ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** In the end, Ryan Lilja didn't have enough.
No player with more experience was trimmed from the Broncos' roster on Saturday. But a flare-up of his knee against Seattle on Aug. 17 and his occasional struggles with handling bull-rushes from defensive tackles 40 or 50 pounds heavier sounded alarms that his late-summer comeback was not going to work out as he or the Broncos hoped.
Lilja's release was a justifiable decision given the overall construction of depth on the interior offensive line. Chris Kuper's leg has healed enough for him to practice, and he's worked on his snapping, so he could be an option. Steve Vallos provides the requisite experienced depth at center, having started there as recently as Week 17 of last year for Jacksonville. Recently acquired John Moffitt had a fairly strong game at both guard slots on Thursday, and he started at center in Wisconsin in 2008 and late in 2009, so he's another option there.
The cut decisions are painful, but sometimes they are clear: there are other players, younger and with potentially untapped upside, who can do what someone older does. It's cold, it's calculated, and it's life, and unfortunately for Lilja, it made him the most prominent name among those on the Broncos' list Saturday.
Five more thoughts jump out from the 22 roster moves made by the Broncos to pare the roster down to 53.
1. The waiving of draft picks Vinston Painter and Tavarres King was a bit of a stunner, given the Broncos' patience in recent years with members of their draft class. King becomes the highest draft pick of the John Elway/John Fox era to be waived as a rookie.
That Zac Dysert was not among the rookie draft picks waived shows that they didn't believe he would pass through waivers without being claimed; although he struggled while under pressure in the fourth quarter Thursday, he showed enough to justify a place in the Broncos' long-term plans during his work against the 49ers and Cardinals, and a 92.5 preseason quarterback rating reflects that.
2. With King, Gerell Robinson and Lamaar Thomas all waived, the Broncos go into the season with limited depth behind Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker at wide receiver; only Andre Caldwell has substantial experience, and Trindon Holliday, given his relatively small size and unique skill set, is not necessarily the type of player built for a heavy in-game workload.
But in effect, much of their in-game, emergency depth at wide receiver will come from the tight end spot. If they lose two of their three starting receivers in a game, you can expect to see heavy use of two-tight end formations, which will be a staple of the offense, anyway. Jacob Tamme was the de facto backup at slot receiver last year, filling in last December against Tampa Bay when Brandon Stokley was injured, and can handle that role again if Welker is hurt.
Expect the Broncos to target this area heavily when they construct the practice squad. The question now is whether any of the receivers they released will pass through waivers, or if they will have to look elsewhere.
3. Five running backs for a team that used more than one man in the backfield with the quarterback on just 20.2 percent of its preseason snaps seems to be a bit of a luxury, but the multi-faceted use of those runners -- whether split wide or lined up closer to the offensive tackles -- will make this justifiable as game plans are put together.
It was also clear the Broncos did not believe C.J. Anderson would possibly make it to the practice squad. There's little chance of activating all five running backs on game day, so Anderson, as the fifth-teamer, may end up clad in sweats while standing on the sideline, even after the knee injury he suffered Aug. 13 heals.
4. Defensive end Quanterus Smith and linebackers Stewart Bradley and Lerentee McCray were placed on injured reserve, and of the three, only Bradley could be considered a surprise.
The heavy boot on McCray's right leg and foot and the crutches he needed to leave Sports Authority Field at Mile High after Thursday's game offered evidence that McCray's fate involved IR. It was a crushing blow to McCray and the Broncos, but if he heals probably, he should still factor into their long-term plans, as his skill set makes him an ideal backup for Von Miller, as both have stand-up/hand-in-the dirt positional flexibility.
Smith noted that his knee became more sore as Thursday's game progressed. It was clear that he was not all the way back from the November 2012 surgery he underwent to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament; the burst he displayed off the snap and getting to the edge prior to the injury only emerged in flashes this summer. Injured reserve was a possibility all along for Smith, and this draft pick was going to be judged by where he was in 2014 and 2015, not this moment.
Bradley's move to injured reserve ends his season; the Broncos opted not to use the eligible-to-return designation on him. This appears to make Wesley Woodyard's move to middle linebacker permanent for this year, with Paris Lenon in line to back him up.
5. When you're trying to sign undrafted rookies, it's like college-football recruiting compressed down to its barest essence: it's a sales pitch, and you need a hook and a lure to catch the big fish. The best hook is legitimate hope, and the Broncos have been able to offer that -- and can continue to do so, now that their streak of years with at least one undrafted player making the 53-man roster now stands at 10.
Signing undrafted players gets more difficult when you're pushing for a Super Bowl. The rookies often perceive their chances of making a roster to be greater on a team with plentiful holes. But the decision to keep Anderson, even with an injury, shows that if you do enough in the summer, the Broncos will find a way to keep you, even if it means a slight re-shuffling of their plans.
A few other quick hits …
- Linebacker Steven Johnson looked to be on the bubble at one point during training camp, but his work on special teams was always going to give him a good shot to remain on the 53-man roster. He now has more time to develop on the practice field as a linebacker, and could have a greater defensive presence long-term if he blossoms there.
- Expect running back Lance Ball to catch on somewhere. Running backs as versatile as him end up finding spots. The Broncos would be thrilled if Anderson eventually develops into the kind of all-around back that can handle as much varied work as Ball did.
- In addition to King and Painter, two more recent draft picks were waived: defensive end Jeremy Beal and offensive lineman Philip Blake. Blake, as a fourth-rounder, is the highest draft pick of the Elway era to be released.