2009 Denver Broncos - Breaking Down the Roster - The Receivers

What happens to Denver's passing game relies heavily upon what happens with the Brandon Marshall holdout.  The team wouldn't gain or lose much in terms of Marshall's presence or absence respectively, but the receiving corps would be structured very differently.

Denver has a playmaker in Eddie Royal, who has played at the #1 spot before (during a Marshall suspension).  Denver also has an excellent slot receiver in veteran Brandon StokleyDenver brought in Jabar Gaffney this offseason, a vet of the NE system.  Denver also has 2009 5th-round draft pick Kenny McKinley to train up.  More important than having a star on your receiving corps, it is crucial to have multiple targets who all have a good level of talent.  So if Marshall stays, Denver has multiple talents.  If he goes, Denver has multiple talents.  The only question is how the players line up on the depth chart.

The key is that "good" in depth beats "excellence" at the top at the receiver positions.  We'll explore this further while sorting out the receivers Denver has going into camp...

 Brandon Marshall photo courtesy of the NFL

Brandon Marshall - WR #15

Age - 25

Style - Possession; excellent run blocker

Contract highlights - (hat tip to Rotoworld) 2009: $2.198 million, 2010: Free Agent

MHR-U code name - "BM"  (The jury is out on if this means "Batman" or "Bowel Movement")

Brandon Marshall is at once both a great and terrible player.

On the plus side:

  • Can out-muscle any defensive back in the NFL.  This means he can run over a DB for yards after a catch, and also that he is an excellent run-blocker.

  • Is not afraid of physical contact.  Will fight for the ball.

  • Has excellent moves in tight quarters.

  • While not a speedster, he still has more "football" speed than many possession receivers.

  • An arm injury may have caused several drops in '08, but he continues to heal.

The negatives are equally impressive:

  • Legal troubles off the field are always a problem with the potential to face suspensions.

  • Shows flashes of stupidity (to name one: a TD celebration that was political in nature and was narrowly averted by wiser teammates).

  • Attitude - "holdout"

  • Recent hip surgery.

If Marshall is with the team in '09 he can play at the #1 spot and be very productive.  But even so, questions would remain.  Is he a long-term answer for a team that isn't going to tolerate "me first" attitudes and off-field issues?  Between hurting his arm in an embarrassing off-field incident last year, or having hip surgery this year, Marshall may be an injury risk as much as a behavioral issue.

For these reasons, Marshall is hard to gauge.  He is capable of playing at #1, but he might really be falling to the #2 spot behind Royal.  Such a move by the coaches would be understandable, and yet the demotion of a player to a lesser-depth spot would only reignite existing problems.  I seriously question Marshall's long-term potential to play for Denver, and yet his trade value is going to be much lower than his playing potential.

For now, let's place Marshall at #1 if he stays with the team.  Given his run-blocking skills and his ability to create yards after receptions, he would be a terrific short- and mid-range target for a QB adapting to the Denver pass system.

Analysis - Marshall would easily make the cut, and would likely make the top WR spot on the team.  However, his future with Denver beyond this year is in serious jeopardy.  At the time of this writing, I would place Marshall's chances of playing for Denver this year at about 70/30.

Eddie Royal photo courtesy of the NFL

Eddie Royal - WR #19

Age - 23

Style - Speed; superhuman agility

Contract highlights - (hat tip to Rotoworld) 7/24/2008: Signed a four-year, $3.955 million contract. The deal contains $2.4 million guaranteed, including a $1.55 million signing bonus. 2009: $385,000, 2010: $470,000, 2011: $555,000, 2012: Free Agent

MHR-U codename: "Royal with Cheese" (With affection, from the movie "Pulp Fiction")

Royal has it all.  High talent, great attitude, good character, team focused.  I pick him to be the future of the Broncos.

Positives:

  • Can turn on a dime.  Few CBs in the league can stick with him on a route when he changes direction.  (May have destroyed CB DeAngelo Hall's career in the first Denver/Oakland matchup in 2008 by making Hall look less-than-average in Royal's rookie debut).

