ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Quarterback Peyton Manning still defines the Denver Broncos. But their roster is now defined by the other Hall of Fame quarterback on the payroll: general manager John Elway.
Twenty-five of the 29 players drafted since Elway became the Broncos’ decision-maker on football operations remain with the team in some capacity, either on the practice squad or 53-man roster. Forty-six players on the 53-man roster have been added since Elway’s arrival. Including undrafted players, 29 of the 53 have joined the Broncos since 2011 and have never known another club in their professional careers.
The roster is deep, buoyed by the return of injured players such as left tackle Ryan Clady, linebacker Von Miller, safeties Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive end Derek Wolfe. The commitment to their drafted players is profound, and including the practice-squad signings of quarterback Zac Dysert and offensive linemen Matt Paradis and Vinston Painter, the Broncos retained every drafted player that they had on their roster when training camp began.
But it’s one thing to draft and show faith in the picks. It’s another to develop them. Ten projected Broncos starters and their No. 3 cornerback are homegrown players added since Elway’s arrival. The rest comprise much of the depth that the Broncos may have to rely upon if injuries strike again.
It was that depth that made the cuts Saturday the most difficult of Elway’s administrative career.
“We’re in a situation that you want to be in even though it makes it much more difficult because of the fact of you’re having to let a lot of good football players go but it’s a situation that you want to be in having to make a lot of tough decisions like we had to make,” Elway said. “This is by far the deepest team since I’ve been here and the toughest decisions we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Last year, depth allowed the Broncos to withstand the loss of 12 different starters, including two All-Pros for at least 10 games, and still win an AFC championship. They hope it will not be tested in the same way this year, but believe they are prepared if that is the case.
The roster depth was reflect in the release of defensive tackled Kevin Vickerson, who had recovered from a dislocated hip, and led all Broncos defensive linemen in snaps played Thursday at Dallas. The hip had responded well to extended work, and he’d had a strong game, with five tackles. But it wasn’t enough to keep him on the roster.
Vickerson was the most high-profile cut as the Broncos pared their roster to 53 players Saturday. The Broncos instead opted to keep Marvin Austin, an offseason signee who has finally played like the second-round pick he was in 2011, and Mitch Unrein, a plugger-type backup who has been on the Broncos’ 53-man roster since 2011.
Elway said the final decision came down to Unrein and Vickerson, who turned 31 this year.
“Mitch is a little bit younger and a guy we think that has a higher standing at this point in time of his career and a guy that can also move outside, play some inside, he’s got a little bit more flexibility there,” Elway said.
Vickerson was one of the first players re-signed by the newly hired Elway/John Fox tandem before the 2011 lockout.
“We owe ‘Vick’ a lot,” Elway said. “He played well when he played here.”
The Broncos also cut one starter from Super Bowl XLVIII, safety Duke Ihenacho. He had been benched last December, but got his job back by the postseason after Omar Bolden struggled as his replacement. Ihenacho was expendable after Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter returned to full health and T.J. Ward was signed as a free agent. Washington claimed Ihenacho off waivers a day later.
Meanwhile, Matt Prater’s four-game suspension for violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy officially began Saturday, and for the moment, the Broncos will go with first-year kicker Brandon McManus as his replacement.
Saturday morning, the Broncos tried out rookie Andrew Furney, who was waived by the New York Jets earlier in the week. But they opted to stick with McManus, who at the very least offers a strong leg who sent all five of his kickoffs Thursday either into or out of the end zone for touchbacks.
“He’s going to be our guy now,” said Elway. “He’s got a tremendously strong leg and he’s got a lot of upside.”
All but one of McManus’ kickoffs this preseason have gone for touchbacks. He was with the Giants in the preseason before the Broncos dealt a conditional seventh-round pick for him. The condition is based on McManus’ status after four games. If he is still on the roster, the Broncos give the Giants the pick; if he is released to make room for Prater, then the Broncos surrender nothing.
McManus hit two of four field-goal attempts against the Cowboys, connecting from 19 and 40 yards and missing wide right from 52 and 54 yards. But Elway expects that to improve.
“I have a lot of confidence that once he gets working with (long snapper Aaron Brewer) and (punter Britton) Colquitt, that he’ll be much better off. So yeah, I think Brandon’s going to be just fine for us.”
NOTES: WR Wes Welker continues to go through the league-mandated post-concussion protocol. Welker ran some routes before Thursday’s game in Dallas and also took part in the conditioning session with starters who were held out of the game. … QB Zac Dysert passed through waivers and was signed to the Broncos’ practice squad Sunday. The Broncos have not had more than two quarterbacks throw passes in a single season since 2003, and Elway said there were other places on the 53-man roster where the spot was needed. … RB Juwan Thompson made the Broncos as their No. 4 running back after leading the team in rushing and yardage from scrimmage during the preseason. Thompson’s contributions on special teams also played a role in his making the 53-man roster.