Several rookies pick up the team
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.