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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Garett Bolles was the lone regular contributor from the Denver Broncos’ rookie draft class in 2017. Isaiah McKenzie was the second-most notable name, but for all of the wrong reasons.
“We’ve got a bunch of young guys that should help us this year, including last year’s draft class,” head coach Vance Joseph said after working with the group the entire offseason. “Those guys have gotten better with each phase of the offseason.”
Here’s what to realistically expect from John Elway’s seventh draft class during their sophomore campaign in 2018.
LT Garett Bolles
2017 stats: 16 starts; 42nd-best tackle (according to Pro Football Focus)
A clean stat sheet is an offensive lineman’s best friend. Unfortunately, during his rookie season in which he admitted he had “rocky moments,” Bolles had a lengthy stat sheet.
On top of allowing eight and a half sacks, Bolles drew the yellow flag like it was his job — accumulating seven holding penalties and four false starts.
With that being said, there are many reasons for optimism for the left tackle moving forward. No. 72 had a solid season in the run game, and that will be crucial for this Broncos’ offense in 2018.
“Year one is different from year two. ‘This is where you make your big leaps and bounds’ is what everyone tells me,” Bolles said during his first full offseason as a pro.
“Last year, I just came in, and I was raw. I only played offensive tackle for not too long. But now I have a season under my belt. I understand what it means to be in the NFL and hold down that left side and know where my quarterback is going to set up every single play, which is a big help.”
Protecting the Broncos’ new 36-million-dollar quarterback will be his most important priority. Improved footwork will be key to that.
“We changed up our pass sets and everything like that with [Offensive tackle] Coach [Chris] Strausser. He did a great job with all of our tackles,” Bolles explained on why this season truly can be different. “Just trusting him, trusting in the process and knowing that if my feet get there before my hands, I’m going to be alright.”
Production projection for 2018: Cut all of the 2017 stats in half, except for the starts: 16 starts; 5 sacks allowed; 2 false starts; 4 holdings
DE DeMarcus Walker
2017 stats: 10 games played; 0 starts; 7 tackles; 1 sack
Walker bounced around like a pinball last year between defensive end and outside linebacker, significantly hurting any shot at a productive rookie season. Now, solely a defensive end, Walker is back to where he belongs on the defensive line.
After dropping to 238 pounds last year, the Florida State product is back up to 280 pounds, drawing praise from his coaches and fellow teammates for his work ethic both on and off the field.
Drafted in the second round to be a Malik Jackson-type interior rusher, Walker has the tools to become a version of that this year.
Production projection for 2018: 30 tackles; 5 sacks; 16 games played
WR Carlos Henderson
2017 stats: N/A (injured reserve)
Henderson has one goal from the get go: Make the team. His head coach made that very clear near the end of the offseason.
“He’s got to get back on the field if he wants to make this football team,” Joseph said, putting Henderson on notice when talking about a lingering hamstring injury the second-year wide out dealt with during the offseason.
With 13 total receivers on the team entering training camp, that’ll be no easy task, either.
Henderson’s physical skills have never been in question, it’s his ability to grasp the playbook, stay healthy and be available that’ll decide whether or not he makes this team. The 23-year-old from Louisiana Tech is the biggest boom-or-bust candidate on the entire team.
Production projection for 2018 (If he makes the team): 16 catches; 256 yards; 2 touchdowns
CB Brendan Langley
2017 stats: 11 games played; 0 starts; 3 tackles
Langley was drafted in the third round out of Lamar as a talented project for Marcus Robertson’s secondary. His rookie year proved he needed time to continue to develop.
During the offseason, he quietly impressed both on and off the field — spending time training with Chris Harris Jr. and other Bronco veterans in Houston.
With Denver signing Tramaine Brock to be the team’s third cornerback this season, Langley won’t be called upon right away to have a major role on the defense. However, it would not be shocking if the 6-foot, 199-pound corner leapfrogged, or at least shared time with, Brock to see the field early and often during the season.
