Bron­cos’ re­liance rook­ies in­creases with in­juries

Ledger-Enquirer - - Sports - BY ARNIE STA­PLE­TON

ENGLEWOOD, COLO.

John El­way’s plan has worked bril­liantly.

After watch­ing his 2017 rookie class crater in crunch time, the Bron­cos gen­eral man­ager placed high value on ex­pe­ri­ence and ma­tu­rity this spring. Those cri­te­ria pro­duced a cast packed with play­ers who had spent four years in col­lege and who had been cap­tains for their teams.

“One thing we learned last year when you’re 5-11 and you’re in a los­ing streak, you need that ma­tu­rity and that lead­er­ship to get things turned around,” El­way said fol­low­ing by far the best of his eight drafts.

The Bron­cos (6-6) are in the play­off pic­ture thanks to a ter­rific trio of rook­ies who led Den­ver’s turn­around from a 3-6 start.

Play­ing lead­ing roles in this resur­gence are Bradley Chubb, who leads all rook­ies with 10 sacks, Court­land Sut­ton, who is Den­ver’s new No. 1 re- ceiver, and un­drafted gem Phillip Lind­say, who leads the league with a 6.1-yard rush­ing av­er­age per carry and has scored five touch­downs dur­ing the surge.

“This isn’t just a reg­u­lar rookie class. This is a unique rookie class that is re­ally ma­ture,” Lind­say said. “You’re not go­ing to get an­other rookie class like this in the NFL, I don’t care what any­body says.”

The rook­ies cer­tainly have a bravado built on their im­me­di­ate im­pact.

With Em­manuel San­ders go­ing on in­jured re­serve, Sut­ton isn’t flinch­ing at the prospect of fac­ing No. 1 cor­ner­backs now, be­gin­ning with Richard Sher­man this week­end.

“I love it,” Sut­ton said. “I look for­ward to it. It’s go­ing to be good.”

After sur­viv­ing the league’s tough­est sched­ule, the Bron­cos fig­ured they’d catch a breather this month with the 49ers (2-10), Raiders (2-10) and Browns (4-7-1) com­ing up.

Then they lost cor­ner­back Chris Har­ris Jr. to a frac­tured fibula in their game at Cincin­nati on Sun­day and San­ders to a rup­tured Achilles 72 hours later.

“Noth­ing’s been handed to us,” quar­ter­back Case Keenum said. “So, we’re go­ing to have to earn ev­ery­thing we get.”

The Bron­cos brought in two vet­eran re­place­ments for Har­ris and San­ders in cor­ner­back Ja­mar Tay­lor, who was re­leased by the Car­di­nals last month, and wide re­ceiver An­dre Holmes, whom the Bron­cos claimed off waivers from Buf­falo.

“To sign two vet­eran play­ers like those two guys in the last two days, we’re lucky,” coach Vance Joseph said, adding both will play Sun­day at San Fran­cisco.

Joseph said he doubted Tra­maine Brock (ribs) will play after miss­ing his sec­ond straight prac­tice Thurs­day, so that makes Tay­lor the fourth cor­ner­back be­hind Bradley Roby, sec­ond-year pro Bren­dan Lan­g­ley and rookie Isaac Yiadom.

Eleven rook­ies have played for the Bron­cos this sea­son, log­ging 3,289 snaps, sev­enth-most in the NFL. And re­ceivers River Cracraft and Tim Pa­trick, along with in­jured tight end Jake Butt, all made their NFL de­buts for Den­ver this year, too.

Among the rook­ies the Bron­cos ex­pect to play big­ger roles down the stretch are re­ceiver DaeSean Hamil­ton (knee), run­ning back Royce Free­man (an­kle) and line­backer Josey Jewell (an­kle), all of whom are com­ing back from mi­nor in­juries.

“We’re all ready to just step up and be the next guy up, be the next per­son to make plays for this team,” Hamil­ton said.

Hamil­ton got a taste of that in­creased work­load last week when he led Den­ver’s re­ceivers with 47 snaps at Cincin­nati even though he didn’t see a sin­gle pass thrown his way.

“That was a tough game for a flanker,” of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Bill Mus­grave said. “He had to go in there and block their safety, Shawn Wil­liams, time and time again. He came over to the side­line a cou­ple of times like, ‘Do we have any other plays? Do we have any that I might see the ball in the air, be­sides me be­ing our sixth O-line­man?' Which is what he was in the game.

“So, we need to pay his fee at some point and throw some balls to him for all that work he did.”

Chubb has logged 641 snaps this year, Sut­ton 592 and Jewell 554. Lind­say has only played 409 snaps, but his work­load fig­ures to in­crease with the loss of San­ders be­cause he can line up in the slot on third downs.

“Yeah, we may need to tap those abil­i­ties he has even more be­cause we’re go­ing to miss Em­manuel’s quick­ness and dy­namic play­mak­ing abil­ity,” Mus­grave said.

Lind­say has av­er­aged just 15 touches a game, a byprod­uct not only of the coaches mon­i­tor­ing his snap count but of Den­ver’s 34.6 per­cent con­ver­sion rate on third downs, which ranks 27th in the NFL.

“If we can con­vert some third downs that we’re not mak­ing, then we got more op­por­tu­ni­ties for ev­ery­body,” Mus­grave said. “I think that would def­i­nitely be a great step in the right di­rec­tion for this fi­nal four-game stretch.”

As they tap El­way’s 2018 class even more.

BRYAN WOOLSTON AP

Den­ver Bron­cos run­ning back Phillip Lind­say, left, is tack­led by Bengals strong safety Shawn Wil­liams (36) Dec. 2 in Cincin­nati. A ter­rific trio of rook­ies, in­clud­ing Lind­say, have led a turn­around from a 3-6 start to help Den­ver win three straight and get into the play­off pic­ture.

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