From the top pick to the last, the Broncos' 2021 draft class has shown signs of holding foundational pieces for the Broncos, and Pat Surtain II and Javonte Williams aren't the only rookies who made major contributions for Denver this season.
General Manager George Paton's draft class found its way onto the field early and often in 2021, and the young players are a big reason why the Broncos' future remains bright.
"We have a lot of core players in place," Paton said in January. "We have a lot of young players. I think there's a foundation in place where hopefully it doesn't take too long. Now, you have to put in the work, and we need to add. If you watch a lot of our football games — we won seven games, and obviously, we were in a lot more. [We have] a lot of young players. Our foundational pieces are young, and I just think if we can add to that. We're not far away."
Read on for a look at several contributors from the Broncos' rookie class:
CB Pat Surtain II
Draft position: Ninth overall (first round)
If anything, Surtain may have exceeded already lofty expectations for the Broncos in his rookie season. He moved into a starting role in Week 2 due to an injury to Ronald Darby, and even after Darby returned, Surtain remained a starter as his talent became evident. While he was unable to play the final game of the season, Surtain finished the season with four interceptions, 14 passes defensed and one defensive touchdown.
By doing so, Surtain became the first Broncos cornerback to pick off four or more passes as a rookie since Steve Foley in 1976, and he joins Aqib Talib as the only Broncos cornerback to record that many interceptions in a single season in the last decade.
"I've been really impressed," Paton said of Surtain in November. "He's a pro. He keeps getting better every week. I think he's going to be one of the better corners in the league. I haven't wavered off that. [He] needed to tackle better in a few games. ... He just keeps getting better, keeps getting more confident. For a rookie, the guy just doesn't get frazzled, and that's what I like about him.
Best game: Half of Surtain's interceptions came in a single game, as he intercepted Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert twice in key moments. On the first, Surtain came down with the ball in the end zone to prevent a touchdown, and with the second, Surtain scored a touchdown of his own. When a Herbert pass bounced off the hands of running back Austin Ekeler, Surtain plucked it out of the air and sprinted 70 yards to give Denver a three-touchdown lead, essentially sealing the game midway through the fourth quarter. For his effort, Surtain was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week and NFL Rookie of the Week.
RB Javonte Williams
Draft position: 35th overall (second round)
The Broncos thought highly enough of Williams that they knew he wouldn't last until their scheduled second-round pick at No. 40. Instead, Paton & Co. traded up five spots to ensure that he'd come to Denver and form half of a top rushing tandem along with veteran Melvin Gordon III.
As the two split the workload, they were arguably the league's top rushing duo, with each of them ranking in the league's top 15 in rushing yards. Williams ranked 13th with 903 yards, and he added 316 yards through the air. Among rookie rushers, Williams ranked third in yardage.
"This kid is something else," Paton said in November. "We need to create more space for him in the run game. He's just a pro. He's steady; he's a playmaker. He can run the ball; he can catch the ball. He's really good in pass protection. He's everything we had hoped."
Best game: While Williams' game against the Cowboys in Week 9 earned him NFL Rookie of the Week honors, his lone start of the season was even better. Against the Chiefs, Williams ran for 102 yards and added 76 more through the air; his 178 total yards were the most by a Broncos rookie since Clinton Portis in 2002.
G Quinn Meinerz
Draft position: 98th overall (third round)
Meinerz played limited snaps, including just one start, through the first eight weeks of the season as he entered the year as a reserve player. An injury to Graham Glasgow, though, pushed Meinerz into the lineup against the Cowboys, and he didn't miss a snap after that afternoon's win. A bruising player, Meinerz brought an element of physicality to the Broncos' offensive line.
It was perhaps an unexpectedly quick transition for Meinerz, who played college football at Division III's Wisconsin-Whitewater and didn't play in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There was definitely a lot to learn," Meinerz said in November. "In our conference in Division III, there wasn't a lot of switching up how the defense is going to play. It was this is what they're going to play all day. Now, I have to know what does nickel mean? What does dime mean? [I have to] understand what a jam front is and just all these other different responsibilities."
Best moment: Meinerz's trademark play came during that Week 9 game vs. Dallas, as he helped Williams break through a herd of Cowboys defenders en route to a 30-yard gain. That kind of effort and motor proved to be Meinerz at his best in the run game — an explosive game-breaker.
ILB Baron Browning
Draft position: 105th overall (third round)
Browning's career in Denver got off to an inauspicious start, as he missed the team's offseason program with an injury and was limited into training camp. Despite those early concerns, Browning rebounded and entered the starting lineup in a Week 8 game against the Washington Football Team. Browning's speed in coverage made him a valuable asset, and he looked the part as a starting inside linebacker. After moving positions often at Ohio State, it appears Browning has found a home in Denver.
"He's a great young linebacker," fellow linebacker Kenny Young said in November. "He's learning, he's eager to learn and he plays hard. I'm just ecstatic with my experience and the things that I've learned over these past four years to pass down to him so he can go ahead and take his game to a whole other level — as he will throughout his years of playing."
Best game: In that first start, Browning looked like he was up to speed and then some against Washington. He made eight total tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage. As Browning started nine of the Broncos' last 10 games, this one set the tone for the rest.
S Caden Sterns
Draft position: 152nd overall (fifth round)
When Denver drafted Sterns out of Texas, the Broncos hoped to see the all-conference version of Sterns that had flashed as a freshman. Sterns certainly rebounded from some later struggles with the Longhorns to serve as a valuable depth piece for Denver. He had a pair of sacks against the Ravens, and he picked off a pair of passes. In a Week 12 win against the Chargers, Sterns made his first start of the season and helped limit Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert.
"He's just so smart," fellow safety Justin Simmons said in November. "I think he handles all that really well. He sees really well even from close up at playing the dime position. Obviously, it's an advantageous spot for us to put him in positions to where he can see things really well and then make plays on the football. He does a really good job already as a rookie dissecting route combinations, where we're trying to be attacked and what the quarterback's necessarily looking at as the game is developing. Those are some of the things that I think are going to make him a great player for years to come."
Best moment: While Sterns' two-sack game vs. the Ravens certainly earned consideration, his interception against Dak Prescott and the Cowboys showed impeccable timing and savvy for a player in his first season.
WR Seth Williams
Draft position: 219th overall (sixth round)
When the Broncos drafted Seth Williams, they pointed to his special teams prowess as one of the main reasons they took him over other receivers. He has yet to make the same impact as some other members of his class, but he appeared in his first game of the season against the Chargers in Week 17 and hauled in a 34-yard catch to record his first career reception.
Best moment: Williams' catch was extremely impressive, as he went up and over a Chargers cornerback to secure the big gain. While Williams' game action was extremely limited, the play was reminiscent of the kind of plays that he made routinely in college, and if he can build off it, he could carve out a bigger role in 2022.
OLB Jonathon Cooper
Draft position: 239th overall (seventh round)
Perhaps the best story in the Broncos' rookie class, Cooper overcame a series of heart procedures to carve out a role in Denver's pass-rush rotation. The seventh-round pick had 2.5 sacks on the season, including a two-sack day against the Cowboys. As the Broncos' final selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, he's provided great value to the team.
"The NFL speed of the game is pretty fast, but I feel like I've settled into it. The result is making more tackles," Cooper told The Denver Post in December. "… I feel I've improved my pass rush and it's looked good at times, but I feel I need to be more consistent."
Best game: Cooper's two-sack game was one of just three by Broncos outside linebackers in 2021, and it helped the team get its biggest win of the year.