5 Denver Broncos with Exciting Upside in New or Expanded Roles
There are players on the Denver Broncos roster who should see their role expand this season. The Broncos have lost key players in free agency, and they’ve added some new starters from the open market as well. However, there are players on the roster who will be asked to “step up” in new or expanded roles in 2016.
“I think there are always changes that happen with your football team. You have to adjust to those things. John [Elway] does a great job. There is nobody more competitive then what he does and putting this football team together. I’ll go back and continue to say the most important thing is we have a good football team.”
The Broncos have worked hard behind the scenes to compile the talent necessary to win a Super Bowl. With a championship in 2015, the Broncos now have to maintain the level of success the fans have become accustomed to over the last few seasons. To do that, the team will need players to move around and play in different spots. They’ll also need players to do more than they ever have with greater production and a larger workload.
In this article, we look at five Broncos on the roster with exciting upside in new or expanded roles.
DL Darius Kilgo
The Broncos have big shoes to fill when looking at a replacement for Malik Jackson. It's a good thing they added defensive tackle Darius Kilgo last year with a sixth-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Kilgo is a mountain of a man with the natural ability to be a run-stuffer and eat up space inside.
Kubiak knows the team must look to replace Jackson, beginning with players already on the team:
“We have to see. [DE] Kenny [Anunike] is coming off injury. He’s been beat up for a couple of year and he’s got to get healthy. There are some things we can do with ‘Sly’ (NT Sylvester Williams and [NT Darius] Kilgo.”
Anunike has the strength and length to get after the quarterback from the edge. If healthy, he should get a chance to compete for the starting job. Williams has the ability to play outside at end or inside at tackle in the Wade Phillips defense. We might see him move outside if the coaches determine that Kilgo is better at nose tackle.
The Broncos head coach also praised the defensive staff: “Bill [Kollar] can be creative in there in how we play those guys. Obviously, we’ve got four guys on our roster right now that have played a lot of football for us. We’ve got to get better there in the draft and that’s something we plan on doing.”
We could see a different mix and rotation of talent to take Jackson's spot. The Broncos are likely to add a defensive lineman during the 2016 NFL draft in what is an incredibly deep and talented draft class. Replacing Jackson won’t be easy, but the Broncos have already set themselves up strongly by having quality reserves with upside already in place.
OL Ty Sambrailo
Last year in the second round of the draft, the Broncos made a move for a player some thought could be their left tackle of the future. Coming out of Colorado State, Ty Sambrailo was initially going to start for the Broncos at right tackle. Once Ryan Clady was lost for the season with a knee injury in minicamp, Sambrailo was moved over to left tackle for a crash course at the position.
Sambrailo had plenty of starting experience at left tackle in the Rams’ zone-blocking system, but making the jump from the Mountain West Conference to the NFL is a large step. The rookie did his best to impress until he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury after only a few weeks of the season.
With Sambrailo coming back from injury and Clady’s future with the team up in the air, the Broncos went out and added two free-agent offensive tackles to start on the outside. That means we’re likely to see Sambrailo moved inside to left or right guard in his second season.
Kubiak foresees an offensive line where competition has forged the best unit possible for 2016. According to the head coach, Sambrailo has been cleared for contact:
“Ty is ready to go. It’s just going to be a question—you know how OTAs are. There are certain things that you may not let guys do [like] hit sleds. We’ll see. I don’t know where he’s at. He’ll be out there.”
Kubiak appreciates the versatility Sambrailo brings to the table:
“Other than center, Ty could fit in and play anywhere. With what’s happened with our team here the last few weeks, obviously he would be a natural fit if he’s going to move inside, probably the guy to do that. We’ll see. We’ll see how it pans out.”
In just a couple of moves, the Broncos have a completely different look on the offensive line. The team needs Sambrailo to stay healthy and star inside after getting plenty of experience on the outside as a rookie last year.
TE Jeff Heuerman
The Kubiak system features the tight end position, and the Broncos will have a new starter there after releasing longtime Kubiak favorite Owen Daniels earlier this year. It seems like the plan at this time is to see what 2015 third-round pick Jeff Heuerman can do.
We didn’t get to see anything out of Heuerman last year as he suffered a season-ending knee injury only a few days into rookie minicamp. Had he stayed healthy, there’s a chance that the rookie could’ve been a lot more involved in the offense than some think.
