Connelly: What will Deion’s Colorado roster actually look like on the field?

    Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

If you’ve talked to a coach or a fan or a writer or an analyst or anyone else about use of the transfer portal in college football, you’ve probably either said it or heard it: “It’s like free agency!” Indeed, player movement has increased significantly, so there’s an element of truth to the thought, if exaggerated. But credit Colorado’s Deion Sanders for changing the game a bit. It’s not like free agency for Coach Prime and his Buffaloes in 2023 — it’s like an expansion draft.

After Sanders’ first spring practice was over in Boulder, 47 players entered the transfer portal, joining the many former Buffaloes who were already there. Some left of their own volition, and others were told to go. The portal and the (temporary, for now) elimination of signing limits have allowed new coaches to flip large portions of their inherited rosters in much quicker fashion than was previously possible. But Sanders has attempted to flip nearly the entire dang thing.

We don’t really know how this will all work out, but there can be no doubting two things:

1. Sanders has upgraded the amount of higher-end talent on his roster. By my count, there were two former blue-chip recruits on Colorado’s roster last year. Including incoming freshmen, there are now something in the neighborhood of 15 or 16, including five — five-star sophomore corner Travis Hunter (Jackson State), junior corner Omarion Cooper (Florida State), junior nickelback Myles Slusher (Arkansas), junior safety Travis Jay (Florida State) and five-star freshman corner Cormani McClain — in a potentially dynamite secondary.

2. Colorado is almost guaranteed to improve, both because of the talent upgrade and the fact that the team almost literally couldn’t be worse. The Buffaloes went 1-11 last season and ranked a dreadful 124th in SP+. In the past 15 years, a power-conference team has never ranked worse. In terms of SP+ percentile ratings, the only CU team that has graded out lower was the 1962 edition, which at one point lost to six straight Big 8 opponents by a combined 278-49.

That doesn’t mean that every player on the team was terrible and needed to be replaced — a lot of CU’s incoming transfers don’t appear to be any better or more successful than some of the players who left, and quite a few of the outgoing transfers landed at schools that have been a lot better than Colorado of late. But while this overhaul feels like overkill, it will generate improvement. There’s almost no choice.

Personally, I’m not a fan of this grand experiment, if primarily for the scope of the precedent it sets. After a lengthy fight, college athletes have begun to actually earn what’s theirs in terms of both money and control over their playing careers. The idea that a coach can come in and boot nearly everyone on the roster flips the balance of power too far in the other direction. Colorado technically followed protocol by allowing players who have been cut to continue on scholarship at CU, but a coach never has to worry about too many players selecting that option since they wouldn’t be allowed to play football anymore.

Nearly every coach in the country ends up asking a few players to transfer to make the scholarship math work, but Sanders’ moves had nothing to do with scholarship math and everything to do with exerting total control over a roster. I wrote in March that I was a fan of getting rid of the annual 25-man limit on scholarships a school can give out — it feels like a grave necessity in the portal era — but this makes me think there should still be some sort of limit, even if it’s a huge one (40? 50?).

My personal opinions don’t really matter, though. This is happening, and aside from “They can’t get worse,” it’s been pretty difficult to get a grasp on how Colorado might fare on the field in Sanders’ first season. Hell, it’s been difficult to even envision what a two-deep might look like. But with portal activity slowing down, let’s take a shot.

Below, we’re going to walk through a potential position-by-position depth chart for Sanders’ Buffaloes in 2023. It’s a loose estimate based almost entirely on known production and/or recruiting rankings. Call it a best-case scenario two-deep of sorts — if everyone lives up to potential, this could be a version of Colorado’s best lineup. How much of an upgrade are we talking about here, and how much of Sanders’ moves were more of the “trading like for like” variety?

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