Forty-five hours before final cuts were due at the NFL offices in New York, 75 players dressed for the Broncos' final preseason game. By Saturday afternoon, only 53 of them will still be employed.
Twenty-seven players, including the starters, didn't play in the final exhibition. Their attention is already focused on the season opener against Baltimore next week. The other 48 spent the warm summer evening competing for 26 jobs.
Although the game doesn't count, and without stars is the least compelling week of the season, it produces lots of important decisions. As you may have heard, football is a violent game that often injures its participants. So the makeup of the back end of a team's roster can have a lot to do with how far it will go in the long season ahead. These are the people who were auditioning Thursday night at Mile High.
People like Zac Dysert, a big, athletic, rookie quarterback from Miami of Ohio, where he was a three-year team captain and put up passing numbers that approached those of Ben Roethlisberger.
A seventh-round draft choice, Dysert played the entire second half. He completed nine of 20 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 90.2. He rushed three times for 23 yards, besting Brock Osweiler, the No. 2 quarterback and heir apparent to Peyton Manning, who scrambled four times for 25 yards.
After Dysert's first series, a six-play, 94-yard touchdown drive, he was three-for-three for 70 yards and a touchdown, with a passer rating of 158.3, which is the best passer rating possible. Do not ask why.
A week ago, the Broncos might have waived Dysert in final cuts, confident he would clear waivers, what with every other team trying to get down to the roster limit too. Then they could sign him to their practice squad and keep him around, just in case.
After Thursday night, the question is whether they want to expose him to the likes of Buffalo and the New York Jets, but particularly the Bills, who appear set to start an undrafted college free agent in their opener next week. Dysert, at least, was drafted. If the Broncos don't want to risk losing him, they would have to devote one of their 53 roster spots to someone who would not contribute on the field except in the case of an emergency.
That's just one of the difficult decisions facing Broncos brass. Wide receiver Gerell Robinson is another. In his second Broncos training camp, Robinson had a nice game -- five receptions for 99 yards -- including a touchdown catch on a pass from Dysert to cap that 94-yard drive.
But how many receivers will they keep? The Broncos' answer was five each of the first two seasons in which John Elway and John Fox were in charge. The depth chart shows three wide receivers as the base offensive set.
The starters are Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. It would be surprising if veteran Andre Caldwell and fifth-round draft pick Tavarres King were not on the final 53. So the club would have to keep more wideouts than it has in either of the past two seasons for Robinson to make it.
Then there's the scrum in the defensive backfield. The Broncos brought in veteran cornerback Quentin Jammer with the idea of moving him to safety to add experience and coverage ability there. But Jammer, the fifth overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft, showed remarkably little feel at safety and now seems likely to be waived.
So five days ago, the Broncos moved cornerback Omar Bolden, their fourth-round pick a year ago, to safety. Bolden played there Thursday night, and did it pretty well.
If Bolden makes the team as a combo defensive back they can list at safety, the Broncos would have five corners (Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris, Tony Carter and third-round draft pick Kayvon Webster) and five safeties (Rahim Moore, Duke Ihenacho, Mike Adams, David Bruton and Bolden). That's 10 DBs. They kept 10 last year, but only nine the year before.
If they keep just nine, would the veteran Adams be on the bubble with the emergence in this camp of Ihenacho? Could Carter be on the bubble with the emergence of Webster?
I could keep going like this through every position group, but I'll spare you so we can hear from some of the folks fighting for jobs. Two of them are interior offensive linemen. The Broncos have lost two centers to major injuries over the past year and they're scrambling there.
They moved guard Manny Ramirez to center during the offseason, even before veteran Dan Koppen tore an anterior cruciate ligament in July, and Ramirez has been good enough to win the starting job, sort of by default.
They brought in veteran Steve Vallos, who has built an NFL career as a backup center/guard. They wooed veteran Ryan Lilja out of retirement. Lilja was a longtime guard in the huddle with Manning in Indianapolis who became a center last year in Kansas City. The Broncos brought him to camp just months after he'd had microfracture knee surgery.
I caught Lilja at his locker after Thursday night's game. He was in a hurry to leave. He started the game at center but came out before any other starting lineman and was replaced by Vallos, who played the rest of the game. Several times, it looked as if his knee was bothering him. You can read his brief comments for yourself. I got a sense that he was done and cut off the interview so he wouldn't have to say anything that wasn't true.
I could be totally wrong about that, of course. For all I know, he's already cemented his status as the backup center and they just wanted to get him off that knee. But I thought Vallos played better and was more mobile, particularly on the downfield block that helped spring Lance Ball break for a 69-yard gain after catching a screen pass from Dysert.
So I talked to a few of the guys fighting for jobs and tried to get a feel for their mindsets going into the next day and a half, when they'll get a call from the Broncos asking them to bring in their iPads . . . or not.
Quarterback Zac Dysert
You looked pretty good out there tonight.
I tried. I've got to give a lot of credit to the O-line. The receivers, they made me look good. I just tried not to do too much. I just tried to do my job, put the team in a position to win. That's all I was trying to do.
Have you thought about making the 53-man roster versus possibly being waived with the intent of signing you back to the practice squad?
Definitely, definitely. I tried to use tonight to my advantage, make the most out of the opportunity and just try to prove myself to them, that I can play.
Do you think you made a good case?
I think I did some good things. Definitely have a lot to work on still, but I think I did a lot of positive things, yes sir.
