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Burning Questions: Broncos vs. Cardinals

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Each week, the Broncos will head into their game with a number of questions to answer. Sometimes, those questions will center around specific players. Other times, they could relate to entire units or schemes. But there will be one constant: The answers to these questions will help decide the outcome of the game.

That is, except for this week. As the Broncos enter their last preseason game, the score matters less than what individual players do in their final audition with Denver. As Head Coach Vic Fangio said earlier this week, there are at least 10 roster spots still up for grabs — and Thursday night’s game against the Cardinals marks the last chance for Broncos on the bubble to state their case for one of the available jobs.

Here, then, are three questions that can help frame the Broncos’ fifth and final preseason contest.

CAN KEVIN HOGAN OR BRETT RYPIEN WIN THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK JOB?

After 2019 second-round pick Drew Lock suffered a thumb injury on Aug. 19 against the 49ers, the race for the backup quarterback position shifted to a battle between Hogan and Rypien.

Hogan, a four-year vet, has played eight games in his NFL career, starting one. Through four preseason games, Hogan has completed 21-of-42 passes for 173 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. Hogan, who has been sacked five times and posted a quarterback rating of 51, rushed for a score against the 49ers.

The Stanford product has played in all four games and said Tuesday that he’s ready for a preseason finale to again decide his fate.

“This is Year 4,” said Hogan when asked how many times he’s been competing for a roster spot in the fourth preseason game, “so probably four times.”

Hogan said he knows he can’t try to do too much as he tries to win another NFL job. 

“Football is football,” Hogan said. “You can only do too much. You hurt yourself when you go out and try to do too much. Just got to go run the plays that are called and go through my reads and hit the first guy that's open. I can't worry about doing anything more.”

Rypien, meanwhile, should again see substantial action after not playing against Seattle or San Francisco. The four-year starter at Boise State has completed 19-of-33 passes for 121 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Rypien has been sacked twice and posted a quarterback rating of 62.8. 

He threw his lone interception of the preseason against the Rams on Saturday night. The undrafted rookie also provided perhaps the highlight of the Broncos’ preseason when he led a come-from-behind win against the Falcons in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game. Rypien found wide receiver Juwann Winfree in the corner of the end zone with just over 90 seconds to play to secure the win.

“It’s definitely a different role than what I’ve been used to,” Rypien said. “I played the last eight years and started from a freshman in high school and then as a freshman in college, so it’s definitely a different role. For me, I just try to focus on what I can control, just coming out here today and getting better and then putting some good film out there this week.”

Fangio didn’t disclose ahead of Thursday’s game which quarterback would start or whether Hogan or Rypien would receive more reps. Both quarterbacks are expected to play.

During the plays Fangio gives them, both quarterbacks will aim to make a lasting final impression. The Broncos’ head coach said Saturday he wants to see “separation” between the two — but the competition may not be limited to those players.

Fangio said he wouldn’t rule out signing a backup quarterback ahead of the Broncos’ Week 1 opener in Oakland.

“That’s always an option, but as you see out there there’s not a lot of them available,” Fangio said after the Broncos’ game against the Rams.

If either Hogan or Rypien can lead a few substantial scoring drives and avoid mistakes, they could convince the Broncos that their best backup quarterback option may already be in the building.

CAN THE BRONCOS’ UNDRAFTED ROOKIES FINISH THE DEAL?

The preseason is about finding players — no matter if or when they were drafted.

Denver, which has a long history of finding undrafted free agents, knows that better than most franchises. In 14 of the last 15 years, a rookie college free agent has made the Broncos’ initial 53-man roster. Last year, both Phillip Lindsay and Alexander Johnson made the cut.

In 2019, the Broncos seem poised to keep the streak going.

Outside linebacker Malik Reed, linebacker Josh Watson and fullback George Aston are three players who could find themselves as the latest in the long lineage of undrafted players.

Reed, who played his college football at the University of Nevada, seems to have the strongest hold on a roster spot. He is currently listed as Von Miller’s backup on the team’s unofficial depth chart, and he has recorded a pair of sacks, a pair of quarterback hits and two tackles for loss in preseason action.

And Miller may be his biggest advocate.

“We call him the dreamkiller,” Miller said on Aug. 22. “He’s killing quarterbacks’ dreams every single day. He’s a great guy. He’s humble. He just wants to play football. He just wants to go out there and make plays. I’m a fan. I’m a fan of Malik. I want to see him do great. He kind of reminds me of [former Broncos OLB] Shaq [Barrett] when he came in super talented just trying to find a way to play. We all saw how that turned out for Shaq. Malik, he’s a great pass rusher and I’m excited for him. I’m excited to see his growth.”

Watson, meanwhile, is a former Colorado State player who saw reps with the first-team defense during training camp and ranks second on the team in tackles. And Aston could fill in for Andy Janovich, who is recovering from a pectoral injury.

Reed didn’t play against the Rams, but both Aston and Watson saw action. If all three undrafted rookies play on Thursday night, they’ll aim to make a final statement ahead of Saturday’s roster deadline.

IS THE BRONCOS’ PUNT RETURNER ON THE TEAM’S ROSTER?

After four preseason games, the punt returner position is anything but set. Though wide receiver River Cracraft has been listed as the starter throughout the preseason, Fangio said Saturday the competition would extend through Thursday’s game.

Cracraft and Kelvin McKnight have each returned five punts, including one apiece in Saturday’s game against the Rams. Cracraft, who missed the first preseason game with an injury, has averaged 4.4 yards per return — which is 1.2 yards higher than McKnight’s average of 3.2 yards. McKnight, who also signaled for a fair catch during this preseason, has the advantage when it comes to the longest return. McKnight posted an 18-yard return against the Falcons, while Cracraft’s longest is 7 yards.

“Since he’s come back from his injury, I think he’s been getting better and better,” Fangio said of Cracraft on Tuesday. “He could be our punt returner. He fulfills a good role as a backup wideout in that he can play all the positions both mentally and physically, so he has given himself some versatility and some value.”

Fangio, though, didn’t say a player that is currently on the Broncos’ roster would trot out against Oakland to return the first punt.

“We possibly do, but like most positions we’ll look to upgrade,” Fangio said. “If we have what we have, we’ll make it work.”

Running backs Devontae Jackson and Khalfani Muhammad have taken the majority of the kickoff returns during the preseason. Devontae Booker, though, is currently listed as the starter at the position. He has handled the return responsibilities in past years and seems likely to make the Broncos’ roster again this season.

Booker was held out with the rest of the Broncos’ starters against the Rams last week.

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