Broncos' 2020 Roster Report Card: Grading the Wide Receivers
If the Denver Broncos focused on upgrading any one position this past offseason, it was at wide receiver. Don't take that to mean that GM John Elway had neglected the wideout position. Far from it.
2020 marked the fourth straight year in which Elway invested draft picks in the position. If the Broncos extreme focus on upgrading the position in 2020 was a direct consequence of anything, it was the epic swings and misses on wideouts in the 2017 draft. Elway busted on Carlos Henderson and Isaiah McKenzie.
However, it didn't take Elway long to realize the errors of his ways because the very next draft season, the Broncos revamped their scouting process, prioritizing prospects whose intangible traits — like football IQ, work ethic, leadership, passion, and maturity — were on the same level as their tangible gifts. Elway and company paid the price for missing on that 2017 class in a big way, especially last year after the Broncos had traded away the veteran Emmanuel Sanders.
But with an up-and-coming quarterback in tow, Elway focused on building the nest around Drew Lock, and the results, at least on paper, were impressive. Today, I'm breaking down exactly what the Broncos have in their wide receivers heading into 2020 and grading the position.
First, the names, which will be split up into three categories: roster locks, viable backups, and bubble guys. Let's get started.
The Names: Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, and DaeSean Hamilton.
Sutton was the one ray of sunshine for the Broncos in 2019 at wide receiver. Despite a QB carousel that forced him to catch passes from three different guys, Sutton found a way to thrive and at times, helped carry the offensive load for the Broncos.
Heading into his third year, the Pro Bowler has only just begun to scratch the surface of his potential. In order to fully un-Lock Sutton's potential, the young signal-caller in Denver will have to stay healthy and cash in on the expectations surrounding him internally and externally. Sutton, though, is a star in the making.
Jeudy was the Broncos first-round pick this year and while it's easy for fans to think of him as the team's WR2, he has just as good of a chance as emerging as the top guy in 2020 as Sutton. Both are supremely talented receivers — they just win in different ways.
Jeudy is a supreme route runner who brings a surprising explosiveness to the table with the ball in his hands. It might take him a little time to settle in as a pro but considering how prolific he was at Alabama and the level of competition he faced in the SEC, the learning curve won't be near as steep as it would be for most rookies.
Hamler was Denver's second-round pick this year as the team doubled up. With a purported 4.27 speed, he is lightning-fast and explosive with the ball in his hands.
The fly in the ointment? Hamler's hands are questionable and he's only 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds. How durable can he be at the NFL level and how reliable will his hands be? The answer to those two questions will dictate how quickly he can make an impact.
Hamilton makes up the last of the locks to make this roster. Drafted two rounds after Sutton was back in 2018, Hamilton's star has dimmed in Denver mostly due to his failure to launch.
After an encouraging rookie campaign, especially down the stretch, Hamilton failed to take the leap forward in Year 2 the team expected. He struggled quite a bit before Lock was inserted in Week 13 but from then on, he showed his savviness as a route runner and his toughness to haul in catches over the middle. Hamilton is the incumbent slot receiver that Hamler will have to vanquish in training camp in order to see the field consistently.
The Names: Tim Patrick, Diontae Spencer, Fred Brown, Tyrie Cleveland, and Juwann Winfree.
Two of the names on this list are recent Elway draft picks in Winfree (2019 sixth-rounder) and Cleveland (2020 seventh). They'll be given additional opportunities to succeed thanks to draft pedigree but the leader in this particular clubhouse has to be Patrick.
Patrick projects as the best X-receiver backup to Sutton that the Broncos currently have. There's a chance Cleveland and/or Winfree could leapfrog Patrick but that would be contingent on their development. Patrick is NFL-ready right now and can competently support Sutton.
Some fans might pick a bone with me since I don't have Patrick included as a roster lock but there are too many former Elway draft picks in the room for Patrick to rest on his laurels or be grandfathered anything. I still have Patrick making the 53-man roster but I won't be stunned if one of these guys beats him out.
That roster math will in part be decided by what the Broncos decide to do at returner. Hamler is capable but the incumbent is Spencer, who earned Pro Bowl consideration as an alternate for his returner contributions last year. If the Broncos carry five wideouts, Spencer is out almost certainly, and Hamler would be the likely returner.
If the team carries six, it's likely in an effort to accommodate Spencer as the returner. What that means is that in reality, there's really only one WR slot that's up for grabs on the 53-man roster and right now, it belongs to Patrick. Just don't sleep on one of these two young recent draft picks swooping in an taking it.
Speaking of sleepers, Brown probably shouldn't be underestimated in this equation. He found a way to make plays last summer and earned a practice squad spot before eventually being called up to the active roster and distinguishing himself as a willing third-phaser. Special teams acumen is important but secondary in value when it comes to receivers.
The Names: Kelvin McKnight, Trinity Benson, Kendall Hinton, and Zimari Manning.
One year ago, McKnight and Benson were where Hinton and Manning are today; two undrafted rookies trying to stick with an NFL club. It's hard to see either McKnight or Benson cracking the 53-man roster out of camp.
But thanks to the coronavirus and the new CBA-mandated change to practice squad size (12 instead of 10 players), either or both could end up as reserves who see the roster in the event of a few injuries and/or quarantine. McKnight and Benson are similar players, slightly smallish wideouts cut out for the slot, but Benson is the more explosive player.
Meanwhile, the undrafted rookies are going to vie for a place with the team. Hinton is a former quarterback turned wideout who quickly produced at Wake Forest after his position change. Manning, honestly, not much is known about him as he comes from Tarleton State.
If this grade was based purely around on-paper potential, it'd be an A. But Sutton is the only real proven receiver at the NFL level. Hamilton and Patrick have made a modest impact but as we saw last season down the stretch, they're not enough to move the needle when push comes to shove.
Jeudy and Hamler, though, are bonafide studs. Just last month, former Pro Bowl wideout Chad 'Ochocinco' Johnson declared on social media that the Broncos now have three No. 1 wideouts, including Sutton, Jeudy, and Hamler, and that he's never seen that on an NFL team before.
I'm not sure about that assertion but I'd be nodding along with Johnson if he'd said Denver had two WR1s. Nevertheless, Hamler is a stud and it's possible I'm sleeping on him just a little. My bet is he doesn't make a stud's impact until 2021, though.
But the potential this trio of receivers has, catching passes from Lock and playing in Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur's spread scheme that prioritizes the vertical passing game, is immense. And that's I'm basing this grade on. Potential more than production.
Potential doesn't pay the bills. And that's the rallying cry for the 2020 Broncos offense. This unit has to convert that potential into production and if it does, sky's the limit.
What is your grade for the Broncos wide receivers? Sound off in the comment section below!