ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** The challenges of long-term roster construction were paramount in the decisions made regarding the Broncos' pass-catchers this offseason.
But the group's composition remains strong, and if the Broncos can successfully execute contract extensions with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas, the group will have even more stability. Its short- and long-term future will be robust, providing Peyton Manning an elite collection of weapons and, in the future, the next starting quarterback the requisite tools for success.
During training camp, the on-field focus will be on the unknown commodities in the group. At this point, the Broncos know what they're getting from the Thomases, Wes Welker, Andre Caldwell, Virgil Green, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen. In the case of the backups, Green, Caldwell, Tamme and Dreessen have ample experience, and last year in particular, Caldwell and Tamme were productive in the games they saw extensive relief work.
But what of the newcomers? The future of the unit might rest in the hands of free-agent pickup Emmanuel Sanders and second-round pick Cody Latimer as much as it will with the Thomases.
With four years of experience and gradually increasing numbers in Pittsburgh, Sanders will be looked to for a contribution first, bringing a different skill set than his predecessor, free-agent departure Eric Decker.
"Well, when you watch him on film from when he was at Pittsburgh, you just see that quickness off the line, the vertical speed, his ability to separate down the field," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase in June. "It's a different kind of dimension for us."
Added Demaryius Thomas: "Sanders is too fast. He's quick and fast at the same time. Some guys are quick, fast, and you've got Wes, who's quick. Sanders is quick and fast. But I think it'll be great for the team, because he can go over the top, he can be quick, he's can go inside. I think it's a big pickup for us. I think he'll be great."
Latimer is three inches and 35 pounds bigger than Sanders, which puts him closest to the dimensions of the 6-foot-3, 229-pound Demaryius Thomas.
"He's a physical specimen, and when he plays, he plays his size," Gase said in May. "To see him catch the ball as well as he does and then his blocking is unbelievable. I don't think I've really seen a college guy go after it the way he has in the past, and hopefully he just carries that over to this level."
It will take time to learn whether that happens. That time begins July 24.
WIDE RECEIVERS: THE BASICS
Demaryius Thomas:** Prior to joining the Broncos, Manning threw to elite receivers like Hall of Fame finalist Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, but he never had a size/speed blend at wide receiver quite like Thomas. Since his breakout game at Minnesota on Dec. 4, 2011 -- more than three months before Manning's arrival -- he has been an elite receiver,
Wes Welker: As he enters the second year of his two-year contract, he is still highly-productive on a per-game, per-catch basis. He was on a 93-catch pace if he had played 16 full games, and his ratio of one touchdown every 7.3 receptions easily eclipsed his touchdown rate of one every 18.2 receptions in New England. The two concussions he suffered last year will spur understandable caution, but if he stays healthy, his second year with Manning could be more productive than his first.
Emmanuel Sanders: If Welker is injured, Sanders could be the slot insurance policy, but he still fits well as an outside option, bringing a shifty speed/quickness blend that the Broncos did not have the last two years. He isn't an apples-for-apples replacement of Eric Decker. "They're different body types, and Eric had his way of finding ways to get open and catching the ball and making plays down the field, and making big plays underneath and creating," Gase said. "Emmanuel can do the same thing. It's just going to be in a different way."
Andre Caldwell: Re-signed as unrestricted free agency began, Caldwell is more valuable in Denver than he would be with perhaps any other team, because of his two years of experience in this offense and with Manning. Last year he showed that he could fill in on the inside and outside, and if he's called upon, he's a dependable option.
Cody Latimer: He showed flashes of brilliance during OTAs, including one reception in the back of the end zone where he leaped to snare a bullet from Brock Osweiler's right arm for a red-zone touchdown. Latimer has all the measurables, plus adhesive hands and blocking acumen. And if the other receivers stay healthy, he'll have time to grow.
Isaiah Burse: He's learning the tricks of the slot at the feet of Wes Welker, but whether he earns a place on the 53-man roster or not is more likely to be determined by his performance on kickoff and punt returns.
Jordan Norwood: The veteran caught everything in sight during OTAs, but his 17 games of regular-season experience (16 with Cleveland, one with Philadelphia) since 2009 ensure that the 28-year-old's only way to stick will be on the 53-man roster -- a difficult task considering the quality around him in the wide receivers' room.
Nathan Palmer: A late-season addition to the practice squad last year, the former Northern Illinois standout played five games for the Colts in 2012, catching one pass. His speed is the first item that stands out, and if he can continue to refine the precision points of his game -- particularly route-running -- he has a chance to stick on someone's 53-man roster.
Bennie Fowler: The 6-foot-1, 212-pounder has experience in multiple roles on special teams -- including in punt rushing; he scored one touchdown for Michigan State when he recovered a blocked punt in the end zone. That work could help distinguish himself in this stacked group.
Greg Hardin: He put up gaudy numbers at North Dakota (3,583 yards on 221 receptions in his career) and scored 14 touchdowns in the 2013 season alone. The question is whether he can get separation at this level; at 5-foot-11 and 177 pounds, that's essential for NFL survival.
Greg Wilson: A mid-week workout turned into a practice-squad stint in January for Wilson, who amassed 1,084 yards on 67 receptions in two seasons at Fordham (2011-12). He has good raw speed (4.51 seconds for the 40-yard dash at his 2013 pro day), but like the other young undrafted receivers, will need some spectacular moments at camp to stand out in a crowded field.
TIGHT ENDS: THE BASICS:
Julius Thomas: As with Demaryius Thomas, the primary pre-camp question deals with whether the Broncos can successfully negotiate a long-term contract extension. When training camp starts, the fourth-year tight end hopes to continue the process of refining his overall game -- not only as a blocker, but in the precision of his routes.
Virgil Green: In his fourth year, he seems primed for his most expansive role yet -- as a second tight end to stay home and block, as a threat in the flat, and even as an occasional running back, which is where he briefly lined up in the AFC Championship Game.
Jacob Tamme:** Although he played more frequently on special teams last year, his work at New England in Week 12 when Julius Thomas was injured showed why he's such a valuable component of the offense: he doesn't need separation to make plays, and Manning's trust in his in-traffic abilities is profound. Few teams have a reserve of this quality.
Joel Dreessen: Knee problems left him sidelined for six of 19 total games last year, including all three games in the postseason, and with Julius Thomas emerging, there were few opportunities for him to make plays. He did not take part in organized team activities, and his status will bear monitoring.
Gerell Robinson: During OTAs, he showed the pass-catching ability in traffic that helped the Broncos decide to shift him to tight end. His timing with backup quarterback Brock Osweiler is precise, having been honed when the two were teammates at Arizona State. But how well will he be able to block in full-contact, full-speed work? The answer will determine whether his transition from wide receiver is successful.
Cameron Morrah: He has played 27 games in his career, all with the Seahawks, but hasn't seen a regular-season snap since 2011, having missed 2012 with a toe injury before a 2013 offseason and preseason spent with the 49ers and Lions. Denver offers a chance for him to get a foothold in the league, but the Broncos' depth at the position means that he could be auditioning for the entire league.
Jameson Konz: Since being a seventh-round pick of the Seahawks in 2010, Konz has played just one regular-season game. His college experience was at linebacker and wide receiver. His versatility makes him intriguing, particularly on special teams.