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Saturday is cut day. My Broncos' 53-man roster projection

Tough decisions loom at defensive line, tight end, receiver
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Posted at 7:46 PM, Sep 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-03 21:46:08-04

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Jurrell Casey began talking, the words spilling out over Zoom. There was no stopping him. Kind of like his first training camp with the Broncos. The five-time Pro Bowler has created a nasty blend of havoc and chaos in the middle of the field.

This is who he is, and when he looks at the season opener vs his former Tennessee Titans teammates, he conjures images of Forest Whitaker facing Lincoln in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

"I’m ready to get going with the Broncos and go on a run for this championship season. The first game is going to be hype. You’re going to see me out there making a ton of plays," Casey said Thursday. "It’s going to be a little bit more juice coming this game."

Casey ranks among the training camp highlights, living up to his resume as a player and leader. The idea that he could be this team's version of DeMarcus Ware -- a proven veteran who has the ear of the locker room -- remains even more believable than it did five weeks ago.

Before the Broncos can show that their offseason additions worked — let's be honest, the franchise is in prove it mode after posting three straight losing seasons for the first time since 1970-72 — they need to address housekeeping items. The roster must be pared to 53 players by 2 p.m. Saturday. There are a few greasy decisions remaining, but an adjustment in the practice squad and injured reserve rules create a more comfortable safety net for keeping players.

For this season, the league expanded the practice squad to 16 players, including six with no maximum of accrued seasons, and a team can protect four players each week from being poached. Also, the injured reserve designation has changed. Unlimited players can return from the list after three weeks, meaning a player with an hamstring injury, for example, could find himself in this spot.

There is flexibility, but it doesn't make the last few cuts any less painful. Predicting the 53-man roster is never an exact science because inevitably a team claims a player causing aftershocks. Yet, it remains a fascinating exercise. So here we go:

DEFENSE
Defensive line (6)
Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell, Shelby Harris, Dre'Mont Jones, McTelvin Agim, DeMarcus Walker.

A tough choice exists for the final spot between Walker and Christian Covington. But as we will see across the NFL this weekend, players with guaranteed money remaining are ripe for cuts. Teams are less likely to claim those players and their contracts. As such, Covington could clear waivers and land on the practice squad. Walker has underperformed in his career, though he was trending upward before sustaining a shoulder injury in practice midway through last season. His contract makes him a more likely claim target than Covington.

Outside linebackers (4)
Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Malik Reed, Jeremiah Attaochu.

Everything Von Miller has done over the last four months screams that he will rebound in a big way. Having Chubb on the field will help. I believe Chubb will be out there on opening night, though he will likely be on a play count. Reed is taking a step forward in year two that reminds me of Shaq Barrett's jump in his second season, and Attaochu is a trusted veteran. Rookie Derrek Tuszka continues to show flashes, but needs to add weight and strength. The practice squad was created for players like him, allowing them to redshirt in the NFL environment.

Inside linebacker (5)
Todd Davis, Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, Mark Barron, Joe Jones.

That the Broncos signed Barron hints of the niche role they had planned for rookie Justin Strnad before he suffered a season-ending wrist injury. Barron could become an important figure in pass coverage and sub packages. There has been some speculation that the Broncos might ask Davis to adjust his $5 million contract -- once they did it with Peyton Manning, nobody was off limits -- or even move on from him. I never say never after watching the Broncos cut safety T.J. Ward at the end of camp. But given Davis' status as the defensive signal caller and leader in the locker room, it would represent a surprise. In my scenario, Justin Hollins, whose career has been muddied by playing outside and inside linebacker, becomes the odd man out and a practice squad addition. Jones, as a result, makes it because of his special teams reliability.

Cornerback (6)
A.J. Bouye, Bryce Callahan, Devontae Harris, Michael Ojemudia, Essang Bassey, De'Vante Bausby.

The third cornerback spot remains unsettled. Bassey received first-team reps this week, a clear indication he has made the team, cemented by the trade of former third round pick Isaac Yiadom to the New York Giants for a seventh-round pick. Wrinkles remain that must be ironed out. With Ojemudia improving quickly from his quad injury, could the team go with five corners and try to sneak Bausby onto the practice squad? I like Bausby's game, but if he's not the third corner, Harris could edge him out because of his special teams acumen. For now, I have them both making it, though it is a position to watch.

Safety (4)
Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Trey Marshall, Alijah Holder

This is a team strength. Simmons and Jackson could establish themselves as a top safety tandem this season. They are good, versatile, and loud (see Jackson's hits and trash talk). Marshall is a capable reserve who has played well in limited opportunities. Holder is a smart player with an interesting upside. Depending on their waiver-wire interests, the Broncos might consider going with three safeties, hoping that Holder will make it to the practice squad.

OFFENSIVE
Quarterback (2)
Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel.

Lock continues to provide daily examples on why he will become a franchise quarterback. He keeps his confidence after mistakes, relates well to teammates as a leader, and has the ability to elude the rush and extend plays. Driskel's lack of accuracy has become a concern in camp. Brett Rypien might be the smartest player on the roster. All he does is work hard. But a third quarterback is a luxury when Rypien should clear waivers and land on the practice squad.

Running back (3)
Phillip Lindsay, Melvin Gordon, Royce Freeman.

Lindsay became a human blowtorch at camp, bringing fire to practice with his runs and attitude. I could see him starting and playing more than expected early in the season. Gordon profiles as a third down back if necessary, having averaged 50 receptions per year over the past three seasons. The use of Lindsay and Gordon remains a fluid situation. Freeman makes it because he can block in pass protection, play special teams and is a known commodity compared to rookie LeVante Bellamy, who did not have preseason games to showcase his ability. He should land on the practice squad.

Tight end (5)
Noah Fant, Nick Vannett, Albert Okwuegbunam, Andrew Beck, Jake Butt.

This group offers dynamic ability and diversity. Fant and Albert O are intriguing targets. I expect Fant to catch 55 passes this season as the team's third receiving option. Vannett is a blocker, Beck can line up at fullback in short yardage situations, and Butt has earned a spot with a strong rebound from his third ACL surgery. It leaves Troy Fumagalli as a potential practice squad addition.

Receivers (6)
Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, DaeSean Hamilton, K.J. Hamler, Diontae Spencer, Tyrie Cleveland.

This group has added speed and talent. Jeudy has the makings of a star, and Hamler should be a weapon in the slot when healthy. I have a hunch there will be a surprise with this group. My list doesn't include popular veteran Tim Patrick. He is a remarkable special teams player, but will that outweigh the camp performance delivered by seventh-rounder Tyrie Cleveland? I believe Cleveland makes the team. Patrick could too if they keep seven receivers. But this position represents a spot for a potential surprise.

Offensive line (9)
Garrett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Elijah Wilkinson, Demar Dotson, Austin Schlottmann, Netane Muti, Calvin Anderson.

The battle for the last tackle spot might also determine the last roster spot. I take Anderson over Jake Rodgers because of his good feet and upside. Cushenberry has won the center job. The line presents questions, especially at right tackle with Wilkinson. As with last season, I believe the Broncos will look for ways to protect their tackles with tight end sets and chip blocks. The key for this line, for me, is running the ball well. It creates a physical mindset and takes pressure off Drew Lock.

Specialists (3)
Brandon McManus, Sam Martin, Jacob Bobenmoyer.

McManus has enjoyed a booming camp, Martin should be a huge upgrade on limiting punt return yardage and former UNC Bear standout Bobenmoyer won the longsnapper's job.