Regardless of if Langley needs another year to develop on defense, he’ll have a major role on special teams — competing for reps at punt and kick returner.
Production projection for 2018: 16 games played; 35 percent of the defensive snaps
TE Jake Butt
2017 stats: Injured reserve entire season
Although a fifth-round pick, Butt had an incredibly high amount of buzz surrounding him his entire rookie season despite not playing a single snap as he recovered from a torn ACL he suffered his final game in college.
Now, completely healthy, he looks like the dangerous receiving threat Denver was hoping for when they drafted him.
After lacking significant production from the tight end position for many years, the Broncos’ hopes in changing that rely almost entirely on Butt’s shoulders.
If he stats healthy, there’s no reason to believe he won’t have a major impact in Case Keenum’s passing attack and could very well have a Hunter Henry-type year.
Production projection for 2018: 38 catches; 498 receiving yards; 6 touchdowns
WR Isaiah McKenzie
2017 stats: 11 games played; 4 receptions; 29 yards; 21 punt returns; 183 punt return yards; 3 kick returns; 50 kick return yards; 6 fumbles
To say McKenzie had a rough rookie season would be an understatement. Along with the many well-documented errors in the return game, McKenzie’s decision stay in bounds as time expired in the first half against the Washington Redskins summed up his season fairly well.
However, the Broncos stuck with him through it all and hope it pays off in 2018.
Drafted as a potential playmaker on special teams and offense, the 5-foot-7, 173-pound speedster will get a shot at both during training camp. Although he nearly led the league in fumbles, despite mainly playing special teams, it would not be a surprise if he won the punt return job and sees time at kick return as well.
If he makes the team, the former fifth-round pick could see a boost in his offensive snaps as well — featured in quick routes as well as deep routes.
His ticket to the 53-man roster will be decided by winning the punt return job and showing he can be a serviceable fifth or sixth receiver.
Production projection for 2018 (If he makes the team): 8 receptions; 128 receiving yards; 1 touchdown; 9 yards per punt return
RB De’Angelo Henderson
2017 stats: 5 games played; 7 rushing attempts; 13 rushing yards; 2 receptions; 36 receiving yards; 1 touchdown
The ultra-productive college running back caught everyone’s attention during his rookie training camp and preseason last year.
However, after two fumbles during the preseason and getting caught in the “numbers game,” as Joseph called it, Henderson didn’t see the field as a running back for more than five plays until the final game of the season.
In that game he didn’t disappoint, putting up 44 combined rushing and receiving yards on six touches, an incredible 7.3 yard average, including a 29-yard touchdown, which he made look routine. He did all of that in 15 total offensive snaps, too.
On top of that, the 5-foot-7, 208-pound back took two kick returns 59 yards, showing his value in the return game.
Entering 2018, his second season in the NFL, he’s the second-most veteran back on the team only behind Devontae Booker. Henderson isn’t a lock to make the team, but as things stand right now, the odds are in his favor.
If he does make the team, it’s not inconceivable he could end up as the team’s lead back. It’s also possible he gets caught in the “numbers game” for a second year in a row, not allowing him to see the field much.
The most likely scenario is Henderson is the team’s third back, having an impact on the ground, in the air and on special teams.
Production projection for 2018: 325 rushing yards; 300 receiving yards; 4 touchdowns
QB Chad Kelly
2017 stats: Injured reserve entire season
For as little as Kelly’s done in his NFL career — precisely nothing on the field — he’s surrounded by a great deal of hype entering his first season completely healthy.
The former Mr. Irrelevant pick enters training camp in an open competition with former first-round pick Paxton Lynch for the great honors of backing up Keenum.
Physically, Kelly looks drastically different than last season after transforming his body and the way he approaches the game during the offseason. He’s also drawn rave reviews from players and coaches.
Is it enough to win the back quarterback job and get the hype train rolling even faster? The answer will come shortly.
Production projection for 2018: Third string.