Grading the Denver Broncos' Final 53-Man Roster

Joe Rapolla Jr.Featured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2014

Grading the Denver Broncos' Final 53-Man Roster

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    After four weeks of preseason, the results are in. The Denver Broncos have trimmed their roster down to 53 men, and yet again, I did not make the team. 

    In all seriousness, however, the process of cutting an NFL roster down to only 53 players is one that is extremely taxing and difficult for the coaching staff. 

    Tough decisions must be made, and personal feelings must be disregarded. More often than not, there is no perfect answer. 

    After much deliberation, here is the Denver Broncos 53-man roster for the start of the 2014 NFL season, with analysis, breakdown and grades for each position. 

Quarterbacks

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    Ed Andrieski/Associated Press

    The sun rose this morning, and Peyton Manning is the Denver Broncos starting quarterback. 

    No surprises here, and no need to further analyze this position. Manning, the future Hall of Famer, is coming off a record-setting 55-touchdown season. He's the bread and butter of this organization right now, and his health and prowess are essential to Denver making another Super Bowl run this season. 

    Backing him up is third-year pro Brock Osweiler. The former Arizona Sun Devil looked great in preseason, yet every Broncos fan, and likely even Osweiler himself, is hoping that he doesn't leave the sideline this season. 

    Many people thought the Broncos would also keep Zac Dysert, who showed some serious flashes of potential this preseason, yet he was demoted to the practice squad. This decision is not a negative reflection on Dysert but simply a reality that the Broncos needed to round out their roster in other areas. 

    Grade: A+

Offensive Linemen

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos kept nine offensive linemen, and these big men have the important job of protecting quarterback Peyton Manning. If Manning goes down, the team goes down. 

    This squad is more than up for the job. The unit is full of talent, both young and old, and is welcoming left tackle Ryan Clady (pictured above) back from injury. 

    With Clady back and ready to go, Orlando Franklin can move back to left guard, the position where he most naturally excels. Rounding out the rest of the line will be Manny Ramirez at center, right guard Louis Vasquez and right tackle Chris Clark. 

    Three rookies made the squad as backups. Ben Garland, who showed off a lot of versatility this preseason, made the squad as the backup to both guards. Paul Cornick will back up Clady at the crucial left tackle spot, and third-round draft pick Michael Schofield will back up Chris Clark at right tackle. Rounding out the roster is veteran Will Montgomery, who will back up Ramirez at center. 

    Sixth-round pick Matt Paradis, a center, did not make the final roster, yet he signed to the practice squad. 

    Overall, this unit is experienced and athletic and poised to protect Manning better than last season, when he was sacked 18 times. 

    Grade: A-

Running Backs

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    Anderson (22) and Ball (28)
    Anderson (22) and Ball (28)David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The name to know in Denver is Montee Ball, and the sophomore and former Wisconsin Badger superstar is looking for a big breakout season. 

    Expectations are certainly high for Ball, and while the bar has been set so high that it would be easy for him to disappoint, he has the chops to live up to the potential. Many foresee Denver utilizing a more balanced attack this season that involves a greater reliance on the running back, and Ball's skills as a dual-threat player will mesh well with quarterback Peyton Manning. 

    Backing up Ball will be third-year runner Ronnie Hillman—who has been a contributor for the Broncos the past two seasonsC.J. Anderson and undrafted rookie Juwan Thompson. 

    Thompson, the former Duke Blue Devil, beat out former Colorado State star Kapri Bibbs for the fourth running back spot. This competition was intense, as both rookies were impressive throughout preseason. Bibbs had the hometown support, yet in the end, Thompson had the edge the Broncos were looking for. 

    Bibbs will remain on the team's practice squad. 

    Grade: B+

Wide Receivers

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    UPDATE: Following the news of Wes Welker's four-game suspension, WR Nathan Palmer was moved up from the practice squad to the active roster. 

    ---

    If you're a fantasy football player and draft exclusively Denver Broncos' receivers, you'd probably wind up doing OK in your league. 

    Denver's receiving corps is nothing short of stellar. Led by superstar Demaryius Thomas, the squad includes veteran slot receiver Wes Welker, emerging star Emmanuel Sanders, second-round draft pick Cody Latimer, Andre Caldwell and undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse. 

