5 Denver Broncos Veterans Who Could Be Camp Casualties
The Denver Broncos are a week into training camp, and the battles for roster spots are hot and heavy. There are multiple positions on both sides of the ball with heated competitions.
The Broncos have done an excellent job of mixing veteran players with quality experience alongside young players with intriguing upside. This means the Broncos will have some tough decisions to make when trimming down to the 53-man roster.
It’s a nice problem to have for the team, but there are some veterans who may not like the results. Older players usually have high cap numbers, and this puts an even bigger target on their back if they’re on the roster bubble.
John Fox said after practice last week, “We like to create competition at every position.” That mantra is evident when examining the players who are fighting for their job.
Here are five veterans who could end up being camp casualties.
A fan favorite, Duke Ihenacho has worked hard to earn his spot in the NFL. Undrafted out of San Jose State in 2012, Ihenacho quickly earned a reputation as a hard-hitting safety.
Ihenacho started 18-of-19 games in 2013, including the playoffs. He compiled 88 tackles, six pass breakups, and three forced fumbles as a first-year starter. Those are respectable numbers, but Ihenacho hurt his team with three defensive holding penalties.
The young safety was a standout player as a run defender, but he often struggled in coverage. This offseason, the Broncos lured T.J. Ward to Denver with a four-year, $22.5 million contract. They don’t make this bold move if Ihenacho is seen as anything more than a reserve player (at best).
So far in practice, Ihenacho has continued to struggle as a coverage player. On the first day of practice he was torched by rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer for a 50-yard touchdown. It’s not a good sign when a rookie is handing Ihenacho his lunch on the very first day.
The pads came on a few days ago for the Broncos, and Ihenacho has played well close to the line of scrimmage. That’s not a problem for Ihenacho, and it’s not what a team needs from a strong safety in today’s NFL.
The Broncos offense is going to put up a bunch of points this year. Thus, the defense will be facing opponents who abandon balance early each week. This means the secondary will be tested in coverage early and often.
Ihenacho is firmly on the roster bubble, and the numbers crunch may cause the team to go in a different direction.
The Broncos secondary is shaping up to be an improved unit in 2014. Omar Bolden was drafted as a corner out of Arizona State in 2012, but the Broncos decided to move him to safety last year. His position versatility is an asset that could keep him around this year, but it might not be enough.
If the Broncos only keep four safeties, then he’s going to have to beat out players like David Bruton or Quinton Carter for a spot. That’s simply not going to happen. Bruton is a special teams captain, while Carter has starter’s potential now that he’s recovered from the knee injury that cost him most of the last two years.
Bolden has had some up-and-down moments at practice this year.
He’s a confident player who can swipe the ball away at the last moment. However, sometimes his aggressiveness gets the best of him. Bolden will get burned when he faces better receivers who are adept at setting up a route.
His eyes also get him in trouble. Bolden will often peek at the quarterback as he backpedals in coverage. A savvy quarterback (like Peyton Manning) can pump fake and get Bolden to bite. This also gets him burned by the receiver he’s covering.
Simply put, the team may not be able to trust Bolden—even as a reserve player.
Bolden’s best bet to make the team might come on special teams as a return man. Currently, the Broncos are trying players like Bolden, Isaiah Burse, Ronnie Hillman, Andre “Bubba” Caldwell and Cody Latimer. Nobody is truly standing out (Burse the likely frontrunner), so shining as a return man may be the attribute that keeps Bolden around in 2014.
An under-the-radar free-agent addition earlier this year, Marvin Austin has always had the talent to succeed in the NFL. Austin missed his senior season at North Carolina in 2010 due to violating team rules and getting suspended for the year. He was a standout player at the 2010 East-West Shrine Game, and the New York Giants decided to select him in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft.
Austin failed to live up to expectations with the Giants, and he bounced around the league after that. With stops in Miami and Dallas, Austin continued to disappoint. Injuries and inconsistencies plagued his game and caused both of those teams to move on despite Austin having incredible natural talent.
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio helped get Terrance Knighton’s career back on track last year. Knighton worked well under Del Rio with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but after Del Rio was fired, Knighton’s career went downhill. Austin could be the next reclamation project for the veteran coach.
Austin has been standing out with the Broncos on defense most days in practice. He drew the ire of the coaching staff when he tackled running back Ronnie Hillman (when no tackling was allowed) on the first day the team wore shoulder pads in practice. Other than that, Austin has been a dominant player who draws cheers from his teammates at Dove Valley.
