Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker each showed glimpses of their talent during their first two years in the league, but Thomas’s breakout against the Steelers in the 2011 playoffs — ending with 204 receiving yards and a game-winning touchdown — was the pair’s first huge splash.
Upon Peyton Manning’s arrival last season, the duo blossomed into outstanding receiving options and finished first and second in our Wide Receiver Rating metric. Thomas earned the third-highest regular season overall grade we’ve given to a wide receiver (+27.2), and along the way notched the third-highest single-game grade (+7.1) against New Orleans.
Completing the Picture
The offseason addition of Wes Welker rounded out one of the best, if not the best, wide receiver trios in the NFL this season. This, coupled with the emergence of tight end Julius Thomas, has led to a historic year for Manning and the Denver offense. With Julius Thomas and Welker worked in, it would have been reasonable for Decker and Demaryius Thomas to see a drop in production with the assumption of fewer passes going their way, but neither saw a decrease in targets and each managed to improve in some fashion upon their previous year.
Although down slightly from last season, Demaryius Thomas still ranked fifth among wide receivers with a +21.3 overall grade this season. He matched his career-high 1430 receiving yards from a year ago while scoring a personal best 14 times. Decker has been just as noteworthy this season with career-highs in receptions (87) and receiving yards (1288) while having double-digit touchdowns for the second year in a row. Both receivers averaged more than 2.0 Yards Per Route Run, a mark reached this year by only 19 receivers with at least 300 routes run.
Most impressive has been the balance among the receivers throughout the year. Welker joined Thomas and Decker in the Top 10 of our WR Rating this season, with Manning having at least a 106.7 QB Rating when targeting any of the three. If Welker had not missed three games, the Broncos’ offense would have contended to be one of the few teams to ever boast three 1,000-yard receivers.
Welker, understandably, had a significant drop-off in production compared to his time in New England due to the injury and a lesser role in the Denver offense. With that said, he was still used extensively on short-to-intermediate depth routes and once again excelled from his home in the slot. Ranking second to Tennessee’s Kendall Wright with 57 receptions and 688 yards when lined up as a slot receiver, Welker tied the Chargers’ Eddie Royal for the league lead with seven touchdowns from the position.
Denver sent 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) to the field on 69.6% of their offensive snaps in the regular season, 20% more than the NFL average. In the postseason, the Broncos’ use of 11 personnel has been nearly exclusive, increasing to 88.4 percent. Going against a difficult secondary, the Broncos will likely continue the heavy use of three receivers as they try to create and exploit coverage mismatches throughout the game.
One of the most intriguing and discussed matchups is Demaryius Thomas against Seahawks’ left cornerback Richard Sherman. However, it remains to be seen how often Sherman will get the opportunity to cover him since Thomas has lined up as the right outside wide receiver on just 40% of his snaps this season — a spot that would put him across from Sherman’s 80% of time spent as Seattle’s left corner.
Thomas has quickly evolved into one of the league’s best after the catch, leading all receivers this year with 697 YAC and five of his touchdowns involved at least 15 yards after hauling the ball in. Part of his success is due to the team’s use of wide receivers on screens –Manning led the league in screen yardage — but short, quick passes are hardly the entirety of the Broncos’ offense.
Thomas and Decker had 30 and 20 targets, respectively, on passes targeted 20-plus yards downfield. Maybe to some people’s surprise, it’s Decker — not Thomas — who found more success as a deep threat in 2013. He leads the team with 15 Deep Ball receptions and five of those ended in scores. Decker’s 60% catch rate on passes aimed at least 20 yards downfield ranks second among wide receivers with 20 such targets.
Have to Hold On
As productive as the Broncos’ receivers have been this year, their one caveat has been drops. Manning saw 43 of his passes dropped in the regular season, third-most among quarterbacks. This wide receiver trio accounted for 27 of them, more than eight other teams had all year. With a Drop Rate of over 11% for the third time in four seasons, Welker has been most responsible. Decker had a rough start with five drops on his first 16 catchable passes, but has since curbed the trend with just three drops the rest of the way.
The drops have continued into the playoffs as Welker dropped two more in the divisional round against the Chargers while Thomas let another get by against New England. None of the drops have come back to haunt them yet, but each receiver needs to be a little more sure-handed on the biggest stage of the year.
Defenses have done little to slow the Broncos’ pass game throughout the season, but this receiving group has not faced a secondary with the physicality and size that Seattle’s unit possesses. As the NFL becomes increasingly pass-heavy, it is only fitting to have the best receiving corps and secondary face-off in the sport’s biggest game.
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