In 2014, John Elway ushered in the biggest free agent class in team history (besides Peyton Manning). Elway managed to bolster the Broncos defense by adding edge rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. Those three studs were some of the biggest and most sought after names that offseason.
With those three Pro Bowlers added to the roster, many believed Elway was done with the impact signings. Elway added a fourth big-name player to that free-agent class. At the time, that player had yet to become a big name.
That player was Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders was not a first day free-agent signing. He was not considered one of the best available free agents going into that offseason. Sanders was going to sign with the Chiefs before literally ditching them and to come to Denver. Sanders’ first contract for the Broncos was very affordable – three-years, $15 million with $6 million guaranteed.
Sanders had an immediate impact in his first season with the Broncos. In 2014, he totaled 101 catches, 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns, and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. While he was not a big name when he signed the contract, Sanders proved to be just as effective as the three star free agents.
While the names are not as big as they were in 2014 (and two were acquired by trade), Elway has his big three of 2020. Cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and offensive lineman Graham Glasgow are all proven players expected to make an immediate impact in Denver.
With the big names out of the way, can Elway find his Sanders for 2020?
The answer is yes. He is still available and his name is Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins. Higgins has played the past four seasons with the Browns after being drafted out of Colorado State University.
As an alum of CSU, I have to admit, I’m a little biased towards the Broncos acquiring Higgins. So to make sure that my desire for the Broncos to land Higgins actually had logic to it, I reached out to Cecil Lammey. Cecil explained Higgins is like Sanders before Sanders joined the Broncos. There are flashes of talent, but he has yet to accumulate the numbers to back it up.
If you compare Sanders and Higgins numbers from their first three years, they were on an almost identical trajectory with receptions, yards and touchdowns. The difference is their fourth season. In his fourth season, after the Steelers parted ways with Mike Wallace, Sanders was given a bigger stage to shine. It was that year that Sanders really began to develop, amassing 67 receptions for 740 yards.
Higgins fourth season was a disappointment. He finished with just four receptions for 55 yards. He battled a knee injury early and was also buried on a depth chart that included Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
The Browns were also notoriously dysfunctional last season. A fresh start with a young and exciting team like the Broncos might be what Higgins needs to start fulfilling his potential.
Higgins is a bigger body than Sanders, but like Sanders, he has the crisp route running and versatility to play both outside and in the slot. He has the hands to make the tough catches in the middle of the field and down the sidelines.
The Broncos do not currently have a No. 2 wide receiver on the roster. With Courtland Sutton, the Broncos have their next Demaryius Thomas. Higgins can be the next Emmanuel Sanders.
The most-appealing aspect of signing Higgins would be that the Broncos do not have to break the bank to sign him. It would be very low risk. Given Higgins dip in numbers in 2019, the Broncos could sign for less than they signed Sanders for in 2014.
The team-friendly contract would also provide the Broncos flexibility in the draft. The 2020 NFL Draft is known to be one of the deepest at the wide receiver position. The Broncos can sign Higgins and still draft a wide receiver in one of the first two rounds. Depth at wide receiver has hurt the Broncos late in the last two seasons and they’re now in a position to improve.
Higgins’ nickname is Hollywood. In 2014, Emmanuel Sanders proved he was a star, all he needed was the opportunity. In 2020, Hollywood is ready to break out and the Broncos are the perfect fit for the former Colorado State Ram.