Predicting the Last 5 In, Last 5 out for Denver Broncos' Final 53-Man Roster
The Denver Broncos are facing some tough decisions when trimming the final roster at the end of the preseason.
They had a strong team last year, reaching the Super Bowl only to fall short at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks. During free agency, they lost some talented players on both sides of the ball.
General manager John Elway and company worked diligently to replace those players with upgrades available on the open market. The scouting department also did an excellent job of finding talented players and good value picks in the 2014 NFL draft.
Training camp is set to begin at Dove Valley on July 24. The team will have about a month to decide which players make the team and which receive their walking papers.
With so much talent on this roster, some good players will wind up elsewhere in 2014.
Here are my predictions for the last five in and the last five out for the Broncos' 53-man roster.
In: Zac Dysert
The Broncos believe in Brock Osweiler as the backup to Peyton Manning and a potential future starter for this team. Behind Manning and Osweiler, the team is going to have a competition in training camp for the third-string spot.
A seventh-round pick in 2013, Zac Dysert will have to prove he’s worth holding onto in training camp. His competition for the developmental spot on the depth chart will be 2014 undrafted free agent Bryn Renner.
Dysert has a year of experience that Renner lacks in addition to a stronger arm and better athleticism. But he’ll struggle to look better than the rookie in accuracy and decision-making under pressure.
The NFL sometimes comes down to a numbers game, and this could help Dysert win the spot on the roster ahead of Renner. The team has a year’s worth of experience invested in Dysert, so it will be tough to throw that away if the race is close.
The Broncos might feel that Renner would be safe on the practice squad; therefore, they would essentially be able to keep four quarterbacks in 2014. Even though Dysert was a late-round pick, more than a few teams might be interested if he becomes available.
In: Kapri Bibbs
The Broncos don’t have a lot of experience at the running back position. Their top two backs, Montee Ball and C.J. Anderson, are both second-year pros with limited playing time. Third-string running back Ronnie Hillman is entering his third season, but he only has 139 carries so far in his career.
Behind those three are four undrafted free agents who are vying for the final spot in the running back corps. Three of them are rookies.
The top rookie from the Broncos' undrafted free agent class this year could be Kapri Bibbs.
He was a standout player for one year at Colorado State, rushing for more than 1,700 yards and scoring 31 rushing touchdowns. Even though he went undrafted, he has worked hard this offseason to prove that he belongs in the NFL.
He has shown that hard work and strong mindset on the practice field. He’s been impressive as a runner at minicamp, showing good burst and an extra gear when the ball is in his hands.
Bibbs has been most impressive as a receiver out of the backfield, which was a question mark for him after only catching eight passes last year for CSU. He brings in the ball cleanly and is showing good elusiveness in the open field.
He will have to beat out Jerodis Williams, Brennan Clay and Juwan Thompson for the fourth spot on the depth chart. At this time, Bibbs has to be considered the favorite to do just that.
In: Isaiah Burse
This team has an incredibly talented group of wide receivers. The starting trio of Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker may be the best in the game today. Behind those three is a rising star in rookie Cody Latimer and solid veteran Andre “Bubba” Caldwell.
Behind them has to be rookie undrafted free agent Isaiah Burse.
He caught 100 passes last year at Fresno State, and he’s a much better receiver than last year’s fifth-string wide receiver Trindon Holliday. Like Holliday, Burse is going to have to make the team on his ability as a return man. Unlike Holliday, Burse can actually be used as a reliable big-play pass-catching weapon on offense.
The rookie has the quickness to get open with ease. That quickness also makes him difficult to tackle after the catch or on a return. He has the speed to score any time he touches the ball; he might be the fastest player on the team.
Carrying a sixth wide receiver would mean the Broncos will have to be short at another position. A player like Burse is well worth that sacrifice at another spot on the depth chart.
In: Gerell Robinson
Earlier this year, the Broncos re-signed wide receiver Gerell Robinson from the practice squad. Upon doing so, the team quietly changed his position to tight end.
The cat was out of the bag in rookie minicamp, as he was the only tight end there during workouts. He received one-on-one guidance from tight ends coach Clancy Barone, and Robinson looked impressive when the team moved onto the offseason training activities and mandatory minicamp.
Robinson might be a bit slow to make an impact as a wide receiver. However, his speed and athleticism are perfect for that of a move tight end. In today’s NFL, move tight ends basically play like supersize wide receivers.
A former basketball star, he is trying to follow in the footsteps of starter Julius Thomas. Robinson knows how to use his size advantageously and will "box out" smaller defenders to keep them away from the ball. He’s also looked good in camp while catching passes "above the rim" in the end zone.
