Dust off the superlatives and break out the thesaurus - Eddie Royal may be vested with the nickname 'Cheese' but his real name in 2008 turned out to be 'Money'. At 5'10", 182 lbs, this is a young man who shattered the axioms about not counting on wide receivers in their first year. He showed the world that he was the top receiving rookie in the NFL in just his first game, blasting DeAngelo Hall and the rest of the Oakland Raiders backfield for 9 receptions, 146 yards and a TD en route to a Denver destruction of their division rival. He would finish the season with 91 receptions and 980 yards, with 5 TDs and only three drops despite some hand problems caused by Jay Cutler's hard throwing style. Royal showed that he can run tight routes, gain separation, get yards after the catch, adjust to the ball in the air and, oh, yes - be a constant threat as a return guy. In addition to destroying the theory about the struggles of 1st year receivers he also blew up the one about return guys not making the transition to receiver effectively.
With solid character, ceaseless effort and tremendous skill, Royal is one of the many young bright spots for a Denver squad going through major changes. Could he step in as a #1 receiver? Ask Steve Smith. In fact, think of Smith without the 'thuggery' tag that he has allowed to develop around him. Royal is the kind of player that every team dreams of having. It's interesting to reflect on the fact that most of the Broncos faithful blew their collective gasket when we drafted him last year, with many demanding to know why we didn't go with DeSean Jackson, now of the Philadelphia Eagles. Now we know...
2. Brandon Stokley
Last year, the 5'11" 192 lb. Stokley shook off the effects of a concussion that plagued him previously and showed that he is still one of the penultimate 3rd-down slot receivers in the league. He produce 49 receptions, 528 yards and 3 TDs for the Broncos. He's likely to spend this year teaching Kenny McKinley how to play the slot like an All-Pro, and if he can get across just some of the tricks of the trade that he's developed during his 10-year career, McKinley will be much the better for it. Talking about money - over those 10 years he has fumbled just 3 times and only 1 of them came with his previous employer, Indianapolis. None in his two years in Denver and none of them in the last four years shows us that he's still one of the best slot receivers in the NFL.
3. Jabar Gaffney
Coming over from the New England Patriots during this offseason, the 6'1" 200 lb Gaffney has a lot to offer the Broncos. He's familiar with the new system's terminology, used to Head Coach Josh McDaniels and a big supporter of his and has a lot of skill. Over the span of his 7-year career (the past three with New England and Houston before that) he's played in 107 games and caught 256 balls for over 3,000 yards. Gaffney put up 169 first-down receptions and 15 TDs over that stretch of time. Look for him and new quarterback Kyle Orton to spend a lot of time hooking up together.
4. Kenny McKinley
This 5th-round choice for the Broncos was the key to the South Carolina Gamecocks offense for the past three years. Unintimidated by pressure situations, the incredibly productive McKinley was described by Head Coach Steve Spurrier as the "best wide receiver (he's) ever coached". His jersey was retired when he left school, one of only 5 players from USC to ever have been honored that way; he may yet bring a Brandon Stokley-like presence to the slot. His slight frame (5'10", 192 lb.) is perhaps his biggest concern, but there's simply no denying his level of skill. Some receivers are just a lot harder to cover than others. McKinley is like that. He runs good routes, has incredible hands and broke Sterling Sharpe's collegiate school records for receptions and receiving yards as well as catching a pass in each of his last 43 games. He did well in the Combine with a 4.44 40-yard dash, a 37-inch vertical leap, a broad jump of 113 inches and a 20-yard shuttle of 4.1 seconds, but his on-field production was the key to drafting him. He was ranked anywhere from the 2nd round to the middle-5th, so getting him in the 5th round was a good acquisition. He has great vision, solid instincts and is extremely elusive as a receiver. If he can stay healthy he'll fill in for Stokley whenever Brandon eventually falters. I hope that it's a long time. Look for him to struggle at first against press coverage
5. Chad Jackson
Chad Jackson is being gifted with the best opportunity of his short career. A 6'1" 215 lb receiver out of Florida, Jackson was picked by the Patriots with the 4th pick of the 2nd round but hasn't been about to break into the rotation with either New England or Denver. Over the past three years Jackson has only played in 18 games (12 of them in his first season), but he has had an elusive potential that has kept coaches willing to find ways to keep him on the roster. He has a history of kickoff returning that has also played in his favor. Shifty and quick with good acceleration, he often tends to round off his routes and must improve there. He came out of college a year early and that may have also worked against him as the problems with his game have been ones of an immature (professionally) player.