  • Quickness, speed, and the ability to create distance after making a change of direction.

  • Reliable hands.

  • Exhibits great character on and off the field.  Plays where he helps the team (dropped from #1 to #2 to make way for Marshall after the latter's suspension).

Negatives:

  • Royal was considered a prototypical slot receiver coming out of college.  When he hit the pros, he may have been labeled a #2 receiver because he played behind Marshall.  Fortunately, this stereotyping won't affect professional coaches, who may very well play Royal at #1 down the road.

Royal is rapidly passing Marshall as the fan favorite WR for Denver.  While most fans admire Marshall's abilities, his off-field distractions have created a rift amongst fans that preceded even the McDaniels/Cutler debacle.  But Royal has played like a Pro Bowler, and done so without drawing attention to himself.  Fans appreciate his amazing talent and his quiet professionalism.  It would be nice if Marshall stays and allows Royal to chew up opposing #2 CBs, but Royal is already a top-notch talent that can be a dangerous threat at #1.

Royal can give Denver's new QB a deep threat when the defense needs to be stretched vertically.  Underneath, Royal can keeps defenses honest by forcing them to divide the assignments of safeties between both sides of the field.  Most teams won't have a #2 CB that can consistently cover Royal.  Those few teams that either have a strong #2 CB or that play a lot of zones will fare only slighter better.

As Royal gains experience, his route running will improve.  Combined with his his agility, it is reasonable to assume that CBs won't be able to cover him effectively as he ages.

Analysis - If Marshall returns, Royal will make the team.  He would likely play at the #2 spot.  If Marshall does not, Royal again easily makes the team, but starts at #1.  In either event, unless Marshall undergoes an epiphany in '09, there is a good chance that Royal will someday become the Rod Smith of Denver's future by playing at #1 full time.

 Brandon Stokley photo courtesy of the NFL

Brandon Stokley - Slot Receiver #14

Age - 33

Style - Possession; tough

Contract highlights - (hat tip to Rotoworld) 12/7/2007: Signed a three-year, $10.1 million contract extension through 2010. The deal included a $5 million signing bonus. 2009: $900,000 (+ $560,000 "signing bonus"), 2010: $1.4 million, 2011: Free Agent

MHR code name - "The Slot Machine"

A veteran that may well be the best slot receiver in football today.

Advantages:

  • Solid hands.

  • Is not afraid to take a hit when going for passes over the middle.

  • Can muscle his way through traffic to fight for the ball.

  • Runs routes better than most slot receivers.

  • A veteran who has played the position for years, he knows all of the tactics involved when reading the coverage arrayed against him.

Negatives:

  • Is a concussion risk.

  • A threat for other injuries (history - Achilles)

  • It is unknown when Stokley will start to decline due to age.

Some would call him the top slot receiver in the NFL.  He earned his reputation playing alongside Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne in Peyton Manning's amazing Colts passing game.  He catches what comes his way, and relies on his strength and power when facing safeties and LBs in the middle of the field.  Sacrifices himself (perhaps too much) to make any catch.  As a sly veteran, he can fool most nickelbacks (many of whom are younger players trying to work their way up depth charts).

Fans were amazed when a string of injuries forced Stokley to step up to the #1 spot briefly and held his own very well in 2007.  The only real knocks on Stokley are his age and injury history.  He's stayed healthy for the most part with Denver, but he takes some scary shots to move the ball forward for the team.

Analysis - If Marshall returns, Stokley may have a challenge for the slot with Jabar Gaffney.  Without Marshall, Stokley should be a lock for slot.

   photo courtesy of NFL.com

Jabar Gaffney - WR #10

Age - 28

Style - Possession; effective run blocker

Contract highlights - (hat tip to Rotoworld) 2/27/2009: Signed a four-year, $10 million contract. The deal includes $3 million guaranteed. 2009-2012: Under Contract, 2013: Free Agent

MHR-U Code name - "Gom Jabbar"

Jabar has been practicing at the #2 WR position opposite Eddie Royal (in Marshall's absence).  If Marshall returns, Jabar could play at slot or #4!  Where Jabar ends up may be one of the most under-analyzed controversies going into camp.

