It’s easy to dismiss late round draft picks, journeymen, guys who didn’t pan out and guys who have toiled on the practice squad, hoping to get their chance at making a gameday roster, as players who don’t matter – interchangeable pieces they’re sometimes called. But inevitably at least a few of those players are asked to take meaningful snaps and often those opportunities can be game-, season- and career-changing for the team and player.

Remember when we laughed about the Broncos signing “the other” Brandon Marshall? Remember when that “other” guy went on to lead the team in tackles?

Who will be this season’s Brandon Marshall?

Kenny Anunike is entering his second NFL season out of Duke University. The undrafted defensive end suffered a season-ending elbow injury in last year’s preseason finale. At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, Anunike is undersized at defensive end. He will have to take advantage of his long frame and athletic ability to get to the quarterback. Anunike put on 10-15 pounds this offseason to gain strength and fit his position.

Anunike was very impressive last summer and has a chance to make the 53-man roster, as defensive end looks to be a wide-open competition this year. He’ll be competing with several former draft picks (also on this list), but in Wade Phillips’ defense, the guys who make they plays get to play, regardless of their draft status.

Lamin Barrow will need to be the man to step up if either of the starting inside linebackers, Danny Trevathan or Brandon Marshall, suffers an injury or a dramatic decrease in production. Trevathan and Marshall have both dealt with numerous injuries in their young careers, so having Barrow is essential.

The highly-athletic linebacker had one of the best forty times amongst all linebackers in the 2014 NFL Draft. Barrow has good instincts and excellent range. If one of the Broncos’ linebackers does go down, Barrow should be able to step in without missing a beat. Expect Barrow to play the reserve role well, but also to be prepared for him to spend a lot of time on the field.

Marcel Jensen is a physical beast. The second-year tight end out of Fresno State stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 270 pounds, nearly the exact size of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Jensen is competing for a roster spot backing up Owen Daniels and Virgil Green.

He is very raw, converting to tight end just four years ago, is not particularly fast and struggles with route running, but his incredible size and 35-inch vertical gives him a chance to be a game-changer at the tight end position. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a similar profile to what Julius Thomas offered coming out of Portland State in 2011 (minus the basketball background and about 20 pounds).

Cornerback Kayvon Webster was drafted by the Broncos in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Since then, Webster has made a mark on special teams, as well as on the defensive side of the ball. In limited playing time last season, Webster made 23 tackles and knocked down two passes. He is one of the fastest players on the team, and can move around the secondary. He could surprise everybody with a breakout season.

When the Broncos drafted defensive end Derek Wolfe out of Cincinnati with the 36th overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, they did so hoping they had selected a future cornerstone of the defense. Wolfe seemed poised to become just that following a rookie season in which he recorded 40 tackles and 6 sacks, but suffered a spinal cord injury the following year that resulted in a medically-induced coma, and the loss of 20 pounds.

Wolfe was a rotational piece on the defensive line in 2014, but his body was still recovering from the previous season. The four-year veteran says his quickness has finally returned and that has boosted his confidence to a point where he feels back to full speed.

The Broncos haven’t seen a full-speed Derek Wolfe since 2012. While he wasn’t expected to be an “underdog” when he was drafted, an unfortunate series of events has left Wolfe looking at a season that could go one of two ways: Either he finally breaks through and shows the potential he’s had since draft day, or the toils of his NFL career catch up to him and he finds himself entering 2016 free agency with limited options.

So, who will have a breakout season?


Bryce Rudnick, a Mile High Sports intern and CU-Boulder student, contributed to this report