- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the NFL's scouting combine just around the corner and free agency set to follow on March 11, today marks the third installment of a position-a-day look at where the Denver Broncos stand at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.
Today: Wide receivers.
One thing quarterback Peyton Manning believes is a necessity as he works through the to-do list on offense is familiarity with the receivers. It's clear how much he believes that every time he says it takes "years" to really build the comfort level it takes to have an elite passing offense.
Well, coming off a season when three Broncos wide receivers caught at least 73 passes to go with at least 10 touchdowns, the team has at least some uncertainty among the pass-catchers and there likely will be change at the position in the coming weeks and months.
The Alpha: No doubt here; it's Demaryius Thomas, who has officially moved from enormous-potential status into the league's upper crust at the position. He led all wide receivers in the league last season with 14 touchdown catches -- only Saints tight end Jimmy Graham had more -- and was the only wideout in the NFL to finish with at least 90 receptions and at least 15 yards per catch. He also was one of the few Broncos to battle his way to at least some production in what was otherwise a dismal Super Bowl loss. He finished with 100-yard games in five of the last seven outings in the regular season to go with two of the Broncos' three postseason games.
Salary cap: The Broncos have just two receivers from their 53-man roster of 2013 under contract for 2014: Thomas and Wes Welker. Welker, because of a $3 million base salary to go with a $3 million roster bonus, checks in at a cap figure for $8 million in '14, which is the fourth-highest cap figure on the team at the moment. Thomas' cap figure is $5.031 million.
Pending free agents: The Broncos will have to weigh the needs of the present against the demands of the future at this position. Eric Decker, with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with Manning at quarterback, is an unrestricted free agent in the coming weeks.
But Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season. The Broncos are going to have to weigh just how much of an offer they can make to Decker now and still commit what they likely will have to commit to Thomas to keep him in the future.
Andre Caldwell, who finished with three touchdowns among his 16 receptions this past season, is also an unrestricted free agent.
Who could stay: Caldwell could fit the balance of production/financial commitment the Broncos are looking for from him. They like the veteran's work, and Manning showed he was willing to throw it to Caldwell in almost any situation, including the scoring zone. The Broncos likely don't see Caldwell as more than a No. 4 receiver at this point, but, if the price is right, they would look at bringing him back.
Who could go: Decker is another matter. Sure, Decker would like to stay, and he has said as much, but a player's best crack at unrestricted free agency is usually the first one. And this is likely one of the few chances Decker will have in the open market with some bargaining power.
Many personnel people see him as a high-quality No. 2, but Decker representatives, on the heels of those back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with Manning at quarterback, will head into the bidding looking for No. 1 money. That might leave Decker with a decision for a bigger contract for a team that is rebuilding or simply with much less certainty on offense as opposed to considering whatever the Broncos offer him, which is not expected to be what he could get elsewhere.
From the Broncos' perspective, they're going to be selling the potential for success. From Decker's, he's certainly hoping a playoff team elsewhere will see him as a fit. However, it's clear several folks around the league who make the call on such matters noticed Decker's one-catch Super Bowl.
What they like/want: They'll be looking to add at least one receiver with size and athleticism to go with a physical edge to get off bump coverage. The book on the Broncos' receivers as the season wore on, especially in the Super Bowl, was they could be flustered and knocked out of their game by physical play.
The Broncos also need their pass-catchers to be savvy enough to handle all of the changes the team makes at the line of scrimmage and still be willing to roll up their sleeves to get away from the defensive backs when it's time to get into the pattern.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 4
They are going to have to give the position some attention. Their down-the-road plan took more than a little hit when their gamble to try to keep Tavarres King, a fifth-round draft pick in the 2013 draft, on the practice squad failed.
The Broncos briefly promoted King to the roster to keep the Green Bay Packers from signing him off of their practice squad in October. The Broncos then tried to get King through waivers a little more than a week later when Von Miller was set to return from his suspension, but the Carolina Panthers claimed King. King was at least expected to be part of the plan at the position moving forward. The Broncos just felt as if he had gotten a little too entitled as training camp drew to a close and a roster spot looked like a possibility, so they wanted him to work on the practice squad to settle him in a little more. They also kept 11 defensive backs at that time, as well as three quarterbacks, limiting their ability to keep another receiver out of camp.
So, they likely will have to dive in at the draft. A team that runs three wide quite a bit more than 70 percent of the time has just two receivers under contract who have started an NFL game.
2dEric D. Williams
9dEric D. Williams