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Roster Calculus Will Force Tough Choices

Posted Aug 28, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason looks at the decisions the Broncos will have to make as the 53-man roster deadline looms.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Last year, 539 players were subjected to the waiver process at the 32 teams' final cutdown to 53 players apiece following the final preseason game, a figure that didn't even include vested veterans whose contracts aren't subject to the same waiver process.
Just 28 of those players were claimed by other teams for their 53-man rosters. Now, if you really want someone to be a part of your team and don't want to risk it, then you find other players to let go. But if last year's numbers are a guide, and roughly five percent of waived players end up being snatched onto another roster within 24 hours, then you can see why teams roll the dice so often, even with players they hold in high esteem and would like to see be part of the club's future.
This is the reality of the next three days from the Broncos' perspective.
"Let’s face it, when we pick 53 we’re looking to hopefully get 53 starters -- guys that we feel good enough about to start," said Head Coach John Fox. "You need that depth throughout the season."
But often when teams make decisions on players, "good enough to start" doesn't simply mean at that moment, but eventually, after proper developmental time -- which can often be accelerated if that young player is pressed into service and forced to learn on the fly.
Even if such an opportunity does not avail itself, there are merits to patience with players at relatively embryonic stages in their development; one need only look at tight end Julius Thomas as an example.
Because the Broncos were patient through his growth and his struggles with ankle injuries, they're poised to reap the rewards of a uniquely talented tight end who, as a fourth-round pick in 2011, almost certainly would not have passed through waivers to the practice squad if the Broncos had gambled on waiving him in either of the last two years. Now the Broncos have a potential starter with a distinct skill set who is particularly well-suited to an offense like the one the Broncos run.
The other conundrum lies in having too many players for one position group. That could be an issue among guards and centers, who are lumped together for purposes of roster construction and the Broncos' stated affinity for having backups who can swing between multiple interior positions.
With the recent trade for John Moffitt and the camp signings of Ryan Lilja and Steve Vallos, the Broncos have seven interior offensive linemen who started for their teams at some point in the 2012 season: Moffitt, Lilja, Vallos, Chris Kuper and current first-teamers Manny Ramirez, Zane Beadles and Louis Vasquez. Six would appear to be the maximum, and if the Broncos keep that many interior linemen -- and also retain two backup offensive tackles on the 53-man roster -- then they would have 10 offensive linemen among the post-preseason 53, more than is typical. Beadles offers position flexibility given his background at offensive tackle, which could prove crucial as the Broncos formulate their various contingency plans up front.
The seven 2012 starters on the interior line does not include veteran C.J. Davis, who has more experience with Fox and Offensive Line Coach Dave Magazu than anyone else on the 53-man roster, having played for both in Carolina from 2009-10. It also doesn't account for Philip Blake, a fourth-round selection last year, which collectively makes the cuts at this position among the most difficult.
"That’s probably going to be one of the tougher ones for us -- on the offense at least," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase.
The cutdown will be a nervous time for many other Broncos, including the No. 3 quarterback, Zac Dysert. His game-time repetitions have been limited to a fourth-quarter appearance against the 49ers on Aug. 8, although he anticipates more work Thursday.
The team kept just two quarterbacks last year at the final roster deadline -- although it had three after bringing back Caleb Hanie one week into the regular season -- and also had two quarterbacks late in 2011, keeping No. 3 passer Adam Weber on the practice squad after Kyle Orton was released. And although Hanie was on the 53-man roster after returning to the Broncos, he didn't dress for any games.
The past isn't always an accurate guide, but Dysert knows the reality of his situation -- and admits he would "in a way" be disappointed if he's not on the 53-man roster.
"But at the same time I know that (it could) make me better and that in the scheme of the team that’s best for the team," Dysert said. "I’m a big team guy, so if that happens, then it happens and I’ll do whatever I can to make the team better."
There is a risk if the Broncos waive Dysert -- and it appears to be a bit greater than at other positions and other circumstances. From 2010-12, seven rookie drafted quarterbacks were waived. B.J. Coleman, Chandler Hamish, Zac Robinson, Levi Brown, Jonathan Crompton and Sean Canfield all passed through waivers without being claimed; the only execption was Dan LeFevour, who was waived by Chicago and immediately claimed by Cincinnati.
But the risk exists at all positions. The Broncos lost a chance to retain safety Rafael Bush last year when he was claimed by New Orleans; Bush had shown enough mettle as a special-teams thumper in 2011 to earn that shot elsewhere. That could be key in determining the future of a rookie like linebacker Lerentee McCray; while he had made plenty of plays in practice and in the first two preseason games, his punt block against St. Louis was the kind of moment that jumps off the film and separates him from others in similar situations. Special teams has helped seal many a player's place on this roster -- or somewhere in the league -- as evidenced by David Bruton the last few years or Steven Johnson last year.
"Their resume is on that tape," Fox said. "So whether it works out for them here or not, it could work out for them somewhere else."
The task for the Broncos now is selecting the 53 players with the best shot of being successful -- and hoping that up to eight others they like won't catch the eyes of anyone else in the 24 hours that follow the cuts.
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