Although Peyton Manning's 10-of-12, 122-yard, two-touchdown performance against the 49ers on Sunday grabbed the headlines, Caleb Hanie's work as a backup might have been more significant for the construction of the Broncos roster.
Hanie was given the entire second quarter to work with first-team wide receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen, and he overcame an early interception to lead the Broncos to a touchdown in the two-minute drill. Hanie's performance seemed to answer the questions about whether his struggles in earlier preseason work were because of his own flaws or those of others.
Meanwhile, the Broncos' backups have been outscored 40-0 in the last two second halves. That could lead to some unexpected turnover at the back end of the roster following the cut deadline Friday.
Projected 53-man roster
Note: Players listed in order of perceived depth.
QB -- In: (3) Manning (free agent, Colts), Hanie (free agent, Bears) and Brock Osweiler (second round, Arizona State). Out: Adam Weber (practice squad). Analysis: Osweiler was a shoo-in for the No. 2 job heading into Thursday's preseason game against the 49ers, but the Broncos now have to decide if Hanie's work in the second quarter against San Francisco changes those plans.
RB -- In: (3) Willis McGahee, Ronnie Hillman (third round, San Diego State) and Lance Ball. Out: Knowshon Moreno and Jeremiah Johnson. Analysis: Whether the Broncos keep a fourth running back might have little to do with how Moreno or Johnson fare in the preseason finale; it will likely be determined just as much by other spots. If the Broncos keep three quarterbacks and a fullback, it appears unlikely they would retain four running backs. If John Fox is unhappy with the back-of-the-roster depth at other positions, he might elect to keep Moreno and try to trade him after the deadline. No matter what, running back looks like the hardest cut on the roster, since Johnson actually showed the most explosiveness in recent weeks and Ball is a prototypical, jack-of-all-trades reserve.
FB -- In: (1) Chris Gronkowski (trade, Colts). Out: None. Willis McGahee's longest preseason run (14 yards) and his only touchdown (a 1-yarder) came when Gronkowski provided the key block. Denver only used a fullback on 15 plays against the 49ers but averaged 1.5 more yards per carry with a fullback than without one.
WR -- In: (5) Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Stokley (street free agent) Andre Caldwell (free agent, Bengals) and Matt Willis. Out: Jason Hill (street free agent) Greg Orton (practice squad) and Gerell Robinson (undrafted, Arizona State). Analysis: Dropped passes plagued the Broncos' backup receivers against the 49ers. Caldwell hasn't pushed the first-teamers as was previously hoped. Robinson is the wild card; the Broncos are high on him, but if he has a breakout game Thursday, they might not be able to sneak him onto the practice squad.
TE -- In: (3) Jacob Tamme (free agent, Colts), Joel Dreessen (free agent, Texans) and Julius Thomas. Suspended: Virgil Green. Out: Cornelius Ingram (practice squad). Analysis: Thomas has been slow to recover from offseason ankle surgery, but Ingram has been merely steady, and he might need something spectacular to seize a spot.
OL -- In (9): LT Ryan Clady, LG Zane Beadles, C J.D. Walton, RG Chris Kuper, RT Orlando Franklin, OT Chris Clark, G/C Manuel Ramirez, G/C Philip Blake (fourth round, Baylor) and OT Ryan Harris. Out: G/C C.J. Davis (street free agent), G/T Adam Grant (practice squad), G Tony Hills, OT and G Wayne Tribue (undrafted, Temple). Analysis: Kuper's fractured forearm forces Ramirez into the starting lineup through at least Week 1 and possibly until Week 3. The chain reaction from Kuper's injury and the need for healthy depth means it wouldn't be a surprise if the Broncos kept nine offensive linemen on the 53-man roster.
DL -- In (9): DE Elvis Dumervil, DT Ty Warren, NT Justin Bannan, DE/DT Derek Wolfe (second round, University of Cincinnati), DE Robert Ayers, DT Kevin Vickerson, NT Mitch Unrein, DE Jeremy Beal (practice squad) and DE/DT Malik Jackson (fifth round, Tennessee). Out: DT Sealver Siliga (practice squad), DE Jamie Blatnick (undrafted, Oklahoma State), DT Ben Garland (military reserve). Analysis: The Broncos will try to wear out opponents by rotating their defensive tackles -- including the work they get from Wolfe when they move him inside. Jackson is intriguing; he's listed on the third team but has performed consistently in games. The fifth-round pick is a virtual lock to make the roster, but might his emergence leave one of the veteran tackles endangered?
LB -- In (7): Von Miller, Joe Mays, Wesley Woodyard, Keith Brooking (free agent, Atlanta), Nate Irving, Steven Johnson (undrafted, Kansas) and Danny Trevathan (sixth round, Kentucky). Suspended: D.J. Williams. Out: Mike Mohamed and Jerry Franklin (undrafted, Arkansas). Analysis: Brooking and Mohamed both returned to practice this week, but don't be surprised if Brooking doesn't play. Fox said he knew what Brooking could do based on his past game tape and implied he didn't necessarily need to see him in the preseason. Mohamed's hamstring injury couldn't have come at a worse time; while he was sidelined, Johnson flourished and showed aggression in attacking plays, and he could steal the spot.
S -- In (5): Quinton Carter, Mike Adams (free agent, Browns), Rahim Moore, Jim Leonhard (free agent, Jets), David Bruton. Out: Rafael Bush, Duke Ihenacho (undrafted, San Jose State). Analysis: Leonhard and Carter have worked together as backups recently but both sat out Sunday against San Francisco. The Broncos might give them some work together at Arizona to see if they are up to speed, and both are expected to push Moore and Adams. Bush and Bruton are likely scrambling for one spot, and Bruton gets the nod here because his two blocked punts against Seattle on Aug. 18 demonstrate his special-teams value.
CB -- In (5): Champ Bailey, Tracy Porter (free agent, Saints), Chris Harris, Drayton Florence (free agent, Bills) and Omar Bolden (fourth round, Arizona State) Out: CB/PR Syd'Quan Thompson, Tony Carter. Analysis: Harris appears to have earned the job as fifth defensive back ahead of Florence. The Broncos hope Bolden will have the chance to return kickoffs Thursday at Arizona; they sent him back to field kickoffs against San Francisco last Sunday, but every one he saw went for a touchback.
Special teams -- In (3): K Matt Prater, P Britton Colquitt and LS Aaron Brewer (undrafted, San Diego State). Out: None. Brewer seized the snapping duties from 13-year veteran Lonie Paxton on the strength of his athleticism; Fox noted that Brewer's ability to get downfield after the snap turns him into an extra body in coverage.
Players on the bubble -- (16) QB Caleb Hanie, QB Adam Weber, RB Knowshon Moreno, RB Jeremiah Johnson, TE Cornelius Ingram, WR Jason Hill, OL Tony Hills, OL Ryan Harris, G/T Adam Grant, DT Sealver Siliga, DE Jeremy Beal, LB Mike Mohamed, LB Steven Johnson, CB Syd'Quan Thompson, S David Bruton, S Rafael Bush.
Leading practice-squad candidates -- (8) QB Adam Weber, WR Gerell Robinson, OL Adam Grant, OL Wayne Tribue, DT Ben Garland, DE Jamie Blatnick, LB Jerry Franklin, S Duke Ihenacho.
Injured reserve -- (3): WR D'Andre Goodwin (knee), RB Mario Fannin (torn Achilles tendon), DE Jason Hunter (triceps).