Jan 12, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos nose tackle Mitch Unrein (96) grabs the ball after a sack against San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) during the 2013 AFC divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
As the Denver Broncos head into the second exhibition game of 2014, the coaching and front office staffs will get a second look at guys who are on the fence between the final 53-man roster and the practice squad as well as the fence between the practice squad and the cutting room floor. The frustrating thing for Denver this year is that there seems to be a dearth of quality depth that is going to extend beyond the practice squad and onto the waiver wire. The rules for the roster spots are convoluted, to say the least. However, we’ll try to clear up the muddy waters. First, there are players who don’t have or are out of practice squad options. This means that they either played at least 8 previous games on the 46-man, game day roster, haven’t used up his 3 years of practice squad eligibility, and/or clears waivers. These guys, barring injuries to others, are in a real dog-fight to earn a spot (sorry Michael Vick…too soon?). For me, the highest profile guy who is in the toughest battle is DT, Mitch Unrein. The 4th year Cowboy out of the University of Wyoming has been one of the most versatile defensive players over the past three seasons and has accepted any role thrown at him. Unrein is also a guy who infuses energy into the defense when he subs out one of the starters. His roster spot is not in jeopardy because he is not worthy of a that spot, but because of the quality depth at the defensive tackle position; of which he is a big part. Going into Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, Unrein is third on the depth chart behind Sylvester Williams, Kevin Vickerson, and in a 4-man front, Terrance Knighton…yes, “Pot Roast”. Having played 46 of his first 48 games in the NFL, Unrein will have to make the 53-man roster in order to play his forth season with the Broncos. I am a big Unrein fan so I hope he makes the cut, otherwise, he’ll be on another roster on August 31st, the day after the final roster cuts are made. One thing to keep an eye on, though, is if the Broncos make the decision at defensive tackle based on salary/contract, Vickerson could be the odd man out since his number is not salary-cap friendly. Next is a group of players who are eligible for the practice squad but have already used up two of their three eligible practice squad years: OT Paul Cornick, G Ben Garland, LB Brandon Marshall, WR Nathan Palmer, and TEs Gerrell Robinson and Jameson Konz. In light of the injury that will cost Danny Trevathan the first 5 games or so of the season, Marshall looks to graduate to the final 53. Garland also looks likely to make the 53 to add offensive line depth and the team is pretty high on Robinson. With two rookie WRs, Cody Latimer and Isaiah Burse, as well as 5-year vet, Jordan Norwood, impressing in camp, it looks as if the it’s the end of the orange and blue line for Palmer. Same could be said for Konz because of the number of quality tight ends on the roster. In May, the Broncos made six picks at the human livestock show known as the NFL Draft. Of the six players drafted in May, four (CB Bradley Roby, Latimer, OT Michael Schofield, and LB Lamin Barrow) should make the 53 heading into the season. The other two, C Matt Paradis and LB Corey Nelson look like they’re ticketed for the practice squad. Now what about the non-drafted rookie free agents? This is a large group, many of whom have had a good camp, so it is really difficult to speculate as to which 4-5 players will emerge from this pack of hopefuls. In my humble opinion, RB, Juwan Thompson makes the 53 while, RB, Kapri Bibbs, and Burse appear very likely headed to the practice squad. At some point, Burse could be a special teams factor as a return guy.I think LB, Shaquil Barrett is on the bubble but if the Broncos hold onto him, it will be on the practice squad. Lastly there is the group of players with more than a year’s worth of experience and two practice squad years remaining. Three of these guys, DL Quanterus Smith, LB, Lerentee McCray, and RB, C.J. Anderson will probably make the 53 while QB, Zac Dysert and OL, Vinston Painter will likely round out the practice squad. The caveat to Dysert making the team is if Denver wants to carry two rather than three QBs. But from what I am hearing, they are impressed with second year QB from Miami (OH). Here’s a list of the rest and where they are likely to end up. Bubble Guys DT, Kenny Anunike, S, John Boyett, LB Steven Johnson, LB, Shaquil Barrett Sorry! It’s Not Us, It’s You DE, Greg Latta , LB, Chase Vaughn, CB, Louis Young, DB, Jordan Sullen, OL, Ryan Miller, WR, Greg Wilson, RB, Jerodis Williams, DT, Will Pericak, DT, Cody Larsen, LB, Jerrell Harris, QB Bryn Renner, K, Mitch Ewald, RB, Brennan Clay. So if you’re keeping score at home, my prognosticated practice squad looks like this: Boyett/Barrett, Bibbs, Robinson, Burse, Paradis, Painter, Dysert, and Nelson. Remember, all of these prognostications could change if any of these guys are claimed off of waivers by another team. One final note, I have been hearing good things about this Peyton Manning guy. He has a bright future ahead of him so look for him to make the final 53-man roster. This is exhausting just writing about it so I can only imagine the task which awaits John Elway, Joe Ellis, and the Broncos’ brass in trying to make these decisions. Time for a nap.