Broncos need impressive rookie class to do even more in Year 2

Rookies Phillip Lindsay, above, and Royce Freeman combined for 1,558 rushing yards as rookies on the Broncos last season. Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are few teams in the league, maybe none, who need the proverbial second-year jump to be true more than the Denver Broncos.

The Broncos have limited salary cap space and eight draft picks, excluding the fourth rounder who is expected to be headed to the Baltimore Ravens for quarterback Joe Flacco. They'll need an impressive rookie class from 2018 to do a lot of the digging to get them out of their current hole, fulfilling that long-held NFL belief that a player's biggest improvement comes from his rookie year to his second year.

"We need all those guys to come back for more," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "After your rookie year, you've seen it, you've seen what it's going to take. We need all those guys to want more."

As the Broncos limped down the stretch, losing their last four games to finish 6-10 after they had clawed their way back to 6-6 -- their season became about their young players. Thirteen rookies played at some point for the Broncos, and their 4,802 combined snaps were eighth-most in the league.

Their top two rushers (Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman), their second-leading receiver (Courtland Sutton) and the player who finished second on the team in sacks (Bradley Chubb) were all rookies. Lindsay and Freeman combined for 82 percent of the team's rushing attempts, three of the seven players on the team who finished with at least 30 receptions were rookies and three rookies (Chubb, Sutton and linebacker Josey Jewell) played more than 770 snaps.

It's why Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway selected 60-year-old Vic Fangio as the team's head coach and it's why Fangio said he wanted "good, good teachers" on his new staff.

"As we talk about so many times, we don't draft the All-Pros either," Elway said earlier this offseason. "We have to develop them. I think one other thing that always stood out when my dad talked about coaching and what I heard from Vic, was when you have coaches talk about teaching, because that's what it is, it's about teaching and about teaching them the right things to do and fundamentals. ... I think it's not about the glitz and the glamour and what somebody does the on the offensive side. I think it's about getting the foundation right, especially for us. That's our fit."

After the Broncos' shaky work in the 2016 (Paxton Lynch in the first round) and the 2017 drafts (four of the eight players are no longer with the team), last year's rookie group was both a welcome and necessary infusion of talent. And Fangio's ability to succeed in his first season will hinge greatly both on Flacco's performance and how that class of '18 does in Year 2.

With Fangio's 30-plus years' worth of success on the defensive side of the ball, particularly with pass-rushers and linebackers, Chubb and Jewell should flourish. And they'll have to as outside linebackers Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett are both expected to depart in free agency. The Broncos have also told inside linebacker Brandon Marshall they will likely not pick up his option and he'll be a free agent, which makes Jewell's development a front-burner issue.

With wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders returning from a torn Achilles, Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton are suddenly at the top of the depth chart.

Lindsay will return as the top running back, but concerns about potential overuse at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds will always be a consideration as he works to evolve his game. Lindsay finished his rookie year on injured reserve after suffering a wrist injury in the Christmas Eve loss to the Oakland Raiders.

The Broncos also have three cornerbacks -- Bradley Roby, Tramaine Brock and Jamar Taylor -- who are poised to be free agents, so Isaac Yiadom will arrive in Year 2 with an entirely different set of expectations. Yiadom, who played 442 snaps last season -- sixth most among the team's rookies -- might need to take the biggest jump of all given most personnel executives believe the potential crop of cornerbacks in free agency is lukewarm at best.

"I've said, you start from the ground up," Fangio said. "You give them their assignments, and once they've mastered their assignments, you now teach them the correct techniques to execute those assignments. I know that sounds like a stock answer for you, but that's just what it is. You do a great job of coaching them, the players will realize that, they will buy in and they will execute for you to the maximum of their abilities ... and that's what everybody wants."