NFL cut-down day is one of the most unforgiving and brutal of the business, as hundreds of players across the league have their dreams snatched from their clutches. These difficult decisions have to be made as teams whittle their rosters down to accommodate the 53-man limit.
The Denver Broncos made a total of 29 transactions on the way to the final roster, including a pair of trades early Tuesday morning. While most of the moves were expected, there are a couple of surprises hidden in there.
New GM George Paton had a lot of difficult decisions to make in this process. Let's break down the Broncos' initial 2021 roster and see what we can glean from it.
Roster: Teddy Bridgewater, Drew Lock
No surprises here, really. Bridgewater was named the starter to open the season prior to the preseason finale and Lock will back him up until further notice. Lock played very well and showed massive improvements throughout the preseason, creating a distinct possibility that he could take over at some point during the season if Bridgewater struggles.
The only slight question was whether the Broncos would keep Brett Rypien on the opening roster or not. He was waived.
Running Backs: 4
Roster: Melvin Gordon, Javonte Williams, Mike Boone,
Royce Freeman (cut), Nate McCrary
When Paton signed Boone this past spring, there was a lot of speculation that Freeman would be the odd man out if Denver decided to only carry three backs on the roster. Alas, Boone has a quad injury that will sideline him to open the season and he'll soon be headed to short-term injured reserve.
Combine that with Freeman's flashy play in all three preseason games, and he made the cut to open the season.
Update: The Broncos exploited the waiver wire and were awarded ex-Baltimore Ravens RB Nate McCrary. Freeman was waived to make room for McCrary. The Broncos' 2018 third-round pick landed on his feet after the Carolina Panthers claimed him off waivers.
Wide Receivers: 5
Roster: Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Tim Patrick, Diontae Spencer
The first real surprise move the Broncos made was by trading camp standout Trinity Benson to Detroit, opening up a roster spot for Spencer as the team's kick and punt returner. That is seemingly a massive focus for this coaching staff this season and even though Benson was clearly the better receiver, Spencer is reliable as a punt returner.
That was the separation, or so it seems. Benson now has a real opportunity to contribute for the Lions, who had a dearth of talent at receiver.
Tight End: 4
Roster: Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Saubert, Andrew Beck
One of the biggest standouts of camp was Saubert, who flashed in all three preseason games as a receiver. He definitely deserved to make the roster and appears to be what the team wanted ex-Broncos like Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett to become.
Beck, because of his versatility to play fullback and on all four special teams units, lands on the roster as a surprise fourth tight end.
Offensive Line: 8
Roster: Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry III, Graham Glasgow, Bobby Massie, Calvin Anderson, Quinn Meinerz, Netane Muti
A versatile group especially on the interior, the Broncos have a solid offensive line this season. Kudos to Anderson for beating out Cameron Fleming for the swing tackle spot. Although Fleming didn't make the initial roster, the team hopes to bring him back after it places either Boone on short-term IR.
Muti figures to be the swing guard while Meinerz develops his craft as the backup center.
Defensive Line: 6
Roster: Shelby Harris, Dre'Mont Jones, McTelvin Agim, Mike Purcell, DeShawn Williams,
Jonathan Harris (cut), Shamar Stephen
Arguably the biggest surprise of the opening roster was the inclusion of Jonathan Harris, who is widely regarded as a favorite of the coaching staff. He learns quickly, plays fast, and has really grown into a nice player over the past couple of seasons.
Update: As expected, Stephen, a vested veteran with a low salary for next year, was re-signed on Wednesday. The strategy behind cutting him, only to re-sign him the next day, is to avoid guaranteeing his full 2021 salary. Jonathan Harris was waived.
Rush Linebackers: 5
Roster: Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Malik Reed, Jonathan Cooper, Andre Mintze
A pair of rookies round out this group, both of whom were passed over several times in the draft. Cooper, who's had multiple heart surgeries, was one of the best defenders throughout camp and flashed often. Mintze flashed a lot as well, and with his inclusion, the Broncos have now had an undrafted rookie make the opening roster in 17 of the past 18 years.
Inside Linebackers: 5
Roster: Alexander Johnson, Joseph Jewell, Baron Browning, Justin Strnad, Jonas Griffith
After the aforementioned Benson trade, news broke that Paton had acquired Griffith from San Francisco. A special teams ace, Griffith has a role on all four units of the third phase. Strnad stood out as a coverage linebacker all preseason long. He figures to have a huge role in this defense.
Roster: Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan, Patrick Surtain II, Michael Ojemudia, Kary Vincent, Jr., Mike Ford
Cornerback featured a difficult set of decisions for Paton as a handful of lower-level roster spots were up for grabs here. Ultimately, Vincent beat out Nate Hairston and Saivion Smith for the sixth spot, but that could be short-lived.
Ojemudia is expected to be placed on short-term IR on Wednesday, and one of Hairston or Smith could be brought back to fill his spot. Look for Hairston to make the practice squad at the very least.
Update: Among the two waiver claims Denver was awarded, Mike Ford arrives after spending the past three seasons in Detroit. He's a defensive back on the rise but was added for his special teams acumen.
Roster: Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Caden Sterns, P.J. Locke, Jamar Johnson
With a focus on the future (and also bolstering the special teams units), Paton kept both of his rookie safeties as well as Locke, who improved dramatically as a coverage defender and had a couple of really nice games during the preseason. Sterns looks to be the real deal and could steal some playing time from Jackson early this season.
Keeping Johnson, a rangy yet inconsistent player, was kind of a surprise. He had an issue with Covid to open training camp and appeared to be on his way to the waiver wire with inconsistent play throughout the preseason. Fortunately for him, his splash plays were noticed.
Roster: Brandon McManus (K), Sam Martin (P), Jacob Bobenmoyer (LS)
Not much to say here as all three were unchallenged this summer.
Update: Wednesday morning, Denver waived RB Royce Freeman and DL Jonathan Harris to make room for two waiver claims the team was awarded in RB Nate McCrary and CB Mike Ford.
Follow Lance on Twitter @SandersonMHH.
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