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Broncos Film Room: Breaking down the players that allowed Denver to trade Demaryius Thomas

Andre Simone Avatar
November 4, 2018

Demaryius Thomas’ incredibly productive tenure as a Denver Bronco has come to an end after being traded to the Houston Texans at the deadline this week.

Thomas was still a valuable receiver for the Broncos, but it had become clear he wasn’t his old self anymore. The ability to make contested catches and run sound routes was still there, but Thomas’ game-breaking ability the last two seasons was never quite at the level it had been earlier in his career, when he was a bonafide No. 1 target and one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers.

So while DT was still a quality target for Case Keenum, he’d become more of a No. 2 WR in the offense; a possession wideout who lacked the quickness to separate instantly off the line, and the long speed to make big plays like his iconic walk-off winner against the Pittsburgh Steelers back in the 2011 playoffs.

Given his new status, it made sense for the Broncos to let him go, not so much so they could get compensation at the deadline when they had the most leverage, but so they could give more playing time to a group of young receivers with similar physical traits and young legs: Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and DaeSean Hamilton.

In the modern NFL, where three-receiver sets are the norm, Sutton has already seen the field a whole lot, appearing in 69 percent of the offensive snaps—Thomas appeared in 75 percent—but the big-bodied rook should see more throws go his way, as he’s only been targeted 37 times in eight games, 19 fewer than DT.

Patrick might factor into this even more, as the former undrafted free agent has shown tons of promise this year but only been utilized on 11 percent of the offensive snaps and only seen six targets. Hamilton’s been injured, and thus not really shown much on tape so far, but he certainly is part of the long-term plan to replace Thomas and revitalize the offense.

After having already studied these young wideouts extensively in college, we went to the tape to see what they’ve already done as Broncos and how they project going forward.

The man of the hour

Sutton has quite literally leaped onto the scene since his first practice as a Bronco, generating tons of excitement.

If all goes according to plan, he is the future at receiver in Denver and hopefully the present.

The SMU product is an amazing contested-ball target, arguably already one of the best in the NFL at bringing down contested catches—behind DeAndre Hopkins, and right there with just about anyone else.

Obviously, Sutton’s big 6-foot-3 frame plays an important part in this, but it’s far from the only reason he’s so talented in going up to get 50-50 balls.

First off, his body control is outstanding, as he can adjust mid-air and make acrobatic grabs going back to the ball, stopping in his tracks on 40-yard runs to then outjump DBs to get the pass. He also has strong hands and has shown incredible concentration on long bombs, where he can track the ball over his shoulder, adjust his speed, track back and go get the rock, timing his leaps perfectly.    

Sutton makes some of the hardest plays in football look routine, leading him to already have three plays on the season of over 40 yards.

To boot, the Broncos second-rounder hasn’t just impressed with his contested ball skills, but also stood out when making acrobatic grabs, as he can regularly stretch out to haul in tough receptions.

It won’t be long before he’s making ridiculous one-handed catches like this gem he put on tape back at SMU.

All that, combined with his deceptive straight-line speed, make the Texas native pretty special in deep-ball situations.

Now Sutton doesn’t appear to possess the type of speed DT had in his prime, but he’s so dangerous because he can come down with the football even when cornerbacks are in perfect position. Even in his prime, Thomas was never this type of a contested-ball threat or anywhere close to as physical as Sutton can be.

The rookie is strong against contact and has already shown he’ll devour press coverage, despite not being the most sudden at the line.

Sutton can eat up off-coverage too, with his ability to come back to the ball box out and gain position on defenders, making him a really tough matchup no matter how you choose to cover him.

While he’s still incredibly raw as a route runner, No. 14 does a nice job working back to the ball, an area he could work on even more and is a strong blocker too—another area in which he resembles a young DT.

When he’s playing like a backyard bully and coming back to the ball on these type of throws, stopping Sutton is really hard for any corner isolated on him down the sideline.

A long way to go

So far Sutton’s stood out exclusively on deep routes, and with Thomas gone, he should finally get more looks in other situations.