You've been a quarterback in a training camp with Peyton Manning. What's that like?
Oh, it's awesome. I can't really put it into words, how awesome it was. He was my idol growing up, so being able to sit in the same room with him, on the same field, learn from him, practice with him, you can't really put it into words.
Did he give you any advice when you were playing tonight?
He was just giving me keys to look for, what the defense was doing, little tips to what kind of coverage they might be playing, blitzes they were bringing, things like that.
What are you thinking about the process that will unfold over the next 48 hours?
Denver's definitely the first choice, but, you know, if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. I've just got to make the most out of the opportunity I get.
Center Steve Vallos
What was your goal tonight?
Just prove myself. Anytime you get to step on the field, it's just another opportunity to prove yourself, especially in these preseason games, because every team looks at them. You never know what can happen.
You were brought into an unsettled situation in the interior of the offensive line.
It's made me better. Interior, guards, center, we have a lot of good players. You learn things from everybody. It's a competition, so that makes everybody better. We'll see what happens. I mean, I think a lot of guys played well this preseason, so it's going to be tough choices for them.
Do you have any feel for where you stand?
You never know. I've felt good and bad things have happened and I've felt bad and good things have happened. It's just one of those things where it's out of your control. I've done everything in my power, so it's not up to me now . . . . I felt like I had a good camp for coming in late; I felt I did pretty well.
What was it like as a center working with Peyton Manning?
It was a good experience. I mean, he's a great player. He's so knowledgeable about every part of the game and it really brings everybody up to his level. He expects everyone to have a high understanding of the game and I think that's good for the whole team.
Is that challenging for a center?
I wouldn't say it's challenging because I've been in offenses where the center has to make a lot more calls. (Manning) knows it and he sees it and he calls stuff. It's a lot easier than playing with a young quarterback that doesn't know things, where a center has to make more calls. I think sometimes it's a lot easier because he knows what's coming and he'll change protections and stuff.
Center Ryan Lilja
They brought you in here out of retirement, not long after you had microfracture surgery. How did it go?
It's obviously tough to come out and just jump right into the fire like that in training camp, try to catch up a little bit. So it wasn't ideal. Kind of a balancing act, trying to gain a little weight, learn the offense, learn all the calls, stay healthy, while it's all going like this (snaps fingers).
Jeff Saturday dropped something like 60 pounds after he retired last year. Were you dropping weight before the Broncos called?
I wasn't down quite as much as Jeff, but I dropped about 20. I was just working on just trying to stay healthy and just kind of make the transition back into retirement. This was an opportunity that I thought was too good to pass up, so we'll see how it works out. Hey, I gotta go (exits).
Cornerback Kayvon Webster
You made a couple of big hits that drew flags, but it looked like your coaches were smiling.
I'm pretty sure they thought it wasn't a flag. They just was happy to see the young guy like me come in and make plays like they drafted me to do, so they was kind of excited.
How important is that sort of physical play to your game?
I think it's real important. You never want to go out there and not give it your all, tackling and stuff like that. When I go out there, I try to put a lot of people's game in one -- tackle, cover, catch and do all those things.
How do you feel your camp has gone?
I think camp went really well. I learned a lot from the veteran guys that we have in the secondary position and I think I'm improving day in and day out.
Are you nervous about the next 48 hours?
You can't worry about those things. It's already written. God already has a plan and in the morning whatever happens, happens. If I'm not here, gotta go somewhere else and do my job. But if I'm here, they're going to get my very best every day.
No trouble sleeping?
No trouble sleeping.
Cornerback/safety Omar Bolden
What's the biggest difference for you this year compared to last, when you were a rookie?
Mentally, I've grasped the game so much more this year, as far as understanding the defense, understanding my responsibilities and where I have to be. And physically, I feel like I'm back to the guy that I used to be. Coming off an ACL, sometimes in the media we try to be politically correct and tell you guys the right things, so I'm always going to say I feel good, but that first year, man, it was shaky, just coming off the injury, trying to get your groove back and stuff like that. But at this point, man, all that is out the window.
What's the biggest issue coming off an ACL repair?
To be honest, it's kind of just a confidence thing. It's like, can I still do the things that I used to do? Can I do them as fast, and as sudden, as I used to do them? And then with repetition, you gain that confidence back.
So they bring in a veteran like Quentin Jammer to play some safety and then suddenly at the end of camp they ask you to move to safety. How did you react to that?
I've grasped more of the defense this year, so it's not too hard for me to make that switch, just because I understand a little bit more. But basically I was just out there playing today. I was kind of telling myself before the play, "It doesn't matter what happens, just play, just play fast and play physical."
Do you have a preference between corner and safety?
To be honest, I'm trying to do whatever I can do to get on the field. So if that's at safety, if it's at nickel, if it's at corner, I'm versatile.
Do you get nervous about final cuts?
I don't. I'm a ballplayer, man, so if the situation didn't work out here for me, I know I'll find a home somewhere. So I kind of just don't worry about that. If my phone rings, then it rings. If it doesn't, at the end of the day, I'm happy with what I put on film.
Is that a different feeling from the one you had this time a year ago?
Last year, even though I was drafted, it's so intense around cut time, man. It's like, have I done enough? This time, this year, I feel like I've put enough on film and I'm just going to let the chips fall where they fall. That's how it is in this business. You don't control that. What we do control is what goes on between those white lines.