Projecting the Broncos’ 53-player roster before the NFL’s Tuesday deadline
DENVER — Lurking over the locker room Saturday night was the specter of the turk’s knife slicing through the roster. Players planned to do various things in the coming days to try and keep their minds off the coldest, cruelest days on the football calendar. Backup QB Brett Rypien said he might play golf or pickleball … or take care of stuff around the house, since he figured his wife might have a to-do list waiting for him. Others will go out and about.
But also looming over the Broncos is something that George Paton said after the draft in April.
Denver emerged from draft weekend with just five picks in next year’s draft as a result of a slew of trades. That is far from enough for Paton, and he made his intentions clear.
“We’ll have a lot more than that, I guarantee it by the time the  draft comes around,” Paton said.
And with no compensatory picks expected to come the Broncos’ way for next year, there’s only one way to bolster that draft capital: Trades.
They could take their two third-round picks next year and move down. But it seems unlikely the Broncos want to put their way out of Day 2 entirely. So, bolstering that complement of picks means trading players.
And a terrific chance to do so is between now and the 2 p.m. MDT roster deadline Tuesday. Just as the Broncos got draft capital for WR Trinity Benson last year at the deadline … and just as they sent draft capital to San Francisco for ILB Jonas Griffith … one can expect Paton to be active again.
This projection accounts for that.
Russell Wilson, Josh Johnson
On balance, Johnson and Rypien are close to even. If Denver can’t find a backup upgrade on the market, it would be no surprise if Johnson and Rypien are both back in some capacity — one on the practice squad, one on the 53-player roster — by the end of this week. So, why Johnson over Rypien? It’s the experience factor. And with Rypien, the Broncos have waived him in each of the last three seasons and successfully brought him back to the practice squad each time.
RUNNING BACK (3)
Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon, Mike Boone
Probably the most obvious choices on the roster. The injury rate at running back makes it wise to keep all three.
Beck is the modern-day Patrick Hape. If you remember the Broncos of the early 2000s, you might remember Hape. He’s the answer to a trivia question, that being, “Who caught the first touchdown pass at what is now known as Empower Field at Mile High?” He also was a jack-of-all trades who spent four years with the Broncos. Preceding that, he played four years in Tampa Bay. Every year, fans who didn’t pay attention would wonder how Hape made the roster. Other tight ends were more athletic, more dynamic. But Hape made himself useful in myriad ways. Tight end, H-back, fullback, multi-phase special-teamer. He was also durable; he missed just one game in four Broncos seasons and just three in the same number of Bucs years. Hape carved out an 8-year career in spite of averaging just 6.6 catches per 16 games. And Beck is that sort of player.
TIGHT END (4)
Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Tomlinson, Greg Dulcich, Eric Saubert
If the Broncos want to save a spot and carry an extra wide receiver, it’s possible they could release Saubert and try to bring him back after Week 1 per the vested-veteran contract rules. (If a vested veteran — one with four prior accrued seasons — is on the roster for Week 1, the team carrying that player is on the hook for their full year’s salary. This is why you often see experienced players released and then brought back. Denver did this with backup QB Caleb Hanie in 2012, riding out Week 1 with Brock Osweiler as the only reserve behind Peyton Manning. Hanie quickly returned.) That being said, Saubert is the only complete tight end in the room. Releasing him would be a calculated risk.
OFFENSIVE TACKLE (3)
Garett Bolles, Billy Turner, Calvin Anderson
Anderson played left tackle Saturday against Minnesota, serving as a reminder that he is a swing tackle … and perhaps more proficient on the left flank than the right. Cameron Fleming went unsigned until the Broncos brought him back at the start of training camp. It seems likely that they could sign him to the practice squad as the fourth tackle.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE (6)
Lloyd Cushenberry, Dalton Risner, Quinn Meinerz, Luke Wattenberg, Graham Glasgow, Netane Muti
Any questions about who would start up front died around the end of training camp. Meinerz, the second player out for most practices, found his footing. His work against the Cowboys and in brief action against Buffalo showed that the practice reps against the Joneses had steeled hm. Glasgow’s January restructure means that the Broncos reap no financial benefit from cutting him. He could be dangled in the trade market, but it might be unwise to trade such a seasoned reserve. Muti should return from a knee injury in the coming weeks. Wattenberg has the coaches’ confidence and it would be no surprise if he barrels his way into the starting lineup by 2023.