Both of these attributes could land him on the active roster for the first time in his Broncos career. He does need to improve his blocking technique, and that has been a point of emphasis for him and the coaching staff this offseason.
If Robinson makes the final roster as the fourth tight end, it will be behind Julius Thomas, Virgil Green and Jacob Tamme. All three are in the final year of their contracts, so Robinson could be looking at a much larger role in 2015.
In: Lerentee McCray
The Broncos have mixed things up in their linebacker corps this offseason. Nate Irving is going from a strong-side linebacker last season to a potential starter at middle linebacker this year. The team has to find a replacement for Irving as a reserve strong-side linebacker behind Von Miller.
Lerentee McCray is that player.
He almost made the final roster last year, but a thumb injury in the final preseason game forced the team to place him on season-ending injured reserve. His talent has never been in question, but nagging injuries could hold him back as a pro.
During his last two years in college playing for the Florida Gators, he missed five full games and parts of others due to injury. On the field he was a beast, showing well as a pass-rusher and setting the edge consistently as a run defender.
Last year in training camp, McCray was a standout player. This offseason it looks like he’s going to pick up where he left off.
With Von Miller recovering from the ACL injury he suffered in Week 16 against the Houston Texans last year, the opportunity has opened up for McCray to get more reps on the practice field.
It will be interesting to see him once the pads come on in training camp. If he can prove himself in coverage (a question mark in college), then he could make the team.
Going undrafted doesn’t mean you can’t play. McCray could be yet another stud the Broncos found after the draft.
Out: Marvin Austin
Talent isn’t the only skill necessary to make it in the NFL. Players who make it to the league must also stay healthy, work hard and play up to their potential if they want to stick around.
Marvin Austin is supremely talented, but injuries and inconsistencies have held him back as a pro.
Originally a second-round pick for the New York Giants in 2011, he had first-round talent, but there were question marks after he missed his final season at North Carolina due to alleged team and NCAA rules violations. He was a phenom during the week of practice for the East-West Shrine Game in early 2011, and that performance cemented him as a player with incredible upside.
He failed to live up to the hype with the Giants and quickly washed out. Stops with the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins didn’t change his fortune. Earlier this offseason, the Broncos decided to take a chance on Austin and signed him as a free agent.
During mandatory minicamp, Austin showed off his first-step explosion. There are no pads on during minicamp, but he looked quick out of his stance and powerful in his lower body.
There’s a real chance he could make this team. However, in order to do that he’d have to beat out a player like Mitch Unrein or perhaps even Kevin Vickerson.
Unrein is a seasoned veteran who can also play fullback to run-block or catch passes for the Broncos. Vickerson is coming back from the hip injury that cut his season short last year. “Big Vick” is a team-first guy and a veteran leader on the defense.
Austin has the talent to be a standout player in the NFL. It hasn’t all come together for him yet, and it could be close for him this year. We’ll see if Jack Del Rio can motivate him enough to make the final roster.
Out: Juwan Thompson
The running back position has a couple of open spots behind Montee Ball and C.J. Anderson. Denver has a nice mix of backs with different talents behind those two, but nobody can do everything like Juwan Thompson can.
He is a versatile back with a skill set to do anything a team needs. He’s big enough to run between the tackles, and he can be an effective short-yardage and goal-line rusher. He can push the pile and punish defenders who try to stop him.
He’s a fine receiver out of the backfield with soft hands and good concentration. He will regularly pluck the ball out of the air with two hands, and he actually has a few moves after the catch when needed.
Thompson is fantastic as a pass-blocker. That’s probably his greatest asset as a football player, and he’s arguably the best back on the team in this category. Pass protection is huge on every team but especially on a team with Peyton Manning under center.
It’s crazy to consider, but Thompson could even switch sides and play a little defense if necessary. In addition to playing running back at Duke, he also lined up at safety for the Blue Devils as a senior.
Broncos head coach John Fox has a long history of working well with this type of back. ‘Tweener running back/fullbacks like Brad Hoover and Nick Goings played well under Fox during his days with the Carolina Panthers.
Thompson is a similar player, but he might get caught up in the numbers crunch for the Broncos. If he doesn’t make the final roster, then the Broncos would be wise to find a spot on the practice squad for the versatile rookie.
Out: Jordan Norwood
A player who is deserving of more attention is veteran wide receiver Jordan Norwood. He was a standout player during offseason training activities and mandatory minicamp, but he’s buried on the roster and is a long shot to make the team.
