Wide receiver duo Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are part of the Denver Bronocs’ plans for 2018.
That’s the news president of football operations and general manager John Elway delivered the at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis as the Broncos front office takes a look at future stars.
“The plan is to have them come back and play like they’re capable of too,” Elway said.
“That’s the expectations that I have of them. I think they’re still elite wide receivers, and I think it was a down year for both of them, as well as the rest of our football team.”
Elway’s assessment of the Broncos’ top two receivers is partly backed up by the stats. Thomas caught just 83 catches on 140 targets for 949 yards and five touchdowns.
While Thomas started all 16 games, Sanders was hampered by an ankle injury as he hobbled his way to 47 receptions on 92 targets for 555 yards and two touchdowns in the 12 games he played.
Using three quarterbacks throughout the season was an issue, but the duo had played with all three prior to the 2017 season, and big plays from the entire wide receiver corps was lacking throughout the season as they both has their worst years in the league since 2011.
“The expectation is for them to come back and play like they’re capable of, because I think they still have a lot of football, and still a top receiving pair in the league.” Elway added.
“[I’ve] got high expectations, but they’ve got to come back and play a lot better.”
“The plan is to have them back.”
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) 28 February 2018
With the Broncos on the hunt for a franchise quarterback, and possibly needing to find cap space to do so, holding on to their top two receivers would be a big draw for any quarterback, including Kirk Cousins, considering a move to Colorado.
Cousins would command a huge salary to land in Denver, and the Broncos face competition for his services from Minnesota, who finished 2017 as the NFC North champions before losing to Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game.
For the Broncos to retain Thomas and Sanders, who account for the second and fourth biggest hits against the cap in 2018, could mean parting ways with other stars including running back CJ Anderson and cornerback Aqib Talib.
Talib will cost the Broncos $12m against the cap, with Anderson costing $4.5m, but the duo would cost the team just $1m combined in dead money if they are moved on.
The Broncos have depth at both positions with Bradley Roby primed to move into Talib’s spot, while young talents Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson will be expected to step up at running back.
The same can’t be said at wide receiver.
Cody Latimer, despite being a second-round pick, has been known more for his special teams work than as the third receiver, and will be a free agent.
Bennie Fowler will be a restricted free agent in 2018, while Jordan Taylor is an exclusive rights free agent.
The Broncos will have 2017 third-round pick Carlos Henderson coming back after missing his rookie season with a thumb injury and punt returner/wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie looking to bounce back from a mistake-laden debut season.
The team also has some talented receivers signed to reserve/future contracts, including former Washington State standout River Cracraft and Utah’s Tim Patrick.
The other wide receivers on the Broncos’ books for 2018 are former UTEP and BYU receiver Jordan Leslie, who has bounced around several teams’ practice squads after going undrafted in 2015, and Colorado native Kenny Bell — a 2015 fifth-round pick out of Nebraska for Tampa Bay — whose father is former Broncos return specialist Ken Bell.
Despite the talk today about which players could leave the Broncos in the coming weeks and months, the big unanswered question remains who will be the starting quarterback in 2018?
The answer to that doesn’t look any clearer and, if Cousins decides he doesn’t want to join the Broncos, it could take until the end of April to get closer to knowing who will be under center in September.