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'I just needed my break': How S P.J. Locke overcame adversity to earn larger role, new contract with Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — P.J. Locke thought he'd found his stride.

More than two weeks into training camp, the three-year special teams ace was playing his best football at safety. Following a mid-August practice, former defensive backs coach Christian Parker applauded the strides Locke had made in his game. Parker also challenged him, asking Locke whether he would plateau or continue to build toward more success.

"I was like, 'You already know the answer to that,'" Locke said Tuesday.

The next day, Locke's progress almost came undone. In a two-on-two drill, Locke believes he clipped the foot of the receiver he was guarding and subsequently dislocated his big toe. He was carted off the field and would later be placed on injured reserve after the end of the preseason.

"It's easy to get real discouraged," Locke said. "When I first did it, I was like, 'My season's over with.'"

Locke, though, received a more positive prognosis. He spent the first four games of the season on injured reserve before being activated ahead of Week 5. He credited the leadership of former safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson for keeping him a part of the defensive back room, and he also remained in tune with the Broncos' defensive game plans.

While he was sidelined, Locke wore a headset to track Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph's calls and stay dialed in with the system. When he was able to return, that decision paid dividends.

"When I got back, all I really had to do was just work on my physical side," Locke said. "The mental side was already up to date. That's what made everything easier for me."

Locke didn't take long to prove he could play at the highest level. After limited defensive snaps in his first two games, he was thrust into the lineup against Green Bay in the second half. In his first extensive action of the season, Locke soared across the field at the end of the game to intercept a late Jordan Love throw and kick-start a five-game winning streak.

"It was a special moment, because it was my first pick in the NFL," Locke said. "Finally getting that opportunity, it was a lot of emotion going on."

Locke and his family celebrated that night with backstage passes to a Travis Scott and Teezo Touchdown concert at Ball Arena. Locke is from the same hometown as Aaron Lashane Thomas — who performs as Teezo Touchdown — and presented him with a gift at the show.

"I gave him a signed jersey — the same jersey I picked the ball off in," Locke said. "That was a special moment for Beaumont, Texas. … It was pretty cool. It was a night to remember, for sure."

From there, Locke's opportunities only grew. He started eight of the Broncos' next 10 games and traveled hundreds of miles in an RV to be available for a Week 15 game in Detroit. A threat near the line of scrimmage, Locke established himself as a playmaker for the Broncos.

"I always felt like I was a starter at some point," Locke said. "I just needed my break."

Payton said he saw Locke seize advantage of that initial opportunity to earn more snaps.

"Last season, I think he began to create that vision for himself, to his credit," Payton said. "Closer to the ball as a pressure player, also in coverage. [It was] great to see him out there healthy. I think he earned some of those snaps.

"… He's one of those players when I talk about you see confidence through demonstrated [ability], he saw it, felt it. And then it's pretty powerful. He's smart. He's tough."

Locke said the two had several conversations about his journey to the NFL, and Payton's confidence in Locke's potential translated to the Texas product's play on the field.

"He just gave me some confidence that he had confidence in me," Locke said. "That goes a long way with me. When a coach has confidence in me, it gives me a boost of energy, a boost of confidence in myself. When I play confident, I'm dangerous."

Locke remained with the Broncos on a two-year deal this offseason rather than pursuing other offers, and Payton has already pointed to Locke as one of the new leaders on the defensive side of the ball. Locke said he thought he would have one more season to learn from Simmons, but he's since started to look for his own way to lead.

"When I heard the news [of Simmons' release], I had a shift in mindset," Locke said. "… Right now, I'm working through stuff. It's not really hard, it's just trying to find my way to do it. I'm not Justin, I'm not Kareem. I'm more like a lead-by-example type of guy."

Locke also said while it's "special" to overcome the odds as an undrafted player, he's approaching the 2024 season as if he still has plenty to prove.

"I feel like I still have a chip on my shoulder," Locke said. "I've got some personal goals that I'm not going to really discuss that I want to accomplish. Those are the things that keep me hungry. I still have this mindset of just proving it to myself. There's no slack being cut at all."

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