ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was a sunbaked August day one year ago, just after a training camp practice, when newly signed wide receiver Andre Caldwell sat at a picnic table behind the team's complex and offered up what he hoped Denver could mean for his career.
“I always believed I could be a starter, I could be a go-to guy for a quarterback, be a guy they trusted," Caldwell said then. “That if I was healthy and had some opportunities I could be that guy."
The road hasn't always been as smooth as he would have liked, but this December, Caldwell has the chance to be that guy at a time when the Broncos sorely need one. With Wes Welker sidelined after suffering two concussions in a four-game span, the touchdown factory that has been the Broncos offense will have to make some rather large adjustments.
Welker is still tied for second on the team with 73 receptions and has been targeted by Peyton Manning 111 times, which is good for third on the team in that category. His 10 touchdown catches are also third on the team.
In short, Welker has been exactly the player the Broncos hoped he would be when they signed him to a two-year, $12 million deal in March.
He is slated to miss Sunday’s game against the Texans -- expected to be formally ruled out after Friday’s practice -- and will likely be held out of the regular-season finale as he goes through medical evaluations. Welker has not been cleared to practice, but Thursday he spent some time working with the Broncos’ strength and conditioning staff in the team’s weight room. Broncos coach John Fox said Welker had done some limited on-field work outside as well.
Welker has not practiced since leaving the Broncos’ Dec. 8 victory over the Tennessee Titans just before halftime. He was taken from the field after being hit by Titans safety George Wilson, suffering a concussion and a neck injury on the play.
Losing Welker is no small matter for a quarterback in Manning and a playcaller in Adam Gase who prefer the Broncos work out of a three-wide receiver set most of the time. In 14 games this season, the Broncos have lined up in a three-wide formation on 77.5 percent of their offensive snaps, including penalty plays.
Most of the rest of the time, they have been in a two-tight end look, but never for more than 24 snaps in any game before Welker’s most recent concussion. After Welker left the game against the Titans, however, the Broncos used a two-tight end look on 36 snaps, all in the second half.
With Caldwell and tight end Jacob Tamme, who made most of his 52 receptions in 2012 working out of the slot, the Broncos believe they have the personnel to deal with Welker’s absence.
“I don’t think it’s a big difference offense-wise," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “I think it’s a little different for preparation by the defenses because now we don’t have Wes. But we still have weapons. I think we’re still capable of doing what we want to do with the guys that we’ve got, so I don’t see a big difference.”
While the 20 points the Broncos scored against the Chargers was a season low, the game did reveal that Manning was still willing to move the ball around the formation without Welker in the lineup and that he trusted Caldwell in almost any situation. Caldwell led the team with 10 targets against the Chargers and finished with six catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns. Caldwell has 11 catches on the season, three for touchdowns.
“All the hard work is paying off," Caldwell said. “I’ve been around here for two years and finally got a chance to make something happen. … I’ll just go out there and do what I’ve been doing -- working hard every day. If the ball comes my way, I'll do my best to make a play. I just want to win the ballgame, so I’m going to do whatever they want me to.”
When the Broncos put Caldwell in the lineup in a three-wide set, he'll likely go to one of the outside spots while Eric Decker or Demaryius Thomas would work out of the slot more to go with either Julius Thomas or Tamme in the opposite slot. Former Broncos coach and current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels always believed Decker could be a highly productive receiver in the slot.
If the Broncos go with a passing-friendly combination of Julius Thomas and Tamme in a two-tight end set, Tamme would work out of the slot much of the time, just like he did for most of last season.
Overall, the immediate issue will be on third down and in the red zone. Even though Welker has missed the past six quarters, he still leads the Broncos in third-down catches with 18. The Broncos were just 2-for-9 on third down against the Chargers, including 0-for-6 in the first half.
But the Chargers game came on a short week. The Broncos have had time to adjust since and had an extra practice Monday, so they'll likely see at least some of the fruits of that work over the next two games. Manning has been ruthlessly efficient in where the passes have gone this season, and that can be seen in how often he targeted Caldwell last week.
“[That’s] the way that [Manning] operates. He’s going to go to the guy that the coverage kind of dictates to him," Gase said. “He’s not worried about who is where. Like I’ve said before, it’s amazing how the balls have been spread out because usually it’s dictated by what the defense has done. And he’ll find the open guy. [Caldwell] did a great job of getting open when he had his one-on-one matchup.”
Added Caldwell: “I don’t think it changes much. I think we had a great group of receivers. They put Decker inside, they put Tamme in there, and they moved me to the outside. I think we’re still explosive, still can put up big points and big numbers every week.”