A rookie tailback fighting for a roster spot in a crowded position room. A second-year return man seeking a renewed reputation. And, despite an overall slow start against the Vikings in Denver’s preseason opener, both young players made their case for roster security — in the most explosive ways possible.
The Broncos’ first four drives were miserable: 11 plays, 20 yards, zero first downs, three punts and one Paxton Lynch interception. Then, facing third-and-short just outside the Vikings’ red zone after a Minnesota turnover, Freeman took a handoff off right tackle, shook safety Anthony Harris with a wiggle and sprinted down the sideline for the team’s first touchdown of the preseason.
Freeman, a 2018 third-round draft pick (No. 71 overall), completed the first half with a team-high four carries for 38 yards — a significant development considering Denver’s options. Devontae Booker’s first-team snaps showcase the Broncos’ trust in the third-year tailback. The Broncos also gave carries to De’Angelo Henderson, Phillip Lindsay and David Williams. Freeman’s larger workload as the game progressed, though, suggests Denver’s willingness to see if the rookie might supplant the rest by the regular season.
Broncos’ fans rejoiced when Freeman scampered 23 yards into the end zone.
They lost their collective minds in Mile High for McKenzie’s signature moment.
The Broncos trailed 24-7 with two minutes left in the half when Denver forced a Minnesota punt from deep in Vikings’ territory. McKenzie fielded it from the 22-yard line with room to work, stutter-stepped and sprinted toward the near left corner of his protection with a diving block by cornerback Brendan Langley. McKenzie turned the edge, weaved between a block from safety Will Parks, and then reached the end zone.
A true moment of redemption for McKenzie — who fumbled six times (lost two) in return situations last fall as a rookie. McKenzie’s performance Saturday solidified his place atop the depth chart at punt return, for now, and gives Denver renewed hope its fifth-round pick was still justified.
The Broncos now move ahead to Week 2 of the preseason, 7 p.m. next Saturday against Chicago, with a variety of position battles still up for grabs. Freeman and McKenzie, while still with much to prove before the regular season, received a much-need head start.