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Walking the Walk: How Noah Fant and Dalton Risner have proved their mettle as rookies

Perhaps the worst thing you can do as a rookie is pat yourself on the back.

In this league, the seasons are long, experience is king and those without it are babes in the woods. These are things Noah Fant and Dalton Risner knew coming into the NFL, and they’re not about to get ahead of themselves, even after good starts to their young professional careers.

Instead, they’re probably happy to let their teammates and coaches do that for them.

“He’s one of the best offensive linemen out there right now as a rookie,” Phillip Lindsay said of Risner on Oct. 2. “… He’s very intelligent and he has that dog in him. There’s not a lot of people like him when he can just turn it on. When it’s time to play, he’s ready to play. Dalton’s going to make a lot of plays in the NFL for a very long time.”

“I think Noah’s done well also,” Head Coach Vic Fangio said earlier that day. “He’s had his ups and downs, which positions out in the perimeter can have. He’s had some plays that he’d like to have back, but we’ve also seen his ability and we’re really pleased to have him. I think he should be a cornerstone of this franchise moving forward.”

When you’re a rookie, comments like these from the people you respect and admire mean everything. It’s about knowing that your hard work is being seen by those who can recognize it, and as Fant and Risner have taken the first steps in the infancy of their careers, they’re seeing that they have what it takes to make it in this league.

What makes a Welcome to the NFL moment?

Typically, it’s one thing: the first time someone punked you in the NFL. Think Bo Jackson running over Brian Bosworth. Ray Lewis leveling any number of rookie running backs or receivers who dared venture into Ravens territory. Peyton Manning picking on young cornerbacks who were unlucky enough to guard Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison.

But what about positive moments? Like when Risner ran out of the tunnel as his name was called during introductions of the offensive starters for his hometown team, which he calls “probably one of the coolest moments of my entire life.”

It probably can be a positive experience like that, but it wasn’t the one he chose. The common denominator in every Welcome to the NFL moment is simple: It’s about being thrown into the fire. Sometimes you come out on top, but rookies often get some tough doses of reality.

Instead, Risner’s moment was a string of plays, capped by one bad one.

“I remember against the Bears, that was a very good defensive line and we had two drives that were over 12 or 15 plays, and I remember telling my family, This is different than college. This is ‘Welcome to the NFL,’” Risner said. “I was tired. They were subbing guys in and out, fresh guys. I let Joe [Flacco] get hit on a play when we had no running back to help. And luckily Joe got rid of the ball, but that guy — Eddie Goldman from the Bears — creamed Joe and, after that, I was like, This is real. This is the NFL. … I had just been grinding all game and I was just waiting for them to wear down, but these guys don’t. That was a pretty good Welcome to the NFL moment for me.”

Fant, meanwhile, felt like his came during training camp, not that his challenge was any easier than Risner’s.

“I think my Welcome to the NFL moment was just in training camp,” Fant said. “Training camp was especially different for me as a rookie than probably a lot of guys because I was going up against [Bradley] Chubb and Von Miller every day. You get to see what some of the best in the league are like, Day 1. I got to experience it early and try to acclimate myself as much as possible.”

But this is just what Fant and Risner expected when they made the leap to the NFL. It’s not supposed to come easy. They’ll make mistakes and they know that. What comes afterward is what may make or break their path in the NFL.

“There’s been good things, there’s been bad things,” Fant said. “I think all of our rookies have super high expectations of themselves. I’m just looking to keep improving and keep moving forward in that aspect.”

The good things Fant and Risner are doing are not hard to see.

That’s especially true if you sat in the first row of section 131 during the Broncos’ game against the Jaguars.

On a second down in the first quarter, the Broncos ran a play-action pass that turned into a tight end screen for Fant. With Risner and center Connor McGovern blocking ahead of him, Fant split the blocks and then cut back to sprint through three defenders to find daylight for a 25-yard touchdown.

He capped it by leaping up on top of the wall and celebrating right in front of the sea of fans in the south stands.

“Most guys would have gotten tackled probably for a 10-yard gain and you have to earn it the rest of the way in the end zone,” Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello said on Oct. 3. “Instead, you score from the edge of the red zone and you get the touchdown. That’s what game-changers do in this league, it’s what makes you a better play caller, a better offense and a better team. It’s exciting to see that. He’s going to continue to develop and we’ll try to use him in those ways.”

Fant added a 75-yard touchdown in Week 9, as he broke three tackles to record his second score of the season.

Risner’s most notable play so far came in Week 3, when he also scored a touchdown — at least, in a manner of speaking.

The Broncos could not afford anything less on that play in Green Bay. It was fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. They handed the ball off to Lindsay, who was momentarily penned in behind a strong push at the line of scrimmage by Packers linemen. He bounced outside and then ran into lineman Dean Lowry as he was being pushed backward by Risner. Thinking quickly, Risner did the only thing he could: He pulled Lindsay out of Lowry’s grasp and pulled him into the end zone.

This is no surprise now; finishing plays like that is simply what Risner does. Call it whatever you want — most just call him nasty.

“That’s something I take pride in,” Risner said. “By ‘nasty player,’ I mean my work ethic as well. It’s not always going to be banging a guy into the ground, sometimes it might be finishing Phillip Lindsay into the end zone, sometimes it might be me sprinting down 20 yards to help up my running back — I take pride in that. I’m never going to be the biggest guy on the field, I’m not going to have the biggest biceps, I’m not going to be some monster, you know what I mean? But the type of effort I have on the field, I believe that sets me apart. In the NFL, when you have such great players, the extra things that you do — like your work ethic and your drive and passion for the game — really sets you apart, and that’s what I try to take pride in and continue working on that each week.”

And if Risner had any lingering worries about Flacco holding a grudge for the Goldman hit, it sounds like it’s all water under the bridge.

“I think he’s doing an unbelievable job,” Flacco said on Oct. 2. “When you turn on the film, just how nasty he is and stuff out there on the field and all that … it’s unbelievable. I think he’s doing an awesome job mentally, too, just being on top of the calls and making call and adjusting to this. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

It would be easy for Fant and Risner to look at how they’ve progressed to this point and think they might already be ahead of where they’re supposed to be.

But that’s not them.

“I wouldn’t say I’m there yet,” Fant said of how he’s meeting expectations. “I wouldn’t say I’m there now. It’s all progress, and each week I’m getting better. … I have high expectations for myself — higher than anybody else could tell me. I have super high expectations. Obviously it’s disappointing if things don’t go my way or if things don’t go the way of the team, but it’s our job to work to get there.”

The way these two rookies work, you shouldn’t be surprised if they reach those expectations, but the work is just beginning.

“I believe that we need to stick to the course,” Risner said. “... We have a great organization around us, a great city, a great coaching staff and great teammates. I think me and Noah need to realize that sticking to exactly what we’re doing and getting better each and every week is what we’ve got to continue to do, and we’re going to get this Broncos organization back to where this city wants it to be. … We’ve just got to stay the course, don’t get discouraged and continue to do what we have been doing.”

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