Are the Denver Broncos’ wide receivers really as good as we think they are?

Courtland Sutton running after one of his two explosive plays on Sunday. Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck, USA TODAY Sports.
Courtland Sutton running after one of his two explosive plays on Sunday. Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck, USA TODAY Sports.

As the Denver Broncos look to woo an established superstar quarterback away from their present team, a lot of conversation has been made about the team’s loaded receiving corps as a selling point.

However, despite apparently being so remarkably talented, the production doesn’t quite match what one would expect. That begs the question, is Denver’s receiving corps really as talented as it’s cracked up to be? Let’s take a look at every Broncos’ receiver’s 2021 performance and see what their role with the team looks like moving forward, in this edition of our 2021 Broncos Debrief.

Courtland Sutton

After missing almost the entire 2020 season due to injury, Courtland Sutton returned to being the team’s leading receiver in 2021, recording 776 yards and two touchdowns on 58 receptions.

Despite leading the team in most receiving categories, Sutton’s stat line is relatively underwhelming and it appears that is due to Teddy Bridgewater targetting running backs and tight ends at a higher rate than other recent Broncos quarterbacks. In turn, this limited the production of Denver’s receivers despite the passing game as a whole being much more productive than it was in 2020.

Bridgewater’s extremely limited ability to attack downfield and hyper-conservative nature also hurt the production of Sutton. Sutton is at his best when attacking the defense downfield, and Bridgewater was unable to fully take advantage of that. Not only that, but Sutton’s most elite trait is arguably his ability to win contested catch situations, but Bridgewater didn’t want to take those risks and throw the ball up for Sutton.

Now, managing risk as a quarterback is incredibly valuable, as the inability to do so largely sunk the team’s 2020 campaign, but you have to be able to take calculated risks. So much of the Bengals’ offense this year was predicated on Joe Burrow trusting a covered Ja’Marr Chase to go up and make a play. The Broncos weren’t going to take anything that wasn’t easily handed over on a platter by the defense in 2021.

Now, to be fair, Sutton was far from being Ja’Marr Chase in 2021. The effects of the torn ACL appeared to linger, as Sutton didn’t look like his 2019 self for much of the year. The explosiveness was sharply dampened and he wasn’t as able to haul in the eye-popping catches that he once made look pedestrian.

Plus, Sutton’s final stat line is a little inflated, as a few outlying performances — like his game against the Jacksonville Jaguars — is buoying the appearance of what would otherwise be a more disappointing season. In that lone Week 2 game, Sutton tallied 15.0% of his targets on the season, 20.5% of his receiving yards (5.9% would be average).

With Sutton having another year to recover from his knee injury, a new offense, and potentially a new, high-end quarterback, 2022 figures to be a much better year.

Tim Patrick

Although he’s finally begun to receive some praise from the national NFL media, one could still easily make the argument that Tim Patrick is the most underrated football player in the entire league.

There is very little flash or glitz to Patrick’s game, but he doesn’t need it. He’s just good at football.

Where his contemporaries might have superpowers of super speed or a blend of physicality and athleticism that makes them impossible to tackle, Patrick’s superpower is being consistent and reliable to the extreme. He is the textbook example of what you want out of a go-to third-down target.

Patrick’s supreme size and length is another superpower of his and allows him to create easy vertical separation against almost anyone. Pair that ability to create a window for the quarterback with his hands that are stickier than old Fred Biletnikoff.

All that said, a lot of Patrick’s best traits align with Sutton’s, and so a lot of the factors that limited Sutton’s ability to produce in this offense also limited Patrick’s.

Jerry Jeudy

For all the crimes of the Pat Shurmur era, none may be worse than his horrible utilization of Jerry Jeudy.

Now, Jeudy’s production in 2021 was limited for multiple reasons. After dominating the team’s season-opener, Jeudy was forced to leave the game early with a high-ankle sprain. While he was able to return to the field after missing several games, it was clear that he didn’t quite have the same level of mobility he had before. He also suffered as a result of Denver’s receivers seeing fewer targets.

However, the primary reason for Jeudy’s extremely disappointing 2021 season was Shurmur. Shurmur appeared set on not drawing up plays for Jeudy, as the team rarely called concepts that would have sent the ball his way. To make matters worse, Shurmur often used Jeudy in a way that would either remove him from a given play entirely or severely limit his ability to positively impact the play. The most obvious example of this was the wasteful jet-motion the team sent Jeudy on countless times, despite never handing the ball off to him a single time.

