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Bennie Fowler makes most of chances to carve out role

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The distance Denver Broncos wide receiver Bennie Fowler has come in the last year can be measured by his jersey's tour of Oakland.

In the moments that followed the Broncos' 16-10 victory over the Oakland Raiders, Fowler wasn't wearing his No. 16. At that time an NBA champion -- Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green -- had Fowler's jersey in hand, with big plans on his mind.

"That's my boy," Green said as he waited for an elevator at field level in O.co Coliseum. "I'll be putting this up ... I'll get it in a frame."

Longtime friends Fowler and Green both went to Michigan State and are Michigan natives, and Fowler was happy to hand over the game-worn jersey with the grass stain on the left shoulder.

"Happy about it, because I did wear it in a game," Fowler said. "I think the coaches trust me, Peyton [Manning] trusts me and I've had some opportunities."

Fowler and Jordan Norwood have clawed their way up the depth chart and on to the field in the offense as the third wide receivers. Manning has thrown the ball to each of them in key situations and each has moved past Cody Latimer on the depth chart.

Latimer, a second-round pick in the 2014 draft who has been working through a groin injury in recent weeks, has not been able to turn plenty of practice heroics into game-day success.

And while Norwood has largely played in the slot, Fowler is a big-bodied receiver, at 212 pounds, whom the Broncos have played on the outside and in the slot as well. Fowler leads the team in yards per catch -- 15.3 -- and of his seven receptions this season, six have gone for first downs.

With a 41-yard catch Sunday against the Raiders, Fowler also has the fourth-longest pass play of the season for the Broncos.

"Every time that he goes out there, he makes a first down, so that helps out," Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. "If we make a first down, it's him and Jordan right now. We're throwing to those two guys. ... Bennie just goes out, he's a big man, he can run and catches the ball."

Fowler spent the 2014 rookie season on the Broncos' practice squad after signing with the team as an undrafted free agent. Fowler likely would have been drafted had he been able to play in all four of his seasons at Michigan State, but he had suffered foot fractures in 2009 and 2011.

He had played both his junior and senior seasons for the Spartans, but many teams still considered him a medical risk.

"I still thought I could make an opportunity," Fowler said. "I played my last two years, I was healthy those two years, so I didn't really worry about it. If it would have happened my senior year, then maybe I would have been worried the NFL might not happen."

Fowler also didn't take his season on the practice squad as a slight; he made it into a learning experience.

"Why wouldn't you?" Fowler said. "You're playing with Peyton throwing the ball, and learning from [Demaryius Thomas] and Emmanuel [Sanders]. I looked at it like a redshirt year, you have those in college and I had mine in the NFL."

Fowler's transition into the league has also been smoothed by the fact Michigan State, unlike most college programs, plays plenty of press coverage -- the Spartans' defensive backs are physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage. Many young receivers have a difficult time initially in the NFL because they suddenly have to battle just to get into their routes, something they didn't have to do often in college.

There was also the matter that Fowler often faced Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard -- the first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the '14 draft -- in practice each day.

"I knew, when you face Darqueze Dennard every day and he's going in the first round, that tells you that you can play in the league," Fowler said. "I was comfortable getting off press coverage too and a lot of guys struggle with that when they first come out. I just want to keep getting in the right spots, have Peyton keep trusting me and have the coaches keep trusting me to do the right thing."