ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When it comes to their work in the NFL draft over the past three decades or so, the Denver Broncos mostly have seen their efforts to add players who can catch stymied by those wide receivers’ inability to catch on.
It is a dilemma that has appeared and reappeared leaguewide at the position, but it has been particularly pronounced in the Broncos’ attempts to find immediate help at wide receiver in the draft. And given they are on the hunt again, they once again are fighting their own history in finding players who can make what has become one of the more difficult transitions for NFL rookies.
“It’s the matchups and the physical side of it,’’ is how Broncos coach Vance Joseph put it this past season. Receivers "just don’t see too many people get right up and cover them in the college game, and in this league defensive backs are going to be physical and they can run with you. So there is some adjustment.’’
So much so that, try as they might, the Broncos rarely have seen a rookie wide receiver make a significant impact in his inaugural season no matter what kind of player he eventually becomes. Since 1990, the Broncos have used 31 draft picks on wide receivers, including Isaiah McKenzie and Carlos Henderson last April.
Among those 31 players, just five finished their rookie seasons with more than 20 receptions; only one -- Eddie Royal with 91 receptions and five touchdowns in 2008 -- finished with more than 35 receptions. And 13 finished their rookie seasons without a reception, whether because they were injured, cut or simply didn’t play much.
Sure, some went on to 1,000-yard seasons -- Demaryius Thomas (first round in 2010), Eric Decker (third round in 2010) and Brandon Marshall (fourth round in 2006) -- and one went to the Hall of Fame at another position -- tight end Shannon Sharpe (seventh round in 1990) -- but as the Broncos search for help in the passing game once again, it might not be a given that help will come from a draft pick.
Twice in the past two decades, Denver took three receivers in different draft classes -- 1999 and 2000 -- and those six players combined for eight catches in their rookie seasons. That's the line the Broncos and others in the league walk as they evaluate both for the potential of a plug-and-play wideout as well as long-term potential.
Last season, the top two rookie pass-catchers at the position leaguewide -- the Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster (58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns) and the Rams’ Cooper Kupp (62 catches for 869 yards, including 42 receptions for first downs) -- were second- and third-round selections, respectively. The Jaguars’ Keelan Cole was the only other rookie wide receiver to finish with at least 40 receptions last season, and he went undrafted.
“It’s hard -- you’re just used to more room,’’ Thomas said. “What you say is ‘open’ is a lot different, and all the routes and how you have to run them even to get to the ball. It’s different, a lot different than maybe how you played [the position] in college.’’
For the Broncos, it has been a decidedly bumpy ride. During John Elway’s tenure as the team’s chief football decision-maker, the Broncos have selected four wide receivers in the past seven drafts combined.
Tavarres King didn’t make the team coming out of his first training camp in 2013. Cody Latimer, selected in the second round in 2014, finished with two receptions as a rookie. And in 2017, McKenzie was benched as the punt returner and finished with just four receptions, while Henderson spent the season on injured reserve (thumb).
The Broncos did not make a high-profile addition at wide receiver in free agency as they continue to search for ways to force defenses to quit focusing their coverages on Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
The Broncos will have all this on their mind during the draft weekend as they try to find players who will not only develop over the long term but add a little something in the short term, too.
“[Defenses say] let’s take away your two best guys and force a tight end, the slot or the back to beat us,’’ Joseph said. “We didn’t do a good job there. We have to do better there. Obviously, having [tight end Jake] Butt back is going to be big for us. ... Carlos Henderson, he missed last year as a third-round pick. We’re counting on that kid to come in and play for us, especially in the slot. ... Someone has to go into the slot and win the one-on-ones so we can get fair coverages on third downs.’’