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Breaking down the Broncos' initial roster at the 53-man deadline

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- This year, President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway wasted no time heading to the media room at UCHealth Training Center to address the moves in advance of Saturday's 2 p.m. MDT roster deadline.

But his day was far from done. When Elway and Head Coach Vic Fangio concluded their remarks, they went back to work.

“We’re going to continue to try to get better when we see the [transaction] wire," Elway said. "If there’s something on there that can make us better, then we’ll take advantage of it.”

One thing was clear: While the job of roster construction is never truly done, the next few days will be hectic.

QUARTERBACKS

For the fourth time in Elway's nine seasons guiding football operations, the Broncos kept two quarterbacks on their initial 53-man roster, waiving Kevin Hogan and Brett Rypien.

In one of those years -- 2017 -- the Broncos quickly added veteran Brock Osweiler to back up Trevor Siemian while Paxton Lynch recovered from an injury. Elway expects to add a new quarterback behind Drew Lock, who will head to injured reserve because of a thumb injury.

What kind of quarterback would that be? Ideally, it would be a quarterback with scheme familiarity and upside potential.

"We want both," Elway said. "It would be nice to have both of that. Especially going into the first week. Both of those help. So we'll see what happens."

However, of the two attributes, knowledge of the scheme takes priority in the short term.

"The good thing is we have an extra day or two [before the regular-season opener in Oakland], but it is important to have at least a feel of the offense," Elway said.

The Broncos could bring Lock back from injured reserve in the second half of the season, but his injury and the need for the 53-man roster spot necessitated the move. The Broncos can recall just two players from injured reserve.

"With where Drew is -- obviously we'd like to have him on the practice field, but obviously he has that thumb that's going to be six to eight weeks, so it's going to be longer with a quarterback with the thumb" Elway said. "We needed that spot."

Lock will be busy regardless.

"It's not a year off for him," Elway said. "He's going to be able to do everything other than be on the football field."

RUNNING BACKS

The Broncos kept four players -- Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker and Theo Riddick. Elway said that Riddick will "probably" head to injured reserve with a shoulder injury.

Lindsay, Freeman and Booker appear poised to resume the roles each had when they were all healthy last year, with Booker being more of a third-down option and a kickoff returner. Riddick's expected move to injured reserve gives the Broncos the potential to inject some fresh legs into the mix at midseason, which could be valuable given the high attrition rate of running backs.

TIGHT END/FULLBACK

The Broncos kept four tight ends -- rookie Noah Fant and veterans Jeff Heuerman, Jake Butt and Troy Fumagalli, who spent his first season on injured reserve. Butt will go on injured reserve following a knee scope last week.

With the decision to waive rookie George Aston and release veteran tight end Orson Charles, who played more snaps at fullback last year than tight end while with the Browns, the Broncos do not have a healthy fullback on the roster. Andy Janovich will continue his recovery from a pectoral-muscle injury and is expected to miss another two to three weeks.

Fumagalli motioned into a fullback alignment on occasion during training camp and the preseason, but Elway noted that the short-term solution at fullback could involve adding another tight end.

"We'll continue to look at the tight end position and see what's available as far as what's out there, claiming a tight end or whatnot," Elway said. "That's kind of the plan right now."

WIDE RECEIVERS

There were no surprises in this group. Sixth-round pick Juwann Winfree stuck as the only rookie in the group behind veterans Emmanuel Sanders, Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick, all of whom got the preseason finale off.

River Cracraft snagged a spot and is currently the punt returner, but Elway said he's "still looking" for someone to seize the returner role.

"We continue to look and try to get better there," Elway said. "Right now it’s River, but we’ll continue to try to get better there if we can."

This marked the sixth time in the last seven years that the Broncos kept six wide receivers on the 53-man roster. Last year was the exception, as they kept five, but they bumped themselves back up to six after re-signing Isaiah McKenzie before the regular-season opener.

