ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Injuries, a pandemic and five consecutive playoff misses have converged aggressively in 2020 for the Denver Broncos, who now find themselves with one of the youngest rosters in the league.
The team's rookie class has been tossed into the deepest end of the pool this season, both by necessity and intention, despite no on-field work during the offseason or preseason games.
"This year's rookies really got cheated in terms of their development," Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said this week. "... I think when you don't have that development piece, especially for a rookie, it's hard. That's why I think you see some of the teams that are established with older players that are probably grooving a little better this year than the teams that are trying to develop the young ones as we go here.''
The Broncos hope their investment in 2020 yields bigger returns down the line. As the Broncos enter the season's final four weeks, here's how the team's Class of 2020 has fared and what needs to happen in the weeks and months to come:
WR Jerry Jeudy, first round (15th overall)
Leads the team in targets (82), is second receiving yards and third in receptions. He has played 73% of the team's snaps on offense. Jeudy has been slowed some with shoulder and ankle injuries to go with a bout with drops early in the season. But his elite route running, as well as the ability to consistently create separation against the best cornerbacks he faces, are clear.
What's next: Better play at quarterback will help, but he hasn't turned 50% of his targets into catches so far this season and that's not all on the guy throwing the ball. With his talent and work ethic, he should dominate week in, week out.
WR KJ Hamler, second round (46th)
Hamler had a slow wind-up when a hamstring injury suffered during a pre-draft workout re-appeared in training camp and he re-injured the hamstring again early in the season. He's started three games -- played 59% of the team's snaps on offense -- but his impact has grown down the stretch. With a splash of creativity he has the potential to be an impact player the Broncos can move all over the formation.
What's next: Opposing defensive coaches say he's still far more of a threat when he's working out of the slot at the moment, which is significant, but his impact will grow with his ability to threaten defenses from more places on the field.
CB Michael Ojemudia, third round (77th)
The Broncos have relied on Ojemudia more than they planned. Injuries to Bryce Callahan and A.J. Bouye -- as well as Bouye's suspension for performance-enhancing substances -- mean Ojemudia will make his eighth start of the season Sunday. He has smarts, size and athleticism to go with the coveted ability to rebound after a mistake in the heat of the moment.
What's next: He needs to get more refined in how he can influence a receiver's ability to get free earlier in the route. He often lets the play come to him, but this is a smart player with toughness, a combination Champ Bailey has said is a long-term requirement for the job.
C Lloyd Cushenberry III, third round (83rd)
Cushenberry was penciled in as the starter right from the moment he was selected last April. He's played every snap to this point -- he and left tackle Garett Bolles are the only offensive players who have so far this season. He plays with awareness and his pre-snap work has shown enormous potential. He could be a solution at the position for quite some time.
What's next: When he has a little room to work, he's shown quality footwork and good decision-making. At times, however, the high-end power players on the interior get him off-balance and he hasn't always shown the recovery skills to get back in the play. But an offseason in the weight room will help as will a little more knowledge about how those defensive players have come at him.
DE McTelvin Agim, third round (95th)
Agim was one of the draft's fast risers over the last two months of the pre-draft discussions around the league. His athleticism and effort are evident, but he's still rough around the edges in technique at times.
What's next: Some time in "the lab" as linebacker Von Miller calls the evaluation of your own work. He could be one of the players who makes the biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2 if he puts in the time in the months to come.
TE Albert Okwuegbunam, fourth round (118th)
He was an intriguing prospect when he arrived and when he returns from his torn ACL he will still be one of the Broncos' more intriguing young players. His speed is elite at the position -- he's faster than many wide receivers, a 4.49 at the combine -- and he caught a touchdown pass every 4.3 receptions in college. He dealt with a hip injury early in the season and injured his knee just as he was gaining momentum.
What's next: Good health is the starting point. But if he returns as expected from his knee surgery, his role in the offense will grow at the rate of his attention to detail in his routes.
LB Justin Strnad, fifth round (178th)
Strnad was on track to play immediately in some of the Broncos' specialty packages on defense before he missed the season after wrist surgery in training camp.
What's next: His impact on special teams would have been significant this season -- in his last season at Wake Forest he led the team in special teams tackles and interceptions -- and will be in the seasons to come. He will be on track to play some in the nickel and dime packages next year.
G Netane Muti, sixth round (181st)
Muti, who played just 19 games in college due to injuries -- two Achilles injuries and a foot injury -- was a project coming in. He's been a game day inactive 10 times.
WR Tyrie Cleveland, seventh round (252nd)
Cleveland simply forced the Broncos to keep him on the roster with his high-quality work in training camp. He plays with toughness and has already found a niche on special teams -- he's played almost half of that unit's snaps this season -- and could carve out a little more room in the offense as well.
What's next: He's still a little raw with his routes and his snap count can rise, at least some, if he smooths some of those edges.
OLB Derrek Tuszka, seventh round (254th)
The Broncos had planned to use 2020 to get Tuszka stronger, so his play strength at the point of attack matched his high-effort ways -- he often got swallowed up by the tackles in 1-on-1 drills during camp if he didn't get to the outside shoulder. But injuries pushed him into the lineup at times.
What's next: Get stronger and come back in 2021 ready to push for time in the rotation at outside linebacker.