Conventional wisdom — and my final 53-man roster projection — last month suggested the Broncos would keep veteran defensive tackle Clinton McDonald.
McDonald had returned from offseason shoulder surgery and a short absence early in camp. Coach Vance Joseph praised his ability to provide — and the team’s need for — an interior pass rush.
All the while, Shelby Harris and Zach Kerr went about their work to keep their spots on the roster. It paid off.
McDonald was cut (he signed with Oakland this week). DeMarcus Walker, a 2017 second-round pick, made the team as the sixth linemen.
McDonald’s release confirmed to Kerr and Harris that the Broncos’ brass saw what they were feeling since the offseason program: Their play warranted a return to the roles they played last year.
“(McDonald) being a veteran guy and the film he had and what he had accomplished, (his release) was like them saying, ‘We believe in you,’” Harris said. “That’s really the first time that’s happened in my career so it felt really good.”
A seventh-round pick by Oakland in 2014, Harris was waived four times by the Raiders and once apiece by the Jets and Dallas before signing with the Broncos in January 2017. He had 5 1/2 sacks last year.
Kerr was undrafted but spent three years with Indianapolis before signing with the Broncos in March 2017. He had 19 tackles in 11 games.
“Me and Shelby produced pretty well in the offseason and preseason and that spoke for itself,” Kerr said. “I was, ‘OK, we had this group last year and it was a pretty good group last year so why not have the same group this year?’”
Harris and Kerr made the Broncos’ decision look smart last week.
Kerr played 11 snaps and Harris had one tackle for lost yardage and two quarterback hits in 15 snaps of work.
“It’s definitely a luxury,” defensive coordinator Joe Woods said of the Broncos’ depth. “Both of those guys have done tremendous for us.”
Twenty-six combined snaps may not seem like much, but on a hot day, it is valuable work. Domata Peko (25 snaps) wasn’t overworked.
“It was definitely encouraging,” Kerr said. “Me and Shelby are really enjoying playing out there together and we’ve been practicing together for two years. We have a real chemistry going on and we play well off each other. It can create some good results.”
Said Harris: “It was really good because if we can get a push up the middle, it makes it easier for the outside guys (to pressure the passer). Everyone said last year we didn’t get enough of an interior push. But the D-linemen we have can rush the passer. I feel like it’s going to be a big part of what makes our defense go this year.”
Kerr said he and Harris’ playing time is “pretty random.”
“We do a buddy system so we’ll watch guys,” Kerr said. “If a guy ran 20-30 yards down the field chasing the ball, we know one of us is going in for him because nobody wants to play a double team after that.”
Said Woods: “(Line coach Bill Kollar) grinds them to a nub and he gets everything out of them. You saw the results on Sunday.”
1. The Broncos used 25 snaps of two-tight end personnel against Seattle, including two snaps by reserve offensive tackle Billy Turner. The success of the run game combined with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s desire to play a “rugged” style suggests a smash-mouth game plan against Oakland.
2. Team-wide health means the Broncos will again have seven healthy scratches. The only change will be receiver Isaiah McKenzie, who was cut on Monday. The roster now has five safeties, so Dymonte Thomas and Shamarko Thomas could be the odd player out.
3. Only one of Oakland tight end Jared Cook’s nine catches last week was when he started in a three-point stance. That suggests the Broncos’ best option is a defensive back against him in coverage.
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