ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In this air-powered era of football, it takes something unusual to separate an effective passing game from one that is truly elite, and nearly impossible to stop.
It's not simply the quarterback. While a top-drawer quarterback is a blessing, plenty of teams have passers with the accuracy, arm strength, intelligence and poise to bring a team into the championship conversation. The difference, then, is often the number of elite, game-changing downfield targets each offense possesses.
Last year, the Broncos learned that they had two in their midst, as the promise of 2010 draft picks
But plenty of teams have a pair of elite targets. The tipping point is when it becomes a trio. For some teams, the combination includes at least one tight end; for others, it's three wide receivers. Two elite targets, you can contain, although it's difficult. Three means you're asking questions of defenses that are nearly impossible to answer.
Fast-forward nearly a decade, and enter
Opponents have known since 2007 that Welker was Brady's underneath security blanket, which allowed him to average an astounding 112 catches per season in New England. But his success was about more than just being the most low-risk option when Brady took the snap.
"He really has an ability to read coverages and I think he takes it as seriously as a quarterback does," said Manning. "That really has worked well for him, and as a quarterback, you sort of appreciate that."
That means knowing when to go short, and when to attack deep, to streak up the seam instead of curling or slanting underneath. On the practice field, Manning and Welker have already turned such a moment into a touchdown; during a June practice, Manning launched a pass that hit Welker in perfect stride.
"It's everything you thought," Welker said. "The balls are just so accurate and you come out of your break and the ball is just there. It’s almost like a long handoff sometimes. He definitely makes it easy on you."
But practice wasn't always easy.
Early organized team activities, the timing between Manning and Welker was balky compared with Thomas and Decker, which could be entirely attributed to Welker being the most recent arrival among the veteran receivers. As the weeks progressed, the timing became crisper. By minicamp in mid-June, they looked as though they'd been together for years -- even though they feel they have a long way to go.
"There’s some things that we need to improve on, (and) repetitions are the best way to improve that," said Welker.
To suggest Welker would match his 112-catch pace he posted in New England might be a bit of a stretch. Decker and Thomas have also improved, and both will be valuable targets. But if the big three are healthy, few defenses have the depth, quality and coverage skills to stop them all simultaneously.
All might take slight hits to their numbers. But it doesn't matter to any of them.
"(We) actually never talk about catches," Thomas said. "I like to win, and I want to be on a team that's winning. So whatever it takes to win, I'm all down for it."
And the best way to win in today's game is with a plethora of targets that forces a defense to pick its poison -- which the Broncos now clearly possess.
THE WIDE RECEIVERS: THE BASICS
Demaryius Thomas: As the 2012 season went on, it became apparent that Thomas and Manning had developed exquisite timing. By December, Manning was exploiting the narrowest of gaps in coverage, capitalizing on Thomas' size and athleticism that allowed him to win any potential jump balls in case the passes were off -- which was rarely the case. Their timing and confidence has only improved since then. "It's sky-high right now," Thomas said. "I know what he wants. I know where to be on the field."
Eric Decker: He's at a key career juncture this year. As a third-round pick, his contract was four years -- the standard for picks in that round in 2010. So while Thomas' first-round deal expires after 2014, Decker is already in his contract year. If he improves upon his totals from 2012, he's in line to cash in, and if he signs a lengthy deal, he'll be integral to the team's future, particularly for its eventual post-Manning quarterback transition.
Wes Welker: There have been six different seasons this century in which a wide receiver has caught at least 118 passes. Welker is responsible for as many as everyone else in the league put together.