Editor's Note: In the weeks leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft, Andrew Mason will evaluate each position group. He will take a look at the best time to draft prospects at each position and address how he believes the Broncos will approach the position groups. This week: defensive backs.
IDEAL DRAFT RANGE: One needs only to look at the Broncos' receivers -- present and past --- to know that you can find productive pass-catchers all over the draft, and beyond, considering that the most prolific receiver in franchise history, Rod Smith, was undrafted coming out of Missouri Southern in 1994.
If you're looking for the athletic receiver with speed and size, you have to pounce early. Receivers who are 6-foot-3, approximately 230 pounds and blessed with body control and open-field speed -- such as Demaryius Thomas -- don't last beyond the first round. If they do -- as was the case with Eric Decker, 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds -- it's because of an injury, like the torn ligaments in Decker's left foot that kept him from being able to work out in the months before the 2010 draft.
But if you want a slot receiver to find underneath holes, you can wait until the middle or late rounds. Usually, those are undersized receivers without breakaway speed, so their skill set isn't as craved. Still, the trend toward three-wide receiver, spread-offensive sets means it's highly unlikely that a receiver like Wes Welker would go undrafted, as he did in 2004, when he bounced to San Diego before ending up in Miami for three seasons.
The key to developing an undrafted receiver is patience. The Broncos showed that in the mid-1990s with Smith, letting him develop on the practice squad in 1994 before promoting him to the active roster a year later after a coaching change. Smith didn't become a full-time starter until 1997, but by then, he was more than ready.
Both of the young undrafted receivers currently on the Broncos' roster -- Greg Orton and Gerell Robinson -- were in last year's training camp. Orton was also in the 2011 camp and spent all of 2012 and five weeks of 2011 on the practice squad. Their time to make an impression is now, or they could be pipped by younger rookie receivers to be added in the coming weeks.
RECENT BRONCOS HISTORY: The next wide receiver that John Elway and John Fox draft will be their first in Denver; it is the only position group on offense or defense they have yet to select in their two drafts. It's also the first time in Broncos history the club went two years without drafting a receiver.
Of course, part of that is because the work was done before they arrived; they inherited Thomas and Decker from the previous draft. Both saw their roles expand almost immediately after the new regime took over, and the result was Denver's seventh season with two 1,000-yard pass-catchers, joining Shannon Sharpe and Anthony Miller (1994), Sharpe and Rod Smith (1997), Smith and Ed McCaffrey (1998, 1999, 2000) and Smith and Ashley Lelie (2004).
After signing McCaffrey as a free agent in 1995 -- the year Smith broke through from the practice squad to the active roster -- the Broncos kept going to the wideout well, with mixed success. Between 1996 and 2006, the Broncos picked 16 wide receivers, and tapped at least one from each round. Just three had 1,000-yard seasons in the NFL (Lelie, Brandon Marshall and Patrick Jeffers, whose milestone season came in Carolina). Some were quickly forgotten; one, Marcus Nash, was a 1998 first-rounder on the short list of all-time worst Broncos busts, although he remarkably had nearly as many Super Bowl rings (two) as receptions (four), since he was on the Super Bowl XXXIII-winning team and eventually warmed the bench for the 2000 Ravens, who won Super Bowl XXXV.
The Broncos' drafting acumen at receiver has been better since 2006: three of the six have posted 1,000-yard seasons, and all but Kenny McKinley, who died in 2010, remain in the league.
BRONCOS OUTLOOK: The Broncos' starting trio is arguably the league's finest; Thomas, Decker and Welker are each capable of being the focal point of a game plan and shredding a defense. But with only one experienced receiver in reserve (Andre Caldwell) and contracts of all three top receivers expiring before the 2015 season (with Decker's expiring after next season), Denver might need to use a mid-round pick or two to fortify depth for the short and long term.
WIDE RECEIVERS THAT MIGHT FIT IN THE FIRST TWO ROUNDS:
Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech: There was some concern that Patton was a product of a dynamic offensive system that coach Sonny Dykes eventually took to Cal, but Patton answered those questions with an outstanding Senior Bowl week. Before the Broncos signed Welker, I felt Patton had the best chance of being able to immediately step in and fortify the slot; however, he's also big and fast enough to line up outside, can make catches with a defender all over him and often makes the first man miss.
