At wideout, Broncos hoping Wilson can turn potential into production
On paper, the Denver Broncos’ wide receiving corps looks explosive and exciting; something that national pundits have crowed about ever since quarterback Russell Wilson was traded to Denver in March. Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler all have 1,000-yard potential, and Wilson has a history of being able to spread the ball around when he has more than a single receiver with Pro Bowl talent.
Talent, however, doesn’t pay the bills in the NFL, and as the saying goes, “potential” is just enough to get people fired. In the high-flying AFC West, the Broncos are counting on their young trio of pass-catchers — and a pair of speedy rookies — to turn their promise into immediate production. IOf they don’t, the team is likely to miss the playoffs for the seventh-consecutive season.
Now an unquestioned veteran leader in his fifth season, and seemingly healed from the knee injury he suffered in 2020, Sutton ranks 18th on the Broncos’ all-time receiving list with 2,658 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. That puts him just ahead of Bob Scarpitto, who was a Pro Bowler for Denver in 1966… as a punter. Scarpitto, who also played flanker at the time, had his best receiving season in 1965, catching 32 passes for 585 yards and five touchdowns from the likes of John McCormick, Mickey Slaughter and Jacky Lee; none of whom could hold the position for long. Even for the woebegone AFL Broncos — in an era that wasn’t nearly as passing-friendly as this one — Scarpitto, who trails Sutton by 219 yards, had a better yards-per-catch average (16.8 to 15.2), and had double his touchdown catches, 24 to 12, all with a quarterback situation that made the Teddy Bridgewater-Drew Lock-Joe Flacco-Case Keenum one that Sutton’s dealt with pale by comparison.
Jeudy hasn’t been able to live up to the lofty billing of the 15th-overall draft pick in 2020, and even though he led the Broncos in receiving yards (856) and yards-per-catch (16.5) in his rookie season, a high-ankle sprain derailed his 2021 campaign, and his effort appeared to wax and wane. Since Wilson’s addition, however, the quarterback and his teammates have raved about the third-year receiver, and seem to be expecting a breakout campaign, even though Jeudy will have to move to the outside in order to take the place of Tim Patrick, who was lost for the season in training camp due to a non-contact knee injury.
“It’s a lot of new formations, new plays, new schemes and little details you have to make sure you stay in tune with,” Jeudy said in late July. “We have all the pieces. We just added Russ and the new coaching staff, so I’m excited to see how the season goes this year. We just have to put all the pieces together.”
Hamler’s career has been riddled by injury. The second-round pick in 2020 has managed to play in only 16 games over his first two seasons, gaining only 455 yards in the process. Finally healthy and in a better place mentally, Hamler looked ready for prime-time in the Broncos’ win over the Vikings last Saturday in their preseason finale.
“As soon as I step onto the field, and I see another person across from me in a different jersey, it all just clicks back,” he said last week, prior to the game. “It’s just like mental reps. Just going out there, trying to be me and trying to be myself; I don’t think that’s changed at all. I just want to go out there and do what I was doing last year before I got hurt.”
The Broncos are counting on Hamler to use his speed as a weapon all over the field in an array of different routes that should stretch the defense both horizontally and vertically. If Hamler can’t succeed, however, a duo of speedsters anxiously await behind him.
The Broncos, clearly emphasizing speed this season, selected Montrell Washington in the fifth round and immediately named the shifty receiver from Samford their punt and kick returner. Washington didn’t disappoint, looking dangerous as both a returner and a receiver. His crisp routes and fly-paper hands quickly made him the darling of training camp, and he never slowed down; scoring a touchdown Saturday on a nifty reverse that portended more significant offensive snaps to come.
The final member of Denver’s five-man receiving unit is the least heralded, but longtime fans know that the Broncos haven’t ever been afraid to look past a player’s draft status — Appalachian State’s Jalen Virgil becomes the 18th undrafted rookie in 19 seasons to make the 53-man roster. Virgil’s 180 receiving yards in the preseason led the team by a wide margin, and his 20 yards-per-catch average illustrates his quicksilver speed.
“I think you need speed in this league. Virgil obviously provides that. This guy — every game, he made plays, and he made plays every practice,” general manager George Paton said on Tuesday. “He can cover kicks, and he’s an interesting guy, ’cause he can return kicks. He was a really good returner in college. He’s just answered every test and aced it, and he has legit speed. He can take the top off, so we’re excited for him.”
Paton didn’t mince words when it came to the wise-beyond-their-years rookies.
“Guys like Montrell and Virgil; it’s pretty unique to have these guys just walk in the door and act like they belong,” the GM said.
The Broncos entire receiving corps have combined for 4,436 yards and 18 touchdowns in the NFL — total. Their ability to consistently produce is an open question, but to hear Virgil explain it, Wilson’s the reason that Denver’s receivers don’t have a doubt.
“Obviously, we have one of the best deep-ball throwers — probably the best deep-ball thrower — in the league, so working with Russ is going to be amazing,” Virgil told the Broncos web site. “It doesn’t even seem real. The first practice we had with the vets, and I looked and saw Russell throwing me the ball, I was like, ‘Wow, this is just unreal.’ He’s always been one of my favorite quarterbacks. Just getting to know him in person, I like him even more because he’s such a great dude and such a great leader — so it’s going to be amazing to go out there and catch balls from a future Hall-of-Famer.”
Wilson’s had terrific receivers before. In Seattle, pass-catchers like Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf and Doug Baldwin all had successful seasons with Wilson at the helm — including, of course, a Super Bowl win over the Broncos following the 2013 campaign. That trio combined for four Pro Bowl appearances in the Emerald City, while Sutton has the Broncos’ only one in the Mile High.
Wilson’s job is to pave the way for more. If he can unlock the potential stored within this five-pack of wideouts, the Broncos could have one of the league’s most explosive offenses. There’s a long way to go yet, but even without any preseason action, Wilson’s bullish on his young stable of Broncos.
“Yeah, I think our offense is exactly where I thought it would be — honestly, probably further. We’re really far along,” he said, prior to the Broncos’ preseason debut win over Dallas. “It’s impressive to see. I give credit to the guys; the investment they’ve put into it every day, every moment, it’s all about them and what they’ve done. It’s been a joy to work with them every day and just put in the extra work… It’s added up to us looking really sharp, playing really clean football and executing in every way.”