ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- During John Elway's final draft in 2020 as the Broncos' chief football decision-maker, Denver used its first two picks on wide receivers, going all-in on hopes of creating some touchdown machines.
Taking Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, respectively, to complement 2018 second-rounder Courtland Sutton and up-and-comer Tim Patrick, Elway deemed them "the potential core four at the position for a long time."
But this week was another gut punch for the star-crossed group that has seen the last four years dissolve into a near-constant struggle. Monday, nearly a year to the day from when he suffered a torn right ACL in 2022 training camp, Patrick tore his left Achilles tendon to end his 2023 season.
The same day, Hamler announced he had been diagnosed with pericarditis, an irritation around the heart, after he experienced chest pains during workouts before the start of training camp.
“Monday, that’s a day that made my heart hurt,’’ Broncos outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper said. "Tim, KJ, you hear that, you see that, it hurts. You want them to show what they have worked so hard to do.''
The Broncos waived Hamler as having a non-football injury (NFI) and will revisit the idea of him rejoining the team once he is medically cleared.
“I don’t want to put a prognosis or timeline on it, but approximately a month and probably another couple of weeks to get in football shape,’’ Payton said of Hamler’s potential recovery time. “We are hopeful that once the symptoms dissipate and he is cleared, then that leaves us a lot of options."
It all means with whatever becomes of the 2023 season for the Broncos, Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler and Patrick will have played just two games together over four seasons. And in the last seven drafts, including this past April when the Broncos selected Marvin Mims Jr. in the second round (63rd overall), the Broncos have used 11 draft picks on wide receivers. Over that span, the Broncos have had one Pro Bowl season and one 1,000-yard season from the previous 10 wide receiver picks before Mims to show for it -- both by Sutton in 2019.
Denver shunned some inquiries about Jeudy and Sutton from other teams in the offseason because they believed in the potential and depth of the group. The Broncos told other teams that it would take a first-round pick for them to even consider discussing a Jeudy deal, according to league sources.
It all leaves Payton with the problem of what to do on the depth chart this time around.
“Look, we have a lot of guys working [at wide receiver],’’ Payton said. “[But] it’s early.’’
Sutton and Jeudy have worked as the top two receivers early in camp and players like Mims as well as Brandon Johnson, who worked with the starters more in the practices immediately following Patrick’s injury, will be asked to be a bigger part of the rotation. Patrick’s toughness, physicality and speed will be a difficult combination to replace in the near term.
The Broncos did try to add more size at the position in the offseason when they signed Marquez Callaway (6-foot-2, 204 pounds) and Lil’Jordan Humphrey (6-4, 225) -- both played for Payton with the Saints. Mims missed some time in the offseason program as well as the first days of training camp with hamstring issues, but following Patrick’s injury, Payton said “he’s feeling good, you’re going to see more and more of him … he’s ramping up and we’re encouraged."
On Johnson’s potential, Payton added: “He’s had some big plays, he’s getting more work now with the ones. He can run and … he’s picking it, he’s getting it, he’s flashed.’’
Sutton and Jeudy, in particular, have said they spent some of the offseason looking at Michael Thomas’ work in the Saints offense with Payton as the play caller to make the most of the new playbook. The game video included Thomas’ three 100-catch seasons, including the 149-catch, 1,725-yard effort in 2019.
Sutton made a diving grab in Tuesday’s practice that brought a roar from the roughly 3,000 fans on hand and Jeudy has been called “explosive’’ by Payton, who has told Jeudy that “we’re going to be on you, we’re going to get the most out of you.’’
“We have a collection of great guys … focused, determined … and ready to deal with everything that comes,’’ quarterback Russell Wilson said. “They’ll be ready to play.’’