Denver Broncos: Questions That Still Must Be Answered This Preseason
When they return, camp cuts will begin.
They will have learned more about their squad after the second preseason game, but there are still plenty of questions to be answered before the start of the regular season. Finding the proper talent to populate the 53-man roster is a difficult task each year.
Next week, the Broncos will be holding joint practices with the Houston Texans. They then play the Texans in the dress rehearsal for the regular season aka Week 3 of the preseason.
That week of practice and that game (where the starters can play into the second half) will help determine and shape the roster. Many things are up in the air for the Broncos right now, but there’s still time left—and three games—in the preseason.
Here are five questions that still must be answered for the team this preseason.
Who Fills in for Danny Trevathan?
At Dove Valley on Tuesday, weak-side linebacker Danny Trevathan suffered a left medial tibial impaction fracture. This knee injury will force him out of the lineup for around six to eight weeks. The Broncos are likely to be without Trevathan for the first three games of the season, and hopefully they can get him back after their Week 4 bye.
In the meantime, who fills in for Trevathan? There are two possibilities at this time.
Third-year pro Brandon Marshall is the next man up. Marshall was originally a fifth-round draft pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012, but he was released more than once and eventually picked up by the Broncos in 2013.
Marshall feels confident that he can perform with a larger opportunity.
“I’m very confident. Confidence is a big part of this game and I know I have the skill set; I have the mind to do it. So it’s just a matter of the opportunity. So if I ever have the opportunity, I will get it done.”
Marshall is an aggressive player with a nose for the football. He arrives at the play with natural violence, and he’s known as a forceful tackler and intimidator on the football field.
The other option is rookie fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow. Coming out of LSU, Barrow was known mostly as a fantastic weak-side linebacker who stood out on film because of his ability in coverage. The Broncos had been working him at middle linebacker ever since adding him to the roster, but after the Trevathan injury he received weak-side reps with the second team.
Marshall has a bit more experience, and he’s a better run defender. Barrow is better in coverage and has better overall athleticism.
The rest of the preseason will determine who starts for the Broncos at weak-side linebacker while Trevathan is out.
Who Makes the Team at Running Back?
Starting running back Montee Ball is currently being held out of practice (and preseason games) as he recovers from an appendectomy he had earlier this month. Backup running back C.J. Anderson was concussed in the first preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, and he has yet to return to practice.
The Broncos running back situation is a bit of a mess right now.
Ronnie Hillman is the lead back at this time, and he’s nearly a lock to make the final roster. Hillman scored a touchdown against the Seahawks last week—and more importantly—he held on to the rock. His speed and quickness make him a decent option as a change-of-pace back behind Ball.
Anderson is a power back with more quickness and speed than people think. The biggest runs of training camp have come courtesy of Anderson. He’s swift, patient and has good vision when toting the rock. He needs to get back on the practice field if he wants to make the final roster, but the team is wisely being cautious as he works through the NFL’s protocol for dealing with concussions.
Undrafted rookie Juwan Thompson is currently the fourth running back on the roster. Coming out of Duke, Thompson was known as a versatile running back/fullback ‘tweener with an all-purpose skill set. He’s arguably the best pass-blocking back on the roster, and he has the size to be used effectively as a short-yardage back.
Another undrafted rookie, Kapri Bibbs, is trying to make the team after a standout season for Colorado State in 2013. Like Hillman, Bibbs scored a touchdown against the Seahawks, but he fumbled after he broke the plane of the end zone. Bibbs has good balance as a runner—and he’s a better receiver than he was originally given credit for—but the rookie has to secure the rock if he wants to make the 53-man roster.
Two more undrafted backs, Brennan Clay (2014) and Jerodis Williams (2013), round out the running back corps. Clay is a decent change-of-pace back, but he’s recently been struggling with dropped passes in practice. Williams is a swift runner, but he’s barely been getting reps with the third-team offense.
Ball is a lock to make the final roster, and Hillman should make it too. Anderson is next in line for a job, but he needs to get back on the practice field. After that, the front-runner has to be Thompson at this time.
The Broncos will use the rest of the preseason to establish a pecking order at running back. Time will hopefully clear up the mess they have right now.
Who Wins the Nickel Cornerback Spot?
The Broncos made a big move in free agency when they added veteran cornerback Aqib Talib. He’s going to team up with former college teammate Chris Harris Jr. to give the Broncos a pair of quality cornerbacks.
Behind those two, the Broncos have a pair of young cornerbacks competing for the nickel cornerback job.
Kayvon Webster is a second-year pro who received plenty of experience last year as a rookie. Coming out of South Florida in 2013, Webster was known as a fast corner with a physical style. Webster filled in a lot for the Broncos as guys like Harris and Champ Bailey battled injuries during the season and during the playoffs.