Kubiak is excited to see what Heuerman can do at the pro level:
“We’re counting on him big time. You look at us releasing ‘O.D.’ (TE Owen Daniels)—and you never know what can happen there down the road—but when Jeff came in he was very impressive. We feel like Jeff can be a total tight end. He’s not [just] a receiver. We think he has the ability to do both (catch and block). He’s a very confident young man and he comes from a winning program (Ohio State). We are counting on him a great deal [along] with [TE] Virgil [Green]. It’s a big offseason for him and he’s worked really hard. He’s really been ready to go probably [since] a few months ago.”
The Broncos head coach clarified Heuerman’s availability for OTAs and minicamp this offseason: “Heuerman has been cleared about a month ago.”
Coming back from a knee injury, the Broncos could choose to ease Heuerman back into action. There’s no need to aggravate the injury, and the Broncos need to have Heuerman ready for training camp, where he could really strut his stuff.
The starting tight end is unknown at this time, but the team seems to believe in Heuerman. We could see Heuerman be the team’s leading receiver at the position in 2016, and in Kubiak’s system, that means the virtual rookie will be a big part of the offense.
ILB Todd Davis
With Danny Trevathan moving on in free agency, the Broncos need to find a new starter at weak-side inside linebacker to take his spot. Undrafted out of Sacramento State in 2014, Todd Davis began his career with the New Orleans Saints. After bouncing off and on the active roster a couple of times, the Broncos were quick to scoop up Davis off waivers when the Saints released him in the November of his rookie season.
Kubiak believes the Broncos have several different players to compete for Trevathan’s vacated spot. He also indicated there could be a change of sides for their inside linebackers:
“Todd and Corey [Nelson] are going to have an excellent opportunity to start. That’s the first thing. Big opportunity in their careers. I mean, we could actually flip-flop those guys and ‘B-Marsh’ could go to [former ILB] Danny’s [Trevathan] spot. That’s something that we talked about.”
Davis has a nose for the ball and can take down an opponent quickly and with natural violence. He’s not as quick in coverage as Trevathan is, so a move to strong-side inside linebacker would make some sense. The Broncos are likely to give him a shot at the starting job at both spots.
Besides Davis and Nelson, Kubiak also highlighted an intriguing prospect from their practice squad who could play a larger role this season:
“We have a really good young player in [ILB] Zaire Anderson who is another guy that was on our practice squad that you all have asked me about a few of times that we think a lot of. He’s got a chance to be a really good player. We need to get better there. We need to improve our competition, which we’ll do through the draft or however we go about it. Obviously those guys need to step up.”
I was impressed with Anderson last year during minicamp, OTAs and training camp. He has free safety-like coverage ability and does a good job diagnosing plays as they unfold in front of him. While Davis or Nelson could be considered the favorites to land Trevathan’s old spot, Anderson should not be forgotten in this mix.
RB C.J. Anderson
The language of the NFL is money, and the Broncos spoke loudly when they matched the Miami Dolphins' offer for running back C.J. Anderson. After losing key players in free agency like Malik Jackson and Brock Osweiler, the Broncos made the financial commitment to their starting—and hopefully bellcow—running back.
For two seasons in a row, Anderson has several weeks of quality production in the last half of the year. During that time, he’s been among the league leaders in yards per carry, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards after contact. Anderson has been productive in the last half of the season, but with a new contract in hand, the Broncos will need him to produce all season long.
Kubiak stressed the importance of keeping Anderson:
“It was important. C.J. played his best football at the end of the year. I think C.J. hasn’t even reached the heights he can reached. I think C.J. is really just getting started. Being in our system again, if C.J. can stay healthy and stay on the field for 16 weeks, I think he can be one of the top backs in the league—and I think he believes that. I think C.J. is a good, young player that has another level to reach and we’re going to do everything we can to get him there.”
Anderson has the ability and the system to be the league’s leading rusher.
It may seem outlandish to even suggest to some, but the Broncos clearly want Anderson to be their lead back and he’s in line to get a larger workload than he’s ever had in his college or pro career.
The Broncos have revamped their offensive line with the addition of tackles Donald Stephenson and Russell Okung in free agency. To play to the strength of the team—the defense—the Broncos should feature a strong rushing attack to help wear opponents down in 2016. Anderson has a chance at career-best numbers in 2016.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos' media department unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats via ESPN's employees-only database. Draft grades courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com.