ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --In this air-powered era of football, it takes something unusual to separate an effective passing game from one that is truly elite, and nearly impossible to stop.
It's not simply the quarterback. While a top-drawer quarterback is a blessing, plenty of teams have passers with the accuracy, arm strength, intelligence and poise to bring a team into the championship conversation. The difference, then, is often the number of elite, game-changing downfield targets each offense possesses.
Last year, the Broncos learned that they had two in their midst, as the promise of 2010 draft picks Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker bore fruit in the first 1,000-yard season for each. They became the Broncos' first pair to hit four figures since Ashley Lelie and Rod Smith in 2004, and made life difficult for many defenses, who found they could stop one, but rarely both.
But plenty of teams have a pair of elite targets. The tipping point is when it becomes a trio. For some teams, the combination includes at least one tight end; for others, it's three wide receivers. Two elite targets, you can contain, although it's difficult. Three means you're asking questions of defenses that are nearly impossible to answer.
Peyton Manning knew this well from his years in Indianapolis. While Manning quickly established a rapport with Marvin Harrison, it wasn't until the blossoming of tight end Dallas Clark, 2001 draft pick Reggie Wayne and slot receiver Brandon Stokley that the offense flourished better than anyone imagined. Manning had multiple targets and trusted them all. You could defend one or two, but not three. The Broncos learned this first-hand in crushing wild-card losses to the Colts by a combined 56 points in consecutive years.
Fast-forward nearly a decade, and enter Wes Welker, fresh off six years catching passes from Tom Brady in New England. During those seasons, he blossomed, ascending from reliable secondary target in Miami's offense in 2005-06 to arguably the most consistent slot receiver the game has ever seen.
Opponents have known since 2007 that Welker was Brady's underneath security blanket, which allowed him to average an astounding 112 catches per season in New England. But his success was about more than just being the most low-risk option when Brady took the snap.
"He really has an ability to read coverages and I think he takes it as seriously as a quarterback does," said Manning. "That really has worked well for him, and as a quarterback, you sort of appreciate that."
That means knowing when to go short, and when to attack deep, to streak up the seam instead of curling or slanting underneath. On the practice field, Manning and Welker have already turned such a moment into a touchdown; during a June practice, Manning launched a pass that hit Welker in perfect stride.
"It's everything you thought," Welker said. "The balls are just so accurate and you come out of your break and the ball is just there. It's almost like a long handoff sometimes. He definitely makes it easy on you."
But practice wasn't always easy. Chris Harris, who is in line to become the Broncos' primary slot cornerback, intercepted multiple passes during the practices that were open for media observation.
Early organized team activities, the timing between Manning and Welker was balky compared with Thomas and Decker, which could be entirely attributed to Welker being the most recent arrival among the veteran receivers. As the weeks progressed, the timing became crisper. By minicamp in mid-June, they looked as though they'd been together for years -- even though they feel they have a long way to go.
"There's some things that we need to improve on, (and) repetitions are the best way to improve that," said Welker.
To suggest Welker would match his 112-catch pace he posted in New England might be a bit of a stretch. Decker and Thomas have also improved, and both will be valuable targets. But if the big three are healthy, few defenses have the depth, quality and coverage skills to stop them all simultaneously.
All might take slight hits to their numbers. But it doesn't matter to any of them.
"(We) actually never talk about catches," Thomas said. "I like to win, and I want to be on a team that's winning. So whatever it takes to win, I'm all down for it."
And the best way to win in today's game is with a plethora of targets that forces a defense to pick its poison -- which the Broncos now clearly possess.
THE WIDE RECEIVERS: THE BASICS
Demaryius Thomas: As the 2012 season went on, it became apparent that Thomas and Manning had developed exquisite timing. By December, Manning was exploiting the narrowest of gaps in coverage, capitalizing on Thomas' size and athleticism that allowed him to win any potential jump balls in case the passes were off -- which was rarely the case. Their timing and confidence has only improved since then. "It's sky-high right now," Thomas said. "I know what he wants. I know where to be on the field."
Eric Decker: He's at a key career juncture this year. As a third-round pick, his contract was four years -- the standard for picks in that round in 2010. So while Thomas' first-round deal expires after 2014, Decker is already in his contract year. If he improves upon his totals from 2012, he's in line to cash in, and if he signs a lengthy deal, he'll be integral to the team's future, particularly for its eventual post-Manning quarterback transition.
Wes Welker: There have been six different seasons this century in which a wide receiver has caught at least 118 passes. Welker is responsible for as many as everyone else in the league put together.
Andre Caldwell: Nearly invisible in 2012, Caldwell has received some chances to work with Manning during offseason drills and has been more consistent at getting open and making some downfield receptions. Drops were an issue during preseason play last year, and he'll need to cut them to earn the No. 4 wide receiver spot.
Tavarres King: A fifth-round pick, the University of Georgia product has a good chance to seize the role as the Broncos' primary reserve at the outside receiver spots. King's ability to make plays downfield could make him an ideal insurance policy behind Thomas and Decker once he adjusts.
Trindon Holliday: His 5-foot-6 size doesn't fit the template of today's wide receiver, and his high fumble ratio and practice-field drops make extensive use of him on offense a high-risk proposition. But he's arguably the league's most explosive returner, and is so dynamic that he demands a jersey each time the Broncos take the field. Thus, he'll get plenty of camp work at wide receiver, since the constrictions of a 46-man gameday active roster make him an indispensable component of the team's receiver depth.
Gerell Robinson: He spent 2012 on the Cardinals' practice squad, but the Broncos brought the former Arizona State standout back in January. He and fellow ASU product Brock Osweiler have above-average timing and chemistry from their years together as Sun Devils, and as the Broncos begin laying the groundwork for Osweiler to eventually succeed Manning, Robinson could have a chance to help smooth it out if he can stick beyond this training camp.
Greg Orton: "He'll make a play or two every day that catches your eye," offensive coordinator Adam Gase said during minicamp. But after spending all of 2012 and a chunk of 2011 on the practice squad, Orton faces a crucial juncture in his third training camp and preseason as a Bronco.
Quincy McDuffie: Mostly a returner at Central Florida, the speedy McDuffie averaged 27.8 yards per kickoff return for his career and ran back three of 17 kickoff returns for touchdowns last season. But he'll need to work on his punt returns in order to have a chance at unseating Holliday, and that's where he's raw, as he was limited to kickoff return and wide receiver work at UCF.
Kemonte' Bateman: The New Mexico State product wasn't a burner in his pre-draft sprint times, but plays faster than his 4.52 speed indicates and has good instincts for adjusting to the football in flight.
Lamaar Thomas: He only started 10 games and caught 29 passes during four seasons split between Ohio State and New Mexico, but the Broncos are intrigued by the speed he showed as a track standout for the Lobos, where he qualified for the NCAA Championships in the 100 meters.