Every year, during the lull between the appetizer or OTAs and the 'meat' of training camp, articles start to filter through the blogosphere suggesting various combinations of players for the 53 man final active roster. This year, many positions are fairly set (or appear to be so), while others are obvious battles that may go down to the last two or three roster slots. This year, the players at OL, WR, CB, and OLB seem to be looking at the most competitive fights. While judicious use of the PUP option may smooth out some things in the short run, finalizing a 53 man roster looks to be a tough set of choices.
That's a very good thing if you're a Broncos fan and want to see an increasingly competitive team each year until Denver makes it (and stays) back into the upper ionosphere of the playoffs. At the same time, it will usually mean that some personal player favorites will fail to make the team, a yearly sense of loss experienced by many serious (and not so serious) fans. There is always the route of the practice squad for some of these players, but the bad news is that to get a player there you have to expose them to waivers first. The good news is that while you're trying to protect your (hopefully) future guys, the other teams around the league have the same set of problems. Unless the player is just too good to pass up and a perfect fit (remember - PS players who don't clear waivers have to be added to the 53 man roster immediately, so you can't just raid and fill up the PS on other teams' best 54-57 players), most teams are busy defending their own choices as much as looking at yours.
Recently, Ivan was kind enough to have posted a group of players who he felt were locks to make the team, and a list of those who would have to fight for positions. It was depressing if you like a lot of new talent from the draft - after his (very accurate) groupings, even though I'd argue a few points, you had this situation. The comments added are my own - please forgive any obvious foolishness:
The players on the bubble: 8 spots, from this talent pool:
1. Tebow - QB - personally, I feel sure that this is a lock
2. McKinley - WR - OK, can you defeat press, or can a stiff wind knock you over?
3. Arrington - RB - How good is that knee, JJ?
4. Jones - CB - lock. They brought him in for his versatility, and Wink wants his CB blitz skills.
5. Barrett - S - bubble. His ST work is good, but 2 tackles and one asist in 2009? He's vulnerable.
6. Kirlew - OLB - bubble. I think that he's got a very good puncher's chance at OLB - see his Tales in a week or two.
7. Willis - WR - PS or gone. If he could have moved to football a couple of years earlier he'd be great. Might have a year left on the PS
8. Olsen, E - OG
9. McBean - DL
10. Stokley - WR
17. Smith, Kolby
27. Williams, Landis
I consider Tebow, McKinley (some will argue) and McBean to be locks. That doesn't bode well for those who remain, but keep in mind that some will be injured in camp and even lost for the season. There may be more - or less - slots available, depending on that factor. To cover the entire roster is not my purpose here - I'd like to take a look at the battles that I think will be the most competitive and the most interesting to watch. Whoever is left will be practice squaded (which requires putting the player on waivers first) or just let go. As a historical note, this was the time of year that Bill Walsh considered to be when the best of the best fill out their own rosters with talent that just didn't fit with the systems of certain other teams, but who will fit your own very well. Leaving that end of the experience to McXanders for now as unknowable, the first sets of battles I'll discuss will be on offense.
The first and in some ways the most problematic positions are the offensive line and the wide receivers. I'm going to talk about the offensive line first, since it's always been my own belief that this is where you want to start to build, rebuild, reload or maximize a team. Generally, teams carry 9 to 10 OL players. That can be fudged a bit with backups who have multiple talents or who can play multiple positions, but sometimes, as I have felt about Russ Hochstein, you lose some level of skill at one position as you back up multiple slots.
