- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the NFL's scouting combine set to open Feb. 17 and free agency to follow March 10, today marks the third installment of a position-by-position look of where things stand for the Denver Broncos at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitment, free agents and where their needs are greatest.
Today: Wide receivers. | Thursday: Tight ends. | Rest of the series
The Broncos were the only team in the NFL to have two different receivers finish the 2014 season among the league's top 10 in receiving yards. Demaryius Thomas finished with a Broncos' single-season record of 1,619 yards, which was second in the league, while Emmanuel Sanders was fifth in the league with 1,404 yards.
The two were also second and fifth in catches in the NFL as well with 111 and 101, respectively. For Sanders, those totals amounted to 34 catches and 664 receiving yards more than he had in his best of four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And what it really means is the Broncos have quite the starting point at the position as they install a new offense.
The Alpha: It's Thomas in every way. A team captain this past season, he had 10 100-yard games, seven of those in consecutive weeks, including a 226-yard, two-touchdown day against the Arizona Cardinals in October. His size-speed combination puts him among the league's best and his run-after-the-catch abilities have been a significant part of the Broncos' scheme on offense since Peyton Manning's arrival. Since Manning signed in 2012, Thomas has had three consecutive seasons with at least 92 receptions, at least 1,430 yards receiving and at least 10 touchdowns.
Salary cap: Thomas is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on March 10, but he is also expected to receive the franchise player tag if the Broncos can't work out a long-term deal. Sanders is under contract for two more seasons and will count $5.85 million against the salary cap in '15 while Andre Caldwell will count $1.55 million and Cody Latimer will count $842,875 against the cap. Jordan Norwood, who had a good chance of making the roster out of training camp last summer before suffering a season-ending injury, will count $745,000.
Pending free agents: Thomas is the one that will not get away this time around. Unless they have a staggering change of heart, the Broncos have long planned to use the franchise tag on their leading wideout, especially after they have been unable to work out the details of a five-year deal that has been on the table at times over the past year. Last year the franchise player salary for a wide receiver -- the average of the top five contracts at the position -- was $12.312 million and it is expected to be higher this time around. The franchise player tender is for one year and is guaranteed the moment the player signs it. It also would take up that amount of salary cap room as well, or likely roughly half of the Broncos' workable cap space at the moment. Wes Welker is also scheduled to be a free agent, but is not expected to be a part of the Broncos' free agency plan moving forward, at least nowhere near the level of his last deal -- two years for $12 million.
Who could stay: Thomas and Sanders are the starters with Latimer, who played just 37 plays on offense all season, 14 of those in the Broncos' win in Oakland in early November, set to carve out a bigger role in his second season. Caldwell is a reliable veteran who has kept his speed through the years. Norwood is a player the Broncos' former coaching staff was intrigued by and he was set to make the final 53 coming out of camp until he was injured. He has skills the new staff will be looking for as well.
Who could go: Welker's role and production in the offense dipped dramatically in a season that began with a two-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, to go with a concussion he suffered in the preseason. Welker's 49 receptions this past season were his fewest since he had 29 catches in 2005, and defenses that once considered him a player they had to think about using double coverage to keep him away from the ball, no longer felt that way. Even against largely single coverage, Welker was targeted just eight times combined in the final three games of the regular season as he did not find and/or create much room to work, and was targeted just twice in the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
What they like/want: How the new offense looks when all is said and done remains to be seen and constructed after Manning makes a formal announcement about his plans for '15, but the group blocked well in the run game last season and will be asked to pick it up even a little more there. But they like what they have plenty, especially at the top of the depth chart and in-house they believe Latimer is ready to carve out a role in the offense.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 2, they'll look depth, but after they formally get Thomas on board for the season, they have their impact players.
How the Broncos' new offense looks when all is said and done remains to be seen, but the wide receivers group overall did a solid job in 2014.