When the Denver Broncos selected wide receiver KJ Hamler with the 46th pick in the NFL draft in April -- 31 picks after selecting wide receiver Jerry Jeudy -- it raised more than a few eyebrows.
On Sunday, Hamler flashed the kind of impact the Broncos hoped for, dreamed of and bet on eight months ago. Both of Hamler's catches in the Broncos' 32-27 win over the Carolina Panthers went for touchdowns, and both were on plays of at least 37 yards. The Broncos appear to have a pair of 21-year-old building blocks at wide receiver in Jeudy and Hamler.
"We hit some big plays, threw some touchdown passes, really good to see, spread the ball around. Nice to see KJ come up with some big plays. We can add that to our offense," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "... Big time, that's why we drafted him. He's fast, he can stretch [the field], he's tough to cover 1-on-1, and we're hoping it's the start. ... He's been coming around, but we're hoping to see more and more of that."
Hamler's two touchdowns, both in the second half, went for a combined 86 yards, and he jumped to second on the team in touchdown receptions this season, with three. His 49-yard touchdown with 3 minutes, 54 seconds left in the game was the Broncos' longest scoring pass of the season.
That score came on a play designed to give quarterback Drew Lock the option of throwing to Jeudy on a crossing route or, if one of the Panthers' safeties moved up to chase Jeudy, going to Hamler headed to the post past Carolina cornerback Rasul Douglas. Throughout the week in practice, the ball always went to Jeudy.
"I didn't really believe it was in the air because we hadn't thrown it in practice all week, and I was like 'Oh my gosh, I've got to make a play,'" Hamler said.
With Denver holding a five-point lead, that touchdown came on a first-and-10 with Carolina lined up defensively as if it believed the Broncos were simply going to run some clock.
"An awesome call. They're expecting run," Lock said.
Lock finished with 13 completions to his tight ends and running backs -- 72% of his completions in the game -- a sign that he's learning to not force the ball down the field. Lock's two biggest plays went to Hamler, who now has two of the Broncos' four scoring passes of more than 30 yards this season.
Sunday was a nice bounce-back game for Hamler, who last week missed a leaping grab that would have kept a Broncos drive alive with the team trailing the Kansas City Chiefs by three points with just more than six minutes to play.
"To me, K.C., like, ate me up for a little bit," Hamler said. "I dropped that ball in the middle. I took it very hard. A lot of my teammates knew I felt like that game was on me. ... I didn't want to drop that ball again."
Hamstring injuries slowed Hamler's start to the season, and when November rolled around, he had been targeted just 15 times and had eight catches. Hamler joked that his mom, Latonya, who works nights, slept through a big play or two of his earlier this season. But with games such as Sunday, Hamler has given her reason to keep her eyes glued to the broadcasts.
"I'm going to call her," Hamler said with a smile Sunday. "... She had better been awake."