ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - At the back of Ryan McBean's locker, a small picture of Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith hangs by a single piece of tape.

McBean owes Smith a debt of gratitude. McBean, 25, has gone from being an unknown to a solid starting defensive end for the Denver Broncos. He played one game in 2007, his only season with the Steelers, recording no stats. But the time he spent with Smith was invaluable.

"He was a mentor," McBean said. "He told me the things I needed to know to last long in the league, like he has."

Smith, on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, is one of the best 3-4 alignment ends in the NFL, and the Broncos switched to a 3-4 this off-season. But McBean's improvement started last year when he was on Denver's practice squad and took to Smith's lessons, which focused on professionalism rather than Xs and Os.

McBean said he had been doing enough to get by with the Steelers, "surviving instead of striving." Smith told him that he had to do more to make an impact in the NFL.

"He said, 'Come into work every day like somebody is going to take your job,' " McBean said. " 'Don't be too comfortable with your position. Attack every day.' He told me, 'You're only as good as your last practice,' so that's the mentality I had."

The Broncos' new regime thought McBean would be a good fit for the new scheme, so they surprisingly gave him a chance to start. He still has the spot, a testament to his work habits.

"He's a young guy that's getting better," Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. "He's really adamant about trying to do his job the right way."