SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Making a flashy play or two in a preseason game doesn’t land a young player on a 53-man roster.
Having a good day in practice won’t do it, either.
But when a guy makes plays day after day in practice and then does it every time he gets an opportunity in a game, too? That’s the path from undrafted free agent to a spot on the other side of the Aug. 29 cutdown day.
If Jaleel McLaughlin has more work to do still to make the 2023 Broncos, he’s shown no sign that he’ll let up now.
The former Youngstown State running back scored two more touchdowns Saturday night against San Francisco, accumulated 53 offensive yards and 44 more on a kick return, and made his loudest public statement yet that he’s going to be awfully difficult to keep off the regular-season roster.
The thing is, he’s been doing this essentially since rookie minicamp in May. Earlier in training camp, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi marveled that McLaughlin “seems to break a big run at least once a day.”
Head coach Sean Payton shrugged at a question about the rookie running back Saturday night not because he’s unimpressed, but because he’s unsurprised.
“We’ve kind of been seeing it if you’ve been paying attention in practice,” he said. “We got a chance to see it (tonight). I wouldn’t say anyone’s surprised.”
Last week, McLaughlin got one drive of action in the fourth quarter and scored a go-ahead touchdown.
This week, he was in much more frequently. He burst through a hole in the middle of the field for 17 yards. He used a good kickout block from receiver Kendall Hinton and stepped through a tackle attempt on a 9-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, then caught a pass in the flat and darted to the pylon for an 8-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
Overall through two preseason games, McLaughlin has 14 offensive touches for 85 yards and three touchdowns.
“I think obviously the thing everyone will talk about is him scoring and making plays, but that doesn’t just happen overnight,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “It’s one of those things that you work at it every day. He’s a guy that comes in early. He’s one of the first guys there every morning. He’s a guy that sits in the front of the room. He takes notes every day. He’s a professional. There’s a certain process. Success leaves clues. … His understanding of how to take care of his body, his mind, his soul and also, too, his game.
“What a blessing to have such a young player who can do a lot of special things.”
The Broncos have a top running back tandem of Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine — Perine is quietly having a high-quality training camp and preseason and looked good Saturday night — but the third spot is up for grabs. Tony Jones Jr. broke a 43-yard run Saturday, Dwayne Washington just signed in recent days and Tyler Badie has been sidelined the past few days with an injury.
McLaughlin has put the staff in a position where it’s going to be difficult to leave him off the team.
“He can do it all, but more importantly, the best thing that I think I see are his work habits when it comes to practice,” Wilson said. “He takes the play in practice. He runs the ball to the left, runs to the right, runs the ball to the end zone every single time.
“That’s his mentality and that’s where greatness comes from.”
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