Earlier we talked about Patrick’s superpower of reliability. Well, Jeudy’s superpower is his short-area quickness and ability to create separation quickly. Plus, although it’s not his superpower, following Hamler’s injury, he became the team’s de facto speed threat. All of those strengths, which one would hope Jeudy would bring to the offense, are removed from the equation when Jeudy is running horizontally behind Denver’s guards at the time the ball is snapped, rather than being out in space, ready to quickly attack the defense.

That’s not to say that motion is inherently negative mind you. Motion has led to a lot of offensive success around the league in recent years. The problem was the head-scratching way the Broncos were going about implementing it under the old staff.

As a result, no Bronco stands to benefit more from the ousting of Shurmur.

K.J. Hamler

Unfortunately for him, K.J. Hamler finds himself at a crucial crossroads as we approach the 2022 season.

Hamler suffered a gruesome knee injury in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens, and it’s currently hard to forecast what his timeline to return to the field looks like. Beyond that, it’s unknown if he’ll have the same top-end speed and short-area quickness upon returning that made him such a unique talent.

Not only that, but Hamler has now had injury issues flare up each of his past three seasons playing football, and all of those injuries have been lower-body injuries. Considering his slight frame, it’s not too surprising that he’s having injury troubles, but it’s also a very concerning trend.

Nonetheless, Hamler’s speed is rare and makes him a valuable weapon who can score from anywhere on the field.

If Hamler can stay on the field, 2022 could finally be his year, but he could also find his role in the offense replaced, as the Broncos will have to add some insurance for Hamler this offseason, by finding another speed demon.

Kendall Hinton

Relative to pre-season expectations, Kendall Hinton might have had the most impressive season out of any of Denver’s receivers.

Hinton entered the season as an afterthought in what figured to be a loaded Broncos receiving room, but following injuries to Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, he took on a much larger role in the offense and played pretty well.

On 23 targets, Hinton made 15 catches, gaining 175 yards and scoring a touchdown, and showed that he could be a solid backup to Jerry Jeudy in the slot moving forward. Plus, considering how new to the position Hinton is and his athletic potential, there’s still quite a bit of room for growth and development in his game.

Diontae Spencer

Diontae Spencer continues to hang around, but it has become very clear that the Broncos are looking to move on from him.

At this point, it’s become clear that Spencer will be unable to impact the offense, as Hinton almost immediately beat him out to serve as Jeudy and Hamler’s replacement, and Spencer touched the ball just once on offense in 2021 and lost three yards.

Not only that, but 2021 was his worst season as a returner.

Look for the Broncos to add a receiver in the mid- to late-rounds who can double as an insurance policy for Hamler, and a replacement for Spencer in the return game.

Seth Williams

As a sixth-round rookie out of Auburn, Seth Williams spent almost the entirety of his rookie year on the practice squad, but once he got his opportunity, he made the most of it.

Williams’ only target of the season resulted in this highlight-reel-worthy play.

He’ll have a good shot to steal Tyrie Cleveland’s job in 2022 if he can prove he can be a factor on special teams.

Tyrie Cleveland

Despite barely being used in 2020, Cleveland flashed exciting physical traits whenever the ball went his way. However, after a disappointing training camp and preseason, Cleveland saw his role reduced to solely being a special teamer.

Cleveland thrived on special teams though, as he was the team’s third-highest graded special teamer and highest-graded gunner according to Pro Football Focus. Cleveland will have to step on offense though, as it will be difficult for Cleveland to keep his job purely as a special teamer in 2022.

Synopsis

The ceiling for the Broncos’ wide receiver room is almost as high as any in the league. Maybe they don’t quite have the same level of talent as the Cincinnati Bengals, but even then, they aren’t far off.

However, the production hasn’t matched this extremely apparent wealth of talent. The major issues at quarterback and with the offensive play-caller are valid excuses, but they also don’t fully exonerate the receivers of their own struggles.

Also, while the ceiling for this unit is high, the floor is very low due to there being a lot of huge nagging questions, we won’t know the answers to for several months.

Can Sutton return to 2019 form? Can Jeudy become a more reliable target and is Shurmur truly responsible for his failure to produce? Will Hamler ever be the same again, and can he also become a more reliable target?

The only one of their key contributors at the position that doesn’t have serious concerns surrounding him moving forward is Patrick.

Overall Position Group Grade: B-

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