DENVER -- A few weeks ago, Dre'Mont Jones talked from Cleveland, head covered by his red Ohio State sweatshirt. He took stock of a dizzying 13-month journey.
He left the Buckeyes, prepared to live his NFL dream. His first pre-draft interview was with the Broncos. It went fine, but he told Denver7 he "honestly" thought he was going to get drafted by another team. The entire process created a blender of emotions, excitement and stirring anxiety.
"All of it was pretty stressful. My mom was worried about where I was going to go," Jones said. "I didn’t get to appreciate it as much as I would have liked. It's hard to enjoy it when you are going through it. It was a reset and a great relief when the Broncos selected me (in the third round)."
Jones, 23, joined a team with a proven defensive line, one that became more experienced with the addition of run stuffer Mike Purcell after his strong training camp. For Jones, it was tough to find a niche early. The Broncos made Jones inactive for the season opener. This is where his story begins to turn around. Where many would have felt slighted, Jones remained humble. He rolled up his sleeves. When opportunity arose after Derek Wolfe dislocated elbow, Jones was ready.
Battling through a high-ankle sprain suffered against Houston, Jones wrote a diary of havoc against the Lions, posting 2.5 sacks, three quarterback hits, five tackles, including two for a loss. Not only did he exhibit toughness by playing through pain, he delivered.
"It turned out good for me (in his rookie season). I had a bunch of people around me who kept me motivated, and if I had questions they answered them and kept me informed. I think my strong finish was a testament to keeping my mouth shut and working hard had all year," Jones said. "I was trying to be productive in my role. I think it worked out."
Now, the Broncos are hoping that a caffeinated offense and a second-year in coach Vic Fangio's defense will help them move into the playoffs. Implicitly, they are betting on youth -- the last two draft classes, in large part, charged with helping finish the U-turn that began with a 7-5 finish over the final 12 games last season.
A postseason-or-bust vibe has definitely returned to UCHealth Training Center.
"Now that I have been here a year I feel like my input has a little more value. I see us having a successful season. I think anything other than a winning season would be a disappointment given the time we have been able to bond and come together," Jones said. "Anything less than a winning season would be a failure."
NFL prognosticators don't think this way. Most have the Broncos missing the postseason for a fifth straight year. But hope is real for the players. While most of the focus lasers on the offensive makeover -- the additions of four potential starters in right guard Graham Glasgow, center Lloyd Cushenberry, and receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler -- the defense needs better if Denver is to follow suit.
The Broncos ranked 17th in sacks with 40 -- not enough, but encouraging after opening the season with zero in the first three games -- and 27th in takeaways with 17. Even with the loss of Wolfe, who set a career-high in sacks, Denver needs to improve after adding five-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey and retaining defensive end Shelby Harris.
"I thought it was a power move. We lost a great vet in Wolfe. It was tough to see him go. But we got another great one in Casey. He's a beast. Every season he's shown the world why he's one the best to do it," Jones said. "And to have Shelby back, it's great to have an OG in the locker room. He's a true vet."
Of course, the truncated and adjusted offseason creates concerns, potentially eliminating on-field reps until training camp in late July. The Broncos are maximizing their learning through Zoom meetings, leaving veterans like safety Kareem Jackson encouraged.
"I feel as though we had a decent year in our first year in coach Fangio’s defense, but it’s all about taking that next step. That’s what I’m looking forward to with the guys that we have,” Jackson said. “I think we have the right group, so it’s up to us to go out and put the work in.”
The linear growth of the 2018 and 2019 draft classes remains crucial. Losing is getting old, and it is, after all, a young man's game.
"We all have put down a steppingstone on how talented we are going to be," said Jones on why optimism exists with his draft class. "From (tight end) Noah (Fant) down to (undrafted free agent) Malik (Reed), and everybody in between, including myself, we have shown that, 'Yo, we are young, fresh and hungry and we can add a lot of value to this team create a lot of production."