As several folks have noted, with more and more teams moving to a 3-4 defense in some degree or variant thereof (We're currently at about 1/2 the league using that approach, with Mike Shanahan and the Washington Redskins also moving to that defensive approach this offseason), the center and guard positions are of ever-increasing importance. The left tackle position suddenly became both essential and expensive, back in the early days of the 1990's, when Pat Bowlen decided to change the league by opening his wallet simultaneously for Brian Habib at guard and Don Maggs at left tackle, for the simple reason that in general he protected the so-called 'blind' side of most QBs. Perhaps just as important, he's the pivotal blocker on the weakside. While the entire issue of the left tackle's true value is open for some level of discussion, I think that it's worth noticing that Bowlen started the pay escalation into the general area of 1.5 million per year for offensive linemen with guard Brian Habib as much as he did with LT Don Maggs. Centers apparently didn't benefit as much from this move, probably since most pass rushers come (or came) from the outside. Modern schemes, twists and stunts are changing that, and changing the necessary role of the center as they do. As the 3-4 defense is doing the same, I tend to expect centers to be more valued over time, but that's just a personal opinion. Many centers come from being converted veteran linemen, and how that might affect value and scarcity I could not say.
This past situation with the left tackle being substantially more valued is perhaps being brought full circle by the increasing use of the 3-4 defense. More and more teams are also going to some form of a short passing offense, and in balance to that, it's been common in the past to attack the 3-4 defense with a power running game up the middle, which in turn requires a powerful and/or talented team of guards and center. This may lead to an increase in wages for guards and particularly centers - however the money works out, though, the importance of the C/G positions becomes unquestionable when considering how to attack the 3-4 defenses that Denver will apparently see in every divisional game (recent rumors have the raiders going to the 3-4 as well).
Denver showed how much importance they recognized needed to be ascribed to the offensive line by drafting OT/OG Zane Beadles in the second round (pick 45), center JD Walton in the 3rd (pick 80) and Eric Olsen in the 6th (pick 183). Already on the team were hopeful starters Ryan Clady at LT and Ryan Harris at RT, with Chris Kuper at RG and 2009 4th round pick Seth Olsen out of Iowa perhaps at LG. Backups already on the team included D'Anthony Baptiste (6'4" 314 lb, OT) and possibly Dustin Fry (326 lb, C). Nor did the Broncos choices end there.
Stanley Daniels was brought in on May 14, 2010 as a free agent, a 6'4" 320 OL player who has not found a clear home as he spent time on the PS of the St. Louis Rams, Green Bay Packers and new York Jets practice squads, rookie Paul Duncan, a tall, 6'7", 315 lb OT who started all 12 games for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last year. The team also brought on Chris Martinelli, who some observers consider the best of the undrafted OL: standing 6'7" and 300 lb, Martinelli started all 13 games for Stanford last season, mostly at right tackle. Martinelli is certainly one of the most intelligent of the candidates - he majored in both classics and in economics while at Stanford. Those are not the majors (nor the school) of a player who requires basket-weaving 101 to graduate, but it matches what Josh McDaniels wants perfectly.
Guesses as to which of those 15 players OL players will make the final roster of 53 are little more than that - guesses. I won't go that far at this point - to me, that's what the excitement of training camp is for. Every year some players rise up from nowhere while others who were considered locks will founder and fail. Injuries will play their own role. I will simply make a few notes.
Tyler Polumbus may have a leg up (the pun was unintentional) backing up Ryan Clady at left tackle, but he'll have plenty of competition with Beadles, if not also Baptiste. No one really knows what to expect from Seth Olsen - in the offseason, Josh McDaniels gave one of his Coaching 101 classic textbook cliche's regarding Olsen's improvement over the past year and how the team expects to see good things and useful production from him in 2010, but he's done that the day before cutting a player who was equally praised, so it's not necessarily helpful or meaningful. Clady, Kuper, and Harris are locks if they are healthy, and the news this week was that Harris seems to be doing well so far. It's unlikely that Denver brought in T/G Zane Beadles or C/G JD Walton just to cut them, and hopefully the same goes for Eric Olsen at C/G (I have to admit that of all our draft picks, he is the one that I understand the least) who just signed. Since the team tends to keep between 9 and 10 OL, that leaves an outright donnybrook for the 3-4 remaining slots among the candidates listed above.
