CENTENNIAL, Colo. — On a somber Christmas Eve afternoon at FedEx Field, quarterback Brock Osweiler stood in front of his offensive linemen, prodding for a better performance. He received disinterested looks as if he were trying to convince them coal was a shrewd, affordable stocking stuffer.
A few weeks earlier in Oakland, quarterback Paxton Lynch sat on the bench, towel draped over his head, tears in his eyes. His return to the starting lineup ended in a mess of gaffes and an injury that left questions about his toughness.
In Kansas City in October, Trevor Siemian prompted the carousel of misery with a three-pick performance that symbolized the ineptitude of a season-scarring eight-game losing streak.
Now, on the eve of Broncos training camp, “The Decision” at the league’s most important position no longer exists. If the Broncos’ instincts were right, they found “The Solution.” Case Keenum, coming off a career-year where only Drew Brees was more accurate, takes over. Can he change the fortunes of a team looking to avoid its first back-to-back losing seasons since 1972? Keenum remains critical to success, but the U-turn will not happen without help.
Which brings me to my way-too-early projected Broncos’ 53-man roster. This is a fluid situation because of injuries and, you know practices and games, but here’s my Denver7 attempt at clarity:
QUARTERBACK (3): Case Keenum, Paxton Lynch, Chad Kelly
The Broncos’ revival starts with Keenum. General manager John Elway said he believes the former journeyman “could be just hitting his stride.” Denver will perform cartwheels if Keenum duplicates last season’s stats in Minnesota. The Broncos were drawn to Keenum because of his toughness, leadership and the fact that “being the Broncos quarterback will not be too big for him,” said Coach Vance Joseph. The key is a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (he posted 22 and 7 last year). If he pulls that off — staying under 30 passes per game remains significant — the Broncos will return to the playoffs. Lynch holds the edge for the backup job because of the time and money invested him. However, his future is cloudy. If he fails to beat out Kelly, Lynch should become a trade candidate — a longshot — or bide his time until season’s end when he can be cut with more manageable dead money. I do wonder if the Broncos will attempt to add a veteran during camp if Lynch and Kelly don’t impress in the first few games.
RUNNINGBACK/FULLBACK (5): Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker, D’Angelo Henderson, Phillip Lindsay, Andy Janovich
Royce Freeman possesses maturity and experience beyond his years. As a result, I would not be surprised if he starts. Devontae Booker enters camp with the edge. However, the Broncos can ill-afford to have a starter with a 3.6 yards-per-carry average as they attempt to become a more physical team. Booker must improve to keep the job given the Broncos’ desire to run the ball (it was essential to Keenum’s success in Minnesota where the Vikings ranked in the top five in yards and attempts). The competition figures to be fierce for the final spots. Lindsay has to boast special teams versatility to beat out David Williams, though how the receiver position shakes out could impact the final running back spot.
WIDE RECEIVER (6): Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Isaiah McKenzie, Jordan Taylor
This represents a position where the cuts could force the admission of mistakes. Carlos Henderson begins camp on the exempt list with no guarantee he makes the team. Jordan Taylor could find a path to the roster as punt returner, but will he get healthy? The top four are locks with two simple questions: How many snaps will Sutton and Hamilton log, and will they come at the expense of one of the veterans? If Sanders plays some in the slot, it could create multiple avenues to use the young players. McKenzie earned scorn last season for his awful work on punt returns. He has been humbled and is hungry. I would not use him on punt return initially — could Hamilton or Lindsay fill that role? — but he might be a dangerous change-of-pace weapon on offense. Philly Brown, expected to sign Friday, will push for a job, too.
TIGHT END (3): Jeff Heuerman, Jake Butt, Austin Traylor.
There’s no denying how awful the production has been from this position since Owen Daniels retired. Daniels, at least, remained a threat inside the 20. Heuerman has been a disappointment, unable to capitalize on playing time last season. He figures to make it as the starting blocking tight end. But Jake Butt holds the key to the position blossoming. He profiles as a red zone target. Kyle Rudolph functioned as Keenum’s safety net last year — 57 catches, 532 yards, eight touchdowns. Traylor showed flashes last season. If Troy Fumagalli is healthy, he could supplant Traylor. But Fumagalli could be slowed after sports hernia surgery leading him to start the season on the injured list.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8): Garett Bolles, Jared Veldheer, Ron Leary, Connor McGovern, Menelik Watson, Matt Paradis, J.J. Dielman, Billy Turner.
