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The Denver Post
The Denver Post
Mark Kiszla

Mark Kiszla: If rookies Nik Bonitto and Greg Dulcich prove to be more fizzle than sizzle, Broncos’ playoff hopes take a hit

Where are the heroes in a 2022 NFL draft class the Broncos can’t afford to be a zero? Are Denver’s rookies ready to ride with quarterback Russell Wilson to the playoffs?

“I think they have to help us this year,” Broncos general manager George Paton said Tuesday, when I asked him how much to expect from Denver’s first-year players on a team in win-now mode.

While Montrell Washington was the feel-good story of training camp, the kick returner and receiver taken in the fifth round from an unheralded Samford football program might well be the lone rookie among nine on the current 53-man roster who will make an immediate impact.

Outside linebacker Nik Bonitto appears to be a work in progress, more a situational pass rusher than defensive mainstay at this point, while tight end Greg Dulcich remains a mystery due to a lingering hamstring injury that has wiped out any chance for him to make a significant early contribution at a position where Denver could use help.

The rest of this rookie class? In a word: meh. Grunts without much promise of greatness.

“There’s not a lot of splash yet with this group,” Paton said. “It’s kind of nuts and bolts. They come in, they work, they get after it, they work.”

Has Paton adopted the “F them picks” philosophy made famous by Les Snead, general manager of the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, who haven’t had a first-round pick since 2016?

After all of the capital Paton spent to obtain Wilson, which also has left Denver’s draft cabinet poorly stocked for 2023, the Broncos can’t afford for this rookie class to be more fizzle than sizzle.

A year ago, Paton earned the respect of Broncos Country and high praise throughout the league by taking cornerback Pat Surtain II and running back Javonte Williams with his first and second picks as general manager.

Although trading away first- and second-round picks in both the 2022 and ’23 drafts for Wilson was a no-brainer to halt the crazy carousel at quarterback that bucked the Broncos from the playoffs in six straight seasons, it heightens the urgency of Paton to hit on the draft picks remaining in his bag of tricks. Making the playoffs can’t be all about leaning on recently acquired veterans Wilson, Randy Gregory and Billy Turner.

While ‘F’ them picks might be a funny, back-handed way to salute the Rams for trading draft capital for veteran stars Matthew Stafford and Jalen Ramsey, the truth is Snead realizes full well that it would be catastrophic for the Rams to think a championship contender can be built and maintained without heavy reliance on the NFL draft.

“F them picks would mean just giving them away. We just decided not to pick someone … But what makes the model work is the boring part of it. Since 2017, we’ve had no first-round picks. But we’ve had the second most picks in the second and third round, we’ve had the fourth most Day 3 picks and the fifth most picks in the league; 66% of roster, we’ve drafted, which is the most in the league,” Snead said during an interview in March with L.A. radio station KSPN.

“We’ve got to be able to draft well, develop well and have the courage to rely on inexperienced players to fill roles and even start at times.”

While there was some head-scratching about why the Broncos would trade edge rusher Malik Reed to Pittsburgh and be satisfied with such little return in the deal, isn’t the real motivation pretty obvious? Denver needs to give Bonitto as much opportunity as possible to develop on the field, even if that means living with his rookie mistakes.

Perhaps it would’ve been beneficial to lean on the veteran experience of Reed in the short term, but taking snaps away from Bonitto would make little sense in the big picture. The Broncos need to find out how much mayhem Bonitto can create rushing the passer, especially when there’s a decision looming on whether to pay or cut ties with Bradley Chubb.

While there’s no blaming Dulcich for pulling his hamstring, the nagging nature of that particular ailment has placed him on injured reserve for the opening four games of the regular season. The Broncos will get nothing out of him until at least October, at a time when the learning curve for a rookie without the benefit of work during his first NFL training camp could be severe.

“Dulcich unfortunately is hurt,” Paton said. “But he’s going to be a splash kind of guy.”

The bottom line?

While Washington might well dazzle on kick returns and do some damage as a slot receiver, as well as a ball carrier on the occasional jet sweep, the Broncos need more from this rookie class to have their best shot to emerge from the tough AFC West and earn a playoff spot in 2022.

Among the biggest challenges for rookie coach Nathaniel Hackett will be to quickly and effectively develop Bonitto and Dulcich into meaningful contributors.

Failure is not an option.

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