Broncos bank on draftees to build up thin wide receiver corps

Prospect Profile: Courtland Sutton (0:46)

Todd McShay says SMU WR Courtland Sutton has the size, body control and reliable hands to be a productive receiver at the NFL level. (0:46)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In his first six years as general manager, John Elway used two draft picks on wide receivers.

In the past two drafts combined, the Denver Broncos have used four picks on wide receivers, including two last weekend on Courtland Sutton (second round) and DaeSean Hamilton (fourth round).

"We needed some help at the wide receiver position and," Elway said, "... the third wide receiver [position] was important to us."

Because of the durability and production of Demaryius Thomas, who was chosen in the 2010 draft, the Broncos hadn't been compelled to use picks on wide receivers. Then Emmanuel Sanders arrived in free agency in 2014 as Eric Decker left. Having Peyton Manning, who made most everything work, also helped.

But Elway and coach Vance Joseph have each said in recent weeks Thomas and Sanders are among the veteran players who need “to be better" in the coming season than they were in 2017.

Last season's woes included: no reliable third option in the passing game, a lack of stability at quarterback, and Sanders missing four games with an ankle injury.

As a result, the Broncos scored more than 20 points just four times in their last 14 games. Thomas had his lowest output (83 catches, 949 yards) since 2011 and Sanders (47 catches, 555 yards) since 2012. Sanders also did not have a touchdown reception after Week 2.

Last season's draft picks -- Carlos Henderson and Isaiah McKenzie -- did not pan out as hoped. Henderson spent his rookie year on injured reserve (thumb), while McKenzie was benched multiple times for special-teams fumbles and had just four receptions.

The result was diving back in for another pair of receivers.

“We have receivers that fit a certain skill set that we wanted," Joseph said of the two most recent draft picks. “We wanted big, fast guys with great ball skills."

Elway went as far as to say that Sutton “is a guy that can really develop and eventually maybe become a No. 1."

Sutton and Hamilton will be counted on to break the cycle. Henderson is an unknown because of his injury, but he had been struggling in the offense before he was hurt in the preseason opener.

But Elway’s other three draft picks at the position before this year’s draft have not produced as the Broncos had hoped. Tavarres King (fifth round in 2013) didn’t make it out of his first training camp, as he was released by a team that eventually went to the Super Bowl.

Cody Latimer (second round in 2014) did became a core special-teams player, but he never had more than 19 receptions in any of his four seasons before departing for free agency in March. The jury is still out on Henderson and McKenzie, but Thomas will turn 31 on Christmas and Sanders just turned 31 in March, and unless the Broncos find some additional threats in the passing game, those two will find nothing but double coverage, and the Broncos won’t have much of a plan for the future.

The Broncos’ inability to move the ball consistently last season was a testament to the turnover at quarterback and the fact opposing defenses schemed to cover the only threats -- Thomas and Sanders.

That’s why when the 40th pick rolled around, the Broncos were quick to grab Sutton, a big-bodied target with plenty of athleticism. The Broncos also believed Hamilton, who the Broncos’ staff coached at the Senior Bowl, was among the best route runners on the board.

“With Hamilton, he’s a lot like Courtland -- they’re big guys that have played all three positions," Joseph said. “We didn’t narrow these guys down just being a slot guy."

The Broncos also were looking for grit up and down the draft board and believe they found it.

“I’m going to come in, I’m going to find out what [Sanders] does, what Demaryius does," Sutton said. “What do they do to make them All-Pro and to make them dominant people at their position? I’m going to follow them and figure out what it is that’s going to get me to that level so I can be able to perform day in and day out at a very high level."