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Does any team have a better rookie class than the Denver Broncos? It’s highly doubtful.
A whopping 12 rookies (eight draft picks, four college free agents) have played for the Broncos. An NFL-high six rookies have appeared in all 14 games, while eight have started a combined 50 games at 10 different positions. Spencer Larsen, a sixth-round draft pick, started at fullback and linebacker in the same game.
“The rookies have stepped up and played well,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said this week during a conference call with the Buffalo media.
Leading the youth movement are left tackle Ryan Clady and wide receiver Eddie Royal.
Clady, the Broncos’ first-round pick and 12th overall selection (Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin was the 11th pick), has started every game, allowed just a half sack and committed just three penalties. A lot of national media touted Clady for the Pro Bowl ahead of Buffalo’s Jason Peters.
“He came in the first day and we put him at the left tackle position and he hasn’t disappointed us,” Shanahan said of Clady. “He’s gone against some of the best defensive ends in the league and really has fared quite well.”
So has Royal. The fifth of 10 wide receivers drafted in the second round and chosen one pick after the Bills took James Hardy, Royal has far and away outperformed his peers.
Royal leads all rookies with 75 catches for 847 yards and ranks sixth in the league with 1,623 combined yards. Nicknamed “Vet” by teammates because he conducts himself like a veteran, Royal also is the NFL’s eighth-ranked kickoff returner (26.1-yard average).
“Usually you don’t have a kid that’s mature that early,” Shanahan said. “He’s very smart. He knows all the different positions. He’s like a five-, six-year veteran coming in. Sometimes the game’s too big for young guys coming in. They can’t focus on the game. They get caught up in everything else. Eddie is just very grounded, very level-headed and has just come in and done everything we have asked him to do.”
Among the undrafted rookies with prominent roles are punter and Grand Island native Brett Kern, who is fifth in the NFL with a 47-yard gross average, and linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who has started the last six games and averages seven tackles per outing. Cornerback Josh Bell, also undrafted, has started the last five games in place of an injured Champ Bailey.
One of the biggest surprises was running back Peyton Hillis, who led the Broncos in rushing before his season ended with a torn hamstring. The seventh-round pick spent most of his college career at Arkansas blocking for 2008 first-round picks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.