Suspensions ruin Broncos' quiet summer
September, 2, 2014
By Jeff Legwold | ESPN.com
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For the second time in less than a week, the Denver Broncos have a starter facing league discipline to open the season. A team that had coveted a quiet summer has had anything but that as the regular-season opener approaches.
Tuesday, it was revealed Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker is facing a four-game suspension for violation of the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy, according to my sources and sources for ESPN's Adam Schefter. Last week Broncos kicker Matt Prater was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Unlike the substance abuse policy, which requires multiple tests to reach the level of a four-game suspension, the league's policy on PEDs goes immediately to the four-game suspension on the first positive test if the player's appeal is not successful.
Welker's appeal was heard by league officials Aug. 20-21 when Welker was excused from practice for what the team publicly described as "personal reasons." The Broncos were practicing against the Houston Texans on both of those days and Welker suffered a concussion in the Aug. 23 preseason game against the Texans. But for a team that wanted what cornerback Chris Harris Jr. called "the no-news approach" preseason after the DUI arrests of two front-office executives and linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating the substance abuse policy overwhelmed the conversation a year ago, the team is now back to dealing-with-adversity swirl it thought it had escaped.
On the field, the Broncos had been optimistic Welker, who has had three concussions in the past 10 months, would be available for at least partial duty in Sunday night's regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts. Welker returned to practice, on a limited basis, Monday for the first time since his injury and the Broncos were hoping he would clear enough benchmarks in the league's concussion protocol to be cleared for full participation by the end of the week.
AP Photo/Jack DempseyWes Welker, who caught 73 passes for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, is facing a four-game suspension.
The Broncos were preparing for the Colts with the possibility Welker would be in the lineup. Welker's suspension means the Broncos will implement the plan they had been developing had he been sidelined because of the concussion.
And, now a team that has touted its single-minded focus of getting back to the Super Bowl -- to as John Elway said, "win that last game of the year and get that world championship" -- has had two veteran starters disciplined by the league in a week's time.
To that end, they can go a little bigger and line up in a two-tight end look where Jacob Tamme is essentially a slot receiver. In Manning's first season with the Broncos, the year before Welker was signed, Tamme was the third-most targeted receiver on the team (85 targets), behind only Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
Given Emmanuel Sanders' ability to line up in the slot, as well as tight end Julius Thomas', they can create matchup issues in the middle of the field, even if they surrendered some speed overall.
They can also maintain their proclivity to keep things three wide as they did almost 75 percent of the time last season, a total that hovered near 90 percent of the time in the postseason.
And that's why Sanders was signed, why Cody Latimer was selected in the second round of the draft and why Andre Caldwell was the first player the team re-signed, just before free agency opened this past March.
Against the Colts, the Broncos could mix and match more with this group of receivers than they would have last season when Welker missed the final three games of the regular season. In those three games, Decker was targeted 27 times, Demaryius Thomas was targeted 24 times, Julius Thomas was targeted 21 times and Caldwell 10 times.
In the three games Welker missed, Tamme played nine, 52 and 49 snaps (two of the three games he played more than 30 snaps all season), but was targeted by Manning two, three and four times.
In the end, a team Elway has said is built to face "the bumps in the road that will come our way, and you're always going to have bumps in the road" will now have to prove it once again.