Can Broncos find fit in deep WR class?

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
7:30
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The more years that go by, the more draft picks that are made, the more it confirms former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf was right.

Wolf, a longtime personnel man who built Super Bowl teams by focusing on the draft, once said more mistakes were made drafting wide receivers in the first round than at any other position, including quarterback. There certainly is evidence to support Wolf's assessment. There is a growing pile of receivers selected in the first round who have had trouble adjusting to the more physical coverages in the NFL, and the variety of routes they are asked to run.

The Denver Broncos, and every other team seeking wide receiver help in next month's draft, should heed Wolf's words because this year’s draft class has plenty of size and speed at wide receiver. Many scouts believe there are quality receivers to be found even well into the third day of this year's draft.

[+] EnlargeThomas
Aaron Ontiveroz/Getty ImagesThe Broncos have taken 22 receivers in the past 19 drafts, but those players have accounted for just eight 1,000-yard seasons. Demaryius Thomas has two of those.
The Broncos re-signed Andre Caldwell just before free agency opened and signed Emmanuel Sanders, but Wes Welker's concussion history means they still will have to give a long look at this year's receivers class. Odds are a wide receiver will be the best player available at some point when they’re pulling the names down.

"And in talking to our scouts, we know that’s a good position this year," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. "It's a deep board overall with a lot of players to be found, but we always want to take that best player, guys we think and hope can be Denver Broncos for a long time."

But since Mike Shanahan's first season in Denver -- 1995 -- the position has not been kind to the Broncos in the draft, despite plenty of effort. In the past 19 drafts -- 1995 through 2013 -- the Broncos have selected more wide receivers than any other position.

They have taken 22 wide receivers over those 19 years, just ahead of running back (18), cornerback (17) and linebacker (16). Three of those 22 -- Ashley Lelie, Marcus Nash and Demaryius Thomas -- were selected in the first round.

Of those 22 homegrown prospects, only two have made the Pro Bowl for the Broncos -- Brandon Marshall and Thomas. Marshall was selected in the fourth round of the Broncos' 2006 draft class. Thomas was a first-round pick in the 2010 draft.

Of those 22 receivers selected in the past 19 drafts, four have posted a combined eight 1,000-yard seasons. Marshall had three 1,000-yard seasons before he was traded in the Josh McDaniels-led housecleaning of Shanahan players. Thomas has had two, and the recently departed Eric Decker had two and Lelie had one.

Take a look at those four 1,000-yard receivers and the immediate commonality is size. Three of them -- Marshall, Thomas and Decker -- tipped the scales at more than 215 pounds and all four were at least 6-foot-3.

That size has made a difference among the Broncos' prospects. Most top receivers in college hold the athletic advantage over the majority of defensive backs they face, so defensive coordinators aren't often inclined to be aggressive in coverage. Those receivers see a steady diet of off coverage and have seasons where they essentially have enjoyed free release after free release to get into their routes.

Most don't react well when that changes in the NFL. And even a player such as Thomas, who has risen into the elite at the position with Manning's arrival, has had some adjustments to make. Lelie never consistently developed into the No. 1 receiver the Broncos had hoped. Lelie never made the transition from his run-and-shoot days at the University of Hawaii, when he had plenty of open space to work in the pattern, to the more physical NFL.

Decker and Thomas needed some time, and a more accurate quarterback, to find their way over the 1,000-yard barrier. Marshall, who spent a season at safety in his college career, flourished with the rough stuff almost immediately, and despite being the most raw of the four as an NFL rookie, Marshall was a 1,300-yard receiver by his second year in the league. In the end, the performances of the best players the Broncos have selected at receiver were based on whether they could make room for themselves to catch the ball, either by speed, route running or brute force.

One of the size-speed exceptions over those previous 19 drafts came when Shanahan selected Eddie Royal in the second round of the 2008 draft -- Shanahan's last with the team. Royal wasn't a big receiver (5-10, 187), but Shanahan thought Royal was the best receiver in that draft at getting off bump coverage.

Royal played to that assessment as a rookie with 91 receptions for 980 yards. But after Shanahan was fired, Royal struggled with injuries and never got acclimated to the changes in the offense over the following three seasons with the Broncos.

Those 91 catches are still a career-best for Royal -- by 32 receptions -- as are the 980 yards.

So, in a wide receiver class loaded with size, the Broncos will have plenty of big targets to choose from up and down the board. The ones who will have the earliest impact will have the ability to pick up the Broncos offense, and everything quarterback Peyton Manning does at the line of scrimmage, in just one set of offseason workouts and one training camp.

So size will matter, that and the ability to consistently win at the line of scrimmage.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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