ENGLEWOOD – J.D. Walton not only has a challenge ahead of him, he’s trying to make history.
According to the Denver Broncos’ public relations staff, since the 1970 merger the Broncos have never had a rookie center start the first game of the season. Walton, a third-round pick, has an excellent chance to be the first. The Broncos have had just five rookie linemen start the season opener. Since 1992, the only rookie offensive lineman to start the Broncos’ opener is Ryan Clady.
There’s a reason NFL teams don’t usually start rookies on the line from day one. While there is never-ending interest about quarterback Tim Tebow’s mechanics and plenty of wonder over how much receiver Demaryius Thomas can contribute right away, rookie offensive linemen have their own challenges. And the Broncos have two that are vying to start – Walton and second-round pick Zane Beadles, who has been with the first team at left guard.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easy,” Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. “I think those guys are learning a lot. We’re putting a lot of situations in front of them that are very difficult. They’re reacting well to them.”
Walton looks the part of a starting center at least. He’s big, looks strong, and has just enough hair on his chin to look tough. During practice he moves with purpose and shows off decent athleticism.
The Broncos hope those early appearances are accurate. At least one rookie appears likely to start on the line right away, depending if Russ Hochstein plays guard or center upon his return from knee surgery. Denver’s decision on Hochstein could be determined by which rookie they think would be a weaker link. Or, the Broncos could decide they’re better off with both rookies starting right away, even though there’s no precedent for that in Denver.
Even though he was the starting center in May and June, Walton knows that means little.
“Nothing is given to you in this league,” Walton said. “You’ve got to earn everything.”
Walton repeatedly mentioned getting the respect of the veterans as his top priority. That’s especially important on the offensive line, where all five players work together and trust each other. Getting down the terminology was one of his biggest obstacles.
“When they see you’re making the right calls and they understand you know what you’re talking about, you earn that respect from them,” Walton said.
The rookie linemen started slow. McDaniels said during the early offseason minicamps they had practices he’d consider bad, but understood many of the things they were seeing were new to them. As the offseason practices went on, the rookies got better.
“It looks like we know exactly where to go, who to block, how to sort things out, who to communicate with and I think they’re really picking that up,” McDaniels said.
Walton said he’ll continue to study the playbook before training camp starts in late July so he is ready for the challenge.
“I’m just having fun with it,” Walton said. “I’m trying to earn my position, and busting my butt every day.”
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Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, the Broncos have only had five rookie offensive linemen start the season opener, and only one in each of the past three decades:
Claudie Minor (tackle) – 1974
Tom Glassic (guard) – 1976
Mark Cooper (guard) – 1983
Russell Freeman (tackle) - 1992
Tackle Ryan Clady (tackle) – 2008
Source: Denver Broncos