- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Denver Broncos, like the rest of the league, will tie a bow on the preseason Thursday night. Most of the team’s regulars will get the night off against the visiting Arizona Cardinals, but decisions still need to be made at a few spots at the back end of the roster.
With that in mind, some things to keep an eye on:
One of the most difficult spots for the Broncos to make cuts ahead of Saturday's deadline to pare the roster to 53 players -- the bulk of which will come Friday -- will be in the secondary.
The Broncos kept nine defensive backs on the opening-weekend roster in 2011 and 10 last season -- five cornerbacks and five safeties. The issue this year is that Denver has two young, homegrown cornerback prospects in Omar Bolden and rookie Kayvon Webster, who have shown themselves to be worthy of the roster and would raise the overall athleticism at the position.
With Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Rahim Moore, Duke Ihenacho, Chris Harris, David Bruton and Tony Carter having worked in the top seven slots all through the preseason, that doesn’t leave room for Webster, Bolden, Mike Adams and Quentin Jammer to all make it.
If the Broncos stick with nine players in the secondary, they are essentially choosing between youth and experience for those final two spots. If they keep an extra cornerback, however, it may be an indication they feel they need to open the season with some insurance for Bailey’s foot injury.
Unless Denver takes the uncharacteristic step and keeps 11 defensive backs, Bolden and Webster both figure to play plenty against the Cardinals to state their cases.
Brock Osweiler is slated to get the start at quarterback behind what is largely a backup line. That has been a tough combination thus far in the preseason for Osweiler, who has been sacked eight times in the three previous games behind the reserves. It makes it difficult for the Broncos to work out of the three-wide look as much as they’d like given that they haven’t consistently protected the quarterback in it -- even when the starters have been in the game -- this preseason. If things get dicey they might have to go big again, as they did last weekend against the Rams. After opening the game with three wide receivers and allowing too many rushers to get too close to Peyton Manning, the Broncos went to a two-tight-end look. They lined up in a two-tight-end look on 29 of the next 35 plays after the opening three-and-out, including all 12 in a drive that ended with a blocked field goal. The Broncos might feel like they need to give Osweiler a little more beef up front.
The last few rosters spots will be decided on special teams, and the Broncos could use a good showing there. In the past two games they have surrendered a 107-yard kickoff return for a score, a 33-yard punt return, an 81-yard punt return and seen a field goal blocked. Many of the Broncos' youngest players will have a chance to help their causes against Arizona, with Denver special-teams coach Jeff Rodgers looking for those who display speed and smarts.
The Broncos have lost five fumbles in three preseason games -- two by Osweiler, two by Ronnie Hillman and one by Julius Thomas. Hillman is not expected to play Thursday, but things need to be cleaned up. Lance Ball and Jacob Hester figure to get some work as the Broncos face some tough decisions at running back as well. Hester has not had a carry in the preseason and is the only back that has lined up at fullback thus far.
The Broncos have to sort things out in the offensive line, where they kept nine players in both 2011 and last season. After the starting five -- Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin -- the Broncos need a swing tackle, likely Chris Clark, and a swing guard/center or two, with Ryan Lilja, Steve Vallos and Philip Blake in the mix. Blake, a fourth-round pick in 2012, has been headed the wrong way on the depth chart -- the Broncos didn’t even work him much at center in the preseason, a position he played in college and one they originally drafted him for. Blake is decidedly on the bubble -- a long way down for a player some believed was pushing to start before a thumb injury ended his rookie season. He has regressed since that point, so he's either not getting the message about the changes in the offense or is not reacting well to the coaching he's getting. Rookie tackle Vinston Painter has shown the kind of athleticism that deserves a roster spot, but the Broncos may be in a position where they have to hope he makes it through waivers so they can sign him to their practice squad. Lilja is a tough call, too. Denver certainly likes him in the offense, but he had microfracture surgery on his knee just a few months ago and has missed significant amount of practice time of late because of the knee.
Rookie quarterback Zac Dysert will likely get his most significant work of the preseason. Dysert has shown some quality scrambling skills in practice, so he could have an entertaining down or two if he gets loose. He projects to the practice squad, but the Broncos would like to see some better accuracy from the pocket, especially in the shorter and intermediate routes.
Linebacker Lerentee McCray and wide receiver Lamaar Thomas are the undrafted rookies with the best chance to make the final 53 -- especially McCray. If the Broncos don’t keep McCray, there are at least two other teams that would consider signing him. He’s a big-bodied linebacker who, while not always showing good instincts, has the ability to disrupt an offense and closes to the ball with speed and intent.
6dEric D. Williams