Another scrum on the offensive side will be the result of the difficult task of winnowing down the wide receiver group to a final 5-6 players. The odds are very good that Eddie Royal, Jabar Gaffney, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are locks for the team. Kenny McKinley looked good in OTAs and has had an important year working under the cruel-to-be-kind eyes of Rich Tuten. For a player who last summer looked like a stiff wind might blow him farther off course than it would the ball, he needed that kind of hard training. Brandon Lloyd has developed a reputation around the league for lapses in concentration and a tendency to avoid hard contact, but his ball skills and his connection with probable starter Kyle Orton could make him the 6th player. Opinions will differ, of course, but those are likely to be the first group players. Eric Decker and even Demaryius Thomas could be on the PUP to start the year, and that could leave slots for two more receivers. In a pinch, Denver could milk Brandon Stokley's shoulder into another PUP designation, but sooner or later, there will be cuts that will end the time in Denver for some fan favorites.
There is no shortage of total candidates: Denver has 13+ receivers in camp, fighting for those 5-6 jobs. A fortunate few could see the practice squad and later, usually through injury to an active player, make the field. Here are some names that may stay or may simply be passing through: Matthew Willis, the former UCLA track star and Alric Arnett, the 6'2" 190 lb rookie from West Virginia who also competed in track and field while in community college, before transferring to the Mountaineers and dedicating his work to football. Former Kentucky WR Dicky Lyons joined the Broncos on May 3, 2010 after spending a brief time on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad last summer, but he has already been released as of Tuesday, July 6. Josh McDaniels has put players on notice that if they want to make the roster and aren't starters, they'd be best off having something good to offer on special teams. UDFA Patrick Honeycutt came out of Middle Tennessee State University as a former 3 year starter, and he finished his career fourth in school history in receptions with 116 and ninth in receiving yards with 1,261. He's the smallest of the candidates, at only 5'9" and 172 lb. Dicky Lyons doesn't have a roster slot at this point, according to denverbroncos.com.
Most recently, ESPN announced that Josh McDaniels wants to move Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker to the outsides and keep Eddie Royal at the slot. While Royal's move to the slot has been a matter of record since mid-spring, the idea of starting the two rookies on the outside this quickly is relatively new. While I believe that Thomas will be on the outside, and Decker certainly can be, I'd be surprised if they took over starting duties from Gaffney (and either McKinley or Lloyd) this quickly. If it is true, to would show a combined lack of faith in the veterans and/or a lot of belief in the rookies. I'd bet on some use of the rookies with more use of the veterans until the rookis who what they can do. It would be great if it was that fast, but that's putting a lot of weight on very young shoulders.
There are two areas on defense - cornerback and outside linebacker - that are also overflowing with possible starters and specialists. While I feel comfortable designating Robert Ayers and Elvis 'Doom' Dumervil as locks for their individual positions (and congrats to Doom for his new contract), there are 13 other players who are trying to make their mark as linebackers for the Broncos. Given the importance of the linebacking position for the form of the Bullough 3-4/5-2 defense, this is no surprise.
Special teams stand-out Darrell Reid is still rehabbing a knee injury, and it may take a while yet (I have not heard anything specific, and I'd be surprised if I hear much to be trusted prior to camp). Former OLB Mario Haggan is being moved to ILB to replace Andra Davis, who has moved on to Buffalo. Mario Haggan has done nothing but put out 110% effort on every down they let him on the field, and he even asked to stay on special teams last season to increase his benefit for the team, something that few veterans will do. He'll be matched back there with DJ Williams, a player who keeps flirting with excellence without actually closing the deal, struggling in coverage and failing at times to make key tackles. Akin Ayodele is yet another player drawn from the Miami Dolphins that Denver feels has potential - I admit that I have some concerns with him, however. His league-leading 17 missed tackles in 2009 and his weak skills in coverage are a pair of areas that leave me wondering exactly why Denver has brought him on, but I'm willing to eat those words should his skillset prove to outplay his reputation. It's likely that Nick Greisen will complete the 4 ILB players that Denver keeps, and I'm going to look at the rest of the players as if they are candidates for OLB, due to a simple lack of other information.
