The Broncos want to get back to their winning ways in 2019. They’ve completely revamped the roster with the hopes that this combination of players makes a run at the postseason – or at least plays .500 football or better.
This roster is full of talented players on both sides of the ball, but there are questions that need to be answered during training camp. In this series on 1043TheFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the wide receiver position.
Starters: Courtland Sutton, Emmanuel Sanders
There is changing of the guard at the wide receiver position for the Broncos this year. Courtland Sutton, a second-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, is ready to take over as the top receiver in 2019. Sutton was drafted to be the eventual replacement for Demaryius Thomas and he got more experience last year than some originally thought, mainly because the team traded Thomas away.
Sutton’s rookie season was not overly spectacular, but it was not a disappointment. He finished the season with 42 catches for 704 yards and four touchdowns. Some fans may have been disappointed in Sutton’s rookie season because when guys above him on the depth chart were hurt (or traded away), he didn’t flourish.
I was not one of those people.
Coming out of SMU last year, I had a first-round grade on Sutton, but I also knew that he would have to work on the little things to make a big impact in the pros. Sutton wasn’t asked to run the full route tree in college and was known mostly for his size and speed. He would run “9” routes (basically a straight line down the sideline) and gather in deep catches that made the highlight reel, but Sutton was not adept at timing his steps, or manipulating his body to disguise routes.
He had a big learning curve last year and that included dropping some big passes at key moments. Sutton had a bad habit in college of “clutching” for a ball rather than plucking it with arms extended away from his body. He seemed to clean that up as a rookie, but there were times his old habits would come through.
That’s no longer the case this offseason. Sutton looks like a beast in terms of route running and snaring catches from QB Joe Flacco. He’s already big and fast, but Sutton seems to have taken his game to another level. He is doing a better job of setting up his routes and he doesn’t lean before he makes his break – so defenders are left guessing as to which direction he’s going to go.
Sutton is showing strong chemistry with Flacco, and that’s a big reason why I think a breakout season is coming for the second-year pro in 2019. Flacco has a big arm and isn’t afraid to throw it into tight windows. Sutton doesn’t want to let Flacco down and he can make circus catches seem routine. Flacco also understands that there is this huge window called “the sky” that Sutton can dominate. I’ve already seen multiple passes for Sutton that Flacco merely puts out of a defender’s reach because he knows Sutton can get it.
While Sutton should take over as the No. 1 receiver this year, Emmanuel Sanders is going back to his role as the No. 2 receiver. Sanders saw his 2018 season end after just 12 games due to an Achilles’ injury. Since that time, the veteran wideout has been grinding through rehab.
Out at minicamp and OTAs, Sanders was not participating with his teammates during practice. Instead, he was running off to the side of the practice field by himself. Sanders straight-line speed looks to be back in a big way, and he’s recently began cutting too. He’s fully expected to return for the Broncos at some point in training camp.
I don’t think Sanders will be ready to participate fully when camp opens in mid-July, but he doesn’t need to be – even though the Broncos are learning a new offense. Sanders is a seasoned veteran who had his best seasons as a pro with the Broncos when he was the No. 2 behind Thomas. He’s back to that role and can thrive against single coverage and No. 2 corners.
Sanders can move to the slot if the team needs him too. His versatility is a hallmark of his game, and Sanders can clean up on underneath routes due to his quickness and concentration. He is tough over the middle, even though he’s not the biggest receiver, plus his speed makes him a threat to score no matter where he gathers in a pass. So long as he comes back healthy, Sanders still has plenty of big-time football left in his game.
Reserves: DaeSean Hamilton, Tim Patrick, Juwann Winfree, Brendan Langley, River Cracraft, Aaron Burbridge, Kelvin McKnight, Romell Guerrier, Fred Brown, Trinity Benson
The group behind Sutton and Sanders is limited on experience, but they are long on talent and potential – well, some of them are anyway. In a different offense, the slot receiver – the No. 3 wideout on the depth chart – might actually be considered a starter. In the Rich Scangarello offense, that won’t be the case in 2019 as the No. 3 pass-catcher for the Broncos is likely to be running back Phillip Lindsay or a tight end like Noah Fant.
This offense puts these reserve receivers in a different light, but we have to examine whether or not they would be quality receivers in the slot or if they are better off as reserves on the outside.
The most likely receiver to be the slot receiver in 2019 is DaeSean Hamilton. Like Sutton, Hamilton is a second-year pro looking to do more in his sophomore season. Hamilton feels like he can compete for the top spot on the depth chart, which is a great mindset, but the truth of the matter is that he’s likely a third receiver who is working to develop into a second receiver for the Broncos in 2020.
Hamilton finished his college career as Penn State’s all-time leading receiver. There is no question that he is nuanced as a route-runner and he was known as a reliable target with the Nittany Lions. Hamilton needs to make sure those skills sets fully translate to the pro level. Last year, we saw Hamilton get open on underneath routes, but he did struggle at times making breaks at the top of his route.
If he stays healthy, Hamilton is in line to contribute near the same level as he did last year – provided everyone ahead of him on the depth chart stays healthy too. Hamilton finished last season off strong, but he’ll likely have to wait for a larger opportunity with the Broncos.
