An Historical Look At The Importance Of The Third Wide Receiver In Gary Kubiak's Offense

There are high expectations for someone to step up and take command of Denver's No. 3 receiver spot, but does Gary Kubiak's history as a play-caller support that supposition?

Looking back at the great Denver Broncos teams that won Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII, who was the quarterback on each of those units? “John Elway, of course”, you would say, and you would be right.

Who was the starting tight end for both of those teams? “Too easy, Shannon Sharpe”, and you would be correct.

Now with those softballs out of the way, who was the third wideout for both of those teams? If you guessed Willie Green, congratulations are in order; you know your Broncos. 

The last question I would have for you at that point would be more of an empirical evidence-type of question: How big of a contribution did he make during the year? I can tell you, while important, it wasn’t as big as you would think. Although Green was a serviceable veteran wide receiver, he didn’t put up huge numbers for Denver in either of their Super Bowl winning seasons. 

There is one important reason why I bring this up. There has been much debate about the development of young players Bennie Fowler, Jordan Norwood and Cody Latimer. Each time any of these players are mentioned, it is typically regarding how much will they factor into the offense this year. In looking back at the past offenses under Coach Gary Kubiak, I ask, does it really matter?

Do not get me wrong, I think all of Denver's young wideouts are solid players and have lots of room to develop. It was not by accident that both Fowler and Norwood were retained in the offseason. Combine that with Latimer staying in Denver to work during the offseason, and it can be assumed that all three players are poised to take the battle for WR3 up a notch this season.

It’s important that all three work on their craft and hone their talents. However, as history tells us, it’s not going to be as important as most people would think. Take a look at some numbers I pulled from the recent teams Kubiak has coached. The first refers to his last season as the head coach in Houston and the second looks at his stint as the offensive coordinator in Baltimore.

Matt Schaub and Case Keenum combined for 4,070 passing yards in 2013—good for 18th in the League, a little worse than average. The leading rusher that year for Houston was Ben Tate, but even with Arian Foster hurt, the team as a whole had almost 1,500 rushing yards among its top three backs and averaged 4.16 yards a carry. 

The most interesting stat applies to the receiving corps. The top two receivers that year were Andre Johnson, who caught a whopping 109 balls for 1,407 yards, and DeAndre Hopkins, who reeled in 52 balls for 802 yards. 

What were the totals of the supposed third wideout? It would be Keshawn Martin, who snagged 22 balls for 253 yards.  He wasn’t the third leading receiver in Houston that year; he wasn’t fourth or even fifth.  Keshawn Martin was the sixth leading wideout for the Texans, the last year that Kubiak was calling the plays.

Moving along to his time with Baltimore, we can glean even more information on the subject.  We have Joe Flacco throwing for 3,986 yards—a career high. The Ravens would also post almost 2,000 yards combined between the likes of previously unheralded backs Justin Forsett and Bernard Pierce.

Despite the success the Baltimore offense had under Kubiak that year, what were the total stats of the third wideout in the offense? That would be Kamar Aiken, who caught 24 passes for a pedestrian 267 yards.

Studying the offenses under Gary Kubiak, going all the way back to 2010, we can see that his third wideouts aren’t nearly as instrumental to the offense as say his tight ends or even running backs are in the passing game. Kevin Walter was his most productive WR3 in 2010 when he totaled a so-so 621 yards. We can even say there is a heavier emphasis on the backs and tight ends in the passing game than the third receiver. Tight end Owen Daniels led the Texans in receiving in 2011 and the second-leading receiver in the same year was Arian Foster, a running back. If any more evidence is needed to drive the point home, a backup tight end, Joel Dreessen, led the team in touchdown receptions with six.

Lastly, let’s consider last year’s Denver Broncos in a perceived down year. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders both had over 1,100 yards receiving. Owen Daniels, a tight end, was your third leading receiver, while Jordan Norwood, as the third wideout, would come in fourth with 207 yards. That total would only be 24 yards more than seventh place C.J. Anderson

From looking at these statistics, what we can infer is this; even though Mark Sanchez will probably be the starting quarterback in Week 1 against Carolina, he will probably have a decent season.

Whether it be a running back-by-committee or C.J. Anderson toting the rock, they will be a threat for 1,000-plus yards, while also catching the ball out of the backfield. When it comes to the passing game, we will probably see totals that reflect the majority of balls going to Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the top two tight ends, most likely Garrett Graham and Jeff Heuerman.

What we probably won’t see is a giant leap in production from the trio of Fowler, Norwood or Latimer. While their development must still continue to trend northward, they will need to find ways—other than catching the ball—to contribute towards this year’s team.

While a 500-plus yard campaign would be a huge numbers boost, it would speak more to injuries to other players than the young receivers’ abilities to produce.

Bennie Fowler is a big physical receiver and great blocker. Jordan Norwood looks and plays the part of a great slot receiver. Cody Latimer is only scratching the surface of his talent. 

We can see all of that. But will any one of those three catch 50-plus balls?  History says, probably not. 

Adam Uribes is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @auribes37.

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