ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have one of the longer lists of free agents in the league, and just more than a week out from the formal opening of the NFL’s festival of checks, it’s a good time to take a one-a-day look at some of the impending Broncos free agents.
Today: Wes Welker
Tuesday: Rahim Moore
There is no question Welker would like to play, somewhere, in the 2015 season. Whether or not the Broncos have room for him in both the new offensive plan and against their salary cap, however, is another matter entirely. Especially since, in the Broncos' minds, plenty of the available playing time at receiver might already be spoken for, at least in terms of what Welker is looking for and what the Broncos may have to offer.
Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said the team will use the franchise player tag on Demaryius Thomas, at least until a long-term deal can be worked out. That is a significant chunk of the salary cap dollars at the position headed Thomas’ way, and rightly so.
After all, Thomas is just the third receiver in league history to string together three consecutive seasons with at least 1,400 yards receiving and at least 10 touchdowns. Emmanuel Sanders, who is coming off his first career 100-catch season and is a player in his prime, is set to turn just 28 this month.
Those are the Broncos’ top two pass-catchers, no questions asked.
And the next guy in line? Elway has already made it pretty clear, as has head coach Gary Kubiak, the Broncos would like it to be Cody Latimer. As Kubiak put it at the scouting combine, “I spent a whole day with him in Baltimore (before the 2014 draft). We really, really liked him. I think a lot of his ability."
Some of that transition is Welker's age, some of it injury concern and some of it just what the Broncos saw on the field last season. After a productive 2013 -- Welker’s first season in Denver after he had signed a two-year, $12 million deal -- when he finished with 73 receptions and a career-best 10 touchdowns, 2014 was a far different affair.
He suffered a concussion in the preseason -- his third to that point in what was a nine-month span -- and was then suspended four games for a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy, a suspension that was later reduced to two games when the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed on changes to the policy.
But in a season that started with all of that, Welker never really found his rhythm in the offense, and as the season wore on he didn’t command the kind of double-team attention from defenses he had in seasons past. His 49 receptions were his fewest since he had 29 catches in 2005.
Toss in that Welker carried the fifth-highest salary cap charge for the team this past season ($7.647 million), was targeted just eight times combined in the final three games of the regular season and was targeted just twice in the playoff loss, the Broncos are poised to move on.
Also, much like last year when the draft was filled with big, fast receivers who were ready to have some kind of impact, this year’s draft has plenty of receiver talent as well. Elway has called it one of the most talented positions on the board, perhaps the most talented overall.
It means the Broncos can find value in the middle and late rounds even if they elect to use their opening picks at other positions.
And in retrospect, it’s clear one of the issues Elway had with how last season ended was the fact a couple of the team’s rookies -- Latimer and tackle Michael Schofield -- didn’t play more. So, Latimer is moving toward the front burner, and the Broncos want to see what he has to offer in a new playbook.
As a result, Welker’s desire to play will almost certainly lead him elsewhere, unless he remains unsigned after free agency’s initial wave passes and the Broncos circle back around to sign him as potential situational player.