ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos’ wide receiver group has plenty of talent, upside and potential.
They are also a football riddle, a mysterious maybe in the team’s latest attempt to dig out of offensive woes that have contributed to a playoff drought that dates back to the Super Bowl 50 victory.
Consider: since Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler arrived in the 2020 draft as first- and second-round picks respectively, Jeudy, Hamler, Tim Patrick and Courtland Sutton have played in two games together over three seasons.
Two. Out of 50.
Sutton tore the ACL in his left knee in 2020, Hamler suffered a torn left ACL and hip injury in 2021 and Patrick tore his right ACL in training camp last summer.
But as another training camp approaches — Broncos rookies are scheduled to report July 19, veterans July 25 — they are left to wonder what it all could look like if they can avoid the injuries and offensive inconsistencies that have curtailed their progress.
“It would be amazing,’’ Patrick said.
The Broncos rebuffed trade discussions about Jeudy and Sutton this past offseason because they believe in what some opposing general managers have said is the Broncos’ most talented group on the depth chart. Here’s a look at what might be the Broncos’ most intriguing position groups as camp opens.
How hard have the Broncos tried to make this work?
The Broncos have certainly spun the wheel at quarterback, head coach and offensive coordinator during their current seven-year trek in the playoff desert, but an argument could be made they haven’t tried harder in the draft than they have at wide receiver.
In the last seven drafts, the Broncos have used 11 picks on wide receivers, with at least one wide receiver selected in each of those seven drafts. That includes rookie Marvin Mims, who was selected in the second round last April, No. 63 overall out of Oklahoma.
The Broncos have one 1,000-yard receiving season and one Pro Bowl selection in the previous 10 selections — Sutton in 2019 — to show for it.
“I’m learning Courtland’s progress, he’s doing well,’’ coach Sean Payton said as the offseason program drew to a close. “Man, he’s transitioning well. I give him a hard time — that 2019 album he put out was pretty good. We’re looking for another really good soundtrack in 2023. He wants to please, and he works his tail off.’’
How big a role must Jeudy play for the Broncos offense to turn it around?
Talk to personnel executives around the league and the combination of Payton’s resume as a playcaller and Jeudy’s athleticism and route-running is the one they consider to have the most potential for the biggest returns.
Jeudy drew plenty of trade interest early in the offseason, but the Broncos see what others see. Sources in the league said repeatedly this offseason the Broncos wanted a first-round pick in exchange for Jeudy before Payton publicly said the Broncos weren’t going to trade him. The Broncos eventually picked up Jeudy’s fifth-year option for the 2024 season.
“Always good to be wanted,’’ Jeudy said. “But I’m also glad that I’m a Denver Bronco. I wasn’t thinking about it too much. I’m glad I’m here, glad they did pick up the fifth year.’’
Jeudy is explosive, and his short area quickness as well as his route precision enables him to create separation against even the league’s best cornerbacks. But he has battled injuries — he’s played 16, 10 and 15 games in his three seasons — and has battled himself at times to keep his on-field emotions in check.
Opposing defensive coaches often tell their defensive backs to try to rattle Jeudy — get physical, tug a jersey, verbally engage him. It has worked at times and Jeudy has had heated exchanges with officials and opponents alike when things didn’t go well, often at the expense of his own production in an already balky offense.
Payton and wide receivers coach Keary Colbert have also emphasized Jeudy’s hand placement during catches — “thumbs together, not pinkies’’ — to improve his consistency as well.
Jeudy’s last six games of 2022 were also one of the few bright spots down the stretch. He caught 37 passes in those games, had two 100-yard games and a three-touchdown effort in a Week 14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I’ve told him I’m going to be on you and we’re going to get the most out of you,’’ Payton said.
Both Jeudy and Sutton have said they have taken a close look at how Michael Thomas fit in Payton’s offense with the New Orleans Saints. Thomas had four 1,000-yard seasons and three 100-catch seasons in a four-year span with Payton as the Saints’ coach, including an NFL record 149 catches in 2019.
What does the perfect world look like?
Payton’s biggest task will be to get quarterback Russell Wilson settled so he can play with better footwork, timing and composure. In 2022, Wilson finished with a career-low 16 touchdown passes and a career-most 55 sacks in a mismatched scheme that produced the league’s lowest-scoring offense.
The Broncos surrendered a first-round pick to hire Payton, spent big in free agency to upgrade the offensive line (tackle Mike McGlinchey signed a five-year, $87.5 million deal, guard Ben Powers signed a four-year, $51.5 million deal) and used their opening selection of the draft on Mims.
However, the words “if healthy’’ loom the largest for the position group. They have speed, size and physicality with players who can challenge defenses in all parts of the field, a tantalizing combination.
Hamler, who’s working back from knee and hip troubles, suffered a torn pectoral early in the offseason and Mims was held out of the final stages of the offseason program with a leg injury.
Hamler has been living at Patrick’s house during the offseason — “one of the things I’ve been preaching to him is get a routine’’ –- while each receiver has said they have done everything possible to keep themselves on the field in the weeks and months ahead.
“It’s something that we all want,’’ Patrick said. “ … To make sure that this season there’s no excuses.’’
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