Broncos needed more than they got from draft class, but gems emerged

Left tackle and first-round pick Garett Bolles was the only one of the Broncos' rookies to emerge as a starter by season's end. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was a year of transition for the Denver Broncos. They were minimal participants in free agency, so they hoped for -- and needed -- more than they got from their rookie class.

Injuries certainly didn't help, as three of their eight picks from the 2017 draft spent the season on injured reserve. In the end, the Broncos had just one draft pick who was a starter -- left tackle Garett Bolles -- and the older, veteran players often wondered when the youngsters were going to kick it in gear.

Grade: Below average

Best rookie: Several of the Broncos' undrafted rookies ended up in situational roles by season's end and showed promise, but among the draft picks, Bolles went end-to-end as the starter at left tackle. He flashed athleticism and potential but also showed that he has plenty to learn, especially when it comes to rebounding from mistakes, maintaining his footwork and listening to those trying to help him.

Most improved rookie: Defensive end DeMarcus Walker arrived with the expectation that he would contribute in the pass rush immediately -- he had 25 sacks in his last two seasons at Florida State, including 16 as a senior. That didn't happen. The Broncos also tried him at outside linebacker, and he struggled to make the transition to the day-to-day routine. He kept at it, however, and had a sack in the season finale.

Most disappointing rookie: Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie had the distinction of being awarded a "starting" job before any other first-year player when he was tabbed as the punt returner as training camp opened. McKenzie was benched twice because of fumbles, and Jordan Taylor is now far more deserving to keep the job. McKenzie was also almost a nonfactor on offense. He needs a get-after-it offseason to get back in the mix.

Jury is still out on: Jake Butt. The tight end spent the season on injured reserve recovering from the knee injury he suffered in his last game at Michigan. Butt, at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds with receiving skills, is exactly the kind of player the offense desperately needed all season. There is no question that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave will want to make him a big part of things in 2018.

Undrafted rookie evaluation: Even as their draft picks had their share of struggles, the Broncos continued to show a knack for finding undrafted gems. Safety Jamal Carter, cornerback Marcus Rios and safety Dymonte Thomas each showed that they were ready when opportunities arrived. All three flashed enough potential that they deserve longer looks moving forward.