Tim Patrick is an up-and-coming player on the Broncos roster. He’s got a great size/speed combination and is known as one of the more fiery competitors on the team. Measuring in at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Patrick is a formidable target and can win contested catches “above the rim.” Smaller defenders don’t have a chance to get the ball due to Patrick’s wingspan and slower defenders will get embarrassed by his deep speed. Patrick’s skill set is not that of a slot receiver, as he’s built to play on the outside. That means he’ll be playing a reserve role behind Sutton in 2019.
Juwann Winfree was a sixth-round pick for the Broncos in the 2019 NFL Draft. He played his college ball at the University of Colorado and has arguably the most upside of any young receiver on the Broncos not named Sutton.
Winfree has that potential because of his rare athletic traits. He’s fast, quick and moves with great fluidity in his routes. He doesn’t need a lot of space to operate and can get open in small throwing windows. His elite athleticism and body control means he can bring down passes with two feet inbounds near the sideline or the back of the end zone. Winfree will need to perfect the full route tree as a pro and stay healthy to give himself the best shot at making a big impact in the pros. In 2019, Winfree could develop on the practice squad if he doesn’t make the 53-man roster.
Brendan Langley failed as a cornerback, so that’s why he asked Broncos general manager John Elway to move to wide receiver in 2019. Elway obliged, and for good reason – Langley is very fast and athletic. Langley can make one-handed catches regularly and he’s got the speed to take the top off a defense. However, he tips off his routes before he makes a break and has shown a lack of field awareness during minicamp and OTAs this offseason.
Langley is a long-shot to make the final roster but could greatly help his chances by standing out on special teams as a gunner or return man.
River Cracraft is your classic slot receiver. He’s more quick than fast and can run “jerk” routes effectively as he sells underneath routes quite well. Cracraft is not much of a threat after the catch, but he does have sure hands and does a good job of consistently plucking passes away from his body. Unless he stands out on special teams, Cracraft is going to be hard pressed to make the team in 2019.
Aaron Burbridge has to be considered the sleeper at the wide receiver position for the Broncos this season. A sixth-round pick of the 49ers in the 2016 NFL Draft, Burbridge caught seven passes for 88 yards as a rookie – and he hasn’t played a down in a regular season game since. Burbridge has been on injured reserve or the 49ers practice squad during the last two seasons.
In college at Michigan State, Burbridge was a consistent receiver who won with savvy as a route runner. He’s not a speedy receiver, so perhaps his best chance to win a spot on the team is as a big slot. Burbridge performed well during minicamp and OTAs, coming down with clutch catches regularly. If he plays well in the preseason, Burbridge could push a player like Winfree or Langley to the practice squad.
Kelvin McKnight can run after the catch with the best of them. He’s not a blazing wide receiver, timed at 4.62 seconds in the 40-yard dash in the pre-draft process, but McKnight gets open with quickness. He can make crisp cuts without losing much speed and McKnight toys with defenders once he has the ball in his hands. A smaller target, McKnight has a small catch radius and that can make it difficult to target him. McKnight can make catches that seem out of reach, but that takes away from his ability to hurt a defense after the catch. If he can make plays on special teams in the preseason then perhaps the team keeps him around on the practice squad in 2019.
Romell Guerrier was fun to watch on film. Undrafted out of Georgia Tech this year, Guerrier was a big-play machine in college. He has an extra gear when going downfield and can blow by defenders who are left in the dust. Guerrier has “late hands” and won’t give away that a deep pass is coming in over his shoulder. That helps him gather in clean catches for the most part. Guerrier is not nuanced as a route runner, but that deep speed and ball-tracking ability make him an intriguing prospect.
Fred Brown has had a rough road in the NFL. Kicked off his college team at Mississippi State for violating the Bulldogs honor code (it was an academic issue), Brown went undrafted in 2017. Since that time, he’s flashed here and there on the Colts and the Rams practice squad.
In 2018, Brown caught seven passes for 99 yards and a touchdown in the preseason – but he hasn’t done enough to win a spot on a 53-man roster. He was signed to a futures contract by the Broncos back in January and has been working diligently to make a positive impression.
Trinity Benson has the skill set of a dangerous weapon in the pros. He’s a strongly built 5-feet-11, 190 pounds and that helps him break arm tackles after the catch. Not only is he quick on underneath routes, but Benson has a long stride to pull away from defenders down the field. Benson has the agility to work on jet sweeps for the offense or as a return man on special teams.
No matter what happens to him in the preseason, Benson is one player the Broncos want to save a spot for on the practice squad. A “toolsy” young wideout with playmaking instincts is someone they should want to keep around.
The status of this position largely depends on what kind of leap Sutton takes in year two. He should get plenty of opportunity to showcase his skillset as the top receiver for the Broncos. Sutton is going to command a lot of attention but can hurt a defense deep or in the red zone.
With the attention going to Sutton, that leaves Sanders one-on-one – a huge advantage for the Broncos. In 2018, Sanders seemed rejuvenated and he was playing like a young man. He has really embraced his role as a leader on this team, and his guidance is invaluable for players like Sutton and Hamilton. However, Sanders still wants the ball as much as possible – and that’s not a bad thing. Sanders will talk a big game, but so long as he’s healthy, he can back it up.
There are a few young receivers that are interesting prospects on this team. During the five preseason games the Broncos will play, we should be able to see plenty from this group. A pecking order should be established during the preseason and we’ll know who looks like they can make it in the pros during that time. Even though they lack experience, the Broncos have a nice group of young receivers with upside behind Sanders and Sutton.
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