Advantages:

  • Good hands

  • Good run blocker

  • Can use an initial burst of speed to gain separation on short routes

  • Has played in the NE system

Negatives:

  • Denver is his fourth team since 2002

  • Doesn't sustain speed after his initial burst

Jabar will make the team, so that's out of the way.  The fascination with Jabar's situation should be that he may end up as high as #2 or as low as #4 on the depth chart.  He's been practicing at #2 in camp, but if Marshall returns he may compete with Stokley for the slot position.  In my opinion, Stokley is such a role player at slot that he just shouldn't be moved to #4.  On the other hand, Gaffney doesn't have the speed to play at #4 (a spot where sure hands often take a back seat to stretching the field for "better" receivers).  Neither Stokley nor Gaffney should be playing #4.  Perhaps both players will play at slot, regardless of whom gets the coveted slot position on the official chart.

If Gaffney plays at #2, he'll be the short-to-medium range option while Royal stretches the field north/south.  With safeties pulled long strong side and short weak side, TEs and slots would benefit from any holes created short on the strong side (particularly routes that would carry them past a free safety playing too close on Gaffney).

Got that?  We might have to throw it all out.  Fifth-round pick Kenny McKinley doesn't expect to start at #5 on the depth chart, and neither does Chad Jackson

Analysis - Gaffney will make the team.  The big question is how high or low he ends up being on the depth chart.

 vmedia.rivals.com/IMAGES/Player/video/MCKINLEY-20070818-150-CJD-3.JPG photo courtesy of the NFL

Kenny McKinley - WR #11

Age - 22 (ROOKIE)

Style - Well-rounded

Contract highlights - Not yet signed at the time if this writing.

MHR-U Code name - If he works out, perhaps "McDaddy" (as in Mac Daddy).  If he bombs, perhaps "They killed Kenny!" (as in South Park).

A few tidbits (gleaned from BroncoBear's definitive work on our receivers):  Steve Spurrier calls him the best WR he ever coached.  Kenny broke Sterling Sharpe's college records for yards gained and receptions.  His number is one of only five retired by USC (South Carolina), and he's caught a pass in each of his last 43 games.

Advantages:

  • Speed

  • Route running

  • Hands

  • Agility and leaping ability

  • Elusiveness

Disadvantages:

  • His frame may dictate that he could be an injury risk at the pro level

  • Will have a hard time against press coverage

  • Can be out-muscled fighting in heavy traffic

This kid may be a shock to the NFL.  Remember that the so-called "experts" (including me), thought Royal would be relegated to the slot position.  Well, Kenny is a prototype slot receiver too, but his abilities are immense.  The competition for slot is intense (see Stokley and Gaffney), so once again the presence or absence of Marshall is key.

Kenny is well rounded.  Blessed with good hands, speed, agility, and character, he can "do it all".  His major drawback is his light frame, which limits his "physicality" in traffic and might make him an injury threat.  Trainers will do what they can to put together a routine for him to become limber while building up protective muscle.  As with other slight players, Kenny may prove the experts wrong.  (USC's opponents are still smarting).

Analysis - How does this kid not make the cut?  The only problem may be whether or not he starts.  His future looks bright.

 Chad Jackson  photo courtesy of the NFL

Chad Jackson - WR #16

Age - 24

Style - Speedy, but tough.

Contract highlights - 2009: $535,000, 2010: Free Agent

MHR-U code name - If he doesn't make the cut, "Hanging Chad".  If he plays well, "Action Jackson"

The first thing that comes to mind is that Jackson just doesn't break the starting roster for teams he tries to play for.  And yet, coaches see something in him that makes them keep bringing him back.

Advantages -

  • Can accelerate past most CBs and stay in high gear.

