Scouting the Broncos: Wide receivers

One area of the field that Denver has very well covered is the wide receiver slot. Whatever their other weaknesses, barring another onslaught of injuries, this is one place that the Broncos are flush. That’s odd, in a way - former head coach Josh McDaniels was trained by Bill Belichick, a man who once famously said that you don’t fill out the WR position until your other spots have been solidified. Denver is in nearly the opposite situation due to McDaniels’ approach, but it does take the A.J. Green/Julio Jones argument out of the draft conversations for the Broncos this year. The TE position is somewhat less clear, but has some quality young talent - we’ll get into that more next time. To give you an idea on the wideouts, though, here’s what the Broncos tweeted:

Fox on the wide receivers: "This may be as good a corps as I'm familiar with." 11:26 AM Jan 14th via web.

He’s absolutely right. It’s a remarkable group, with veteran skills and young talent - this bunch has it all. Let’s look at who they have:

# Name Ht Wt Age Exp School 2011 Salary Signed Through
17 Britt Davis 6-3 205 24 1 Northern Illinois $405,000 2011
87 Eric Decker 6-3 220 23 R Minnesota $405,000 2013
10 Jabar Gaffney 6-2 200 30 9 Florida $2,400,000 2012
84 Brandon Lloyd 6-0 194 29 8 Illinois $1,395,000 2011
13 Eron Riley 6-3 210 23 1 Duke Future Contract N/A
19 Eddie Royal 5-10 180 24 3 Virginia Tech $550,000 2011
88 Demaryius Thomas 6-3 229 23 R Georgia Tech $1,637,500 2014
12 Matthew Willis 6-0 190 26 3 UCLA $480,000 2011

Looking at the Denver WRs is much like looking over a smorgasbord at a very good restaurant - if there isn’t something you like there, you don’t like food/football. The starting lineup is remarkable - Brandon Lloyd led the league in receiving yardage, showing that with the right QB and the right system, he’s the receiver that a lot of folks kept waiting for him to become: athletic, fast, focused and able to go up for the ball. Task accomplished.

Jabar Gaffney spent yet another season proving that he’s one of the most underrated WRs in the NFL, putting together 65 catches for 875 yards. Eddie Royal was slowed by a hip injury that required offseason surgery, but he’s getting very much at home in the slot (concerns about his development didn’t take into account the hip injury, since it wasn’t publicized). Eric Decker is right behind Eddie as far as his slot skills, and he might well take over as well as keep the starting position if Royal isn’t careful. Decker has incredible hands, he’s bigger and he seems totally fearless. 

Demaryius Thomas is recovering from the February operation on his torn Achilles' tendon, and that may take a while yet. Still, he’s going to be back, he’s a great young talent, he can easily stretch the field, and Denver has no shortage of receivers. With Thomas down, Lloyd has quicks and Matt Willis will get his chance to show off whether he’s a burner of the future: that could turn out to be a good thing. There is still a question of if/when quarterback Tim Tebow will start, but on a few plays at the end of the 2010 season I saw Tebow to Decker and thought that I might well be seeing the future of the Broncos. It was beautiful. Seeing that on short to medium routes, and knowing that the burners like Thomas would be stretching the field opens up a lot of things.

I don’t have much to say on Britt Davis, a practice squad guy from my old alma mater, Northern Illinois University, or on fellow practice squadder Eron Riley out of Duke. They may be camp fodder, although I’m always a bit careful about what I say regarding guys like that. Rod Smith, who I was fortunate enough to hear from the other day, was one such player, and that explains why. I don’t expect much, but I’ve learned to never discount them. Some will eventually start at the highest levels.

With the unexpectedly clean route running of Thomas, Lloyd’s acrobatic catching skills, the steady skills of Gaffney, Royal’s return to health, Decker’s hands, and Matthew Willis’ track star speed, this is a group that will be feared. They will be able to score from anywhere on the field, and running backs Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter and Lance Ball all catch the ball well enough to make the problems for opposing DCs tougher (I expect the RB position to change, as I noted in my earlier article covering them). When you look over the info on screens, you can bet that there’s one other strength of the WR corp for the Broncos - they all block, block well and are enthusiastic about it. That will help in the upgraded running game that coach Fox is planning as well.

There’s been a theory going around about the option of trading Gaffney for a draft choice, perhaps a fourth-rounder. Much as I’d like a pick there, trading away a solid, highly productive veteran with 65 catches for 875 yards and a 13.5-yard average for a mid-round draft pick just doesn’t make much sense to me. The upside to a trade, clearly, is that Gaffney is 30 years old, gets good veteran money, John Fox likes a run-based game, and Gaffney may not get those kinds of numbers again, so you can use him as bait while he’s ‘fresh’ - of top value, in this case - and that has some points to it. It could happen, but 30 isn’t old for the kind of receiver he is. Gaff isn’t a burner - he’s quick, but he’s more of a technician with his routes and his skills don’t show any signs of deteriorating. You could also have him for five or more years, and much like Brandon Stokley before him, Gaff is one that you can count on for the key third-down catches, the yards you need on a drive that gets you ahead. Trading that for a 4th-round crap-shoot isn’t how I’d go, but I don’t run the team and you could get a gem at that point in the draft, too. The question will be whether the roll of the dice is worth the chance, and the FO gets to decide that. .

Who do I see in free agency and the draft for Denver at WR? No one. That’s not a knock on the available players; some out there might be considered a good upgrade over someone who Denver has, but I can’t think of a rational name at this point on a cost/benefit basis. The biggest problem, and the one that may lead to a trade, is that Denver has a plethora of riches here. The downside is the number of injuries each year and how many you’ll need to keep in preparation for that. Denver’s needs are not at WR, and they have many other holes where the money can be intelligently spent. They simply have the best group of WRs that I’ve ever seen on a Broncos team, and that’s not the Kool-Aid talking. It’s just a fact. Ask coach Fox.

Conclusion

With the solid number of wide receivers that Denver has, I don’t see them obtaining anyone. There will be talk about trading this and that guy - Gaffney has showed up in trade rumors, even have Lloyd and Royal in certain cases - but given the nature of injuries, if they can avoid that, they might want to. Second-year player Thomas has been struggling with injuries, and his latest one can take a year to heal. Royal should be ready before the games start again, but there’s always a question there - hip surgeries can be tricky. If they do trade Gaffney, I hope they hold out for what he’s worth - you don’t get 65 catches out of just anyone. That number was good enough for 34th-best in the league, and while that doesn’t sound that huge, don't forget that there are only 32 teams. He caught more than the #1 guy on at least seven teams, and that’s not a small thing.  His contract is reasonable, and his skill is better than that.

Denver does have three late picks right now (two sixth-rounders, one seventh-rounder). They may package them and try to move up, or hold and see what drops. RB and TE are positions that appear, right now, to have potential for good scheme-specific players in later rounds. A find in a late spot like CB Syd’Quan Thompson was last year is always an option. I’d put DT, LB, RT, RB and S as greater priorities than TE, and I only see WR as a possible place for a trade, but time, as always, will tell.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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