DENVER — As the Broncos prepare for their final preseason game, there’s still plenty on the line.
Denver must trim its 80-player rosters to 53 players by Tuesday at 2 p.m. MT, and there’s likely still a handful of roster spots up for grabs.
The Broncos’ starters aren’t expected to play, but several players in the thick of position battles will suit up in hopes of proving they deserve a place on the initial 53-man roster.
The game may not count, but it does matter — and here are four of the top questions that will be front of mind on Saturday:
WHO GAINS THE EDGE IN THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK DERBY?
After Josh Johnson started the first two preseason games, Brett Rypien will receive his chance to state his case for the backup quarterback spot.
Rypien, who completed less than 50 percent of his passes against the Cowboys, rebounded nicely against the Bills to complete 22-of-26 passes for 191 yards, one touchdown and a 110.1 quarterback rating.
“I think both of those guys have done a good job, and I think ‘Ryp’ has earned an opportunity to go the first half,” Hackett said earlier this week. “I think he had a really good game last week. He’s improved. Again, we’re looking for consistency from that position. It’s not saying that Josh hasn’t done good, because he’s done a fine job. We just want to make sure we give both those guys [a chance] because they’ve been working so hard and pushing each other. That competition is a great one. We want to make sure the guys that deserve that opportunity get it.”
Rypien will aim to make a final push against Johnson — who has completed 24-of-39 passes for 242 yards for two touchdowns and a 96.3 rating — as the Broncos look for which player can be most consistent.
“You want to be sure that they’re going out there, executing the plan, understanding when we want to change plays or keep the same play on, understanding the progressions and all those things, and making good decisions,” Hackett said Thursday. “To this point, they have made some pretty good decisions, so we want them to continually take care of the ball, also.”
HOW DOES KJ HAMLER LOOK?
The Broncos’ 2020 second-round pick is expected to see his first game action since suffering a season-ending hip and knee injury against the Jets last year, and he’ll be among the players who are most interesting to watch.
Hamler said he’s unconcerned with whether he has a catch, but he does still need to prove to himself whether he has the necessary speed to play like his old self.
“I think I’ve still got to prove that,” Hamler told DenverBroncos.com. “It’s different. I’ve got a knee brace on too, so sometimes that can be a little complicated. No excuses. If I’m fast, I’m fast. If I can still blow by people, I can still do it.”
Hackett did not indicate whetherHamler would play many snaps, but if he’s able to find an opening and use his game-breaking speed against Minnesota, it would be a good sign for Denver ahead of the season opener.
WHO MAKES A FINAL SURGE AT WIDE RECEIVER?
The Broncos’ first four receiver spots seem solidified, as Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler and Montrell Washington all seem to have solid holds on roster spots. If the Broncos keep six receivers, though, there will be a tenacious battle for potentially only two more spots.
Kendall Hinton, Brandon Johnson, Jalen Virgil and Seth Williams have all made plays during the preseason, and Tyrie Cleveland will likely require his own consideration for a roster spot due to his special teams contributions.
“Right when you think there’s going to be some kind of a separation — it’s not necessarily that somebody took a step back, but other guys are pushing even harder and that’s what you’re looking for,” Hackett said Wednesday. “… You saw Seth had that great catch for a touchdown. Kendall had an amazing go route on the left side of the first game. It is every day with those guys pushing each other. I think all these guys have a chance to be able to play in the NFL.”
The Broncos will likely consider a player’s contributions on both offense and special teams, but it’s possible that a big performance in the preseason finale could tilt the scales in that receiver’s favor.
CAN THE RESERVE DEFENSE REBOUND?
The Broncos’ second- and third-team defenses struggled in Buffalo, as Denver allowed touchdowns on each of the Bills’ first six possessions. Following the game, Hackett said the performance was “not what we’re about” and noted the team needed to play a more physical brand of football.
Against the Vikings, the Broncos’ defense will look to return to the standard it set against the Cowboys. Denver allowed just one play of 20 yards or more and held Dallas to 5-of-14 on third down in that 17-7 win.
Many of Denver’s defensive starters are not expected to play, but Justin Strnad, Caden Sterns, Malik Reed and a handful of other players are among the potential key contributors that could help restore the standard.
“There are a lot of things — more physicality, more urgency, more competitiveness and better coaching,” said Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero of his emphasis this week. “It’s all of it. We all have to be better.”
The defensive performance in Buffalo wasn’t an overwhelming concern — Denver’s reserve players played the Bills’ starters early in the game — but a rebound performance would be encouraging.
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