OFFENSIVE LINE

For the first time in Elway's nine-season stint, the Broncos kept just eight offensive linemen on their initial 53-man roster. They had nine offensive linemen in each of the last eight seasons.

The Broncos opted for youth in the three reserves. Only Elijah Wilkinson has starting experience. Interior backup Austin Schlottmann spent last year on the Broncos' practice squad, while second-year veteran Jake Rodgers was on the New York Giants' 53-man roster for one week in 2016 and has played for the practice squads of six teams over the last four seasons.

“[Rodgers] just kept improving," Fangio said. "I think that [Offensive Line Coach] Mike [Munchak] and his guys in the O-Line with him that are helping him, [Assistant Offensive Line Coach Chris Kuper] and [Offensive Quality Control Coach] Justin [Rascati] did a great job with him and the guy just kept improving.

"He obviously has a lot more improving to do and that’s our job to get it out of him, but he did a good job.”

DEFENSIVE LINE

For the third time since the Broncos changed to a 3-4 alignment in 2015, the Broncos kept six defensive linemen on their initial 53-man roster, with rookie Dre'Mont Jones, third-year veteran DeMarcus Walker and fifth-year veteran Mike Purcell comprising the reserves behind first-teamers Adam Gotsis, Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe.

Walker and Purcell erased any doubts about their viability with their play against the Los Angeles Rams last week. The two of them teamed up to help stop the Rams on consecutive plays within one yard of the line to gain, forcing a turnover on downs in the red zone.

"We needed help on the defensive line and they've played well so far," Elway said.

Purcell and Fangio were together in San Francisco in 2014 and 2015. Purcell also played on the Bears' practice squad under Fangio in 2017.

“I remember when John and [Director of Player Personnel] Matt [Russell] came to me and said that we’re thinking about signing Purcell way back when. I said, ‘Be careful; you might like him,'" Fangio said. "Mike came in and had a heck of a camp. He earned his way on this football team, no two ways about it, through practice and through the games."

LINEBACKERS

Injuries are a defining element of the story at inside linebacker, with starter Todd Davis still working his way back from a calf injury and backup Joe Jones continuing his recovery from an elbow injury. Neither will go on injured reserve, but Elway said he will visit with Corey Nelson, a former Bronco (2014-17) recently released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Davis hopes to be back for the Raiders game.

"It would be [difficult]," Fangio said, "but Todd’s a tough guy and a smart guy with a lot of experience so if anybody could do it, it would be him.”

The other story at linebacker is the presence of three rookies: Justin Hollins, Malik Reed and Josh Watson. Second-year veteran Alexander Johnson played in just one game last season.

“A.J. has been out of football for a while until last year when he got picked up here and I think he still has a lot more improving to do, but I’m encouraged by where he’s headed," Fangio said.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

For the third time in the last four seasons, the Broncos kept nine defensive backs on their initial roster. Last year, the Broncos carried 10 defensive backs on the initial 53-man roster, but moved Su'a Cravens to recallable injured reserve one day later.

With the trade for Duke Dawson, 60 percent of the Broncos' pure cornerback corps is comprised of newcomers: Dawson, Bryce Callahan and De'Vante Bausby. When Kareem Jackson works at cornerback, that makes four out of six who arrived in the last five and a half months.

Dawson, like Kareem Jackson, has positional flexibility and can work at safety and cornerback. Fangio said his acquisition was not a result of concern over Callahan's health.

"No, it’s just a guy we liked that was available at a position that is of dire need for all teams and there’s not enough of them to go around," Fangio said, "so that’s that.”

SPECIAL TEAMS

With no competition on the roster for long snapper Casey Kreiter, punter Colby Wadman and kicker Brandon McManus, their status was relatively assured heading into Saturday.

Booker appears to have the kickoff-returner role, and Cracraft is the punt returner after the Broncos released rookie Kelvin McKnight, who handled second-half punt returns Thursday against Arizona. But that role could still be in flux.

"If there’s someone better than River, then we’ll see what we can do," Elway said.

A look at the Broncos' active roster, one player at a time.

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