Salary cap will influence Broncos' cuts

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For many who currently have lockers inside the Denver Broncos' complex, things get down to the vocational nitty gritty this week.

For months they have shown up to work each day, part of a team. They've worked in the weight room, eaten in the cafeteria and rubbed shoulders with their far more famous teammates.

After this week, the Broncos will send almost half of them on their way.

The Broncos will practice against the Houston Texans this week, play the Texans Saturday night and then cut at least 37 players from their current roster in a span of seven days with a fourth preseason game sandwiched in there somewhere.

And while the Broncos didn't have all that many roster jobs in play when they opened training camp, there are still plenty of tough decisions, especially at a few spots, with some things to consider:

Salary cap: The Broncos were active in free agency this past offseason. But they are squarely up against the salary cap right now -- $133 million per team -- and that is going to impact some of their decisions.

Only the top 51 salary-cap figures count in the preseason, but that luxury ends when rosters go to 53 players the week before the opener. The Broncos top 51 cap salary-cap figures come in at $129.7 million at the moment and the team is carrying $6.43 million worth of “dead'' money as well -- cap figures for players no longer on the team, led by $2.1 million for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and $1.83 million for the retired Chris Kuper.

So, even with the accounting of salary cap rollover and subtracting other expenses that amount to about $3.3 million more available cap space, the Broncos are up against the limit when you consider they still have to leave room for players who end up on injured reserve and for a practice squad.

Right now the Broncos' top 53 salary cap figures come in at $130.761 million, so add in that dead money and it's clear they have work to get done whether that includes a new deal for Demaryius Thomas or an unexpected roster cut or two.

Defensive line: With their offseason work, to go with the recovery of those who were on injured reserve last season, the Broncos turned this from a red-flag position into one of the deepest on the roster.

As a result, the Broncos will likely let a player, or players, go here who will draw some interest from other teams. That hasn't always been the case with their roster in recent seasons, which may be, along with back-to-back 13-3 season, a measure of their progress from 2010's 4-12 finish.

The question really comes down to if the team keeps just eight players here, which is exactly what they did last season. Part of the rationale, from a personnel standpoint, in keeping eight is that linebacker Von Miller is in one of the defensive end spots for most of the team's pass-rush looks.

Start counting and it doesn't take long to find eight that would make a quality rotation. Combine some common sense with the way they've practiced and played the first two preseason games and DeMarcus Ware, Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe are the starters in the base defense.

Malik Jackson, Quanterus Smith and Marvin Austin project as the next three. That could leave, if the number is eight, Mitch Unrein, Kevin Vickerson and others scrapping for a final spot. Vickerson did not play in Sunday's preseason game in Santa Clara, California, as he continues to work all the way back from his hip injury of 2013.

Returner: There are still questions to answer here. Wide receiver Jordan Norwood has shown enough on offense to make a case as the sixth wide receiver and he has shown the most consistency among the punt returners. Wes Welker is a fall-back option, but he had two concussions last season so that's not preferable.

At kickoff returner the Broncos are still inconsistent fielding the ball in practice and haven't had many chances to show much in their games -- no kickoff returns against the 49ers. Defensive back Omar Bolden looks like the safest bet at the moment.

Offensive line: The Broncos have kept nine players in each of the three previous seasons and there is no reason to expect they won't keep nine once again.

So, that means the final spots will come down to youth vs. veteran. The Broncos are looking at the young players here. Guard Ben Garland and rookie tackle Michael Schofield played more Sunday -- 54 snaps each -- than any other Broncos players. Guard Vinston Painter and tackle Paul Cornick, who both were on Broncos practice squad last season (Painter finished the season on active roster), were next in line with 39 snaps each.