For the first time in Elway’s nine-season stint, the Broncos kept just eight offensive linemen on their initial 53-man roster. They had nine offensive linemen in each of the last eight seasons.
The Broncos opted for youth in the three reserves. Only Elijah Wilkinson has starting experience. Interior backup Austin Schlottmann spent last year on the Broncos’ practice squad, while second-year veteran Jake Rodgers was on the New York Giants’ 53-man roster for one week in 2016 and has played for the practice squads of six teams over the last four seasons.
“[Rodgers] just kept improving,” Fangio said. “I think that [Offensive Line Coach] Mike [Munchak] and his guys in the O-Line with him that are helping him, [Assistant Offensive Line Coach Chris Kuper] and [Offensive Quality Control Coach] Justin [Rascati] did a great job with him and the guy just kept improving.
“He obviously has a lot more improving to do and that’s our job to get it out of him, but he did a good job.”
For the third time since the Broncos changed to a 3-4 alignment in 2015, the Broncos kept six defensive linemen on their initial 53-man roster, with rookie Dre’Mont Jones, third-year veteran DeMarcus Walker and fifth-year veteran Mike Purcell comprising the reserves behind first-teamers Adam Gotsis, Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe.
Walker and Purcell erased any doubts about their viability with their play against the Los Angeles Rams last week. The two of them teamed up to help stop the Rams on consecutive plays within one yard of the line to gain, forcing a turnover on downs in the red zone.
“We needed help on the defensive line and they’ve played well so far,” Elway said.
Purcell and Fangio were together in San Francisco in 2014 and 2015. Purcell also played on the Bears’ practice squad under Fangio in 2017.
“I remember when John and [Director of Player Personnel] Matt [Russell] came to me and said that we’re thinking about signing Purcell way back when. I said, ‘Be careful; you might like him,'” Fangio said. “Mike came in and had a heck of a camp. He earned his way on this football team, no two ways about it, through practice and through the games.”
Injuries are a defining element of the story at inside linebacker, with starter Todd Davis still working his way back from a calf injury and backup Joe Jones continuing his recovery from an elbow injury. Neither will go on injured reserve, but Elway said he will visit with Corey Nelson, a former Bronco (2014-17) recently released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Davis hopes to be back for the Raiders game.
“It would be [difficult],” Fangio said, “but Todd’s a tough guy and a smart guy with a lot of experience so if anybody could do it, it would be him.”
The other story at linebacker is the presence of three rookies: Justin Hollins, Malik Reed and Josh Watson. Second-year veteran Alexander Johnson played in just one game last season.
“A.J. has been out of football for a while until last year when he got picked up here and I think he still has a lot more improving to do, but I’m encouraged by where he’s headed,” Fangio said.
For the third time in the last four seasons, the Broncos kept nine defensive backs on their initial roster. Last year, the Broncos carried 10 defensive backs on the initial 53-man roster, but moved Su’a Cravens to recallable injured reserve one day later.
With the trade for Duke Dawson, 60 percent of the Broncos’ pure cornerback corps is comprised of newcomers: Dawson, Bryce Callahan and De’Vante Bausby. When Kareem Jackson works at cornerback, that makes four out of six who arrived in the last five and a half months.
Dawson, like Kareem Jackson, has positional flexibility and can work at safety and cornerback. Fangio said his acquisition was not a result of concern over Callahan’s health.
“No, it’s just a guy we liked that was available at a position that is of dire need for all teams and there’s not enough of them to go around,” Fangio said, “so that’s that.”
With no competition on the roster for long snapper Casey Kreiter, punter Colby Wadman and kicker Brandon McManus, their status was relatively assured heading into Saturday.
Booker appears to have the kickoff-returner role, and Cracraft is the punt returner after the Broncos released rookie Kelvin McKnight, who handled second-half punt returns Thursday against Arizona. But that role could still be in flux.
“If there’s someone better than River, then we’ll see what we can do,” Elway said.