DENVER -- Self-awareness created a correction that paid dividends.
The Broncos' 2017 draft haunted them, a group based on athleticism and little else. Only left tackle Garett Bolles contributed, and inconsistency and penalties stained his season. After the swing-and-miss, the Broncos adjusted. Their strategy last spring focused on prospects with high football IQ, leadership skills and minimal to zero red flags.
The sample size remains dangerously small, but the current group of rookies remains promising, providing optimism they can help the Broncos avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972. In a preseason game where the offense showed a pulse, the real winners were the kids.
Let's look at my Denver7 winners and losers from Saturday as Denver heads into the critical third week of the preseason:
1. DaeSean Hamilton, WR: After a third consecutive three-and-out to begin the preseason, the Broncos breathed a sigh of relief when Case Keenum connected with Hamilton for a 17-yard first down. I have said Hamilton takes better routes than Google Maps. He plays with a maturity beyond his years. With Demaryius Thomas sitting out with a sore wrist, Hamilton led the receivers with 32 snaps. His reliability in the middle of the field could become a huge factor in this offense's growth.
2. Jeff Heuerman, TE: The disappointment surrounding his career remains real. What would have happened had he not torn his ACL in a non-contact drill a few weeks after the draft? The injuries and ineffectiveness that defined his career were forgotten last Saturday. He played with an edge. Showed he can be a mismatch. It is hard to trust it will continue until I see more. However, he showed against Bears why he's a lock to make the team.
3. Courtland Sutton, WR: He is a problem on deep routes and fade routes. He earned a 45-yard interference penalty as he raced past a defender. Sutton has timed as the Broncos' fastest receiver in practice. It showed up Saturday, including on a touchdown, and it won't be the last time.
4. Phillip Lindsay, RB: Need help on special teams? Lindsay, pictured above, raises his hand. He played eight special team snaps, can return punts and kicks and work on coverage teams. He totaled 54 all-purpose yards. When I talk about this draft class contributing, Lindsay technically wasn't part of it. He was undrafted. But all signs point toward him making the team. I believe he will be a third-down receiving threat early in the season.
5. Bradley Chubb, OLB: The pterodactyls in his belly shrank to butterflies. Chubb led the team with four tackles and netted a safety. He showed glimpses of the player who is a favored by many to win defensive rookie of the year honors.
6. Chad Kelly, QB: He stepped up the challenge on the second team. The thing I love about Kelly is that he's decisive. He lets it rip and plays with enormous confidence. The Broncos are more likely than not to add a veteran in my opinion, but Kelly continues to show out and provide an argument to remain the backup.
1. Paxton Lynch, QB: His home crowd greeted him with boos. It summed up where Lynch stands in his career. He finished 5-for-11, but failed to show progress. As said, I don't see an avenue for him to make the team at this point. How rare is it for a first-round QB not to stick in year three with his team? As Monday morning quarterback pointed out, it has happened at least twice in last decade with the Browns with Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel. Lynch is expected to join this group.
2. Isaiah McKenzie, WR: By any measure, McKenzie has had a solid training camp. But his late fumble rushed a flood of bad memories. Can the Broncos afford to keep him if functions only as a home run threat on punt returns? The uneasy answer is yes, but not if he puts the ball on the ground again.
3. Will Parks, safety: Parks cut his knee on a tackle. It looked ugly because knee injuries always do, but it's not considered serious. Parks has enjoyed a strong camp. Hopefully, he can recover in time to play once more in the preseason.
4. Su'a Cravens, safety: The Broncos continue to struggle covering tight ends. Cravens has missed the last couple of weeks with a sore knee. He's expected to practice this week with the possibility of playing against his former employer Washington. He is intriguing player, but I want to see a cameo this preseason to trust it after he missed all of last year.
5. Garett Bolles, left tackle: Bolles boasts talent. He is raw. Last year it was accepted as part of his growth. In his second year of pro ball, he must become more consistent, and learn the nuances of the position. The Broncos hinted of this by keeping him with the second team for two series last Saturday. He needs to show improvement with added reps.