ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** If there were any lingering questions about the improved quality of the Broncos' depth, they were answered with the cut to 53 players Saturday.
Two players who started a majority of the games last year -- defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and safety Duke Ihenacho -- were among the players let go. The improved quality around the roster forced the Broncos to keep just two quarterbacks, and to part ways with some players who had impressive preseasons, including cornerback Louis Young, running back Kapri Bibbs and linebacker/defensive end Shaquil Barrett.
"We're in a situation that you want to be in, even though it makes it much more difficult, because of the fact that you're having to let a lot of good football players go. But it's a situation that you want to be in," said Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway.
"This is by far the deepest team since I've been here, and the toughest decisions that we've had since I've been here."
The 22 roster moves were rounded out by the four-game suspension of kicker Matt Prater, which went into effect Saturday, and the placement of rookie defensive end Kenny Anunike on injured reserve.
A 'HARD' CUT
No position was deeper than defensive tackle, and that's where arguably the most difficult move was made: Vickerson, a starter in 42 of the 48 games he played for the Broncos since being claimed off waivers by the Broncos on Sept. 7, 2010.
Vickerson, 31, played more snaps than all but one other defensive player (linebacker Corey Nelson) against the Dallas Cowboys in Thursday's preseason finale. It was a chance to show that he had physically recovered from the dislocated hip he suffered last Nov. 24, and he held up well.
"Vick is a guy that's played well for us," Elway said.
But Vickerson's spot was tenuous because of the progress of 2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams, who replaced him in the starting lineup, and the continued solid play of Mitch Unrein, who had a sack Thursday and set up a Marvin Austin sack against Seattle on Aug. 7 by calling for a stunt before the snap.
"We had to make a decision on one of the two, and Mitch is a little bit younger, and a guy that we think has a higher ceiling at this point in time in his career," Elway said.
The 27-year-old Unrein is also more versatile. He worked as a four-techinque defensive end during the preseason, and saw snaps there Thursday. He also contributes on special teams, and has worked as a short-yardage fullback.
"He can move outside, play some end, and he's got a little bit more flexibility there," Elway said.
Added Unrein on Thursday: "I try to learn as many position as I can, try to play special teams, when I can. The more you can do, the better it is ... I think my role is kind of as a utility guy. Hopefully that will hold some weight."
It obviously did.
The release of Ihenacho came after an offseason in which the Broncos signed safety T.J. Ward from the Browns and welcomed Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter back from injuries that cost them nine and 19 games, respectively, in the 2013 regular season and playoffs.
THE STREAK IS ALIVE
The Broncos' roster is down to the league-mandated 53-man limit. Here are the 53 currently on the team.
When Roc Alexander made the 53-man roster at the deadline 10 years ago, no one could have imagined that he would start a streak that continues to this day: of having at least one undrafted rookie make the 53-man roster out of the preseason.
Running back Juwan Thompson and wide receiver Isaiah Burse are responsible for extending that run to 11 seasons -- three of which (2008, 2012, 2014) included multiple undrafted rookies.
It is a particular point of pride for the Broncos, and a credit to their scouting department. It also allows them an advantage in the free-for-all scramble for undrafted players after each draft. The Broncos can promise those players a legitimate chance to make the squad, and cite the streak as concrete evidence of that sentiment.
"I don't think that's always our goal, to have a CFA (college free agent) make it, but I think it's a compliment to our scouting staff," Elway said.
Thompson exploded onto the radar with a diverse skill set that was displayed in four preseason games: powerful, decisive one-cut running, shiftiness in the open field, above-average blocking and the acumen to grasp the offense in a hurry.
His 5-foot-11, 225-pound frame is ideally suited to pass protection; his work in Duke's offense provided him a foundation for proper use of his body and technique. He also saw some work at fullback Thursday, adding to his value.
C.J. Anderson's concussion and Montee Ball's appendectomy expedited Thompson's growth, giving him first-team snaps next to Peyton Manning.
"If there was an easy one to see, it was what Juwan Thompson did this preseason with the way he ran the ball," Elway said. "He's also going to help on special teams. When you get those guys that battle for roster spots, that's where special teams comes into play and is so important. Juwan not only ran the ball very well, but did a tremendous job on special teams."
Burse's trajectory was different. Although he was given a long look on returns throughout training camp and the preseason, he struggled until Thursday. After dropping a punt following a fair-catch call in the second quarter and fielding it on the bounce, Burse exploded, catching two passes for 42 yards on the subsequent possession. Burse had two more catches for 23 yards in the second half, and added two punt returns of 18 and 26 yards.
"When you get that opportunity, you have to take advantage of it," Elway said. "That's what Burse did, especially last week in Dallas, when he showed that he's got the ability to catch those punts, and when he does get it, he can get positive yards, and run north and south, and he has the toughness to do it. You have to have the guts of a kamikaze back there, because you've got [coverage] guys barreling down."
- In addition to the 22 draft picks from the Elway era, the Broncos have seven other players who broke into the league as undrafted signees since 2011 and have known no other team: Burse, Thompson, Anderson and cornerback Chris Harris Jr., long snapper Aaron Brewer and linebackers Lerentee McCray and Steven Johnson, That's 54.7 percent of the roster that has been brought in and homegrown since Elway's arrival.
- The least experienced position group on the roster is running back, where four players have a combined four previous seasons of NFL service. Half of those belong to Ronnie Hillman, a 2012 third-round pick. But that doesn't faze Elway. "I like them," he said. "I've said that all along."
- No Bronco took a longer trek -- while never joining another team -- before finally making the 53-man roster than offensive lineman Ben Garland. His time with the team began in the 2010 offseason, and was followed by two seasons on military leave and two on the practice squad. Last year, he converted from defensive tackle to the offensive line. "He's got that determination like no other," Elway said. "He's very bright and he's tough and he just worked his tail off to earn a roster spot on the team. He's just going to continue to get better and better, too ... he's got the qualities where we believe he can be a very good offensive lineman."
- All but one of the Broncos' six 2014 draft picks (center Matt Paradis) made the 53-man roster. With the decisions to place tackle Vinston Painter and quarterback Zac Dysert on waivers, there are four draft picks remaining on the 53-man roster from the 2013 class. Six of seven 2012 selections and seven of nine 2011 picks are also on the 53-man roster.
- The Broncos' low priority for waiver claims (No. 31) makes it difficult to claim any players. "There probably won't be much left for us there," Elway said. He has made just one waiver claim in the last three years on the day after the cut to 53, adding linebacker Adrian Robinson last year.
- This is the first time since John Fox's arrival as head coach that the Broncos carried just two quarterbacks at the roster deadline. The Broncos also had two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster in 2011 after the November release of Kyle Orton, and for three days in September 2012 after releasing and re-signing Caleb Hanie. The Broncos have not had more than two quarterbacks throw passes in a single regular season since 2003. "We felt we needed that spot to keep another player that we thought was going to be able to help us now, and help us special-teams wise," Elway said. He added that he hopes to sign Dysert to the practice squad.