ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the NFL, rookie free agents are rarely handed great opportunities. With that being the case, Juwan Thompson should consider himself fortunate.
Then again, the rookie from Duke isn’t exactly undeserving. In his first preseason game with the Denver Broncos last Thursday, Thompson helped the team to a 21-16 win over the Seattle Seahawks. He led all running backs with 59 yards on six carries.
But perhaps as much as the stats, it was the game’s injury report that has led to Thompson’s big opportunity.
Starter Montee Ball was held out of the game after an emergency appendectomy and remains out of practice this week. Roster holdover C.J. Anderson suffered a concussion, leaving the game early. He too will likely be held out of practice for the entirety of this week.
That leaves backup running back Ronnie Hillman and a whole lot of room for one of the Broncos’ four other camp invitees, former Colorado State Ram Kapri Bibbs, former Oklahoma Sooner Brennan Clay, second-year man Jerodis Williams and Thompson.
All four are clawing for one roster spot — at most.
As of Monday, Thompson was receiving the multitude of repetitions in Ball’s and Anderson’s respective steads.
“When you see an opportunity of this caliber in front of you, you don’t want to let it pass you by,” Thompson said. “You have to try to stay mistake free. Even if that’s impossible, it’s something to shoot for.”
A big reason Thompson seemed to hit the ground running may be his connection with Duke.
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe is famously connected to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Not only was Cutcliffe Manning’s offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee, he runs a similar offense to the one Manning champions.
So similar, in fact, that Manning has spent many of his offseasons training with Cutcliffe at Duke.
With that being the case, the Broncos have shared a connection with Cutcliffe’s staff. That connection, Broncos head coach John Fox said, was helpful in scouting Thompson.
“We have some insiders (at Duke) who really helped us,” Fox said. “And all the things we were told about Juwan look to be true thus far.”
That being said, Thompson isn’t sure how comfortable he is with the rampant suggestion that his comfort level in Denver has been due to Duke running a similar offense to the one he’s currently learning.
“The two offenses are similar in that they’re pass first, run second. Other than that, it’s a whole different program — mostly because you’re playing with a whole different quarterback,” Thompson said. “There’s just much more knowledge that you have to obtain.”
One of the biggest pieces of knowledge that has already been imparted on Thompson is protecting that whole different quarterback.
If there was any doubt about it, all Thompson would have to do is ask Ball. A rookie like Thompson a year ago, Ball lost the starting job to Knowshon Moreno because of his struggles in pass protection.
“You really have to buy into what they’re selling in that regard,” Thompson said. “It’s got to be a love relationship where I have that guy’s back.”
But when it comes to putting people on their backs, Thompson looks like a natural. At 5-foot-11, 225-pounds, Thompson is easily the most physically-imposing running back in training camp.
That part of Thompson’s game brings a big smile to the face of Demaryius Thomas, who, at 6-foot-3, 229 pounds, also knows a little bit about throwing his weight around.
As if their shared size advantage weren’t enough, the two shared the same college football conference.
“He’s from the ACC, so of course he’s going to run you over,” Thomas said. “It was great watching him last game. You knew he wasn’t running out of bounds. He’s going to run somebody over. That’s an addition I think we need to this team.”
You can listen to our interviews with Thompson, Fox and Thomas in their entirety below.
We also chatted with Orlando Franklin, Chris Harris and Rahim Moore on Monday. Their interviews are also available below.