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Tough Decisions Produce 53-Man Roster

Posted Aug 31, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason looks at the decisions that went in to producing the 53-man roster.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- John Elway's casual attire -- golf shirt and shorts -- belied the gravity of his task Friday and Saturday in paring the Broncos' roster down to 53 players.

It was a tougher task than it was the previous two years, when the Broncos were still trying to rebuild the depth on their roster, which had been hollowed out from a few years of poor drafts and impatient roster moves. The Broncos of 2013 have 10 starters who were added since 2010, including seven who have come aboard in Elway's three drafts. Another first-teamer, Duke Ihenacho, was an undrafted signee last year, and cornerback Chris Harris, who will likely play a majority of the snaps, was also an undrafted pickup under Elway's watch, in 2011. Add in Von Miller when he returns from a suspension, and you have a team that is defined as much by its draft and development as the older players it's added and retained.

Nevertheless, not every player you develop sticks. The Broncos have a surplus. Compare that to the Buffalo Bills, who didn't even have 53 men they wanted to retain; Saturday, they pared their roster to 50, knowing that there were at least three better players elsewhere. That's the difference between a team coming off a 13-3 season and two consecutive division titles and one still looking for its first playoff appearance this century.

"You never want to release anybody – but as you get better, you have fewer slots," Elway said. "That’s the situation that we’re running into and we’ve got a lot of good football players on this team. The rookies these days, they have to get on board and get there fast and mature fast, which is tough to do for some. Our goal is always to keep them, but that’s why you have competition, too.”

And competition means having winners -- and those who lose their spots.

* The Broncos kept all of their draft picks on the 53-man roster last year, but waived 2013 picks Tavarres King (fifth round) and Vinston Painter (sixth round), while moving Quanterus Smith to injured reserve.

"What went into the decision – we’re going to keep the best 53," Elway said. "We’re fortunate with the fact that we had a lot of tough decisions but the bottom line is what we want to do is keep the best 53 and that’s what led us to keeping five receivers and left Tavarres on the outside."

The Broncos have just five wide receivers, which means some of their depth will have to come from the practice squad. Whether King or Gerell Robinson is a part of that remains to be seen; any team can claim them for their 53-man roster before Sunday morning.

Elway didn't reveal his hand regarding the practice squad.

"That’s liquid," he said. "We announced the 53, it’s going to be a liquid process and the fact is that it always is.”

* Smith's knee, which suffered a torn ACL last November, "never came back," Elway said. Smith said after Thursday's game that the knee was sore, with the discomfort increasing as his 52-play workload mounted.

"He was favoring it the whole training camp and really even in the game, you could tell that he was favoring it," Elway said. "We just didn’t think he was ready – nor was the knee ready. That’s why we ended up going with IR.”

* It was a mild surprise that the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs, but when you consider that they played a majority of their defensive snaps last year in formations with at least five defensive backs, depth was needed more there than at other spots.

Champ Bailey's foot injury also impacted the decision.

"That’s part of it," Elway said, "but I think you have to look at special teams, too."

And that's where players like Omar Bolden, David Bruton and Kayvon Webster have the chance to make the most immediate impact. If there are more injuries at safety and cornerback, their defensive role will increase, but for now, look for them to provide most of the speed on the Broncos' coverage units.

Bolden moved to safety this week, where he appears set to stay, with Quentin Jammer returning to cornerback, where he played the last 11 seasons for San Diego.

"We felt that Quentin is better at corner than he is at safety," Elway said. "So we wanted to look at Omar, who has flexibility and is great on (special teams), so we looked at him at safety.” 

* Another surprise was that the Broncos kept five running backs on the 53-man roster, although it will likely be a bit longer before C.J. Anderson can contribute. Anderson is off crutches and is progressing in his rehabilitation from a knee injury, but isn't there yet.

“Some slight jogging, nothing explosive yet. We’re working on that part now, that’s what we’re doing with the rehab, working on that part now," he said. "Strengthening up all the muscles around it so I can get ready to go when I get back.”

Anderson said the coaches haven't told him what his role will be once he recovers -- whether it's as strictly a running back or a multi-role back in the vein of Lance Ball, who was released Saturday.

"Everybody saw him run early against San Francisco," Elway said, "so we knew what he could do. I think that C.J. went out and won a spot.”

* With Stewart Bradley's wrist injury set to sideline him for the season, keeping Paris Lenon was essential to providing some veteran depth at linebacker. He's the Broncos' only reserve linebacker to have started in the NFL.

"He’s come in and he’s played well," Elway said. "He's shown that he’s been in shape so he’s going to add a lot of depth to that position and be in that rotation too."

The issue for Bradley was not merely the injury, but the recovery.

"We just (considered) the length of the time with that injury, plus with the amount of time it was going to take for him to come back," Elway said. "And then, really, how restricted was he when he came back off -- and he was going to really be one-handed for another four or five weeks. We just thought that it was probably best to put him on IR just because of taking a spot for six-to-eight weeks and (seeing) how effective is he going to be able to be coming back.”

* Another factor at linebacker was Lerentee McCray's high ankle sprain that felled him Thursday night.

"So he was six-to-10 weeks. Again, you go back: In six-to-10 weeks, how effective is he going to be? You’re taking up a slot and there’s not enough slots anyway," Elway said. "He had a good camp so hopefully he can learn a little bit this year and we’ll look forward to seeing what he can do next year.”

Assuming he recovers properly, McCray's future appears bright. His skill set makes him an ideal backup to Von Miller, since both are versatile enough to play strong-side linebacker while also working as a defensive end in pass-rush situations.

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