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Denver's Stokley is a gem in the slot

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

As Eddie Royal was preparing to become an NFL player in the last year, he mimicked every move from one player.

He was told to watch Brandon Stokley. He was told to envision being Stokley. The expectation was that Royal would be a slot receiver in the NFL. Thus, he was told to study the best.

"I knew a lot about Brandon when I came here because I watched so much film of him," said Royal, whom Denver took with the No. 42 overall pick in April's draft.

As it turns out, Royal didn't have to study Stokley as much as he did. Royal became an instant starter in Denver as a rookie, and Stokley ended up as the Broncos' No. 3 receiver.

"Every day I learn something from Brandon," Royal said. "He is the best slot receiver ever to play the game. And I really believe that."

Royal is not alone. Denver coach Mike Shanahan routinely calls Stokley the best No. 3 receiver ever to wear a uniform. Quarterbacks of Stokley's past, Trent Dilfer and Peyton Manning, have also lauded Stokley as the best of his trade. Dilfer calls Stokley "one of the unsung heroes of the NFL."

Being known as the best player at his position will not get Stokley in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Slot receivers don't carry that kind of cachet. But Stokley will long be remembered.

"I can't say enough about Brandon Stokley," Shanahan said.

Stokley, who owns Super Bowl rings from playing with both Baltimore and Indianapolis, joined Denver last season. The Broncos were looking for a veteran receiver to help mold both quarterback Jay Cutler and young receiver Brandon Marshall. Stokley signed a one-year contract in March 2007, but he was so valuable Denver gave him a long-term deal in December, paying the No. 3 receiver like a well-paid No. 2.

Stokley, 32, is well worth the money. When Royal was hurt Oct. 5 against Tampa Bay, Stokley came in and was an instant force. He caught six quick passes and scored the Broncos' only touchdown in a 16-13 win.

Playing the next week against Jacksonville, Stokley scored Denver's first touchdown, but then left the game with a concussion, which he said this week was the eighth or 10th of his career. Denver's offense sputtered without him.

"Brandon is a big part of what we do," Cutler said.

The team is unsure if Stokley, who entered the NFL in 1999 as a fourth round pick by Baltimore from Louisiana-Lafayette, will to be able to play Monday night at New England in a pivotal game for the 4-2 Broncos in their final contest before the bye.

The high-powered Denver offense has struggled in recent weeks and has been banged up. The Broncos will need their full complement of offensive weapons in New England. They need Stokley.

Even though Cutler has Marshall and Royal, one of the best young receiving tandems in the NFL, and tight end Tony Scheffler, it is Stokley who completes Denver's dangerous pass offense. He always finds a way to get open.

"He's the great bail-out receiver. He always seems to be open," said Dilfer, who threw a touchdown pass to Stokley in the Ravens' Super Bowl win seven years ago. "Brandon is a class by himself as a slot receiver."

Dilfer said what makes Stokley so effective is his combination of physical and mental gifts. Dilfer said Stokley has very strong hands and he is a very solid route runner. He added that he always knew Stokley could get open and haul in passes.

"In addition to those physical gifts, he has a very high football IQ," Dilfer said. "He is a very easy receiver to throw to. He has a big window to throw to because of all of his abilities combined with his instincts. He's just a dream to throw to. Brandon is a true professional and he has made an art of being a slot receiver."

Stokley said he knew being a slot receiver was his only chance of sticking in the NFL. However, he had no idea he'd be in the league for 10 years or he'd be considered by some as the best slot receiver to play the game.

Being a No. 3 receiver is much like being a reliever in baseball. You never know how much you are going to play. When Royal went down with an ankle injury against the Buccaneers in the third quarter, Stokley had to play more than expected.

"I don't think it's an easy job," Stokley said. "You always have to be prepared. You never know how much you'll play. But it's my job and being prepared is wh
at my job is all about. I always have to be ready to help this team."

And Stokley does his job well enough that young NFL hopefuls like Royal study his every move.

"Eddie is smart," Dilfer said. "I suggest every young receiver watch film of Brandon Stokley."