I'll add one codicil - There are players, even if they are few, who make the movement from DE to OLB and, usually from there, move to ILB. On example is Cleveland Browns LB David Veikune. While I'll grant that he's more the exception than the rule, it's always possible that when Darrell Reid returns, for example, his skills might fit better at ILB than OLB. He's not the only one, and it would take a far more thorough knowledge of an individual player's skills during practice than I have to make any kind of prediction, but it's an option that can be explored. It would take him some time to make the changeover, due to the nature of his recovery from his knee surgery, but it's a possibility that I haven't heard much from Broncos fans and one that may end up being a good option for one or more of the Denver players over time.
Much as I've liked and supported DJ Williams over the years, it's possible that he's just played too many positions that didn't suit him to maximize his talents - he seems to keep under-playing his potential. I'll still hope for a good and improved 2010 for him, but at this point in his career, he has to bring the level of his game up. His position is just too important for him to play the way he did much of last year. He's a locker room leader, from what I've heard and read, and he's also a leader on the field, and I give him full credit for both, but he has to stop the run and work well in coverage. Even if they only place one of the OLBs as a backup ILB, since Haggan will only infrequently leave the field right now (his nickel position is also SILB), that might be a solution in the making the to the problem (if what we as fans are seeing here is the level of problem that we believe it to be) of what to do with the RILB slot. There remains the chance the DJ's best role is and always was a 4-3 Will LB. Jarvis Moss seems to be making some inroads on putting his game on the Sunday field, instead of just the scout team. I have some doubts, but I'd love to see him finally making it over the hump and showing that he can have an impact.
One player who came in and immediately made an impact in passing camp is Kevin Alexander. The undrafted rookie out of Clemson brings a perfect record for playing through his college years without missing a single game to injury. He stands 6'4 and 265 lb, which is nearly perfect for the Denver scheme. He was a two year starter at Clemson and is unusually strong, with a college senior bench press of 470 lb. During his senior year he won two team awards - the first as the Rock Solid player at his position (defensive end). The award is given to the player who best exhibits solid, consistent and dependable play over the course of the year. Considering his achievements in strength, it's probably no surprise that he also won one of the team slots as a 'weight room All-American.' Many power lifting players tend to be a bit slow on the field, but Alexander was out there in Dove Valley during OTAs showing that he can blow across the field on STs like the solar winds off the mountains at an autumn dusk.
As even the most casual fans usually know, for a borderline player making the team at all often means making the special teams better, and Alexander had been granted some special teams reps with the first team. Determined to make the most of it, he worked every drill as if it were the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. Wesley Woodyard tells the rest of the story:
As Woodyard recalls, Alexander had earned time with the first team kick-off coverage unit early into the voluntary workout. As some players bowed out of the drill, the Clemson product kept hustling.
Soon, Alexander was taking every rep, sprinting downfield with game-like intensity during the non-contact drill. After reaching the other end of the field, the linebacker readied to do it all again.For Woodyard, a former college free agent who rose to become a captain in his second season as a Bronco, it was a refreshing sight. Here, he thought, was a youngster who understands what it takes to be a pro.
"You have to admire a guy like him -- any guy in our situation that comes in and continues to fight every day," Woodyard said. "The thing about him, he was really smart. That caught a lot of players' eyes."
By all accounts, Alexander kept that attitude and only continued that hard work through OTAs. Recently, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound linebacker started reaping the rewards.
Alexander saw extensive action with the first-team defense during the team's recently completed mandatory minicamp. With more than a month to wait before his first training camp, Alexander hopes he can parlay his early impact into a spot on the 53-man roster.
Nor is Alexander the only player who feels that his hard work could create his own position on the team. Long-time struggling LB player Jarvis Moss earned himself some reps with the 1st team during passing camp, a big step up from the award as MVP of the scout team that he earned last year. It's possible that the combination of the right position in the NFL world for him (OLB) has combined with time in relatively good health and constant effort under the tutelage of Rich Tuten to have gotten a career that was clearly headed south (and I'm not talking about Houston here) and gotten it back on track. The Broncos need more push toward the QB in order for their 5-2 defense to work at maximum efficiency, so seeing if Moss can show some pass rushing technique to go with his speed, that might finally give the 6'7, 257 lb rusher a place out on the field on Sundays.