WIDE RECEIVER (6)
Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Montrell Washington, Tyrie Cleveland, Brandon Johnson
This became one of the most competitive positions on the roster. Denver could go lighter at tight end and keep a seventh receiver. It is also possible that the Broncos put Johnson on injured reserve one day after the 53-man deadline. Johnson suffered a high-ankle sprain Saturday and had a walking boot on his left foot and ankle in the locker room after the game. If the Broncos do this, they could then re-sign one of their waived young receivers to take his roster spot — assuming they pass through league-wide waivers. And as for Cleveland, special-teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes identified him as one of his core players.
DEFENSIVE LINE (6)
Dre’Mont Jones, D.J. Jones, DeShawn Williams, Mike Purcell, Matt Henningsen, Enyi Uwazurike
Purcell got the night off Saturday. As Hackett said, he’s “old.” But he also could be necessary. D.J. Jones’ back issues have a habit of flaring up — as was the case in OTAs and camp. Thus, Purcell’s presence on the nose for depth could be necessary. McTelvin Agim flourished Saturday, but Henningsen has the body of work and steady improvement on his side. And it’s not like Henningsen had a bad game Saturday; he was part of the surge that nearly led to a goal-line stop and was the focal point of multiple Minnesota double-teams. The Broncos could also dangle Agim in a trade.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (5)
Bradley Chubb, Randy Gregory, Baron Browning, Jonathon Cooper, Nik Bonitto
So, where is Malik Reed? Simply put, there is no better trade option on the roster. With three years of previous experience, he would be subject to waivers if the Broncos decide to move forward without him. So, if a team with a low waiver priority wants to guarantee having his services, a trade would make sense. It’s a huge risk, because it means counting on the health of Chubb and Gregory and then trusting the young depth.
But Browning’s progress is obvious, Bonitto has shown an ability to get sacks in burst and Cooper is consistently disruptive when he’s on the field. In the disaster that was the Aug. 20 loss at Buffalo, he had three QB pressures. Cooper flashed in last year’s preseason, too. But if the Broncos don’t trade Reed, Cooper could be the odd player out. Further, the flashes he showed — and the good health he’s had after he fell in the 2021 draft because of concerns about a heart condition — could make it unlikely that he passes through waivers.
INSIDE LINEBACKER (4)
Josey Jewell, Jonas Griffith, Alex Singleton, Justin Strnad
Denver signed Singleton as experienced insurance, and with Griffith touch-and-go for Week 1 as he recovers from a dislocated elbow, they might have to use that policy early. Strnad is a core special-teamer who has improved since struggling as a starter last year.
Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Caden Sterns, P.J. Locke, Delarrin Turner-Yell
If any player might have cemented a roster spot Saturday, it was Turner-Yell, who played with a full-speed, playmaking verve that wasn’t always evident during training camp. Turner-Yell might have done enough to nudge past veteran J.R. Reed for a roster spot. Sterns and Locke have had their second-team positions consolidated for a while now, and each got first-team work at various points throughout OTAs and training camp when Jackson got rest days.
Pat Surtain II, Ronald Darby, K’Waun Williams, Damarri Mathis, Essang Bassey
Mathis appeared to be working past Michael Ojemudia for the No. 4 spot even before Ojemudia dislocated his elbow in Buffalo. Bassey flashes on special teams and should have a firm third-phase role. The Broncos will want Faion Hicks and Bless Austin for the practice squad. Furthermore, Hicks needs more time; given some patience, he can find the balance between aggression and prudence that will complement his tenacity.
Brandon McManus, Corliss Waitman, Jacob Bobenmoyer
Bobenmoyer’s flub on Sam Martin’s punt Saturday could bring the mid-camp long-snapper tryouts back into focus. As for the punting duel … Martin has been fine in camp. If there was no competition, we wouldn’t bat an eye at his form. But Waitman had better hang-time figures in the games and during training camp. In preseason games, Waitman had an edge in net average. Martin had the better gross average. But Waitman also had superior hang time — a 4.65-second average over a half-second better than Martin’s 4.09-second figure. The consequence of this was that opponents returned two of Martin’s four preseason punts, which impacted his net average. None of Waitman’s 6 game punts saw a return. And the $1.425 million in cap savings if the Broncos opt for Waitman is hard to ignore.