DOVE VALLEY, Colo. -- Throughout John Elway's previous two years as the Broncos' point man on football operations, he had emphasized keeping young players and cultivating talent through the draft.
He was more than willing to supplement that work by adding key free agents like Peyton Manning, Wes Welker and Louis Vasquez, but was generally hesitant to sacrifice the progress of a young player to give an aging pro one more shot based on experience, rather than present-day performance.
That's still the case, but after cobbling together his roster and practice squad in advance of Thursday night's opener with the Baltimore Ravens, Elway has begun paring the roster of draft picks that didn't progress. Until this weekend, just one of his draft picks was no longer in the Broncos' stable; that tally is now three after defensive end Jeremy Beal and offensive lineman Philip Blake were released.
Elway and Broncos coach John Fox also cut a pair of 2013 draft picks -- tackle Vinston Painter and wide receiver Tavarres King -- but both cleared waivers and were on the practice squad by Sunday morning, when the Broncos began preparations for the Thursday night season opener against Baltimore.
That the Broncos felt compelled to gamble that two rookie draftees would pass through waivers shows how much the depth at the back end of their roster has increased from when Elway and Fox arrived in 2011, inheriting a roster that had a handful of blue-chip players and a few solid starters, but was hindered by a back end of the roster that was among the most fallow in the league, thanks to years of shaky drafting and impatience with prospects under Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels. Still, Fox insisted that the cuts Saturday were no more difficult than in previous years.
"It's hard every year," Fox said. "It's obviously a tough day for all the coaches and personnel people because there is a lot invested in these guys and I'm not just talking about just financially. I'm talking about time, effort, and on their part as well. So it's never easy."
Nevertheless, after the practice squad was settled, the Broncos retained control of all but two of Elway's 23 draft picks from 2011-13 on the practice squad, injured reserve or the 53-man roster. Another four players -- long snapper Aaron Brewer, running back C.J. Anderson, safety Duke Ihenacho and cornerback Chris Harris -- were signed as undrafted rookies since Elway's arrival. Ihenacho is expected to start Thursday after beating out Mike Adams for the first-team spot, while Harris may start if Champ Bailey cannot play because of a foot injury.
Anderson was the only undrafted rookie to make the 53-man roster, extending the Broncos' streak of seasons with at least one undrafted rookie to 10.
"We talked earlier about draft picks -- again you don't care as much about how they start the race, it's how they finish," said Fox.
Anderson burst into the mix for a roster spot by gaining 69 yards on 15 carries in the preseason opener against San Francisco. He sprained his medial collateral ligament five days later in practice, but did enough in that game to seize a spot, even though the Broncos will have to wait another fortnight before he's ready.
"Some slight jogging, nothing explosive yet," Anderson said. "That's what we're doing with the rehab, working on that part now. (I'm) strengthening up all the muscles around it so I can be ready to go when I get back."
When he returns, he'll join a position group that is the youngest on the roster, with 26-year-old Knowshon Moreno the senior member of a group that includes rookies Anderson and Montee Ball, and a second-year veteran in 21-year-old Ronnie Hillman.
"It's a young man's game," Fox said.
It is, but three years into Fox and Elway's building process, the Broncos are more selective about which young players stay and which are deemed expendable.