ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –- Given the Denver Broncos were good enough to play in the Super Bowl last season and then dove into free agency with the fervor rarely seen from a defending conference champion, their recent on-field work confirmed the team’s youngest players will find roster spots hard-earned and difficult to come by.
It is a good time to see where things stand at some hot spots on offense for the team’s rookies as the Broncos will report for training camp one month from Monday.
Running back: This is the team’s youngest group overall given Ronnie Hillman, set to enter his third season, is the most experienced guy in a room that currently includes three rookies.
At least one from among the group of rookies Brennan Clay, Kapri Bibbs and Juwan Thompson figures to make the final roster. And there is scenario, certainly rare but still in play given how things went on the field over last few weeks, where the Broncos have two undrafted rookies make the roster at one position.
Of the three, Clay has shown the best hands in the passing game and perhaps the best hands as a receiver in the position group overall. Thompson, at 225 pounds, is the biggest back in the building and has shown a good feel running routes as a receiver and has moved well in pass protection.
Thompson was also a quality special teams player at Duke and anyone who shows special teams potential always has a shot at final roster spots.
Bibbs, too, has flashed at times, but will have to show enough as a runner to go with the ability to function in the team’s passing offense. Also, once the players get back in the Dove Valley complex, all of the running backs not named Montee Ball should be camped outside special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers' door asking for more things to do.
Wide receiver: Second-round pick Cody Latimer will play, and contribute, in this team’s offense. His physical stature and competitiveness to battle for the ball in contested situations will make him an option in the red-zone offense.
Toss Latimer into a depth chart that already includes Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders as well as Andre Caldwell and there isn't much, if any, room to spare for a developmental player. The Broncos kept four true wide receivers on the 53-man roster after final cuts before the opener last season -- returner Trindon Holliday was the “fifth’’ if needed.
In 2012 the Broncos kept five receivers coming out of the preseason and in 2011 they kept five.
But of the undrafted rookies in this group, Bennie Fowler at 6-foot-1 and 217 pounds has shown some quality work and is worthy of a long look. Fowler suffered fractures to both feet during his career at Michigan State, impacting his playing time in the 2009 and 2011 seasons.
When healthy in 2013 he sported a robust 17.3 yards per catch average. He's shown a physical presence off the line of scrimmage, good footwork along the boundary and more than enough speed in the open field.
Isaiah Burse, also an undrafted rookie receiver, will have a shot to make the roster as a returner, but it will be difficult for the Broncos to essentially keep a return specialist on the roster so he has to show some additional special teams potential as well as at receiver.
Offensive line: It will be intriguing to watch if the Broncos give rookie Michael Schofield some snaps with the regulars in training camp. The third-round pick was selected because he was considered an option at right tackle.
Veterans Winston Justice and Chris Clark got most of the work in OTAs and minicamp so the Broncos will show their intentions fairly early on in camp by how much they give Schofield a look. For his part Schofield was a more proficient run blocker at Michigan than he was in pass protection, so he will need to show he can handle the outside speed in the rushers he faces and react quickly enough to inside moves.
Overall, though, he's a gritty competitor with good instincts.