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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — “Next man up.”
You hear that phrase over and over and over again in all of sports, but how many of those who say it have actually lived it? How many have been through next man up, and come out on the other side? How many of them have been the next man up?
For the Denver Broncos, next man up is who they are. Next man up runs through their veins. The fabric of their roster is lined with next man up.
The truth of the matter is, the next man up in the NFL is often not as physically gifted as those in front of them. The next man up is usually not a first or second-round pick. Most of the time, the next man up is a guy who has scratched and clawed for the opportunity to just hold on to an NFL job.
When you look at the Broncos roster, you find that a large part of their nucleus is made up of scratchers and clawers.
Case Keenum: Undrafted.
Phillip Lindsay: Undrafted.
Chris Harris Jr.: Undrafted.
Todd Davis: Undrafted.
Then you add in guys like Shelby Harris (seventh-round pick), Zach Kerr (undrafted), Ron Leary (undrafted), Matt Paradis (sixth-round pick), the list goes on.
Just about all of those guys got their shot because somebody went down in front of them. Even Phillip Lindsay, who worked his way on the field faster than most undrafted guys do, didn’t officially become the team’s starter until third-round pick Royce Freeman got hurt.
Now, some might argue that that means the Broncos are lacking in the talent department, having a team made up of guys whose heart has played just as much of a role in their success as their athleticism has, but others might argue the Broncos have something special because of that.
“I think it’s been the fabric of the team,” Todd Davis told BSN Denver of the underdog mentality. “That’s how I came up. I was the next man up. I had to step in when somebody got hurt, and that’s really how I got my job. I think it’s been the fabric of our team… A lot of these guys understand what it took to get here; being an underdog, being an undrafted free agent, you understand somebody’s grind and somebody’s hustle. I think it brings us together as a unit.”
You see, being 3-6 is nothing when you only had three college offers and have been cut six times in the league. Throwing in the towel is not an option for a guy who has been ignoring those who told him to throw in the towel his whole life. When the heart of your team is made up of the guys with the biggest and strongest hearts on the team, you are far more equipped to handle adversity.
Just look, when the Broncos lost two of their top offensive lineman, Paradis and Leary, they turned to Elijah Wilkinson and Billy Turner—yet another undrafted guy and a former third-round pick who was cut by two different teams before getting his shot in Denver.
You don’t think that seeing the guys in front of them have immense success after coming from similar situations gave Turner and Wilkinson extra motivation to take their chance and run with it?
And run with it they have.
“We lost two of our top guys, and the O-line is still coming out and blocking tremendously,” Kerr told BSN Denver. “It puts a lot of pressure on everybody that, these guys came in and stepped up, so if another guy goes down and you have to step up, you have to come in and do a great job.”
Take a look at linebacker. On Sunday, when Josey Jewell left the game, the Broncos had to call on former undrafted free agent Joseph Jones, the team’s fourth linebacker, to play significant snaps. Jones went on to make four solo tackles in the game and earned an 89.7 grade from Pro Football Focus, good enough for the second-highest grade on defense for the Broncos on Sunday, behind only Von Miller.
You don’t think that being in a room led by guys like Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall—an undrafted guy and a fifth-round pick who was cut three times before settling in Denver—helped Jones get prepared to capitalize on his opportunity?
“The undrafted guys definitely have something to prove,” he told BSN Denver. “We want to show that we were overlooked and should have been taken early.”
Denver has become the undrafted capital of the National Football League and, in the process, they’ve created a culture that makes “next man up” much more than coach speak.
“I think it’s a dope thing,” Kerr said.
So now, with a season-ending injury to Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos’ underdogs will look to initiate a fresh crop of scratchers and clawers into their pack. One of them is Tim Patrick, a former undrafted free agent who was cut twice before he got to Denver and once by the Broncos themselves before settling in this season.
“Tim Patrick works really, really hard,” Kerr said. “He’s one of the hardest workers in the locker room, man. It sounds weird, but I kind of make fun of him for it a little bit just to push him to go even harder because it’s the same thing I have to do. You don’t have that drafted status behind your name, and the history says the team is going to get rid of the guys who weren’t drafted before the guys who were.”
For Patrick, he learned that first hand in training camp of 2017, when he felt like he played well enough to at least get a chance on his team’s practice squad but ended up getting cut.
“I was told before I even got there that they don’t like tall receivers,” he told BSN back in August. “I didn’t believe it at first until I went to a couple meetings and you could just tell their vibes were off.”
That team was the San Francisco 49ers, who Patrick will get a chance to go up against this Sunday in potentially the biggest game of his football career.
Oh, and that’s the other thing about underdogs, they never forget those who thought they couldn’t cut it.
‘They know what I can do,” Patrick said of the Niners with a smirk. “They know what I can do.”
In most places, “next man up” is a cliche. In Denver, “next man up” are the three words that come right before a star is born.