Broncos' rookies can earn key spots if they're up to the challenge

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Odds are when the Denver Broncos’ rookies report to training camp Sunday, most in the draft class will have taken a first step toward a roster spot for the regular season.

Now, all they have to do is hold up their end of the bargain, because recent history has shown the Broncos want those first-year players around.

“I think it’s a good group,’’ is how coach Vance Joseph has described them. “... They need to get back here ready to compete.’’

Last summer eight rookies -- seven draft picks and one undrafted free agent -- did enough in the preseason to be on the opening-night roster against the Carolina Panthers. And when the Broncos opened the 2015 season against the Baltimore Ravens, there were seven rookies on the roster. An eighth, tight end Jeff Heuerman, likely would have made it had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury in rookie minicamp that year.

“We always need those young guys,’’ said cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who first made the Broncos' roster as an undrafted rookie in 2011. “You just have to show [the coaches] every day you know what you’re supposed to do and make plays every time you’re out there. And play special teams, man.''

This time around, it already appears as if tackle Garett Bolles, the No. 1 pick in the Broncos' draft class, also will be the first rookie in the starting lineup. By the time the Broncos closed out their offseason program, Bolles already was splitting time with Ty Sambrailo at left tackle in the No. 1 offense. The expectation is Bolles could well win the job as the Broncos move into their preseason games.

Second-round pick DeMarcus Walker made a big early impression as well, as his veteran teammates have repeatedly acknowledged his “approach’’ and “how he works.’’ Walker’s value could show most quickly on pass-rush downs, where the Broncos believe he has the potential to create the kind of interior pass rush Malik Jackson did in his time in the defense.

Third-round pick Carlos Henderson and fifth-round pick Isaiah McKenzie, both wide receivers, will have an opportunity to quickly move into the plan as kickoff and punt returners, respectively. Henderson has the profile -- he has run-after-catch ability -- to rise as high as the No. 3 receiver.

The other fifth-round pick -- tight end Jake Butt -- is still rehabbing from a knee injury he suffered in Michigan’s bowl game, but the Broncos believe he’ll be ready to contribute after the start of the regular season. Butt is a player many teams would have considered selecting in the first round, or early second round, had it not been for his injury.

Cornerback Brendan Langley, also a third-round pick, is just the kind of big corner (200 pounds) with speed (a 4.44 40-yard dash at the scouting combine) the Broncos hope can eventually find a way into the mix. But the Broncos also start four players in the secondary who have played in at least one Pro Bowl over the past two seasons and have a No. 3 cornerback in Bradley Roby who plays over 60 percent of the defensive snaps already. Running back De’Angelo Henderson, a sixth-round pick, is in much the same situation as a speed player in a crowded spot on the depth chart.

Henderson is likely the Broncos’ fastest player at the position, but he is also trying to squeeze carries from C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker and Jamaal Charles just to start with, let alone Bernard Pierce and Juwan Thompson.

Seventh-round pick Chad Kelly is coming off knee and wrist injuries, so the rookie quarterback is almost certainly looking at a developmental year. The key question with Kelly will be whether the Broncos believe they have to keep him on the roster as the No. 3 quarterback or could get him through waivers to put him on the practice squad.

If they do expose Kelly -- whose draft stock was much higher before his injuries and some off-the-field issues -- to waivers, any team could claim him.

Among the undrafted rookies, it will be a more difficult trek this time around. While the Broncos have kept at least one undrafted rookie on the opening-game roster in 12 of the past 13 years, this year’s group faces a bigger climb.

Given his choice, Harris, who is always among those who can spot the potential success stories the most quickly, offered Kansas State safety Dante Barnett as a player with potential. Guard Chris Muller, a 49-game starter at Rutgers, as well as those at a position like linebacker (Josh Banderas, Ken Ekanem, Jerrol Garcia-Williams, Deon Hollins), because of special-teams duties, will be undrafted rookies to keep an eye on as well.