Broncos Have an Embarrassment of Riches at Wide Receiver


This isn’t just Peyton Manning, y’all. The Denver Broncos have one of the most talented receiving corps in the NFL.

Much of that talent has already been seen in terms of production on the field. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are arguably the best receiving duo in the league and played like it last year.

On paper, this group looks to get even better with the potential breakout season of second year player Cody Latimer on the horizon.

We know who Demaryius Thomas is. He’s made the Pro Bowl in each of his last three seasons in his five-year career. He recently signed an extension to keep him in a Broncos uniform for a long time.

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Thomas, as great as he’s been, has also been one of the most consistent things Denver has had, even before Peyton Manning arrived in 2012. Drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, along with Tim Tebow, Thomas didn’t produce much his rookie year, thanks in part to injuries.

His sophomore season is where he showed promise. Even with two different quarterbacks in two different offenses that season, even given his low volume statistics that season, DT flashed the skill that made Josh McDaniels take him before Dez Bryant. Given the option offense in the second half of that season, he wasn’t given many opportunities to shine, but when he did get them, he flourished.

Since then, it’s been all gravy for Thomas: Three consecutive seasons with at least 1,400 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. In his five years as a pro he’s already 8th, 9th, and 7th on the Broncos all-time receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns list, respectively. The way things are going, he’s on pace to break all of those records held by Rod Smith fairly quick.

And as he showed in 2011, he’s more than just gaudy stats. He’s improved mightily throughout his career. No one’s a finished product coming out of college, but Thomas was perhaps even less so.

A project that the Broncos were willing to wait on, Thomas improved on the rout running skills that he lacked and honestly didn’t really need in Georgia Tech’s option offense. While he still doesn’t have the best hands in the league, those have improved as well.

Per Pro Football Focus, Thomas had a drop rate (in their words, the percentage of drops a receiver makes relative to the number of catchable balls thrown their way) of 13.51 in 2011. Each year since he’s been able to lower that number: 10.48 in 2012; 8.91 in 2014; and 7.50 last year in 2014.

DT is also still one of the best receivers after the catch in the NFL, which was one of his strengths coming out of college. In the last three years, he’s finished 6th, 2nd, and 6th in YAC per reception with a minimum of 700 snaps played. When he gets the ball in his hands, he doesn’t go down easily and it’s why he’s one of the best screening receivers in the game.

Dec 28, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (88) runs past Oakland Raiders cornerback Keith McGill (39) in the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 47-14. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

He’s big, fast, smart, and unselfish. He’s been one of the better blocking receivers in the league (sans late in the playoff game vs. the Colts last season) thanks to many reps at Georgia Tech and in 2011 with Denver. He can burn guys deep or make tough contested catches.

DT allows the Broncos offense to do pretty much whatever it wants, but he has help alongside him.

Emmanuel Sanders is heading into the second year of a three-year, $15 million agreement.

Sanders quickly filled the number two receiver spot voided by Eric Decker. He perhaps outdid whatever Decker was expected to do in what would’ve been his fifth season in Denver.

Sanders’ 2014 season outproduced each one of Decker’s seasons in Denver in almost every category, the one big exception being touchdowns.

But Sanders’ performance last year isn’t just great when compared to Decker. It was not only a career year for him, but also a special year juxtaposed with other receivers around the league.

Sanders had career highs across the board in basic categories like receptions (101), yards (1,404), and (9) touchdowns as well as in PFF categories such as his overall grade (15.6), percentage caught (69.7), and yards per route run (2.45).

As far as his numbers faired against the rest of the league, per Pro-Football-Reference, Sanders was 5th in receptions and receiving yards and 4th in yards per touch (13.4).

PFF also graded Sanders as the 8th best wide receiver in the overall category and 3rd in the pass category (19.8), even ahead of teammate Demaryius Thomas (18.0).

And Sanders’ 2014 season isn’t just purely a product of Peyton Manning. He passes the eye test when you focus on what he can do. He has arguably the best pair of hands in the NFL, making some of the toughest catches I’ve seen any Broncos receivers make over the years. In 2014 he had a drop rate of just 1.94, 3rd in the NFL amongst qualifiers. Sanders made so many great catches that he dubbed the long ones “splash plays.”

But Sanders isn’t just beating guys deep and catching passes over the shoulder. He’s taken huge hits while still hanging onto the ball, something I didn’t realize he could do when he first signed with Denver.

