No one was quite sure what Saturday would look like, as nearly 1,200 players went from NFL rosters to the open market, so much so that Denver Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway said he believed most teams, the Broncos included, would try to get a head start.
Elway said in recent days that the Broncos had evaluators looking at players they believed other teams might release "because you’re not going to be able to look at everybody if you wait." This year, teams cut their rosters from 90 players to 53, without a cut to 75 players ahead of the final week of the preseason, as had happened in previous years.
As a result, the list was bigger than ever: almost 40 pages of names on the league’s transaction report for personnel executives to sift through, sort and decide if any of those players are better than the ones they kept. Here’s one swing at a starting lineup of available players after discussions with a few personnel executives around the league Saturday night to go with an assist from ESPN’s NFL Nation team reporters:
If you’re hunting for a tackle a week before the regular season, you’re likely looking for a smart, low-maintenance guy who has been around. Winston, with 125 starts in his 11 seasons, and Barnes, with 117 career starts, fit that bill. They aren't full-timers, and Barnes didn’t have the best of preseasons, but they could fit in quickly.
It would be a surprise if these two players are not on another roster before Sunday is over. Boone was less than two seasons into a $26.8 million deal with the Vikings and got moved out by a scheme shift up front. Greco was coming off foot surgery but played well in the preseason.
Center: Jeremy Zuttah
He was released twice in the preseason, once by the San Francisco 49ers early in camp and then by the Baltimore Ravens this weekend. He has 117 starts at center and guard combined and was the Ravens’ starter as recently as last season.
There are some veterans available, such as Victor Cruz and Rod Streater (he reached an injury settlement with the Bills and won’t be healthy until after the start of the season), but Kerley had 64 catches last season and can contribute in an offense. McCaffrey is a developmental prospect with top-tier hands and feel for the game who will be a find for somebody.
Tight end: Gavin Escobar
Folks in the league have always hoped Escobar could improve enough as a blocker to be more than simply a tight end who runs some pass routes from time to time. Most of those same evaluators say that hasn't happened, but the four-year veteran's ability as a pass-catcher should get him another look somewhere.
Bolden has just 203 carries in his five NFL seasons, but he is well schooled from his time with the Patriots and is a core special-teams player. Jones is just 24 and averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season in Washington.
Quarterback: Kellen Clemens
Brock Osweiler had already agreed to terms with the Broncos by Saturday night, so he’s no longer available, and Colin Kaepernick has been available through the offseason and has a résumé better than those of many quarterbacks who are signed. But this list is for players who were released in the past two days, and Clemens gets a slight nod over Brandon Weeden.
There is more talent available overall at defensive tackle than at end. Rubin is the best of the players on the market. He was a starter for the Seahawks and a key part of their run defense. He was displaced only by the team’s trade for Sheldon Richardson. Jones has played in 59 career games; Howard has 30 career starts and recorded 5.5 sacks as recently as 2015. A down-the-road name to keep handy as well is Lewis Neal, an undrafted rookie who got a long look in Dallas.
Antwione Williams (formerly of the Lions) is another name to know, as this position features a couple guys who were sent on their way after being added by a team in free agency. Jenkins has started 34 games in his career -- all for the Dolphins -- and had signed with the Raiders in March, while Spence went from free-agent signing to third-team reps with the Colts. Dent could be a plus on someone’s special teams immediately.
Blackmon is 32 and is not a long-term solution, but he has played both safety and cornerback in his career. Although most teams would likely see him as a safety now, he could play corner in some situational looks and has started 15 games in three of the past four seasons. Golson did not practice much in this year’s training camp for the Steelers because of a leg injury but was a second-round draft pick in 2015 and likely carries something close to that grade for most teams.
Ward missed most of the preseason with a hamstring injury, but he’s a three-time Pro Bowl selection. Robert Blanton is worthy of a long look at this position, as is Dwight Lowery, but for the second safety spot, we go with a little youth in 24-year-old Jones-Quartey, who played in 16 games last season for the Bears and finished with 63 tackles.
Kicker: Cody Parkey
Parkey made 20 of 25 field goal attempts last season for the Browns and was 32-of-36 with the Eagles in 2014. He’s also 5-of-5 in career kicks of at least 50 yards.
Punter: Andy Lee
The 35-year-old is a three-time Pro Bowl selection who has played 201 games in his career.
Long-snapper: Tanner Purdum
Purdum was the longest-tenured player on the New York Jets roster before his release, and he was the last player on the preseason roster who had played in the team’s most recent playoff game in 2010.