Broncos stay afloat thanks to reinforcements |

Broncos stay afloat thanks to reinforcements

Arnie Stapleton
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. ” Some deft draft-day decisions are helping the Denver Broncos win games even as they keep losing players.

The Broncos (6-4) have forged a two-game lead over San Diego in the AFC West thanks to rookies and reinforcements who aren’t wasting any time making their mark in the NFL.

John Lynch, who made his retirement official Monday after four Pro Bowl seasons in Denver, said he was glad to see the battered Broncos doing so well.

“To be 6-4 with all the injuries that they’ve had, it’s pretty phenomenal,” Lynch said.

And they’re doing it with kids.

Denver’s top draft pick, left tackle Ryan Clady, is having the kind of season Joe Thomas had in Cleveland last season, when he was runner-up for Rookie of the Year. Only, Clady’s so quiet that hardly anybody has noticed ” except for quarterback Jay Cutler, whose jersey is staying clean thanks to the 325-pound Boise State behemoth who was hailed as having fast feet but who’s proven a very quick study.

Eddie Royal leads the league’s rookie receivers with 56 catches for 659 yards and four touchdowns. His 93-yard TD sparked Denver’s win at Cleveland two weeks ago and followed a 95-yard kickoff return against Miami.

“It’s hard to do for a young guy coming straight out of college,” veteran receiver Brandon Stokley said. “Sixteen games and usually they’re winding down and we’re just getting cranked up. So it’s hard, but that’s the business that we’re in. They have to grow up quickly.”

That, they have.

Other baby-faced players who have found themselves on the fast track are cornerback Josh Bell and running back Peyton Hillis, who posted the first 100-yard receiving day by a Broncos running back in 34 years three weeks ago and rushed for his first two touchdowns Sunday in Denver’s 24-20 win at Atlanta.

Punter Brett Kern and linebacker Wesley Woodyard are among the undrafted free agents who have made big impacts.

Then, of course, there’s Spencer Larsen, the first NFL player to start on offense and defense in five seasons and the first Broncos player to do so.

A sixth-round draft pick from Arizona, Larsen worked at linebacker and fullback in training camp before becoming a full-time fullback behind Hillis. Injuries at linebacker and running back ” where the Broncos have lost five tailbacks, four of them for the year, forced coach Mike Shanahan to devise the plan for Larsen’s two-way duty Sunday against the Falcons.

Hillis moved from fullback to start at running back as Selvin Young was held out with a groin injury. That created the opening for Larsen at fullback. He also started on special teams.

“They’re football players,” Cutler said. “I think he and Spencer are kind of in the same mold. They can do anything out there, special teams, offense or defense.”

Larsen was needed on defense as starting linebackers Nate Webster and D.J. Williams were held out with knee injuries, joining cornerback Champ Bailey and safety Marlon McCree on the sideline. Boss Bailey, the team’s other starter, went on IR two weeks ago with a knee injury.

Larsen is just the latest example of hard work paying immediate dividends in Denver.

“These guys aren’t only excellent athletes, but they are very sharp football players,” Shanahan said. “Some guys got their opportunity because of injuries and some guys got their opportunity because they proved in practice that they can make plays.”

And they represent the Broncos’ deepest draft class of this decade and one that rivals the 2005 class that included Cutler, Tony Scheffler, Elvis Dumervil and Brandon Marshall.

Larsen didn’t expect to be a major contributor right away himself, but he’s certainly not surprised that this rookie class hasn’t wasted any time making a name for itself.

“We’ve always known that we had a real solid rookie class that consisted of a lot of mature kids that came in and had tremendous confidence in themselves,” Larsen said. “We had opportunities. This team has been plagued with injuries all year. With the injuries, we rookies have been able to step up and help out.”

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