Denver » It was midway through the second quarter of Sunday's game against Oakland, and the phone to the Broncos' public relations staff kept ringing.
Each time the caller -- from the CBS television crew and beyond -- wanted to know the same thing: Who is that guy in the No. 25 jersey, the cornerback who in that quarter alone knocked down two passes in the end zone?
Each time, the Denver staff member would politely answer that it was Tony Carter, a rookie from Florida State, who was making his NFL debut as the Broncos' nickel cornerback. Carter was signed off the team's practice squad just a day earlier. Against the Raiders, he had two tackles, recovered a fumble and was credited with a pass breakup.
"They pretty much told me, 'We're throwing you in the fire,'" Carter said. "The vets, it was easy playing around them because they were making sure I was on top of every move."
While Carter's play in his first NFL game was a pleasant surprise, it was yet another reminder of the struggles of another Denver rookie cornerback, Alphonso Smith, the No. 37 overall pick in the April draft. The Broncos liked Smith so much, they traded their 2010 first-round pick to Seattle to get him. But Smith has played sparingly and twice been passed over.
The first time came Nov. 7 when the Broncos signed 35-year-old cornerback Ty Law. Two days later, Law played ahead of Smith against Pittsburgh. Then came Sunday against the Raiders, when the Denver coaches chose Carter to replace Law, who was out with a hamstring injury. When Smith came into the game after Carter exited with muscle cramps, he struggled. He was beaten by Oakland's Chaz Schilens on the 10-yard touchdown reception with 35 seconds left that helped the Raiders win 20-19.
"You've got to make plays to get on the field in this league," Denver defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "The playmakers get on, and when you're on -- whether it's to shut the guy down that you're on, or actually get the ball in your hands -- in some form or fashion you've got to do the job you're assigned to."
Smith was the third cornerback drafted this year, and one of six taken through two rounds. Four other rookie cornerbacks have at least two interceptions this season, including NFL interception leader Jairus Byrd. Taken by Buffalo five spots behind Smith, Byrd has nine picks.
This is the point of the season when teams are expecting big contributions from their highest draft picks. But the Broncos, who had five picks in the first two rounds, haven't had a breakout rookie star.
Running back Knowshon Moreno, the Broncos' first selection and the No. 12 overall pick, easily leads NFL rookie rushers with 879 yards but has yet to have a 100-yard game. And outside linebacker Robert Ayers, the No. 18 overall pick, has played plenty on defense and special teams but with limited impact. He has yet to record a sack.
Smith might be the most perplexing pick of them all. The Atlantic Coast Conference's career leader in interceptions after four years at Wake Forest, he was all but handed the Broncos' nickel cornerback job. But he hasn't been able to hold it.
"I understand that this is a different experience for all of the rookies," said Denver coach Josh McDaniels, when asked about Smith.
Asked how Smith gets more playing time, Nolan said: "It's just maturity. It's no different than growing up. There are lessons you've got to learn on the field."
The Broncos had three picks among the top 40 selections in the 2009 NFL Draft:
Position: Running back. Selection: No. 12 overall, first running back drafted. Stats: 879 yards rushing, most among NFL rookies. But he's averaging 3.9 yards per carry, behind rookies such as Arizona's Chris Wells (4.6), Indianapolis' Donald Brown (4.5) and Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy (4.1).
Position: Outside linebacker. Selection: No. 18 overall, fifth outside linebacker/defensive end drafted. Stats: 14 tackles, three quarterback hits, no sacks. This year 35 rookies -- from all defensive positions -- have at least one sack. Washington's Brian Orakpo, the No. 13 pick, leads with 11 sacks.
Position: Cornerback. Selection: No. 37 overall. Stats: 11 total tackles, including one for a loss, and three pass breakups but no interceptions. Eight rookie cornerbacks have at least one interception. The league leader, Buffalo's Jairus Byrd, has nine. Byrd was drafted five picks after Smith.