ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos essentially made the Emmanuel Sanders-for-Eric Decker swap in their offense, they reached a reasoned conclusion, even beyond the financial considerations. Sanders’ quickness and versatility could be every bit as valuable -- or even a little more -- than Decker’s size and productivity in the scoring zone.
And having now seen Sanders in on-field work in recent weeks, there is no reason to believe the Broncos aren’t right on all counts there. Sanders also got rave reviews from his new teammates after he worked with quarterback Peyton Manning and the team’s other high-profile pass-catchers at Duke University before the team opened its offseason program.
Sanders has also enjoyed his opening look at the team’s playbook.
“That’s a good thing about this offense," Sanders said. “I like to catch the ball and have room and the opportunity to make someone miss. This system definitely plays to my strengths and that’s why I’m also excited to be here."
But Sanders will have to find a way to fill what some may find to be a surprising role in the offense that Decker had during the Broncos’ record-setting 2013. While Sanders has the speed to play on the outside to go with the short-area quickness to move into the slot when the Broncos want him to, when the Broncos elected not to offer Decker a contract, they gambled somebody could replace the deep-ball yardage Decker produced.
The Broncos spent about 70 percent of their snaps in a three-wide-receiver look last season, and that total hovered at about 90 percent of the snaps in the postseason. And while the Broncos have talked of wanting to run the ball more efficiently this season, there is no reason to believe they wouldn’t play to their strength and live in the three-wide set again.
In that formation, or any other, Demaryius Thomas is the unquestioned No. 1, a combination of size, speed and strength that makes him the Broncos’ chief matchup problem for secondaries. Thomas had almost 700 yards after the catch last season, and he was Manning’s chief target on plays of 20 yards or more downfield.
So while Decker had 47 percent of his catches go for 10 or fewer yards last season, and 69 percent for 15 or fewer yards, a look at the video shows he also led the team in deep-ball catches, with 15 receptions on passes caught at least 20 yards down the field. And there’s where Sanders comes in.
Thomas is going to get the No. 1 attention from opposing defenses. He will most often get the better corners with plenty of help sent that way as well.
Tight end Julius Thomas will pull plenty of attention his way, as well, simply because there are so few linebackers or safeties who can match up with the Broncos tight end when he’s locked in and disciplined in his routes.
That will leave Sanders in plenty of single-coverage situations down the field. Sanders makes tacklers miss, especially immediately after the catch, and he will be one of the Broncos' best receivers in getting off the jam at the line of scrimmage, something which vexed Decker at times, especially in his one-catch Super Bowl.
And that’s what is needed for the Broncos against the more physical defenses they face. Manning & Co. had 16 pass plays of at least 20 yards for touchdowns in the regular season. Against the San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks in the postseason, none of the Broncos' 10 pass plays of at least 20 yards went for a score.
The Chargers kept the lid on the Broncos so tightly, Denver had just one pass play of at least 20 yards -- a 21-yard completion from Manning to Julius Thomas -- in its divisional round game.
Rookie Cody Latimer, a physical receiver who was one of the fastest receivers on the board this year, will be in the mix, as well, as the Broncos try to create more space for their pass-catchers to work. That’s especially true since one of Latimer’s strengths as a college player was coming away with the ball in contested situations -- the so-called “50-50 ball" -- as Indiana’s No. 1 receiver.
For his part, Sanders said, after working alongside Demaryius Thomas and the rest of the Broncos in recent weeks, his belief the Broncos were the best place for him to land in free agency has been confirmed each and every day.
“I’m not saying that me and [Steelers wide receiver] Antonio Brown didn’t complement each other, but I feel like we’re too much of the same," Sanders said. “[Demaryius Thomas] is a big receiver. He’s a big, physical receiver and I’m a more a smaller, quick, faster receiver that can stretch the field. It definitely gives our offensive coordinator the ability to go imagine. I think Peyton likes that a lot better also. ... I had the opportunity to not only play with Ben Roethlisberger, who I think will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, now to come into a passing system with one of the greatest, if not the greatest, quarterbacks to ever play that position, is definitely a blessing.”