ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When the Denver Broncos elected to trade wide receiver Demaryius Thomas on Oct. 30, it was an enormous change in how the passing game thought about getting from Point A to Point B. And as the Broncos try to claw themselves back to the .500 mark and into the playoff conversation, it is decidedly still a work in progress.
When Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway made the trade, he knew it would be an adjustment.
“We thought that with the young guys behind him that we could make up for the space that he would leave. … We just felt that we make that up, we make the loss up. It may not be right away, but eventually the youth will cover that up.”
As predicted, they have not made up for the loss of the team’s No. 1 option, a player who had been climbing the charts among the franchise’s all-time best pass-catchers.
“I think [opposing defenses] are learning about us just like we’re learning about ourselves,” said Broncos offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. “… [Defenses] don’t have a lot of tape on a lot of our young guys so that’s an advantage in some ways.”
The two players Thomas’ trade affected the most are certainly at opposite ends of the experience spectrum.
The first, Emmanuel Sanders, has gone from being half of one of the most productive duos in the league since he arrived as a free agent in 2014 to the primary target in the Broncos’ offense for both quarterback Case Keenum and opposing defensive coordinators. Opposing No. 1 cornerbacks who once lined up across from Thomas are now almost always across from Sanders.
The second, rookie Courtland Sutton, is now in position to make the transition from contributor to starter. It comes with added pressure and attention from defenses at a position where the transition to far more man-to-man coverage than a player sees in college can often stifle first-year production.
“Being an every-down player is different than being a part-time player,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “… You want to be the starter, but it comes with responsibility. … He’ll get there, he’s a special talent. It takes time sometimes.”
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Since Thomas was shipped to Houston, Sanders has been targeted by Keenum nine, six and 12 times, respectively, in the past three games. He has had 47, 56 and 86 yards receiving in those games.
Those are roughly the same totals Sanders had in a previous three-game stint this season, in Weeks 2-4. But Sanders also had three 100-yard receiving games to go with a 96-yard effort in the eight games Thomas was in the lineup.
Overall, the Broncos are middle of the road in the league’s ranking of pass attempts per game — 15th of 32 at 35.6 per game — but opposing defensive coaches have said in recent weeks they believe the Broncos will have to work a bit harder to get Sanders the space he had when Thomas was in the formation.
Sutton, too, has found a little less room to work. He is the league leader when the ball finds him — at 19.7 yards per reception, a full 1.2 yards more than the next qualifying player — but he also has drawn a better brand of defensive back across from him in the past three games.
He has been targeted seven times in the past three games combined, including just once in this past Sunday’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 57, 78 and 14 yards receiving in those three games.
“I think Courtland’s doing a good job,” Sanders said, “Obviously, he wants a couple of those pass plays back from the last game, but he’s been making plays for us all season. … I think Elway did a great job of drafting a big play-making guy.”
It all means Sanders now finds himself in the meeting room with two rookies, and two other players — Tim Patrick and River Cracraft — who spent much their rookie seasons in 2017 on the Broncos’ practice squad.
The team’s tight ends, most notably Jeff Heuerman and Matt LaCosse, have also been a bigger part of the passing game over the past three games. Heuerman, who will now miss the remainder of the season with three fractured ribs and a bruised lung he suffered this past Sunday, had a single-game career-best 10 catches for 83 yards against the Texans — the Broncos’ first game after Thomas was traded.
LaCosse, who had just three catches in his first three NFL seasons combined, had 44 yards receiving and 34 yards receiving in two of the games since the trade to go with his first career touchdown against the Steelers.
“A tight end is always a great security blanket because as big as they are and as great hands as they have, they tend to be never really covered,” Keenum said. “Even when they’re covered, you can still get them the ball in certain situations.”
In the end, the Broncos have a few more weeks to sort it out to find the touchdowns they’ll need to make the season into something.
“Hopefully we can keep [the Bengals’] points to a minimum and we can score enough to win,” Joseph said. “That’s our only concern, honestly. It’s week to week. If we score 10 and hold them to nine, I’m happy with that.”