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Broncos have plenty of options in replacing Eric Decker

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Our position-by-position 2014 Denver Broncos training camp preview continues with a look at wide receivers.

Emmanuel Sanders makes a catch at mini-camp, as other Broncos receivers look on.
Emmanuel Sanders makes a catch at mini-camp, as other Broncos receivers look on.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

One of the first people Peyton Manning got to know after inking his five-year contract with the Denver Broncos in 2012 was then-third-year wide receiver Eric Decker. It was Manning and Decker and Julius Thomas taking part in Manning's first workouts as a Bronco, and it was Decker who most clearly benefited from Manning at quarterback. Decker went from a six-reception rookie year and a 44-catch sophomore campaign to enjoy back-to-back 80-plus-catch, 1000-yard receiving seasons with Manning.

Credit that change in statistics to a quarterback like Manning, but also credit Decker for maximizing that opportunity. In two seasons Decker became one of the NFL's best #2 wide receivers.

But the Broncos decided not to retain Decker this offseason and put into place the long-term plans to replace him. Part of that was the signing of unrestricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders - a receiver with a different skillset than Decker, but with the experience the Broncos need to keep their record-setting offense on track. Part of that was the selection of second round draft choice Cody Latimer, a virtual twin of Decker coming out of college. Finally, the Broncos extended Andre "Bubba" Caldwell, the team's fourth wide receiver over the past two seasons who proved he can fill in as the #2 receiver in his two-touchdown performance against the Chargers in 2013.

Eric Decker's old job is Sanders' to lose, but the Broncos head into training camp with a Plan B and Plan C at the ready... not to mention a host of Plan Ds.

How many will make the team?

A year ago, the Broncos kept only five wide receivers out of training camp, and one of them was Trindon Holliday (who was hardly a wide receiver). It's possible they'll only keep four "pass-catching wide receivers" again this year, although five seems more likely.

Roster locks

Demaryius Thomas (#88)
DT enters his fifth season in a Broncos uniform, and while the hope is that Thomas will sign an extension and remain in Denver for a long time, he enters the 2014 season with an uncertain future. The fact is Thomas has provided the Broncos with two straight seasons with 90+ receptions (94, 92), 1400+ yards (1434, 1430), and 10+ touchdown receptions (10, 14), following understandably lower numbers in the Orton/Tebow years during his first two seasons. Despite the fact that he has proven himself with those numbers already, DT will be vying for a big new contract with every play in the 2014 season; expect Thomas to be a huge factor in the Broncos' high-powered offense yet again this season.

Emmanuel Sanders (#10)
Emmanuel Sanders has some big shoes to fill in his first season in Denver, looking to replace the production of Eric Decker, who put up career bests of 87 receptions, 1288 yards, and 11 touchdowns in the 2013 season. Sanders chose Denver because it is, as he called it, "wide receiver heaven"; he'll now have the chance to prove that, looking to surpass 1000 receiving yards in a season for the first time in his career. Changing quarterbacks and offenses from Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh's run-heavy offense to Peyton Manning's high-octane passing attack in Denver should vastly improve the talented young receiver's numbers. Sanders will likely line up in Decker's former #2 receiver slot, while providing Wes Welker with some respite in the slot as well.

Cody Latimer (#14)
Cody Latimer, Denver's second round pick in the 2013 draft, was the highest selected receiver since the Broncos took Demaryius Thomas in the first round of the 2010 draft; if DT demands more than the Broncos can afford, Latimer may just end up being Plan B come 2015. That aside, Latimer will look to secure time as the fourth receiver in Denver's offense, although he'll be poised to see more game-time if the oft-injured Welker or Sanders are unable to stay healthy.

Wes Welker (#83)
Wes Welker's first season was just as impressive as most Broncos fans hoped it would be (when he was actually playing). Unfortunately for Welker, he spent far more time sidelined in 2013 than he, or fans of the team, would have liked him to, missing three games due to concussions. According to Welker, he is not concerned about the long-term effects of his concussions, but it's hard to believe that his career will continue much longer if he continues to suffer so many serious head injuries. Welker will more-than-likely occupy the slot receiver role in Denver for the second straight season.

Roster bubble

Andre Caldwell (#12)
Caldwell is the second-most tenured Broncos receiver, heading into his third season in the blue-and-orange, following his UFA signing in the 2012 off-season. Caldwell re-signed a two year deal with the Broncos in March, marking the first signing the Broncos made when free agency opened. After making an appearance in just eight games in 2012, Caldwell dressed for all 16 regular season games in 2013, starting two, which resulted in 16 receptions, 200 yards receiving, and three touchdown receptions. Caldwell is poised to compete for the number four receiver slot in camp, behind Thomas, Welker, and Emmanuel Sanders. He's on the bubble simply because the Broncos only kept four receivers a year ago.

Nathan Palmer (#13)
The Broncos' R-and-B-singing receiver has spent time on four NFL rosters since going undrafted in the 2012 draft. With just one reception to his name in the NFL, Palmer does not appear to be of overwhelming talent, and the fact that the Broncos boast one of the most talented wide receiver cores in the league does not help him. Palmer will likely occupy a spot on the practice squad.

Greg Wilson (#15)
Wilson was signed to the practice squad in January, and then signed to a future contract in February. Wilson will not likely factor into the Broncos season, other than as a practice squad member.

Broncos Training Camp

Jordan Norwood (#11)
Jordan Norwood was signed to a futures contract in December of the 2013 season. Despite a moderately-successful college career at Penn State, where he received all-Big Ten honorable mention in his senior season, Norwood has not been able to stick long with any NFL team, seeing time with the Browns, Eagles, and Bucs before landing in Denver.

Isaiah Burse (#19)
Burse, an undrafted free agent signing out of Fresno State, is the most likely of the bunch of UDFA receivers to make the squad out of training camp. Burse could play a role in the kick and punt return game, and become an understudy of Welker and Sanders in the slot.

Bennie Fowler (#16)
Fowler is an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, where he racked up 93 receptions, 1341 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns in 43 career games over four seasons. Fowler is touted as a talented, yet inconsistent receiver, who has the raw talent but never turned it into a dominant college performance. Fowler will likely wind up on the practice squad or as a training camp cut.

Greg Hardin (#87)
Hardin, at least for the time being, will wear Eric Decker's former number. Hardin is another UDFA, who attended North Dakota State; in his senior season there, Hardin managed to amass 67 receptions, 1153 yards, and seven touchdowns. He's a long-shot to make the roster, but the small-school prospect should find a spot on the Broncos' practice squad.

Quotable

"I'm never going to go into the season, but the first couple of weeks, we can continue to talk about it. After the second week of the preseason, we'll want to have had something done, one way or another." - John Elway, on the timing of Demaryius Thomas contract talks.