No. 14 should be used more on quick screens or slants, putting the ball in his hands where he can be used as a YAC weapon.

He really stood out in college for his ability to run after the catch, partially because he’s so hard to bring down at 218 pounds in the open field, and has to be given more opportunities to do so in Denver, giving the offense an easy outlet.

It also looks like Sutton just needs more reps right now to get comfortable with his quarterback, as Keenum and the young wideout are still developing chemistry. The QB’s ball placement hasn’t been great to Sutton, and their timing is still a work in progress.

When reviewing the tape, it was startling to see how many targets thrown Sutton’s way didn’t result in a reception, a fact that’s backed up by the stats, as the rookie has the lowest reception percentage on the team, making him the only WR to haul in less than half his targets.

Part of the issue with Sutton’s reception percentage being so low is that nothing is easy for Keenum. Sutton doesn’t create separation on a consistent basis, or almost ever, so the placement has to be right for him high-point throws.

The big wideout is a bit of a one-trick pony right now, a go-route and contested-ball specialist who can’t do much else consistently. He needs to be developed on in-cutting routes where he can use his body to box-out defenders over the middle.

Part of why Sutton is much better running deep routes than underneath is a lack of quickness combined to his raw route-running skills. He’s still not a technician and needs to run a more complete route tree.

Even on deep routes, the young WR could do a better job working angles to buy himself space, going inside for a half step before cutting outside instead of just trying to outmuscle corners all game. 

The other youngsters

Tim Patrick actually looks faster than Sutton, which was noticeable in his college tape, as he was able to outrun speedster Adoree Jackson down the sideline. That speed was confirmed in Week 8 on his end-around run, the type of play you wouldn’t expect from a 6-foot-4 receiver.

Patrick’s ability to run after the catch has led to his most memorable moment as a Bronco thus far, as he had a game-clinching run against the Raiders to set Denver up in field goal range with time running out.

Patrick’s shown soft hands and has a big frame too, essentially having all the raw tools to be a pretty special NFL wideout.

He has the ability to be dangerous down the sideline and has the size-speed combination that make him a tough cover on crossers, he’s even shown the ability to high-point passes and be more physical.

The former Ute has had an issue with drops in the past, as he sees more snaps now that Thomas is gone, that has to improve.

He’s been a huge revelation this season, can complement Sutton and gives the Broncos another big young wideout who’s tough to matchup with.

DaeSean Hamilton won’t be playing again for Denver until after the Week 10 bye, due to a knee injury that has held him back in his rookie year. He’s only produced three receptions all season, all coming in Week 4 against the New York Jets.

In that game, the former Nittany Lion flashed really intriguing ability to work out the slot and wiggles his way open.

He has a good frame for a quicker wideout, strong hands, and has flashed precise route-running ability which is where a lot of his value lies. 

Hamilton could be a perfect long-term replacement of Emmanuel Sanders and compliment Sutton or Patrick nicely in the slot. 

In conclusion

Losing a still-productive Thomas, who was a safety blanket for the offense won’t be easy, but it was the right decision for the franchise’s long-term outlook. 

There’s more than enough talent to replace the 2018 version of DT, but the second most prolific WR in franchise history won’t be easy to replace as the Broncos wait to see if Sutton—or Patrickcan develop into a legitimate No. 1 receiver—a true alpha and mismatch outside.

Thomas was raw himself coming into the league, possibly even greener than Sutton is now, but by the time Peyton Manning arrived in his third pro season, he became a nuanced route runner and was skillful beyond anyone’s pre-draft projections. For Sutton to maximize his potential, he’ll have to grow significantly as a route technician himself.

How Patrick and Hamilton factor in is still to be seen, as they’ve shown great promise in limited flashes. If that promise turns into reality, the Broncos might just have their receiving corps of the future added to an already impactful backfield duo.

These three wideouts can be part of the offensive core that brings the attack back to the Mile High City, they have their opportunity now, they just need to seize it. 

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