Sev­eral rook­ies pick up the team

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kos­mider Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

CHICAGO» Isa­iah McKen­zie scam­pered up the side­line at Sol­dier Field on Thurs­day night un­til he found the man who gifted him with an un­usual nick­name.

The Bron­cos were trail­ing the Bears in the fourth quar­ter at the time. The “Lit­tle Craw­fish” was ready to make a play.

“I told Von (Miller), ‘We’re go­ing to come back. We’re go­ing to win this game,’ ” McKen­zie said. “That’s what we did.”

McKen­zie backed up his procla­ma­tion with a 47yard touch­down catch from third-string quar­ter­back Kyle Sloter that show­cased the rookie’s speed and tied the game. Min­utes later, with the prospect of preseason over­time hang­ing in the air, rookie De’An­gelo Hen­der­son burst through a hole as if he was fired out of a sling­shot, turn­ing a safe, third-and-22 run play into a 41-yard, go-ahead touch­down in Denver’s 24-17 vic­tory.

Those plays were a mi­cro­cosm of an en­cour­ag­ing first night for a num­ber of rook­ies fight­ing to not only make the team, but make waves this sea­son if they do.

“My rookie class played awe­some tonight,” offensive tackle Garett Bolles, the 20th over­all pick in the NFL draft, said af­ter the preseason opener. “They came in and got us the win. Kyle, McKen­zie, De’An­gelo, they lit it up tonight. I’m so proud of those boys. It starts with us. We’re the new peo­ple com­ing in, so we’ve got to make a stand and let the vets know we’re ready to roll so we can get ready for Week 1.”

Most eyes were on Bolles when Thurs­day’s game be­gan. The Bron­cos’ firstround pick was the only rookie in the start­ing lineup and was tasked with pro­tect­ing the blind­sides of Trevor Siemian and Pax­ton Lynch, who are vy­ing for the start­ing quar­ter­back job. If the mea­sure of a pro­duc­tive per­for­mance for an offensive line­man is not stand­ing out, Bolles passed his first test. Work­ing pri­mar­ily against pass rusher Wil­lie Young, who com­piled 24 sacks the past three sea­sons, Bolles held his own for two se­ries, pre­vent­ing pres­sure on Siemian and even draw­ing a per­sonal foul penalty on Young.

“Ev­ery preseason game, I’m just go­ing to get bet­ter and bet­ter,” said Bolles, who did noth­ing to harm his strong chances of win­ning the start­ing job at left tackle.

Big high­lights from rook­ies in the preseason are cer­tainly not un­com­mon, par­tic­u­larly early in the sched­ule. With the starters rest­ing early, late-round draft picks and un­drafted rook­ies have am­ple time to make an im­pres­sion. Still, the play of McKen­zie and Hen­der­son, a run­ning back drafted in the sixth round out of Coastal Carolina, was en­cour­ag­ing given the op­por­tu­ni­ties they could have to help the Bron­cos when the games be­gin to count Sept. 11.

McKen­zie, al­ready en­trenched as Denver’s start­ing punt re­turner, con­tin­ues to prove he has the abil­ity to pro­vide more. By the time the Bears re­al­ized their mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the sec­ondary on the fourth-quar­ter touch­down pass, the fifth-round pick from Ge­or­gia had al­ready cleared the back line of that sec­ondary by nearly 20 yards.

On Hen­der­son’s win­ning touch­down run, the Bron­cos were just try­ing to make a field-goal at­tempt for Bran­don McManus a lit­tle closer than 58 yards. But when Hen­der­son took the in­side hand­off from Sloter out of a shot­gun for­ma­tion, he darted through a nar­row hole be­fore it could close, quickly find­ing him­self in open space.

From there, he put a de­ci­sive move on the deep safety and out­ran every­body to the end zone.

“The lineback­ers were deep, so I knew I had a chance to burst through the hole once I got the ball,” Hen­der­son said. “The Oline did a great job of block­ing guys to their sides. Af­ter that, I just ran to day­light.”

The draft picks weren’t the only ones who seized the mo­ment. With T.J. Ward sit­ting out Thurs­day be­cause of a ham­string in­jury, un­drafted rookie safety Ja­mal Carter was pressed into ac­tion by Denver’s sec­ond de­fen­sive se­ries. He made an im­me­di­ate im­pact, bring­ing pres­sure on quar­ter­back Mike Glen­non on a third-and-7 play that helped force a punt. On the next se­ries, af­ter ini­tially drop­ping into cov­er­age, Carter saw a snap sail over Glen­non and quickly burst back to­ward the line of scrim­mage, div­ing on the ball af­ter sev­eral play­ers had bat­ted it around.

The Bron­cos are deep at safety, with Wil­lie Parks and Justin Sim­mons play­ing be­hind Ward and Dar­ian Ste­wart.

But Carter, who fin­ished with a game-high six tack­les, put his best foot for­ward. It was the theme of the night for the Bron­cos’ fresh­man class.

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