Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
A look at which players on the 53-man roster were affected most by the final roster decisions.
Now that the dust has settled on the Broncos’ 53-man roster and 16-man practice squad, it’s time to take a look at what the moves mean. Oftentimes a team’s decision to keep one player over another may be based around a strength or weakness somewhere else on the roster, so its worth trying to read the tea leaves.
Obviously the ones hurt the most are the players who actually got cut. But in this piece, I want to take a look at the biggest winners and losers on the Broncos due to how the roster was constructed.
Way back when the Broncos drafted Jake Butt in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the vast majority of draft analysts praised it as a savvy investment. After all, Butt was dominant for the Wolverines and would have gone higher if not for a torn ACL suffered in the 2016 Orange Bowl.
Since then he’s played in just three games due to knee injuries and watched as the man drafted one spot after him has become the best tight end in football. It’s not Butt’s fault George Kittle blocks like a guard and runs like a burly receiver, but his bad luck has been oft used ammo against Elway’s reign as GM.
As someone who has also suffered a rather traumatic knee injury, I really respect the Broncos commitment to sticking with Butt through all his setbacks. I also really loved Butt’s game when he played for the Wolverines and hope he can get back to even 75% of that player. If he can the Broncos tight end group could become a real strength of the team. Pat Shurmur loves two tight end sets, and Butt’s skillset should help him serve as depth behind both Noah Fant and Nick Vannet. KOA’s Mike Klis even suggested he could play some H-back.
Broncos are signing FB/RB Jeremy Cox back to practice squad. He especially gives the Broncos’ fullback insurance. Andrew Beck expected to return Tuesday from back injury. Jake Butt can also play in the FB position. #9sports
— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) September 6, 2020
When Benjamin Allbright and Ryan Edwards joined Cover 2 Broncos a couple of weeks ago I made a point to ask them about the former Patriot. Neither insider wrote the 2018 2nd round pick off completely, but mentioned that he had been a third stringer for most if not all of camp. That signaled to me how Dawson had not made the necessary jump from his 2019, so I thought he was on the bubble.
Since then Dawson made the most of his opportunities to impress the coaching staff. Mike Klis has even suggested he’ll be a sort of corner-nickel-safety hybrid, while Fangio praised his versatility.
Looking good for Duke Dawson Jr. (at least on initial 53) as he’s a CB/S hybrid and Broncos only going with three true safeties (Kareem Jackson, Justin Simmons, Trey Marshall). LB Mark Barron could also be an emergency SS. #9sports
— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) September 5, 2020
Bassey is this year’s UDFA to make the roster, which obviously makes him a huge winner. 16 of the last 17 seasons the Broncos have found a diamond in the rough and some like Rod Smith and Chris Harris have gone on to Ring of Fame worthy careers. Fangio’s no stranger to grooming overlooked players himself, gave the rookie some lofty praise.
I liked Bassey coming out and thought he made a ton of sense for the Broncos’ nickel spot. He has very good short area mobility and fights like he’s a bigger player. His size will create some limitations and matchup issues, but if Fangio can protect him from the Mike Evans’ of the world the former Demon Deacon could be a real steal.
Fangio mentioned that Essang Bassey reminded him and the staff of where Bryce Callahan was when they discovered him as a nickel-back.
— Cody Roark (@CodyRoarkNFL) September 5, 2020
The hope has to be Barron can get up to speed fast enough to play coverage downs if Davis needs to work up to speed or simply can’t suit up. I’m still in the process of finishing my own tape study for Barron due to a family trip this weekend, but it’s easy to see how Fangio could weaponize his range as Steelers’ defensive coordinator Keith Butler did.
Little did I know at the time, the Broncos would cut Todd Davis by week’s end. Even after missing the first four games of 2019 due to injury, Davis played 900 snaps. Only Chris Harris and Justin Simmons logged more time on defense.
How Fangio decides to fill the void is going to be fascinating. With both Barron and Calistro so new to the roster, I expect Jewell to get most of the snaps in week one. It’s no guarantee that carries out throughout the year. There was a clear effort by the Broncos to add athleticism to the second level this year, so Barron ascending to the starting lineup could be inevitable.
While I think there’s reasons Mark Barron’s still available, the fact he’s the backer the Broncos are looking at is reassuring. Like the Patrick Queen rumors back in April, it reminds me how Fangio’s looking to add the kind of backer he’ll need to have a chance against Mahomes.
— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 28, 2020
Every year I feel like I write off Walker, and every year I have to eat some crow. When the Broncos signed Christian Covington to a $1.75 million contract it seemed to signal the start of an unwinnable numbers game for the 2017 2nd round pick. Then the Broncos traded Covington to the Bengals in order to acquire Austin Calitro.
— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) April 28, 2020
Elway’s confidence in the personnel department.
Last year the Broncos made a rather peculiar decision at the roster deadline to cut the roster all the way down to 49 players. It was a move that provided a little insight into what Vic Fangio’s first year coaching staff thought of the roster they inherited.
Fast forward to this cut down and the Broncos not only kept their initial 53, but only brought in one outside addition to the roster: Former Bear Kevin Toliver. A lack of preseason tape probably played a role because teams have no recent tape of the players on every other team in the league, but it still speaks to the faith the Broncos have they got the right guys.
In time I expect the Broncos’ fourth round pick to flourish into a complimentary receiver and mismatch weapon for Pat Shurmur’s 12 personnel sets. I don’t have much faith it will happen this season. Four other tight ends making the final roster suggests the coaching staff agrees.
Expectations need to be realistic this year. Noah Fant led all rookie tight ends in receiving last year with a grand total of 562 yards, and there are only 19 rookie tight ends in NFL history who have caught 6 or more touchdowns in a season. Mike Ditka is the only tight end to ever surpass 1000 receiving yards during his rookie year and he did it in 1961.
Fangio has made it clear Albert O will need to improve his blocking to see the field, which makes sense. With Noah Fant expected to step into Pat Shurmur’s Evan Engram role, Okwuegbunam will have help the running game more than Nick Vannet. The good news is he seems to be willing to learn.
I think the biggest thing or one of the biggest things with a tight end as it relates to blocking is do they want to do it. Do they have the mentality to block and be prideful in it? He’s shown that he does and he’s willing. That’s a big hurdle to get over for a lot of tight ends especially the ones coming out of college these days that don’t do it much. I think he’s making some good progress there.”
When JaWuan James opted out of the 2020 season, the Broncos brought in Demar Dotson. At the time I expected him to push Elijah Wilkinson for a starting right tackle job. When I spoke with Allbright on Cover 2 Broncos, he mentioned there remains a possibility Bolles gets benched if he struggles like last year.
While Calvin Anderson is completely unproven, he has the kind of athletic tools Mike Munchak has groomed into formidable starters in the past. If nothing else he serves as long term insurance for the blind side, as Bolles, Wilkinson, and Dotson will see their contracts expire in 2021.