DENVER — The Broncos conclude their preseason campaign on Saturday against the Rams, and while Head Coach Sean Payton said the team's starters will play a maximum of one series, there's still plenty of intrigue surrounding the game.
After a pair of joint practices, the preseason finale will be the last opportunity for players to provide a lasting impression of why they should make the roster.
"There has to be a vision," Payton said Wednesday of his message to the team about making the 53-man roster. "The special teams come into play, the right type of player and [as a] teammate. All those things matter when you're building a program. Everyone this time of the year — with about a week before the final cutdowns — understands what's at stake. The players, as well as the coaches and front office people. All these snaps are important."
Payton also emphasized that as he and General Manager George Paton piece together the roster, it's not a settled formula.
"We don't look at the number [at a position group], per se, as much as we look at the qualified players to make a roster," Payton said. "You might say, 'Hey, there are 48 total players, and we need to find player 49, 50, 51, [52 and 53].' In other words, I think it's a mistake if you point to a number, fill it and don't pay attention to whether you think it should be filled. In other words, are they good enough to fill that number? I've kind of stayed away from saying, 'The receiver number would be this.' There are some thresholds certainly, and some minimums. You have to look at it relative to the whole league and if you feel like they can help us win."
As the Broncos look to find the right 53-man roster, here are a few position groups that may be particularly interesting to watch.
This may be the most intriguing group to watch on the roster during Saturday's outing.
While Payton has not yet provided an update on Jerry Jeudy's hamstring injury, Denver may need a player or two to step up, pending the length of his absence.
In this game, the Broncos will have an interesting decision to make. Do they let their reserve receivers battle things out for a roster spot? Or do they try to preserve the health of a couple of players to ensure the strongest possible receiving corps moving into the season?
Despite losing Jalen Virgil for the season, the Broncos' receiving corps remains talented. Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and Marvin Mims Jr. seemed poised to become key pieces of the offense, but there is plenty of depth in the room. Marquez Callaway and Lil'Jordan Humphrey are veteran players that were added to contribute, while Kendall Hinton is another experienced receiver that has improved his output each season.
"He's smart," Payton said of Hinton this week. "He's savvy. He's one of those players who has a good feel. I think he locates and tracks the ball well. He knows who he is. He's better in the slot and some of those interior option routes. The first thing I think of is he's got really good football instincts."
Brandon Johnson has seen increased reps and appears healthy again following a training camp injury, while Montrell Washington remains a talented second-year player with plenty of speed. Several other players are also pushing to make the roster at the position, and it's possible a strong game could tilt the scales in that player's favor.
As recently as Tuesday, Payton said that "a lot of guys" are pushing for reserve spots along the offensive line, and he noted the team could keep seven, eight or nine linemen.
Among the players to watch Saturday may be tackle Alex Palczewski, an undrafted rookie who started 65 career games for the University of Illinois.
"[He's] tough and smart," Payton said of Palczewski. "He's played a lot of football. It's not always pretty, but there is this quality of 'he gets the job done.' I said this at the beginning of camp: After the draft, I thought we did a good job in that two-hour period of signing free agents. Sometimes offensive linemen are hard to get. We were able to sign a pretty good class of undrafted offensive linemen that has helped us and will help us, not only this year, but in the future. I'm encouraged."
Palczewski has played 54 offensive snaps across the Broncos' two preseason games, including a team-high 35 against Arizona.
Princeton's Henry Byrd and South Florida's Demontrey Jacobs are the other undrafted rookies on Denver's offensive line, and they'll also look to make strong final showings.
Seventh-round pick Alex Forsyth will also be among the players to watch as he makes his case for a roster spot.
Denver added to its depth this week as Mike Purcell was activated from the Non-Football Injury list, but Payton said the Broncos will be smart with Purcell as he works his way back from injury. That could mean that several reserve defensive linemen get a chance to make their case for a roster spot, including young players like nose tackle PJ Mustipher and defensive ends Elijah Garcia and Jordan Jackson.
"Adding Mike just adds more depth, but to find three or four young guys who were free agents last year and are playing good ball for us, that's key," Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday. "That builds depth. Moving forward in the defensive linemen room, you want young and healthy guys who can play. That's a balance for you, so that is where we are in that room."
Garcia leads the team in sacks, quarterback hits and tackles for loss in the preseason, and he also recorded an interception off a deflected pass against the 49ers.
Mustipher and Jackson have each posted three tackles.
Denver's top safeties are clear, as Justin Simmons, Caden Sterns and Kareem Jackson are all starting-capable players. Behind those players, though, the Broncos may have a bit of competition.
P.J. Locke took starting reps as Simmons and Sterns were out with injury, but he went out with an injury of his own and has not returned to practice.
In Locke's absence, second-year Oklahoma product Delarrin Turner-Yell has seen increased opportunities and will look to turn in a strong performance against the Rams.
Rookie sixth-round pick JL Skinner, meanwhile, will aim to build off his four total tackles from the preseason — including a physical downhill stop in San Francisco.