It will be survival of the fittest for Broncos receivers

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Like their teammates, the Denver Broncos' wide receivers are enjoying their summer weeks away from football.

But when they return later this month, they will find they reside in what is likely the most competitive part of the depth chart. The word coach Vance Joseph has repeatedly used is "crowded." And when all is said and done, it's possible some who had regular roles last season will not be part of the future.

"There are a lot of guys," Demaryius Thomas said. "And some young guys, too. We're all going to have to show it every day when we get back."

The Broncos took the rare step of carrying eight receivers on the 53-man roster in December last season because of injuries and an almost constant search for solutions in the return game. That crowd was created by necessity.

This time around, the Broncos' decision-makers, from executive vice president John Elway on down, were intent on forcing the issue. Elway wants competition, and in the case of the team's wide receivers, he plopped two players from the team's 2017 draft class into the mix.

The Broncos, in search of speed and potential returners, used a third-round pick on Carlos Henderson and a fifth-round pick on Isaiah McKenzie. Not only are they among the fastest players on the team, they also project -- if things progress as the Broncos hope -- as the kickoff returner and punt returner.

And make no mistake, any player who shows he can provide some double-take ability at returner is a must-have for the Broncos, given their largely tepid work in the return game the past three seasons.

"That's a full room," Joseph said. "We drafted two young guys who are going to help us in that spot. It was a good room last year. We added, in my opinion, more speed. We added a guy in Isaiah who can do a bunch of different things for us on the offensive side of the football. When you draft guys that have a shot, it does naturally motivate guys. It should."

So do the math. Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are the starters and both already have shown in offseason workouts that they are intent on doing more than last season, when the offense struggled to overcome inconsistency along the line.

After the two draft picks -- barring an unexpected array of mental errors and dropped passes -- will mark the starting point of the decisions to be made. The Broncos also have Bennie Fowler, Cody Latimer and Jordan Taylor, all of whom had significant playing time last season.

That's seven right there. And that doesn't include Kalif Raymond, who carved out a look last season with his work as a returner, and veteran Marlon Brown, who looked close to earning some playing time in 2016 until a back injury flared up. Undrafted rookie Hunter Sharp caught the coaches' attention in the offseason program.

"I know Fowler had a hell of a camp," Joseph said as the offseason program drew to a close. "Latimer and Jordan, who was healthy, had a hell of a camp. ... It's going to be a tough decision in terms of who makes our football team, but that's the way it should be."

Last season, the Broncos kept six receivers on their initial 53-man roster before the regular-season opener. Of those six players, only Jordan Norwood is not on the roster this year.

Latimer, a former second-round draft pick, might have one of the hottest seats this time around. Henderson could take the kickoff-return job, and some with the Broncos believe he could even be the No. 3 receiver because of his run-after-catch ability.

Coordinator Brock Olivo's decisions about the personnel in the return game and on the special-teams units will be a big part of the decision beyond the spots on the depth chart behind Thomas and Sanders.

"I look forward to seeing what everybody does," Thomas said. "You just have to show your best every day."