In Thursday morning’s practice, Peyton Manning was tossing long touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas without any visible strain. After months of people guessing at what percentage of fully healed and recovered his neck, brachial plexus, and arm strength might be, the question is unofficially over. He’s not as strong as he will be, but it no longer matters. He can make any throw, and he can put the ball into the hands of his deep receivers without difficulty. His short and intermediate throws are on target, quick, and accurate. Beyond that, the improvements will make what’s already remarkable even more effective.
As camp continues on into the start of the season, Manning will continue to gain in strength and accuracy as he follows the rehabilitation program that his doctors have set up for him. His receivers will be tasked with running routes precisely and hitting the right spot exactly on time. To do that, several skills will be necessary - the ability to beat press coverage off the line, the ability to gain separation from the coverage, and the hands to make sure that the drops that are part of developing the connection between QB and wide receiver are a thing of the past.
Denver has one other thing going for it this year that is going to make the passing game a more effective weapon - speed. It’s not just the wide receivers, either. Denver has speed at WR, at tight end, and at running back. Just on offense, this is perhaps the fastest bunch that I’ve seen in many years. The fact that in addition to running fast, these players also have good hands, good positional skills, and good route running makes that speed a more powerful weapon as Denver avowedly makes a run for the playoffs this season. Let’s look at the receiving cast that Peyton Manning will be throwing to and examine their footspeed. There’s more to catching the ball than running fast, but this year, speed is a weapon of the Broncos' that cannot be ignored.
Demaryius Thomas didn’t run for time prior to the 2010 Draft due to an injury, but he showed his speed last season by running away from defenders on his way to the end zone. This year in training camp, he’s become Manning’s favorite long ball target. He spent part of yesterday morning's practice pulling in long passes from Manning yet again, as he has nearly every practice since Day 1.
Upon reading of yet another long bomb to Demaryius, one person asked Cecil Lammey via Twitter if Manning was ‘gunslinging’ the long ball. Lammey replied, ‘Yes, throws 50+ on target”. That’s good news for Broncos fans, and very bad news for defensive coordinators around the league.
Eric Decker wasn’t considered a speed merchant out of college (some felt that he would have been a high second-round pick if he was), but speed is a very relative term in this case. Jerry Rice ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.6-second range - but he could explode off the line or perform ankle-breaking cuts at full speed. You can ask Bengals corner Nate Clements how fast Decker is - he spent Week 2 of last season trying to catch him. Deck both took him off the line and cut too fast for him to handle. During last Saturday’s practice in pads, Decker got behind Champ Bailey for a 40-yard TD. He’s fast enough.
Andre ‘Bubba’ Caldwell (YouTube highlights) is a 6-1, 200 lb receiver who can handle the slot or either sideline: he ran a 4.30 forty at Combine and averaged 4.35 seconds. With Brandon Stokley out with the flu on the first day of training camp, the camp reports from several sources were that Caldwell took the opportunity to just fly up the field from the slot.
Matt Willis is fighting to keep his roster slot, and while he didn’t have a 40-yard dash speed listed when he came out, he was a track star at UCLA before turning to football. He’s also a willing and powerful blocker. No matter who Denver ends with at WR, they’ll have one of the faster corps in the league.
It doesn’t stop there. Jacob Tamme had a 4.58 40-yard dash when he came out, which is unusually good for a tight end. Joel Dreessen had a more pedestrian time of 4.72, closer to the average for the position; he’s a fine blocker as well as a good receiver. From all reports, Julius Thomas has struggled this year in training camp, but he had a 4.64 time coming out of college. Virgil Green is the fastest of the four with 4.52 speed, but he's facing a four-game suspension to start the season. Having two TEs with sub-4.6 speed creates a parturient opportunity to exploit even more mismatches.
Third-round pick Ronnie Hillman has shown 4.45 speed in the 40, but he also has a quality of elusiveness that’s unusual even in the NFL. Some players run away from contact, but at 5-9 and 200 lb, Hillman just seems to sway in order to miss the majority of the hits. Living in SoCal, I saw a lot of him in college at San Diego State, and that quality really stood out.
Willis McGahee was a 4.45 speedster nine years ago, but he still often breaks two or three tackles per run. Last year’s backup Lance Ball is a comparative slowpoke at 4.56 seconds. Jeremiah Johnson came close with a 4.57 time on his pro day, but he plays faster and shows substantial explosion when he gets the ball in his hands.
Mario Fannin is blazingly fast in a straight line - he had a 4.37 average at Combine with a low time of 4.32. He isn’t elusive and he’s struggled with injuries, but he may still be in a tussle for the final RB slot. Knowshon Moreno is coming back from an ACL injury. He had a slower than expected time of 4.50 in his 2009 40-yard dash, but he has a talent for blocking and receiving and may still be in the final mix.
On the Broncos, every skill position on offense has more than a sufficiency of speed for the passing and rushing games. While blocking, route running, separation elusiveness, power and cutting ability are all just as important as raw numbers for speed, this is a group so deep that they could run someone on a deep route anytime that Peyton Manning takes a five-step drop. It’s just one weapon, but Denver has it in depth.