ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) John Elway's plan has worked brilliantly.
After watching his 2017 rookie class crater in crunch time, the Broncos general manager placed high value on experience and maturity this spring. Those criteria produced a cast packed with players who had spent four years in college and who had been captains for their teams.
"One thing we learned last year when you're 5-11 and you're in a losing streak, you need that maturity and that leadership to get things turned around," Elway said following by far the best of his eight drafts.
The Broncos (6-6) are in the playoff picture thanks to a terrific trio of rookies who led Denver's turnaround from a 3-6 start.
Playing leading roles in this resurgence are Bradley Chubb , who leads all rookies with 10 sacks, Courtland Sutton , who is Denver's new No. 1 receiver, and undrafted gem Phillip Lindsay , who leads the league with a 6.1-yard rushing average and has scored five touchdowns during the surge.
"This isn't just a regular rookie class. This is a unique rookie class that is really mature," Lindsay said. "You're not going to get another rookie class like this in the NFL, I don't care what anybody says."
The rookies certainly have a bravado built on their immediate impact.
With Emmanuel Sanders going on injured reserve, Sutton isn't flinching at the prospect of facing No. 1 cornerbacks now, beginning with Richard Sherman this weekend.
"I love it," Sutton said. "I look forward to it. It's going to be good."
After surviving the league's toughest schedule, the Broncos figured they'd catch a breather this month with the 49ers (2-10), Raiders (2-10) and Browns (4-7-1) coming up.
Then they lost cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to a fractured fibula in their game at Cincinnati on Sunday and Sanders to a ruptured Achilles 72 hours later.
"Nothing's been handed to us," quarterback Case Keenum said. "So, we're going to have to earn everything we get."
The Broncos brought in two veteran replacements for Harris and Sanders in cornerback Jamar Taylor, who was released by the Cardinals last month, and wide receiver Andre Holmes, whom the Broncos claimed off waivers from Buffalo.
"To sign two veteran players like those two guys in the last two days, we're lucky," coach Vance Joseph said, adding both will play Sunday at San Francisco.
Joseph said he doubted Tramaine Brock (ribs) will play after missing his second straight practice Thursday, so that makes Taylor the fourth cornerback behind Bradley Roby, second-year pro Brendan Langley and rookie Isaac Yiadom.
Eleven rookies have played for the Broncos this season, logging 3,289 snaps, seventh-most in the NFL. And receivers River Cracraft and Tim Patrick, along with injured tight end Jake Butt, all made their NFL debuts for Denver this year, too.
Among the rookies the Broncos expect to play bigger roles down the stretch are receiver DaeSean Hamilton (knee), running back Royce Freeman (ankle) and linebacker Josey Jewell (ankle), all of whom are coming back from minor injuries.
"We're all ready to just step up and be the next guy up, be the next person to make plays for this team," Hamilton said.
Hamilton got a taste of that increased workload last week when he led Denver's receivers with 47 snaps at Cincinnati even though he didn't see a single pass thrown his way.
"That was a tough game for a flanker," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "He had to go in there and block their safety, Shawn Williams, time and time again. He came over to the sideline a couple of times like, 'Do we have any other plays? Do we have any that I might see the ball in the air, besides me being our sixth O-lineman?' Which is what he was in the game.
"So, we need to pay his fee at some point and throw some balls to him for all that work he did."
Chubb has logged 641 snaps this year, Sutton 592 and Jewell 554. Lindsay has only played 409 snaps, but his workload figures to increase with the loss of Sanders because he can line up in the slot on third downs.
"Yeah, we may need to tap those abilities he has even more because we're going to miss Emmanuel's quickness and dynamic playmaking ability," Musgrave said.
Lindsay has averaged just 15 touches a game, a byproduct not only of the coaches monitoring his snap count but of Denver's 34.6 percent conversion rate on third downs, which ranks 27th in the NFL.
"If we can convert some third downs that we're not making, then we got more opportunities for everybody," Musgrave said. "I think that would definitely be a great step in the right direction for this final four-game stretch."
As they tap Elway's 2018 class even more.
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