ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos sailed into uncharted draft waters last month when, for the first time in franchise history, they used their first two picks on wide receivers. Now the Broncos want, and need, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler to make an early impact on an offense in search of touchdowns.
History, however, has not always been kind to rookie receivers in Denver. The Broncos have had just three rookies finish with more than 40 catches, though, most talent evaluators believe wide receivers in recent drafts have been far more prepared to play early in the NFL than they were even a decade ago.
And the Broncos like what they have in Jeudy and Hamler.
“I think any time you get a receiver that’s hard to cover, that stresses the defense, it’s as simple as that,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said in the days following the draft. “We think [Jeudy] is hard to cover, and once he does catch it, he can run pretty good with it after. It’s as simple as that. Can you cover him or not?”
The most recent Broncos rookie receiver to find success was Courtland Sutton, who had 42 catches and four touchdowns in 2018. In fact, the top three seasons for a Broncos rookie wide receiver have all been constructed by second-round picks — Eddie Royal’s 91 catches in 2008, Vance Johnson’s 51 in 1985 and Sutton.
“A lot of it is what kind of system were you involved in during college,” former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. “Defenses play a lot more zone than man, so a lot of your route concepts are attacking seams more than you might have if you’re attacking man coverage. So, guys are better at those routes than dealing with man, and then they have to deal with the physical side of it.”
Ah, there it is. Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey has said “if you want to see what a rookie receiver can do, put your hands on him at the line of scrimmage — a lot — and do it on the first day, right away. They don’t see it [in college], they usually don’t like it, and a lot of them don’t know how to deal with it so it takes them a minute.”
NFL cornerbacks are usually bigger, faster and far more willing to match up in man-to-man situations than many receivers face in college football. The room a college receiver often has to work with is far greater and the adjustment to tighter catch windows can take some time.
Catch some of these highlights of former Nittany Lion WR KJ Hamler as he turns on the jets to make his way into the NFL draft.
“Especially in the slot, you can’t just wing it, you and the quarterback have to be on the same page all the time,” said former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who played 15 NFL seasons. “… And in college they just don’t see a lot of [press coverage] right now. And just the amount of times you see defenses worn down, on the field for so many snaps that receivers, late in the game or late in drives, are often just running past people struggling to keep up and quarterbacks are holding the ball for what seems like 30 seconds.”
Shanahan said Royal could deal with the more physical cornerbacks early because of his quickness. When the Broncos selected Sutton with the 40th pick in the 2018 draft, Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway called him the best receiver on the board when it came to contested catches in traffic.
“And one of the things we liked most about Eddie [Royal] coming into that draft [in 2008] was he could get off bump, you could see it,” Shanahan said. “So it wasn’t as big an issue when Champ and those guys got right up on him in practice, so he didn’t lose his confidence right away. And when I see Courtland play, that physical ability to win the ball. That’s why those guys had an impact right away.”
The past four wide receivers taken by the Broncos in the first round before Jeudy — Ricky Nattiel, Marcus Nash, Ashley Lelie and Demaryius Thomas — finished their first seasons with two, four, 35 and 22 catches, respectively.
And even for someone like Sutton, who had a degree of success, the transition was difficult. Sutton said he had to really work on his route running.
“I still, right now to this day, am continuing to fine-tooth comb my route running, trying to get … to a position where people talk about being an elite route runner,” Sutton said. “That was one thing that I struggled with coming into the league. I thought that I was a good route runner. I thought that I could run every route on the tree, but I got here and I realized that wasn’t the case.”
Shanahan said that is one area where players like Jeudy and Hamler have an advantage over some of the players who came before them. College offenses overall are more advanced in the passing game than they once were, and receivers haven’t simply lined up in one spot during their careers, they have moved around in the formation.
“Now, from what I see, people are able to move people into different positions,” Shanahan said. “If you get a guy like, let’s use George Kittle, play tight end, play halfback, fullback, the X or Z, can have him in tight split, wide split. It used to be a rookie could play one spot and he rarely moved around the formation. … I think now at both levels there’s more willingness to move a guy around and create some flexibility in matchup, and the receivers are just more prepared for that now. You can get a guy into a position to make an impact he might not have had before.”
For Jeudy, the team’s first-round pick, he’s expecting nothing less.
“I feel like I’m the best wide receiver [in the draft] because I’ve got the ability to separate,” Jeudy said. “As a receiver, that’s what you need. You need to find a way to get open, and I feel like that’s the best I could do. For a receiver, you find a way to get open and catch the ball.”