SEATTLE — The flowers of hope first blossomed in May of 2018. Over the course of a few weeks, top pick Bradley Chubb, second-rounder Courtland Sutton and free agent Phillip Lindsay arrived spraying Febreze on a particularly odoriferous stretch in Broncos history.
Right words are expected when new players first meet the press. Some lay it on too thick and try too hard. What struck me when I met this trio of Broncos was the uncommon maturity and confidence. Watching their highlights, they played with energy -- Chubb and Lindsay possess relentless motors -- and passion. Winning seemed personal even though none was on a powerhouse college team.
As the Broncos' dissolved with four consecutive losses to end last season, the rookies began to transform. It was obvious in their exit interviews. The group promised this type of disappointment was not going to happen again on its watch. For me, I was intrigued, but skeptical, not predisposed to fall for words. Professional sports are as sympathetic as a photo radar ticket and harder than calculus. There are no try hard ribbons.
Meaningful change comes from this: Don't talk about it, be about it.
Could this trio become the equivalent of the college recruiting class that turns a program around? Of course, they need waves of players to hit shore in subsequent drafts, but these three could become the identity of the new Broncos. As such, I have watched this offseason and in training camp with a keen interest in Lindsay, Chubb and Sutton.
As rookies, they paid respect to veterans. As sophomores, they are no longer shy about voicing their opinions, not bashful about their desire to leave their imprint.
The first time I remember their leadership sticking out was when I talked to Lindsay after he testified in support of a bill to license athletic trainers in February. Despite one of the greatest seasons ever by an undrafted longshot -- he was the first rookie offensive player with that title to earn a Pro Bowl berth -- Lindsay tilted "We not Me" in conversation about the upcoming season.
"It's my first year in the NFL, but I already feel like I want to be in the playoffs. We put our bodies on the line, and not to lose. We put our bodies on the line to win, to go to the Super Bowl," Lindsay told me in February. "To see your teammates, and know that you are close, that you need a couple of more things from my end and their end, it's a great feeling. We are going into next year, and we are going to work even harder. We are going to be a more mature group, and we are going to win a lot more games."
Reason to believe him surfaced at his football clinic two days before camp opened. He was a growling sports car in idle, engine redlining. As promised, he began with his foot on the gas at practice, no limitations. In the days since, he has raised the volume in the huddle. He runs as if he's thanking his blockers with every stride. In his first carry since tearing ligaments in his right wrist eight months ago, Lindsay turned a miscommunication/broken play into a 10-yard gain at Seattle. He is a shot of espresso in drills, pushing teammates.
With Chubb, I noticed his growing role through coach Vic Fangio's words. Early in the offseason, Fangio tossed praise around like manhole covers. With Chubb, he pointed out his dedication, his football IQ, his versatility.
Meet Chubb's family, and you know why he sees the world through a broad lens. They are gracious, humble and driven to help others. Bradley runs a foundation with his brother and recently donated backpacks for local students. This is who he is. And it shows in how Chubb works with teammates. Watch him at practice, and he's more vocal, more confident. And he revealed a deeper peek into his leadership when talking about undrafted outside linebacker Malik Reed, who is playing well and pushing for a roster spot.
"Me and Von both knew that he was going to be a 'dog' out there. We were excited for it," Chubb said. "Malik rides home with me every day after practice. I'm just in his ear saying, 'This is what they expect. This is what they want.' I'm glad to see him doing his thing. I feel like those words sunk in a little bit. So, it's been fun watching him grow as well."
In coaching youth sports the past 15 years, I can tell you that taking ownership is precious leadership. When players hold each other accountable and care for each other, roots form, and success follows. Chubb is layered. He has a goofy side to his personality that draws teammates to him. Like Von, he makes people comfortable. It gives his voice credence as do his results. He finished with 12 sacks, 2.5 shy of Jevon Kearse's 1999 NFL rookie record.
Sutton is in a different spot than Chubb and Lindsay. Chubb won the lockerroom over with performance, and Von smoothed his transition. Lindsay joined the youngest running back room in the league, allowing space for his strong personality. Sutton became part of a position group that boasted the longest-tenured Bronco in Demaryius Thomas and standout veteran Emmanuel Sanders. Sutton followed their lead, played well, but struggled following the trade of Thomas and injury to Sanders which sidelined him for the final four games.
In the spring, Sutton made it clear he viewed himself as a No. 1 receiver. That role belongs to Sanders, who is on track to return late in the preseason and certainly for the season opener.
Yes, Sutton and Sanders sparred last week. The knee-jerk reaction is easy: it was jealous, diva behavior. Look deeper, and there was an encouraging byproduct. Sanders asserted authority, tired of watching a sloppy practice, and Sutton snapped back that the players already knew this. It led to thrown punches and water bottles. The two talked it out, and insist they are cool. It is clear the Broncos need Sanders to return to the playoffs for the first time since winning Super Bowl 50. However, what the episode showed me is how much Sutton has grown. He's prepared to stand for what he believes in, what he thinks is best for the team.
The Broncos have been dealing with a list of problems over the past three seasons: poor quarterback play, overmatched coaches, and, with the exception of 2018, empty draft classes. But optimism exists, even sprouts with Lindsay, Chubb and Sutton. They exceeded expectations on the field as rookies. They are exceeding them off it as sophomores.
When looking for one reason to believe in the Broncos' future, it starts with these three.