ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The four-game suspension of wide receiver Wes Welker for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugsis a profound setback but one that the Broncos are well-positioned to withstand, especially since they coped with Welker's absence for the last three and a half games of the regular season last year, and the offense did not suffer for it.
"It's unfortunate to not have [Welker] to start the year. I have full confidence in our wide receivers and expect that group to continue playing at a high level," Head Coach John Fox said in the statement.
There is little reason why they shouldn't, and they have multiple possibilities to ensure the offense produces without a hitch.
The Broncos could repeat what they did after Welker's concussion in the Week 14 win over Tennessee, and have Andre Caldwell assume most of the workload opened up by Welker's absence.
Caldwell played 57.3 percent of the offensive snaps in Weeks 15-17 after taking part in just 14.2 percent of the plays in Weeks 1-14. He knows the offense, was the first player signed (or re-signed) after the free-agency signing period began, and can play any of the three wide receiver positions. He knows the drill.
But the Broncos have options beyond Caldwell. If they want to go bigger, they can play tight end Jacob Tamme in the slot. He filled in for then-slot receiver Brandon Stokley for a game against Tampa Bay in 2012, and is often used as a stand-up receiver in the slot when he's utilized in two- and three-tight end formations.
Another choice is to move Emmanuel Sanders inside. Most of his snaps in four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers were from the slot. But he has worked outside most often during practices and the preseason games, and he showed against Houston on Aug. 23 how effective he can be in that role. Playing on the outside allows him to use his straight-line speed, which to this point in his NFL career has been his underutilized attribute.
But if Sanders shifts inside, the Broncos could utilize Caldwell on the outside -- he took some snaps there last year -- or give rookie Cody Latimer some work. Latimer was effective at all ranges and spots during the training camp and preseason; his two biggest plays in games were on a go route against San Francisco and a short drag route in Dallas.
Given the flexibility of the offense and its targets and the comfort that Peyton Manning and Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase have with multiple personnel groupings, it seems likely the solution will represent some combination of the above, which would keep the defense off-balance.
Isaiah Burse, who stuck on the 53-man roster primarily as a punt returner, will also be asked to provide depth. Burse was a slot receiver at Fresno State and projects the same at the pro level, but he is at an early stage in his development and looks to be a special teamer first.
But with Sanders, Caldwell, Tamme, Latimer and the continued prominence of Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas, the Broncos should be able to withstand the loss of Welker without any loss in efficiency and production. That was the case last December, and no matter what tactics the Broncos use in the next four games, the offense should again flourish without Welker.
Denver constructed its pass-catching corps with an eye toward the short and long term, from Welker's status after two 2013 concussions to the stated understanding by Executive Vice President/General Manager John Elway that being able to get the Thomases signed to long-term deals was a priority -- a fact he first noted in February. The pass-catching group had to include young, first-contract players, experienced reserves, elite experience, and the overall depth and versatility withstand injuries.
It didn't take long for the test of the plan to arrive, but the Broncos are well-equipped to pass it.