Bennie Fowler began his time with the Denver Broncos as a college free agent, after going undrafted in 2014. Although he didn’t reach the regular season game field until 2015, he’s currently out-performing wide receivers Cody Latimer and Andre Caldwell. I think he’s earned increased playing time as the third wide receiver.
Fowler has the right skill-set for the job. He looks well-suited for their slot receiver role. Now would be the optimal time to increasingly try him in that role, permitting him to get comfortable there, should there be a playoff run.
There’s no question that Denver needs a dependable third down receiver. Fowler needs to prove he can consistently get open, and more playing time would help. There’s no substitute for facing up to another team’s coverage.
When watching him play, I’ve wondered what it is that is holding back his playing time/targets. I recognize that it’s good to spread the ball around, but having a consistent WR in the third/slot position could stabilize that group. If the question is whether playing him is a better bet than playing Caldwell or Latimer, I think that’s easy to answer. Although he and Caldwell have received equal targets, consider these statistics heading into Week 11:
- Fowler: 15 targets, 12 receptions, YAC/reception 7.1, no drops, no interceptions thrown when targeted.
- Caldwell: 15 targets, 8 receptions, YAC/reception 2.1, no drops. He has 1 TD but 2 interceptions.
- Latimer: 6 targets, 3 receptions, YAC/reception 8.0, 1 drop.
To support that data, some background is in order.
Bennie Fowler played his college ball with Michigan State. He received little playing time as a freshman, and most of it was on special teams. That’s common. He had a stress fracture in his foot as a sophomore, causing him to redshirt that year.
But Fowler came back to lead the Spartans in receiving yards over both his junior and senior years. As a senior in the 100th Rose Bowl Game, he had 97 receiving yards on only two catches. That helped to spark MSU's 24-20 victory over No. 5 Stanford.
His catches were for 37 and 60 yards, each leading to a score. 26 of his 36 catches that year resulted in either a first down or touchdown. That’s a .722 average. When they needed a big play, they usually went to Fowler.
He’s used to the center stage. All in all, he caught 93 passes for 1,341 yards and 11 touchdowns in his 44 career games. He finished his career with 1,779 all-purpose yards (1,341 receiving; 336 kick return; 102 rushing).
Compared to the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Cody Latimer, Fowler is slightly shorter (6-foot-1) but sturdier at 217 pounds. His build hasn’t slowed him down. Although he was not invited to the Combine, he ran a sub 4.4 40-yard dash at his Pro Day workout, with a 1.58-second 10-yard split.
That’s very good — quick acceleration is essential to an NFL. That kind of top-end speed makes him a dangerous WR. NFLDraftScout.com had him timed at 4.35 for the 40. Fowler has good hops, too. He had a 36-inch vertical leap and a 126-inch broad jump.
The two best tests of a player’s ability to change direction are the 3-cone drill and the short shuttle. Bennie did his 3-cone in 7.06 seconds and his shuttle in 4.18. That’s not elite, but it’s very good. Suddenness, the ability to plant and cut without warning, is a powerful tool against NFL corners. Jerry Rice ran a 4.6 40, but he could change directions without slowing, leaving much faster corners grasping at air.
When Fowler went undrafted, the Broncos offered him a tryout for their preseason team. Bennie impressed enough to spend 2014 on the Broncos practice squad. He built up his already strong physique and began learning the NFL game: how to eat, how to train, how to study film and how to match up with press corners.
He spent hours cleaning up his routes and improving his technique. He had a tendency to catch the pass into his body in college. He learned to use his hands instead. His catch rate this season, although still a small sample, suggests that he’s taken it to heart. In another key skill, Pro Football Focus gave him positive grades in both run and screen blocking for preseason 2014.
Bennie quickly put himself on the fans’ radar in the 2015 opening preseason game against Seattle. In the fourth quarter, he laid himself out for a perfect catch of a beautiful pass by Trevor Siemian. It was good for 41 yards.
Two plays later, they connected for 17 more yards. That led to the winning field goal. Since then, Fowler’s gotten better. He’s an all-around package with good size and the power for breaking tackles and run blocking. Although he hasn’t been used in that capacity, he’s also able to return kicks.
He’s given Denver solid work on special teams. He’s provided two solo tackles, along with one assisted tackle. Beyond the stats, I’ve gotten used to seeing him around the ball and shutting off return lanes during the kick game, whether he makes the tackle or not. He doesn’t shy away from contact.
Latimer has zero tackles on special teams, while the third phase skill-set is Caldwell’s strength. He has 5 tackles there already. That’s great, but it doesn’t make up for a 33 percent catch rate. with 2.1 YAC/receptions. David Bruton made his bones on ST. Generally, Caldwell should too.
With his combination of speed, power and reliable hands, Fowler’s a valuable asset to Gary Kubiak’s offensive variation on the West Coast offense. He can help in both the run and passing games, given his skill as a blocker as well as receiver. Denver needs a dependable slot receiver.
Bennie’s learned to earn his reps and is suited to the task. He’s strong and quick, as well as fast (I’d love to see him explode on a seam route). The stats and film show clearly that he’s performing better as a receiver than either Caldwell or Latimer.
A final factor in his favor is that he and Brock Osweiler appeared to have been developing a connection during the preseason. If it carries over to Week 11 in Chicago, it will be increasingly hard to limit Bennie’s targets. In the end, performance is all that should count. I think it’s in Denver’s favor to give the man a bigger role. From what he’s done with what he’s been given, he’s a solid third down receiver.
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