Broncos 2022 Training Camp Preview: Wide receivers
The Denver Broncos could be in a Super Bowl window in 2022. They have moved on from head coach Vic Fangio and replaced him with an innovative offensive mind in Nathaniel Hackett. Gone is the out-of-date offense of Pat Shurmur, replaced by West Coast concepts and a Shanahan-type system all Broncos fans should be familiar with.
With Fangio’s defense gone, the Broncos went out and got a future head coach in new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero. We should see a more aggressive Broncos defense, and a better Broncos defense because of better coaching and a better understanding of the modern game.
It’s not just the coaching changes that puts the Broncos in a Super Bowl window, it was the blockbuster trade for a superstar quarterback that general manager George Paton was able to execute. Paton traded with the Seattle Seahawks to secure the services of Russell Wilson. With Wilson under center, the Broncos offense should be one of the best in the league. With a high-powered offense led by Wilson, the defense will be playing with a lead – which means they’ll be able to get after the opposing quarterback in ways we haven’t seen since the team won Super Bowl 50.
This is the second year under the guidance of Paton, and the team has done a good job of adding quality players via free agency and the NFL Draft – even though they didn’t have a first-round pick due to the Wilson trade. However, there are questions that need answers before the start of the regular season. In this series at DenverFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers during training camp.
This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive into the wide receiver position.
Starters: Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy
I’m putting three receivers as the starters for the Broncos because there is plenty of work to go around in what should be a more pass-happy offense led by quarterback Russell Wilson. Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy give Wilson a helluva trio to target on a regular basis. The Broncos are going to “let Russ cook” on offense, and that should mean he’s going to spread the ball around and take deep shots regularly. That’s good news for the Broncos, and one of the many reasons why this trio will be featured often.
Sutton looks like he’s back to full strength, and I think he could post career-best numbers this season. I believe he was a steal in the 2018 NFL Draft when the Broncos added him in the second round. Sutton had first-round talent and we got glimpses of that in his second pro season. That year, Sutton had 72 catches for 1,112 yards and six receiving touchdowns in 16 games. In 18 games since then, Sutton has just 61 catches for 842 yards and two touchdowns. He was injured early in 2020 and missed most of the season. When Sutton returned in 2021, he didn’t look like himself.
He’s looking more like himself now. It’s not just the speed on the field, as Sutton has never been a burner as a wide receiver. It’s the vertical part of his game that has returned for Sutton, and it’s great to see. When Wilson puts a pass “above the rim,” we now see Sutton can go and get it. He’s been cutting and running at full speed for months now, but last season his vertical leap just wasn’t the same. Sutton makes plays in tight windows, but he’s always open because there’s this thing called the sky. Throw it up and let the big man go get it. That’s something Wilson should do often this year, and Sutton looks like he’s becoming the quarterback’s favorite.
Patrick simply catches everything thrown his way. You could make the argument that Patrick has been the best receiver on the Broncos over the last two seasons – and that was with below average to painfully average quarterback play. Take what Patrick can do, give him a better offensive design and give him Wilson. Now, watch what he can do. Patrick has caught roughly the same number of passes each of the last two seasons (around 50 catches for 740 yards and five touchdowns). This year, Patrick could get the first 1,000-yard season of his career.
Simply put, Patrick does everything you want from a receiver. He’s got a great size/speed combination and he can track the ball effectively over his shoulder. Wilson throws the best deep ball in the league, and Patrick should be able to make big plays on those deep shots. In the red zone, Patrick has size and strength that he knows how to use when ripping the ball away from smaller defenders. Patrick has a tremendous work ethic and will show up when his quarterback needs him the most.
Jeudy is the player with the most to prove from this group. He was seen by most, including myself, as the best wide receiver in the best wide receiver class in NFL history back in 2020. Over the last two years, Jeudy has played like anything but that. Injuries, poor quarterback play, and drops have plagued his game during that time at various points, and this season it’s a make-or-break year for the former first-round pick.
This offseason has not been great for Jeudy. He missed time in OTAs and mandatory minicamp with various injuries (groin, head) and got in trouble with the law with charges later dropped. Jeudy has not had the time that Sutton and Patrick have had to build strong chemistry with Wilson. Training camp and the preseason will give him that time, but he’s got to stay healthy and produce. The time for excuses is over for Jeudy. If he doesn’t produce like at least a solid starter with Wilson at quarterback in a pass-happy scheme, then the team will be unlikely to pick up his fifth-year option after the season. That means 2023 could be the final year for Jeudy with the Broncos. The time is now for Jeudy. The talent is there, but it must come together, or else things will change.
Reserves: K.J. Hamler, Montrell Washington, Kendall Hinton, Tyrie Cleveland, Travis Fulgham, Kaden Davis, Brandon Johnson, Trey Quinn, Jalen Virgil, Seth Williams
The Broncos have a ton of talent behind their starters at the wide receiver position, and they will have tough decisions to make when it comes to choosing who makes the 53-man roster.
K.J. Hamler will have a package of plays designed to feature him. He’s coming back from a knee and hip injury that cut his 2021 season to just three games. Hamler’s speed is back, and he might be faster than ever. I’ve seen Hamler cut at full speed, and he shows good burst out of his break. He does not lose much speed when he makes his cut, and Hamler is a blur when he hits his top gear. Simply put, nobody on the roster has the speed that Hamler does. I know he’s not quite Tyreek Hill, but there are things you have seen done with Hill that Hamler could do as well. One of those things I’d like to see is slant routes underneath to the inside where Hamler can beat his man to the spot and then turn on the jets for a big play. He’s an expert at making short passes into long gains, and Hamler should become a favorite target for Wilson – even though he may not play that many snaps outside of four wide receiver sets.
