ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Once Wes Welker signed his two-year contract last month, the Broncos' top tier of wide receivers was set -- for this year, at least.
The front-line trio of Welker and holdovers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker has no discernible weakness. Each has a unique skill set, and Welker's specific role as a slot receiver will allow Decker to play exclusively as an outside receiver, according to Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway in a Monday afternoon radio interview on KOA-AM 850.
That should allow Decker to improve upon his per-catch average of 12.5 yards, which was 2.8 yards shy of Thomas' 2012 pace, and gives him more chances for deep receptions. In 2011, Decker gained at least 20 yards once every 4.89 receptions; that ratio was one every 7.73 catches last year. Some of that discrepancy can be attributed to the quarterbacks -- in 2011, short timing passes were at times non-existent with Tim Tebow at the helm -- but the Broncos would like to give Decker more chances for longer gains in 2013.
With Welker working short and Decker and Thomas primed to handle most of the intermediate to deeper routes, the Broncos appear to have each of the three in their optimal positions. Each is dangerous enough to ensure an opponent cannot ignore him in coverage; if one receives too much attention, another will surely be open -- and that doesn't account for the pass-catching contributions the Broncos will receive from tight ends and running backs.
As a group, Welker, Thomas and Decker might be unmatched in the league this year, and could relegate the 1980s "Three Amigos" to second-best among wideout troikas in Broncos annals. Just two questions linger:
- What if someone gets hurt?
- What's the long-term plan?
For the first question, tight end Jacob Tamme could slide over and handle slot work if Welker was injured -- a fill-in role Tamme handled well last December against Tampa Bay, when he replaced the injured Brandon Stokley. Decker could also slide inside to the slot in a pinch. But if something happens to Thomas or Decker, the answers appear murkier.
Among the wide receiving group, the only backup receiver with extensive offensive experience is Andre Caldwell, who caught 124 passes in four Bengals seasons but had just one last year and played just 75 snaps. Another year in the offense will help, but he could face a challenge Greg Orton, who spent the season on the practice squad, and Gerell Robinson, back on the roster after time on Arizona's practice squad.
In the long term, the Broncos have multiple contract situations to consider, starting with Decker, whose rookie deal expires after this season. Thomas was picked in the same 2010 draft as Decker, but as a first-rounder, his contract is one year longer, so he won't be due for a new deal until 2015.
Welker's contract is for two years and expires after 2014; by that time, he'll be 33. But the biggest imminent decision revolves around Decker, and whether the Broncos consider his production replaceable or not.
Decker's rising trajectory to date indicates his best is yet to come. His reception totals have gone from six to 44 to 85; his yardage from 106 to 612 to 1,064; his touchdowns from one to eight to 13 last year. At one point in 2012, he scored at least one touchdown in five consecutive games, and if safety Jim Leonhard doesn't return, Decker could also be asked to field punts inside the Denver 10-yard-line when sure hands are needed most.
But it's potentially possible to fit all three under the cap for the next two years, while in the meantime planning for the long-term future at slot receiver, if Welker only plays through his contract. The Broncos could budget for two highly-paid receivers in 2014 and 2015; in 2014, they could be Decker and Welker; the following year, they could re-sign Thomas to a long-term deal, keeping the 2010 drafted duo together for the foreseeable future.
Of course, other expiring contracts also come into play next year: tackle Ryan Clady's franchise tender, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's one-year deal, the rookie deals of guard Zane Beadles and center J.D. Walton and the two-year contract given to linebacker Wesley Woodyard last year are paramount among these. Therein lies the Broncos' looming salary-cap challenge, and why a receiver in the middle to late rounds of the draft might be a wise play, just to be on the safe side.
This philosophy worked for the Indianapolis Colts when Peyton Manning was there. They found Pierre Garçon in the sixth round of the 2008 draft and Austin Collie in the fourth round a year later. Both were productive with Manning, although Collie's progress has been stunted by concussion issues and a torn patellar tendon.
But if the Broncos bypass the draft, they might have internal options.
Although kickoff and punt returner Trindon Holliday can play a snap here and there, his 5-foot-5, 170-pound frame is not conducive to every-down work, and his high-wire act on punts and kickoffs -- which saw four total touchdowns and five fumbles -- doesn't necessarily translate to offense.
Robinson was a favored target of backup quarterback Brock Osweiler at Arizona State and has a chance to factor into the mix.
But the young backup receiver to watch could be Orton, who lingered all season on the Broncos' practice squad and also spent five weeks in 2011 there. A team generally doesn't keep a player on the practice squad that long unless it sees something intriguing, and Orton was an extraordinarily prolific receiver for the Arena Football League's Spokane Shock before landing in Denver. In previous years, players transitioning to "the big field," as Arenaballers call it, usually required about a year to re-adjust; thus, this could be Orton's best shot.
The Broncos were lucky last year; Stokley, Thomas and Decker missed just one game combined. The chances of keeping all three healthy for 16 games are minimal; at some point, the Broncos' depth will be tested. If it passes that test, then the two short- and long-term questions will have been answered.