ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos pro personnel department put up the names of the league's prospective free agents at wide receiver in recent weeks, they had two at the top of the list -- Emmanuel Sanders and Brandon LaFell.
The feeling was their own free agent, Eric Decker, would command more in the open market than they wanted to spend so they were going to have to dive in elsewhere. And that’s how it played out with Decker reeling in a five-year deal worth just over $36 million from the New York Jets.
The Broncos ranked the targets with a combination of age, potential explosiveness and versatility. What the Broncos wanted, or liked, may not have been what others saw along the way and time will certainly tell if the team is right or not.
LaFell has never caught more than 49 passes in a season with the Carolina Panthers, but he could play in the slot as well as outside and he is 27 years old. Sanders caught at least 44 passes in just two of his four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sanders, too, can play inside in the slot as well as on the outside -- he played three seasons primarily in the slot to go with mostly in one of the outside slots last season -- and turns 27 Monday.
The Broncos initially believed Sanders would be out of their price-range after their spending binge on defense to open free agency and talked to LaFell’s representatives plenty along the way. But when they found they had a chance with Sanders, they closed the deal.
With Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas already in the formation, the Broncos see Sanders as an explosive player in the short area with run-after-catch ability no matter where he gets the ball.
He figures to line up all over the formation and during their study, the Broncos said they took particular note of the missed tackles Sanders created.
“He’s a guy that has had a tremendous career so far, and we think that he’s only scratched the surface,’’ said Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “So we have great expectations of Emmanuel and really think he’s going to come in and add a tremendous amount to the offensive side … An interesting stat was he caused more missed tackles -- 15 -- than all but three NFL wide receivers in 2013. So that shows you what he can do with the ball after he catches it.’’
Even though after four surgeries on his neck Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning doesn’t have the raw power in his arm he once did, he still is as accurate as ever in the short to intermediate parts of the field. And his ability to put the ball where run-after-catch plays can be made – the Broncos receivers led the league in those totals last season – is a hallmark of the offense.
Sanders has had some ill-timed pass drops in his career, but the Broncos didn’t see that as a big detriment. Decker led the team in drops with 11 in 2012 to go with another seven drops this past season and still put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with 13 and 11 touchdowns respectively.
With Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas out wide in a three-wide receiver set, they could conceivably put both Sanders and Welker in the slot. Now, a defense would have to try to decide what to do with the Broncos tight end, who can run by linebackers, with two proficient wideouts in the slot as well.
It’s just one of the options for the Broncos. For his part, Sanders will get an early tutorial on the offense when he joins Manning and the Broncos’ other receivers at Duke for workouts in the coming weeks.
“Immediately after I got the news that the numbers matched, Peyton had texted me,’’ Sanders said. “We’re going to link up and work out – he has a little camp at Duke University and we’re going to work out there.’’
Sanders’ signing will also take the Broncos out of the free agency game for the most part at the moment. They have about $6 million in workable cap space after Sanders’ deal and have an offensive lineman or two on the radar, but they are finished making the big splashes. The Broncos are also still prepared to take a long look at a deep class if big, physical, speedy receivers in the draft.
As Elway said Sunday; “We feel like we got better and we signed guys who guys who fill what were big needs for us.’’