ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Scan across Jack Del Rio's defense and you'll quickly notice an entire contingent of key contributors who were either undrafted or were selected at the back end of the NFL Draft.
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard, cornerback Chris Harris, safety Duke Ihenacho, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, defensive end Malik Jackson, linebacker Danny Trevathan, linebacker Steven Johnson – the list of defensive playmakers on the Broncos who fit the criteria seems to stretch on and on.
And in his Thursday press conference, the defensive coordinator addressed the core of once-hidden talent that has flourished with the Broncos, noting that his expectations for players don't concern the limits that others have placed upon them. Instead, he takes into consideration the persistence, competitiveness, desire and resilience that players exhibit when they enter the league.
"I've been fortunate to be a part of this game for a number of years – playing and coaching – and you see people all the time that will come in and kind of peel labels off and exceed expectations," Del Rio said. "I really don't look to put a ceiling on a guy. Just let them come in here and fight every day and compete, work the right way, develop the skills, try to get a feel for what he does well and plug him in."
For Del Rio, a telling characteristic that the many aforementioned players have exhibited is the ability to compete, day-in and day-out, with an insatiable drive to get better.
"I just want them to seek to achieve," he said. "Don't be afraid to be great. Just work at it. Pay the price and sacrifice and be all that you can be every day. When you approach it that way I think you look back and think 'I've come a ways. I've accomplished some things.'"
Del Rio also circled mental toughness, adaptability and the ability to be an unselfish teammate as important traits.
"He has to come in believing in himself and then be willing to pay the price," he said. "A lot of times, to be able to stay with it when it even when it doesn't look good. 'Coach didn't look at me today, he doesn't like me' – whatever those things may be in your mind, be strong mentally. Don't let that affect your willingness to go out every day and work with a great attitude."
Del Rio Pleased with Trevathan, Johnson
When Trevathan went down with an apparent injury in practice on Wednesday, Johnson wasted little time in pronouncing his readiness to fill in for his teammate if necessary.
And while Trevathan's injury ultimately proved to be minor – he was back to full participation in practice on Thursday – Del Rio said that, in addition to being relieved about Trevathan's status, he was pleased with Johnson's eagerness to step onto the field as the proverbial 'next man up.'
"That's the mentality we want – it's the next guy up. We look to create that kind of mentality," Del Rio said. "We want guys to challenge each other all year – whether there is injury or not – to be prepared to play and understand we'll get you in and utilize you. If you can help us we're going to find ways to utilize you."
Del Rio even had a little fun with the competitiveness his players exhibited.
"We even joked about it when Danny came back that Stevie was chomping at the bit ready to take his spot," he said. "We want to have that attitude."
Ultimately, Del Rio noted that the situation had a positive outcome in all aspects.
"Certainly we're relieved that Danny is okay but it was good to see that our guys are ready to step up, step in and keep rolling," he said.
'Weapons' on the Cowboys Offense
In sizing up the Dallas offense in preparation for Sunday's game, Del Rio identified a slew of playmakers that suit up in Cowboys uniforms – including tight end Jason Witten, a favorite target of quarterback Tony Romo.
Witten has hauled in 21 receptions for 192 yards and two touchdowns this season, and Del Rio spoke highly about the level of excellence the tight end has exhibited not just this year, but throughout his whole career.
"He's just everything you want in a tight end. He's a big guy, athletic, great hands," Del Rio said of the eight-time Pro Bowler. "He can block. He can catch. He can run. He's a good football player. I remember being at Tennessee scouting some defensive guys way back when and saw him workout – all I could do is drool over him."
"He's been a good player for a long time."
Del Rio also noted that he has been closely following the status of Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin, who is uncertain for this week's game.
"Absolutely," Del Rio said. "We're paying attention and we're preparing for him. I think he's a good player."
Ultimately, it's a Cowboy offense that Del Rio noted has no shortage of capable playmakers.
"They have some weapons – (RB DeMarco) Murray is a good runner, (WR) Dez Bryant, Miles – they've got some good talent," he said. "They're undefeated at home so we want to get in there and get after them and get a good win."
Del Rio Addresses USC
Del Rio also commented on whether he had been contacted for the head coaching vacancy at USC.
"No. There is nothing to speak on that subject," Del Rio said. "I'm really here to talk on the Cowboys and our preparation and getting ready for them."