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'I wouldn't say anyone's surprised': RB Jaleel McLaughlin continues strong play with two-touchdown performance vs. 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jaleel McLaughlin turned in another impressive performance.

In the Broncos' meeting with the San Francisco 49ers, the Denver running back carried the ball seven times for 45 yards and a touchdown, caught two passes for eight yards and a score and returned a kickoff 44 yards.

For an undrafted rookie looking to make the Broncos' roster, the showing stood out.

And yet, it was far from unexpected.

"Well, we've kind of been seeing it if you've been paying attention at practice," Head Coach Sean Payton said after the game. "We got a chance to see it. I wouldn't say anyone's surprised."

On his two touchdowns Saturday, McLaughlin showed both strength and speed. On the first, an eight-yard rushing score, he broke through an attempted tackle to scamper into the end zone and give Denver a third-quarter lead. Later, he caught a pass and then stutter-stepped to let two defenders fly past him before running into the end zone for the nine-yard touchdown.

McLaughlin has now scored three touchdowns in two games, which leads all NFL players during the 2023 preseason. His 65 rushing yards lead Denver in the preseason, and he's averaged 5.9 yards on his 11 carries. With 6.7 yards per reception on three catches, McLaughlin has also contributed through the air. 

The Youngstown State product saw increased opportunities in his second appearance, as he played 24 snaps — 21 of which came on offense — and recorded nine touches on offense. A week earlier, McLaughlin saw just 12 total snaps and five touches.

"Huge opportunity," McLaughlin said of his increased playing time. "I'm just trying to work as hard as I can and stay focused so once I am able to get in there, I'm able to know what I'm doing [and] do whatever I can to help the team win."

McLaughlin did his part, but as quarterback Russell Wilson explained, there's more to be impressed by than just the rookie's highlight plays.

"Everybody will obviously talk about him scoring and making plays, but that doesn't just happen overnight," Wilson said. "It's one of those things that you work at it every day. He's a guy that comes in early. He's one of the first guys there every morning and sits in the front of the room. He takes notes every day and he's a professional. There's a certain process. Success leaves clues. A lot of the hard work that a guy gives and what he gives to the process, especially as a young player, and to really learn how to be a professional. I remember when I was a rookie. Being able to have other people to look up to and watch his understanding of how to take care of his body, his mind, his soul, all of that. 

"Then also to his game. Man, what a blessing to have such a young player who can really do a lot of special things like his kick return. Tonight, like you mentioned, his runs, his catches — he can do it all. More importantly, the best thing that I see is his work habits. When it comes to practice, he runs ball to the right, runs to the left, and he runs to the end zone every single time. 

"That's his mentality. That's where greatness comes." 

With one preseason game remaining, McLaughlin will look to finish strong and make his case to be the latest undrafted rookie to make the Broncos' initial 53-man roster.

And should he continue to play well, it would be anything but a surprise.

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