What the Broncos could do with their surplus of wide receivers
Courtland Sutton can play.
In the past week, Denver, Colo. has come to understand this as fact. It’s early – just camp – but the instant returns reveal size and athleticism that ought to translate into the real thing. In theory, the Broncos just drafted a much-need, extremely dynamic weapon on offense.
Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders? Well, they can play, too. While Sutton has the crowds gathered at Dove Valley ooo’ing and ahh’ing with this circus touchdown grabs, Thomas and Sanders have been doing it for years. Thomas’ numbers speak for themselves; he posted five consecutive 1,000-plus yard seasons until last year, where he came up just 51 yards short (and that was amidst one of the NFL’s worst quarterback situations); Thomas has also 57 touchdown catches in his eight-year career. Sanders has been equally impressive while with the Broncos; he also had a string of 1,000-plus yard season up until last year, when he experience both injury and quarterbacking ineptitude. Despite his size, he’s one of the toughest players in the League.
Looks like fourth-rounder DaeSean Hamilton can play a little, too. He doesn’t have the impressive frame that Sutton possesses, but his route running is clearly exceptional. If one were to guess, he’ll factor in at the slot position pretty well, even as a rookie.
And the one name that nobody knew heading into camp, has those who have watched taking a closer look. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Tim Patrick looks every bit as physically impressive as Sutton and Thomas. In fact, he looks eerily similar to former Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, who might have had 30 pounds (give or take) during his time in Denver on Patrick.
Throw in Isaiah McKenzie, who might be the quickest of the entire group, and the Broncos suddenly have more legitimate depth at the wide receiver position than they’ve possibly ever had.
Maybe a weird question: Could anyone in this group play tight end?
I think I know the answer. And others I’ve asked have already said, “That’s a dumb question.”
They’re probably right (and here’s hoping that Jake Butt is healthy enough and good enough to officially make it a dumb question). More than likely, the answer is “no.” These guys have not only played receiver for a long, long time, they’ve played it well enough to call themselves professionals. Some are simply too small, while others – like Thomas and Sutton – create such problems for smaller defensive backs it would be silly to slide them inside (although one reputable writer I asked suggested that if Thomas ever lost a step, tight end could be an interesting way to finish his already illustrious career; regardless, that’s a long way off).
Still, the group is deep. It’s unquestionably an asset, a true area of strength.
Still, they all won’t be able to get on the field.
Is it possible that Patrick – who tops out at 6-foot-5 and who, while wearing pads, could be confused with a tight end anyway – could play the position?
Before we get carried away: I understand this is a longshot, probably a silly suggestion. But hear me out.
Thomas and Sanders are your starters. That’s a given. But it could also be their final year with the Broncos. Both are under contract with the Broncos beyond this season, but both also have deals that would likely require restructuring if they’re to stick around.
Sutton and Hamilton (presumably) are next in line – the heir apparent duo, if you will. If Sutton continues to live up to his hype, it’s quite possible that Sanders regularly moves inside to the slot position so that the big rookie can get plenty of snaps.
That essentially leaves two roster spots remaining. Last season, McKenzie was the sixth receiver, primarily used as a special teams player and only targeted 13 times all year. Patrick never saw a snap during his rookie season last year, as he bounced from being an undrafted free agent waived by Baltimore then San Francisco, and finally finding his way to Denver’s practice squad.
Does Isaiah McKenzie earn a roster spot? He might be the only true slot receiver in the bunch, plus he can be a return man (assuming he’s past the “drops” of a season ago). Or is he told “so long” in favor of local favorite Phillip Lindsay, who can play special teams and potentially slot receiver in addition to his natural position of running back?
Is there room for one of the other receivers, maybe Leslie Jordan, who shined over the weekend, or even Colorado’s Bryce Bobo, who was a late invite to camp after not making the Seahawks’ camp list? We haven’t even discussed Jordan Taylor, who’s on the PUP list but is also someone who’s made legitimate contributions over the past two seasons, or Carlos Henderson, a third-rounder from a year ago who’s not in camp and in a peculiar grey area at the moment.
And that brings us back to Patrick. Perhaps he earns the fifth wide receiver spot outright (which is the belief of at least some) in which case he’d suit up on gameday and likely receive real playing time. If he comes in at the No. 6 role, he’d likely only be active some of the time. Is it possible he’s sent back to the practice squad?
Last year’s roster included three tight ends, none of whom were particularly effective. While the hope is that Butt seizes the role in 2018, there’s at least an element of mystery as it pertains to the health of his twice-torn ACL. After him is 2015 third-rounder Jeff Heuerman, Troy Fumagalli (a 2018 fifth rounder) and Austin Traylor (who contributed last season).
If Butt is unhealthy, is this a group that garners confidence?
What if the big-bodied Patrick pulled a little double duty?
I know, I know. It’s a longshot (we’ve established that). Patrick is currently listed as a 210-pounder even if he looks much bigger (in fact, it’s hard to believe Patrick only weighs 210). For comparison, Thomas lists at 229; Sutton weighs in at 218. By modern standards, none of them are the “correct” size for a tight end. On the flip side, the greatest tight end in franchise history – who started his career as a receiver, by the way – tipped the scales at 228 pounds; Shannon Sharpe was a “reluctant” blocker and a great pass catcher.
It was quickly (and accurately) pointed out to me by Mile High Sports Radio host Eric Goodman that Sharpe played in a different era, where dominant pass rushers weren’t the same size they are now. This is somewhat true. Derrick Thomas only weighed 243, while Von Miller and Khalil Mack both play at 250. Joey Bosa is a whopping 280, while ‘90s greats Bruce Smith and Reggie White tipped the scales at 262 and 291 respectively.
Former Broncos weapon Julius Thomas couldn’t block someone on Twitter but was exceptional in the passing game; he’s 6-foot-5 and 250-plus pounds.
Is it conceivable that Patrick could tack on 10-15 pounds – getting him closer to Sharpe’s playing weight? Could he become a “decent enough” blocker who creates obvious mismatches for linebackers and safeties, ala Julius Thomas?
Again, this is all fairly unlikely, as Patrick’s natural position is wide receiver.
Maybe there’s a trade somewhere to be made with any one of the current receivers. The Broncos certainly have other needs – depth in the defensive secondary and depth at offensive line as examples. But what if there’s not?
An asset is only an asset if it’s on the field.
At the moment, the Broncos have an abundance of talent at the wide receiver position. It just might take some creativity – maybe a dumb idea – to maximize what they’ve got.