Before the Broncos’ played a snap in 2020 they were dealing with injury woes in the receiver room. After a Pro Bowl season in 2019, Courtland Sutton injured the AC joint in his right shoulder days before the season opener and missed the week one contest against the Tennessee Titans. He wasn’t alone, as he was joined by the Broncos’ second round pick K.J. Hamler, who also missed the first game of the 2020 season with a hamstring injury.
Sutton and Hamler both returned for the Broncos’ second game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but only one made it through the contest. Sutton played 31 snaps before a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee ended his season. Hamler would finish the game with three catches for and a rush attempt for 57 yards.
In Sutton’s absence, both of the Broncos’ rookie receivers were forced into bigger roles. Jerry Jeudy became the co-WR1 with veteran Tim Patrick and led the team in receiving yards, but also dropped 13 passes by Sports Info Solutions’ charting. Hamler finished with 469 total yards and three touchdowns, but hamstring issues dogged him and a concussion suffered in the Broncos loss to the Los Angeles Chargers landed him on Injured Reserve.
Heralded as one of the most promising receiving corps. In the whole NFL, the Broncos’ pass catchers are facing a critical 2021. Hopefully health luck and stability at quarterback grants them a chance to develop.
Before Joe Flacco got hurt, Courtland Sutton had the 3rd most 25+ receptions in the NFL.— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) July 3, 2021
Here's every 20+ yard play across the back half of 2019. pic.twitter.com/GPoWOG3dP5
Who will start?
While it’s impossible to say how the Broncos will open every game this far out, Pat Shurmur utilized 11 personnel on 66% of the Broncos’ plays last season. During his time as head coach of the New York Giants they were above 60% each season, so it seems like safe to assume three receivers will start more often than not.
Standing 6’3 and 218 lbs. with explosive athleticism that belies his size, Sutton is a prototypical X-receiver who shines in contested catch situations with his ability to go up and win jump balls. A hot-and-cold rookie season gave way to an improved route runner who showed more consistent hands in 2019. Just 25, there’s reason to believe Sutton’s peak is still ahead of him so long as he can regain the speed and suddenness he showed before the 2020 injury.
Across from Sutton, the other lock for a starting job is Jerry Jeudy. Standing 6’1 and a shade under 200 lbs. Jeudy already showed he’s one of the better separators in the NFL as a rookie. He enters his second season needing to prove he can improve his timing and do a better job securing catches. With his route running, athleticism, and size, he has the versatility to play significant snaps in the slot or outside, which gives Shurmur and the Broncos’ offense flexibility with how they fill the third receiver spot.
So long as health luck prevails, the Broncos’ coaching staff look as if they’ll have to decide between Tim Patrick and K.J. Hamler. On this side of camp, I expect a rotation with both seeing time.
When the play design calls for Jeudy to play snaps in the slot, I expect Tim Patrick to step into the second boundary role. Standing 6’4 with the frame necessary to box out and win contested catch situations gives Patrick mismatch potential against smaller defensive backs.
Patrick isn’t the same kind of separator Jeudy is or the explosive athlete Sutton was in 2019, but has the straight line speed, catch radius, and footwork to threaten teams deep downfield. He’s also perfectly capable of serving as a reliable target across the middle of the field on money downs.
When Jeudy’s playing outside it will open the door for K.J. Hamler to run routes from the slot. At 5’9” and hovering around 180 lbs. It’s in the Broncos’ best interest to try and limit his exposure to physical press corners, and the slot will give him ample opportunity to stress defensive backs with his jitterbug acceleration.
Heading into his second season, the big question hanging over Hamler is health related, as he’s suffered multiple concussions and hamstring issues in his football career to date. His frame also creates catch radius limitations that may always dog him, and to make the most of what he offers whoever the Broncos’ start at quarterback will need to do a better job hitting him in stride than Drew Lock did a season ago.
When I looked at George Paton’s time with the Vikings, I found that Minnesota prioritized acquiring wide receivers and defensive backs, so it should come as no surprise the Broncos added what seems like a plethora of unproven pass catchers this offseason.
A high school running back, receiver, and quarterback who spent his time as a pass catcher and returner during his Nebraska career, Pierson-El entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2018. His journey to the Broncos is one of relentless perseverance.
When Washington waived him a month into his NFL career, Pierson-El took his talents north of border to play for the Montreal Alouettes, where he lasted one game. After he was cut, it was off to the upstart AAF where he was teammates with Broncos’ nose tackle Mike Purcell on the Salt Lake Stallions. When the league folded Pierson-El received an opportunity to play for the Oakland Raiders and found his way to the practice squad, but his contract wasn’t renewed after the 2019 season. In search of a chance to continue playing football, Pierson-El joined the XFL and played with the St. Louis Battlehawks until the league suspended operations. A free agent once more, he found his way to the Las Vegas Raiders’ practice squad until his contract was terminated last October.
After trying out for the Broncos this spring, he signed a contract to pursue a roster spot in camp. Standing 5’9” and quicker than fast, I expect him to compete for time as a backup slot receiver. It would help his cause if he can make an impression as a returner. His next NFL catch will be his first.
