LONDON — As the Broncos fought their way back into the win column with a victory over the Jaguars in London, the team's top two draft picks made the most of their opportunities.
In the 2022 NFL Draft, the Broncos took outside linebacker Nik Bonitto in the second round with the 64th-overall pick. With its third-round pick, Denver selected tight end Greg Dulcich at No. 80. Both rookies got a chance to be key contributors against the Jaguars, and they did not disappoint.
After starting the season on injured reserve, Dulcich immediately provided a spark for Denver's offense upon making his debut in Week 6. The UCLA alum scored a touchdown in his first career game against the Chargers, and his receiving yardage each week has surpassed the previous week's total.
The Broncos' offense put together one of their strongest performances of the year, and Dulcich led the way with 87 receiving yards — 78 of which came on Denver's 98-yard march down the field in the third quarter. As Denver started the drive at its own 2-yard line, Russell Wilson and Dulcich's blooming connection took over, and the duo connected for 18-, 22- and 38-yard plays in a matter of minutes to set up a go-ahead touchdown.
"Once we started moving quick and getting things rolling, there was no stopping us," Dulcich said after the 21-17 win over Jacksonville.
Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett noted that Dulcich's immediate impact has been a critical boost for Denver's offense over the last few games, and he said he has been pleased with the rookie's ability to step into a major role right away.
"I think his ability to be a rock in the run game, and then his ability to go down the field and in that intermediate zone, is really impressive," Hackett said. "He can catch the ball, and Russ is starting to get a nice flow with him — and he's got great hair, too, which is always impressive. So, watching him come in, especially after not playing football for so long and having to do that again, I give [Tight Ends Coach] Jake Moreland so much credit for getting him ready to contribute right away."
Starting the season on IR was not easy, particularly for a rookie, but Dulcich credited his smooth adjustment to the experienced coaches and players around him, and all the work they have done to help him prepare for this moment.
"[I'm] definitely really comfortable," Dulcich said. "The coaches have done a really good job with me. Obviously, I was out for a long time, but the older tight ends, they really helped me along, so once it was time for me to get in, I was pretty confident."
On the defensive side, Bonitto got his largest role of the season in this game after taking limited snaps behind the Broncos' formidable group of veteran pass rushers. But after Baron Browning suffered a hip injury against the Jets, the rookie out of Oklahoma got a huge opportunity to showcase his talent.
In the third quarter, Bonitto made the biggest play of his young career with a strip-sack on second down, forcing Jacksonville into a third-and-28 situation. In a one-score game, snuffing out the Jaguars' drive ended up being critical to Denver's victory.
Bonitto said after the game that he has been staying prepared all season for the possibility of earning a big role, so he felt ready for his chance to make an impact in this game.
"[I was] just trusting the coaching, getting better every day, just waiting for my opportunity," Bonitto said. "That way, if something did ever happen, I was able to go."
Hackett praised Bonitto and the reserve pass rushers for stepping up when the team needed them, as the defense put consistent pressure on Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence all night.
"Day in and day out, they do such a great job," Hackett said. "And I think that with some of the injuries also, another guy goes in and steps up. Nik Bonitto comes in there and makes some plays, Jonathon Cooper gets in there, [Jonathan] Kongbo got in there."
As the Broncos look to make a run down the stretch, getting consistent standout performances from the rookies will be crucial. Dulcich and Bonitto are establishing important roles on the team, and cornerback Damarri Mathis has taken on a starting role as well with Ronald Darby suffering a season-ending injury.
The season is almost halfway over, and Denver's young talent could have a big responsibility down the stretch.