ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos have four starters who once caught somebody’s eye during a preseason game as an undrafted rookie.
Running back Phillip Lindsay, linebacker Alexander Johnson, linebacker Todd Davis and cornerback A.J. Bouye each went from long shot to an NFL roster in their first year in the NFL. And had they entered the league this year — with no preseason games and practices curtailed because of the coronavirus pandemic — they would have had a much more difficult time making a roster.
“They have to show it; they have to earn it,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. “With the shortened training camp, obviously we have to get out the Ouija board and do some predicting. It’s a little bit of everything there. … I think they feel that urgency.”
Over the past 16 years, few teams, if any, have had more success finding undrafted rookie gems than the Broncos. In 15 of those years, at least one undrafted rookie has made the 53-man roster to open the regular season, and in four of those years, at least two undrafted rookies made the 53-man roster coming out of camp.
The total résumé of the group includes two Super Bowl 50 starters, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and NFL Players Association vice president Wesley Woodyard, who played his 12th NFL season in 2019.
“I was one of those guys who really needed that fourth preseason game,” said Davis, who made the Saints’ opening-week roster as an undrafted rookie in 2014 before the Broncos signed him later that season. “If I didn’t have that fourth preseason game, I may not be on the team today. I really feel bad for those guys coming in. They’re going to have to give everything they have in practice. I think they have to make a name for themselves in practice.”
“When it comes to the rookies … for them [practice] is big,” said Lindsay, who made the Broncos’ roster as an undrafted rookie in 2018 and went on to the Pro Bowl that season. “We don’t have preseason games. The fact is, you’re dealing with, like I said, grown men that are getting paid to do that. Nobody’s just going to let somebody make them look bad. [The undrafted rookies] are going to have to come in and really adjust.”
For players such as defensive back Essang Bassey, running back LeVante Bellamy, tackle Hunter Watts and the team’s other undrafted rookies, it means they have less time, far fewer opportunities and no chance to show the knack for being a “gamer” before the Broncos have to trim the roster to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
The roster has been at 80 players for camp, instead of the usual 90, because of the agreement reached between the NFL and the NFLPA for the start of training camp. It represents fewer spots overall, but it might present opportunities.
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“The one thing that is in their favor a little bit — and it’s just a crumb; by no means is it a big thing — is we are down to 80 guys,” Fangio said. “Of those 80, four of them are snappers and kickers. You’re down to 76 football players. They are getting more reps than if we had 90 here. … They’re just going to have to show it on the field quicker than guys in the past have. Obviously, those guys would get a lot of playing time in preseason games. That’s not going to happen … They’re going to have to speed it up. Like I told them, there’s no redshirt years. We want you to play.”
Practice squads will be 16 players this season — up from the usual 10 — which gives undrafted rookies a chance to at least stay with the team. Six of the practice squad spots can be used for players with unlimited experienced, but 10 spots still will be for developmental players.
Still, players who want to make the 53-man roster have a wafer-thin margin for error and lack the opportunities so many previous Broncos players have had.
“It would definitely be harder,” said Bouye, who made the Texans’ roster as an undrafted rookie in 2013. “That’s one thing when I found out we had no preseason games — it’s a positive for the guys who’ve probably made the team because they don’t have to risk injury, but I look at the younger guys who’ve worked so hard. Even now, the only way you can get evaluated is in practice and what you do on special teams and offense and defense. It’s definitely harder.”
Jeff LegwoldESPN Senior Writer