    Thomas, who is coming off a season where he racked up 1,430 receiving yards and scored 14 touchdowns, will once again look to be one of the NFL's top receivers. 

    There is also a lot of hype around former Pittsburgh Steeler Sanders, who is new to Denver this year. He's shown flashes of brilliance during his four seasons in Pittsburgh, yet he hasn't really had the chance to shine. This year might be his breakout year, especially with Welker banged up and suspended for four games

    Sanders will likely find himself playing the slot role a bit more than he has in the past, and Latimer will look to emerge as this season's equivalent of Eric Decker, who is now a New York Jet. 

    Burse and Caldwell will contribute from time to time, yet their roles will mostly be centered on returning kicks and punts. 

    There's no question that with some new faces in town and Welker out for four games this receiving corps is dealing with some change and adversity, yet with the talent that exists and Manning throwing the football, I don't see this unit being the problem child this season. 

    Grade: A

Tight Ends

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Julius Thomas, who broke out for the Broncos and many fantasy football teams last season, will once again be the first-string tight end. 

    Thomas collected 65 receptions last year, racking up 788 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing two games to injury. Quarterback Peyton Manning loves him, and his size and athleticism make him a great red-zone target. 

    Backing him up are Jacob Tamme, who was teammates with Manning with the Indianapolis Colts, and Virgil Green, who is entering his fourth season with the team. 

    The health and sustainability of Thomas are definite concerns, but with Tamme playing backup and already being very familiar with Manning, this position shouldn't give the Broncos any issues this season. 

    Grade: A-

Defensive Linemen

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos defensive line was very average last season. 

    The unit collected 41 sacks and gave up 101.6 rushing yards per game. These figures aren't awful, but they aren't impressive either. 

    This season, the Broncos will happily welcome back defensive end Derek Wolfe, who missed a large part of last season dealing with some bizarre and unfortunate medical conditions

    His return, along with the addition of former Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Marvin Austin, should strengthen this unit as a whole. 

    Rounding out the roster are defensive ends Malik Jackson and Quanterus Smith and defensive tackles Terrance Knighton, Mitch Unrein and Sylvester Williams. 

    The starting lineup will likely feature Wolfe and Ware as the ends with Knighton and Williams in the tackle spots. Williams will look to cement himself as a franchise player with a strong sophomore season, and the veteran Knighton will look to continue his strong player and remain a leader in the locker room

    Notably off the roster is defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, whom the Broncos parted ways with last week. Vickerson was a solid contributor in Denver throughout the last four seasons, yet Father Time is working against him. The 31-year-old could not match up to Austin, who has been receiving rave reviews

    Overall, this new-look defensive line will be an improvement over last season's squad. Expect better run defense, more quarterback pressure and more sacks. 

    Grade: B+

Linebackers

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    If there is one unit that Denver should be concerned about, it's the linebacking corps. 

    The unit, which wasn't anything close to stellar last season, has already been dealt a major blow; weak-side linebacker Danny Trevathan, who was the team's leading tackler last season, is out for at least the first four weeks of the season with a blown kneecap. 

    Brandon Marshall, (no, not the former Broncos' and current Chicago Bears' receiver) who played with the practice squad last season, will start in Trevathan's place. 

    This may not be ideal, but Marshall is getting votes of confidence, including from Trevathan. 

    As The Denver Post's Mike Klis reports, Trevathan "believes his weak-side linebacker position has been capably filled by Marshall." 

    Trevathan said of Marshall that he's "just a cool guy since he's been here. Coming from the bottom, I know how that feels. So when you get the opportunity, you've got to make the most of it. I'm proud of him. He went out there and balled. I can't wait to get out there with him."

    Also add to the "good news" category that strong-side linebacker Von Miller, one of the NFL's elite pass-rushers, is healthy and ready to go. Miller played only nine games last season, and his absence was dearly felt. 

    Nate Irving will remain the team's starting middle linebacker. Backing him up are Steven Johnson and rookie Lamin Barrow, whom the Broncos drafted in the fifth round of this year's draft. Seventh-round pick Corey Nelson and league sophomore Lerentee McCray round out the roster. 

    Overall, this unit has a lot of question marks, and while it won't be one of the strongest corps in the NFL, the defensive line appears poised to formidably protect the field, providing decent quarterback pressure and adequate support in pass and run coverage. 

