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Broncos face Cardinals in preseason finale: 7 things to watch

Backup jobs on the line in exhibition finish
Posted at 12:48 PM, Aug 29, 2019

Broncos coach Vic Fangio waited 40 years for his first head coaching opportunity. Which, ironically, matches the length of the Broncos' preseason. OK, it hasn't been that long. But, there's no denying it has been a slow crawl to the season opener. The Broncos' summer workouts that began on July 18 conclude Thursday with jobs hanging in the balance against the Cardinals at 7 p.m.

There are as many as 10 spots open as the Broncos' backups compete for the second straight week to make the team or add good film. Projecting the 53-man roster this year is messier because the likely addition of four or five players not with the team and the injuries to Andy Janovich, Theo Riddick, Jake Butt, Joe Jones and quarterback Drew Lock. At least two of the aforementioned are expected to open on the injured reserve with designation to return halfway through the season. Janovich and Riddick could land on the 53-man roster, yet remain inactive for the first two games. Butt is a candidate for the season-ending IR, short-term IR or, less likely, an injury settlement.

Again, it is a fluid situation. Clarity could come for several players tonight. My Denver7 Things to Watch:

Keep Hogan or Grip it N' Ryp it?
For the fourth straight summer, Hogan is attempting to tie a knot and hang onto the end of the roster's rope. He is a safe choice to remain the backup if he takes care of the ball and leads a touchdown drive tonight. However, he needs a strong finish after completing 21 of 42 passes in the preseason. Rookie Brett Rypien is making a late push to unseat Hogan after a strong performance against the Rams. He projects more as a practice squad player, but could change that tonight. If not Hogan, then what? Names to keep an eye on Nick Mullens, C.J. Beathard and possibly even former Broncos Kyle Sloter and Brock Osweiler.

Return on investment
The Broncos punt return game was anemic last year, averaging a league-worst 4.4 yards. This is the last chance for someone on the roster to stick. River Cracraft is the slight leader among a group that includes Kelvin McKnight and Trinity Benson. The Broncos could also use DaeSean Hamilton as an in-house option. Even with a good performance tonight by someone, it remains possible the Broncos will pluck somebody off the waiver wire.

Inside Out
The more Fangio talks the less likely it seems inside linebacker Todd Davis will play on Sept. 9 at Oakland. He hasn't practiced since July 18 because of a calf injury. So where do the Broncos go? Alexander Johnson has the inside track to start even as he battles inconsistencies. Rookie Justin Hollins could play inside in nickel formations. Will that leave room for Josh Watson and Jamal Carter to make the team? It's unclear. The reason for keeping Carter as he transitions to this position is his special teams acumen. However, the Broncos could sign a veteran like Malcolm Smith or Mason Foster – if not this weekend, then after the first game when salaries are no longer guaranteed.

Safety dance
How many safeties do the Broncos need? At least four -- Su'a Cravens, Trey Marshall, Shamarko Thomas and Carter -- are competing for a scant spot or two. Cravens has shown flashes, but is it enough for someone without a special teams role? Marshall, Thomas and Carter can play special teams. But Marshall has struggled in coverage, and Thomas hasn't distinguished himself on special teams as he has in the past.

Local kid Purcell in the mix
The Broncos project one remaining spot on the defensive line after cutting Zach Kerr. Deshawn Williams and Mike Purcell are making their final push as I have DeMarcus Walker making the team. Purcell, an All-State player at Highlands Ranch High School and a standout at Wyoming, has landed on previous opening day rosters with the 49ers. He has a good chance with a strong finish tonight.

Accounts receivable
Juwann Winfree is close to securing the fifth receiver's spot after a terrific special teams tackle against the Rams. If he does that again, he's a lock. As for the sixth spot, that could go to Cracraft because of his versatility or the rookie McKnight.

Full of chances
Janovich is making progress with his pectoral injury. With optimism he will only miss the first few games, it's unlikely fullback George Aston makes the team. Orson Charles could stick if the Broncos place Butt on season-ending IR following a scope on his knee. Butt told Denver7 he remains optimistic he could be ready early into the season. "You usually feel better coming out of surgery than you do going in. I had the same one at Michigan and want on to never miss a practice in two years and had back-to-back All-American seasons."