  • Catches passes without breaking stride.

  • Excellent agility, and elusive.

  • Not afraid to catch in heavy traffic.  Will fight for the ball.

  • Another player with a NE history.

Disadvantages -

  • Significant injury history

  • Does not run crisp routes

  • While he jumps and extends well for balls, he uses poor mechanics to catch balls "on the numbers"

  • Hasn't played up to his potential yet, and could be a prospect with a limited window to achieve.

Perhaps with good coaching, this kid can break through whatever is holding him back.  He has potential to be a scary, deep-field threat.  But the prime focus of any WR is to stay on the field and catch balls.  Jackson has problems in both areas.

Despite his speed and deep-threat prowess, he plays very well in short ranges (ala NE).  While he is agile going for the ball and eluding tacklers, he isn't disciplined on his routes.  His toughness is solid, as he fights for the ball by jumping or diving, and will catch a ball that requires some acrobatics.  He is agile enough to evade tacklers one-on-one, and tough enough to plow through some tackles in other instances.

Oddly, while his athleticism allows him stretch for catches (vertical and horizontal), he has a tough time catching the passes that most players love; "on the numbers".  If he can stay injury free, and work on inside catches, he may have a turnaround in the future.  At the rate he's going, he's on the bubble.

Analysis - The first five players on the list will make the roster.  Jackson has a good shot, but is not home free.  He's in the mix, and will have to bring his best game to make the roster.  

The Rest

Brandon Lloyd  photo courtesy of the NFL

Brandon Lloyd is a 27-year-old receiver.  His agility allows him to out-jump anybody (a great sideline trait), and he has a reputation for sacrificing his body to make great catches in midair.  Unfortunately, he isn't fearless in traffic and avoids hits, and gets injured here and there.  He has shown some flashes of potential in the past (good years in '04 and '05, as well as a deeper maturity in '06 and '07).  He will be in the mix with Jackson and others for the last few spots.

Beyond Lloyd, the names get a little fuzzier.

Matt Willis  photo courtesy of the NFL

There's Matt Willis, a 25-year-old signed from and to the Raven's practice squad several times dating back to May 4th of '07 (until Denver picked him up in December).

  photo courtesy of Wikimedia

There's also 28-year-old C.J. Jones.  Our own Guru has the most current information on Jones here.

Overall Analysis

Let's say Marshall stays.  My guess is the following chart:

  1. Marshall (a demotion rocks the boat more than needed)
  2. Royal
  3. Stokley

  4. Gaffney

  5. McKinley

  6. Jackson

  7. Lloyd

  8. Willis

  9. Jones

Take your pick on how many receivers we take.  The range is probably a bare minimum of six.

Without Marshall, I would move Gaffney up 2 spots (!):

  1. Royal

  2. Gaffney

  3. Stokley

  4. McKinley

  5. Jackson

  6. Lloyd

  7. Willis

  8. Jones

Without Marshall, Gaffney has been practicing at the #2 position.  With Marshall on board, I don't think Gaffney should bump Stokley.

In both charts, McKinley is the lowest player I would call a lock to make the cut.  Marshall's presence allows McKinley more time to grow in the system, but Marshall's absence would allow McKinley to get started right away in 4-receiver sets.

In both charts, we have players at the #4 position that are good matchups against #4 CBs, and a great slot.  I think Gaffney holds his own at #2, while Royal excels at #2.  At #1, Marshall would be solid, while Royal would be just as good.  In other words, the presence or absence of Marshall is nothing to fret about.

If Marshall stands with us, things are great at WR.  If he isn't with us, we have the depth to absorb the loss; we would remain a solid team at WR.  I imagine that our OL will protect our new QB, and I think our running game will be exciting.

Orton will have everything he needs to do well, and his more conservative approach (read "accuracy instead of forcing") should serve him well.

I'll take depth and good players over excellence at one or two spots any day.  It works for Brady, it worked for Cassel, and it should work for us.

All the best,

HT

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