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Why the Broncos aren’t down on last year’s rookie class

Zac Stevens Avatar
July 10, 2018

DENVER — Garett Bolles.

That’s the all-encompassing list of rookies that started a game for the Denver Broncos last year. Not started the entire season, or even multiple games, but just a single game.

In fact, in Week 15 against the Indianapolis Colts, Bolles was the only drafted rookie to be active. Although all eight of the Broncos’ draft choices were still with the organization at that time — and still currently are — seven of them, or 87.5 percent, were not wearing a jersey 15 weeks into the season.

To be fair, Carlos Henderson, Jake Butt and Chad Kelly spent the entire season on the injured reserve, not allowing them a chance to play. However, second-round pick DeMarcus Walker, third-round pick Brendan Langley, fifth-round pick Isaiah McKenzie and sixth-round pick De’Angelo Henderson never touched IR and yet also never started a single game.

Although Bolles showed potential to be a quality tackle in the league for many years — enough so to be named to the Pro Football Writer’s of America All-Rookie Team — McKenzie was certainly the most talked about rookie for all of the wrong reasons.

Primarily tasked as a punt returner, McKenzie’s six fumbles were the second-most in the entire league among non-quarterbacks.

Saying it was an incredibly tough season for the 2017 draft class would be an understatement.

But don’t be so quick to write them off already.

“We have some young guys that we feel good about, but players do develop at different times. So we’re not down on our class,” head coach Vance Joseph said, defending the 2017 rookies. “Some guys need more time and more development. They’re ours; we’re going to work with them and obviously get them better.”

Throughout the offseason, Joseph doubled down in his confidence in the young players, saying he “was satisfied” with the rookies during their first year in the NFL because “guys grow at different rates.”

While the last game of the year against the Kansas City Chiefs was essentially meaningless, in terms of the importance to the season, it carried significant weight for the rookies as it showcased their potential.

“A lot of young guys played. DeMarcus Walker—who made a nice sack—that’s what we saw in the draft as an inside rusher, so he’s going to be fine,” Joseph said, trying to ease the nerves of Broncos Country before also adding De’Angelo Henderson scored a touchdown in that game.

Potentially just as important, if not even more important than the final game of the season, was what these young players did during their first full offseason as professionals this spring.

After dropping to a hard-to-believe 238 pounds during his rookie season — a feat that should never be conquered by a defensive lineman — former second-round pick Walker bulked up to 280 pounds this offseason and finally looks like a true pass-rushing defensive end.

Because of this, and a few other changes in his approach, Walker’s caught the attention of his teammates.

In addition, Langley, Butt and McKenzie have all flashed their NFL potential this offseason and have done it on a more consistent basis than they ever did last year. Langley and McKenzie will have the opportunity to be significant role players for the Broncos in 2018, while Butt has a chance to be the team’s starting tight end.

Joseph’s confidence in the 2017 draft class moving forward — while it may sound like typical jargon — isn’t without merit. All it takes is a look back to the rookie class from 2016 to see the major jump in performance a group of players can take going from year one to year two of their careers.

At this exact same time one year ago, many so-called pundits were already wanting to call the 2016 rookie class a bust as well. In 2016, all eight drafted rookies combined to start a total of 16 games — the same number as the 2017 class — for an average of two per player.

Yet in their sophomore campaign, those same eight players went onto start in 40 combined games — two and a half times more starts than in their rookie season just the year before.

Along with the significant jump in starts, many believe Justin Simmons could be a star safety in the making along with potential starters in Devontae Booker, Adam Gotsis, Connor McGovern, Will Parks and Andy Janovich.

What a difference a year can make, specifically the year after players’ rookie seasons.

Speaking of rookies, Joseph himself learned many aspects of being a head coach during his rookie season on the job, one of those specifically being how to help rookies moving forward.

“I’ll do a better job of assigning [veterans] to rookies, pushing [veterans] to spend more time with rookies and define those roles for those rookies, so they know what we expect because every year there are going to be four or five guys that we’re counting on to play,” Joseph said.

“There’s a draft every year, and there’s young guys every year, so we have to do a better job of keeping those guys up to speed so they can help us win.”

If the Broncos want to win more than five games next year, having significantly more contribution from the 2017 rookie class will be key. That’s not something Vance Joseph is concerned about.

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