Grading The 2014 Broncos: Wide Receivers

In Part IV of our series on grading the Broncos, we take a look at wide receivers. Our grades will be based on each player’s on-field performance and the relativity/value to their 2014 salary cap hit.

Welcome to Part IV of our series “Grading the 2014 Denver Broncos”. Each player will be evaluated based on their on-field performance and their value relative to their 2014 cap hit.

The evaluations are based on what I see with my own two eyes. I understand that not everyone will see each grade my way but you follow us here at MHH for our opinion and analysis and throughout this series, we’re going to give it to you.

All salary cap numbers come via Spotrac.com.

Demaryius Thomas

2014 cap hit: $4,700,000 (dead cap $1,756,250)

For the third consecutive season, Thomas put up prolific numbers for the Broncos. Playing with Peyton Manning will do that for a guy. However, Thomas’ game, although accentuated by his quarterback, stands tall on its own merit.

2014 saw Thomas get out to a slow start, as he battled an injury. But then he exploded with seven-straight games of at least 100 yards receiving, falling just 13 yards shy of tying Calvin Johnson’s NFL record of eight consecutive.

Thomas’ 2014 campaign was one of the best in franchise history, but instead of finishing strong, in his final game (the Divisional Round of the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts) he uncharacteristically did not perform well, dropping several passes and playing without intensity.

My only gripe about Thomas is that I’d like to see him shine more consistently when going against elite corners like Vontae Davis. He had a great showing vs. Patrick Peterson in Week 5 (eclipsing 200 yards and 2 touchdowns), but unlike, say, Dez Bryant, when he’s pressed hard by a top-end cover corner, he doesn’t always find a way to make plays.

As it relates to the salary cap, the Broncos got a bargain in Thomas, who performed at an elite level for most of the season. Most receivers of his caliber make three times what the Broncos paid him in 2014.

However, now those chickens are coming home to roost. Thomas is set to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent. Like his buddy, Eric Decker, Thomas is looking to cash in on a big second contract. The Broncos want to keep him around, regardless of what happens with Manning. Likely, the worst case scenario is that the team will franchise tag him.

Grade: A+.

Emmanuel Sanders

2014 cap hit: $4,000,000 (dead cap $6,000,000)

He-Manuel, as he’s been lovingly christened by our very own Brandon Perna, had a breakout year in Denver. Coming from Pittsburgh, where he struggled to make an impact as a WR2/WR3, a change of scenery and playing with Manning, was just what the doctor ordered.

Sanders chose Denver over other offers because he said it was like coming to “receiver Heaven”. His words proved prescient as he posted career highs in just about every receiving category and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

He finished the season with 101 receptions, 1,404 yards and 9 touchdowns. Sanders’ speed and quickness were under-utilized in Pittsburgh, but Manning found a big use for it in Denver. Arguably, Sanders’ most impressive trait is his toughness and ability and willingness to hold onto the ball over the middle, knowing he’s going to get clobbered.

As for his value relative to the salary cap – the Broncos again got a great bargain in Sanders, who out-performed big name free agents of the past, like Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, who both snagged bigger contracts than Sanders on the open market.

Grade: A+.

Wes Welker

2014 cap hit: $7,647,059 (dead cap $8,000,000)

Welker’s second season in orange and blue did not produce the same results as his first and there are a couple of reasons for that. One, Welker started the regular season off with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance enhancing drug policy, which was reduced to just two games.

The suspension was a big disappointment to the Broncos organization and it forced Adam Gase to tweak the offense in a way that did not feature the slot as much they did in 2013. They had to prepare for life without Welker.

Second, Welker sustained a concussion in the preseason, which was his third in a 10-month stretch. With the new outlook on head injuries, and the vagaries of Father Time, Welker simply wasn’t physically the same as he was even a year before.

And when the Broncos changed to a run-heavy offense down the stretch, it phased Welker out even more. Nevertheless, when called upon, Welker still did his job with aplomb, often finding ways to get open on third down and/or draw underneath coverage away from other targets.

Welker had a shot at that elusive Super Bowl ring in 2013, but the Broncos fell short. 2014 saw them not even make it to the AFC Championship game. Not every player retires with a ring, but for Welker, that’s okay. He’s accomplished a lot as a former undrafted rookie free agent.

Relative to the salary cap – the Broncos drastically overpaid for Welker’s services in 2014. Combine that with his health issues and declining abilities and it’s highly doubtful he’ll return to the team in 2015. It was a great run though.

Grade: B-.

Andre Caldwell

2014 cap hit: $1,150,000 (dead cap $400,000)

John Elway made it a point to extend Caldwell early in free agency last spring – oddly showing faith in a player who had previously little production with the Broncos on the grid-iron. Caldwell did little to reward that faith in 2014.

He only saw 185 snaps all season. The reason for that was that when he was on the field, he was ineffectual and rendered a non-entity. There just seemed to be something missing about Caldwell in 2014, like he was pressing.

Whatever the case, his biggest contributions to the team came on special teams as a kick returner, but even that was subpar. Although is cap numbers are relatively low, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Broncos move on from him. He only received $400K in guarantees in his two-year deal he signed last year.

Relative to his 2014 cap hit, Caldwell failed to provide a reasonable return on investment to the Broncos, even as a backup receiver and special teams player. So long, Bubba.

Grade: D-.

Cody Latimer

2014 cap hit: $674,300 (dead cap $2, 025,775)

Latimer’s rookie season was probably a bit of a disappointment – to him, the team and the fans. Not because he failed on the field, but because he failed to see it. He only saw 37 snaps all season long.

But it’s hard to blame him when the top two receivers on the depth chart made the Pro Bowl and the third one is a living legend. There’s only so many mouths you can feed on the field. What was hard to wrap my brain around was why the team seemed to favor Caldwell with snaps, over Latimer, when the opportunities for guys down the depth chart came up, because Caldwell did absolutely nothing with his reps.

Latimer flashed all throughout training camp and had a good preseason. The highlight of his rookie campaign, alas, came vs. the San Francisco 49ers in the preseason, when he laid a vicious hit on safety Antoine Bethea, while attempting to run block.

Although nobody wants to see a player get hurt, it did showcase Latimer’s blocking prowess and his willingness to get physical and stick his nose into the action. There are likely bigger things on the horizon for Latimer.

Sanders is under contract for 2015, but if things go awry in negotiations with Demaryius Thomas, the team might be willing to cut their losses and roll with the 6-foot-2, 215lb University of Indiana product.

He’s an incredibly talented player and was my top receiving prospect in the 2014 draft (as hard as that is to believe). He has a bright future, but if all goes as the Broncos hope and Thomas returns to the fold, it’s hard to see where Latimer fits in playing-time-wise with Gary Kubiak’s offense, especially with Sanders a part of the equation as well.

If Manning returns, the Broncos will likely run a lot more 3-WR sets than Kubiak has in the past, which will give the team the opportunity to move Sanders inside to the slot and put Latimer outside with Thomas, where he can utilize his size to make plays on the boundary.

Relative to his salary cap hit, the Broncos did not get much of a return on Latimer in 2014, but he represents an investment that might not bear fruit for some time yet.

Grade: C+.

Chad Jensen is the Publisher and Lead Analyst for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen and on Google+.

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