Denver Broncos: 5 Things to Watch for During the Preseason

Baily Deeter@@deetersportsSenior Writer IIIAugust 5, 2014

Denver Broncos: 5 Things to Watch for During the Preseason

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    Training camp practices play a role in the assembling of an NFL roster, but the preseason games are where jobs are won and lost.

    This year should be no different for the Denver Broncos. The team will face elite, deep teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, which, even in the preseason, will challenge Denver.

    The best players will separate themselves and earn roster spots, and roster battles will shake out. But which roster spots are at stake, and what should fans be looking for in these games?

The Performance of the 2013 Draft Class

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams didn’t do much last year. This year, however, the defensive tackle is ready to break out.

    He started down the stretch last year, but only because Kevin Vickerson was injured. This year, though, he has impressed during training camp. He's likely to start in 2014, which is why he is penciled in as a starter on the depth chart.

    However, there is intense competition at defensive tackle. Vickerson could start, and Marvin Austin has been phenomenal during training camp, per Scotty Payne of Mile High Report. Williams will be able to secure a starting job in the preseason, when we'll be able to see whether he's truly taken strides from last year.

    As for the rest of the draft class, the Broncos have high hopes. Unfortunately, according to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, an appendectomy will likely force running back Montee Ball to miss the preseason.

    The second-round pick should be ready for Week 1, but he likely won’t play before than. There are other standout players from the 2013 class to look for, though.

    According to Sayre Bedinger of Predominantly Orange, cornerback Kayvon Webster has stood out so far. The former third-round pick is competing for snaps in the nickel package, and he's likely to start in the preseason, with rookie Bradley Roby still learning and underrated Chris Harris recovering from injury.

    Fifth-round defensive end Quanterus Smith is recovering from an ACL tear, but he has done well and has even received first-team reps. His progress will be worth monitoring, as he could make an impact as a sack specialist and rotational pass-rusher.

    Guard Vinston Painter and quarterback Zac Dysert round out the group. Painter didn't play last year, but the raw, athletic lineman could make the team after developing on the practice squad last year.

    As for Dysert, it will be interesting to see if he has improved from his rookie season. According to Klis of The Denver Post, Dysert was impressive during the team's summer scrimmage on Saturday.

    Most of these players will have some kind of role this season. It should be fascinating to see whether the hype is warranted in the preseason.

Backup Running Backs

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Montee Ball is penciled in as the starter. However, the depth behind him is also very important, especially with the news of his appendectomy.

    Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson, Brennan Clay, Kapri Bibbs, Juwan Thompson and Jerodis Williams are the team's other running backs. Hillman was the starter at this point last year, but he literally and figuratively fumbled the job away.

    Anderson ran for 38 yards on seven carries last year, showing potential for the future. He runs with intensity and is hard to bring down, even though he's just 213 pounds.

    According to Bleacher Report's Cecil Lammey, Anderson has received first-team reps. Hillman, however, came ahead of Anderson on the depth chart, per the team's official website. It will be interesting to see who starts in the preseason and how he fares against top-notch defenses.

    After Hillman and Ball, there is heated competition for the final running back spot.

    Three of the remaining four running backs are rookies. Clay, Thompson and Bibbs were signed after the NFL draft, and they appear to be competing directly for the final spot (Williams has little chance of making the team).

    The team’s depth chart lists Thompson as the fourth running back. Both Clay and Thompson have showed promise in the passing game, which is critical in Denver.

    Bibbs, who scored 31 touchdowns last year (albeit against mediocre competition), still has a chance to win the job, though. He's listed as fifth on the depth chart.

    Nothing will be decided until the games, though. There, all three rookies will receive an opportunity to state their case.

Punt Returners

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    Former Broncos return man Trindon Holliday returned just one punt for a touchdown last year, and he fumbled five times in a span of just nine games. This year, the Broncos want increased ball security at the position.

    Luckily, there are a host of candidates to replace Holliday. Isaiah Burse, Jordan Norwood, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker, Andre Caldwell and Omar Bolden are all possibilities.

    Burse returned two punts for touchdowns at Fresno State last year, and he only had 21 returns. He also didn't fumble. Norwood has NFL experience returning punts, but he's only returned four punts (for a respectable 35 yards).

    Sanders and Welker also have experience, but both will play a huge role in the offense this year. The Broncos would rather not use Sanders or Welker as a punt returner to avoid the risk of injuries.

    However, if neither Norwood nor Burse steps up, Denver might have to. It currently has Welker listed as the top punt returner on its depth chart, with Norwood coming in second ahead of Burse (to the surprise of some).

    We won't know if the Broncos are serious about trotting out Welker, who cost the team a critical game last year with a miscue against the New England Patriots, to return punts until the games start, though.

    Look for Welker, Burse and Norwood to alternate returning punts and try to cement their status as the starting returner during the preseason.

Depth on the Defensive Line

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Defensive tackle Marvin Austin has always had the talent to succeed in the NFL. But now, he's finally displaying it consistently.

    Mile High Report ranked Austin as the third-most surprising star of camp, which could even be selling the athletic freak short. He has had his way with backup offensive linemen, and the Broncos coaching staff has taken notice.

    In fact, he even received first-team reps during Wednesday's practice.

    However, he will face immense competition at defensive tackle. Williams and Terrance Knighton are locks to make the roster, and Vickerson is close to a sure thing as well.

    Mitch Unrein, who also plays fullback in some short-yardage situations, has been with the team for three years and would be a difficult cut.

    The Broncos should be forced to keep nine defensive linemen like they did in 2012 due to the heated competition and tremendous depth. In fact, if rookie defensive end Kenny Anunike keeps shining, Denver might keep 10.

    Smith, DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe are seemingly locks to make the roster. Anunike has also played well enough to make the team, and if he turns heads during the preseason, he would be hard to let go of.

    The Broncos have a good problem on their hands here. The talent on the defensive line is incredible, and it could force them to keep a surplus of players. However, these linemen need to continue their stellar performance.

The Return of Injured Stars

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    You've probably heard Broncos fans say the Super Bowl would've been a different game had sidelined starters Von Miller, Chris Harris, Ryan Clady, Kevin Vickerson, Derek Wolfe and Rahim Moore played.

    Well, fortunately for the Broncos, all of those players should be ready to go for Week 1. Stars Miller and Harris might be held out of the preseason (or at least some games), but if they play, all eyes will be on them.

    As for the rest of the players, they should see time in all of the preseason games (except, possibly, the fourth one).

    If Moore can bounce back from compartment syndrome, he and T.J. Ward would form a formidable duo at safety. If Clady comes back strong, an offensive line that gave up a league-lowest 20 sacks last year would be even better.

    Wolfe, a likely starter at defensive end who tallied six sacks as a rookie, could make a huge impact alongside Ware at defensive end. Vickerson could provide great depth at defensive tackle if he makes a full recovery.

    All six players will have a huge impact on Denver's 2014 season. However, if their performances are lacking, it could lead to some concern.