Tavon Austin, West Virginia: He's dynamic, and can help on returns, but his small size (5-foot-9, 174 pounds) limits the ways in which he can be used in an offense. He also tends to dance and run around in an attempt to keep plays alive, which sometimes costs him yards. Some compare him to Seattle's Percy Harvin, but Harvin is two inches taller, 10 pounds heavier and a better all-around athlete; the comparison is unfair to Austin. Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson is a more apt parallel, although Austin may not be capable of the same gaudy yardage-per-catch averages as Jackson posted, particularly early in his career (18.6 yards in 2009; 22.5 yards in 2010).
DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson: Since Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson and Cal's Keenan Allen are likely to be gone by the time the Broncos pick, Hopkins will be the only premium bigger receiver (6-foot-1, 214 pounds) likely to drop into the mid-20s. Hopkins soared through 2012 with 82 catches for 1,405 yards, but was not a one-year wonder; his production steadily improved throughout his college career. Hopkins runs good routes, adjusts well to the ball in mid-air and clearly studies the game and his own tape. He's probably one year away from being a highly effective pro receiver, but should still contribute immediately.
Ryan Swope, Texas A&M: Swope went to the Combine as a "trust the tape" player, since his Senior Bowl week lasted just one bobble-plagued practice in which he struggled with an Achilles tendon injury, but he blasted a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the Combine. Swope's production wasn't as high last year as it was in 2011 with Ryan Tannehill; his receptions dropped by 17 and his yardage fell by 294, but he remained productive. His successful adjustment to Kevin Sumlin's offense as a senior also enhances his prospects.
Others of note: Justin Hunter, Tennessee; Markus Wheaton, Oregon State; Terrance Williams, Baylor; Robert Woods, USC.
WIDE RECEIVERS OF NOTE FOR THE MID TO LATE ROUNDS:
Conner Vernon, Duke: No receiver in ACC history ever caught more passes than Vernon, but perhaps the most notable receptions he made from an NFL perspective were the ones he caught from Peyton Manning while the quarterback rehabilitated from neck surgeries at Duke University last year. Vernon's workout numbers don't catch your eye -- he ran the 40 in 4.68 seconds at the Combine, slower than all but one other receiver there -- but he has a knack for getting open underneath and has good hands.
Denard Robinson, Michigan: Making the conversion to quarterback means the team that drafts Robinson will have to be patient. During Senior Bowl week, he struggled with an injury and got little separation, but even then his cuts and routes became more precise each day. His size is a bit below average (5-foot-11, 190 pounds), and given how raw he is technically, anything he accomplishes as a rookie will be a result of raw athleticism and general football awareness. He's worth a mid-round pick to a team that can invest the proper time in his development.
Chris Harper, Kansas State: The second-heaviest receiver in this draft class (229 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame), Harper doesn't get much separation, but his 4.55-second 40-yard dash time at the Combine wasn't bad, and he reportedly ran better at his pro day. He has good hands, is consistent and should be reliable, if unspectacular, as a pro.
Marquise Goodwin, Texas: He's a projection; although he had the fastest 40 time at the Combine (4.27 seconds), his on-field production hasn't matched that standard. But he consistently got separation at the Senior Bowl, which was essential for a receiver of his size (5-foot-9, 183 pounds). He's a project, but for different reasons than Robinson.
Josh Boyce, TCU: Had the fourth-best 40 time among Combine receivers (4.38 seconds), and the last two years could be counted on for five receptions and 70-75 yards a game. He suffered a foot injury recently, but will recover in time for practices in May.
Marcus Davis, Virginia Tech: An infamous YouTube video that isolated on his blocking -- or lack thereof -- overshadowed a season in which he nearly hit 1,000 yards (he had 953 on just 51 receptions) in spite of being hindered by a wildly inaccurate quarterback. Fellow Tech receiver Corey Fuller is steadier, but Davis has greater upside, assuming he puts more effort into plays where he's away from the football. At 233 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame, Davis ought to be a good blocker, and if he can be as physical as his body type permits, he'll be a steal.
Others of note: Stedman Bailey, West Virginia; Jasper Collins, Mount Union; Aaron Dobson, Marshall; Corey Fuller, Virginia Tech; Cobi Hamilton, Arkansas; Brandon Kaufman, Eastern Washington; Tavarres King, Georgia; Alec Lemon, Syracuse; Aaron Mellette, Elon; Uzoma Nwachukwu, Texas A&M; Da'Rick Rogers, Tennessee Tech; Ace Sanders, South Carolina; Rodney Smith, Florida State; Kenny Stills, Oklahoma; Marquess Wilson, Washington State.