At points 2:54, 4:04, 5:25, 5:52, 7:06, and 9:04 during the highlight video below, you can see Sanders being able to haul in the catch, take a tough body blow, and still hang onto the ball.

Those don’t even include some of the more improbable grabs with defenders draped all over him that he made in his first year as a Bronco. The tough catches he makes with his size and frame are pretty incredible.

But if you were to tell Sanders himself that he has the best hands on the team, he may disagree with you. Or at least some of his teammates would.

I’ve already talked up Latimer recently, but the way many people throughout the organization have talked about him speaks volumes. And that’s just half of the puzzle we get to go off of when predicting what kind of year Latimer will have in his second season as a pro: the words of teammates, coaches, and front office.

We certainly can’t predict how successful he will be by looking at his rookie year. He only played 37 snaps last year, seeing just four targets and hauling in two catches for 23 yards.

The other half of the puzzle is seeing how he did in college. It’s not the be-all and end-all indicator on if a player will set the NFL on fire. But it does help paint a clearer picture, especially for those who can’t watch practice on a daily basis.

Latimer was my 6th ranked receiver in a stacked class for that position last year. You can read my report on him here.

One of the things I loved about watching him at Indiana was, indeed, his set of hands. He showed he could pluck balls out of the air with ease and hang onto them through heavy contact.

He’s quite like Demaryius Thomas in that he’s got great build and physicality, but also has quite a good deal of speed to play on the outside.

Like DT, route running was not a strength coming out of college, so that’s an aspect of his game that will need to be monitored as he gets more playing time.

And something that I’ve already harped on, being mentally ready, especially with Peyton Manning as his quarterback and in his second offense in as many years, is just as important as being physically ready. It’s a lot to expect out of a second year player, but the Broncos organization seems to be buying into the Latimer hype this year. Hopefully the Latimer we saw at Indiana is the one that shows up this year for the Broncos.

Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) carries the ball with help from wide receiver Cody Latimer (14) during the third quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots won 43-21. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

After the trio of Thomas, Sanders, and Latimer, there is hefty competition. It’s not even a guarantee that veteran Andre Caldwell makes the team. Caldwell’s spent three seasons with the Broncos, getting notable playing time the past two seasons after playing just 76 snaps on offense his first year.

His second year in Denver proved to be his best, spelling Wes Welker after injury. PFF graded Caldwell at 0.9 in 2013, but he dipped to -5.4 last year, which included an abysmal drop rate of 37.5 on 15 targets.

Caldwell is in his second year of a two-year, $2.7 million deal. Cutting him would produce a cap hit of $1.6 million, per spotrac. This most likely isn’t enough to make him a lock for the team should one or two other receivers impress the coaching staff.

One of those who I think will make the team is Jordan Norwood. Norwood is in his second year with the Broncos. It looked like the now 28 year-old was on his way to making the squad last year until he tore his ACL before week four of the preseason.

Aside from a stint on the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad in 2009, Norwood spent a couple seasons with the Cleveland Browns in 2011 and 2012.

In his two years with the Browns, he accumulated 36 receptions, 405 yards, and a touchdown. He also returned four punts for 35 yards in 2011.

Special teams might be the main reason Norwood makes this team, but no one should be sleeping on him as the Broncos’ potential fourth receiver. He showed a lot of promise last year in preseason while operating with Brock Osweiler.

No matter who the Broncos’ fourth receiver is, they’re not in position to see much time on offense, so they will be needed to play special teams/return. Norwood can do just that.

He’s also a guy that could be used in the slot when Emmanuel Sanders needs a breather. Norwood played 168 of his 250 snaps in 2011 in the slot and had zero drops on 17 receptions at that position.

Other contenders for what will be the fifth and presumably final receiver spot include: Isaiah Burse, who spent part of last season as the Broncos’ return man; Bennie Fowler, a second year pro who spent last year on Denver’s practice squad; Solomon Patton, who spent his rookie year last season on the Tampa Buccaneers mostly as a returner; and Jordan Taylor, an undrafted rookie out of Rice, who’s seemingly been grabbing the attention of everyone at camp and my personal favorite to make the team.

No matter who comes away with the last two spots, the Broncos are in position to have one of the most talented receiver groups in the NFL. Manning should have some fun with what he has to work with this year as his career winds down. And Broncos fans should be excited about this group for years to come.

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