The Broncos desperately need this group to play better. Two new line coaches teaching shorter pass-blocking drops should help after Denver allowed a staggering 52 sacks last season. Putting Leary, the team’s best lineman, on the left side next to Bolles should benefit both players. Paradis anchors the center spot, stronger than ever after being able to lift this offseason for the first time in years without hip pain. I consider signing him a contract extension. McGovern enters camp as the favorite to beat out Max Garcia. If Garcia fails to land the starting job, I am not sure he makes the team. Veldheer settled down at right tackle over his final 10 games in Arizona last year. Is he finally the balm on an open wound? Menelik Watson, if he sneaks on the roster, will do it by serving as a backup guard. Billy Turner’s versatility gives him a slight advantage to stick.
CORNERBACK (5): Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Roby, Tramaine Brock, Isaac Yiadom, Marcus Rios.
The No Fly Zone exists as long as Harris wears orange. He arrives angry and prepared to prove there will not be a significant drop-off without Aqib Talib. The Broncos moved on from Talib because of their confidence in Roby. He has played his best games as a spot starter, but needs to practice well to deliver a strong performance for a full season. Brock is a solid nickel corner, Yiadom will help on special teams, and Rios edges out Brendan Langley. I would not be surprised if Langley makes it, but he needs a strong camp to overcome last year’s first impression.
SAFETY (4): Justin Simmons, Darian Stewart, Su’a Cravens, Will Parks.
Simmons projects as a future Pro Bowler, and will step forward in his second year as a starter. No one missed T.J. Ward more than Stewart. He found himself out of position too frequently last year. He might need a good camp to make the team. Su’a Cravens is a wildcard. At his best, he’s a physical hybrid player who could help cover tight ends, a persistent problem for years. Will Parks will be pushed for his roster spot by multiple young players. He embraces challenges, so I expect him to find his way onto the team.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (7): Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsis, Shelby Harris, DeMarcus Walker, Clinton McDonald, Domata Peko, Zach Kerr.
If the Broncos realize a bounceback, this group will play a large role. There is versatility, talent and experience. Wolfe holds the key. Neck surgery revitalized his outlook. He can provide an inside rush, and stop the run. Gotsis, whose off-field issues regarding an alleged rape in college could impact his status, rebounded in his second season. Harris represented an undervalued find. Walker weighs 273 pounds and should become a solid rotational player after losing a year to a misguided outside linebacker experiment. McDonald brings energy, and if his shoulder is healthy, projects as a solid addition. Nose tackle Domata Peko, who found the fountain of youth in Denver, returns for another year with Zach Kerr capable of backing him up. There’s little not to like about this group.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (5): Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Shaquil Barrett, Shane Ray, Jeff Holland.
Miller boasts talent capable of winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. He can reach 18 sacks if a threat emerges opposite of him. Chubb could have been the first overall pick in the 2017 draft. He’s that good and disruptive. If he reaches eight sacks, Miller should deliver a career year. Barrett provides strong depth, and will be leaned on heavily if Shane Ray’s balky left wrist fails to cooperate. Ray avoided a fourth surgery, but will his strength return allowing him to shed blockers? When it comes to talent, Jeff Holland is an undrafted free agent in name only.
INSIDE LINEBACKER (4): Brandon Marshall, Todd Davis, Josey Jewell, Keishawn Bierria.
Davis represents a core player moving forward after receiving a new contract. He will be expected to provide more leadership. Marshall leaned out to 228 pounds in attempt to stay healthier and improve in coverage. Josey Jewell draws raves for his instincts and sound tackling, but must show he can make up for a lack of speed. Bierria should contribute on special teams, and edge out a host of players for a final sport.
SPECIALISTS (3): Brandon McManus, Marquette King, Casey Kreiter.
McManus found his groove after a rocky start last season. With this team likely to play close games, he cannot slump again. King represents an upgrade over Riley Dixon, his booming leg matched only by his personality.