At wide receiver, questions abound for the Broncos this offseason
Jan 26, 2023, 10:27 PM | Updated: Jan 27, 2023, 5:34 am
EDITOR’S NOTE: As the offseason gets under way, we’ll be taking a look at each position and where it stacks up.
STATE OF THE ROSTER: WIDE RECEIVER
The day Tim Patrick succumbed to a torn ACL, it seemed as if the Broncos would still be OK. Wide receiver was a position where the team seemed to have ample depth, as speedy KJ Hamler seemed poised to step forward once he completed his recovery from a torn ACL and dislocated hip suffered the previous season.
But as it turned out, the Broncos lost something more.
Patrick earned a 3-year contract extension the previous year after emerging as the team’s most consistently dependable target. He seemed immune to the slumps, ebbs and flows that the team’s other pass-catchers endured. But there was something more to what Patrick provided.
“Losing him, I don’t think a lot of people understand how huge that was, because he was the glue to that offense,” defensive lineman DeShawn Williams reflected after the season.
It wasn’t just his reliability, honed by years of extra post-practice passes thrown to him by team executive Mark Thewes. It was the ferocity with which he attacked his work. Patrick played every snap as though his life depended on it.
“A lot of people don’t understand: Tim makes everything go,” Williams said. “He has that defensive mindset going on on offense. And everybody gravitates to it.
“… Tim brings that aggressor, that alpha, that ‘you can yell at us and we go out there and prove you wrong’ type of attitude. And he brings that.”
It never returned.
“You saw how devastating it was when Tim went down,” added left tackle Garett Bolles. “He’s a leader in that room. The young guys flocked to him, his leadership, just the way he works every single day.”
The nature of Patrick’s injury and when it happened — during training camp — ensure that he should be back in plenty of time for training camp and Week 1. Then, it becomes a question of where he stands. Will he be the same player right away? Courtland Sutton, for example, has yet to match his pre-ACL-injury production on a per-game and per-catch basis, and he has two full seasons in his back pocket since he suffered his injury at Pittsburgh in Week 2 of the 2020 season.
But when Patrick returns, he might find a new top dog in the receiver room. Because down the stretch, Jerry Jeudy turned promise into reality.
TO PICK UP OR NOT TO PICK UP?
That is the conundrum that greets the Broncos regarding Jeudy. The 2020 first-round pick now enters his fourth season, which means the Broncos must decide whether to pick up his fifth-year option in the spring.
Time flies. But after returning from an ankle injury, so did Jeudy. Working in a role that gave him more space to operate, Jeudy racked up 523 yards and 3 touchdowns on 37 receptions in the Broncos’ final six games — which pro-rates to 17-game averages of 105 receptions, 1,482 yards and 8.5 touchdowns.
Those are No. 1-receiver numbers. Yes, that represents his peak. But it also reveals his potential. In the final six weeks, he looked like he could assume a prominent place alongside fellow 2020 draftees like Justin Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb, to whom Jeudy is inevitably compared.
Jeudy dropped five of 72 catchable passes. That gives him a drop rate of one every 14.4 catchable balls — a perfectly acceptable rate. So, atop everything else, it’s time for observers to drop — pun intended — the tired laments that date back to his rookie season. That year, he dropped one of every 6.2 catchable passes. Since then, Jeudy’s drop rate is one out of 18.5 catchable passes.
He’s gotten better. Picking up the option is the wise call. And it fits in nicely with other contract decisions, as noted later in this piece.
DEPTH FROM WITHIN
If the Broncos go into the season with Jeudy, Sutton and Patrick as their big 3, less will be needed of their other receivers, at least early.
But what if the Broncos try to create some cap space and flexibility by trading Sutton? This would be unwise on the surface — after all, you’d rather trade at a peak, rather than a nadir. The Broncos’ patience with Bradley Chubb allowed the edge rusher to play his way back from a disappointing 2020, and the result was a trade that gave the Broncos a late first-round choice. So, expect Sutton back … and expect the back-of-the-roster battles to be among the most competitive.
