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  • Jeff LegwoldESPN Senior Writer Close
    • Covered Broncos for nine years for Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
    • Previously covered Steelers, Bills and Titans
    • Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame Board
      of Selectors since 1999

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos’ class of 2018 is set to graduate from its first NFL season with plenty of compliments and perhaps an honor or two.

Six rookies started last Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers and nine played overall. And for much of the season, the group has listened to plenty of conversation about how much the rookies have to learn and how much progress they need to make even as they continued to pile up the production.

“It’s how you learn," running back Phillip Lindsay said. “You work and put in the time, but you have to get with the older guys, too, and see how they do things because they’ve proven it over and over."

Yet for one week, the Broncos' rookies get to do something they did in the not-so-distant past that many of their new teammates haven’t done in a while: play on a Saturday. The Broncos (6-7) face the Cleveland Browns on Saturday night in Broncos Stadium at Mile High; it will be the first time the Broncos play a regular-season game on the usual college football schedule since 2005.

They also lost two Saturday playoff games — to the New England Patriots (Jan. 14, 2012, or Tim Tebow’s final game with the team) and to the Baltimore Ravens (Jan. 12, 2013).

The Broncos have used a variation of the practice schedule this week that they’ve used for a Thursday night game as they cling to the thinnest of postseason hopes. After facing the Browns (5-7-1), the Broncos have nine days before a Christmas Eve game at Oakland.

But a Saturday game is an opportune time to celebrate the contributions of the Broncos’ rookie class. Start with Lindsay, one of the league’s best undrafted gems, who leads the team in rushing (967 yards) and yards from scrimmage (1,177 yards); he is fourth in the NFL in rushing overall to go with a league-leading 5.8 yards per carry.

The team’s No. 2 rusher, Royce Freeman, both starting receivers (Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton), the No. 2 player in sacks (Bradley Chubb) and one of the starting inside linebackers (Josey Jewell) are all rookies. In a season where the Broncos needed big returns from their rookies, they got that with this class.

And with the desire to finish it out strong, the team needs to manage the workload of players who have never played this many games in a season.

“[The rookie wall] is real as far as time in the league … and as far as the schedule we play," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “I’ve said I think the way we train helps them, how we have recovery Fridays and really make sure those young players understand the need to take care of their bodies. They’ve been a mature group in how they study, how they prepare, and we need to continue to be that because we think all of these games are must-win."

“Our young guys have been incredible," linebacker Von Miller said. “I’m with Chubb the most and what he’s done is incredible, just how he came in ready to be a professional football player, he’s so much farther along than I was. But we need those guys to keep it going."

Overall, Saturday’s game will have a collegiate feel given that the Broncos figure to have at least seven or eight rookies in uniform while the Browns could have 10 or 11, including quarterback Baker Mayfield, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, four slots ahead of Chubb.

“This group … all year, they get their rest, they study, they do the necessary things to recover," Joseph said. "And when young players can make that transition from college to the pros, with their ability, if they bring maturity, you’re going get great contributions from them. And we have and we hope to keep getting through the rest of our games."

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