By Chad Jensen
DENVER (24SPORTS) – All of the offseason and preseason roster speculation is over. As of 2 p.m. this past Saturday, the 53-man roster is pretty much set for the Denver Broncos.
The practice squad has also been established. Both are subject to change as the regular season marches on, but other than those one or two guys at the bottom of both the roster and the practice squad, players are on secure footing.
With the 53-man roster set, we can now turn our attention to the 2018 regular season and really start to analyze and project expectations for the Broncos. With 10 rookies making the roster (not counting the practice squad), there’s a real youth movement afoot in Denver.
That can be a good thing, although it does trigger some misgivings. Known quantities vs. unknown are always going to generate some apprehension in the fanbase.
However, coming off a season the Broncos want to forget, the team had to shuffle the roster, move some veterans who weren’t cutting the mustard, and cut some recent draft picks who were falling well short of expectations.
With Week 1’s bout with the Seattle Seahawks just days away, which Broncos on the 53 have the potential to break out? First, let’s define “break out.”
By that I mean players who are mostly unknowns around the league who have the potential to either break onto the scene, or even more established veterans flying under the radar poised to make a quantum leap. Let’s jump to it.
GARETT BOLLES, LT
Garett Bolles is a starter as a 2017 first-rounder. I have him listed as a breakout candidate because of his ridiculous physical tools.
Bolles arrived in Denver as a talented but inexperienced offensive tackle prospect and it showed in his rookie campaign. He was one of the most penalized players in the league last year, but he still proved to be an upgrade at left tackle.
With a full NFL season under his belt, and a year to hone his pro body and improve his technique, I expect Bolles to take a quantum leap forward in year two. He’ll still get the occasional penalty, but the yellow laundry won’t fly near as often as last year.
JUSTIN SIMMONS, S
Back when training camp opened, I wrote that Justin Simmons is a darkhorse candidate to earn a Pro Bowl nod in 2018. Now in his third year, Simmons has become a formidable playmaker on the backend of the Broncos defense.
If he can stay healthy, the sky is the limit. Although he’s young, he’s established himself as one of the emotional leaders on the team, especially for the young defensive backs.
With a high football IQ, great measurables and talent falling out of his pockets, it really comes down to health for Simmons. Only the injury bug can derail what promises to be a breakout season for the young safety.
MATT PARADIS, C
Matt Paradis a breakout candidate? Absolutely. Let me tell you why.
Paradis emerge in 2015 as one of Pro Football Focus’ darlings. Denver’s iron man hasn’t missed a snap since winning the starting job in the summer of 2015.
Last year Paradis dealt with the obstacle of having to overcome bi-lateral hip surgery. He did just that — starting all 16 games — but he wasn’t quite himself. The advanced analytics outfits still liked Paradis’ body of work, but his grades weren’t up to the same par years past.
Heading into 2018, however, he’s fully healthy and playing in the middle of what appears to be the best starting five the Broncos have fielded in years. Look for Paradis to make a bid for the Pro Bowl — which would be his first.
TODD DAVIS, ILB
The Broncos signed Todd Davis to a three-year extension this past offseason. It didn’t take long for the fifth-year veteran to show why the team has such faith in him.
Although he didn’t play a lot of snaps in the preseason, the playing time Davis received was impressive. He’s always been a two-down thumper — one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the NFL.
But having to come off the field on third down limits his upside. However, there are signs that Davis has shored up that element of his game.
To top it all off, Davis was voted a team captain for the 2018 season — another big sign that the Broncos are more emotionally invested in Davis than his counterpart, Brandon Marshall. Look for Davis to really take that next step this year.
ROYCE FREEMAN, RB
This one might seem like a no-brainer, as Royce Freeman was just named Denver’s starting running back and he’s a rookie. But if we’re talking about true ‘breakout’ potential, ala Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara, Freeman is the top candidate in Denver.
And it’s not just because he was named the starter. In each game Freeman played during the preseason, he found the endzone. Two of the scores came from 20-plus yards out, with him breaking tackles at the second level.
