ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When second-round pick KJ Hamler suffered a hamstring injury early in training camp, Head Coach Vic Fangio met with the young player to share his expectations.
"He needs to do what Drew Lock did last year," Fangio told the media a few days after Hamler's injury. "He's not going to be out as long as Drew was last year, but he needs to use this time while he's out to get better. How are you going to do that as a receiver who's got a hamstring and can't really run? The same way a quarterback last year had a right thumb injury and couldn't do anything. He's got to analyze and dive into this game from a mental aspect and picture himself out there every play getting a mental rep and going through it and learn it. Drew made great strides last year while he was out. We need KJ to make some of those same strides."
Lock spent his time on injured reserve using the team's virtual reality training system and focusing on gaining a greater understanding of the team's offense. It worked for the young quarterback, who returned to win four of his five starts to close his rookie season.
Hamler's injury was less severe, as it kept him out just a few weeks. The Penn State product returned to the Broncos' lineup ahead of the team's Week 2 game in Pittsburgh.
The time away from the field, though, appears equally as helpful.
"When I got hurt during training camp, it was kind of a blessing, because it helped me more mentally with the plays," Hamler told DenverBroncos.com on Tuesday. "How should I run this play? What read am I on this play? Taking all those notes and taking mental reps on the sideline when I was hurt in camp was probably one of the best things for me. It actually slowed the game down better for me. When I got out there, it was all clicking. I think that was kind of a blessing."
Hamler said he took his preseason meeting with Fangio seriously and made sure he was prepared for his return to the field. In Pittsburgh, that approach paid dividends as Hamler caught three passes for 48 yards and added a rush for nine yards.
"When I got out there, it was kind of just like practice," Hamler said. "I wasn't nervous, because I think I was just well prepared and way more confident in myself than I was at the beginning of camp before I got hurt. [It's about] just going out there, playing fast, knowing what I got to do, being where I've got to be and just being an asset to the offense."
All three of Hamler's catches were for at least 13 yards, including a tough third-down catch across the middle. Hamler said his speed — which is estimated to be in the 4.3-second 40-yard dash range — helped him find success against a tough Steelers defense.
"I think my speed played a big role, just because it was my first game, so they didn't really see me on film," Hamler said. "It was probably kind of a surprise for them. [I'm] always trying to take the top off each rep I get, whether it's blocking or running a short route. I always come off the ball fast. I try to get the DBs scared every time. Every route looks the same for me."
Fangio and the Broncos could utilize that speed even more following Courtland Sutton's season-ending injury.
"I was happy to see Hamler get out there and get going," Fangio said Monday. "He's a good player and has a great future for us here in Denver. Hopefully, we'll be able to play him more now."
Hamler said he would embrace the challenge of being thrust into a larger role and that he'll try to make a play whenever he gets the ball. As the Broncos approach a Week 3 game against the Buccaneers, though, Hamler isn't worried about what his stat line looks like on Sunday.
"I'm just worried about getting a win," Hamler said. "We're 0-2 right now, so getting a win on the board would get us on a little bit of a move right now."
'YOU CAN'T ASK FOR MUCH MORE FROM THOSE GUYS'
Hamler wasn't the only rookie to get on the board against the Steelers. Jerry Jeudy added four catches and 62 yards of his own, and the two rookies combined for seven catches for 110 yards. Their older teammates have taken notice of the way the young players have performed.
"That we have some really good rookies," said Tim Patrick when asked for his impressions of Jeudy and Hamler. "You guys see what Jerry Jeudy has been doing since camp started. The man is amazing at running routes. KJ stuck out on this game film as physical. [He is] our smallest receiver but was probably one of our most physical receivers this game and making plays on a vet like [Steelers CB] Joe Haden. You can't ask for much more from those guys. Those guys have been stepping up, and they're going to continue to step up."
SLOWING DOWN FOURNETTE
When Leonard Fournette came to Denver last season as a member of the Jaguars, he ran for 225 yards in Jacksonville's come-from-behind win. Denver allowed Pittsburgh's James Conner to rush for 106 yards on 16 carries last week, and they'll need to be more stout in Week 3.
"He's a physical back that when he's in the hole, he looks to run hard," linebacker Josey Jewell said of Fournette. "He can also bounce it out. He's got speed. There's a lot of great backs in the league right now, and he's definitely one of those up there. We're going to treat him like a good running back and be able to play physical football and just know that he can get to the outside edges. We'll have to play fundamental football to get that done."