ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In 2018, rookie Courtland Sutton eased his way into the Broncos' lineup.
He started just one of the team's first eight games, and he consistently played fewer than 80 percent of the team's snaps as he also contributed on special teams. He caught just north of two passes per game in the early stages of his career, but his workload quickly shifted when the team traded Demaryius Thomas ahead of their Week 9 game vs. Houston.
A few weeks later, Sutton's workload increased again, as Emmanuel Sanders suffered a season-ending injury with four weeks to play. Suddenly, Sutton went from a complimentary player to the team's top wide receiver.
Rookie cornerback Michael Ojemudia now finds himself in a similar position.
A Day 2 pick — like Sutton — Ojemudia actually saw substantial reps in the first half of the season as A.J. Bouye spent several weeks on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Ojemudia, who joined the team from Iowa as a physical cornerback with ideal size, started six of the team's first eight games and played every defensive snap in four of those contests.
Ojemudia had an interception wiped away against the Titans and nearly had another in Pittsburgh. He gave up a long touchdown reception to Chase Claypool in that loss to the Steelers, but he responded with several strong games. He recorded a pair of forced fumbles in Week 6 against New England, and he appeared on his way toward a strong rookie season.
But then the team's Week 9 game against the Falcons arrived, and Ojemudia — and the rest of the team's cornerback corps — struggled without Bouye or Bryce Callahan available. When the two players returned from injury, Ojemudia saw his role dissipate. Ojemudia did not play a defensive snap against the Raiders or Dolphins, as Callahan shifted outside and Essang Bassey assumed slot cornerback responsibilities.
"Whether I was either playing or not, I was always learning every week," Ojemudia said. "I went to [Head Coach] Vic's [Fangio] office and he just talked to me and said, 'Your opportunity is going to come faster than you think, so just be ready.' Every week I'm just trying to learn and get better at at least one thing."
Fangio told Ojemudia that the other lineup was better for the upcoming games, but that the team was not down on him as a player.
"'I know what kind of player you can be,'" Ojemudia remembered Fangio saying. "'Just when you get back on the field, show us what you can do.'"
It wasn't until Week 13 against the Chiefs — a game that Callahan missed with a foot injury — that Ojemudia returned to significant action.
His role only increased in Week 14 against the Panthers, as he again played every snap as Callahan remained on injured reserve and Bouye served the first game of a six-game suspension. With Callahan unable to return for at least another week, Ojemudia will continue to get the opportunity to not only play, but to potentially hold the top cornerback position.
"It's definitely going to be a great opportunity, especially with our backs against the walls — [and having] nobody left [at cornerback due to injuries]," Ojemudia said. "You've got to be accountable in these last couple of weeks. I talk to [CB De'Vante] Bausby a lot and he's been a mentor for me. So, just showing what you're made of these last couple weeks is definitely going to be good going into next season."
That task won't be easy in Week 14 against Buffalo's Stefon Diggs, who ranks third in the NFL in receiving yards and first in receptions. Ojemudia, though, believes he's learned from Bouye and Callahan how to approach that type of challenge, and he said that's helped him play an improved brand of football in the last couple of weeks.
"Definitely how they approach the game," Ojemudia said of what he's learned. "How savvy they are. … Even if you're not in the game, you're still in it like you're playing. So, just watching those guys and taking tactics from them and just implementing it in my game is why I think I played a little better when I got back in the lineup."
The Broncos will look for Ojemudia to continue to improve over the final few weeks in what could be valuable experience, just as it was for Sutton. Those final four weeks weren't always easy for Sutton, who averaged 36.5 receiving yards per game during the final quarter of the season. That experience, though, was critical for Sutton's development as he earned a Pro Bowl bid in 2019. Perhaps Ojemudia can derive similar value from the opportunity.
"I thought he played pretty damn well the other night, and I hope he can continue that," Fangio said before the Broncos' win over the Panthers. "I see a little bit more confidence in him right now. I do think the couple of weeks where he didn't play or played sparingly kind of helped him a little bit potentially."
Fangio said after the game — only Ojemudia's second in the lineup without Bouye or Callahan — that he saw moments of good and room for the young player to improve.
"Mike's improving weekly and we hope for him to continue to improve these next three weeks," Fangio said.