Jordan Ta'amu leads a 96-yard eight-point touchdown drive, where he racked up 101 yards, finishing with a score to De'Mornay Pierson-El and PAT to Marcus Lucas pic.twitter.com/PGxM7xN4cx— Arif Hasan, off-season edition (@ArifHasanNFL) February 29, 2020
Like Pierson-El, Amara Darboh has bounced around a ton since he entered the NFL as the Seattle Seahawks third round pick in 2017. He finished his rookie season with eight catches for 71 yards, but didn’t make the team the following season and found his way to New England. After a failed physical, Darboh returned to the Seahawks and spent 2018 on Injured Reserve.
Following his stint in the Pacific northwest, Darboh spent time on the Buccaneers, Steelers, and Panthers’ practice squads. Both the Bucs and Steelers promoted him to the active roster, but he didn’t see any playing time.
Darboh signed with the Broncos after a tryout in June. Coming out of Michigan, Lance Zierlien compared his game to Mohamed Sanu. He’s 6’2 possession receiver who doesn’t play as fast as his 4.45 40-time hints at. He wins with savvy rather quicks, but may impress the Broncos’ coaching staff with his willingness to do the dirty work such as blocking and special teams.
Anybody else remember this absurd one-handed catch by Amara Darboh? pic.twitter.com/iEIqeIBlZw— Sidelines - Michigan 〽️ - Big Ten Champions (@SSN_Michigan) June 8, 2021
Paton’s first sixth round pick was a 6’3 211 lb. receiver out of Auburn who was a four-sport star in high school. He grew up a lifelong fan of the Crimson Tide, so it came as a big surprise when he turned down Nick Saban. Committing to the Tigers came with benefits, however, as he quickly found his way to playing time and finished his collegiate career with 2,124 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns.
On the field Williams wins with his play strength, savvy, and catch radius. He’ll mix difficult catches with easy drops, but displays the courage to work the middle of the field with defenders looming. He’s a willing blocker who has the physicality to carve out a niche on special teams early in his career.
Williams looks like a bet on tools and he could develop into a capable boundary receiver with the flexibility to play a big slot in time. His ability to go up and win contested catches should give him a chance to make an impression this preseason. After the last couple years with Bo Nix, he’s proven himself capable of adjusting to off target throws, but he’ll need to improve his route running and eliminate the concentration drops to become more than a role player and special teamer.
An undrafted free agent out of Colorado State, Jackson opted out of the 2020 season when the Mountain West originally postponed their season and never turned back. The decision may have hurt him as scouts were looking for him to build on his breakout junior campaign when he finished with 77 receptions for 1,119 yards and eight touchdowns.
Jackson’s size will almost surely earn him comparisons to Tim Patrick during camp. Standing 6’5 and change, he’s a big body who knows how to box out and win contested catches, an important trait he’ll need to build around because he lacks the athleticism to create consistent separation from NFL corners.
An undrafted free agent who almost quit football in 2018, Dukes received a paltry $1,000 signing bonus to join the Broncos. For comparison’s sake, offensive tackle Drew Himmelman received 150 times that. After catching all of 32 passes for 400 yards and five touchdowns in his career, it isn’t a huge surprise. The Broncos took a low risk swing on Dukes 6’3” 216 lb. frame.
“I’m going in with the mindset of ‘I’m the best receiver there,’” Dukes said of getting a chance with the Broncos. “I’m going to make sure they know who I am. The goal is to be around for a very long time and make sure that all the 31 teams that passed up on me realize ‘Man, we really passed up on a good one.’”
Stop me if you read this already: An undrafted rookie free agent, Mack is a big target who profiles as a contested catch guy with his 6’5” and 220 lb. frame. He displays promising hands and the savvy to win with a defender on his hip, and it could prove necessary. Like Jackson and Dukes, there’s big questions about his athleticism that could hurt his ability to make an impression on the Broncos’ coaching staff this preseason.
How will the final depth chart look?
If Shurmur’s history with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants is any hint, the Broncos will carry between five and seven receivers on their final roster. Now that the Broncos cut Damion Willis, there’s going to be 14 entering camp with Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, and K.J. Hamler looking like obvious locks at the top of the depth chart.
Caught between Paton’s plus-sized acquisitions and the four big names are Kendall Hinton, Trinity Benson, and Tyrie Cleveland. The trio have their work cut out for them as holdovers from Elway’s tenure who have yet to establish themselves as valuable role players. Benson’s hung around as a practice squad contributor for a couple of years now, Cleveland’s a 2020 sixth round pick who played 204 snaps season ago, and Hinton’s performance as the Broncos’ QB5 sent his wristband to the NFL Hall of Fame.
They could all be gone by September first.
With 11 players left to fight for what may be as few as one spot, the bubble battle at receiver will be one to watch all preseason. With so many oversized undrafted rookies in the mix, a clear delineation may emerge between the receivers who are fighting for the 2021 roster and who may find spot on the practice squad waiting for them. With Sutton and Patrick’s set to expire after the season, it’d make plenty of sense for the Broncos to groom a young receiver or two.
Diontae Spencer’s status also bears monitoring. At 5’7” and 173 lbs., his size clearly limits his viability as an offensive player, so his spot on the roster is almost completely dependent on his value as a returner. If another player steps in and impresses the coaching staff while also contributing to the offense or defense, the 29-year old could become expendable.