard and stay focused even if he’s not getting first-team reps. If he does that, he will get back into the good graces of the coaching staff.
However, if he struggles, any of the undrafted backs could overtake him on the depth chart.
Zac Dysert Versus Bryn Renner
Per general manager John Elway, the Broncos are preparing Brock Osweiler as their heir apparent at quarterback behind Peyton Manning. Before the draft, Elway talked about the team’s outlook with Osweiler:
“Our plan is that [QB] Brock [Osweiler] is going to be that next guy. That’s why we drafted him two years ago, and we’re thrilled with his progress up to this point. Fortunately, [QB] Peyton [Manning] has been Peyton for the past two years, so that’s been a pleasant surprise but also so has Brock."
Elway continued, "Brock’s really done a heck of a job and been patient and sat back and learned a lot, so we will deal with that problem at some point in time [and] hopefully it’s not a problem.”
Osweiler is clearly the quarterback of the future in the eyes of the franchise.
Behind him, the team has a couple of interesting developmental quarterbacks. These two players will compete for the third-string job behind Manning and Osweiler.
Zac Dysert was a seventh-round pick for the Broncos in the 2013 NFL draft. Coming out of college (Miami, Ohio), he was known as a strong-armed quarterback with decent athleticism. However, he was inconsistent on film, at the 2013 Senior Bowl and during his limited exposure with the Broncos last year.
He can make pinpoint throws on short and intermediate routes. He can even hit his targets in stride on passes that travel more than 20 yards.
His problem is consistency. Dysert will make a fantastic throw on one play and throw one in the dirt on the next play. He needs to be able to duplicate his success on certain throws if he wants to play up to his potential as a pro.
He made the 53-man roster last year with a decent showing in the final preseason game against the Cardinals. He threw one touchdown pass but was once again inconsistent—finishing the game below 50 percent accuracy.
He’s a frustrating prospect to watch because he has some good tools to work with. His mechanics aren’t terrible, but he can’t seem to put together a string of good throws and good decisions.
Dysert is known as a favorite of Elway, but that’s not enough to keep him around in 2014.
To push him for the third-string spot, the Broncos added Bryn Renner as an undrafted free agent this year.
He is not as athletic as Dysert, and his arm is not as strong either. Where he stands out more than Dysert is with his accuracy, consistency and aggression.
His arm is strong enough to make all the throws required in the NFL. Renner is an aggressive quarterback who loves to challenge a defense deep. He’s not afraid to take chances with the football, but that’s a double-edged sword.
He will make some mistakes due to his aggression, but this makes him no less aggressive. He’s constantly looking for the best way to attack a defense. He will check down if necessary, but only after he’s exhausted deeper reads.
While not a scrambler, Renner is athletic enough to climb the ladder in order to avoid pressure. Against better competition, he was more accurate than Dysert. Renner was also more accurate under duress as a collegian.
Whereas Dysert abandons his reads quickly to scramble, Renner will stand tall in the pocket to distribute the ball.
Renner has been a standout player every day during rookie minicamp. Compared to Dysert at this time last year, Renner is light years ahead. Dysert struggled during his first opportunity to practice with the Broncos and didn't make huge leaps and bounds during training camp.
During a strong wind on Friday's practice, Renner's passes were cutting through the air. He spins a tight football, and that makes it easier for the receivers to secure the ball.
He has also showed good pass placement on short and intermediate routes. He puts the ball in the best spot where his receivers can maximize their yards after the catch.
This is going to be an interesting battle to watch during training camp. Dysert has better natural tools and a year of experience in the Adam Gase offense. Renner has a skill set like a traditional pocket passer, and he’s a favorite of Manning.
If the race is too close to call, the team could keep Dysert on the 53-man roster and try to sneak Renner to the practice squad.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.