Yahoo's draft profile on him said in part, "He is best when running short area routes, where he shows better crispness in his breaks. He has the size to compete for the ball in traffic and make body adjustments, but does like to jump and body catch a bit. Jackson excels at catching in a crowd and has the courage to combat for the jump balls. He will extend and pluck the ball, but did struggle with his consistency in the past (lacks softness and will juggle the ball). When he catches with his body, he will bobble the ball, but when he extends, he can catch and run without having to gear down." The short routes that Orton is best at and which have predominated in New England over the past 4 years should play to his advantage. This is his best, and perhaps his last chance to show a team that he can be an NFL wide receiver. Elusive with good strength and the leg drive to get the yards after the catch, Jackson could be a fine addition to this year's team if he simply matures as a player.
6. Brandon Lloyd
Recently of the Chicago Bears, Lloyd hasn't found his niche in the 7 years that he's played for San Francisco, Washington and Chicago. Despite a talent for circus catches and athletic contributions, Lloyd has developed a reputation for not enjoying hard contact and having troubles maintaining his focus. It will be interesting to see how he handles the "no-excuses" atmosphere of Josh McDaniels' team. When he's on track with a team he can provide 45 catches a year and 600 yards a season as he did in San Francisco in 2004 and 2005.
Additionally, the Broncos have Matt Willis, a 6'0" 200 lb. 4th-year player out of UCLA who is trying to catch on as well as Lucas Taylor (6'1" 195) and Nate Swift (6'0" 185), two CFAs trying to earn a place on the practice squad.
1. Daniel Graham
You have to love the Broncos' options at tight end. Daniel Graham, a 6'3", 257 lb. tight end, a former Patriot himself, is equally talented at blocking and receiving and who leads this group. Graham has always wanted to be more of a receiving tight end but his skills at blocking have made that untenable. He's exactly what most teams would like at the position - durable, reliable and effective. He runs good routes and is an equally safe bet on third down or in the red zone and can be counted on for 2-3 receptions per game as well as that many or more key blocks. He is familiar with the Patriots-based terminology which also gives the Broncos an edge going into the new season.
2. Tony Scheffler
At 6'5" and 250 lbs, Tony Scheffler is a wide receiver in a tight end's body. Although his blocking is currently underrated (it improved visibly over the course of 2008), Tony is a receiving tight end, first and foremost. Scheffler redshirted his freshman year at Western Michigan and played slot receiver the following year. Scheffler switched over to tight end in 2004 which explains his less-than-stellar blocking skills in the past. Learning quickly, he achieved All-American status in 2005. He set a school season record for tight ends with 57 receptions for 670 yards (11.8 avg) and nine touchdowns that year. He also garnered Academic All-MAC honors for the third straight year (finishing school with a 3.63 GPA), a fact that lends credence to the belief that he will flourish in Head Coach McDaniels' cerebral approach to football. Drafted with the 29th pick of the 2nd round by the Broncos, Scheffler suffered a foot injury that impeded his progress during his first two season with the Broncos, but was undeterred by it during 2008 when he put up 40 receptions for 645 yards, providing 49 yards per game and a rousing 16.1 average with 28 first downs and 3 TD. If by any chance Brandon Marshall doesn't play for Denver during the 2009 season, some of the catches may well go to this big target with good hands. He's averaging 597 yards per season over the past two years.
Scheffler doesn't have great top-end speed but he's extremely explosive off the line, often catching opposing linebackers, safeties and even cornerbacks unaware. Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, Coach McDaniels shows no interest at all in parting company with this talented receiver who is still mastering the tight end position. He wasn't required to spend much time in the weight room in college, but still managed 32 repetitions on the bench press during a post-Combine public workout and is working diligently to get even stronger now that he's in pro football. His combination of size, quickness, explosion and soft (9.25 inch) hands are rare in a man of his size. Scheffler is still putting on muscle, despite a frame that is both big and ripped. Look for him to enjoy his role in Coach McDaniels' scheme.
3. Richard Quinn
The newcomer to the group, Quinn came by way of the Broncos third pick in the 2nd round (pick #64), creating a small stir among the faithful. His days at the University of North Carolina required him to stay in to block for two reasons - UNC had several NFL-ready players who could play receiver and their offensive line was porous at best. Coach Butch Davis has readily admitted that he under-utilized Quinn's receiving abilities. During the last minicamp, he made a diving catch near the end zone that eliminated for the onlooker's minds any concerns with his receiving talent. He also caught well and ran good routes at his Combine and Pro Day workouts as well as the 12 private workouts that various NFL teams put him through. That total should give you an idea of how much interest there was in Quinn, who used to pretend to be Jerry Rice when he was a kid.