First, the Broncos have Swiss Army knife Kendall Hinton. Until hamstring issues popped up, he was a reliable, if unspectacular, contributor. He filled in on punt returns late in the season, too, adding to his special-teams work. But Hinton’s reputation for reliability lost some luster with four drops of 28 catchable passes. A 1-in-7 drop rate doesn’t work unless you’ve got speed and explosiveness to spare. He’ll need to correct that if he is to have a lengthy career.
The Broncos got looks at KJ Hamler, Freddie Swain, Brandon Johnson, Jalen Virgil and Montrell Washington last season. Hamler remains the most explosive, but has now missed more games to injury than he’s played in three years. He earned the team’s Ed Block Courage Award last year — deservedly so. Pain was a companion for Hamler, and he endured a rigorous pre-practice regimen just to get ready to take part in everyday activities. The Broncos will give Hamler every shot they can; his speed and diligence demands that. But at his point, the Broncos must regard any production they get from Hamler as a bonus, as they can’t go into the season banking on him staying injury-free.
Virgil’s 66-yard touchdown catch against Tennessee in Week 10 was the apex for the Broncos’ cadre of reserve receivers. However, he lost a fumble on a kickoff return two weeks later at Carolina and was used sparingly thereafter. Brandon Johnson had steadier production when asked. He doesn’t have Virgil’s straight-line speed, but has a more diverse skill set. However, he, too, saw his playing time dwindle in the final weeks. He averaged 36.6 snaps for a 5-week post-bye stretch, then had just 10.5 snaps per game in Weeks 17 and 18.
Unlike Johnson and Virgil, the Broncos drafted Washington last April. And for a while, they kept trying to make the Samford product happen. They fed Washington end-arounds, reverses, deep attempts in high-leverage situations — and of course, continued work on punt returns despite a spate of fumbles. Finally, when Jerry Rosburg assumed the reins, he pulled the plug. Rosburg made Washington a healthy scratch for the final two regular-season games.
Washington’s future is very much in question. However, the progress of similar ex-Broncos like Buffalo’s Isaiah McKenzie and Detroit’s Kalif Raymond shows why patience is advisable.
Meanwhile, Freddie Swain saw his workload increase after joining the Broncos from Miami’s practice squad. The ex-Seahawks receiver — he played 33 games in the 2020 and 2021 seasons for them — took advantage of his previously-crafted chemistry with Russell Wilson and averaged 36.3 offensive snaps per game in the three contests he played for the Broncos.
JERRY JEUDY: Under contract through 2023.
The Broncos must decide whether to pick up Jeudy’s fifth-year option this spring. Per OvertheCap.com, Jeudy’s fifth-year option would carry a cap charge of $12,795,000. However, if he makes the Pro Bowl this coming season, that would increase by $5.255 million.
TIM PATRICK: Under contract through 2024.
The first viable out is in the 2024 offseason, when the Broncos could save $9.9 million of cap space and leave $3.072 million of dead money by releasing him. This could offer space — if needed — for Jeudy’s higher price. Patrick has a 2023 cap charge of $11.072 million.
COURTLAND SUTTON: Under contract through 2025.
If Denver traded Sutton, the team would save just under $6.8 million of cap space, but would have nearly $11.5 million of dead money on its 2023 cap. If the Broncos cut Sutton, they don’t reach a point where space created outweighs dead money until 2024, when they can release him with a post-June 1 designation and save $13.5 million.
KJ HAMLER: Under his rookie contract through 2023.
KENDALL HINTON: Under contract through 2023.
FREDDIE SWAIN: Under contract through 2023.
With two accrued seasons so far, Hinton and Swain would be restricted free agents in 2024.
BRANDON JOHNSON: Under contract through 2024.
JALEN VIRGIL: Under contract through 2024.
After playing as undrafted rookies, Johnson and Vigil would be restricted free agents in 2025.
MONTRELL WASHINGTON: On his rookie contract through 2025.
Denver also signed Victor Bolden to a reserve-future contract after the season.
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