By Chad Jensen
(247 SPORTS) – The Denver Broncos were once known as a relatively “old” team. But when stalwart veterans like Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware hung up their cleats, it was a harbinger of just how different the team would look by 2018.
Without some of the vets the team had come to count on, the 2017 Broncos had to turn to their youth — probably much more than any of the coaches would have preferred. Their 5-11 finish is evidence to how that turned out.
While I wouldn’t completely lay Denver’s struggles last year on the youth of the roster — the QBs were pretty bad — the truth was these inexperienced players might not have been ready for their moment in the spotlight.
Think back to 2011, when the Broncos went 8-8 and won the AFC West. This was a team coming off a 4-12 finish and had no choice but to vault several players into live-bullet action. It was adapt or die.
As the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, Von Miller wasn’t exactly a sleeper but he made a significant impact on the team. Names like Eric Decker, Orlando Franklin, Chris Harris, Jr., Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter, and Wesley Woodyard — relatively unknown NFL quantities at that point in time — all stepped up in a big way and it helped change the course of Broncos history.
Denver will need a similar grass-roots effort from its young players in 2018. So which unheralded players on this roster can we spotlight as potential “sleepers”? Join me as I break down five candidates on each side of the ball.
1. De’Angelo Henderson
De’Angelo Henderson was a sixth-round pick last year. Despite some explosive plays in the preseason, the wisdom of the coaching staff thought Henderson would be best served as a healthy scratch for most of the year, watching from the sideline.
He finally received some reps in Week 17 and he didn’t disappoint. Henderson took a Paxton Lynch screen pass 29 yards to the house, and chipped in 15 rushing yards on three carries.
What’s in the past is in the past, but don’t be surprised if moving forward the Broncos give Henderson a larger role in the offense. At Coastal Carolina, he proved that despite his 5-foot-7, 208-pound size, he could pound the rock between the tackles and hold up to the subsequent beating.
It remains to be seen whether that will translate to the NFL, but I wouldn’t be completely surprised to see Henderson win the starting running back job in year two. He’s an extremely hard worker.
2. DeMarcus Walker
Like the aforementioned Henderson, DeMarcus Walker spent most of his rookie year as a healthy scratch for the Broncos. As a second-round pick last year, it was a disappointing start to his career.
But now back in his natural position on the defensive line, Walker is poised to truly explode on the NFL scene and there’s good reason to believe he will. After trying (and failing) Walker at outside linebacker to start the season, the coaching staff finally put him back in his comfort zone on the D-line in Week 17.
Walker would go on to notch a sack (in the clutch) and overall wreak havoc in the second half against the Chiefs. He might not have what it takes right away to be a formidable run-stopper, but in obvious passing situations, this is a guy the Broncos can deploy to rush the quarterback and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
No one’s talking about DeMarcus Walker now. But that’ll change.
3. Courtland Sutton
You might think it’s a stretch to tap a second-rounder as a “sleeper,” but in the case of Courtland Sutton, the term applies. Here’s why.
Sutton is not being immediately ‘grandfathered’ into a prominent role as a rookie. With two Pro Bowl wideouts ahead of him on the depth chart, he’ll have to fight his way onto the field.
However, if OTAs are any indication, this kid is absolutely on fire with receiving talent. He was the star of Denver’s spring football program.
His 6-foot-3 size relegates him to the outside, which is where Demaryius Thomas hangs his hat, but in the red zone the Broncos will look to exploit opposing defenses with their explosive rookie wideout.
If either Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders suffer the vagaries of Father Time this coming season, Sutton will be primed to step in and keep the Broncos passing offense firing on all cylinders. In such a scenario, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Sutton throw up some big numbers.
4. Josey Jewell
On an individual level, Josey Jewell accomplished everything a player can in college. However, he struggled with his athletic testing at the NFL Combine, which saw his draft stock plummet.
The Broncos were fortunate to get him in the fourth round. Denver has two starting-caliber off-ball linebackers in Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis, but last year proved that having depth at the position is paramount.
Jewell will see snaps as a rotational player early on and it wouldn’t shock me to see him wrest a starting job away from Davis by season’s end. He’s an instinctual linebacker who turns it on when it matters most. The Broncos can use a player like that.
