- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whether a team is headed for the playoffs, like the Denver Broncos (11-4), or in the opening moves of yet another rebuilding project, like the Oakland Raiders (3-12), at least one thing they have in common is the need for rookies to contribute to the cause.
For the Broncos, a team coming off back-to-back 13-3 seasons that dove into free agency with a wide-open checkbook, the opportunities are limited, but some rookies need to be the homegrown players working to be future starters.
And if one such as first-round pick Bradley Roby breaks into the lineup, that’s all the better as the best defenses against potential salary-cap purges are good drafts and youth on the roster.
“[Roby] works at it, he cares," said Broncos head coach John Fox. “A lot of people come into this league have talent, you don’t get a seat in that room without having talent, but to be successful takes a lot more than just talent."
The Broncos' rookie class has had a far bigger impact on defense where Roby, having played 75 percent of the snaps this season, has put himself at least in the discussion for the league’s defensive rookie of the year award. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has not hesitated to match Roby against front-line receivers in man coverage at times.
And while Roby has been targeted by some opposing quarterbacks for a smattering of plays, he’s held up well enough.
“I’ve said all along I just want to make plays that help us win games," Roby said. “Compete hard and make plays ... they’re going to complete some balls on you, but you have to keep playing."
Broncos linebackers Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson have been used at times on defense and may get some snaps Sunday against the Raiders because of injuries. The two have played a steady diet of special teams. Rookie linebacker Todd Davis, a waiver claim by the Broncos last month, has played plenty of special teams to go with a start against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Offensively, the 2014 season has been a learning experience for the Broncos rookies for the most part as tackle Michael Schofield has been a game-ay inactive for all 15 games, Matt Paradis is on the practice squad and wide receiver Cody Latimer has played just 25 snaps on offense.
The Raiders will bring 11 rookies on their 53-man roster to Denver, including two of the league’s most high-profile first-year players in quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack. The Raiders haven’t made the playoffs since 2002 and are in the middle of another rebuilding effort, having already fired head coach in Dennis Allen in September after an 0-4 start.
“We’re trying to change the culture here ... just the culture of what it used to be around here, just losing all the time," Carr said. "Things haven’t gone well here for a long time. This team wants to be the start of something new. This team is definitely different … definitely started to head in the right direction."
Mack, with 82 tackles and four sacks, will be one of the leading candidates for the defensive rookie of the year. “He’ll be one of the top players in this league, no doubt in my mind," Carr said this week. "That guy is the absolute beast, an absolute monster. He’s a guy who will win MVP awards."
The Raiders faced a decision with Carr. They could let him watch and learn or simply toss him into the mix and let him work through things. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has always said the most difficult thing for a rookie quarterback to do in his first NFL starting job is to deal with the week-to-week confidence issues that come with the job.
Carr has held up and progressed as he has thrown just two interceptions in his last six starts -- both Nov. 30 against St. Louis.
“Glad since Day 1, they’ve trusted me to start," Carr said. "There’s nothing like playing in games ... and learning that way. To play right away was the best situation for me. If bad times happen, I don’t go in the tank, feel crushed, lose confidence or anything like that ... so coaches decided the best way for me to learn was to play right away.
“But just the speed of the game in the NFL is unlike anything else you see in college, it’s not even close to college, light years ahead of anything in college."