ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Let's assume that the Broncos' offense can accelerate its tempo in Peyton Manning's second Denver season as Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase hopes it can, and manages to run an additional five to 10 plays per game. To be conservative, we'll go with the low end, so that's 80 more snaps over 16 games.
Further, let's assume the Broncos maintain their run-pass ratio from 2012, when they ran passing plays (including sacks) 55.9 percent of the time. That means 44.7 more pass plays -- which adds up to an additional game's worth of tosses. On average, 29.51 of them will end in receptions.
So you've added 30 more receptions (rounding up) to last year's total of 402, which were spread among 16 targets, a diverse group that stretched from Demaryius Thomas, a 2010 first-rounder who has the ideal template of the modern "big receiver," to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, who caught a 1-yard touchdown pass the only time he was targeted.
If the Broncos amass 432 receptions, per the above conditions, that gives them a chance of pushing one target over 100 receptions, a milestone that Wes Welker has routinely hit in the last few years. There are 76 total seasons with at least 100 grabs in NFL history; Welker has five of them, more than anyone else.
And you know who else has been a part of more 100-catch seasons than anyone else? Manning, who has been the primary quarterback for nine such campaigns by his targets: four by Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison and one for tight end Dallas Clark. No other quarterback has more than four.
But if Welker breaks 100 receptions, does that mean a step back for Thomas or Eric Decker, who had 94 and 85 receptions, respectively? And what of Denver's tight ends, who as a group had their most productive season (98 catches) in a decade, when Shannon Sharpe was still leaving linebackers in his wake?
"Well, certainly, I think you can spread the ball around and it's a nice problem to have," Manning said last month. "You never know whose day that it might be, but it's nice to have a number of weapons that it could be any of them's day on that particular Sunday."
And that will depend on the game plan. Just because the sport's prototype slot receiver is now in a Broncos jersey doesn't mean the team will completely abandon its two-tight end packages, which it favored last year, in favor of three-wide sets. The two-tight end sets offered flexibility: when the Broncos wanted to focus on the run, they could use Joel Dreessen and Virgil Green; when they wanted an extra receiver who could work as a larger slot man, they could utilize Jacob Tamme. Both Tamme and Dreessen in particular are capable of being a capable primary read at any time.
"We'll mix it up. It's all going to be game plan-predicated," Gase said. "Whatever is best for that week is probably what we'll focus on. We're going to use our players to the best -- whatever they do best, that's what we're going to do. So if that week means it's more 12 (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) personnel than 11 (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), then that's what we'll do. If it's more of an 11 game-plan week, that's what we'll stick with."
The offense could be electric. No matter where Manning looks, he can find a target capable of ripping off a big play -- and of carrying the offense for an entire week. No defense can adequately cover all of them without completely surrendering its pass-rush effort and its stoutness at the line of scrimmage against the run.
"They can't cover Decker, Welker and DT (Thomas) all at once," Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said on May 7. "So to be able to have that receiving corps that we have is really going to open things up for everybody, plus you throw in our tight ends, who are all very good receiving tight ends, you throw Montee Ball into the mix at the running back position, and we're going to have an opportunity to be very well-balanced on the offensive side."
Whether there are enough passes to keep every target at his 2012 pace won't matter -- not if the offense is as difficult to defend as it now appears to be.
"I think with the group we have, unselfishness, everything's about winning with these guys," Gase said. "The 'how many balls do I catch this week,' that's not their main focus. Their main focus is winning."
And given Manning's track record, there might still be room for a 100-catch receiver -- while also leaving plenty of space for other big seasons.