Washington is a player I would not have drafted in the fifth round. Instead, I would have preferred some of the cornerbacks left in that round or later (Tariq Woolen, Jaylen Watson) or some of the running backs in that round or later (Kyren Williams, Jerome Ford) at the time he was drafted. However, the team loves the Division II return man and he’s likely to make the 53-man roster as at least a return specialist. The Broncos not only are seeing what Washington can do as a return man, where he should be the starter, but there are some plays on offense where Washington gets the rock. He fights the ball as a receiver and does not have natural hands to pluck the ball out of the air. If he cleans that part of his game up, which is possible, then Washington could get some plays here and there in a similar fashion to what we could see from Hamler.
Kendall Hinton is the type of player every team wants on the roster. Everyone will remember the time he filled in at quarterback for the Broncos in the 2020 season, but his versatility as a wide receiver should be highlighted as well. Hinton is mostly a slot receiver, but I don’t mind when I see him lining up on the outside. He fights for the ball in the air, showing what scouts call ‘my ball’ mentality when he goes to get a pass. Hinton can return kicks and punts, so that will help him earn a spot on the 53-man roster as a depth receiver. At the very least, I think Hinton is bound for the practice squad.
I feel like there’s more talent there for Tyrie Cleveland than some think. A seventh-round pick out of Florida in the 2020 NFL draft, Cleveland has been working behind the scenes with the Broncos to earn more playing time. Sure, out at OTAs and mandatory minicamp I’ve seen Cleveland drop some passes, but I think there’s more positives to his game than negatives. Cleveland is a crisp route runner who does a nice job of not giving away his intent before he makes his break. I like his concentration and work ethic on the practice field but making this team – even the practice squad – is going to be difficult for Cleveland. Perhaps a fresh start with a new team would pay off for him with a spot on an active roster.
Out at Broncos OTAs and mandatory minicamp, I saw Travis Fulgham make some plays from time to time. Fulgham played college football for Old Dominion, and he was a sixth-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions in the 2019 NFL draft. Since then, he’s bounced around the league but found a landing spot with the Broncos in late 2021. After the season, Fulgham signed a futures contract with the Broncos to see if he can make the team in 0222. The Broncos are the fifth team he’s been on in a short time, and with this jam-packed roster it may be difficult for him to earn a spot on the active roster or the practice squad.
Kaden Davis has a chance of making an impact as a special teams player. He’s got quickness and burst to his game, and that helps Davis stand out as a return man. Davis can play out wide or in the slot, but I believe the slot position is where he can play his best football. Undrafted out of NW Missouri State, Davis is trying to earn a spot on the practice squad. Known as a hard worker with speed, Davis has a good chance of earning more time during the regular season to prove he belongs at the pro level.
Brandon Johnson has Colorado roots and an athletic family. The son of former Colorado Rockies player Charles Johnson and the cousin of former NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson, Brandon Johnson began his college career at the University of Tennessee. He transferred to Central Florida and showed off his skill set – especially in the red zone. Johnson scored 10 touchdowns in just 13 games last year, and it’s that size/length and body control that could help him earn a spot on the practice squad with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent rookie.
Trey Quinn was Sutton’s college teammate at SMU, and the “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2018 NFL Draft has bounced around the league a bit since he was chosen as the final player of his class by Washington. Injuries have plagued him during his pro career, but he’s got a fresh start with the Broncos after signing with the team back in late April. Quinn isn’t the largest or the fastest wide receiver. However, he does all the little things you want to see like coming back to the ball and working the sidelines to earn the trust of his quarterback. A long-shot for the final roster, I think Quinn could be bound for the practice squad if he stays healthy and plays up to his potential.
I like watching Jalen Virgil play football. Undrafted out of Appalachian State in 2022, Virgil has the one thing you can’t coach – speed. A former track star, Virgil takes that speed to the football field where he makes plays as a return man and receiver. He’s got a nice size/speed combination, making him more of a threat to break tackles after the catch or on a punt/kick return. During OTAs and mandatory minicamp, Virgil was able to showcase what he can do as a receiver although I do remember him dropping a couple of passes along the way. In order to make the team or the practice squad, Virgil needs to catch everything thrown his way and continue standing out as a return specialist with tremendous speed.
I hope the team finds room to keep Seth Williams around on the 53-man roster or (more likely) the practice squad. A sixth-round pick out of Auburn in 2021, Williams was able to make it onto the field for one game with the Broncos as a rookie. In that contest (versus the Los Angeles Chargers) Williams played 43 snaps, was targeted one time and had one catch for 34 yards. I feel Wilson can bring the best out of Williams, and he can also play special teams while he waits for an opportunity on offense. With Wilson throwing it up for the big man, Williams can use his size to be a red-zone threat. He plays ‘above the rim’ as a receiver and is fearless when running routes over the middle. Williams could be like a young Tim Patrick on the roster – and that’s high praise indeed.
There is a chance the Broncos have so much talent at wide receiver that none of them go over 1,000 yards receiving. I don’t think that happens, but if Wilson spreads the ball around there’s a chance it could happen.
There’s also a chance the Broncos passing game is so robust that they have multiple 1,000-yard receivers – two or perhaps three players could surpass that mark. Either way, one thing we know is that the Broncos can attack a defense with multiple weapons at the wide receiver position.
In training camp, we’ll be watching Sutton and Patrick put on a clinic. We’ll also be watching to see if Jeudy can stay healthy and build strong chemistry with Wilson. Behind those three, the Broncos receivers will compete to establish a pecking order.