John Elway made no secret about the desire to upgrade the wide receiver position this past offseason. In his season-ending press conference he expressed the desire to add speed to the group, so it wasn’t a shock when both Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler were drafted in the opening rounds of the 2020 NFL draft. Add in Tyrie Cleveland, who was drafted out of Florida in the seventh round, and the Broncos now carry 13 receivers on their roster. They’ll carry six, maybe seven into the regular season.
Back when I first predicted the Broncos’ 2020 roster, I thought both would make it, but perhaps that isn’t the case. Hamilton and Patrick did finish last season as the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, but how much does that mean when Emmanuel Sanders wound up as the Broncos’ second-leading wide receiver playing in just six and a half games in 2019?
Neither Patrick nor Hamilton played more than 13 snaps on special teams either, which is something many depth receivers need to do to carve out a niche valuable enough to justify a spot on the active roster.
DaeSean Hamilton - Starting Slot or Just A Guy?
One of the biggest strengths of Hamilton’s game coming out of Penn State in 2018 was his ability to create separation with his route running. The 23-year old schooled defensive backs at the Senior Bowl. While he possessed just adequate physical tools, he had the makings of a valuable slot receiver in the post-Sanders and Demaryius Thomas landscape. The DT trade and Sanders’ injury created a vacuum in the receiving corps in 2018 and Hamilton did his best to fill it. The rookie caught more than 50% of his receptions over the last month of the season. The arrow was pointing up.
The start of last season was so rough for Hamilton it shook Joe Flacco and Rich Scangarello’s confidence in him. Drops in his first two games led him to games where he was essentially frozen out. It wasn’t that Hamilton forgot how to get open, but his quarterback either failed to locate him when he was or lacked the trust that he could pull in the reception. He had just 14 targets between weeks three and 13, including four different contests where he never received a pass despite playing in more than 50% of the offensive snaps throughout.
Things got off the ground after Brandon Allen gave way to Drew Lock. Even after the killer drop in the Chargers game, the Broncos’ rookie quarterback gave Hamilton opportunities. The fact that 60% of his 2019 production came over those last five weeks gave many in Broncos’ Country hope that Hamilton had turned a corner and could still blossom into a weapon in his third season.
K.J. Hamler pours cold water on those hopes. Hamilton’s former teammate with the Nittany Lions has already drawn comparisons to DeSean Jackson, who had some of the best seasons of his career under Pat Shurmur. What’s likely going forward is Hamilton serves as the seat holder if the rookie needs time to acclimate to the NFL game, and will eventually cede his role and playing time to the more dynamic playmaker.
Tim Patrick - Is it too late to breakout?
Heading into training camp last year, I was quite bullish on the former Ute. He’s an underrated athlete who flashed a ton of promise with his stretch of playing time in 2018, such as when he schooled Richard Sherman. With some additional polish, I thought he had an outside shot at taking the WR2 gig from the recovering Emmanuel Sanders.
Unfortunately Patrick’s 2019 got derailed even faster than Hamilton’s did. He got hurt in the Broncos season opening loss to the Raiders and never caught a regular season pass from Joe Flacco. Patrick was reactivated from Injured Reserve ahead of week 11 and he made a clutch 4th down catch as Brandon Allen tried to stave off the upset.
The next two weeks were quiet ones for Patrick in large part because of the limitations of his quarterback. The Brandon Allen experience came to a crashing end in the brisk New York wind and Drew Lock failed to connect with him in his first start. The buzz Patrick stirred up in U.S. Bank Stadium was all but forgotten by the time the Broncos faced off against the Houston Texans and he made the most of it.
Switch release. The safety has to respect Courtland Sutton and Drew Lock dropped the ball between two DBs. pic.twitter.com/PH0f4UuMt8— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) June 19, 2020
Unfortunately for Patrick, it’d be a huge surprise if Jerry Jeudy does not quickly grab onto the starting boundary receiver position in training camp. Patrick’s fighting an uphill battle to a starting job or large role in the offense as one of the elder statesmen of a position group where most have more pedigree than him.
How do they fit in the 2020 offense?
One of the underrated factors to consider with both Patrick and Hamilton is how they were both brought in two coordinators ago. When the Broncos changed coordinators from Rich Scangarello to Pat Shurmur it marked a change in philosophy regarding receivers.
The new system places more importance on a receivers’ ability to separate downfield on isolation routes, which is a big reason for both Jeudy and Hamler’s arrival. Neither Patrick nor Hamilton have shown the ability to win with consistency in this area.
The good news is that Shurmur has coached long enough that he should be able to adjust and maximize the strengths both the young veterans have. Hamilton still offers enough as a separator on short to intermediate routes to be a contributor. Patrick is a size/speed mismatch for most defensive backs, and his comeback routes create a way to win if opponents commit to capping him vertically.
What also helps both Patrick and Hamilton is that their tape is littered with plays where they showed the willingness to do dirty work. With only one ball to feed a number of mouths, those who make the end of the depth chart will need to find ways to contribute on top of their pass catching. Blocking and running decoy routes are a big part of that, and while neither receiver played special teams last year both have experience from 2018.
Perhaps it’s just because I value the wide receiver position as much as anyone, but I think it’d be a mistake for the Broncos to part ways with either Tim Patrick or DaeSean Hamilton this season.
While the new system does leave me weary, either will emerge as more than role player, I suspect this season will prove how valuable such niche contributors really are. Rookie receivers are never a sure bet, even before you remember how both injuries and COVID-19 present a real concern.
Drew Lock and the offense would be lucky to have them both, and I hope Elway knows it.