Throw in an improved O-line and a fullback champing at the bit to blow up linebackers once again, and it all spells good things on the horizon for Freeman. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and double-digit touchdowns as a rookie.
BRADLEY ROBY, CB
Similarly to Paradis, you might be wondering why Bradley Roby makes this list. The truth is, however, Roby’s been playing third fiddle in Denver for the last four years.
Now, he’s Denver’s top cornerback. I know, I know. Nominally that honor goes to Chris Harris, Jr.. But in terms of matching up with the opposing team’s top wideout, that will be Roby’s purview more so than Harris’.
The proverbial rubber will meet the road for Roby in year five. It’s a contract year, and if he plays well, he could not only be a clear breakout candidate, but he could also haul in a lucrative extension from the Broncos.
COURTLAND SUTTON, WR
The demise of Demaryius Thomas might be greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t mitigate Courtland Sutton’s opportunity to break out as a rookie. Thomas doesn’t seem to be as dialed in with Case Keenum as Emmanuel Sanders is, but that could simply be due to the lack of sample size in the preseason.
Sutton has already proven that he can make the most of his opportunities. Starting off the season as Denver’s No. 3 wideout, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sutton eclipse Thomas in snap shares when it’s all said and done.
The Broncos need explosive playmaking ability like a drowning man needs a life preserver. Sutton can oblige and save the day. He’ll be eased in, but the Broncos have a budding superstar on their hands here.
PHILLIP LINDSAY, RB
The undrafted rookie leapfrogged almost all the competition on the depth chart in a very short amount of time. Again, the Broncos will cleave unto playmaking ability, and Phillip Lindsay presents it in spades.
Currently listed as the No. 3 running back behind Freeman and Devontae Booker, the Broncos have plans to feature Lindsay with specific plays in their scheme. The diminutive but explosive rookie isn’t going to eclipse Freeman, but he could prove to be the lighting to Freeman’s thunder.
It could be a formidable one-two punch for the Broncos, and set Case Keenum up for some great vertical opportunities in the play-action game.
CASE KEENUM, QB
Speaking of Keenum, it’s fair to say that he broke out last year in Minnesota. Winning 11 games and eclipsing 3,500 yards with 22 touchdowns definitely helped him to elevate his profile around the league.
But most talking heads still don’t see it in Keenum. He hasn’t fully ‘arrived’ yet in the NFL.
That could change this year, however, as the Broncos have taken great pains to put an above average O-line around him, as well as loading up his arsenal.
Keenum has no shortage of weapons in Denver and he’s playing for a team now who fully believes in him. If the Broncos make some noise this year and get to the playoffs, look for Keenum to earn his first Pro Bowl nod.
JOSEY JEWELL, ILB
‘The Outlaw’ definitely has breakout potential, but it would take a strike by the injury bug for it to play out that way as a rookie. Josey Jewell is Denver’s third off-ball linebacker behind Marshall and Davis.
Davis absolutely has the upper hand in terms of playing time and experience but he’s traditionally dealt with injury issues throughout his pro career, and the same can be said of Marshall. Jewell is listed as Marshall’s direct backup, but if something happened to either starter, the rookie out of Iowa would be the first man in to stop the gap.
If injury necessitates an extended opportunity for Jewell, I would fully expect him to make the most of it. The preseason showed his potential to be a heat-seeking missile at the point of attack. Jewell is Denver’s long-term candidate to replace the overpriced Marshall beyond 2018.
DEMARCUS WALKER, DE
Denver’s second-rounder from a year ago has kind of been the forgotten man on the defensive line. But don’t sleep on DeMarcus Walker in year two.
He won’t start until he develops more as a run-stopper, but he’ll get a lot of opportunities to rush the QB on third down and obvious passing situations. Last year, Shelby Harris chipped in 5.5 sacks. I doubt that happens for Harris again this year.
For Walker, though, I wouldn’t be surprised.