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Sunday, February 23, 2014
Speed at WR will thrill Broncos at combine

By Jeff Legwold

INDIANAPOLIS – In roughly the time it takes to say “free agency’’ four times, an already uphill climb for Eric Decker to remain a Denver Broncos wide receiver got a little more steep Sunday.

In addition to running back Knowshon Moreno, Decker is the Broncos’ most prominent unrestricted free agent to be when league-wide bidding begins March 11. He’s had back-to-back 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown seasons.

He is a proven football commodity, homegrown and groomed as a pro in Denver. And now the decision comes for draft-built teams: what to do when their own picks come to the end of their original deals?

“We go through each position and each player and evaluate every player,’’ Elway said at the combine when asked about Decker. “ … I think it’s a matter of we look at them and the season that they’ve had. Eric had a slow start, but really came on and obviously was very productive last year."

Still, Elway said, Decker and the rest of the Broncos’ pending free agents will “have to hit the market; the market sets those.’’ So, just as the Broncos were already leaning toward letting Decker hit the open market that inclination got a little stronger with each passing sprint Sunday inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

It’s an unofficial total, but a group of wide receiver prospects believed to be the fastest overall before any of them arrived here, were even a little more fleet than expected. At least 12 of this year’s draft hopefuls at the position uncorked 40-yard dash times hand-clocked in the 4.3s.

While just two of those sub-4.4 times held up against the electronic clock, it’s still a blindingly fast group that will influence plenty of roster decisions in the coming weeks, including the Broncos.

In that total were the oft-seen undersized burners such as 179-pound John Brown of Pittsburg State (4.30 hand-timed) or the 5-foot-9¾, 189-pound Brandin Cooks (4.30). But there were also the kind of players who fit the size profile the Broncos will be looking for in that spot in the formation.

There was Saginaw Valley State’s Jeff Janis, a 6-2 7/8, 219-pounder who ran in the 4.3s in his first 40 Sunday to go with an unofficial 4.44 on his second pass. By way of comparison, Decker measured at 6-3[,  217 pounds at the 2010 combine.

Janis has been a popular topic of conversation for the Broncos and was one of many players the team met with at the Senior Bowl.

There was also Clemson’s Martavis Bryant (6-3¾, 211) timed at 4.34 and Alabama’s Kevin Norwood (6-2, 198) with a 4.39.

History has not always been kind to wide receivers drafted in the first round, at least in their rookie seasons in the NFL. Despite that, the Broncos have a Pro Bowl selection as their No. 1 in Demaryius Thomas, have a Pro Bowl selection at tight end in Julius Thomas and they have a receiver with five 100-catch seasons on his résumé in the slot in Wes Welker.

They can put a rookie, the right rookie, at the other spot and make it work if Decker chooses to chase the biggest contract he can get on the market.

The Broncos will want a receiver with some size, they’ll want that speed, and they'll want a player who can snag the ball in a crowd. But in an offense where quarterback Peyton Manning makes most of the calls at the line of scrimmage, they’ll need the biggest, fastest quick thinker they can find.

They’d like Decker back, at their price, and Decker has said he would like to come back, at his price. But with Thomas, Thomas and Welker all slated to be unrestricted free agents after the 2014 season, the Broncos need someone on the depth chart to be in a position to contribute next season and the ones that follow since its unlikely the Broncos and Decker will find economic common ground.

And, if they didn't blink Sunday, the Broncos might have seen the guy they're looking for.