ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Players trying to carve out a roster spot on a defending Super Bowl champion, one the team’s top football decision-maker has said is better than last season, could be considered the longest of long shots.
They are rookies, after all. Undrafted players, at that. And they continue to attempt to secure a spot among the 53 players who will be on the Denver Broncos' roster when the cuts are made before the regular-season opener. And they are making that attempt on a team John Elway has repeatedly said is better, on paper, than the one that won Super Bowl 50 this past February.
"I guess I always tell them, it’s how I made it -- they can too," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who made the Broncos’ roster as an undrafted rookie in 2011 and has since become an elite player at his position. "You have to believe and keep working and do things they need you to do."
For 11 of the past 12 seasons, the Broncos have had at least one undrafted rookie make the opening-week roster. The highest total was in 2008 -- Mike Shanahan’s last season as coach -- when three undrafted rookies made it in punter Bret Kern, tackle Tyler Polumbus, and linebacker Wesley Woodyard.
Even as recently as 2012, a 13-win Broncos team, long snapper Aaron Brewer and linebacker Steven Johnson were undrafted rookies who made the 53-man roster. And in 2014, a 12-win team, running back Juwan Thompson, who is still on the roster, and wide receiver Isaiah Bruce made the team.
It is a combination of scouting -- matching players who have certain skill sets to the available jobs that were open on the roster -- good fortune, and having a need at a spot that may not have been addressed in the draft or free agency. This time around, wide receiver Kalif Raymond, who is also a returner, defensive lineman Kyle Peko, and wide receiver Bralon Addison, who is a returner as well, have drawn praise in training camp’s early going.
Asked who had caught his eye among the Broncos’ rookie class, Brandon Marshall was clear.
"Kyle Peko is a pretty good player as well, he's No. 90," Marshall said. " … Peko, he's very savvy with it. He's got good hands ... the guy makes plays. He's always around the football."
Peko is in one of the most crowded spots on the roster as the Broncos kept just six defensive linemen last year when they cut to 53 players and figure to be at six again. Which is why with both the punt and kickoff return jobs open, that could be the avenue for an undrafted player to make.
Raymond has shown impact speed in the returns and has been able to make some plays on offense as well. Key as both Elway and coach Gary Kubiak have said they would like to avoid keeping a specialist as a returner because they will likely need that roster spot for another position.
Addison, too, was largely signed because of his return skills.
"Kalif is very explosive," Kubiak said. "He’s not very big, but he is very explosive. I think he understands his role and how he can make this team as a returner or a slot-type player for us. He’s taken advantage of it."
Things are crowded at wide receiver as well, with the Broncos poised to keep five, or six at the most, when cuts are made. But the last receiver in that grouping could certainly be the team’s primary returner.
“[Raymond] can run,’’ Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. "He’s made some strides ever since he showed up in the spring."
"This is my dream," Raymond said. "Anything I can do to get on to that field, whether it be a receiver, returner, sniper, gunner, anything they need. I’ll go out there and snap the ball if they need me to. I come out here and make sure whatever they put me at I do it 110 percent, even at receiver or returner. Whatever I can do to get on this team is what I’m going to do."
And should pessimism arrive as the preseason moves along, the new batch of rookies only need to look around the locker room. Harris and running back C.J. Anderson are former undrafted rookies who have played in the Pro Bowl in their time with the Broncos.
Harris, Anderson, and Thompson are also former undrafteds who earned Super Bowl rings last season.
"This is what I want to do," Raymond said. "It’s been a great experience so far, but I’m trying to make this a lifestyle. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I play football in the NFL, but I want to play for the Broncos. Just being here is like no other. If I could do anything to make the 53-man roster to play for this team, I am going to take it every time."