DENVER -- When Thursday's game began, Broncos coach Vic Fangio hoped roughly 10 players would illuminate with their performance. That represents how many jobs hung in the balance with the 53-man roster deadline Saturday at 2 p.m. Clarity emerged at a few spots, but the picture remains foggy when considering the potential finds on the waiver wire and injury wrinkles.
Let's start with certainty: Malik Reed is crushing dreams and making this team. The undrafted free agent from Nevada is a lock. He delivered two vicious sacks against the Arizona Cardinals, an opponent the Broncos skunked 20-7. Reed played multiple positions at Nevada, but focusing on outside linebacker has allowed him to bloom. His four sacks in three games are tied for the NFL best. It is preseason, but he has flashed like Phillip Lindsay did a year ago. Nothing feels flukish about Reed, who will likely be the first sub to spell Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.
"Anytime an undrafted college free agent comes in, plays good and makes your team, it's always to nice see," coach Vic Fangio said. "It's a surprise no matter what anyone tells you. I am happy for him and happy for us."
Former Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall is not surprised. He got to know the Nevada star after speaking to the Wolfpack team last season.
"He's a humble, smart, hard working kid," Marshall said. "He's going to be really good because he wants it so bad."
Von Miller and Bradley Chubb have long been impressed with Reed. Miller coined him, "Dream Killer."
"It's cool. I have never been called that before but to be dubbed that by Von Miller is pretty special," said Reed. "It's amazing to hear (that Fangio said he made the team). When you are undrafted you have to fight for everything."
Where Reed's inclusion is certain, other vacancy candidates are not. Quarterback Kevin Hogan took a step toward securing the backup job, then let it possibly slip through his fingers over his final moments. Hogan guided the Broncos to a 10-0 halftime lead, punctuated by a 6-yard back shoulder strike to Fred Brown. However, Hogan fired an interception and finished 12 of 23 for 138 yards. His preseason numbers create doubt, while not eliminating him from landing the job: 33 of 65, 311 yards, one touchdown, three picks, 50.2 rating.
"My resume the last month and a half, I am proud of it. I feel like I am playing good football," Hogan said. "I have the confidence of my teammates and coaches. It's out of my control, but I am really happy with how I played."
Brett Rypien, a candidate for the practice squad after completing 8 of 11 passes for 86 yards, couldn't capitalize, zooming a misplaced ball behind the receiver, leading to an interception. The Broncos could stick with Hogan as a safe choice who knows the offense. Or they could attempt to land one of the 49ers backups like Nick Mullens or C.J. Beathard if either is cut. A trade is unlikely. And remember, Hogan would only be the backup by default. The job will eventually land to rookie Drew Lock. The Broncos have to decide whether to keep Lock on the active roster with his sprained right thumb or place him on the injured reserve designated for return midway through the season. They would prefer Lock not miss six weeks of practice time if he's going to be healed before then.
So, coach, did Hogan do enough to the backup to Joe Flacco, who has played 16 games in nine of 11 seasons, but missed time last year with a hip injury.
"I don’t know the answer to that yet. I need to look at the tape," Fangio said, while adding general manager John Elway will play a significant role in the decision.
On punt return, River Cracraft made sound decisions Thursday. Nothing sexy, just solid. Is that enough? Cracraft produced a 15-yard return, and has shown versatility as a sixth receiver. Rookie Kelvin McKnight also produced a highlight with a 17-yard return in the fourth. Juwann Winfree appears a lock as the fifth wideout.
Prior to the kickoff, linebacker Todd Davis appeared on the Jumbotron, hyping the crowd. However, his status for Sept. 9 remains iffy at best because of a calf injury he admitted is taking longer to recover than expected. Alexander Johnson and Justin Hollins (in nickel) are the options inside, with Johnson in line for significant minutes if Davis doesn't play against the Raiders. On the defensive line, DeShawn Williams and Mike Purcell made strong plays. They are in the hunt for one spot.
Williams, who started, had two tackles and Purcell, a former Highlands Ranch High star, posted four.
The problem with going too far down the roster rabbit hole is the unpredictable nature of the waiver wire or trades. My over-under on players making the 53 by early next week who aren't currently on the team: four. Complicating matters? Injuries. While Dymonte Thomas (knee) could land on season-ending IR. Other decisions are not as easy. The Broncos are likely to keep Andy Janovich and possibly Joe Jones and Lock on the 53-man roster. Theo Riddick could go on the short-term IR. And there's the matter of Jake Butt, who had successful surgery on his left knee Thursday but is likely out a month.
Optimism sprouted Thursday for those still watching a preseason that has lasted longer than the last day of school. The offense scored two touchdowns -- Devontae Jackson had 2-yard plunge in the third quarter after a long Khalfani Muhammad run -- and stretched the field on deep passes, hinting of the long strikes that will be sent in Emmanuel Sanders' direction.
In the end, the Broncos benefited from the extra work, allowing more time for a new coaching staff to leave its footprint. But tough decisions remain on a team whose starters look ready to contend, but whose reserves create concern.