GLENDALE, Ariz. — Throughout training camp, the Broncos' players, coaches and fans have been buzzing about rookie running back Jaleel McLaughlin's work ethic and playmaking ability. The undrafted free agent has made breaking off lengthy runs part of his routine and has regularly earned loud cheers from the thousands of spectators along the sidelines at Centura Health Training Center.
"Jaleel seems to break a big run at least once a day," Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi said on Tuesday. "He's got really good vision and sets up his blocks really well."
On Friday, McLaughlin brought that momentum to the Broncos' preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals.
McLaughlin entered the game in the fourth quarter and played a key role on the Broncos' 10-play, 87-yard touchdown drive. The drive culminated in McLaughlin's first NFL touchdown, a 4-yard burst up the middle to give the Broncos a one-score lead with 1:30 remaining. Though McLaughlin's rushing touchdown wasn't enough to seal a Broncos victory — the Cardinals took their first lead in the final seconds to earn an 18-17 win — McLaughlin looked back fondly on the highlight.
"It's a surreal moment," McLaughlin said of his touchdown. "Shoutout to the guys up front, they made it easy for me. … And then it's like a different feeling once you get into the back of the end zone and actually score, you have guys around you yelling, that [are] happy for what you just accomplished together."
Though he didn't enter the game until the late stages, McLaughlin made an immediate impact. He rushed four times for 20 yards, including the four-yard score, and factored into the passing game with a 12-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass from quarterback Ben DiNucci.
"It means a lot because during training camp, we're not hitting … as much," McLaughlin said of his performance. "It definitely means a lot. I've still got some things that I have to correct, and I'll keep working hard to correct those things throughout training camp and put my best foot forward."
One of those corrections will be on McLaughlin's screen, which ended in a fumble out of bounds. Head Coach Sean Payton said the fumble will be a teaching point in the Broncos' return to training camp, but he had a positive assessment of McLaughlin's overall performance.
"Overall, pretty good," Payton said. "He had the ball come out once on one run, but we will see it on tape. We will have a chance to correct it."
Quarterback Russell Wilson said McLaughlin's work ethic during training camp has been an asset to the offense. McLaughlin said he arrives at the facility around 5 a.m. to fit in extra work, an approach he's taken since high school.
"Jaleel's got such great burst, such great confidence," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "He's there early, leaves late. He's dedicated to the game."
McLaughlin knows making the Broncos roster as an undrafted free agent will be a challenge, even as the NCAA's all-time leading rushing leader and a training camp standout so far. The Broncos also have plenty of options at the running back position, though he sees Denver's experienced running back group as an opportunity to learn rather than a competition.
Starting running back Javonte Williams did not play against the Cardinals, but veteran Samaje Perine and second-year running back Tyler Badie each rushed six times and free-agent acquisition Tony Jones Jr. also saw time on the field. Each of those players has helped McLaughlin become a smarter and more well-rounded player.
"I've got a great group of running backs around me," McLaughlin said. "They're teaching me how I can get smarter with the game. That's really what the NFL is."