ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On Saturday morning, a day before the last game of the Broncos' season, Joe Ellis gathered the Broncos' rookies in the defensive line room.
The group had been one of the highlights of the season, with as many as six rookies starting for the team at various points of the season. A day later against the Chargers, 11 rookies would get playing time for the Broncos.
As the team's president and CEO, Ellis wanted to recognize their contributions and express his gratitude as their first NFL season came to a close.
"[I] told them how impressed I was with how they stuck with it as a group," Ellis said Monday during his end-of-season press conference. "They played hard in every single game. I think that reflected on — carried its way up to some of the vets. Guys put in great effort all year long. I was impressed with that group and I told them they should be proud of the work they've done."
That high level of production was exactly what the Broncos had hoped they'd get out of their draft class. Though they now face some uncertainty after the Broncos parted ways with Vance Joseph, whoever the Broncos pick to lead the team next will have a great foundation of young players off which to build in 2019.
"We had double-digit first-year [and] rookie players contributing on the field this year," Ellis said. "I'm really excited about that group, I know [President of Football Operations/General Manager] John [Elway] is, and our new coach should be, too."
Five rookies started and 11 rookies played in the Broncos' season finale game against the Chargers on Sunday.
First-round pick Bradley Chubb led the way, setting a new franchise rookie record with 12 sacks. Running back Phillip Lindsay became the first undrafted rookie in NFL history to earn a Pro Bowl selection. Wide receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton combined for 947 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Third-round pick Royce Freeman had 521 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Fourth-round pick Josey Jewell started nine games and racked up 58 total tackles.
"We're definitely going in the right direction in terms of players," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "I think they did really good with the draft last year. We definitely have a nucleus of guys, especially with the D-line. I look at [outside linebacker] Von [Miller] and I look at Chubb, and I look at all of those guys. We've got playmakers. We've got [cornerback] Chris Harris [Jr.] in the back end. We've definitely got players. You look on the offensive side of the ball, me, Courtland, Phillip Lindsay, we've still got [center] Matt Paradis if we can bring him back. These are top guys at their positions.
"We definitely have a nucleus of guys that can win games. It's all about executing and bringing the right guy in here that can be a leader to these young guys and an offensive coordinator that can dial up plays [so] that we can get explosive plays, and a defensive coordinator that understands his personnel and that can stop offenses."
With that young foundation, coupled with a group of elite veterans including Sanders, Miller and Harris, the Broncos are confident that the next head coach will have the tools to build a contending team. In Elway's eyes, that makes the Broncos' coaching opening a compelling job.
"Our football team has to get better — there's no question," Elway said. "But we've got a lot of good parts on our football team. … We've got nine picks coming up in the draft, and as Joe said, we've got the ownership and the resources and the support from the ownership group to be able to make the moves that hopefully we need to do to make us a better football team. So everything's there. And plus the fan base here and what Colorado's about and [that] it's a good place to live. And you look at our facility — the work that's been put in this facility over the last five years. It's a great opportunity for a head coach."
But one year of successful drafting doesn't mean Elway's job is through. There's much more to be done to return the Broncos to playoff contention — including how the team attacks free agency — but stacking another successful draft on last year's will play a big role in determining their fortunes for 2019.
"We had a good year last year and we've got to have another good year this year," Elway said. "We've got nine picks, and so we've got to make those count. But obviously, the lower you are, it helps, but by no means is it a guarantee. And so that's where we've got to do our homework and work and find the right guy and the right fit."
If Elway and Co. have a similar amount of success there, the future will indeed be bright.
"A lot of the guys this year that had to play that were rookies played big roles and had big-time years," safety Justin Simmons said. "Add that up for next year and I like where we're going to be at. I know Elway will bring in the right guys to get the job done, and I'm excited for the future.
"I know whoever is in here ... they're going to get our best and we're going to make a run for this thing next year."