But it's certainly his blocking that got most people's attention. Draft Ace put it this way: "Impressive size and strength. A truly dominant blocker. Acts like a 6th offensive lineman in North Carolina's offense." cfnscout.com said this, "One of the biggest question marks in the draft, he’s big, very strong, and a good blocker with refined technique; he could be thrown on a team right away and produce for a running game. Can he catch? cdsdraft.com just said, "Bigger and stronger than most TEs available this year. A true in-line blocker with better hands than you would think. Was not used that much in the passing game, and thus did not get a chance to really show what he can do in that area. Solid worker. No real downside." That summed it up pretty well.
By the way, Texas was looking to take Quinn in the third round if the Broncos hadn't gotten him with that pick. Comments regarding where he 'should' have gone are kind of like those on the value of a house. A house is worth what folks will pay for it. So is a draft pick - if another team is going to take him before you pick next and you want him, you have to make the move. A few teams had called Quinn's agent Peter Schaffer and told him that they were taking Quinn in the 2nd round, but for various reasons those picks fell through. The Broncos did take him, giving them two excellent blocking tight ends; both of whom can also catch well and a huge pass-catching specialist who can also line up at WR in some packages. Not a bad setup. For those who are interested, there was a good comment that gave some things to think about regarding Quinn.
Coach McDaniels has made it clear to all that running backs in his system (whatever that system may be) are going to do three things well - block, run and catch. He has a fine spread of backs from rookies to veterans and all of them are multi-talented.
1. Peyton Hillis
One of the most versatile players on the Broncos this year, Hillis is currently lining up at RB, FB, WR and TE and it's only June. Add to that his special teams work and you wonder if they won't trot him out on defense in some package just to see what would happen. Hillis has long been known for his soft hands and solid yards after catch numbers: He did it in college and over his rookie season and this year won't be different.
2. Correll Buckhalter
Buckhalter is usually running with the 1st team in OTAs, but he'll have to win out over Hillis and Knowshon Moreno to keep that slot. Given the realities of an NFL season, look for him to have a secure job with the Broncos and to either start or get regular snaps. He's got very good hands and should fit in well with general approach of McDaniels' receiving running backs; although he only started six games last year he had 13 receptions in that time. Buckhalter is interesting because as the game goes on, he gains strength - he averages 6.0 ypc for attempts 11-20, while gaining 4.9 on attempts 1-10.
3. Ryan Torain
Torain is a great unknown, starting with whether he can stay healthy for more than a few plays. If he can, he's said to have big-play talent and good hands as a receiver. He might add yet another dimension to an offense that appears to have all the tools.
4. LaMont Jordan
Jordan has a lot of things going for him. He's familiar with the New England terminology and playbook, he's big and strong, and no one minds knowing that you can go to Jordan in a pinch. The issue might be how to find a slot for him, and the option of going to IR with Torain may occur to some folks. Jordan's biggest downfall might be that he didn't catch a pass at all last year but he does have over 1,300 yards receiving in his career.
5. Knowshon Moreno
Knowshon has great balance, vision and skill, which happily includes the ability to make the catch and make the yards after the catch. He's going to need to in this offense, which should depend on short passes and screens to the running backs. That's right up Moreno's alley. Moreno is also a great unknown; is Josh McDaniels going to use a constant rotation of his backs or use Moreno, as some have suggested, as an every-down primary back? We'll know soon.
All in all, it's hard to argue that the Broncos have a sizable stable of talented and effective receivers, regardless of what position they supposedly play. To conclude, I'll leave you with a quote from Phil Simms' Sunday Morning Quarterback. He was fielding a question regarding the tight ends including Mark Bavaro leading the New York Giants in receiving one year.
"...and because they were our best receivers (Note: the tight ends) we designed plays for them. We moved them. We split them out. We put them at tight end. We ran them down the field. We ran them short. We did just about everything we could do with them in the passing game.
"If the tight end is not of that caliber, then you change formation, you move players around and you get a wide receiver in the tight end position and he runs the tight end routes. That's what all teams do. the plays they run are exactly the same, regardless of who they have running the pass routes. Instead of the fullback running into the flat they send the tight end into the flat. If they put a wide receiver where the tight end would usually go, that's because the wide receiver is better than the tight end."
Innovation is the only constant; change, the only thing that doesn't vary. If one player goes down, another must step up. In the case of the Broncos, you have a team with a young Head Coach who has been a tremendous teacher and innovator at the coordinator level. Now he will have to step up and perform as well as a head coach. As for the players - this short piece should show clearly that the Broncos have no shortage of options at receiver. We have big receivers like Scheffler and Quinn, fast receivers like McKinley, short, quick receivers like Royal. We have a group of running backs who have multiple skills; Jordan and Hillis can work the short-yardage game, Moreno can work the flat, Buckhalter can fill in wherever he is needed. Graham and Quinn can clear the way for other players, but each can also chip and go. The permutations are endless; the possibilities limited only by ingenuity and skill.