For rookies, The NFL can be a cold, dark place.
After a grueling learning curve, a hot training camp and the longest season they have ever experienced, rookies are still chewed up and spit out by the league. By most first-hand accounts, it’s not until the start of their second season that players are truly able to grasp everything the league throws their way. If they make it that far.
Frankly, it’s a mistake to count on rookies.
Last year, the Broncos were a prime example of this. While the top of Denver’s draft had developmental players — i.e. Paxton Lynch and Adam Gotsis — there were other rookies the Broncos hoped would have an impact.
At season’s end, although every rookie played except for guard Connor McGovern — who was inactive for much of the season — only Devontae Booker played a significant role on either side of the ball.
Outside of Booker and seventh-round pick Riley Dixon — who was the team’s punter all of last season — the Broncos’ rookies combined for 10 starts between Lynch (first round), Gotsis (second) Justin Simmons (third), McGovern (fifth), Andy Janovich (sixth) and Will Parks (sixth).
Although every team would like to see their first-round pick be an immediate starter, all in all Denver’s rookies weren’t far off from the typical impact to most NFL teams.
Looking ahead, much of the same production can be expected from 2017’s batch of rookies, but perhaps in a different way: While there will likely be impact from at least one of the later-round picks (read below), left tackle, Garett Bolles, should deliver the greatest impact of the group, much as a first-round pick should.
As the offseason wrapped up, Bolles moved from the backup left tackle during OTAs, to platooning on the first team with Ty Sambrailo. If his development continues into training camp, it’s hard to imagine Bolles not locking up the left side of the line before the September 11 opening-night game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Along with left tackle, there is another major hole from 2016 that can, and likely will, be filled by rookies, that of the third wide-receiver position. Instead of one player being called upon to fill this role, Denver may end up using a combination of Carlos Henderson (third-round selection) and Isaiah McKenzie (fifth round). Both players’ versatility, allowing them to each play in the backfield and at receiver, could have a significant impact on Denver’s offense. It wouldn’t be a surprise if only one of these players matriculates into this kind of role.
Outside of these three players, however, it’s hard to imagine any of the remaining rookies having a consistent impact during their rookie campaigns. Of the remaining five — DeMarcus Walker (second round), Brendan Langley (third), Jake Butt (fifth), De’Angelo Henderson (sixth) and Chad Kelly (seventh) — it is conceivable only one will see significant playing time on either side of the ball.
Langley, Henderson and Kelly are all longshots to see the field with the depth ahead of them, leaving Walker and Butt as probably the only two other players likely to make an impact.
Even as a second-round pick that was highly productive in college — leading the nation in sacks per game — Walker enters a crowded defensive line. As a pass rush specialist, Walker, currently listed at 280 pounds, will need to get as close to 300 pounds as possible in order to be anything more than a third-down pass rusher.
In 2016, not only was Butt the best tight end in college football— winning the John Mackey Award — he was originally one of the top prospects in the draft. That was until he tore his ACL during Michigan’s bowl game in December, dropping him from a top-round prospect to the fifth-round.
It was initially expected that Butt would be healthy for the start of training camp, but just before the team left for summer break, Vance Joseph said Butt would “probably” start camp on the physically unable to perform list. If healthy, Butt could not only compete for playing time, he would be in a spot to compete for a starting position.
As with life, and even more so in sports, anything is possible. However, all indications point toward more of the same from the Broncos’ rookies in 2017.