Bradley Roby was the first-round pick for the Broncos this year. At Ohio State, Roby earned a reputation as a playmaker because of his speed and nose for the ball. These attributes help him make plays as both a pass and run defender.
The Broncos spent around 65 percent of their defensive snaps last year in the nickel. This means the third cornerback is crucial for the team. He’s essentially a starter for the squad.
Webster has the experience, and he’s a player who worked out this offseason in Dallas, Texas under the guidance of Harris. Even though he’s new to the team, Talib has noted Webster’s upside.
I interviewed Talib on Wednesday on my ESPN radio show in Denver, and he praised Webster for his ability. “Kayvon is ready to guard whoever, and he knows his plays. He’s ready to go.”
Talib also shared his observations on Roby. “I see a bunch of confidence coming from him. He definitely goes out and competes every day.”
Webster has to be considered the front-runner at this time, but Roby could make a push if he continues to compete at a high level.
How Many Receivers Do They Keep?
Denver has one of the most talent-rich wide receiving corps in the league. With Peyton Manning at quarterback, the Broncos have arguable the most dangerous passing game as well.
There seems to be five wide receivers who are locks to make the final roster.
Demaryius Thomas is a superstar, and he’s the favorite target for Manning. Emmanuel Sanders was added in free agency to replace Eric Decker, and offensive coordinator Adam Gase is being very creative with the way he’s using Sanders. Wes Welker is still one of the best slot receivers in the game.
Behind the “Big Three” at receiver, there is savvy veteran Andre “Bubba” Caldwell. He’s arguably the fastest player on the team, and he can fill in at multiple positions if need be. Last year he filled in for an injured Welker, while this year at the start of camp he played the “Z” for Denver while Thomas attended the funeral of his grandmother.
Then there’s 2014 second-round pick Cody Latimer. The Broncos rookie has a fantastic size-speed combination. He’s been looking fantastic in training camp, and his future looks incredibly bright at the pro level.
That leaves potentially one spot open on the depth chart.
Jordan Norwood is currently in that position. The former Penn State star came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He’s bounced around the league a bit, but did get some playing time with the Cleveland Browns in 2011 and 2012. Norwood has no practice squad eligibility left, so he has to make the final roster if he wants to stay in Denver.
The Broncos have a couple of undrafted rookie wide receivers trying to make the roster as well.
Isaiah Burse quickly became a player the media was abuzz about during rookie minicamp earlier this year. He caught 100 passes last year at Fresno State, and Burse has the quickness to make plays as a return man. In practice at training camp, Burse has been struggling as both a receiver and returner.
Bennie Fowler is big and fast. Measuring in at 6’1”, 217 pounds, there's some flashes of Anquan Boldin to his game. However, Fowler has been dropping too many passes during training camp.
Neither Fowler or Burse looks like they’re going to make the 53-man roster. Perhaps one or both could be placed on the practice squad as a developmental prospect.
Norwood has looked good as a receiver, and he caught a 34-yard touchdown from Brock Osweiler in the preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks. He can also work as a capable return man, so he might be the player the Broncos keep around as a sixth wide receiver in 2014.
Which Defensive Linemen Get Cut?
It wasn’t that long ago that the Denver Broncos had a poor defensive line which was devoid of talent. Over the last couple of years, the Broncos have worked hard to improve the players in the trenches on the defensive side of the ball.
At defensive end, we should see guys like DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe and Quanterus Smith make the 53-man roster. Undrafted rookie defensive end Kenny Anunike could make the team as a practice squad player.
The real competition for roster spots is at defensive tackle.
Terrance Knighton has become a star for the Broncos. He’s had a career resurgence after getting benched for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012. “Pot Roast” is a fan favorite and a lock to make the final roster as the team’s best run-stuffer.
Sylvester Williams is also a lock. The 2013 first-round pick has worked hard to develop his pro game. He’s quick off the line of scrimmage, has the strength to take on double-teams and has a good closing burst to get to the quarterback.
Kevin Vickerson is a team-first guy who was a solid player for the Broncos last year before a hip injury ended his season. He’s working his way back now, and if healthy, he should be able to make the team.
Mitch Unrein has a blue-collar work ethic. He’s worked well as a reserve defensive tackle, and Unrein will sometimes line up on the offensive side of the ball in the backfield as a fullback.
Marvin Austin was added as a free agent earlier this year. Talent has never been a question with the former second-round pick (2011) of the New York Giants. If healthy and motivated, Austin has an elite skill set that would be a great asset for the Broncos.
If the Broncos only keep four defensive tackles, then this battle will come down to Unrein versus Austin.
Either would be great fits for the Broncos. Unrein is a favorite of the coaching staff because of his willingness (and ability) to do anything that’s asked of him. However, Austin has the better skill set and the highest upside.
In a perfect world, the Broncos could keep both. With their newfound depth and talent on the defensive line, they might have to make the tough decision and let one of them go.
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.