ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Much has changed for the Denver Broncos over the past two months.
As a result, the team that hung on by its collective fingernails for a 16-15 win over the Oakland Raiders in the season finale bears little resemblance to the current roster at several key positions.
Here’s a look at four groups that could look very different by the time a season opener rolls around:
Bolles finished the season as the league leader in holding penalties for the third consecutive year. Schlottmann started the last four games after Ron Leary suffered a concussion. Rodgers got his first NFL start in the season finale because Elijah Wilkinson suffered a high ankle sprain the previous week.
The Broncos also finished 28th or worse in the league in scoring, total offense, third-down conversions and passing.
The Broncos keep saying that Bolles’ left tackle job is an open competition, but he has started every game the past three seasons. Given that Wilkinson had foot surgery in recent weeks, the proof of any competition will have to wait until there is some on-field work. Cushenberry figures to start at center as a rookie, and the Broncos made Glasgow their first major signing of free agency with a $44 million deal.
James, who played just 63 snaps last season because of knee troubles, signed a $51 million deal in March 2019, so the Broncos want and expect him to be the starter at right tackle.
Those four players caught 10 passes for 131 yards combined in the win over the Raiders — an average of just 32.8 yards receiving. The Broncos exited the season with an upgrade at this position as a top priority, but they also believed that the available receivers in free agency didn’t quite reach the value of the contracts needed to sign them.
Sutton was the only Broncos wide receiver who finished with more than 30 receptions last season.
The Broncos used their first two selections of the draft on wide receivers for the first time in franchise history when they grabbed Jeudy and Hamler. Overall, they selected three receivers in the draft (also Tyrie Cleveland in the seventh round) and signed three more receivers as undrafted rookies.
Even with what figures to be little on-field work, at best, before any sort of green light is given for training camp, Jeudy will likely be tossed into the lineup as quickly as possible. His route-running precision gives him a chance to overcome the potential lack of organized team activities and minicamp.
Hamler would be best suited to line up in the slot at first, but the slot receiver has to have the best understanding of the quarterback’s reads on each play and be able to see what the quarterback sees in the pre-snap alignment from the defense. That could limit Hamler’s work early and give Hamilton additional snaps.
Lindsay got 18 carries in that season finale, and Freemen got two. Overall, Lindsay had more than 20 carries in one game last season — 21 in Week 3 against Green Bay — and Freeman had fewer than 10 carries in each of the final eight games of the season.
The Broncos haven’t had a back top 250 carries since Reuben Droughns in 2004, though Willis McGahee had 249 in 2011, when the Broncos tied for the league lead in carries.
Right now: Melvin Gordon, Lindsay, Freeman
With Pat Shurmur’s arrival as the third offensive coordinator in the past three seasons and Gordon’s signing for two years, $16 million, how the Broncos divide the workload remains to be seen. But they didn’t sign Gordon at $8 million per year for him to be some ornamental piece of the offense.
Shurmur has said publicly that if a running back can’t catch the ball — a lot — in the passing game, then the back isn’t a “full runner.” Gordon’s ability as a receiver — he has four 40-catch seasons and two 50-catch years — could give him the edge in snap count over Lindsay.
Chris Harris played the 2019 season knowing that his departure in free agency was essentially a given. The Broncos also had five different cornerbacks start games last season, with Harris the only one of those five to start more than eight.
Harris indeed left — on a two-year, $17 million deal with the Chargers — so the Broncos will not have a player who played in at least 15 games in eight of his nine seasons with the team and never played fewer than 12 games in any of his seasons.
The Broncos are gambling that Bouye, who will turn 29 in August and has played in 16 games in just one of his seven career seasons, can return to his Pro Bowl level of 2017. The Broncos also hope that both Callahan and Bausby can return from injury.
Because of a foot injury, Callahan never played a down last season after signing in free agency (three years, $21 million). Bausby, who started two games last season, is coming back from a neck injury that sent him to injured reserve in October.
That could get Davontae Harris and Dawson back in the mix again, but if Ojemudia can get acclimated quickly, his combination of athleticism and on-field awareness gives him a good chance at situational work.