Broncos always hunting for undrafted gems

It's been nine years now so one more makes an even decade. Nine years of playoff teams and the 4-12 crater that was 2010, a depth of franchise despair the Broncos still look to be clawing their way out of at times.

But in each of the last nine seasons the Broncos have had an undrafted rookie make the opening day roster.

Some no longer call the NFL home like Wesley Duke (a Broncos undrafted rookie in 2005) and Selvin Young (2007), some are starting elsewhere like Tyler Polumbus (2008) and Cassius Vaughn (2010) and some are starting for the Broncos like Chris Harris (2011) and Wesley Woodyard (2008).

It's testament to the constraints of the salary cap -- an undrafted rookie is, by nature, usually the most cap-friendly player on the league's landscape -- but also a willingness to hit the road and scout prospects who possess the holy trinity of attributes (height, weight, speed). It's a chance to find those edge-of-the-radar guys who fit what the Broncos do.

"Usually if a guy makes it as an undrafted rookie, it's an indication of his work ethic, that he put in the time, studied and didn't let the moment be too big for him,'' said Broncos executive vice president John Elway. "But they also have to fit what you do. You may like him for some things and other people wouldn't. I'm sure we like some players other people may not like as much, but the job isn't to find players for everybody else, it's is to find the best players to be Denver Broncos."

The Broncos current streak started with University of Washington cornerback Roc Alexander, who was kept by Mike Shanahan in September of 2004 and then rotisseried by current Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in Denver's loss to Indianapolis in the wild-card round to close out that season. Three undrafted rookies made the 2008 roster -- Shanahan's last year with the team -- in Polumbus, Woodyard and punter Brett Kern.

Two -- long snapper Aaron Brewer and linebacker Steven Johnson -- made the Broncos last year (a team that finished 13-3) out of training camp.

The list of the league's best over the past nine years at finding those undrafted gems includes several perennial playoff teams. Indianapolis leads the way with 14 consecutive years with an undrafted rookie making the roster. Manning was behind center for most of the streak since it started in 1999 and the team has made the playoffs 12 times in that span.

Kansas City has had an undrafted rookie make the roster in 10 consecutive years, while Baltimore and New England are tied with the Broncos at nine consecutive years. That's some fairly heady company.

Sometimes it's simply a result of the seven-round draft. An undrafted player now would have been selected in the eighth, ninth or 10th rounds in years gone by.

Sometimes it's just a bit of a whiff. Woodyard led the SEC in tackles in his final season at Kentucky, and while personnel people around the league thought he may be undersized for a linebacker and too big to be a safety, the fact he led the nation's power college conference in tackles should have likely given him a more stout résumé than many players drafted ahead of him.

Last season Woodyard became just the 12th player in the last three decades to finish a season with at least 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions in the same season. Oh, and he was somehow passed over by his peers, the league's coaches and in the fan voting as even a Pro Bowl alternate.

"I'm just trying to outlast every guy drafted before me, I'm just being honest with you," Woodyard said. "I think it's a combination of talent, confidence, work ethic, everything. You can't let yourself worry too much because you're not making the picks so you can't worry about that. Play every day like it's your last day, study, make some plays, you got a chance. Just give yourself a chance."

Harris, at 5-10, was simply declared too short by many scouts, but was also stuck on a struggling defense and moved to safety to close out his career at Kansas because the team needed him to.

He has since won over folks like Champ Bailey, who called the shot early on in Harris' first training camp in 2011 when Bailey said; "that kid has got it, he's making this team.''

Harris has since started 16 games, having played both outside and been the go-to guy in the slot when the team goes to the nickel package.

"When it happens you wonder how a whole draft could go by and they don't call your name," Harris said. "But after that, you just want to get somewhere and show them why they and everybody else made a mistake. When I first got here I really believed what the coaches all say that it doesn't matter where you're picked or whatever and I just wanted to produce."

But an undrafted rookie was often a tick slow on somebody's stopwatch, a little short on somebody's tape measure, a little light or perhaps and little too much of a problem wherever he was before someone in the league gave him a look.

This year's Broncos crop includes a player or two who could make it 10 years in a row for the team. Linebacker Lerentee McCray had a sack in the preseason opener Thursday night and at 6-foot-3, 249 pounds is one of the biggest linebackers on the Broncos roster. McCray is unpolished in some of his techniques, but is disruptive when chasing the ballcarrier.

Wide receiver/kick returner Quincy McDuffie has already flashed some special teams chops as well before a hamstring injury kept him out of the game against the 49ers Thursday night. Wide receiver Lamaar Thomas made the most of his time in the game against the 49ers with some quality work in the second half.

"In the end the young guys who make it, whether you draft them or not, make it because they compete every day, no matter what,'' Elway said. "The bounce back from mistakes and they don't make the same ones over and over. They study and they work. It's not all that magical or anything. They have some ability and they put in the work."