Going into the season, rookie wide receivers Brandon Johnson, Jalen Virgil and Montrell Washington likely did not expect to be thrust into significant roles in the Broncos' offense.
As injuries have sidelined key players, though, rookies have been thrust into the lineup to fill key roles. After Tim Patrick tore his ACL during training camp, the starting wide receiver unit consisted of Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler — but that group has not taken the field together since before the Broncos' Week 9 bye. Hamler has not played since Week 8 due to a hamstring injury, Jeudy essentially missed three games after suffering an ankle injury on the Broncos' first offensive play against the Titans and Sutton may be unable to play this week against the Chiefs with a hamstring injury.
"As a result, the Broncos for the third straight week will have three rookies in the lineup at wide receiver when they host the Chiefs," The Athletic’s Nick Kosmider wrote. "And this isn't 2020, when Jeudy and Hamler were drafted in the first and second rounds, respectively, and expected to make an immediate impact. This is two undrafted players and a fifth-rounder who few predicted would be taking meaningful snaps this late in the year for a team that began the season with numerous weapons at the position."
To get an inside look at how Johnson, Virgil and Washington have handled their unexpected roles, Kosmider sat down with each of them and inquired about the most challenging aspects of their adjustments to playing at the NFL level.
"I would say it requires a lot more on an intellectual level because defenses are a lot more complex and there's just a lot more that goes into the preparation of it," Johnson told Kosmider. "When you're out there, it seems like you have to think about a million things at the same time, as opposed to college where you might get a signal and you know you have one job to do and just have to do your job. Out here, you have to think about the guy next to you, watch the defense and how they roll coverages and things like that."
Washington added: "It's really about doing your job perfectly. One wrong route — or even if you don't run the wrong route, but run it slightly off — it can really mess up the whole play. In college, you can kind of get away with stuff like that. Not in the NFL. Something that slight, like maybe not widening out (on a route) fast enough, those are small, minor details, but in the NFL those details mean everything."
For Virgil, the biggest adjustment has been the level of talent: "Outside of the playbook, I'll just say it's the talent level. Everybody out there is so gifted. You have to come with your best. … At the NFL level, everything is really calculated, so blocking is really important in our system. You have to block to be a receiver in our system."
Below the Fold
Even though the Chiefs traded star wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins in the offseason, Kansas City's offense has not missed a beat in 2022. It leads the league in total yards, passing yards and points, and the Chiefs are en route to their eighth-straight playoff appearance.
"Surprisingly, even though they lost Tyreek, it still seems like they got a step better this year," cornerback Pat Surtain II said Thursday. "They have all type of weapons across the field. At the perimeter, they have [tight end] Travis Kelce, who is a big-time part of the offense. They have weapons on the offensive side of the ball. I'm pretty sure losing a guy like Tyreek is pretty hard for them, but I feel like they know how to utilize their weapons to the fullest. It's going to be a challenge."
Kelce has been a major part of Kansas City's success, but Surtain noted that the Chiefs have several different weapons that Denver's defense will need to account for.
"Yeah, you can see — Travis has a majority of the targets, but as far as receivers go, they are very diverse target-wise," Surtain said. "He knows how to spread the ball around and use his weapons. He knows how to read defenses. It's something that we are going to have to game-plan against and focus on and understand what he is trying to attack on our side of the ball."