The Denver Broncos (3-0) take on the Arizona Cardinals (1-2) Thursday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The battle between teams and the end score is not the compelling piece of entertainment or the important one to take from the evening.

What is important is the fleeting opportunity for the members of both teams (almost entirely back ups) to make one last impression on their coaching staffs. Several roster spots hang in the balance for the Broncos players that will take the field and the evening is crucial for three players in particular. Montee Ball, Gino Gradkowski and Jordan Taylor must perform exceptionally well in order to find themselves with the team after the Saturday 2 p.m. roster cut deadline.

Montee Ball

Not long ago, a little over one calendar year in fact, Ball was in line for the starting running back job for the orange and blue. He was in his second season with the team after being drafted out of the University of Wisconsin 58th overall in the 2013 draft. He suffered a groin injury in training camp and he simply never recovered. The injury plagued his 2014 season and he was sidelined for all but 55 carries in five games.

As training camp hit in 2015 Gary Kubiak and his coaching staff declared surprise 2014 Pro Bowler, C.J. Anderson, the starting back but with an emphasis on an open competition. Fast forward four weeks and Ball finds himself fourth on the depth chart and hanging on the roster for dear life. He entered last Saturday’s preseason game in the fourth quarter and got only four carries and gained only 11 yards. When asked about the decreased playing time, Ball was honest yet still opportunistic.

“It is tough because I feel like I really haven’t had the opportunities in these preseason games, but there’s still one more left and I feel like I’ll have some playing time in this one, and I’ll show them what I can do.”

His career has taken a sudden nose dive after setting a NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision touchdown record (77) in 2012 and placing second on the Broncos in rushing yards (559) during his rookie season. Kubiak has stated several times that Ball has done nothing personal to lose favor with the team but that it simply is a talented group with limited roster spots. After Saturday’s win against the San Francisco 49ers Kubiak was asked about the running back situation.

“There’s nothing Montee has done. It’s hard to get four guys carries in a game. He continues to work hard. Special teams is a big factor with him and Juwan as far as playing on a regular basis. We’ll see. I’m fine with Montee. I wish there would be more. I promise you they’ll probably be plenty to go around on Thursday.”

Kubiak confirmed those thoughts Tuesday and said that Ball will carry the workload with Kapri Bibbs, a second year player from Colorado State University. The Broncos will be facing a stout run defense that has only allowed an average of 75.3 yards per game on the ground in the preseason and only an average of 108.7 for the entire season in 2014. Ball would be the most shocking cut, by far, if he fails to perform well Saturday night. Regardless of his draft position in 2013, the Broncos can and will move on from Ball if he cannot keep up with the three running backs currently ahead of him on the depth chart.

Gino Gradkowski

The offensive line has undergone a complete makeover from last season. The Broncos spent the offseason releasing Orlando Franklin, trading Manny Ramirez, watching Ryan Clady suffer a season-ending injury and scrambling to fill the voids. The result is a hodge-podge of veterans and newbies along the offensive line.

Gradkowski came to the team by way of trade on April 1 with the Baltimore Ravens. He started organized team activities, minicamp and training camp as the starting center but soon fell out of favor. Matt Paradis has supplanted the three year veteran who started all 16 games for the Ravens in 2013. Paradis has received praise from coaches and teammates alike which has put Gradkowski’s job, even as a backup lineman, at extreme risk. When asked about the importance of what many people call a “meaningless game” Thursday, Gradkowski was clear.

“Hopefully I can get some good minutes. You can never take that for granted. Whether it is the fourth preseason game or it is the Super Bowl, everything matters. You’re putting it on film and it is your resume for other teams or this team.”

On top of Paradis being named the starter, the signing of left guard Even Mathis has moved Max Garcia into the “swing” role. Garcia, a rookie from the University of Florida, impressed the coaches so much in training camp that he was the starting left guard before Mathis was signed. Now he will start to practice at both the guard and center positions. Thursday Gradkowski will have to set himself apart from Garcia and the other backup linemen in order to make the 53-man roster. It is a situation he has been in before and understands.

“Everybody is here obviously here for a reason. It takes the little things to separate yourself to be a part of the 53,” he stated plainly.

Through the first three preseason games, Gradkowski has graded out ahead of several starters according to Pro Football Focus (3.0 overall) including Paradis, yet he still remains on the bubble. Kubiak discussed how close he and his staff are to finding the right number of lineman to retain.

“We’re starting to get close to how we’re going to swing on game day, how many guys we’re going to have up. Seven is what you’d like to play with. There are some important things that have to happen, so you’ve got some work there to do.”

Jordan Taylor

Taylor was the training camp darling of 2015. He burst on the scene with his golden locks and 6-foot-5-inch frame and made some spectacular catches. While his play has not declined per say, his status on the roster is still entirely up in the air.

At Rice University Taylor converted from a quarterback to wide receiver and hauled in 175 career receptions for 2,585 yards. He joined the Broncos on May 5 as a college free agent. In the first couple of weeks both Peyton Manning and Kubiak could not help but comment on his progress and abilities. Entering Thursday he must show the team he can contribute on special teams in order to make the 53-man roster.

“We could be a five, six, seven receiver football team depending on how things play out here over the weekend,” Kubiak said Tuesday. “It will be a big part. You’ll see Taylor play a lot more special teams in this game.”

The Cardinals present a good opportunity for Taylor to make some big plays, on a big stage. They have allowed an average of 256 passing yards pre game in the preseason and allowed an average of 259.5 per game all of last season. Following a four catch game Saturday, Taylor explained his mindset through the last month.

“There’s been pressure all camp, every preseason game – especially for a free-agent rookie. But coming in tonight, you can’t put any more pressure on you; you’ve just got to go out and play confident and know you know your stuff, and just go out and try to do what the team needs you to do.”

He will have to put on a big performance for the Broncos to use a precious roster spot for him on an already deep wide receiver corps.

The Broncos obviously have high expectations for the 2015-16 season. As Kubiak stated when he returned to the Broncos this spring, the hard work starts in the offseason, moves into training camp before they ever hit the field for a regular season game. Thursday may not boast the high-paid talent fans will see most Sundays but it will have the role players and vital pieces to the Broncos team that is seeking the ultimate goal. The pressure will be immense for some players as they play for their professional lives. The last game of “meaningless football” will clarify who can handle it.


The Broncos will be seeking to go undefeated in the preseason for the fourth time in franchise history. The Broncos own a 16-7 preseason record against the Cardinals, the first game taking place August 15, 1970 and the last on August 29, 2013.

Both teams come into the game with a -1 turnover margin (tied for 17th in the NFL). The Cardinals have allowed 10 sacks, the Broncos only five. On defense the Broncos have sacked opposing quarterbacks 15 times in the preseason to the Cardinals 3.

The Cardinals have converted touchdowns on 58.3% of their red zone drives to the Broncos anemic 12.5%.

Email Sam at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @SamCowhick.