Woody Paige: Herd of 90 Broncos will be soon be trimmed down

Posted at 12:44 PM, May 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-19 14:44:54-04

The Broncos have reached their maximum quota of players with the signing of eight draft picks and 17 free agents.

90 – count ‘em – 90!

Sure seems like a substantial herd of horses.

However, in the old days of the western cattle drives, each of the 20 or so cowboys would need a half-dozen horses.

Which must have been the historical impetus for an old Cowboy, Dan Reeves, when he took over as Broncos coach and held his training camps in the 1980s.

Reeves especially loved undrafted free agents.

Probably because he was one. Although he had been South Carolina’s starting quarterback, and the NFL and rival AFL both had 20 rounds of selections in 1965, Reeves was undrafted.

Reeves signed with the Cowboys (over the Chargers) as a potential safety, but was moved to halfback because of injuries – and played for eight before becoming a player/coach, then a full-time assistant. He was named the Broncos coach to replace Red Miller in 1981. (Reeves was named to the Broncos’ Ring of Fame in 2014, and Miller will join him this season.)

Reeves wanted to give guys the same chance he once had.

For instance, in the 1983 camp in Greeley, while everybody was paying attention to a rookie quarterback named Elway (and, sporadically, to a drafted rookie QB named Gary Kubiak), many other players showed up for the opening practice.

109 – count ‘em – 109.

Yes, that’s right. It was as if Reeves and his staff went through the telephone book looking for players. (For you youngsters, there used to be books that included all the phone numbers, and there weren’t training camp max numbers.)

A majority of those candidates were merely camp fodder.

On July 18, 1983, Reeves cut 10 players, and he continued to trim, slice and slash until the Broncos reached the regular-season roster of 49.

The league eventually set the training camp limit at 80, but increased the total to 90 in 2012.  Now, the roster is set at 53 players, with a practice squad of 10.

So, of the current Broncos’ group of 90, at least 30, likely more, won’t survive to the regular season. Subtract 63 from 90, and that’s 27. Some, frankly, will be hurt and released, or transferred to injured reserve, and a few will be replaced by players dropped by other teams. (Food on somebody else’s plate always looks better than yours.)

The Broncos’ eight draft picks have a legitimate opportunity to end up on the regular-season roster or the junior varsity (if they clear waivers). All seven draft choices of 2016, and another seven from the Class of ’15, still are with the team. Four remain from 2014, but none from ’13. Von Miller, Virgil Green and Derek Wolfe are the veterans from the 2011-12 drafts.

And one of the 15 free agents could make Reeves, Bob Swenson, Steve Watson and Chris Harris Jr. proud.

Swenson was an undrafted free agent out of Cal in 1975, but agreed to try out for the Broncos. He was a starter at outside linebacker in the famed Orange Crush defense and reached the team’s first Super Bowl, then was selected to the Pro Bowl during an eight-year career with the Broncos.

He played for four years with Temple’s Steve Watson, who wasn’t chosen in the 1979 draft. He spent nine seasons with the Broncos as one of their greatest wide receivers.

And Harris, who played cornerback at Kansas with Aqib Talib, was snubbed in the 2011 draft. He developed into one of the league’s best cornerbacks, and perhaps was No. 1 overall last year. In 2015, Harris signed a five-year $42 million contract (which has turned out to be way too low).

The Broncos’ 11-year streak of keeping an undrafted free agent the opening week of the regular season was broken in 2015.

So, the 15 free agents do have hope here.

Five to watch who could thrive in OTAs, camp and exhibitions are linebacker Josh Banderas (Nebraska, where Broncos’ linebacker Zaire Anderson, also a previous UDFA, played), nose tackle Tyrique Jarett of Pittsburgh (who should have been drafted), defensive back Orion Stewart (who intercepted six passes last season for Baylor and would be the second Stewart in the Broncos’ defensive backfield), offensive lineman Elijah Wilkinson, who was "discovered" in a regional combine (he is 6-foot-4 and weighs 331 pounds, and played for Massachusetts) and Northern Colorado’s Kyle Sloter, who will be the third quarterback in camp until Chad Kelly is healthy, and he probably will be the QB on the practice squad).

The next 111 days will determine the fate of all 90 players.