ENGLEWOOD — The last day of school. The line at DMV. Security at DIA. The only things longer than the Broncos preseason for $500, Alex.
The Broncos reported for training camp on July 17. It has been a long climb to the Sept. 9 opener. Exhibition games are difficult to watch for any team, let alone one coming off 11 wins over the past two years. However, Thursday's fifth preseason game means everything to players on the roster bubble, like quarterbacks Kevin Hogan and Brett Rypien, or even tight end Jake Butt, who has not practiced since making his debut last week.
Hogan and Rypien are vying to back-up Joe Flacco, attempting to show enough to win a job and prevent the team from adding an external player like one of the 49ers reserves C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens. Hogan is 21-for-42 for 173 yards with no touchdowns, one rushing score and a pick. After losing his backup spot to Drew Lock, he capitalized on the rookie's thumb injury with his best performance last Saturday at the Rams (8-for-12, 69 yards). He needs to be better if he's going to secure a spot on the 53-man roster.
"I just want to go out and make some big plays, put on a show for the fans and have fun. I think we need to be able to open it up a little bit," Hogan said. "I think that's what we're going to do. I'm expecting some successful drives and some points on the board.”
Hogan, who served as Case Keenum's backup for much of last season, is attempting to hold off rookie Brett Rypien and a potential mystery player who comes available during final cuts. Cast as an ideal practice squad addition, Rypien re-entered the mix last Saturday and delivered a decent performance. He connected on 14 of 23 passes for 80 yards, and led the Broncos to a field goal with a two-minute drive at the end of the first half. He is 19-for-33 for 121 yards with one touchdown and one interception this summer.
"Yeah, it’s definitely a different role than what I’ve been used to. I played the last eight years and started from a freshman in high school and then as a freshman in college, so it’s definitely a different role. For me, I just try to focus on what I can control, just coming out here today and getting better and then putting some good film out there this week," said the former Boise State star. "I felt good (last week). Like I said, I thought I was seeing the field really well. I made a lot of good decisions, had some good throws in there. There’s definitely a few plays that I think I want back and that going into this week we definitely want to make for sure.”
Broncos coach Vic Fangio said "double digit" jobs are hangining the balance this week. And, there's no guarantee they will go to players here. The Broncos are expected to be active on the waiver wire, seeking to add depth. Positions up for grabs include punt returner, inside linebacker and backup tight end. Butt made a successful debut last week, catching two passes. However, he won't practice this week or play Thursday as his knee recoveries, prompting the question: Can the Broncos trust him to stay healthy and would they pay him to go on the injured reserve or seek an injury settlement? It remains a fluid situation. Broncos Jeff Heuerman and Noah Fant are locks, and could be joined by Troy Fumagalli and recently-added Orson Charles, who can play tight end and fullback.
"It’s disappointing that he has (had it flare up), but it’s not disappointment in Jake if that’s what you’re saying. When he starts to feel good and plays or practices, then it flares back up again," Fangio said. "It’s just something we’re going to have to deal with here. He won’t play in this game and he may miss some time. He may be, he may not (be on the 53-man roster). We will see how it shakes out.”
As for the punt returner's job, River Cracraft is hoping to secure it. He is competing against Kelvin McKnight and Trinity Benson, and the Broncos could also go with DaeSean Hamilton in the role, one which he briefly filled last season before hurting his knee.
"It's something that I definitely want to grab. I think I have done what I am supposed to do. A lot of guys like to see the Tyreek Hills back there. But the fact of the matter is everybody is not Tyreek Hill and everybody has their own way of making plays," Cracraft said. "Definitely punt returner is my way on this team. As much as I would like to be on this team as a receiver, you have to fit in where you fit in. In my eyes, punt returner offers that window."
Regarding inside linebacker, it is a concern because it's no longer certain that Todd Davis (calf) will be ready for the season opener. Alexander Johnson and Justin Hollins have made strides to secure the backup spot. Hollins is making the team as a hybrid outside-inside backer. Johnson is starting to gain traction after his 3 1/2-year layoff. That said, the Broncos are keeping an open mind about adding a veteran. The 49ers cut Malcolm Smith on Tuesday and Mason Foster remains available.
Again, the preseason is too long. It is hard to watch. And the games count for nothing. But for several players, this week means everything.
"We need to see the guys that are competing for those last 10 or 15 spots that we alluded to play good in special teams because they have to play special teams," Fangio said. "Especially some positions are more critical than others: linebackers, safeties, wideouts, running backs. We’re still evaluating that.”