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Predicting Broncos' 53-man roster following undefeated preseason

Wide receiver, safety, cornerback present tough choices
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Posted at 11:04 AM, Aug 29, 2021

ENGLEWOOD -- Everything matters in the preseason, Yet nothing counts. Nobody remembers the record in August -- unless it represents a thread in a fast start or an alarming spiral.

The Broncos finished undefeated. This is the equivalent of an MLB team starring in March. You don't get a Cactus for winning in Arizona. Yet, it can reveal promise. And for a Broncos team that owns an eight-game September losing streak -- seven under coach Vic Fangio -- the players need not qualify their summer. It was a good thing.

Now, comes the hard part: showing it is relevant when, as starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said, "things get real."

"They love football here in Denver," Fangio said. "They love the Broncos and now it's time for us to give them a team they will be proud of."

It starts with setting the roster, which will include the inevitable tweaks to account for injured reserve players and maybe a waiver wire claim. My prediction on the 53-man group, which must be set Tuesday by 2 p.m.:

OFFENSE 25
QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Drew Lock
Bridgewater won a spirited competition, completing 22 of 30 passes with three touchdowns, no turnovers and 34 team points in 59 plays. That's the equivalent of one regular season game. Drew Lock showed promise, and should benefit from watching Bridgewater (he was never throwing his hands in the air and entering the transfer portal). Lock needs to continue to refine his footwork so he's throwing to spots on the field, not looking for the receiver first. Both quarterbacks will be needed to end the franchise's streak of four straight losing seasons. Brett Rypien makes the practice squad if he clears waivers.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Javonte Williams, Mike Boone, Royce Freeman
Gordon is the starter. End of discussion. But he must play well and avoid fumbles to keep Williams off the field. Freeman made the team the day Boone pulled his quadriceps during practice in Minnesota. Boone must be on the initial 53-man roster to be placed on the injured reserve to begin the season. It remains unclear if the Broncos are willing to lose him for the season's first three weeks with his recovery possible by the Jaguars game.

TE: Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Saubert, Andrew Beck
Fant sits on the doorstep of stardom. This preseason, however, was confusing. He was not targeted in the first two games and missed Saturday with a leg injury the team hopes will not sideline him for the season opener. The Broncos need to prioritize Fant on third down and in the red zone. Okwuegbunam is moving well following ACL surgery, but could use more reps to get up to speed. Saubert emerged as one of the top surprises of camp with his ability to catch the ball, serve as a solid blocker and lead on special teams. Beck is a quasi-fullback and valuable special teamer.

WR Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, K.J. Hamler, Diontae Spencer, Trinity Benson
Sutton can exhale. Not only did he finish his preseason debut healthy, but he showed burst lacking in practices, catching a 19-yard out with a crisp route and snaring a sliding TD. He might be on a play limit in the opener, but he insists it won't be necessary. Jeudy's pratices did not translate seamlessly to the games. It felt like the Broncos were holding stuff back, understandably so, on how he will be used. There's no denying he has a strong connection with Bridgewater. Hamler is dynamic when healthy. He will be needed because Patrick has not looked like himself as he has battled a leg injury in camp. Spencer returns as the punt returner and Trinity Benson edges out Tyrie Cleveland, Seth Williams and Kendall Hinton for the final spot, all of whom are practice squad possibilities.

Offensive line: Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Bobby Massie, Calvin Anderson, Netane Muti, Quinn Meinerz, Austin Schlottmann
It's time for this group to realize its potential. A top 10 running game and solid pass protection. No excuses. Bolles anchors the group, and Denver cannot afford regression by him. Massie, it appears, won the right tackle job, leaving Anderson as the swing tackle. Muti and Meinerz are intriguing prospects at guard. Meinerz's transition to center was bumpy, which is why I have Schlottmann making the team over the likes of Cam Fleming and Quinn Bailey.

DEFENSE 25
Outside linebacker: Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Malik Reed, Jonathon Cooper.
This is a dynamic, athletic foursome. Miller and Chubb should combine for 25 sacks. For that to happen, Fangio needs to trust his depth and play Von roughly 70 percent of the snaps to maximize his rush attempts. Cooper became the best story in camp, returning after three 8-hour heart surgeries. He brings energy and a terrific attitude as he beat out practice squad candidate Derrek Tuszka.

Inside linebacker: Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, Justin Strnad, Baron Browning, Barrington Wade
Johnson and Jewell bring experience and the ability to stuff the run. Strnad boasts versatility in coverage, and Browning can play inside or even provide an outside rush on occasion. I had Wade edge out Curtis Robinson with his performance Saturday night. He finished with five tackles and a half sack.

Defensive line: Dre'Mont Jones, Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, Shamar Stephen, DeShawn Williams, McTelvin Agim
This is a sneaky gnarly unit, especially if Jones makes his expected leap. Shamar Stephen earned a spot, showing well in Purcell's absence early in camp. Williams and Agim proved more valuable than seventh-rounder Marquiss Spencer, who would make a nice practice squad addition.

Cornerback: Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, Pat Surtain II, Michael Ojemudia, Nate Hairston
Darby quietly had a terrific summer. This secondary should allow Fangio to employ multiple coverages, opening up avenues to blitz. Surtain will be in the nickel and dime packages, and as Von Miller said, the rookie could be used to cover tight ends like Travis Kelce and Darren Waller. Ojemudia must begin on the 53-man to go on IR, which is the move as he recovers from a hamstring injury. Hairston edged out speedy draft pick Kary Vincent Jr., who struggled to stay healthy. I wonder if Vincent clears waivers after suffering an injury on Saturday, leaving a path to the practice squad.

Safety: Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Caden Sterns, P.J. Locke
Simmons will finish this year as the team MVP if the Broncos reach the playoffs. He covers more range than Lewis and Clark. Jackson is the soundtrack of the defense. Sterns could be a steal as a fifth-round pick if he stays healthy. P.J. Locke nosed out draft pick Jamar Johnson after a terrific camp. Johnson played well Saturday, but had too much ground to cover.

Specialists: Brandon McManus, Sam Martin, Jacob Bobenmoyer
McManus is a reliable weapon from 55 yards in. Martin must improve, and there can be no hiccups this season from Bobenmoyer.