Super Bowl Profile: Broncos Wide Receivers

As the Super Bowl approaches, Matt Claassen examines the threat that is the Denver receiving corps.

| 3 years ago

Super Bowl Profile: Broncos Wide Receivers

SB-profile-feature-den-wrsDemaryius 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.

Lining Up

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.

Big Damage

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.


Follow Matt on Twitter: @PFF_MattC

| Analyst

Matt has been an analyst for PFF since 2013. He is also a contributor to 120 Sports and a former NCAA Division-III football player.

  • ryan

    You guys are doing a great job covering the Super Bowl. But no one outside of Denver and Seattle cares about this. Fans of the other 30 teams don’t want to read about every possible match up and player profile for this game. Just a thought.

    • Ryan Crinnigan

      Yeah could you please break down the matchup between Cleveland’s guards and the Jets’ DTs

      • ryan

        Look, I get it. It’s the Super Bowl. Only two teams left. Makes sense to analyze the game. But you can’t honestly say, being a fan of one of the other 30 teams, that you care about every last detail of this game. Can you? By all means, analyze it. Just mix in some of the other stuff that make this website so good.

        • Ryan Crinnigan

          Um, I sure can. “I care about every last detail of this game.” See?

          • ryan

            Welp, you’re in the minority, bud. Carry on.

          • Ryan Crinnigan

            How about you get a life. Or do you just hover around the internet, commenting on every single item you supposedly don’t care about.

          • ryan

            Not sure why you’re taking this so personally. Also, aren’t you doing the same thing?

          • Ryan Crinnigan

            No, I genuinely care about this article, and I appreciate the hard work these guys put in to present it to us. It’s bush league to come in and whine that they aren’t writing about your favorite team when you acknowledge there are two teams left.

            Normally I do not feed the trolls but every once in a while I’ve had my fill and need a release.

          • ryan

            Re-read my comments, guy. I complimented their work several times. It was just a thought that they might want to include some other stuff. Jeez, you’re high strung.

          • DragonPie

            Don’t worry ryan. You have several more months for them to cover your favorite team. Please learn not to be a douche.

          • Jason A. Churchill

            “Please learn not to be a douche.”

            Comment of the year, thus far.

          • Geo McDowell

            Have you looked at your +/- figures on your comments? Absolutely no one agrees with you; you are the ultimate minority, bud. How humiliating that you persist.
            Carry on indeed!

    • Geo McDowell

      Why are you even here if you really believe that, Ryantroll?

      • ryan

        Fair enough, guys. I can see how my comments may come off as douchy. Really wasn’t my intent. PFF is great, check it out pretty much daily. Not sure way suggesting article topics is being a troll, though. Why must everyone agree on everything? Isn’t discussion what the comment section is for?

  • Brian Bigger

    I think a lot of people outside of Denver and Seattle care very much about the match ups that PFF provides. They are much more on queue than the talking heads speaking of match ups without any facts on other sites…

    • Johnny Manziel

      Yea I agree, and the thing with PFF, whether you like them or not, at least they do real analysis that involves watching film rather than those people on ESPN who do their “analysis” by making it into a soap opera. “I think this team wants this game more…. They’re playing this way to silence their critics.” No, they’re playing that way because that’s how they thought was the best way to game plan against this team for them to win. Glad PFF has none of that stuff