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DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 3: Tight end Noah Fant #87 of the Denver Broncos catches a pass in front of linebacker Mack Wilson #51 of the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter at Empower Field at Mile High on November 3, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Browns 24-19. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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Broncos Bye Week Report Card: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

The Broncos have a bye in Week 10, as they are basically at the halfway point of the 2019 season. Through nine games, Denver has a 3-6 record. They sit at the bottom of the AFC West and they have one of the worst records in the entire conference.

After the team’s Week 9 win over the Browns, head coach Vic Fangio commented on the Broncos record.

“We are 3-6. Could we be better? Yes. Could we be worse? No. I don’t really know how to answer that question other than we’ve had more than our chance to have a much better record than we do, but it is what it is,” Fangio said.

The Broncos have a really strong defense. They rank as fourth in the league in terms of yards allowed per game so far this season. Under Fangio’s guidance, the Broncos have bought in defensively and are making plays consistently even though they have had a lot of injuries to key players on that side of the ball.

While the defense can be suffocating, the offense can suck the life out of the game. They are averaging only 16.56 points per game, ranking No. 28 in the NFL after nine weeks of action. This team looked better offensively in the game against the Browns, but it’s only one game and they have much tougher tests coming up after their bye.

This week, I’m going to take a look at each position on the roster and hand out grades for their performance so far. In today’s blog, let’s grade the wide receivers and tight ends.

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Wide Receivers

The grade for this wide receiver position would be much different if Emmanuel Sanders was still with the team. However, as we sit here at the bye week, the grade has to be lower because there’s just not much here outside of one incredibly gifted player.

The Broncos rank No. 25 in the league with only 92 receptions for wide receivers in the 2019 season. It’s a number that gets a big chunk out of it when you take Sanders’ 30 receptions out of that mark. Simply put, this passing game doesn’t do much, but it does feed second-year pro Courtland Sutton early and often.

Sutton has developed at an incredible rate during his pro career. Last year, when Sanders was hurt, Sutton was not ready to be the team’s No. 1 receiver. This year, Sutton was the top receiver from the start of 2019 and has not looked back.

Many will point to his improvement as a route runner, and for good reason, because last year Sutton’s routes were raw. Sutton took a ghost step or two at the start of his route, he would tip off the direction he was going before making his break, and he rounded out his cuts consistently. Now, Sutton is quick into his route, does not lean into his route and is crisp when he changes direction.

Sutton is a top-10 receiver in the NFL in terms of talent, and his 692 receiving yards ranks ninth after nine weeks. Keep in mind, Sutton is producing at this high level while the team is barely throwing the ball compared to other teams in the league. In fact, Sutton’s 42 receptions ranks No. 20 in the NFL. There are seven players who are not wide receivers (running backs, tight ends) who have more receptions than Sutton after Week 9, yet none of them have more yards.

In addition to his production as a receiver, Sutton is a strong leader in the locker room. He was not afraid to step up into that position – even when Sanders was still in Denver. Sutton has a strong work ethic and leads by example behind the scenes. He also will get fired up and work to get his teammates fired up on the field during game day.

The position grade should be much higher if the team had another wide receiver behind Sutton that was emerging. Simply put, they don’t have that player on the roster – not at this time anyway.

The player who should fill in as that No. 2 receiver after the bye week is Tim Patrick. He began the season as a reserve receiver but injured his hand in Week 1 and was put on Injured Reserve. After missing the required amount of time and recovering fully, Patrick is ready to return and has already been announced as one of the two “designated to return” players for the Broncos. Patrick has a ton of fight/heart, in addition to a fine size/speed combination.

DaeSean Hamilton has failed as the second receiver. He was drafted last year like Sutton, but Hamilton has disappointed ever since training camp. When he’s not hurt, he’s dropping passes or not even playing. Hamilton has been targeted 23 times this season, but only has 11 catches for 106 yards. During the last two games, Hamilton has only been targeted one time and has zero catches.

Fred Brown is an intriguing deep sleeper prospect for the Broncos because he has a large catch radius and will go all out to make catches. Diontae Spencer is the return man they got from the CFL and has been worked into the offense just a bit. Juwann Winfree is a sixth-round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft who has a ton of potential, but he has yet to make any sort of impact as a receiver since he’s mostly been a healthy scratch this season.

Position Grade: B-

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Tight Ends

The Broncos shocked the world when they did not select inside linebacker Devin Bush with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Instead, they moved back to No. 20 and selected Iowa tight end Noah Fant. The team has had a huge need at the position since the days of Julius Thomas and no tight end had made even a minimal impact for them in years.

Fant began this year as the team’s starter, although they did have Jeff Heuerman as a co-starter. While Fant was relied on as the pass-catcher, Heuerman was asked mostly to block.

The team has 33 receptions by the tight end position this year, ranking No. 20 in the league. The 394 receiving yards by tight ends ranks No. 17 in the NFL after nine games. The production hasn’t been there to this point, but there’s a chance for an upswing in tight end production going forward.

Rookie tight ends historically struggle to make much of an impact in the NFL. Fant is on pace for about 40 catches this year, which would be a good number ranked historically. Right now, Fant has 23 catches for 300 yards and two touchdowns.

Most of those yards came from the last game against the Browns, when Fant had 115 yards. It was clearly Fant’s best game of his rookie season, and it might go down as the best day of his season when all is said and done.

The offense looked better with Brandon Allen at quarterback – at least it looked like it should because of the bootlegs and rollout plays. That helps out everyone catching passes, including Fant. Perhaps as Allen (or Drew Lock) starts, we could see Fant continue to get better and better.

He had trouble with drops earlier this season but was a stand-up guy and answered all the tough questions thrown his way. Now, Fant is responding and could be more involved as the season rolls on.

Heuerman has been down for a game with a knee injury, so the team has turned to Troy Fumagalli to fill the void. Fumagalli has vacuum hands as a receiver but he is not the same caliber of blocker that Heuerman is. The overall grade for the position is low right now, but if Fant gets better (like he should) then it could climb higher at the end of the season.

Position Grade: C-

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Coming tomorrow… OL and DL