Woodyard himself, in addition to earning a team captain position in only his second year, has also been active under Tuten and is currently up to at least 228 lb, with a goal of 236 lb by the end of training camp. Woodyard often struggled in coverage last season, particularly with larger receivers. Since he was often in on the nickel package, that frequently meant the opposing TEs, who might have as much as 40 lb on him. Whatever his final weight, he has to develop the strength and the technique to handle those players in order to hold on to his slot from last year. Another smaller LB is Devin Bishop, a 239 lb UDFA out of California. Bishop comes from a football family: his brother plays for the Green Bay Packers and his father, Dennis, used to play in the new-defunct USFL.
A player who is working against the odds, but who quickly showed that he may have some newly developed skills to offer is Baraka Atkins. Like Elvis Dumervil and Darrell Reid, Atkins was a defensive lineman who played both defensive tackle and end while at the University of Miami. He has been in the NFL for 3 seasons with San Francisco in 2007 and Seattle in 2008 and 2009 and had made few inroads towards developing playing time when Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders placed him under a futures contract and began helping him make the switch from DL to OLB. He's even earned some first team reps during OTAs and it will be well worth seeing how that pans out in training camp.
Some fans are already mentally moving Jammie Kirlew to the practice squad in their minds and in their posts, but that may be premature. Granting that in a crowded class at his position - and he is a classic 'tweener, built for the 3-4 OLB - Kirlew fell to the 7th round, he still came into the draft with a 5th round grade by Denver, and he has the kind of background that might fit in well with Denver's needs as much as its scheme. Jammie (pronounced as JAY-mee) is a 6'3", 260 lb player, one whom the denverbroncos.com website described as : "A linebacker who twice received All-Big Ten Conference recognition at Indiana University, where as a defensive end he tied for third on the school's all-time sacks list (23) and tied for second on its all-time tackles for loss list (52.5)." A player who can get to the backfield that well, and who will not be matched up against offensive tackles once he's learned his new position, might be able to push a higher-drafted or more experienced player right out of his way. Denver is looking at running an aggressive defense, and Kirlew may be a solid fit for Martindale's go-get-them schematic approach. Also a very bright student, Kirlew brings a degree in public finance and the ability to learn well along with his football skills.
A third round pick in 2008 by Pittsburgh, who spent 2009 on New England's practice squad is 2nd year player Bruce Davis. Davis is a long-shot at 6'3 and 252 lb, but stranger things have happened. He came out of UCLA where he ended his career tied for second on the school's all-time sack list with 29, again reflecting the damage that Denver could do with a minor version of Doom on the other side when defending passing downs.
And finally, while still listed as a LB/FB, Spencer Larsen really looks like he's embedded into the fullback slot with ST play at this point. He didn't take a single defensive rep during OTAs, and FB Kyle Eckel has already come and gone to a medical-injured waiver/settlement. Marquez Branson is listed as a TE, and in theory he may share the occasional FB rep with Larsen. In practice, I've found that McDaniels tends to go with experience, so I expect Larsen to be the FB and Branson to step in only if there's an injury, but that's just my opinion.
There are currently 8 players working for the 5-6 slots alloted for cornerback, and this competition may be one of the hottest of the camp. I think that most folks accept that Champ Bailey will make the roster, and his work last year convinced me (even if I wish that he'd learn to tackle better) that Andre' Goodman will be joining him. Nate Jones was brought in to handle (or fight for) the nickel slot and to use his unusual skill at CB blitzes to make Wink Martindale a happy man. Beyond those three, though, the choices get far more difficult.
