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Draft will give Broncos chance to find third wheel in passing game

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has spent plenty of time studying opposing offenses over the years, but he has also seen what the Broncos' offense has to offer.

In an offseason when coach Vance Joseph has said he’d like to see more “juice’’ on offense, as in more speed, Harris dialed those thoughts in a little more this week.

Asked, as the Broncos moved into the second week of their offseason program, how he would have defended the sometimes-balky Broncos' offense in 2015, Harris said: “Try to take away D.T. (wide receiver Demaryius Thomas) and E (wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders) -- fast. Those are our top explosive receivers. I’d try to make our tight ends beat us and our running backs.’’

While the Broncos do still have a rather noticeable opening at left tackle and it’s no secret they’d like to snag a running back in the draft with some breakaway speed, the third option in the passing game needs attention.

Because defenses often did exactly what Harris said. Thomas and Sanders, who finished last season with 90 and 79 catches, respectively, were the only wide receivers on the roster to have more than 21 catches. They were the only wide receivers with more than 250 yards receiving last season and defenses repeatedly could load the line of scrimmage to stop the Broncos’ run game, give a little extra attention to Thomas and Sanders.

Joseph said it could be exposed when the Broncos got in position to score.

“The perception was the offense wasn’t very good, but in my opinion the offense was pretty good,’’ Joseph said earlier this offseason. “They didn’t finish well in the red zone, but the quarterbacks played well.’’

Which is why the deep group of pass receiving tight ends in the draft will get a long look, as will some of the draft’s multi-taskers at wide receiver and running back, given the Broncos are looking for help at returner as well.

But with the No. 20 pick in the first round, the Broncos are not expected to have a chance at Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, who could line up in the backfield, at receiver and be a team’s primary returner, as many people in the league believe McCaffrey will easily be selected among the draft’s top 15 players.

But players like Washington wide receiver John Ross, who was the fastest player at the NFL combine and can be a returner, or Miami tight end David Njoku are the kind of playmakers in the passing game with the speed to stress defenses.

Down the board a player like North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen or North Carolina’s T.J. Logan or Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols will interest the Broncos as well. Logan ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, while Cohen and McNichols were at 4.42 and 4.49, respectively.

All three of those running backs have receiving skills, while Logan and McNichols have been returners as well. There are receivers who clocked in the 4.4s at the combine like Michigan's Amara Darboh, Alabama's Ardarius Stewart and Miami's Stacy Coley, who will also get a long look with his experience as a kick returner.

In the end, the Broncos have made major financial commitments in recent seasons to both Thomas and Sanders and the two are the unquestioned top targets in the team’s passing game. But they won’t be at their best unless the Broncos get a little more help from at least one more player.

“No question,’’ Joseph said. “We need to make it a lot more difficult for teams to play us the way they played us last season.’’