Any time an undrafted rookie in the NFL finds his way to a team’s 53-man roster, it is a feel-good underdog story worthy of attention. Yet, when a player makes it with a team who has proven, successful track record of finding value with young players who didn’t hear their names called on draft day, it warrants closer attention.
The Denver Broncos in particular have built a reputation for identifying hidden and/or overlooked talent and developed them into at minimum, solid contributors, and in certain cases, major difference makers.
In recent years, players including CJ Anderson, Shaq Barrett, Phillip Lindsay, and Tim Patrick have risen from one-time undesirables to becoming among the best in the NFL at their positions during their time with the Broncos (and in the case of Barrett, after his time as well).
It’s difficult to imagine the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 run without the contributions of Anderson and Barrett. Lindsay gave Broncos Country a reason to be excited during the less-than-enjoyable early post-Peyton era when he went for back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in his first two years. And of course Tim Patrick, Mr. Reliable, earned a 3-year, $30 million extension for what he has brought to the table (get well soon, TP!).
Now, as the 2022 season is set to kick off in less than 24 hours, the Broncos yet again have a candidate who would like to add his name to the list of undrafted success stories.
Wide receiver Jalen Virgil is an interesting prospect in this regard. Of the names mentioned above, while they did not get the initial love from the NFL, all had highly decorated college careers where they were among their teams’ most productive players.
Anderson was a top-10 rusher in the Pac-12 despite having the lowest carry total among the others in the top 10. Barrett was Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. Lindsay holds the University of Colorado record for career all-purpose yards and was a Doak Walker Award finalist. Patrick finished his senior season at Utah 6th in receiving yards in the Pac-12 (711 yards) and first on his team.
Virgil doesn't share the standout stats of those who took the undrafted path before him. Despite possessing game-changing speed, he never caught more than 24 passes in a season and only had one 100+ yard receiving game in his 5-year career at Appalachian State. He never finished better than third on the team in receiving yards and made most of his highlights on special teams.
This information is not being shared to disparage or cast doubt on the young rookie but to rather express the fact his journey to the 53-man roster is all the more impressive. Anderson, Barrett, Lindsay, and Patrick had the statistical resumes and hardware to support their case for a spot on the active roster. Virgil, on the other hand, had to go out and prove it without having that card up his sleeve.
Prove it he did.
He put himself on the NFL radar when he ran a 4.37 second 40-yard dash at his pro day, the kind of speed that made him a dangerous return man in the Sun Belt. While he of course isn’t unique in his position as a pro football prospect to run a sub-4.4 second 40-yard dash, he is unique in the fact he did it at 6-1, 210 pounds. Usually, that kind of speed is a weapon of players with the size of Tyreek Hill, John Ross, etc., who all weigh around 185-190 lbs. Virgil has 20 pounds on them and could prove to be a matchup problem should his route-running be developed enough to compliment his speed.
And while he was more of a standout on special teams at App State, that doesn’t appear what earned him a spot on the roster, as fellow rookie speedster Montrell Washington has the return specialist role locked up. Instead, he had to show off his ability on offense, and following a three-game preseason campaign in which he hauled in 9 catches for 180 yards, coach Nathaniel Hackett saw what he needed to see to give the rookie his shot in the NFL.
Granted, his path to the active roster was aided in part due to injuries by Patrick and fellow undrafted preseason standout Brandon Johnson, he still showed off electric playmaking ability and a knack for making the big downfield play, so even with a couple of guys down, he still may very well have seen his name on the final roster out of camp.
Virgil represents another chapter in the story of an undrafted prospect finding his way to an NFL roster by way of the Denver Broncos taking a chance on him. Guys like Anderson, Barrett, Lindsay, and Patrick certainly capitalized on their chance. In the more distant past, there was also this player by the name of Rod Smith who made somewhat of a name for himself in a Broncos’ jersey.
Will Virgil be the next man to take the leap from the ranks of the undrafted to valuable Broncos’ playmaker?
QB Russell Wilson possesses one of the game’s best deep balls, and a player with the speed and athleticism of Virgil makes him a candidate to benefit from that. He may not be getting double digit targets a game, but given his difference-making speed and what he showed in the preseason, he should expect his QB to look his way. Once that takes place, the next steps of his journey will begin.