The Broncos have their first preseason game in the books, but many starting positions are still up for grabs. Obviously, Peyton Manning will be the starter at quarterback. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Eric Decker will be the top 3 receivers. Champ Bailey will be the number one corner. But starting positions like running back, center, middle linebacker, and the safety positions are to be determined.
Ronnie Hillman is listed atop the depth chart currently, but there are still three more preseason games to sort out who will be the starter week one against Baltimore. Hillman is listed ahead of fellow backs Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno, but in the first preseason game none of these backs did much to separate themselves from the pack. Hillman had just 3 carries for 9 yards, Ball rushed 5 times for 9 yards, and Moreno had 6 carries for 23 yards.
The Broncos battle for the starting running back is wide-open. While, Hillman, Ball, and Moreno all the three most likely candidates, C.J. Anderson, an undrafted rookie from the University of California, made a strong case to join the conversation on Thursday night. Anderson had 15 carries for 69 yards against the 49ers 2nd and 3rd string defenses. It will be interesting to see who emerges week one against Baltimore. While Hillman, Ball, and Moreno lead the pack right now, Anderson is an intriguing dark-horse candidate to steal a spot on the Broncos’ final roster and potentially even grab the starting running back job.
At center the Broncos have been decimated by injuries. The Broncos lost Dan Koppen for the year to injury and are also without J.D. Walton until mid-October. Currently, Manny Ramirez, a fill-in at the guard position last year, is listed as the starting center on the Broncos depth chart. The Broncos signed Steven Vallos and convinced Ryan Lilja to come out of retirement and sign a one year deal to compete at the center position. It is important for the Broncos centers to get acclimated to working with Manning.
An interesting option to try at center for the Broncos would be fan favorite Chris Kuper. Kuper has not been quite the player he was since this happened at the end of the 2011-12 season. With the addition of Louis Vasquez at guard and Zane Beadles as the other starter at guard, Kuper may find himself without a spot at his natural position. The Broncos could give him a shot at center if he is healthy this year and if they continue to get bit by the injury bug at center.
Joe Mays’ release last month has opened up the battle for the starting middle linebacker position for the Broncos. The Broncos depth chart currently lists Nate Irving, the 3rd year linebacker out of North Carolina State, as the starter. Stewart Bradley is in the mix as well after coming over from Arizona as a free agent this offseason. Irving and Bradley got the most playing time on Thursday night and are also listed as the top two middle linebackers on the Broncos depth chart. Steven Johnson is listed as the 3rd string middle linebacker and has a shot as to win the starting job as well. Johnson, an undrafted rookie last year out of Kansas, had just one tackle Thursday. Irving and Bradley had more impressive stat lines. Irving had 4 tackles, a sack, and made a nice play to force a fumble that Shaun Phillips picked up and ran in for the Broncos’ only touchdown of the night. Bradley made 6 tackles (5 solo) in his preseason debut for the Broncos. Irving looks like he is the favorite to win the job, but if he gets injured or falters do not be surprised to see Bradley or Johnson in the middle of the Broncos defense.
After what happened to the Broncos in the playoffs last year, they have opened up competition for their safety positions. Rahim Moore and Mike Adams are once again listed as the starting safeties. The emergence of second year man Duke Ihenacho and special teams ace David Bruton have put heat on Moore and Adams. Quinton Carter is healthy and the Broncos brought in former Chargers CB Quentin Jammer to compete at safety. In preseason game No. 1, Adams picked off a pass and Moore recovered a fumble, but Ihenacho stole the show. Ihenacho forced a fumble on San Francisco’s wide receiver A.J. Jenkins that was recovered by Moore and he also led the team with 7 tackles. Moore is listed as starting free safety with veterans Bruton and Jammer behind him on the depth chart. Adams is listed as the starting strong safety with Ihenacho and Carter behind him. This is probably the most competitive position battle we will see at Broncos camp and it is anyone’s guess as to who will emerge as the starters.
There is a lot to be sorted out still before Week 1 against Baltimore. More and more clarity should come which each preseason game. The Broncos will be in action again Saturday night in Seattle against the Seahawks.