So why could Austin get cut? The answer can be found in the play of Mitch Unrein and Kevin Vickerson.
Unrein is a Del Rio favorite because of his blue-collar work ethic and versatility. In addition to getting some push in the middle of the line as a defensive tackle, Unrein can line up at fullback for the offense when they’re near the goal line.
“Big Vick” is a team-first player who will do whatever it takes to help the team. He’s coming back from the hip injury that cut his 2013 season short, but Vickerson is a seasoned leader who has looked good at training camp.
Austin has an injury history that can’t be ignored. He also has a reputation as a career underachiever. He’s looking good with Denver, but it still might not be enough to make the final roster.
Cornerback depth is a concern for the Broncos. Their top four cornerback positions are set with free-agent gem Aqib Talib, 2014 first-round pick Bradley Roby, returning starter Chris Harris Jr. and 2013 third-round pick Kayvon Webster.
The fifth cornerback job is up for grabs.
Tony Carter could be considered the front-runner at this time. He’s facing competition from undrafted rookies like Louis Young and Jordan Sullen. Most days in camp so far, Young is making impact plays against the third-string offense—and he’s gaining buzz with each practice.
Undrafted out of Florida State in 2009, Carter has always been known as a player who does not back down from a challenge. As a freshman with the Seminoles, Carter stepped into the starting lineup when he replaced an injured Antonio Cromartie—and he never left his starting spot.
Confidence is the name of the game with Carter. He’s made some impact plays for the Broncos over the last few years. One of those plays as the fumble recovery returned for a touchdown he had against the San Diego Chargers in 2012. His play helped the Broncos win 35-24 over the Chargers, and that game turned around the season as Denver went on to win 11 in a row (and finish 13-3).
He’s also been burned on plays, making mental errors that cost his team. In the 2012 playoff opener against the Baltimore Ravens, Carter let Jacoby Jones speed by him for a 70-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter. Yes, Rahim Moore gets blamed for failing to knock the pass down as the last line of defense, but it’s Carter who let Jones run free off the line of scrimmage.
If he’s confident, Carter can make game-changing plays. However his confidence seems to be shaken easily. After he’s blown a play, the air goes out of his game.
Young was banged up in practice Wednesday with a slight groin injury, so Carter may have a shot to make the final roster. If Young continues to stand out (once healthy), then it may be the end of Carter’s time in Denver.
This group of wide receivers is one of the deepest and most talented in the NFL. This depth is great for the Broncos, but it’s bad for a veteran trying to make the team like Jordan Norwood.
Undrafted out of Penn State in 2009, Norwood has played for four different teams in the NFL (including two stints with the Cleveland Browns). He’s a savvy veteran who knows how to run a crisp route and get open. Norwood can also contribute as a return man if need be.
The Broncos signed him to a futures contract at the end of 2013. Norwood is now doing his best to make the team, even though the odds seem to be stacked against him.
He’s been standing out in practice most every day. Catching passes from Brock Osweiler or Zac Dysert, Norwood can bail out his quarterback by making difficult catches seem routine. He’s getting plenty of opportunities (especially with Dysert) to adjust to poorly-thrown passes.
Norwood has little chance of making this roster, and he may not have any practice squad eligibility left. Per the collective bargaining agreement's definition (via Wikipedia) of practice squad eligibility:
A player cannot participate on the practice squad for more than three seasons; he is eligible for a third season only if the team has at least 53 players on its active/inactive list for the duration of that player's employment, or have no prior accrued seasons in the NFL (an accrued season is six or more games on the active roster); or if he has accrued a year of NFL experience on a club's 53-man active roster. If the player was on the active list for fewer than 9 games during their "only Accrued Season(s)", he maintains his eligibility for the practice squad.
Norwood has appeared in 16 games during his pro career, posting numbers as a receiver in all but four of those contests.
It would be great if the Broncos could find a spot for Norwood. He’s smart, professional, prepared and knows how to get open on underneath routes. Norwood can be a reliable receiver, and he will do whatever it takes to make a catch.
Unfortunately, it looks like Norwood is about seventh on the depth chart right now. Undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse might make the team as a sixth wide receiver this year because of his ability as a return man. Norwood is likely to just barely miss the cut.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey