CHICAGO — As undrafted safety Jamal Carter jumped on a botched snap late in the first quarter of Thursday’s game against the Bears, C.J. Anderson was watching from the sideline.
The Broncos’ defensive starters were also off the field. They’d been off the field since a pick-six on the first series of the game.
But while some tune out when the first team exits, Anderson pays more attention.
If anyone understands the value of a late-game preseason snap, it’s the former undrafted Cal Bear. And he also knows that if there’s one place a college free agent is going to get a look, it’s in Denver. In 12 of the previous 13 seasons, at least one undrafted player has made the Broncos’ opening-day roster.
“Whether it’s offense or defense, I try to help them as much as I can,” Anderson said. “Of course, on the defensive side, I leave a lot of that to Chris [Harris Jr.], but on my end, I try to let them know that you’re only going to get so many opportunities.
“I tell them that if any organization is going to give that undrafted rookie a chance, it’s definitely this one.”
In his first opportunity, Carter racked up six tackles – and one big play.
With 5:43 to go in the opening quarter, Bears quarterback Mike Glennon had a snap go over his head, and a series of players failed to corral the loose ball.
Carter, who broke out of coverage on a drag route by a tight end when he saw the loose ball, came shooting in and had the ball bounce into his arms.
When you’re trying to make a roster, sometimes being a little bit lucky is exactly what’s needed.
“Definitely need that,” Carter said. “Definitely need that. Like I said, that’s just a blessing from God. I’ve been battling so hard from it and it’s finally coming alive.”
Anderson agrees with that sentiment – that a bounce is a must – but he sees those opportunities manifest themselves in different ways.
“I look at it as my bounce was what I do best, and that was knowing the playbook fast as a rookie at the time,” Anderson said. “And also the way things played out, the way I played in that [first] game five years ago definitely made a difference.”
As Carter fights for a roster spot, he said he finds daily inspiration from the undrafted starter on his side of the ball.
And at least from a snap-count standpoint, Carter is ahead of where Harris began his journey.
During the first game of the 2011 preseason, Harris said he doesn’t remember getting a single snap on defense. His only reps came on special teams, and he was acutely aware before the game began of how few chances he would receive.
Ahead of that opportunity, Harris remembers feeling that he needed every minute.
“You can’t make any mistakes,” Harris said Thursday. “Your room for error is very slim, and you’ve got to try to make a lot of plays to stand out. There’s not that many undrafteds that make the team every year, so you just try to do whatever you can.”
Anderson also remembers the nerves from his first preseason game, which came against the San Francisco 49ers. He played the entire second half and recorded three carries for double-digit yardage totals.
As he strung runs together, he remembers his teammates rallying behind him. Thursday in Chicago, he said the same attitude was obvious as players like Carter began to make an impact on the game.
“I just think [about my] first game … teammates rallied behind me and I just continued to keep progressing from there,” Anderson said. “Same with our undrafted cats or low-round picks – we’re excited about a lot of our teammates. We know what they can do. We love their ability and we’re going to rally behind those guys.”
Perhaps that’s why, when Anderson and Harris see articles or segments about how the preseason doesn’t matter, they get a little offended.
“When media say that,” Anderson said, “you kind of want to put media in that competition, [see] whoever writes the best story and make cuts from there.”
If his message seems direct, it’s because he knows the type of player that could be missed without the added evaluation of preseason games.
Even with all the success Harris and Anderson have enjoyed since those early preseason moments, they both still remember the challenge they initially faced.
And they both know how easily it could’ve worked out the other way without an opportunity.
“You don’t have an All-Pro cornerback in Chris Harris if he doesn’t play preseason,” Anderson said. “You don’t have a Pro-Bowl running back in myself who doesn’t play in the preseason. Wesley Woodyard, who’s been in this league for a very long time, who was with the Broncos – [he] made it off the undrafted train. There’s a couple undrafteds and late-round picks – there’s a couple of them around the league that make this league.”
Anderson’s determined to do whatever it takes to help.