ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Most folks who get paid to evaluate personnel in the NFL will always say it doesn’t matter where, or even if, a player is drafted when the roster decisions are made. That the decisions are made by what they see, by how the players play.
But the Denver Broncos mean it. They really, really mean it.
“You can’t help but know the history,’’ running back C.J. Anderson said. “You see it in the starting lineup here.’’
For the last 11 training camps at least one undrafted rookie has made the cut for the Broncos. A first-year player, who was bypassed in the draft, even by the Broncos themselves, has won the summer game of vocational survival and not been voted off the football island.
Anderson was the guy in 2013, Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. was the guy in 2011 and linebacker Wesley Woodyard, now in his second year with the Tennessee Titans after six seasons with the Broncos, was one of two who made it in 2008. But from cornerback Roc Alexander (2004) to wide receiver Isaiah Burse and running back Juwan Thompson (both in 2014), the streak lives on.
“I think it’s something you want to be good at, you want to be good at all phases of the draft,’’ Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. “I think you always look at those names when the draft is over and you start making those calls and feel there are some guys in there who can help your football team. And when we’re trying to get them to come here, we do make sure everybody knows the history.’’
The current streak, of 11 previous years, is tied for the third-highest in the league behind only Indianapolis (16 consecutive years) and Kansas City (12 consecutive years).
The Broncos currently have 11 undrafted rookies in training camp and as Friday’s preseason opener in Seattle approaches, there are two who have made the biggest of impressions thus far. There is certainly plenty of football left to be played, plenty of game-speed opportunities that remain for somebody to catch the Broncos’ collective eye, but Rice wide receiver Jordan Taylor and Nebraska linebacker Zaire Anderson have stood out over the last two weeks.
Both players put themselves squarely on the radar in the offseason workout and have taken the next step in camp’s early going.
Anderson, at 220 pounds, was initially thought to be a high-motor, high-character player who might be slightly undersized to play inside linebacker in the team’s 3-4 defense. Anderson has consistently put himself in position to make plays and some of the biggest hits of camp have been delivered by Anderson.
“Yeah … he has flashed,’’ Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “He flashes every day. He's small. You watch him stature-wise work out and you say, 'Can you play in there?' But there have been some great guys do that. … He's a leader. He handles the huddle really well. He loves contact. [Linebackers coach] Reggie [Herring] done a good job with him, but you have to give the kid a lot of credit. He's come a long way.’’
Taylor, at 6-foot-5, has the catch radius the Broncos would like to add to the offense, and he had a 4.52-second clocking in the 40-yard dash at his pro day before this year’s draft. He had three 50-catch seasons at Rice, and the Broncos do have room on the depth chart at receiver after Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer.
“It's not a bad deal,’’ Taylor said of going undrafted. “Nobody expects much from you, so coming in you can surprise a lot of people, continue to move up, try to make plays for the team and just find your spot here.’’
Veteran Andre Caldwell has been reliable when asked to play and can serve as a returner, but the Broncos figure to keep five receiver, possibly six if compelled by somebody’s play. So, for Taylor and the others at the position, their work in the offense in the preseason games, as well as special teams possibilities, will tell the tale.
“It's really not up to me,’’ Taylor said. “It's up to my play on the field, how I do and the production that I have in these preseason games. Hopefully, I can do enough to where I catch the coach’s eye, and make them want to do that … Right now, it’s all really about hustling. Knowing your assignment, first of all, and just giving as much effort as you possible can. Really it's up to the preseason games. You got to show that you'll be able to go out there and make a play.’’