Denver rookie class is providing a big boost

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

It is the massive left tackle who has shut out sack masters Joey Porter and John Abraham this season.

It is the dynamic receiver and return man who caught nine passes for 146 yards in his NFL debut and is a legitimate rookie-of-the-year and Pro Bowl candidate.

It is the fullback -- a former college linebacker -- who on Sunday became the first NFL player in five years to start on offense and defense.

It is the seventh-round pick, best known for blocking for Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in college, who has made the sudden switch from fullback to tailback quite nicely.

It is the undrafted linebacker who took over for one of the leading tacklers in the NFL and has given the team a spark.

It is all of these players who have made the Denver Broncos' 2008 rookie class arguably the best in the NFL and one of the deepest rookie classes in team history.

Before the season, it was widely regarded that the Kansas City Chiefs had one of the best rookie classes in recent memory. The Chiefs' deep rookie class is good. But it has been overshadowed by the Denver class that wasn't as ballyhooed. However, thanks to stunning and historic performances by the Denver rookies, the team has rebounded from a midseason malaise and is taking control of the AFC West with a 6-4 record.

If Denver is going to close out strong and win its first division crown since 2005, these rookies will have to play a major role.

"It's gone so quickly that we haven't had a chance to sit around and feel good about what we are doing," said fullback Spencer Larsen, who started on offense and defense against the Falcons. "I just thought this was normal. I thought a bunch of rookies played on every NFL team, but you look around and you realize this is a pretty good group."

When Broncos coach Mike Shanahan predicted on a Denver radio station during training camp that his team would make the playoffs, he probably knew he had a nice crop of youngsters. But he couldn't have known it was going to be this good.

"These guys aren't only excellent athletes, but they are very sharp football players," Shanahan said. "Some guys got their opportunity because of injuries and some guys got their opportunity because they proved in practice that they can make plays."

Seven rookies have started at eight positions for Denver in 2008. Receiver Eddie Royal has twice won rookie-of-the-week honors and Larsen won the honor this week.

This is Denver's third straight strong rookie class after years of failing in the draft. Denver has rebuilt its team through the draft since 2006, when it drafted quarterback Jay Cutler, tight end Tony Scheffler, wide receiver Brandon Marshall and defense end Elvis Dumervil. This year's rookie crop may be even deeper.

A look at some of the Broncos' key rookies who are contributing for the first-place team:

First round, offensive tackle Ryan Clady:
Clady, the No. 12 overall pick, has been as good at left tackle as Cleveland's Joe Thomas was last year as a rookie. Clady should get serious Pro Bowl consideration. He has allowed a half a sack in 10 games. He is one of three tackles in the NFL not to allow a full sack this season. Clady shut down Porter and Abraham, who have a combined 24.5 sacks this season, in games this season. He is arguably the team's MVP. The Broncos struck gold at one of the most vital positions on the field.

Second round, wide receiver Eddie Royal:
I recall talking to a member of the Denver staff in June. He said the staff was convinced, after the minicamp season, that the Virginia Tech product would be an impact player. Originally, the Broncos drafted Royal to be an impact player in the return game and a developmental player as a receiver. But Royal came to town as a polished player. He has teamed with Marshall to give Denver one of the best 1-2 receiver punches in the NFL. Royal, who is also getting it done as a returner, has 56 catches and four touchdowns in nine games. He has compiled at least 200 all-purpose yards in three games. Royal turned the league on its ear with his big game in Oakland to start the season and he hasn't stopped. He looks like a long-term answer at receiver.

Fifth round, running back Ryan Torain:
The Broncos love this player but it will have to wait until 2009. Torain was on the verge of winning the starting tailback job early in training camp when he broke his elbow. Shanahan compared him to legendary Broncos running back Terrell Davis. Torain came back temporarily earlier this month. He had 68 yards midway through the second quarter against Cleveland when he tore the ACL in his knee.

Sixth round, fullback/linebacker Spencer Larsen:
Larsen was a tackle machine at Arizona as a linebacker. However, the Broncos liked him as a fullback and told him that when they drafted him. He practiced at both fullback and linebacker but became primarily a fullback. As the season progressed, Larsen became one of Denver's best special-teams players. He would routinely blow up people while covering kicks. However, after a rash of injuries at both running back and linebacker, the Broncos decided they needed Larson on bo
th offense and defense. Last Sunday at Atlanta, Larsen became the first NFL player since 2003 to start on both sides of the ball. He started at fullback and middle linebacker. He hadn't practiced at linebacker since training camp but still came up with seven tackles. The Broncos expect to use Larsen in a similar role as the season progresses.

Seventh round, running back Peyton Hillis:
After season-ending injuries to four tailbacks, the former Arkansas standout was forced to move from fullback to tailback. In the past two weeks, Hillis has run hard and gained tough yards. He is a great receiver out of the backfield. Denver thinks he can help down the stretch. He's a very tough player and could do well in a committee with tailbacks Tatum Bell and Selvin Young.

Undrafted free agent, linebacker Wesley Woodyard:
A special-teams ace, the Kentucky product has played very well in the last two games as a replacement for D.J. Williams at weakside linebacker. Woodyard is very active and always near the ball. When Williams returns in a couple of weeks, expect Denver to find a way to keep Woodyard in the defensive mix.

Undrafted free agent, cornerback Josh Bell:
The Baylor product was originally with San Diego. Denver signed him to the practice squad earlier in the season. He quickly impressed coaches with his play in practice. He has moved past fellow rookie Jack Williams and veteran Karl Paymah. He started in front of Paymah with Champ Bailey out. When Bailey returns, Bell will be the nickel cornerback.

Undrafted free agent, punter Brett Kern:
Kern has brought stability to a position from which Denver has had none in recent years. He's very steady and has a strong leg.