5. DaeSean Hamilton
The rookie wideout who might have the most immediate utility in Denver’s offense is fifth-rounder DaeSean Hamilton. He might see the field earlier and more often than Sutton, due to his phenomenal route-running ability and experience in the slot.
Hamilton left the college ranks as Penn State’s all-time leading receiver. The vast majority of those stats came out of the slot.
That savvy will come in handy for a Broncos team that has lacked a viable inside receiving option since the hay-day of Wes Welker. Don’t sleep on Hamilton making an impact as a rookie, and forging a strong bond with QB Case Keenum.
6. Shelby Harris
Shelby Harris was a no-name signing by the Broncos in 2017. Nobody was expecting much from him, but through a dominant preseason performance, he earned a spot on the 53-man roster.
As a rotational player, Harris would go on to finish second on the team in sacks (5.5), behind only Von Miller. But Harris is not a one-trick pony.
He earned a better grade as a run defender than he did as a pass rusher via Pro Football Focus. You might be asking; if Harris was so good, why is he on this list?
The answer is, because he was a backup player, he’s still under the radar. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Harris win the starting defensive end job opposite of Derek Wolfe this year — a spot previously held by Adam Gotsis.
With Harris, Walker and Gotsis, the Broncos will have a formidable D-line rotation in 2018, capable of stopping the run and pressuring the QB.
7. Jake Butt
The Broncos took it slow with Jake Butt’s recovery, and they’re about to reap the rewards for their patience. Butt is a quintessential ‘Y’ tight end, who can be moved around the formation without tipping off the defense.
In the same way that Hamilton can make an impact, Butt projects as a bona-fide interior receiver for the Broncos. Butt might not be a ‘seam ripper’, but he does have great hands, above average athleticism and a knack for finding the soft spot in a zone.
Having a healthy Butt is like having an extra second or third-round pick in 2018. He’s that good, and with zero NFL film or production, opposing defenses won’t see him coming.
I don’t expect it will take him long to become Keenum’s security blanket when the going gets rough. Look for Jake Butt to have a breakout performance in what amounts to his first year in the NFL.
8. Su’a Cravens
Fans are excited about Su’a Cravens but the NFL has largely forgotten about him. He was Washington’s second-round pick out of USC in 2016, but after suffering a severe concussion, he temporarily retired from football, missing all of 2017.
Thus, when the Broncos came knocking, the Redskins were more than happy to deal away a player they weren’t sure was mentally committed. Having only appeared in 11 NFL games, Cravens is flying under the radar.
But he has the ability to be a star safety in this league. So long as his mind is right.
Cravens is best served in a strong safety role, where he can fly around the box and make plays close to the line of scrimmage. The Broncos are currently working on teaching him better coverage skills, which will only make him a more complete safety. Meanwhile, that’s the domain of Justin Simmons.
If Cravens can cash in on even a fraction of his enormous potential, the Broncos could end up with one of the best young safety duos in the league.
9. Royce Freeman
Royce Freeman was Denver’s third-rounder this year, and like the above mentioned De’Angelo Henderson, he’ll have the opportunity to win the starting running back job this summer. Freeman will have to duke it out with Henderson, and the incumbent favorite, Devontae Booker.
But Freeman does have advantages in the competition. He proved at Oregon that he can be durable as a prolific runner inside. He’s a play-maker who rarely goes down on first contact.
It might take him a few games to get into a groove, but Freeman is the type of rookie who can step in and make an immediate impact. He has the potential to be the most potent runner the Broncos have had in years.
10. Isaac Yiadom
Isaac Yiadom arrived in Denver at the perfect time. As a 2018 third-rounder, Yiadom’s opportunity to win playing time as a rookie is immense.
The days of Denver being three-deep atop their cornerback depth chart have passed, with Aqib Talib getting traded to the Rams. That leaves the third spot behind Bradley Roby and Chris Harris, Jr. wide open.
Well, maybe not ‘wide’ open. The Broncos signed veteran Tramaine Brock during free agency, and will give him every opportunity to win the third spot.
But just like Harris proved as a rookie in 2011, sometimes the best laid plans go awry. At 6-foot-1, Yiadom is Denver’s tallest corner and he uses that length to his advantage.
He’s a physical corner who might lack refinement at this point, but he has a maturity and passion for the game that could see him rectify his shortcomings much sooner than some might expect. Isaac Yiadom is definitely a sleeper candidate to make an impact in 2018.