Coming out of Penn State in 2009, he was a standout player during the week of practice for the Texas Versus the Nation Game. The skills he showed off in El Paso matched what he showed on film for the Nittany Lions. In college he had to share the spotlight (and targets) with talented receivers like Derrick Williams and Deon Butler.
Both of those players are done playing in the NFL, and neither did much as a pro. Norwood is still fighting to prove that he belongs—and he does. It just may be difficult to find a spot for him on a roster with an incredible level of talent at the wide receiver position.
During the offseason when quarterbacks like Brock Osweiler or Zac Dysert have looked good in team drills, it was often Norwood on the receiving end of their passes.
He has always had incredible body control and concentration. This allows him to adjust to poorly thrown passes and work the sideline or back of the end zone.
A coach’s son, Norwood is a precise route-runner who can regularly set up defensive backs to make them look silly on underneath routes. He is not the biggest guy (5’11”, 180 pounds) and won’t win many contested passes—that’s why getting open cleanly is so important to his game.
When working out of the slot, he can go in motion to get a clean release off the line of scrimmage. Once in his route, he deftly counts steps to trick defensive backs into guessing where he’s going.
Originally an undrafted free agent for the Cleveland Browns, Norwood has bounced around to the Philadelphia Eagles, back to Cleveland, then to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and now with the Broncos. His best season as a pro came in 2011 when he caught 23 passes for 268 yards and one touchdown for the Browns.
Because of his time spent on the active roster in Philadelphia and Cleveland, Norwood might be out of practice squad eligibility. It would be a shame to see him cut, but he has little chance of making this team unless someone ahead of him on the depth chart gets hurt.
Out: Vinston Painter
They call it the NFL or “Not For Long” for a reason. Players have to perform under high levels of competition and stand out if they want to stick around in the pros.
Vinston Painter was a fifth-round pick by the Broncos in the 2013 NFL draft. He didn’t make the final roster last year, but they ended up placing him on the practice squad when he cleared waivers at the end of the preseason.
He stayed on the practice squad for the entire regular season as a rookie. However, the Broncos signed him to the active roster in January during their playoff run.
This offseason, we’ve barely seen much from Painter on the practice field. The team has a tackle-heavy roster, and it’s difficult to find a bunch of reps for a player who is buried on the depth chart.
Orlando Franklin moved inside to guard this offseason, but the team still has a quality reserve tackle in veteran Winston Justice behind likely starting right tackle Chris Clark. In addition to Justice, the Broncos went out and added another tackle in Michael Schofield—a third-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
Throw in guys like Ryan Miller, Paul Cornick and Aslam Sterling and you can see why Painter is not getting much time to prove himself.
The team would like to keep him around as it has a year’s worth of time with him already. However, if he can’t prove in training camp that he’s better than the players listed above, then we could see the Broncos quickly move on.
Out: Joel Dreessen
Cutting Joel Dreessen could be the toughest decision the Broncos are faced with when paring down to the final roster. If Gerell Robinson emerges as a sleeper at the tight end position, then the team is going to find it difficult to keep Dreessen around.
He is a talented all-purpose tight end and a favorite of the coaching staff. In 2013 he battled through a knee injury that lingered for most of the season and was barely used on game day. He finished the season with only seven catches for 47 yards and one touchdown.
Sometimes (all the time?) it comes down to money in the NFL.
He has approximately a $3.1 million cap number in 2014. That is a large number for an injury-prone veteran who is buried on the depth chart. What makes him an even bigger candidate for release is the fact that he’s only got around $665,000 in dead money owed to him this year.
The Broncos could release him and free up around $2.5 million in cap space to use on another player. With contract negotiations ongoing for superstars like Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas, every penny is critical for the Broncos this year and in the future.
The team would have already cut ties with Dreessen had they not felt he could make the roster. Even though he’s not the same player he used to be, his ability as a blocker, receiver and red-zone threat is valuable—and his price tag isn’t exorbitant.
After the Super Bowl, as the players cleaned out their lockers, the room felt heavy with emotion. One player who was especially pissed off was Dreessen. He was upset with his season and the way things went down against Seattle.
Dreessen could barely contain his emotion when he talked about staying in Denver.
“I certainly hope I’m not done. I’m going to fight my butt off to play again. Obviously how this season kind of ended as far losing in the Super Bowl and not contributing as much as I would have liked, does not sit well with me. So I’ve got to fight to correct that.”
It’s going to be tough to cut Dreessen, but logic and financial implications trump emotional ties to players. Broncos fans may be forced to say goodbye to a fine veteran.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.
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