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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

No playoffs, but Lelie 'did all right'

By Ryan Thorburn
Special to The Advertiser

This was one that got away from Denver wide receiver Ashley Lelie early in the season against Buffalo.

AP library photo • Sept. 22, 2002

DENVER — Shannon Sharpe had just finished the 13th and perhaps final season of his Hall of Fame career. His resume — he has caught more passes for more yards than any tight end in NFL history and any receiver in Broncos history — speaks for itself.

But in a dark for the Denver Broncos, who finished a disappointing 9-7 and out of the playoff picture, Sharpe spoke about a very bright future for Ashley Lelie.

"There's a guy you better watch out for — Ashley Lelie," Sharpe said of the first-round pick from Hawai'i. "This guy, I'm telling you, is going to be special. He's as good a young receiver as I've ever played with, that I've ever seen. He's got phenomenal skills."

Lelie's first season in the league, like it is for almost all rookies, was somewhat of a rollercoaster.

During training camp he missed important practices because of bad hamstrings. Throughout the first half of the season he let some big plays slip through his hands.

And his biggest moments — his first touchdown reception against the New York Jets and first 100-yard day against Oakland — were overshadowed by losses that came back to haunt Denver on Sunday.

Lelie only had one catch in the season-finale against Arizona at Invesco Field this past Sunday, but it was the first touchdown for the Broncos en route to a 37-7 win.

"On an individual level, I think I did all right," Lelie said of a rookie season that finished with 35 receptions for 525 yards and two touchdowns. "I could have helped a little bit more in some games, but I thought I played pretty well.

"As a team, I wish we would have done a little better and at least got into the playoffs. But you win some, you lose some. All you can do is work hard in the offseason."

Lelie will return to Hawai'i for about a month before returning to Denver to begin the offseason conditioning program. When May rolls around and the team holds a minicamp, he will be expected to be ready to perform like a starter.

"Now that I don't have to run every day I can have a little rest and work on those (hamstrings). Get my body right," said Lelie, who was able to add about five pounds of muscle to his skinny frame during the season. "We'll still have Rod (Smith) and everybody here next year. I don't think I will be a team leader yet, but I'm going to just try and lead by example on the field."

Smith, who had 54 more receptions than Lelie for 1,027 yards and five touchdowns, is expected to have a new partner next year. Ed McCaffrey will be 35 and is expected to retire or come back at a reduced rate and role.

With uncertainty at quarterback, Brian Griese was benched for the Arizona game and is expected to be released on June 1, it's clear that Clinton Portis and Lelie are the future of coach Mike Shanahan's offense. Portis, Denver's second-round pick, set a franchise rookie rushing record with 1,508 yards and 17 total touchdowns.

"He just seemed to get better and better as the year went on," Shanahan said of Portis, who rushed for 228 yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinals on Sunday. "Every time he gets his hands on the ball he thinks he'll make a big play."

That's the kind of progress and mentality the organization believes Lelie will demonstrate when he's given more opportunities next season.

"He's been more confident, and the plays that he was very close to making in the past he's making now," Shanahan said of Lelie. "That just comes with maturity, having confidence in yourself, confidence against the defensive backs you're going against.

"When I look at wide receivers, the difference between the first year and the second year is just unbelievable. You can look across the league and go through examples. But for him to make the strides that he's made as a young guy is really impressive."