    Grade: B-

Defensive Backs

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    When your team scores an average of 37.9 points per game, opponents are going to pass on you ferociously. When opponents pass on you ferociously, you give up a lot of yards and points. This is what happened to the Broncos last season, and no unit looked worse because of it than the defensive backfield. 

    Now, the Denver defensive backs were far from good in 2013, yet were they as bad as they looked? Absolutely not. 

    Nonetheless, the unit was a poor mix of old talent and young potential, and the result was an easily penetrable group that was exposed and exploited by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. 

    Fittingly so, no unit was more dissected and picked apart this offseason in Denver. Many players from last year's unit became unrestricted free agents. Safety Mike Adams signed with the Indianapolis Colts, and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Champ Bailey, who turned 36 this summer, was not re-signed, and neither was cornerback Quentin Jammer. 

    To fill these openings, the Broncos pursued defensive back free agents aggressively and eventually signed safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. In addition to defensive end DeMarcus Ware, these were Denver's biggest offseason signings, and they have the potential to improve the effectiveness of this unit. 

    Chris Harris Jr. is slated to start alongside Talib at cornerback, and they will be backed up by Kayvon Webster, Tony Carter, Omar Bolden and rookie Bradley Roby, whom Denver drafted with its first pick of this year's draft. 

    Ward will play the strong safety role, and Rahim Moore will start at free safety. Quinton Carter and David Bruton will back them up, respectively. 

    Safety Duke Ihenacho, who started every game for the Broncos last season, did not make the team. This is indicative of how drastically this unit has changed and, hopefully, how much it has improved.

    Don't expect a Seattle Seahawks-esque "Legion of Doom," but do expect the Broncos defensive backs to be more than just a group of guys who take the field, while Peyton Manning and the offense take a breather. 

    Grade: B

Special Teams

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Kickers don't usually cause too much adversity for an NFL team. Matt Prater became an exception this offseason.

    The Broncos kicker, who is considered one of the league's best, is suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season following a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. 

    Prater made 25 of his 26 field-goal attempts last season, including a 64-yarder, which is the longest in NFL history. Replacing him is no easy job, and the trying task falls to Brandon McManus. 

    I know little about McManus other than his name, but he showed great leg strength in the final preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys. ESPN.com's Jeff Legold reported that general manager John Elway is confident in McManus, calling him "our guy."

    This is a nice vote of confidence, yet I think everyone wants to see it to believe it. The good news is that Prater will be back after four games, or McManus will be so good that Prater will be looking for a job elsewhere. Either way, the Broncos should be OK with this change at a position that is usually stable. 

    Britton Colquitt will remain the team's punter and holder on field goals. Aaron Brewer returns as the long snapper, and receivers Isaiah Burse and Andre Caldwell will handle the bulk of the kick and punt return duties. I expect Burse in particular to excel here, serving as a formidable replacement for returner Trindon Holliday, who signed with the New York Giants in the offseason. 

    Grade: B

Overall Grade

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    Brennan Linsley/Associated Press

    Offense

    A more established run game. A healthier offensive line. Stellar receivers and tight ends. Peyton Manning. 

    Yeah, this is offense is going to be just fine. 

    Grade: A

     

    Defense

    A healthier and deep defensive line. A solid collection of above-average linebackers dealing with some injury. A totally revamped defensive backfield that includes young talent and proven skill. 

    The Denver defense will not be a top-five squad, but I do expect them to be in the top 10, which is an improvement from last season. The Broncos will still give up more points than most teams, but they will have an easier time staying on the field and will be more capable of supporting the team on those few Sundays when the offense doesn't have its usual juice. 

    Grade: B+

     

    Overall Team Grade

    Right now, I'd give the Broncos a solid A-minus.

    They have some vulnerabilities and question marks, yet they are without question the team to beat in the AFC and are poised for another division title, first-round bye and, in my mind, return to the Super Bowl. 

    Let's see if they live up to these lofty expectations. 

     

    All stats courtesy of NFL.com.

    Joe Rapolla Jr. is a Denver Broncos' Featured Columnist and Bleacher Report's Community Moderator. Email him compliments at jrapolla@bleacherreport.com.