ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When KJ Hamler was drafted in the second round of April's NFL Draft, the Broncos added a piece who was expected to challenge defenses with his speed and ability to make plays in space.
The Penn State product didn't run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, but he was rumored to have 4.3-second speed in the event.
"Obviously with Hamler, he's very, very explosive, really can run and has big-play ability," President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway said the night the Broncos drafted Hamler. "A guy — as Vic would say — [that] scares the heck out of defenses. Plus, he has the ability to run routes, he's quick, he's tough and again you can go back and say he is a great returner. We'll have to go back and see how much he does return, but he does have that ability. He's a tough guy for his size. He's a guy that can really run and that's why we're excited about him."
After battling a hamstring injury early in the season, Hamler has used his speed in recent weeks to open up underneath routes for his teammates and has made several plays in space. Perhaps underrated, though, has been Hamler's ability to make contested catches in key situations.
Hamler made one such play in the first quarter of Sunday's game against the Raiders, as he hauled in a third-down pass in traffic that was slightly behind him.
He made a similar play a week earlier against the Falcons as he extended to secure a first-down catch with a defender draped over him.
Then, of course, there's the in-traffic touchdown catch he made against the Chargers to give the Broncos a comeback win.
"That's one thing I'm learning about the league — there's more contested catches," Hamler said Tuesday. "The elite guys have to do that. I watch [former NFL WR] Steve Smith a lot to see how he did it. We're kind of the same frame, but he's a little heavier than I am. He made a lot of those. Just watching him and seeing how he elevated to get the ball and attacked the ball in the air, that's the stuff you have to do in the league. I'm not going to always have 10 yards of separation from a guy like I used to in college. I can still do it, but it's going to be more contested catches and the tough catches that you have to make to help the team. I just have to go play hard 24/7."
Hamler's effort has led to increased involvement in the Broncos' offense in recent weeks. After seeing 18 combined targets in his first five games, he has received 10 targets in each of his last two games. He's also posted 125 receiving yards and another 15 rushing yards over the last two weeks.
"I don't really notice that I get a lot of targets," Hamler said. "I just play ball and then I find out I got 10 targets again. So, I've just got to take advantage of most of the balls that come to me. Some you can't control, but the ones I can control, you've just got to take advantage of them. I think my role is increasing every week, I'm getting better every week, recognizing stuff every week. Just going against better teams each week and getting comfortable in the game."
Hamler and Jerry Jeudy have combined to form the league's most productive rookie duo, as they've posted 55 catches and 792 receiving yards.
Hamler said the two have grown close — like brothers — and that they've pushed each other to succeed in their first year in the NFL.
"Honestly, the stakes are high," Hamler said. "We can shoot for the stars for a duo, rookies or not. I think Jeudy and I are capable of making big plays and being mature like [vets]. We're still learning, but no one is going to say, 'Oh, they're just rookies.' No one is going to say that. You have to be mature about it and you have to be a man about it. You have to go out and ball because there are grown men out there. You have to go out there and do what you're capable of. Jeudy and I know what we're both capable of [as] route runners, [with our] speed, getting separation. We try to show that every Sunday. When the opportunity comes, I always tell him that when the ball touches the hand, just think score.
"At all times, just think score."