There's no question that Alphonso Smith will be under a training camp microscope by both those who do and don't hope that he turns his career around this year. He is said to have worked hard in the off-season and is approaching this camp as a professional does, blaming only himself for his lack of performance last year. He's going to be likely to be pushed by rookie Perrish Cox, who has made waves in passing camp, but who has yet to meet his fellow teammates, much less Denver's opponents, with pads on. Cox fell a long way on character issues, but he's a 6'0" 198 lb player who is more quick than fast, but who intercepted 10 passes and broke up 36 during his time at Oklahoma State University. He only had a 32.5 inch vertical leap, but he times it nicely. He has the strength to be a press cornerback, but only timed at 4.6 at Combine although he seemed to lay faster, at least at the college level. Cox was a three year starter who, in his senior year, earned first-team All-Big 12 Conference honors on defense and garnered All-America recognition for his ability on special teams, where he scored six touchdowns (4 kickoff, 2 punt) during his collegiate career. That special teams skill is something that we know that the McDaniels team is looking for. He's a decent tackler, but not a 'big hitter' - his play won't scare anyone on that end. However, he might be pushing to mitigate that by the intensity of his ST play.
The next three are probably the ones fighting the most uphill battles. Tony Carter came in last year and did well at nickel in limited play - he'll have the potential advantage of being a known quantity. He's up against another 7th round pick with a 5th round grade in Syd'Quan Thompson, the 5'9", 191 lb player out of California who was taken just before Jammie Kirlew. Thompson is a cypher, but a unique player who set a record by starting all 52 games of his career. He broke up a school-record 36 career passes in addition to posting seven interceptions, 257 tackles (166 solo) and 20 tackles for a loss during his career. He has some special teams experience, but did not impress in that area during passing camp.
Finally, a rookie UDFA out of the University of Mississippi named Cassius Vaughn, was just behind him in experience and started 50 games in his time there. He managed an exceptional 152 tackles (107 solo), five interceptions, 20 pass breakups and two forced fumbles during that time. He's taller, at 5'11 and 195 lb and has unusual speed with a low time of 4.36 and a high time of 4.49 at Combine. He had a 10 foot, 8 inch broad jump and a 38.5 inch vertical leap, so he has a powerful explosion and is athletic as well. I don't know if he can play at the higher level of competition that is found in the NFL, but he was unquestionably a very effective player at the college level.
One factor in the competition at CB may not rest with the candidates at all, but with the safety position. As SlowWhiteGuy recently pointed out, to play a dime package at all, Denver will need at least 4 active CBs and one more to cover them in case of an injury during a game. Similarly, they need to have 3 safeties on hand to play the 'big nickel', and again, another to cover in case of injury. There alone, you have 9 defensive backs, and Denver also has the question of Josh Barrett - he did so little other than special teams last season, notching only 2 tackles and one assist, that I see him as vulnerable if someone can outplay him in the nickel or outplay him on special teams. The question Denver faces here is whether to hold on to only 9 DBs (Denver is fortunate in that there are some already on the team, like Saf Renaldo Hill and CB Nate Jones, who can cover either CB or safety, or they choose to hold on to 10). Generally the issue of quality of special teams play will play a heavy role in making such a decision, as Josh McDaniels has pointed out. Once in a great while, an additional special teams player of great skill will change these numbers but such cases are relatively rare.
As far as I'm concerned, the Denver Broncos have the most interesting, competitive and toughest camp coming up that I can recall. There really isn't a position that doesn't have a competition, whether it's for quarterback, tight end, or any of the positions listed above, with the sole exceptions of the kickers and long snapper. If you're going to change the quality of the players and the culture in the locker room, there will be cuts that you didn't want to have to make and players that you didn't want to lose. The offseason provided opportunities to deal with those situations, as Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler each went to teams of their choice.
This year, Josh McDaniels is no longer cleaning house from the teams that vaulted to mediocrity under Mike Shanahan. The defensive line has once again been helped though free agency. The draft once more confounded and perplexed as much as it illuminated, but by the time OTAs had ended, Denver could see enough of a change in the players on the field to give the fans plenty to cheer about. Veterans and rookies alike are going to be fighting for a chance to play on the 2010 Broncos. It's time to watch the players carefully, because there will be some changes that weren't expected, some stars in the making who will, and a chance to watch a new team take place right in front of our thermoses, ground cloths and cheering sections. It's time for the ones who will take Denver through this season to step up and be counted, and the count runs up to 53 (plus 8 for the practice squad).